Winter Oranges (A Holiday Charity Novel)
Jason Walker is a child star turned teen heartthrob turned reluctant B-movie regular who’s sick of his failing career. So he gives up Hollywood for northern Idaho, far away from the press, the drama of LA, and the best friend he’s secretly been in love with for years.
There’s only one problem with his new life: a strange young man only he can see is haunting his guesthouse. Except Benjamin Ward isn’t a ghost. He’s a man caught out of time, trapped since the Civil War in a magical prison where he can only watch the lives of those around him. He’s also sweet, funny, and cute as hell, with an affinity for cheesy ’80s TV shows. And he’s thrilled to finally have someone to talk to.
But Jason quickly discovers that spending all his time with a man nobody else can see or hear isn’t without its problems—especially when the tabloids find him again and make him front-page news. The local sheriff thinks he’s on drugs, and his best friend thinks he’s crazy. But Jason knows he hasn’t lost his mind. Too bad he can’t say the same thing about his heart.
NOTE: 20% of the proceeds from this title will be donated to the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (GLBT) National Help Center. Founded in 1996, the GLBT National Help Center is a non-profit organization that provides vital peer-support, community connections and resource information to people with questions regarding sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
It was easy to believe the house was haunted. After acting for most of his life, Jason Walker’s first thought upon seeing the home he’d purchased virtually sight unseen was that it would have been a perfect place to film an Amityville remake.
A little far from Amity, but hey, Hollywood had never been a stickler for rules.
Jason put his car in park and killed the engine. Gravel crunched as his friend Dylan’s rental car rolled to a stop next to him. They climbed out of their vehicles and stood side by side, leaning against Jason’s front bumper, staring up at his new abode.
Dylan whistled, long and low, then shook his head. “This place is creepy as hell.”
“It’s just the light.” Even a washed-up actor like Jason knew lighting could make or break a scene. The pictures he’d seen online of the house had been taken in full sunlight in October, with the majestic glory of autumn on all sides, the gold- and scarlet-leaved trees nearer the house backed by the evergreens of the surrounding forest. But now, only a week into November, the eerie orange glow of twilight fell on bare branches, and the pines seemed droopy and forlorn. None of it was doing this house any favors.
Still, Dylan had a point. The house was creepy. Something about the lone, low window over the second floor’s covered patio. Something about the house’s quiet isolation, and the thin white curtains hanging uniformly in every window. Or maybe it was the detached garage with its guesthouse on top, sitting like a forgotten toy off to the left.
“How old is it?” Dylan asked.
“It was built in the ’90s.”
“The 1890s?” Dylan was incredulous. The idea of spending money on anything so old was obviously beyond his comprehension.
“No. The 1990s.”
“It looks older.”
“It’s supposed to.” His real estate agent, Sydney Bell, had called the house an American foursquare revival. Jason didn’t know what that meant and didn’t care. The price was right, the house was fully furnished, and its relative seclusion in the mountainous region of Idaho’s panhandle would make it harder for tabloid photographers to find him.
“They intentionally made it look old?” Dylan asked, as if it was the most absurd thing he’d heard all day.
“They copied an older style of architecture.”
“Huh.” Dylan scratched his chin and threw Jason a smart-assed grin. “Retro. Like you.”
Jason laughed, because that’s what Dylan expected. “Fuck you.” He pushed off the bumper of his car, rattling his keys in his hand. “Let’s see what it’s like inside.”
The second story extended out over the first like an overbite, creating a covered front porch that ran the length of the house. “A veranda,” Sydney had called it. The front door opened into a hallway, although Jason suspected Sydney would have said it was a foyer. Or maybe a vestibule. To the right lay a large living room, furnished in what could only be called cozy-grandma style, with lots of flowers and overstuffed cushions. A stack of moving boxes stood in the center of the floor, having been left there the previous day by the moving company, working under Sydney’s direction. To the left of the foyer sat the dining room, through which they could see the kitchen. Jason knew a mudroom and pantry made up the back half of the area. Directly ahead of where they stood by the front door, a bathroom and the staircase leading up completed the ground floor.
No ghosts, though. Not so far, at least.
“Who the hell picked out that couch?” Dylan asked.
“The previous owner, I guess.” In truth, Jason hadn’t cared much what the furniture looked like. Sydney had promised him it was all in decent condition. Jason was just happy he didn’t have to go wandering around town searching for a damn table to eat at, or a chair to sit in while he watched TV. He’d had Sydney stock the kitchen with a few essentials too, assuring he wouldn’t have to go grocery shopping for a few days at least. The last thing he needed was for somebody in Coeur d’Alene to discover the child star turned B-list actor known to the public as Jadon Walker Buttermore had moved in to their small community. The longer he remained anonymous, the better.
Dylan scowled at the couch as if it had personally offended him. Knowing Dylan and his neo-minimalist style, it probably had. “It’s like something my grandma would have bought.”
Jason laughed. “What? You have something against giant pink roses?”
“On a couch? Yeah, I do. And so should you.”
Jason sat down on the sofa and leaned back. He searched with his left hand and found the lever to extend the footrest. He reclined the backrest and smiled up at Dylan. “It’s not bad, actually.”
“You should have let me furnish it for you.”
“Yeah, right.” Jason sat upright again, shoving the footrest closed with his heels. “I’d have ended up with one designer chair that cost more than my car. And it wouldn’t even have been comfortable.”
Dylan’s laugh was sudden and loud in the confines of the quiet house. “Boy, you don’t think much of me, do you?”
That wasn’t true. That wasn’t true at all, and he suspected Dylan knew it, but Dylan always did this to him, asking questions that seemed to dare Jason to blurt out how he really felt. Jason chose to ignore most of them, this one included. “Come on. Let’s check out the rest.”
Although the house was more than twenty years old, the kitchen had been updated and included all new chrome appliances and a trash compactor that Sydney swore was top-of-the-line and quiet as a whisper. Jason didn’t bother to test the claim.
