“Okay. Thanks.”

“And if that doesn’t work? Go with plan B.”

Her mother, businesswoman extraordinaire, always had a backup plan. “And what is that?”

“Track him down, tie him up and force him to listen to reason. It helps if you’re naked. And holding beer.”

“Ah, Mom. I don’t think that will work.”

“It sure did with your dad. Good luck, sweetie, keep in touch.”

Ava packed her bag and booked a commercial flight to LA.

“Why am I so nervous?” Ava asked Hannah, two days later.

“I’ll tell you what I think after the audition.” Hannah straightened Ava’s miniskirt for the third time.

“That’s not helping my nerves.” She tried not to think that Chase would know exactly what to say to her to calm her down. The door to the conference room opened and a long-legged blond strolled out. “We’re ready for you, Miss Cooper.”

Ava squeezed Hannah’s hand and followed Corporate Casting Barbie into the conference room. Well, at least this production company didn’t have the clichéd casting couch. Ava chose the chair directly in the middle, across from the desk of the three executives who were too busy on their phones to acknowledge her.

Finally another blonde met Ava’s gaze and smiled coolly. “I’m Nina Beal. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Cooper. I was a huge fan of Miller’s Ridge. Pity it got cancelled.”

“Thank you.”

The man sporting a Groucho Marx mustache peered at her over the top of his glasses. “We’ve cast the two stars of this show. We’re casting secondary characters. The part you’re being considered for is Mamie’s best friend, Sally.”

“Sally is the opposite of our quirky, fun-loving, serial dating, always-finding-man-trouble main character, Mamie,” the other man, who looked like Woody Allen’s younger, nerdier brother, inserted.

So Sally was the stick-in-the-mud sidekick. How fun. “What ages are these characters?”

“Just out of college.” The woman studied Ava openly. “She could pass as twenty-two. If we darkened her hair more.”

“Definitely put a pair of eyeglasses on her.”

The Groucho guy said, “What about brown contacts?”

“Excellent. I’d also suggest taping her chest to downplay the size of it.”

Ava clenched her teeth, but couldn’t maintain a fake smile.

They talked among themselves. Argued. Gestured to her as if she was part of the furniture.

That attitude didn’t used to bother her. But it did now. As an actress, she’d seen herself as a piece of clay. Ready to adapt to the director’s vision. Put the right words in her mouth and she could be anyone. Any time. Any place.

But today the clay comparison didn’t work. Today she felt like a mannequin.

It became very quiet and all eyes zoomed to her. She cleared her throat. “Excuse me?”

“We’re very pleased you agreed to meet with us. Given the issues you’ve faced the last couple months, it’s understandable you’re looking to lose yourself in a new role.”

That comment sent up her red flags.

“Pity your agent couldn’t be here or we could get the details ironed out right now because shooting starts next week.”

This was all kinds of wrong. Enough. She was done.

Ava stood. “Thank you for your time and my agent will be in touch.” She didn’t stop walking until she was through the conference door and standing on the sidewalk.

Hannah snagged her elbow and tugged her around the corner. “Well? Did they offer?”

“Yes, but I don’t want it.” She looked Hannah square in the eyes. “In fact, I don’t want to be an actress at all anymore. There are so many other things I’d rather do with my life.”

“Ava, when did this happen?”

“It’s been building for a while. Don’t tell me the see-all, know-all Hannah missed it?”

Instant skepticism tightened Hannah’s face. “How much of this change has to do with the cowboy?”

“Some.” Ava folded her arms. “But only because he showed me parts of myself that I wasn’t aware of.”

“Such as?”

“I can’t explain it. I feel more like…me, the real me when I’m around him. Everything was better. Freer. I’ve been waiting my whole life to feel that way. And I know he felt the same.” His words, whispered the last night they were together, when he thought she was asleep, haunted her. I love you, Ava Rose. Goddamn, what am I gonna do about you?

“Are you ready to tell me what happened in New York?”

“Chase borrowed my computer and saw the mock-up film I’d started with the footage I’d shot at the rodeos of him and Ryan.”

“Is it over between you two?”

“I hope not. There’s too much…there. Know what I mean?”

Hannah shook her head.

