Shadows of the Past: A Small Town Romance (Sugar Springs Book 1)
Welcome to the new world from USA Today bestselling author Alexa Aston—Sugar Springs—a small town in East Texas where love has a way of turning up when you least expect it!
A woman with a secret occupation. A man ready for a new challenge. Work brings them together—and then love blossoms between them . . . .
High school teacher Paige Laramie has been secretly writing screenplays under the name Laramie Fisher in her free time. She sells a couple for a moderate fee, but she strikes gold when Hollywood’s hottest superstar buys her latest effort and decides to shoot the film in her hometown of Sugar Springs.
Former stuntman and model Tanner Haddock jumped to roles on the big screen, but he’s always been someone who pushes himself creatively, seeking new challenges. Tanner’s ready to move into directing—and finds the perfect script to star in and make his directorial debut.
He just didn’t count on falling in love with its beautiful, quirky writer.
Can two people from very different worlds find common ground—and find lasting love?
Find the answer in Shadows of the Past, Book 1 in Sugar Springs.
Each book in this contemporary small town romance series is a standalone story that can be enjoyed out of order. Read for free with Kindle Unlimited.
1 – Shadows of the Past: A Small Town Romance (Sugar Springs Book 1)
2 – Learning to Trust Again: A Small Town Romance (Sugar Springs Book 2)
3 – A Perfect Match: A Small Town Romance (Sugar Springs Book 3)
4 – A Fresh Start: A Small Town Romance (Sugar Springs Book 4)
5 – Recipe for Love: A Small Town Romance (Sugar Springs Book 5)
Release date: May 16, 2023
Publisher: Oliver Heber Books
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Behind the book
I've lived in Texas my entire life, and I decided to set a contemporary romance series in East Texas. Sugar Springs is not a real place (except in my mind), but I've drawn from my decades in Texas and given this small town that essence of the Lone Star State.
Shadows of the Past: A Small Town Romance (Sugar Springs Book 1)
Sugar Springs, Texas—Twenty years ago . . .
Paige Laramie knew she had aced the spelling test. Nana had practiced the entire list of words with her last night. Not that Paige needed her to do so. Nana just liked helping Paige with her homework while Mama pulled a double shift at the diner.
She was the smartest girl in her class. Danny Henderson was the smartest boy. They always competed against one another. Danny had the edge in science, while Paige was better with math. They were pretty much the same in everything else—writing, grammar, social studies. Danny thought he was better, though, because he was rich. He always had the newest tennis shoes and the latest cell phone. His dad was president of the local bank, and his mom didn’t have to work.
Her mom worked all the time. Her dad? Not so much. At least he hadn’t before The Divorce. Paige didn’t know where Daddy worked now or what he did or where he lived. When her parents had been married, Daddy sometimes worked as a mechanic at the local body shop. Or he drove a truck, making a run from Dallas to Houston and back a few times a week. After The Divorce last year, Mama got full custody of Paige. Daddy was supposed to pay money for her food and clothes, but he hadn’t done so yet. She had only seen him once, on Christmas Day, and that was only for an hour. He’d showed up two hours late and had driven her to the local park. They sat on a picnic bench and she watched him drink a six-pack.
When he drank, three things happened. After the first two beers, he became funny and charming. After two more, he grew loud and belligerent. That was when she had to be careful around him. One wrong word would set him off—and when he was mean, he would yell and sometimes hit her. Another two beers in him, and Daddy grew sappy and sleepy. He’d cry a little and then say he was sorry. Then he’d fall asleep.
On Christmas, he’d actually asked her a few questions about school at first. She’d told him about winning the school spelling bee and how she’d done more push-ups and sit-ups in the fitness challenge than any other girl in her entire elementary school. He’d listened in that distracted way and then apologized, saying he didn’t have a present for her because things had been tight. When he finished the third beer, she put some distance between them, going to sit on the swings and staying there even as he yelled at her and told her she was just as worthless as her mother. By the time he opened the last beer in the six-pack, he was blubbering and telling her how sorry he was.
Paige doubted things would ever change.
She waited until he put his head down on his forearms before she left the swings and came closer. His loud snores let her know it was time to leave. Mama had told her even before The Divorce never to get in the car with Daddy when he was drunk. She walked the two miles home, thankful it was just cold and not windy. Cold, she could take. Cold and windy, and she was miserable. When she grew up, she was going to be a famous writer and travel the world. She would have a house on the beach and another one in the mountains, two places she’d never seen in person, but she liked the looks of them on TV.
Mama had taken one look at Paige when she got home and wrapped her arms about her daughter. They might not have much, but they had each other. And Nana. After The Divorce, they had moved from their trailer into Nana’s small house, a few blocks off the Sugar Springs town square. Paige and Mama shared a bed and room, but it was so peaceful at her grandmother’s house. No one yelled. No one hit. The house was just full of love—and the good smells from Nana’s baking.