The second floor held a tiny bathroom and four bedrooms, one in each corner, which Jason supposed was what gave the foursquare its name. A stairway led to a long, slope-ceilinged attic bedroom. At the far end, the single narrow window Jason had noticed upon arrival allowed a bit of light to creep inside. It was a sad, empty room, and they didn’t linger.
“Whoever lived here sure did love flowers,” Dylan said as they scoped out the first couple of bedrooms on the second floor. “Wallpaper, bedspreads, pictures. Even the rug in the bathroom has roses on it. And they’re all pink.”
“It could be worse.”
“Uh . . .” Jason stopped, considering. “I’m not sure, to be honest.”
They ended their tour, by some unspoken agreement, in the master bedroom. It was the one room Jason’d had refurnished before his arrival. He’d chosen the furniture himself—online, of course—and Sydney had made sure everything would be ready when he arrived. His new room held a large oak dresser, a chest of drawers, and a love seat, which he knew would end up a depository for not-quite-dirty laundry. A king-sized bed covered with a thick down comforter sat against the wall, between two nightstands.
Dylan pointed to the glass-paned door in the corner of the room. “This goes to that patio we could see from the front yard?”
The two front bedrooms shared a covered porch that sat dead center of the front of the house, directly below the attic window. It was a strange setup, a throwback to when husbands and wives had separate quarters. The porch would have allowed them to cross to each other’s room without alerting the children, except this house had been built at the end of the twentieth century, making the floor plan an anachronism.
Dylan opened the door, and Jason followed him outside. They still wore their jackets, but now the sun had set and the November evening felt cooler than before.
“There’s a room over the garage too?” Dylan asked.
“Yep, bed and bath.” They stood surveying the building in question from their vantage point on the porch. It was eerily silent.
“Well, is it everything you dreamed?”
Yes. Standing there with Dylan, out of sight of everybody else in the world was exactly what he dreamed about, nearly every night.
Not that he’d ever admit it out loud.
Instead, Jason nodded, then asked, as casually as he could, “You’re staying the night, right?”
Dylan grinned and stepped closer to slide his arm around Jason’s waist. “I didn’t come all this way to see your house.”
Jason’s relief felt almost tangible, so sudden and strong he wondered if Dylan sensed it. He hoped not. He hoped the darkness hid his pathetic happiness at knowing Dylan was staying. They’d been friends for more than ten years. They’d shared a bed more times than Jason could count. Dylan may have suspected Jason’s true feelings, but Jason did his best to never confirm them, especially since Dylan avoided genuine emotions and commitment the way Jason avoided anybody with a press badge hanging around their neck.
Still, Jason rejoiced as Dylan pulled him close. He sank gratefully into the warmth of Dylan’s kiss, comfortable in his friend’s arms. He grew breathless as Dylan began fighting with the buttons of Jason’s jeans.
“Let’s do it here,” Dylan whispered.
Jason glanced around in alarm, searching for the telltale wink of light reflecting off a camera lens. “Somebody will see.”
“There’s nobody around. That’s why we’re in the wilds of Idaho, remember?”
Jason’s protests dwindled as Dylan sank to his knees, pulling Jason’s pants halfway down his hips as he did. He traced his tongue up Jason’s erection. “God, Jase. It’s been too long.”
“I know.” Way too long since he’d had Dylan to himself. Too many lonely nights since he’d felt Dylan’s touch. He’d been in love with his friend for longer than he cared to admit, but this was the first time in months they’d been alone together. Still, he was hesitant to do anything out in the open. “Dylan, wait. I—” His words died as Dylan wrapped his lips around Jason’s glans. “Oh God.”
Dylan sucked him in deep, stalling for moment with his nose pressed against Jason’s pubic bone. Then, finally, he began to move, sliding his warm mouth up and down Jason’s length. Jason gripped the cold porch railing with one hand, tangled the fingers of the other into Dylan’s heavily moussed hair, and tried to lose himself to the pleasure of being sucked by the man he loved. He breathed deep, willing the tension away. Doing his best to banish the pressure of trying to make it in Hollywood and failing, of never living up to what was expected. He tried to forget it all. To simply revel in the pure joy of being with Dylan here and now, knowing they had one full night together, just the two of them. No other struggling actors or desperate starlets. No two-bit directors or double-crossing producers. And above all, no media waiting to catch them with their pants down.
But as good as it was being with Dylan, the real world always intruded. His house was set back half an acre from the road, but anybody who came up the drive would be able to see them. The No Trespassing signs wouldn’t mean a thing to a photographer hoping for a scoop.
Jason moaned—part pleasure, part disappointment that even now he couldn’t relax—and opened his eyes. He kept his hand on Dylan’s head as he surveyed the tree line, his chest tight with anxiety at what he might find.
But the grounds around the house—his house, he had to remind himself—were dark and still and silent. Nobody lingered there.
Yes, this could really happen. Jason almost laughed at the realization. He imagined being fucked by Dylan right there on the porch. The thought thrilled him, and his throaty moan made Dylan speed up, his ministrations gaining a new urgency as he sucked Jason’s cock. In the low light on the porch, Jason could barely make out the movement of Dylan’s hand between his legs as he stroked himself.
Did they have any lube handy? Or condoms?
Fuck it.Just this for now. I’ll let him suck me here, where only the moon can see. We’ll have time for the rest later.
He surveyed the yard again, his eyes half-closed, his breath quick and labored as his orgasm neared. He peered past their parked cars. Found the garage. Followed its lines up toward the second-story guesthouse and its single window—
“Holy shit!” Jason jumped back, away from the porch railing, away from Dylan, trying to clumsily pull his pants up and hide himself against the wall.
“What the hell, Jase?” Dylan’s voice was low and hoarse.
“There was somebody—” But there wasn’t. Jason swore he’d seen a face in the window of the apartment over the garage, but now it stood empty except for the unmoving curtains. Jason swallowed hard, willing his heart to stop pounding. He pointed with a shaking hand toward the garage. “I thought I saw somebody in the guesthouse.”
