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Author: Elle James





Two days, over eighteen hours on the road, and finally, she was getting so close to home she could practically taste the lodge pole pine sap in the air.

Penny Jane Baker wanted to feel that warm, welcoming feeling she’d always felt coming home after a long absence—but the knot in her gut wasn’t it.

She wasn’t coming home for a visit; she was slinking back into Eagle Rock, Montana, with her tail between her legs, having failed so completely she didn’t know how to pull herself out of the shithole she’d made of her life.

Her friends had all told her that her boyfriend was a douchebag. They’d seen the signs she’d ignored.

She’d met Derek Roberts her freshman year in college, fallen in lust and quit school to follow him out to Los Angeles, where he’d planned to be the next Chris Hemsworth or Ryan Reynolds.

He’d been convinced he would take Hollywood by storm.

The major problem with Derek was that he’d grown up in the small town of Eagle Rock, Montana. He’d been blessed with good looks and had been the best-looking guy in high school—and he’d known it. He’d also known how to play it.

He may have been the best-looking guy in Eagle Rock, but Hollywood was full of handsome men trying to make it in the movie industry. He’d quickly learned that looks alone didn’t land parts. In fact, being too good-looking had gotten him cut early at casting calls. The longer he’d been in Hollywood, the angrier he’d become.

Derek had scored a few bit parts in commercials, but he had yet to land a television or movie part. He looked good, but his acting was marginal at best.

As soon as Penny had arrived in LA, she’d gotten a job waiting tables at a fancy restaurant. The tips had been good but barely enough to afford the rent they’d paid for their tiny one-bedroom apartment.

Derek had gotten a part-time job as a salesman at a department store. After missing so many days going to casting calls, the store had fired him. He hadn’t cared, stating the job had held him back from pursuing what he was meant to do, and that was acting.

After that, the burden of paying rent, utilities, buying groceries and gasoline had been left to Penny. The more she’d worked, the less Derek did. No matter how many hours she’d worked, she still hadn’t had enough money to meet their basic needs.

She’d worked two jobs, getting up at 4:00 a.m. and working late into the evening six and seven days a week. Meanwhile, Derek had slept in, claiming he needed his rest to look his best for auditions. Those auditions had dwindled the longer they were in LA. The fewer casting calls his agent had sent, the more time Derek spent on the phone haranguing his agent, declaring he was holding him back in his career.

After every disappointment Derek had encountered, he’d taken out his frustration on Penny. She was holding him back. She wasn’t there for him. She wasn’t supporting him. She wasn’t taking care of his needs. She wasn’t smart enough to get a better-paying job than waitressing.

When she’d pointed out to him that she’d quit college when he’d begged her to go with him to LA, he’d blown up, telling her that if she was unhappy in their relationship, she should go home where she could be nobody and do nothing with her small-town attitude and lack of ambition.

She’d pointed out to him that her name was on the lease and utilities and that she was the only one making payments. If she left, he’d have to move out of the apartment and find his own place and pay for all of it himself.

That’s when he’d backhanded her so hard he’d sent her flying across the room. Then he’d blamed her for making him angry enough to hit her.

That had been the first time he’d hit her, but not the last. He’d blamed her for everything wrong in his life, and she’d begun to believe him. There was something wrong with her that made him want to hit her.

After each explosion, he’d brought her flowers the next day, using money from her tip jar to pay for them. She’d needed that money to buy groceries and gas to get to work. He’d promised it would never happen again. He’d broken all those promises.

She’d lived in that vicious cycle for years, thinking maybe if he got a callback, he wouldn’t be so angry, and he’d be the loving Derek she’d fallen for in the first place. And if he got a part, he could help pay the bills, and she wouldn’t be so exhausted all the time.

Earlier that day, he’d gotten an audition for a movie role. It was a good part, one that could launch his career.

Oddly, his agent called her phone, leaving a message on her voicemail. When she had a break from her job as a waitress, she listened to the message. The agent wanted to know how to reach Derek, and could she have him call as soon as possible?

Thinking the agent might have good news, Penny tried calling Derek. As the agent had indicated, Derek wasn’t responding to her attempts to get a hold of him either.

When her shift ended, she returned to her apartment, expecting to find him there.

He wasn’t.

Worse, all the money in her tip jar was gone.

The fact that his agent had called and Derek wasn’t communicating gave Penny a sickening feeling of dread. What had gone wrong at the audition?

He knew it was her only night off. He’d promised to have dinner with her.

Penny tried several more times to call Derek. When he didn’t respond, she called his agent and asked what had happened.

Her heart sank into her stomach as she listened to the agent’s description of the day’s events.

Derek had gone to the casting call, waited outside the room with other candidates and watched as the first man went in and came out. Then the second guy went in. He was in the room for a long time before he finally came out, a grin on his face.

When it was finally Derek’s turn, he’d stood and made his way to the door. The female casting assistant had stepped out. She’d looked at him and the other guys waiting, thanked them for coming and told them the part had been filled.

Apparently, Derek hadn’t taken the dismissal well. He’d cussed out the woman and tried to storm past her into the room. He’d bumped into her hard enough she’d slammed back against the wall.

They’d had to call security to have Derek escorted out of the building. His behavior would be a red flag to any casting director. He’d be blackballed. His agent couldn’t represent him anymore.

Penny apologized to the agent, ended the call and pulled out her suitcases.

Derek would be inconsolable, angry and, most likely, violent.

Her best course of action was to leave. Get out before he came home.

Penny packed all her clothes and personal belongings. As she zipped the cases, Derek entered the apartment, slamming the door open so hard it shook the wall.

When he saw the suitcases, he stormed into the bedroom.

“Where the fuck do you think you’re going?” he shouted.

She lifted her chin and met his blurry-eyed gaze. “Home.”

“Like hell you are.” He ripped open the zippers and dumped the case’s contents onto the floor.

She squared her shoulders. “I’m going home.”

His eyes narrowed. “You want to go back to that Podunk town in god-for-fuckin’-sakin’ Montana? For what?”

“I have family and friends there. People who care about me,” she said.

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