The teacher asked Paige to collect the spelling tests and she did so, each student passing them to the front of the row so she could come by and gather them. Miss Biggs then told everyone to take out their books for thirty minutes of free reading time. The class went once a week to the library and checked out a book for free read. Paige always finished hers by the next day. Because of that, she got to help Miss Biggs while the other students in the class read. Not even Danny Henderson got to be a helper like Paige because Miss Biggs had told Danny he was fast but careless, and accuracy was important.
Handing Miss Biggs the stack of papers, the teacher said, “Would you like to grade these for me, Paige?”
“Yes, ma’am,” she said with enthusiasm.
“Let’s pull yours out first and see how you did.”
Miss Biggs located it and skimmed a finger along the twenty-five words. Smiling, she said, “Perfect, as always.” She marked 100 on the top of the page. “You may use yours as the key, Paige. Remember, no half-offs. Each word must be legible and the entire word spelled correctly to receive full credit.”
She’d done this before, many times. Miss Biggs didn’t even need to give her a points chart. Paige just did the math in her head and took four points off for each misspelled word, placing the score at the top of the paper. If someone had a perfect score, she would draw smiley faces inside the two zeroes of the 100.
Glancing up after she finished grading the stack of spelling tests, she saw Danny Henderson glaring at her. She narrowed her eyes and glared right back. He rolled his eyes and mouthed a dirty word and went back to his book. She didn’t tattle on him. Mama had told her not to, saying Danny was a bully and that Paige should ignore him.
She brought the papers to Miss Biggs, who gave her a note to take to the office. Paige loved being in the halls when no one else was in them. It was as if the entire school belonged to her. She loved school. Mama said that was a good thing because if Paige wanted to go to college, she would need to do well in school and earn a scholarship. Mama had gone a year to community college and said she always regretted not having more education. But Daddy had come along and charmed her into marriage.
She wondered what Daddy had been like before the drinking. She had looked at pictures of her parents in those early years. They looked so young and happy. Mama was thirty now, but Paige thought she looked much older than that. And Daddy had looked terrible on Christmas, with his bloodshot eyes and uncombed hair and stubble on his face. Paige swore she would never get married and if she did, her husband would never drink and he would shave every day.
After she returned from her trip to the office and reading time ended, they broke into groups for a half-hour to work on a Social Studies project, then it was time for lunch and then recess. She had her usual peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich, along with a banana. It was the lunch she had started making for herself so that Mama didn’t have to. Paige had learned to do lots of things for herself when she was young. Mama had worked in a restaurant before The Divorce and she always said customers at night tipped better. Daddy was supposed to stay with Paige when Mama waited tables nights, but he rarely did. She had learned to take a bath and brush her teeth and hair and put herself to bed, even saying her prayers, while Daddy was out doing whatever he did with whomever he did it.
It was okay. They were okay. The Divorce had been good for them. It let her and Mama live with Nana and she didn’t have to worry about Daddy yelling at her or slapping her or punching Mama. Paige didn’t realize how tense everything at home was until after The Divorce and they moved to Nana’s. Nana baked banana bread, cakes, and pies, and she cooked a heavenly goulash. She hummed when she did her housework and let Paige watch TV. She and Paige worked in the vegetable garden together. Life was blissful, one of this week’s spelling words.
At recess, her stomach dropped to her knees when she saw Daddy standing at the far end of the schoolyard. He was on the other side of the fence and beckoned her—another spelling word last week—to come over. She did so. Reluctantly.
“Hi, baby girl,” he said.
She ran her eyes up and down him. He was dressed decently, his clothes clean, a flannel shirt and a pair of jeans. His eyes were clear. He smiled, all his attention on her, and suddenly Paige could see how Mama might have fallen in love with a younger version of him.
“Hey, Daddy,” she said cautiously. “Why’re you here? I haven’t seen you in four months. Not since Christmas.”
“I wanted to apologize about Christmas,” he began. “I was in a bad place back then. I want to make it up to you. What about after school I take you to get some ice cream?”
Her belly did a flip-flop, her guard still up. Daddy had never taken her for ice cream, not once in her life. Her body tingled in a funny way, and she knew she shouldn’t trust him.
“I’ve got newspaper club today,” she told him, hoping he would understand. “We’re turning in our stories and deciding what’ll be in the newspaper we put out next week. It’s our April edition. It’ll be published before Easter.”
“I’ll bet you have a great story for them,” he praised.
“I do. Two, in fact.”
He looked pleadingly at her. “Could you turn your stories in and then go for ice cream with me? Please?”
Against her better judgment, Paige heard herself say, “Okay. But just for a little while. And you’ll need to drop me off a block from home.”
Anger suddenly sparked in his eyes. “Why? Does that old woman still talk bad about me?”
“Nana never talks bad about you,” she said, defending her grandmother. “She never talks about you at all.”
Glancing over her shoulder, Paige said, “I need to go. Recess is over.”
“All right, baby girl.”