“I’ve never met anybody as paranoid as you.” Dylan pushed himself up from his knees, his pants still hanging open, his erect cock sticking into the night air like some kind of ridiculous talisman. “Not that it isn’t justified, but . . .” He gestured to the empty lawn. “There’s nobody there.”
“I thought I saw—”
“What? A photographer?”
Jason shook his head, holding his pants closed around his waning erection, trying to sort through his thoughts. Had he imagined it? “It was a man.”
“Did he have a camera?”
The question took him aback. “No,” he said, almost surprised at his own answer. He’d seen only a face. Not even a full face, to be honest. Only the pale suggestion of eyes and a chin, and lips held in a comical O of surprise.
But now, the window was empty. The curtains weren’t even swaying. The room over the garage was pitch dark.
“Do you want me to go check?” Dylan asked with the accommodating condescension of a father offering to check for monsters under his teenage daughter’s bed.
“No.” Jason took a deep breath and squared his shoulders, feigning a bravado he didn’t feel. “You’re right. There’s nobody there. I must have been seeing things.”
Dylan grinned and moved closer, wrapping his arms around him. “You need to relax, JayWalk.”
It was the press’s nickname for Jason. He hated it, although it didn’t sound quite so ridiculous when Dylan said it. “I’m trying.”
“You want a drink?”
“That won’t help.”
“Some weed?” He kissed Jason’s neck, pushing his erection insistently against him. “Poppers? A Valium? I have some in my bag. Tell me what you need, baby, and I’ll get it. You know that. Anything for you.”
As long as it was only for tonight.
Anything he needed, but only until morning.
“Let’s go inside,” Jason said. “I have a brand-new bed in there, you know.”
Dylan’s laugh was throaty and gratifying. “Then let’s go break it in.”
Jason followed him inside, glancing once toward the guesthouse over the garage.
Jason woke to birds chirping happily outside the window. Sunlight was streaming through the thin white curtains, making the entire room feel like a midmorning dream. Dylan slept next to him, his bare back rising and falling with his soft snores. For a while, Jason simply watched him, remembering the night before. Reliving how good it felt to fall asleep next to the man he loved.
If only it could be like this every day.
But no. Dylan would go back to California, and Jason would be left alone in a house that was way too big for him.
He was looking forward to it. Not to Dylan leaving, of course. That’d break his heart, like it always did. But after that, there’d be only him, the house, and the bliss of seclusion. People often said privacy was the last luxury. Jason knew it was true. After a lifetime in the limelight—or chasing the limelight, at any rate—he’d learned that privacy was a commodity more precious than gold, as unattainable as stardom and fame, rarer than real breasts in porn. Privacy was the great white whale, and Jason was determined to harpoon that beast and make it his.
Buying the house had been the first step.
He climbed out of bed and considered what to wear. Of course, the closet and all the drawers were empty. They’d never gotten around to bringing his suitcases in from the car. Some of the boxes in the living room held clothes, but he’d didn’t relish the idea of digging through them naked. He put on the jeans he’d worn the day before and went barefoot down the stairs in search of coffee. He waited until it was brewing to check his cell phone. No messages from Natalie Reuben, his agent. That meant no pictures had surfaced of him and Dylan on the porch.
Not yet, at least.
He took his coffee out onto the veranda. Movement flashed in his peripheral vision, but when he turned, he caught only the unmistakable white tale of a deer bounding into the trees.
“Hey, you can stay,” he called after it. “As long as you don’t have a camera.”
The deer kept running, clearly unimpressed by Jason’s concession.
Jason rested his hip against the railing and searched in vain for more wildlife. Sydney had mentioned deer, caribou, bighorn sheep, and lemmings, although Jason wouldn’t know a lemming if it popped up and said hello. She’d also mentioned foxes, wolves, wolverines, and grizzlies, although she’d assured him those were more elusive. Jason had jokingly told her he’d rather face a grizzly than a photographer. Now, staring out into the woods that surrounded him, he wasn’t so sure.
His eyes fell at last on the garage. It’d been built in the style of an old barn, with a tall, rounded roof. The big doors meant for cars were on the far side of the building. On the near side, there was only a single, person-sized doorway, with a cobblestone path leading to the mudroom off the kitchen. Jason eyed the window on the second floor. Had he really seen somebody in it?
He left his coffee cup on the porch and descended the front steps, angling off the path toward the garage, the frosty grass crunching under his bare feet. It was colder than he expected, each step worse than the one before, and he ended up doing an ungraceful skip-hop-hop across the frozen ground, trying to walk without letting his feet touch the ground any longer than necessary. He imagined he looked like those idiots who walked across coals, so he stopped when he reached the cobblestones and glanced around, hoping no photographers had shown up to capture it on film. No matter how innocuous the activity, the tabloids always managed to put a tantalizing spin on things. He imagined the headlines.
Jadon Walker Buttermore on Drugs! Thinks the Ground Is Hot Lava!
JayWalk in the Throes of Drug-Induced Hallucination!
JayWalking His Way to the Loony Bin!
Not as sensational as a sex tape, but still enough to sell a few copies.
His paranoia proved unwarranted. He saw no sign of trespassers. Then again, he hadn’t seen the photographer who’d taken the pictures of him and Dylan eight months earlier, either. He hadn’t known until Natalie called him the next morning that he’d made StarWatch’s cover once again. In some ways, it had been a relief. He’d been debating the best way to come out for ages. But being outed in such a sensational way hadn’t been part of the plan.
He glanced toward his bedroom, and the second-floor porch, where he and Dylan had made out the night before. He shuddered, thinking how careless he’d been. Some people said there was no such thing as bad press, but those people had clearly never been caught in a tabloid’s crosshairs.
“Can’t let that happen again,” he mumbled as he turned toward the garage.
