What I needed was an escape, and I needed it to be somewhere no one would think to find me. And that place would be Newberry, Georgia, as I hadn’t returned but once in fourteen years, and that was for my grandmother’s funeral ten months ago. I wasn’t even back in my hometown a full day then. The paparazzi would never look here when they couldn’t find me at my home in Pacific Palisades and instead would be buzzing around either my vacation home in Vail, Colorado, or the getaway condo I kept in Miami. But more than hiding out, what I really needed was some peace and quiet. I needed time to lick my wounds before I ventured back out in the public eye. I could hide myself away at Goodnight House, and if I was lucky, I wouldn’t be found.
But I also felt Newberry calling to me. Over the last few days, I’ve latched on to the good memories of my life here, particularly the first fifteen years of my life before my parents died. I missed the small-town camaraderie and safety of being with my peeps. While I don’t really expect that to be the case now, because I’ve been gone too long and haven’t kept up with anyone, I do imagine just being at Goodnight House will be a balm for my soul.
“Just get yourself in gear and get over here,” Colleen says impatiently. “This problem isn’t going to go away.”
Oh yes it is, I think. At least for a little bit longer while I’m in Newberry. In fact, I might not come back at all. I’ve got more money than I could possibly spend, and the thought of telling Hollywood a big old up yours is very appealing.
“I’m not in Los Angeles,” I tell Colleen, and I hear her gasp.
“Where are you?”
“None of your business. I’m taking some time away for myself and I’m really going to try to figure out what I want to do.”
“What you want to do?” Colleen practically screeches into the phone. “There is no ‘want’ in this industry. You’re under contract to film a movie next month.”
I see the long gravel drive to Goodnight House in the distance flanked by large magnolia trees on each side. I slow down and put my turn signal on, even though there’s no one behind me. “That’s next month. This is now. I’m taking some time off and I’ll let you know when I’ll be back.”
“But Eden—” Colleen starts to argue, but I cut her off.
“For God’s sake, Colleen. I’ve worked my butt off for fourteen years with hardly any time off. It’s been really hard accepting the fact my fiancé cheated on me, I was publicly humiliated, and I’m being made to look like the bad person for it. A little empathy would go a long way here.”
As I turn into the driveway, which to my surprise has been paved since my grandmother’s funeral, I hear Colleen backpedaling. “All right, Eden. Of course, take some time off. Relax. I know it’s been stressful. And when you come back we’ll figure out how to make it work to suit you. Screw Brad, okay?”
“Okay,” I say on a soft laugh. For all of her blustering and pushy ways, Colleen has always had my back. Before I disconnect, I say, “Talk later.”
Tossing my phone into my purse, I bring my car to a stop and stare down the long driveway. It’s lined with massive oaks dating from before the Civil War. Their long, thick branches extend and form a shaded canopy so dense the sunlight can hardly breach it. And at the end of the driveway, I can see Goodnight House. I have a love-hate relationship with it, but as I take in its magnificence and grandeur, I decide to love it for a little bit.
In fact, I’ll love it the entire time I’m here.
The home is a Greek Revival, built in 1860, just before the Civil War started. It was the centerpiece of a massive cotton plantation built with the blood and sweat of slaves. I’m not sure who owned it then, but after slavery was abolished, the owners couldn’t make ends meet with the new sharecropping arrangements they had to make with their former slaves and they went into bankruptcy. The house passed through another set of hands before my great-grandfather Court Goodnight bought it. He was on the lookout for a nice home for his family, as he’d just opened up the South’s largest textile mill a mere seven miles outside of Newberry, and the Goodnights always lived in the best homes.
Yes, my family is wealthy. Textiles was the game and it did well for us. Still does, for that matter.
I lived my entire childhood in Goodnight House, and it was the stuff girls’ dreams are made of, if she has a romantic bone in her body. The house is what every princess dreams of. It’s done in white stucco that’s been restored and stands three stories high. There’s a wide sweeping staircase to the main landing, with wrought-iron balustrades across the long front porch. There are matching full-length balconies on the second and third floors, also bordered with iron. White pilasters extend from the ornate molding at the roofline down to the first-floor porch, and set back on either side of the main area are two rounded wings with balconies on the first, second, and third floors. When my great-grandfather bought the home, he’d had the right side circular wing converted into a two-story master chamber, with the third floor housing a plush library and sitting area to relax.