“I’m not a baby anymore, Daddy. I’m in fourth grade. I’m nine—almost ten.”
He grinned. “Whatever you say. See you soon.”
Paige ran and fell in at the back of the line of students entering the building. She focused on the math worksheet waiting on her desk, not wanting to think about Daddy or The Divorce or what Mama might say about her skipping newspaper club to go eat a treat with Daddy.
When the bell rang, Miss Biggs dismissed them, reminding them newspaper club would start in ten minutes.
She let the class file out before she approached Miss Biggs, her two stories in hand.
“Miss Biggs? I can’t stay today—but here are my stories. One is on the Sugar Springs farmers’ market starting back up. The other is the interview I did with the fire chief.”
Her teacher accepted them. “Oh, I’ll bet they are wonderful, Paige. You are such a strong writer. It is a delight to read your work.”
“I want to be a writer when I grow up.”
Miss Biggs smiled approvingly. “I think you’ll make for a terrific writer. I’m sorry you can’t stay today.”
She thought Miss Biggs would have asked her why she couldn’t stay after school, but she didn’t. Paige said goodbye and returned to her desk, collecting her backpack and heading out the front door of the school. She glanced up and down the street, not seeing Daddy. A tiny part of her felt disappointed. He’d probably already forgotten he promised to take her for ice cream. It sure would’ve tasted good, now that spring had arrived.
Dejected, she turned east and began walking home, not in the mood to go back to newspaper club. She hadn’t gone two blocks when a horn honked beside her. Turning, she saw a black pickup truck, Daddy behind the wheel.
“Get in,” he called cheerfully.
She did so, asking, “When did you get a new truck?”
“Oh, I borrowed it from a friend. I did a few favors for him, and he’s letting me use it for a while.”
She buckled her seatbelt and locked her door, always conscious about safety, especially with her father behind the wheel. But she hadn’t smelled any beer on his breath. His eyes still looked bright and clear. Relaxing, she began answering his questions about school.
Then Paige realized they were leaving town. Panic filled her.
“Where are we going?”
“Oh, just the next town over from Sugar Springs. They’ve got a new ice cream place. I think you’ll like it.”
Uneasiness filled her. She tamped it down, wanting to trust him, wanting desperately for him to be a dad like all the other dads.
He pointed to the cup holder. “Hey, I got you a drink. You still like lemonade, right?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
Paige was thirsty and drank the cold, refreshing lemonade quickly. Lemonade was a treat she didn’t get very often.
They were on the highway now. She sighed, feeling sleepy. Her eyelids grew heavy and she leaned her head against the window.
When she woke up, it was dark.
And they were still driving.
“Daddy? Where are we? Where are we going?” she demanded, keeping her tone even though panic swelled within her, causing her heart to race.
He turned, his face no longer affable—a spelling word from two weeks ago.
“We’re going away for a bit,” he informed her, his voice harder now.
“Because I need to punish that bitch,” he spat out.
She sensed the waves of anger rolling off him and wanted to make herself small. Then she noticed the open beer can in the cup holder next to him.
And three others crushed and in the floorboard beneath her feet.
“She ruined everything,” he railed. “She couldn’t like me for who I am. She was always complaining. She said I couldn’t see you.”
“That was the court, Daddy. And they did say you could—”
“Shut your trap!” he roared, slamming his fist into her belly.
Pain filled her, followed by terror when she couldn’t breathe. He hadn’t hit her in a long time. She was out of practice. The air would come. It just took a minute. Her brain told her not to worry, that her insides were paralyzed, but they would unfreeze.
When they did, she gasped air into her lungs, breathing quick and hard. She realized now he had drugged her. The dashboard clock said eight forty-eight. She had no idea where they were or how far away from Sugar Springs they’d gone. Mama would be getting home soon. Nana would be worried. They would call the police. They would look for her. They had to. Please, God, let them find her.
Daddy continuing cursing and badmouthing Mama. What Paige got out of his rant—a last year spelling word that fit Daddy’s words to perfection---was that he didn’t really want her. He just didn’t want Mama and Nana to have her. She worried he might kill her and dump her body somewhere. She had to pretend to like him. Pretend to like what he was doing.
It just might save her life.
“Thank you, Daddy.”
His head whipped toward her. “For what?” he asked, suspicion in his eyes.
“For coming for me. I always liked you better than Mama. I’m glad we can live together. I know you said you don’t want me, but I can be good, Daddy. I can help you. I’ll clean and cook for you. I’ll take care of you. You’ll be so happy you came and got me.”
They drove on into the night.
“You’ll need a new name. We both will.”
Smiling brightly, hoping he bought into her act, Paige asked, “Can I pick it, Daddy? My new name?”
“Sure,” he said agreeably, surprising her.
“I think I’ll be Nancy,” she said. “After Nancy Drew. She’s a girl detective. Nana bought me some of the books at a garage sale, three for a quarter, and I—”
“Don’t talk about her again,” Daddy warned.