But the too much portion of her comment sent Ava’s thoughts spinning. “That’s it. I have enough footage to make two documentaries. So I could make one without Chase’s image, or approval, not that I want to do that. But if I had something to show him, I could convince him this is a worthwhile documentary.”

“And if he still says no?”

Ava looked Hannah in the eye. “Then I go to plan B.”

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Meanwhile…outside Sundance…

Gavin Daniels turned down the air conditioning in the rental car. The outside temperature, according to the Lexus XLV, hovered around one hundred degrees. Hot for anyone, except a Phoenix native used to seeing the mercury hit one hundred fifteen degrees regularly in the summer months. He appreciated the heat in Wyoming owed nothing to humidity. Hot and dry he could handle. Hot and wet made him want to peel his soggy skin from his bones.

This trip had been a long time coming. If he was the morose type, he might say all his life. His mother—God rest her soul—had encouraged him to take the journey. As much as he loathed the idea of deathbed promises, that’s exactly what he’d done in the days before she’d slipped away forever.

The aftermath of her death was a blur. Grief claimed his attention for several months. After that, he’d dealt with the consequences of neglecting his business while he grieved. Then he’d been waylaid by his daughter’s rubber ball tendency—bouncing to whichever parent offered respite from the other parent. Add in his ex-wife’s histrionics…that was just another reminder of why Ellen was his ex. Didn’t take more than a simple glance at the calendar to know the last eighteen months had been the shittiest time of his life.

When the dust settled, he was faced with the one-year anniversary of his mother’s passing. With that shock came the guilt he hadn’t accomplished the one final thing she’d requested.

Gavin booked a flight into Rapid City. He’d secured a couple nights at a bed and breakfast between Sundance and Moorcroft. Which was quite a feat, according to the information he’d gathered online, because it was the height of tourist season in the Black Hills around Devil’s Tower, a stopping point on the road to Yellowstone. He’d lost track of the number of motor homes and out-of-state license plates he’d passed on I-90.

The female voice on the GPS announced, “Turn left in point one mile. You have reached your destination.”

No going back now. Unless once he saw the turnoff he just kept driving right on past it. As the mailbox entered his line of sight, he realized he was unprepared for any outcome in this situation, be it total exuberance, flat-out denial or complete apathy.

That’s when Gavin admitted to nerves, to trepidation, to betrayal, to an underlying sense of…wrongness. Add in paranoia and he might as well be thinking about the hours leading up to his disastrous marriage. That made him smile briefly, but he sobered when he recognized the sad truth that hope hadn’t surfaced in his emotional turmoil.

When he pulled up to the well-kept ranch house, a couple sat on a porch swing in the shade. Enjoying a normal afternoon. Blissfully unaware.

His heart pounded. Sweat broke out on his brow, yet a clammy feeling slithered down his spine.

The couple stood and started down the steps. Probably wondering what business he had in the middle of nowhere. Probably thinking he was lost.

Gavin ditched his sunglasses and opened the car door. He jammed his hands in the front pockets of his khaki pants, because he didn’t know what else to do with them.

The man and woman were equally wary, stopping five feet from him. Waiting.

For what?

For him to be the first one to speak? To explain?

Near as he could tell, they were the ones who had a helluva lot of explaining to do.

He turned his focus to the man. Probably in his early sixties. He wasn’t tall; he wasn’t short, just average height. Solidly built, not fat, not skinny, not muscular, not wiry, but his carriage and clothing screamed physical laborer. He had a full head of black hair randomly streaked with silver. When Gavin met the man’s eyes, blue eyes identical to the ones staring back at him in the mirror every day, he quickly looked away. Which allowed him to direct his attention to the woman.

Again, she was average height. A little on the plump side. Her hair was short, curly as if she’d recently had a perm, a rich dark brown as if she’d recently colored it. She wore her age more obviously than the man did, crinkly frown lines by her mouth, on her forehead and beside her eyes, as if she’d spent her life worrying. Despite Gavin’s initial judgment of dowdiness, she wore trendy eyeglasses and dressed in a style he’d call country chic. She appeared the type who’d give out hugs, cookies and advice. She didn’t look like the type of woman who’d give away her child.

The man put his arm around the woman’s shoulder. “Something I can help you with?”

“Yes. Are you Charles McKay and Violet Bennett McKay?”

They exchanged a look. “Yes, we are. Who wants to know?”