The door was nothing special. A four-paned window up top, solid wood below. He tried the knob, but found it locked. Nothing of interest when he peered inside, either. Empty spaces where cars belonged and empty shelves along the walls. He knew from viewing the floor plans that the staircase to the guesthouse lay directly to his right, along the same interior wall that held the door, but he couldn’t see it.
He tried the knob a second time, for no good reason whatsoever. Still locked. Not that he’d expected that to change.
If a photographer had found their way inside, would they have thought to lock the door behind them? Would they still be up there, or had they snuck out during the night?
Jason crouched and inspected the cobblestones at his feet, searching for footprints, or—
Well, to be honest, he didn’t know what exactly. Maybe a note written in chalk, “The paparazzi was here”?
He found nothing but dirt and damp cobblestones.
He crossed back over to the house, confident that he looked less ridiculous than he had the first time. He went quietly up the stairs, wondering if Dylan was still asleep. He imagined crawling under his new down comforter, snuggling into the familiar warmth of Dylan’s arms, maybe making love one more time before saying good-bye. It disappointed him to find Dylan already up and half-dressed.
“Hey, there you are,” Dylan said as he buttoned his shirt. His jeans were on too, although his feet were still bare.
Jason settled on the bed and crossed his legs. “Are you leaving already?”
“I have a flight to catch.”
“I see.” Jason had driven his car full of belongings to Idaho and checked into a motel in nearby Coeur d’Alene a few days before the closing. He’d been thrilled when Dylan had called at the last minute and told him he’d booked a flight to Spokane and would be there in time to help Jason with the move. And now here they were: Jason’s bags still sitting in his car in the driveway, and Dylan already with one foot out the door.
Jason fiddled with the ragged hem of his jeans, debating. He wanted to ask what was so urgent that Dylan had to rush out before breakfast. He wanted to suggest that Dylan stay, if not another night, at least a few more hours. But he couldn’t figure out how to say any of it without sounding desperate.
“I have an appointment for new head shots at four,” Dylan went on. “And then later tonight . . .” He grinned mischievously. “I have a hot date.”
Jason’s heart sank. “Oh?”
“Victim Number Five, from Summer Camp Nightmare 3?”
“That’s the one. Poor girl has daddy issues from here to the moon, a failed acting career, and a boob job she’s still paying off. It’s like the desperation trifecta.” He winked. “Even you couldn’t turn that down.”
“I have turned that down.”
Dylan laughed and perched on the edge of the love seat to pull on his shoes. When he glanced up again, Jason was surprised to find his expression somber. “It was good seeing you, Jase.”
Jason did his best to keep his tone casual when he answered. “You too."
“I had a great time last night.”
“So did I.” But those words didn't sound casual at all. Jason knew his heartache had crept into his voice, but Dylan showed no sign of having heard it as he crossed the room and put a hand on either side of Jason’s face, leaning close to peer into his eyes.
“You know I love you, right?”
Jason’s heart leapt. He swallowed hard. “You do?”
“Of course. You’re like a brother to me. You know that.”
Jason was pretty sure most brothers didn’t do what they’d done the night before, but he didn’t argue. He only hoped Dylan couldn’t see how much those words hurt him. “I love you too.” He was proud that he managed to keep his voice steady.
“You’ll call me if you need anything, right?” Dylan asked.
Jason nodded. “Right,” he lied.
“Good.” Dylan kissed him—not like a brother, certainly, but not quite like a lover either.
Like a friend.
“Take care, JayWalk.”
And then Dylan walked down the stairs. Out the front door. Jason refused to watch. He only listened as Dylan’s car crunched over the gravel drive toward the main road.
And then there was only Jason, and the solitude he’d longed for so desperately.
Funny how solitude and loneliness felt so much alike.
It wasn’t an auspicious beginning to the day. For a while, he simply lay in bed, listening to the birds, imagining how it would feel to have Dylan with him all the time. But his melancholy didn’t linger. For better or worse, he was used to saying good-bye to the man he loved, not knowing when he’d see him again.
Besides, the sun was shining, and the mystery of his new home beckoned. Jason had looked forward to this day for months now, longing for the moment when the world would disappear and he could begin his new life. Not Jadon Walker Buttermore, child star of a long-defunct family sitcom. Not JayWalk, teenage heartthrob of yesteryear, now pushing thirty, all grown up with nowhere to go.
No. Now he was just Jason Walker, regular guy.
He finished unloading his car, showered, then made himself breakfast—a bagel with lox and cream cheese, which he took to the veranda to eat—before facing the task of unpacking. The stack of boxes in the living room seemed daunting at first, but he hadn’t actually brought much. What wasn’t clothing was electronics: television, stereo, Xbox, and the accoutrements that went with them. Everything else, including all the mementos of his years in Hollywood, he left in boxes that he stacked in the narrow attic with its creepy lone window. Finally, he pulled his car into the garage, glancing around as he did for any evidence of the man he’d seen the night before. He saw no signs of habitation, and the guesthouse door at the top of the stairs was still closed.
He was halfway across the lawn to his front porch, thinking what a gorgeous day it was for November, when his cell phone rang. He glanced at the screen: Natalie. He took a deep breath before answering, steeling himself for bad news. “Hello?”
“Jason! How’s my favorite client?”
Jason winced. He’d hired Natalie three years earlier, and she had potential, but she was still an up-and-coming agent in a town where agents of any variety were more common than rats and pigeons and granted approximately the same amount of respect. Most of the actors and actresses she represented were completely unknown, happy to land a toothpaste commercial. As dreadful as Jason’s career had been the last few years, she considered him one of her big-ticket stars. And now he was leaving it all behind to hide himself away in the mountains of Idaho.
It was pathetic, any way you sliced it.
Still, Natalie’s upbeat opener eased his mind. She wouldn’t be so chipper if she was calling to tell him StarWatch had published pictures of him having his cock sucked.
“I’m fine.” He plopped down on the steps of the shaded porch, glancing proudly around at his property. “The house is great. It’s exactly what I need.”