Paige played dumb. “Nancy Drew?”
“No, that woman. Or your mama.”
“Oh, okay.” Her mind raced, knowing she walked a tightrope. “But I can still be Nancy, right?”
“Sure. Be whoever the hell you want to be. Doesn’t matter to me.”
That worried Paige. It still sounded as if he were going to do something to her.
Well, she would do something first. She would get away. She would be smart like Nancy Drew always was.
And when she got back to Sugar Springs, she would never leave it. Ever again.
Tanner Haddock washed down his burger and fries with a Coke, enjoying the burn in his throat from the soft drink. Summertime was meant for drinking a cold Coke over crushed ice, and on this hot, late summer evening, the soft drink had hit the spot.
“Ready for dessert?” his mom asked.
“Whatever you want,” his dad added. “Pie. Ice cream. Call it an early birthday celebration.”
Annie, who owned the diner, came over. “Any dessert tonight, folks?”
He grinned. “I’d like a chocolate soda. Vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup. About half the glass filled with the soda water.”
Annie smiled. “Three scoops good enough, Tanner?”
“Pie for Helen and me,” Dad said. “Apple for both of us, Annie. Hold the ice cream.”
“You got it.” Annie jotted their orders onto her notepad and moved toward the counter.
“Thanks again, Dad,” Tanner said.
“You pitched a good game today, son. I thought a little treat would be nice.”
His parents started talking about a cow whose milk had dried up. Bored, he stared out the window, watching a truck pull into the parking lot. A man got out and motioned. A girl climbed out from the driver’s side. Tanner thought that odd, wondering why she didn’t get out on her side of the truck. Maybe the door was broken. But the truck looked pretty new.
As they moved across the parking lot, the man placed his hand on the girl’s neck. She winced, keeping her head down.
Something didn’t seem right.
His dad had always told him to pay attention to details. Not that Tanner wanted to go into police work, a job where you had to really look at the nitty-gritty. He wanted to either be a famous baseball player or an actor. Maybe both. Either way, he knew he wanted to leave Owens, Oklahoma. Living in a small town, everyone knew who he was, especially with Dad being the chief of police. He wanted to go somewhere that had a million people or more, not the two thousand plus in Owens. He wanted to see the world. Make money. Discover new things about himself.
The door to the diner opened and the man moved the girl through the opening. They had to be father and daughter. At least he thought they must be. Then he decided that he shouldn’t assume anything.
“Sit anywhere you’d like,” Annie called from behind the counter.
His family were the only customers in the diner since it was almost nine and closing time. Most people had eaten dinner long ago. They’d come from a baseball tournament two towns over, and Mom had suggested grabbing a quick dinner after his dad had stopped and changed a flat tire for the Baptist preacher’s wife on their way home. His little sister, Alana, was spending the night with a friend, so they didn’t have to worry about getting home to relieve a babysitter.
Now, he watched the man pick a table in the corner, his eyes searching the place. The girl sat, her head still bowed.
Tanner got a bad feeling. He continued watching them as Annie delivered dessert to the Haddocks, his father digging into the pie with gusto, his mother taking dainty bites. Tanner sipped some of the soda and then spooned ice cream into his mouth.
Annie took the newcomers’ orders and then the girl said something to the man. He nodded and they both stood up, Again, he put his hand on her neck, guiding her past their table.
Tanner’s gaze connected with the girl’s for a brief moment, and then they passed. He glanced down and saw she held her left hand out, palm facing him.
That was the word dug into her palm.
Cold fear puddled in his belly. Quickly, he swung his head around and watched them continue toward the restrooms. He turned and looked at his dad, who was talking and laughing.
“Gotta go to the restroom. Be right back,” he said, sliding from the booth and following the pair through the door.
The girl went into the ladies’ restroom. The man stayed in the tight space that led to both restrooms.
“Uh, excuse me,” Tanner said, brushing past the man and entering the men’s restroom.
Inside, his brain was spinning in fast-forward. The man lingering outside the door, waiting for the girl, was weird enough. She had to be at least nine or ten and should’ve been able to go to the restroom herself. But the fact that she’d carved HELP into her hand told him she was in trouble. Big trouble.
He washed his hands and left, the man still hovering outside, waiting for the girl. Squeezing past the man again, he looked up. What he saw in the guy’s eyes frightened him.
Tanner hurried back to the table and interrupted his mother’s story. “Dad.”
Mom frowned. “Tanner, you know not to—”
“There’s a girl in trouble in the restroom,” he hissed. “I watched her and maybe a guy who’s her dad come in. He keeps his hand on her neck. He guided her into the diner and then to the restroom. He didn’t even go himself. He’s just waiting for her.”
“Well, some fathers are a little overprotective,” Dad said, frowning slightly.
“No,” he insisted. “I saw her hand. She held it out to me when she passed our booth.” He swallowed. “Dad, it said HELP.”
Immediately, his father’s demeanor changed. “You saw that word?”