It was a monstrous house occupied by four people. Me, my mom, my dad, and my grandmother, Valeria Goodnight, although she wasn’t around much. As a perennial globe-trotter, she was gone far more often than she was at home. Valeria Goodnight loved spending her money on extravagant travels, wild adventures, and looking for that next perfect husband. Well, that is until my parents died in a sailboating accident and she was forced to return to Goodnight House to take care of me when I was fifteen. That was a hard three years living with an emotionally distant woman who didn’t like her wanderlust being tampered with. It is, after all, how she met her best husbands.
Coming under my grandmother’s rule was an extremely difficult transition, especially since I was so lovingly close with my parents. They were the type of parents who gave me enough freedom to let me spread my wings, and did so because they believed I had a good head on my shoulders. They trusted me, and I didn’t abuse it. On top of that, my parents were just cool as hell, and funny and warm and everything you’d want a parent to be. I always wanted to be around them. I desperately missed my mom’s southern cooking and the times when my dad and I went fishing. Going from a secure, inclusive, and interactive family environment to a sterile sort of relationship didn’t make for the best years of my life. It’s the main reason I never returned to Newberry after I left except for her funeral.
Stepping on the gas, I start the quarter-mile drive to the house, which grows bigger and bigger the closer I get. The line of oaks ends about a hundred yards from the front of the house, with an expansive green lawn spreading out to the left and right, encompassing about five acres. The entire property is only about forty acres, as much of the land had been sold off, since the Goodnight family didn’t need it for anything other than privacy. Past the lawn area is thick, dense forest that has grown wild, since the land isn’t farmed anymore. There’s a small trail that my father had cleared out that leads down to a bubbling stream, which is an offshoot of the Satilla River that leads out into the Atlantic Ocean about twenty miles east of us.
It’s hard to take my eyes off the house as I turn into the circular driveway that will bring me right to the front steps. The house is so big it’s always made me feel like a little girl, and yet at the same time there’s a level of comfort there that I haven’t felt in a long time. That was the hate part of my relationship with the house . . . it didn’t feel like home once my parents were gone and my grandmother ruled it.
I remember our first Thanksgiving after she’d come to live with me. My mom had always gone all out with the turkey and many different side dishes, plus three different types of pies. I wanted to re-create it, hold that specialness close to me.
“I was thinking if you give me your credit card, I can run to the grocery store tomorrow and get everything we need for Thanksgiving dinner. I can make all of Mom’s favorite recipes,” I’d told my grandmother one day as she drank her morning coffee and I was eating toast and some of my mom’s homemade strawberry preserves.
“I won’t be here,” my grandmother said tersely. “I’m going to fly to New York City for a few days.”
I just stared at her openmouthed. How could she not want to spend Thanksgiving with her granddaughter, who had just lost her parents three months prior?
But I didn’t argue with her, because she was never around, and I didn’t know her all that well. I’d spent that Thanksgiving eating some macaroni and cheese from a box while watching TV in my bedroom.
It was the first of many trips she would take, leaving me home by myself quite a lot. I didn’t mind, though, because she provided me nothing of value. She had no interest in my school activities, and outside of making sure I had money for food, she didn’t think she owed me anything else. She’s quite possibly the coldest person I’ve ever known, and it boggles me how my father could be so loving with her as his mother.
Now that she’s gone, I can open my heart up again to my home.
I stop my rental car, place it in park, and start to open the door, when movement on the west lawn catches my eye. A man on a lawnmower is cutting long strips of grass on the diagonal. I get out of the car, shut the door, and peer harder through my sunglasses. The man is wearing a baseball cap and is too far away to see any details, but I’d recognize the height and brawn of that body anywhere, not to mention the posture infused with confidence bordering on cockiness as he sits atop his John Deere.
I try to ignore the fluttering in my stomach, pretty damn sure its indigestion at the sight of him and nothing else. Our breakup caused a lot of emotional upheaval between the two of us, and while ultimately we parted on friendly terms, we both went our own ways and didn’t look back. I’m not sure why Coop never made any effort to keep in contact with me, but I know I didn’t stay in touch because it was too painful. I didn’t want to be reminded of the wonderful guy I’d left behind on a roll of the dice for my new career.