“I’m glad. You’re all settled in, then?”
“Good.” But she hadn’t called to chat. She was clearly anxious to get down to business. “Listen, Jason, I have some great news for you. I got you an offer. In fact, I got you two!”
Jason’s heart clenched. Those words no longer excited him as they once had. Now, they only caused anxiety. “What kind of offer?”
“Well, now, hear me out.”
“That good, huh?”
“They’re both horror movies.”
The coolness of the wooden steps seeped through his jeans, and he stretched his legs out, reaching for the line where the shadow of the porch ended, letting the sunlight play over the toes of his shoes. “Of course they are.”
“The first one . . . I have a feeling you’ll pass without even seeing the script.”
“Is it a ‘found footage’ film?”
“As a matter of fact, it is.”
He shook his head, even though she couldn’t see him. “No way.”
“Don’t you at least want to—”
“There’s no point. Everybody thinks they can make ‘found footage’ work, and almost nobody can. They don’t seem to understand that it may give you a pass on cinematography, but not on writing. And you can’t skimp on both. You get Peter Jackson’s budget and Industrial Light & Magic doing the visual effects, you can have the shittiest script in the world. But when you’re filming an entire movie on somebody’s iPhone, you better have some goddamn compelling shit happening on screen or it falls utterly flat.” He stopped, a bit embarrassed by his outburst, but knowing he was right. He scrubbed his hand through his hair. “Did you read it?”
“I glanced at it.” Her hesitant tone told him all he needed to know.
“It’s complete crap, isn’t it?”
She sighed. “It isn’t great, I admit. But maybe with your star power—”
“Ha!” His laugh was so sudden and loud, it startled two birds off the porch railing. He felt a bit guilty for having disturbed them. “Forget it.”
“Okay. I expected you to say no to that one, anyway. That’s why I pitched it first.”
“Fine.” He leaned back and stared up at the blue sky, hardly daring to hope. At least she’d saved the best for last. '”What’s the second offer?”
“It isn’t found footage!”
“Uh-huh. Is that its only redeeming quality?”
“It’s a sequel.”
“Oh God,” he groaned, covering his eyes as if it would save him from whatever was coming next.
“Summer Camp Nightmare 4. Subtitle: Blood Bath at Sea.”
Jason waited for the punchline. Finally decided that was the punchline. “A summer camp at sea?”
“It’s set on a small cruise ship.”
“But my character died at the end of the third movie.”
“Apparently, it was all a dream.”
“Are you shitting me?”
“This one starts with you waking up. I’ve read the script—the whole script, this time—and I’m telling you, Jason, it’s not bad.”
Jason picked at a wedge of wood that was trying to peel away from the porch step. “It’s a slasher flick.”
“But it’s one of the stronger franchises, and they’ve given you some great scenes. I think it has potential. They have a new director, and he’s good. I’m not talking Syfy channel here. This guy has directed big-budget thrillers before.”
“Then what’s he doing making Summer Camp Nightmare 4?”
“Well, his last couple of movies flopped, but I don’t think it was because of his directing. There was a problem on the last film with the lead actor—”
“Stop.” He’d asked the question, but he found he wasn’t interested in the answer. He tossed the released sliver of wood toward the driveway and began worrying at another crack in the worn steps. “I wasn’t planning on acting again.”
“I know.” But he knew she’d never quite believed his resignation. When he was being completely honest with himself, neither had he. “For what it’s worth, Jason, they want you. This whole thing that happened last year—”
“You mean me being outed by StarWatch?”
“There are plenty of gay actors in Hollywood. There always have been. And right now, it’s more acceptable than ever. Neil Patrick Harris and Zachary Quinto are household names, and it doesn’t matter that they’re gay. So yeah, some rag of a magazine published a photo of you in a lip-lock with Dylan Frasier, but you could have denied it. You could have done a lot of things, but you didn’t. You stepped up and you owned it. You didn’t act ashamed or sorry—”
He slammed his hand against the porch railing. “Why would I be?”
“Exactly. And the Summer Camp Nightmare writers love it, Jason. They want to use it. They’ve seen a huge uptick in DVD sales and requests for television rights on the third movie since you came out. And for what it’s worth, this script has a spot for a love interest, and they’ve left it vague. They say it’s up to you if you want a woman or a man playing that role.”
Jason swallowed, his head reeling. Yes, it was a shitty part in a B movie. They’d be lucky if it spent a week at the box office before going directly to DVD and television syndication, but it was the first time in ten years a part had been written for him.
“What’s the pay?”
“Still negotiable, but they’re offering nearly double what they paid you for the third movie.”
He gulped. “Double?” It wasn’t a lot of money, especially by Hollywood standards, but for the fourth movie in a run-down horror series, it was damn good. “Are you serious?”
“They’re calling it a series reboot. They have high hopes.”
Jason closed his eyes, shutting out the beautiful Idaho day. The blue sky and warm sun. The chirping birds and the almost imperceptible creak of the trees, swaying slightly in the soft breeze. He considered how it might feel to be in front of the camera again. “When would filming start?”
At least it wasn’t right away. He'd have plenty of time to settle into his house. Hell, maybe by then he’d have cabin fever and be ready for something new. “For how long?”
“They think they can wrap in three months.”
“So, I should plan on five.”
“Probably.” He could hear the excitement in her voice. “Does that mean you’ll consider it?”
“How soon do they need an answer?”
“By the first of January.”
He sighed, wishing he had the willpower to say no. And yet, acting was all he’d ever known, and he found it hard to let go. “I’ll think about it.”
“Oh, Jason! I’m so glad to hear that. I’ll send the script right over.”
“Great.” He clicked off without saying good-bye. Rude, he knew, but he was annoyed both at her and at himself. He tapped his cell phone against his leg, thinking.
Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. A few months filming and a decent paycheck at the end. And Dylan had been in Summer Camp Nightmare 3 with him. Was his character scripted for a return as well? Jason wished he’d thought to ask Natalie, but he wasn’t about to call her back just for that.