“Yes,” he said, nodding vigorously. “Like she’d carved it there. She needs us, Dad.”
His father’s eyes glanced to the back and then returned to Tanner. “They’re coming,” he said quietly, taking a bite of pie.
As the two moved passed their table, Tanner noticed the girl kept her hands by her side this time. The hand with her cry for help was on the far side and couldn’t be easily seen anyway. She was smart not to try again a second time.
Once the pair returned to their table, Dad said, “Stay right here. I’ll be back. Don’t look at them. He might spook.”
Dad scooted from the booth and called to Annie, “Left my wallet in the car. Be right back.”
Keeping his eyes on Mom, Tanner asked, “Is Dad calling for back-up?”
Mom had her back to the man and girl. She nodded. “He will. He’ll also run the plates. See if the vehicle is stolen and who it’s registered to.” She reached out a hand and he gave her his. “That was very brave of you, Tanner. And very observant. Let’s just hope this girl isn’t in trouble. That it’s all a misunderstanding.”
“She is, Mom,” he said earnestly. “I can tell. She doesn’t look up. She’s not talking. Girls are always talking, all the time.”
He remembered the look in her green eyes in that brief moment when their gazes had connected. Something told him he would always remember those eyes.
Dad reentered the diner and slid into the booth. “Let’s get the two of you out of here now,” he said quietly. “Helen, take Tanner. Go to the car and lock the doors.”
Tanner had barely touched his chocolate soda but it didn’t matter. He couldn’t eat it. Not when that girl was in trouble.
“Check, Annie,” Dad said, standing to let Mom out of the booth.
“Right away, Chief. Let me get this order out.” She scooped up two baskets from where the cook had pushed them through the pass-through window and headed across the diner.
As he pushed out of the booth, Tanner watched the man react to hearing Annie call her dad that. His eyes narrowed. He frowned. Tanner looked away and could sense the stranger’s gaze boring into his family.
“Changed my mind. We need these to go,” he told Annie as she set the food on their table.
“Okay. Give me a minute to box them up for you, sir.” Annie took out her pad from her apron’s pocket and tore off the ticket, placing it on the table. “Here’s your check.”
She turned to leave, baskets in hand again. Tanner’s heart raced as he glanced up. His gaze met that of the girl’s once more. In it, he saw both sadness and fear.
The stranger jerked her to her feet and moved them toward the door.
“Dad, he’s leaving with her. Stop him,” he begged.
Dad slipped his gun from its holster. “You two get under the table. Now,” he urged, and Mom slipped into the booth again, both of them immediately sliding beneath the table.
His dad raised his gun. “Stop right there!” he said, his voice calm and firm and full of authority.
Tanner could still see from his vantage point and watched the man whirl, his left hand tightening on the girl’s neck as his right jerked a pistol free, swinging it up, pointing it at Tanner’s dad.
Annie screamed. He heard two shots fired almost simultaneously, the noise deafening. His father grunted and fell back two steps, giving Tanner a good view of the blood that stained his dad’s shoulder.
“Dad!” he cried, scrambling out.
“I’m okay, son.”
“You’re shot!” Mom cried, bursting from the floor.
Tanner did the same, except he looked to the other side of the diner. The stranger had collapsed on the floor, his body still. Blood pooled around his head. Tanner knew the man was dead.
He was drawn, though, to the girl. She stood stock-still, gazing down at the body. Her own started trembling as she looked up. Tanner moved to her and stopped in front of her.
“Thank you,” she said, tears welling in her eyes and then spilling down her cheeks. “You saw my message.”
He reached for her hand and lifted it, her palm facing up. The four letters were etched into the smooth skin, an angry red in contrast to the white of her skin. He searched her face.
“I did it and didn’t know if anyone would ever see it. I tried showing it a few times.”
Tanner said, “You are very brave.”
“Thank you,” she whispered, tears pooling in her emerald eyes.
Sirens sounded in the distance, and he supposed Annie or someone had called for help.
“Come meet my dad.”
He took her wrist, afraid to hold her hand because it might hurt her, and led her toward his parents. Mom had called for clean dish towels and had wrapped them around Dad’s shoulder.
“Dad? This is—”
He stopped because he hadn’t even asked the girl her name.
“I’m Paige,” she said, her head held high, her voice strong. “And I want to go home.”
Dad smiled. “We’ll get you home, Paige. I promise you that.”
“Thank you,” she said softly. “He . . . He was my daddy. But he was a bad man. Can I call Mama and Nana now? I know they’re worried about me.”
Mom produced her cell phone and stepped to the girl, wrapping a protective arm about her. “You can use mine, honey. Let’s go outside and sit in the car.”
“Good idea,” Dad said.
As Mom led Paige away, she turned over her shoulder and mouthed, “Thank you,” to Tanner.
He smiled and gave a wave.
With his good arm, Dad drew Tanner into a bear hug. “You did something wonderful tonight, son. You saved that girl’s life.”