Since we broke up, I’ve only seen him once, and that was at my grandmother’s funeral, but I didn’t talk to him. I was there for the service out of a sense of duty only and I made a hasty exit back to my car and off to Atlanta to catch the next flight back to LA. At that point, Newberry was as much of a stranger to me as my grandmother had always been, and I felt no affinity for it. I was anxious to leave and get back to the familiarity of Hollywood, which wasn’t always comfortable for me, but at least it I knew what to expect.
I knew Coop was going into the family landscaping business, and since they’ve always maintained our property, it’s no real surprise to see him here now.
As if he senses my stare, his head turns toward me slightly, and I can see the way his body stiffens that he recognizes me as well. I can almost hear the sigh coming from him as he stops the mower, disengages the blade, and then turns it off. He hops down and, when his work-booted feet hit the grass, he takes off his cap briefly to wipe his forehead with the long sleeve of his shirt before putting it back on. It always amazed me how yard crews would wear long-sleeve shirts even on boiling hot summer days to protect their skin. Even so, Coop never had pale arms. He spent plenty of time outdoors, particularly at the beach, working on a great tan.
Coop in board shorts. At the beach. An absolute panty dropper.
Or at least I seem to remember.
As he gets closer, I feel my heart rate start to pick up and my palms begin to sweat. Because I’m wearing sunglasses and I can get away with it, I check him out as he nears. Age seems only to have enhanced his handsomeness. His body has filled out with more muscle and he carries himself with a certain swagger he didn’t have when we were eighteen. Even with his ball cap pulled down, I still get sucked into those aqua blue eyes that seemed to hypnotize me. His hair is a little longer and it curls out from under his baseball cap. His jaw is stubbled as dark as his nearly black hair, and even though he’s only thirty-two, I can even see a few silver hairs glinting in the sun just above his ears. His father has lovely silver at his temples, and I know when that comes in on Coop, he’s going to go from gorgeous to devastatingly beautiful.
Because he’s not wearing sunglasses, I don’t miss Coop’s gaze as he lets it wander down and then up my body. His jaw hardens as he takes in my designer linen pants in lavender with a sleeveless silk blouse in a contemporary print of orange, lavender, and buttercup yellow splotches, all of which is set off by a pair of cream-colored Stuart Weitzman pumps. I reek money and sophistication, and not that it ever bothered Coop back when we were younger, I think it’s a pointed reminder of why we broke up.
“What are you doing here?” he asks gruffly as he comes to a stop in front of me. There is no welcome to his tone and I could be a virtual stranger off the street to him. Let’s face it . . . we spent two wonderful years together and experienced our first love, and then we broke up and haven’t talked to each other in fourteen years. We’re strangers actually.
“Um . . . I . . . well, I came to stay for a bit,” I stammer, because I get a little sidetracked by those blue eyes that are just north of frosty at this moment.
“For how long?” he says curtly.
“I don’t know,” I tell him honestly, a little put off by his tone. “I’m taking an impromptu vacation.”
“And you chose Newberry for that?” he asks suspiciously. “Isn’t that a little dull when you could be jetting off to Paris or something?”
My hackles immediately rise, because I’ve had just about enough of people attacking me lately and that is so untrue, but he wouldn’t know what I like to do anymore. “My vacation plans aren’t any of your business.”
“That’s true,” he says as he leans in toward me. He smells of hardworking man and sweet grass, and that really shouldn’t smell that good to me, but it does. I blink my eyes hard as he adds, “But if you’re staying here in my home, it is my business how long you’re staying.”
I blink again.
“Excuse me?” I ask, and then blink again. “Your home?”
I actually turn my head to look at Goodnight House to make sure I didn’t imagine it being there, and then turn back to look at Coop. He grins like a Cheshire cat. “Yeah . . . my house.”
“This is my house,” I say, although it’s without confidence. He has me rattled.
“Yes, and it’s my house too,” he returns as his eyes glitter with amusement. “And I’m guessing you really didn’t look too hard at your grandmother’s will, or you’d know that.”