The garage caught his eye again as he pushed himself to his feet. He glanced up at the guesthouse window and froze, his heart bursting into high speed.
Somebody was there!
It was the same person he’d seen the day before, he was certain—a man, although only barely. Jason guessed him to be only a year or two out of his teens. He had a narrow jaw, high, sculpted cheekbones, and thick black hair over shockingly pale skin. Jason expected him to dart out of sight now that he’d been seen, but he didn’t. On the contrary, he seemed utterly delighted. He bounced up and down in glee, waving excitedly.
A deranged fan? Jason didn’t have many these days, but Hollywood was full of alarming tales involving insane stalkers.
“I’m calling the cops!” Jason yelled, shaking his fist ineffectually toward the window.
The man’s lips moved as he spoke, but Jason couldn’t hear him. Not that he was interested in whatever the lunatic had to say anyway. Jason went inside, slamming the door behind him and locking the dead bolt. He called nine-one-one to report an intruder on his property.
“Somebody from the sheriff’s office will arrive right away,” the dispatcher told him.
“Good.” With any luck, it’d be somebody who’d never heard of Jadon Walker Buttermore.
Jason systematically checked every lock on every door, making sure his unwanted guest couldn’t get in. Not that he needed to bother. When he peeked out the window, the man was still right where Jason had left him, staring hopefully down at Jason’s front door. They stood there—Jason watching the boy, the boy watching the house—until a car from the sheriff’s department rolled up the driveway.
The word “sheriff” wasn’t without its glamour. In Hollywood, a cop could be whip-smart or stereotypically donut-obsessed, but a sheriff? He had machismo. Whether a slimy dirtball, or a charismatic ladies’ man, he’d have a pronounced swagger and a healthy appreciation for the absurd. Jason imagined a burly gentleman with a handlebar mustache and a bit of a paunch hanging over his belt, probably with a toothpick jutting from the corner of his mouth.
He was surprised when a black woman in her early thirties stepped out of the sheriff’s car.
“Well, well, well,” she said, shaking her head as she came toward him. Jason came down from the veranda to meet her, feeling a bit vindicated in his assessment: she definitely had a swagger. “I heard the infamous JayWalk had moved into my jurisdiction, but I didn’t expect to meet you so soon.”
She stopped and rocked back onto her heels, wrinkling her brow in confusion. “I thought your first name was Jadon.”
“The agent my parents hired when I was eight thought Jadon was better. He said it was edgy and hip.”
She stuck her thumbs into her belt in true sheriff style and smiled at him. “My little sister thought you were edgy and hip, all right. She had your face plastered all over her bedroom walls. Told everybody who’d listen she was gonna marry you someday.”
“I assume she’s moved on.”
“Several times. She’s set her sights on Chris Hemsworth now, I think.”
“Can’t blame her for that.” He didn’t want to talk about his career, though. He never did. “You’re the sheriff?”
She held out her hand and he shook it. “Regina Ross.”
“Thanks for coming.” He suddenly realized what else she’d said in her opening statement. “Wait. Somebody told you I’d moved here?”
“Your agent. Natalie something?”
Jason’s heart fell. “Natalie Reuben. She wasn’t supposed to tell anybody.”
“Well, she asked us to keep it quiet, but she said the paparazzi might find you eventually.” She glanced around, quickly assessing the house and the circle of trees around them. “And now here it is, only your second day as a resident of Idaho, and I get a report of an intruder.”
Jason pointed to the window of the guesthouse and the young man who even now stood staring down at them. He waved enthusiastically when Jason’s eyes fell on him again. “He’s up there.”
She followed his finger, holding one hand to the sky to block the sun from her eyes. “Where?”
“In that window.”
“In the garage?”
Was she blind? Jason glowered at his unwanted guest, still waving like the homecoming queen on parade day. “In the guest room,” he said, trying not to be impatient. “Right there!”
“What exactly did you see?”
“Last night, I was . . . well, I was out on that balcony.” He pointed to the place he and Dylan had been. “And I thought I saw somebody, but then he disappeared. But then half an hour ago, I looked up, and there he was.”
“In the window?”
“Yes, in the window!” It was harder to hide his aggravation now, with the boy still standing in plain sight. The sun was bright, shining into their eyes and reflecting off the glass. Still . . . “Can’t you see him?”
She rocked onto the balls of her feet, then dropped both her hand and her gaze. “Mr. Buttermore—”
“Jason. My name is Jason Walker.”
“Mr. Walker, I have to ask you: have you been drinking?”
Her eyes were dark with disbelief. “Didn’t you have some kind of breakdown last year? Smoked some bad weed or something and ended up in the hospital?”
“That’s not what happened. And that has nothing to do with it. I’m telling you—”
She held up her hands. “Look, Mr. Walker. I’m not here to judge you for your lifestyle.”
“What the hell does me being gay have to do with anything?”
He’d spoken too loud. He’d let his anger show, and she reacted. She leveled her eyes at him and squared her shoulders. Her hand snuck toward the heavy stick hanging at her belt. “I’m not talking about you being gay. I’m talking about being famous. I’m talking about Hollywood and Betty Ford and the way you all pass narcotics around like candy. I don’t even know what the latest designer drug is, but I’m sure it isn’t good, and I’m guessing it has mild hallucinogenic properties.”
He took a deep breath and did his best to keep his voice calm and level. “I’m telling you, I’m not on any drugs. There’s a man in my guesthouse.” He didn’t bother to point to the window again. “He’s probably a reporter. If you could just take him off my property, I’d appreciate it.”
“You think there’s a reporter camping out in your garage?”
“You think it hasn’t happened before?”
“No offense, but you aren’t exactly the most sought-after actor in Hollywood.”
She arched her eyebrows expectantly, as if waiting for an explanation. He suspected she was enjoying herself.
“You obviously read the tabloids,” he said, remembering her comment about the bad weed.