Tanner knew he would never forget this night.
Tanner Haddock wrapped the bath sheet around his waist and secured it, taking his time to shave the heavy beard which he’d had for several months during the filming of his latest movie. As America’s most recognized—and bankable—movie star, he would have preferred keeping the beard and hoping for a little anonymity during his hiatus. But his mom liked Tanner clean-shaven. Since he would see her later today, he wanted to keep her happy.
Besides, he wouldn’t see many people in Owens, Oklahoma, his hometown of two thousand, if you counted the chickens and pigs within the city limits. On his trips home, people left him alone for the most part. Hardly anyone new ever moved to Owens. Those living there had known him since he was in diapers. They had seen him grow up. Pitch baseball games and act in school plays. Truth be told, Helen Haddock was the star of the family in this corner of the state. His mom’s horses were some of the most in-demand in the racing industry. She had even bred two Kentucky Derby winners, making her royalty in a state that valued cattle and horses.
The beard now gone, Tanner studied his image in the mirror and found himself again after being Drake Billings for the last several months. Each time he took on a role, he disappeared into it as much as possible. For Caught, he’d played a CIA operative on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines, one who had been abandoned by his special ops team in a country which loathed Americans. The shoot had been grueling and yet satisfying, his sixth film with George Madison, a director he admired, and a man whose friendship he treasured.
It was George and his wife, Hailey, who had advised Tanner to book something beyond his usual action-adventure film after the third time Tanner had worked with the director. The couple had him over for dinner and encouraged Tanner to push his limits and try something new so that he wouldn’t become typecast. He’d followed their advice, signing on to do a romantic comedy, and had garnered rave reviews for stepping out of his usual action/adventure mode. After that, he alternated doing a film with George and then another director. Several had been indie flicks which didn’t pay much, but he made more than enough off his popcorn movies. Tanner carefully studied his directors—their methods and direction. How they drew certain emotions from their actors. How they worked with the camera crew and lighting people and extras. Their relationship with the producer on set.
When they were two-thirds through shooting Caught, Tanner had told George and Hailey that he was finally ready to direct a picture of his own. George had quizzed him for over two hours after that announcement. At the end of filming, the director had agreed that it was time for Tanner to branch out and give directing a try. He urged nothing large-scale, similar to what the two of them worked on together, but rather something more intimate.
Tanner had decided that a piece set in a small town was the answer.
He’d grown up in Owens, Oklahoma, about ten miles northeast of Broken Bow. It was where he retreated for a week or two after he completed each film. He stayed on his parents’ ranch. Rode with Mom. Fished and hunted with Dad. Visited with his sister and her husband, who helped train the horses on the ranch. Owens grounded him. Calmed him. Helped him remember who he was.
As for Hailey, she had been poring through scripts from her clients the last two months after Tanner declared his intention to direct. She knew he wanted something that revolved around a small town. Those were his roots. He knew those places. He believed he could bring out the best in himself and the material if it involved a small town. So far, Hailey hadn’t found the right property yet among her clients. Tanner had Jeanine Young, his agent, also working on it. Quietly. Very quietly. He wanted to keep his ambition of moving in a new direction as much on the down-low as possible. Yes, word would eventually leak out, but he wanted to maintain anonymity as long as he could.
Hopefully, either Jeanine or Hailey would find a property that might interest him soon. As of now, he wasn’t committed to a role in any future projects, which was unusual for him. Tanner Haddock usually filmed one movie, had another either being cut or in the can awaiting release, and a third playing at the local cineplex. He also automatically signed on for one or two other films before he finished filming his current project. Something had told him to hold back—so he had. When he found the right property, he wanted to devote his all to it and not worry what was down the road. He didn’t want to be rushed in prepping, filming, or editing. It was important to him to get his first directorial effort right, so that there would be other opportunities down the line. Acting was still in his blood. He wouldn’t give that up in the foreseeable future.
But his interests lay in directing. Adding that to his wheelhouse. Eventually, when his body gave out or his looks faded, he might be able to turn to directing full-time.
Dressing casually in a T-shirt and jeans, he placed his shaving kit inside his duffel bag. He had only packed a few things since he left a sizeable amount of clothing, boots, and shoes at his parents’ ranch.
The ding for a text message sounded and he pulled his cell from his pocket. It was from Ron Jackson, his stunt double and close friend.
Out front. Whenever you’re ready.
Tanner sent a thumbs up and slipped the duffel’s strap on his shoulder, stopping to grab a bottled water from the fridge as he left the house. He opened the rear door and tossed the duffel bag inside the vehicle and then climbed into the passenger seat of Ron’s Jeep.
His friend stroked the beard he still had. “Guess I couldn’t pass as your double right now,” he teased, turning the car and heading down the driveway toward PCH-1.
“Mom likes to see her baby boy’s face,” he said, laughing.
“Should I keep the beard? You haven’t mentioned what the next film is.”
“That’s because I don’t know.”
Ron whipped his head toward Tanner. “Seriously?” He looked back out the front windshield. “I’ve never known you not to have something lined up.”
“I’m taking a little break.”
“Hmm. Guess that means we’re taking a break.”
Ron had exclusively worked as Tanner’s double since his second film, which was over a decade ago.
“I guess I should’ve given you a heads up,” Tanner apologized. “So you could line up another gig.”
Ron laughed. “Are you kidding me? I would love a break, buddy. With you, it’s go, go, go. I have plenty of money in the bank. Hell, I can even take a vacation now that I know we’ve got some time off.”
“You know you’re always welcome at the ranch. Mom loves you, and Dad can’t get enough of your stories.”
“Pass this time, bro. If I truly have a stretch of time off, I’d like to go backpacking in Scandinavia.”
“Yes. I fell in love with Norway and Finland when you did that spy thriller, what, six or seven years ago. The people are friendly.”
“You mean the girls are hot.”
Ron grinned. “Well, yes, that. But the countryside is beautiful. And everyone seems to speak decent English. It would be easy to move around.”
“Do it,” Tanner urged. “I won’t be taking on another role for at least a year. Maybe more.”
Ron pulled up to a stop sign and placed the back of his hand on Tanner’s brow. “Just checking for a fever. You don’t seem sick. Are you worn out, buddy?”
“A little,” he admitted. “But I have a goal in mind.” He paused. “I want to direct.”
“Hell, yes!” his friend said enthusiastically. “You’d be a natural. You’re always dogging the director on every movie we make. Asking a million questions. Talking to cameramen about angles. Quizzing the screenwriter. I can see you doing it. Do you have a script yet?”
“No. That’s the holdup. I can’t find anything I want. Jeanine and Hailey are scouring everywhere for me.”
“It’ll come,” Ron said. “And when it does, you’ll know it in your gut.”
“It won’t be a huge movie,” Tanner explained. “I doubt any producer would give me, an untested director, a big budget. So, no car chases or explosions. Probably no stunt work at all for you.”
Ron shrugged. “If you need me in any capacity, I’ll make myself available. If you just want me to come hang out with the crew and watch your back, I can do that, too.”
He smiled, appreciating the friendship Ron and he had built over the years. “That would be great.”
They arrived at Hollywood Burbank Airport. It was a few miles farther from Malibu than LAX, but Tanner kept his private jet there. Ron would serve as his pilot today. Tanner, who also had his pilot’s license, sometimes acted as the co-pilot. Today, though, he’d hired someone else to do the chore, wanting to relax after the long, grueling shoot he’d just come off.
Ron went through the pre-flight check as Tanner boarded the small aircraft, settling into his passenger seat. His cell rang, which was unusual. He rarely took calls, relying on texts a majority of the time.
“Have you left?” Hailey asked. “Tell me you haven’t.”
“Still here. Ron’s walking the plane with his checklist. What’s up?”
“I’m on my way to you,” she said. “I have a script, Tanner. It may be the one you’ve been looking for.”
“That would be awesome, Hailey. I’ll be sure we wait for you.”
“I’m about ten minutes out. See you soon.”
Rising, Tanner went to the front. Ron was settling into the pilot’s seat, along with the co-pilot.
“We need to wait. Hailey’s a few minutes away and has a script she wants me to read ASAP.”
“Not a problem, bro.”
Leaving the plane, Tanner waited in the hanger. Soon, Hailey came into sight, driving her baby blue Camaro convertible. She pulled in next to him, handing him a thick envelope.
“My gut tells me this is it, Tanner.”
He accepted the package. “I hope so. Has George read it?”
She nodded. “He has. We both think you could do something with this.”
“Is it written by one of your clients?”
“Yes. Laramie Fisher.”
He thought a moment. “I’ve heard the name. From where?”
“Laramie wrote a rom-com that came out two years ago.”
“Oh, the one with Knox Monroe,” he said, nodding his head. “I remember that. Crisp writing. I enjoyed it.”
“I’ve also sold another screenplay Laramie’s written. It’s in pre-production now. I think it could be his breakout script.”
He glanced at the envelope he held. “What’s this one about?”
“It’s set in a small town. And not a rom-com. It’s a suspense. Two people who dated in high school then parted ways after graduation. Years down the road, the guy comes back to their small town. He’s a serial killer and stalks his former girlfriend while striking in the nearby, surrounding towns, keeping his skills, shall we say, up-to-date.”
Tanner’s wheels were turning already. Shooting in a small town would help the budget. He could even rent a few houses which could serve as the main characters’ homes and shoot a bulk of scenes inside them, as well as using parts of them as the locations for the serial killer’s murders. Hell, the houses could even double as places for him and the leads to bunk.
“You’ve never been associated with anything like this,” Hailey continued. “It would be hard, but George and I think you should cast yourself as the killer.”