“Only the headlines, while I wait in the checkout line.”
“Then you know they don’t bother confining themselves to the A-list.”
She cocked her head, thinking. A grin spread slowly across her face. “They do spend an awful lot of time on John Travolta and Kirstie Alley.”
“Yes, they do.”
“And Lindsay Lohan,” she went on, apparently warming to the subject. “Miley Cyrus.”
“Right. And Jadon Walker Buttermore.”
She rocked back on her heels again, thinking. “Yeah, they do like you too, don’t they?” She glanced toward the garage, although she still gave no sign of seeing the man in the window.
“Just go up there and see for yourself,” Jason said. “Please.”
She shook her head, but her smile remained. “I’ll go check it out. I suppose it’s the least I can do, seeing as how it’s my job and all.”
He realized that meant she’d need the keys, and went to get them for her, relieved that now, at least, she’d see he wasn’t crazy.
She took the keys and turned toward the garage. “You stay here.”
He didn’t need to be told twice. He sat on the veranda steps and imagined her climbing the stairs and unlocking the door at the top. The boy in the window turned away, apparently retreating back into the room. A moment later, the sheriff’s face appeared in that gap between the curtains. Her expression was unreadable. She disappeared too, and Jason waited impatiently for her to come out with the man in tow. He hoped she’d apologize for doubting him, then felt guilty for being petty. But the seconds stretched into minutes. The minutes became three-quarters of an hour. Finally, Sheriff Ross emerged.
Jason stood, his stomach tight with dread as she crossed the grass from the garage.
“I searched everywhere. Checked the whole guest room, and the closet. Even under the bed.” He thought he heard a note of apology in her voice. “Searched the garage too, in case he’d snuck down the staircase. I assume you didn’t see him come out?”
“No, I—” Jason glanced up at the window. At the face that had reappeared there. Not waving happily this time, but frowning.
Jason swallowed, reeling. He sank slowly back to the wooden step, which suddenly seemed ice-cold under his backside. The lawn fell into shadow as the sun passed behind a cloud. A breeze rattled through the trees, tossing dried leaves across the grass and sending goose bumps up his arms.
Either Sheriff Ross was lying—and Jason didn’t think that was the case—or she really couldn’t see his intruder. That meant . . .
That meant . . .
He wasn’t ready to think about what that meant quite yet. But he sure as hell wasn’t going to continue acting like an ass in front of her, either. “I don’t know what to say.” His voice didn’t sound right, not even to him. He cleared his throat. Clenched his hands between his knees. “I must have been seeing things.”
But what? A ghost? He didn’t believe in ghosts.
“Maybe he snuck out while you were waiting for me to arrive?”
She was offering him an easy out, and he took it. “Maybe.” Except the young man was still there, watching from the guesthouse as this ridiculous drama played out. Jason cleared his throat. “I’m sorry to have bothered you.”
“It’s not a problem. You can call anytime. But . . .” She hesitated. “Stay off the drugs, okay? It’ll help.”
“Yeah,” he agreed weakly. “I’ll do that.”
And he watched her swagger back to her car. She gave one tiny wave from the driver’s seat before driving away, leaving Jason on his veranda, his world spinning around him.
Just him, his brand-new house, and a ghost Regina Ross couldn’t see.
Jason ignored the garage and its ghost for two days.
Two days, while he rattled around his new house exploring and unpacking and rearranging as he went. He set up his TV, stereo, and Xbox in the living room and ordered furniture online for the veranda and the balcony. His script arrived. He opened the envelope, slid out the packet of paper, but didn’t read past the title page. He even ventured into town, to the grocery store Sydney had suggested, where luckily nobody recognized him. And through it all, no matter how hard he tried to keep from obsessing, he couldn’t keep his eyes from drifting toward the garage.
Sometimes the boy was there.
Sometimes he wasn’t.
And all the while, Jason’s mind ran in circles, assessing the possibilities.
A ghost. A hallucination. A real person.
Not a ghost, because Jason didn’t believe in ghosts. Besides, the man in the window didn’t seem threatening. He didn’t fill Jason with a sense of dread, as Jason supposed a real ghost would.
If real ghosts existed.
Which they didn’t.
No. Definitely not a ghost.
And not a hallucination. Jason had never had one, and he couldn’t imagine why he’d start now. Yes, he’d experimented with drugs now and then through the years, but he hadn’t done anything recently. The incident the sheriff had referred to had stemmed from some weed laced with some kind of hallucinogen. That much was true. But as usual, the tabloids had twisted the entire story. One of the extras in Summer Camp Nightmare 3—a buxom young lady whose job was simply to run screaming and braless toward the camera—had smoked a joint with a gaffer who’d only hoped to get laid. Jason and Dylan had been on set that day, but had been released early due to problems with the lighting. On the way back to their dressing room, they’d found the woman on the floor, clawing her face and screaming to “get them off.” The gaffer was in a panic, sure he’d lose his job. Dylan, who always seemed to know what to do, no matter how bad things looked, had sent the gaffer away with a promise of silence. Then he and Jason had taken the girl to the hospital. Dylan drove, and Jason sat in the back seat with the actress, trying to keep her calm.
It’d seemed like the logical thing to do at the time, but somewhere along the way, a photographer had found out about it. Somehow, they’d gotten word of why the girl had been admitted. But a no-name actress taking drugs wasn’t exactly headline-worthy, so they’d gone with a photo of Jason, snapped just as he was climbing out of the car. Even he had to admit he looked crazy in the picture, with claw marks across his cheeks, and his eyes wide with panic.
The magazine followed up a week later with a picture of him outside a tennis club. The headline had read, “JayWalk Checks Into Posh Rehab Facility.” The stupid thing was, he didn’t even play tennis. He’d gone there to have lunch with Dylan, only to find him with a starlet draped across his lap.
It still made his blood boil to think about.
So no, he didn’t believe the boy was a drug-induced hallucination, his Hollywood “lifestyle” be damned.