“Really?” He was intrigued. “I’ve always been the hero. Playing against type would certainly be unexpected. Okay. Let me read it on the plane and I’ll get back to you.”
“Sounds good,” Hailey said. “You know you can talk it over with George. He’s such a fan of yours. He thinks you can do anything.”
“And you?” Tanner pressed.
Hailey met his gaze. “You’ve really grown as an actor, Tanner. You listen well. You take direction even better. You’ve learned a lot on sets during the past decade. I think you could make something of this. If you decide to pass, though, I already know where I’ll shop the screenplay next.”
He laughed. “Hey, don’t take it away from me just yet. I’ll call you when I land and hopefully, I’ll have an answer for you by then.”
Tanner bent and kissed Hailey’s cheek. “Tell George hello.”
“Enjoy Owens. Recharge and reload. Bye.”
He watched her back out of the hangar and drive off, waving her hand in the air as she sped away. Once again, Tanner mounted the steps and boarded the plane.
“We can go anytime, Ron.”
Returning to his seat, he buckled his seatbelt and removed the script from the envelope, setting his phone in airplane mode.
Midnight in the Shadows by Laramie Fisher
Tanner settled back, script in hand, and began to read.
Two hours later, he read the final page, chills rushing up his spine. He let out a long breath which he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.
Laramie Fisher’s script wasn’t just good.
It was incredible.
The pacing was taut. His descriptions setting up each scene gave him a clear vision of where he would want to take the material. It had one of the bravest heroines he’d ever read, along with one of the most cunning, diabolical serial killers that would ever be brought to screen. Move over, Hannibal Lecter. Harmless-looking Peter Willoughby, with his beguiling smile and non-descript brown hair and eyes was the most vicious monster Tanner could imagine.
And Tanner wanted to play Peter, as well as direct.
“Hey, we’ll be landing in a few,” Ron called out.
He watched out the window as Cox Field came into view. Paris, Texas, was the closest airport with refueling capabilities. Ron would gas up the jet and return to California after a short break. Tanner had already arranged for Billy Stewart, his best friend from high school, to meet him and ferry him to Owens. Billy had remained in their hometown and worked as a plumber, alongside his father.
They descended and touched down. As they taxied along the runway, Tanner took his cell out of airplane mode and called Hailey.
Her first words were, “What did you think?”
“I think you need to tell me where Laramie Fisher lives—because I want to meet him and convince him I’m the only one who can do justice to this screenplay.”
Hailey laughed. “I knew you’d be hooked. I’ll email Laramie and see if he’s willing to meet with you.”
“Can’t you call him? Or text? I want to jump on this, Hailey. I need to do this story.”
She sighed. “You might as well enjoy your weekend, Tanner. Laramie Fisher has made it clear that he doesn’t respond to emails on the weekends. That’s when he does his writing. I assume he has a day job that keeps him pretty busy during the week. And I don’t have a cell number for him. He refuses to talk on the phone. All our transactions occur via email.”
“From what I can tell, my client is a very private, guarded person. You go do your thing. I’ll email Laramie now. Hopefully, he’ll get back to me sometime on Monday, and then I’ll be in touch with you.”
“Do whatever it takes, Hailey. I mean it. I want to direct this film. Work your magic—but get me a meeting. In person. As soon as possible. I’ll pay whatever this guy wants.”
“Will do, Tanner. In the meantime, relax. Enjoy your time with your family. There’s nothing you can do this weekend to speed up the process.”
He sighed. “Just keep me posted, Hailey. Talk soon.”
Tanner hung up. The plane had already come to a halt, so he unbuckled his seatbelt and claimed his duffel bag, slipping the script inside it. Descending the stairs, he saw Ron and the co-pilot stretching their legs.
“I’ll get us refueled, and we’ll be back in the air within the hour,” his friend said. “We’re going to go for coffee and grab some lunch if you want to eat with us.”
He wanted to tell Ron to wait, thinking he might need the plane to get to Laramie Fisher on Monday. But he didn’t want Ron to have to hang around the entire weekend and beyond, especially if the reclusive screenwriter didn’t bother to respond to Hailey’s email for several days. Besides, he could always fly commercial to wherever Laramie Fisher lived.
He was wired, though, and tried to tamp down his excitement. Talking about the script might jinx things. Though Tanner wasn’t superstitious, he wanted to keep this news to himself.
“Sounds good. I’ll text Billy and see where he is.”
He stopped to do so, and his friend said he was about ten minutes outside Paris.
“Billy’ll be here soon. Go enjoy lunch—and Scandinavia.” Tanner wrapped Ron in a bear hug. “Enjoy your vacay. Send me pictures.”
“Of all the blondes? Or the glaciers?” Ron teased.
“Both,” he said, laughing. “Stay in touch, buddy.”
Tanner moved toward the terminal, deciding to wait outside in front of it for Billy. Every nerve he had was firing inside him.
He couldn’t wait to meet Laramie Fisher and convince him that Tanner Haddock was the man meant to direct this film.
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