Which left one possibility—some strange man was living above his garage. Jason never saw him coming or going from the building, but he saw him in the window often enough to know it was true. The man still waved occasionally, but his excitement had waned. In fact, he appeared downright dejected and desperate as he raised his hand in greeting.
There was never a camera, though. He clearly wasn’t a reporter.
Jason wasn't sure how the man had managed to elude Sheriff Ross when she’d searched the building, but no matter how he looked at it, a deluded fan with uncanny hiding ability seemed the most logical explanation. He seemed harmless, at least, and too shy to approach Jason directly, thank goodness.
Nonetheless, he had to go.
Jason wasn’t about to call the sheriff’s department again though, so that left him one option: deal with it himself.
On his fifth day in the new house, he went to confront his intruder, feeling the boy’s gaze on his head as he crossed the grass to the garage. He stopped just inside the door to let his eyes adjust to the low light. The guest room was built into an enclosed loft, taking up only half of the upper portion of the building. His knees wobbled and his pulse raced as he climbed the stairs. The landing was only a few feet wide. The door itself was closed, and Jason stopped, suddenly unsure. The boy knew he was coming, but he hadn’t opened the door. Jason was hesitant to be the one who opened it. What if the boy was waiting for Jason on the other side with a camera?
Or an ax?
Jason shook his head, chuckling at himself. This wasn’t one of the two-bit horror movies he’d acted in over the years.
Still . . .
After a moment of debate, he came up with an alternative plan.
Boom, boom, boom.
The sound seemed unbearably loud as it echoed through the empty garage. Jason waited, bouncing nervously on the balls of his feet.
“Hello?” Jason pounded on the door a second time. “I know you’re in there. I don’t know who you are, or why you’re in my guesthouse, but this is private property. If you leave peacefully, I won’t press charges.”
No answer. Not a single sound. Not a gasp of surprise, nor the shuffle of feet hurrying across the floor.
Jason frowned, debating. Finally, he tried the knob and found it unlocked.
He threw the door open, stepping inside. The boy stood there in the center of the room, his eyes wide—not quite with surprise, though. He appeared downright elated.
“Listen, you!” Jason said, “I don’t know what—”
And suddenly, Jason realized what he was seeing—the boy. And the room. Specifically, the boy and the part of the room directly behind him, both at the same time, in a way that was utterly impossible.
“Holy shit!” Jason backed up quickly, ramming into the doorframe, practically falling onto the landing. He took another step back, discovered too late there was nothing beneath his foot, and fell down the first few stairs, twisting his ankle and banging his knee before managing to catch himself on the banister. Still he stared, horrified and unbelieving at the boy, who now stood in the doorway of the guest room. He looked much as he had in the window—young and thin and pale, his skin almost translucent.
No. Not almost translucent. Literally translucent. Everything from his baggy, high-waisted trousers and worn boots to his rough-woven white shirt and old-fashioned waistcoat, was not quite solid. Jason could see right through him to the cheap watercolor hanging over the bed. He wasn’t sure how he’d missed it before—whether due to the reflection of the sun on the window, or whether his mind had simply refused to see it—but staring at the boy now, it was quite clear he wasn’t real.
“You really are a ghost,” Jason gasped out, still clutching the banister with both hands.
The boy shook his head, pointing behind him into the room, his lips moving as if he were talking, but no sound came out.
“Is this a prank?”
The boy frowned, shaking his head. He started speaking again, as mutely as before.
Jason’s mind reeled, grasping at possibilities. “Are you a hologram? Are there cameras somewhere?” He wanted to look around for some, but he didn’t dare take his eyes off the figure above him. “Who put you up to this?”
The boy kept shaking his head, gesticulating with his hands, moving his lips.
As horrified as he’d been, Jason’s alarm faded, made less urgent as the pain in his knee and ankle started to sink in. Was an interactive hologram somehow more plausible than a ghost? He didn’t think so. Whatever this was, he didn’t feel threatened. The apparition—or whatever the boy was—hadn’t moved from the doorway. He was still talking, gesticulating wildly, and Jason sighed and said, “I can’t hear you.”
The boy stopped, blinking in shock, dumbstruck as the words sank in. He appeared to take a deep breath. Finally, his lips moved. Only two words, but between context and lip-reading, Jason understood. You can’t?
Jason shook his head, rubbing at his sore ankle. “No.”
The ghost slumped, crestfallen. He spoke slowly and deliberately, pointing at Jason and then at his own eyes, and then at himself. But you can see me?
“Uh, yeah. I think we’ve established that.” Jason stood up, testing his weight on the twisted ankle. It didn’t feel great, but he was pretty sure he hadn’t done any real damage. He rubbed his bruised knee, still watching the boy at the top of the stairs, trying to make sense of it all.
He’d always imagined ghosts to be white, but this one wasn’t. Yes, the boy’s skin was pale, but it was clearly a natural skin tone against his shirt. His pants were dark gray, his boots and waistcoat black. Jason searched the walls and the ceiling, still wondering if the boy was some type of projection, but he didn’t see any cameras. The technology for such an advanced hologram may have existed, but Jason doubted it came cheap. Even a tabloid chasing a sensational photo wouldn’t have the resources to put together such an elaborate hoax. And if they did, they sure wouldn’t waste it on JayWalk.
The boy watched him, his eyes bright with hope. His lips moved, and he gestured behind him. Jason didn’t need to hear him to know he was being invited back into the guest room. It seemed absurd. Shouldn’t a ghost be trying to scare him? Yelling “Boo”? But no. Instead, he was inviting Jason inside, maybe for a nice spot of tea.
Jason wasn’t entirely sure he hadn’t lost his damn mind.
“I don’t know . . .”
The boy held out his hand, looking heartbroken. Looking desperate. His lips formed one simple word. Please.
What did Jason have to lose? His life? His sanity? His peace of mind? He hadn’t felt too sure about any of those things to begin with.