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Chapter One

“But Daddy, they weren’t mine, I swear!”

Aster Wilder sobbed the words, her big blue eyes mirrored in her father’s face. Zach Wilder had been the darling of Hollywood for almost twenty years. He held a lifetime achievement award, three Oscars and now a document detailing his only daughter’s arrest.

Aster had enjoyed a clean record right up until the moment the police had caught her with a bag of ecstasy in her purse after a night out at one of Hollywood’s most exclusive clubs, the Snake Lounge.

“Are you trying to tell me that wasn’t your purse?”

“It was, but they weren’t my pills.”

Zach’s chiseled good looks were cast in an expression of severe disappointment as he looked at his one and only daughter. Aster wasn’t the typical Hollywood brat, largely because she’d grown up far from those lights on the wholesome plains of Montana. At that very moment with her long toned legs exposed by the short skirt and wearing a slashed tank top, which revealed much of her midriff and a significant amount of her breasts, she did not look particularly wholesome.

Covering her shame, Aster clutched the oversized cardigan her father had given her over her shoulders and chest for some measure of modesty. Clothing which seemed perfectly respectable at a club was suddenly outrageous in the light of day.

“You have to believe me,” she implored, sniffing away some of the tears which had been falling more or less non-stop since her arrest. The night had turned from an exciting celebration of an achievement she’d always dreamed of to a nightmare in which she was fingerprinted and photographed in a most unflattering light and then put into a cell, an actual filthy dirty cell which smelled of urine and despair.

“You’re not even supposed to be in the city.” Her father glowered down at her. “You’re supposed to be at school.”

“We’re finished for the year. I just—”

“You just disobeyed me and came to Los Angeles and auditioned for a film. Without telling me. And now you expect me to believe that the pills you were caught with, and the resulting mug shot which is in every magazine in the county aren’t yours?” He shook one such magazine at her and she saw herself, smoky eyed and sad looking, her blue eyes staring out of her heart shaped face framed with long dark hair, her pretty bow lips downturned with despair. A small part of her could not help but notice how good she looked even in a distraught and disheveled state. It was a very small part of her however, she was mostly horrified and ashamed of the turn her night had taken. Completely overwhelmed, Aster buried her face in her hands and sobbed.

“You’re going back to Montana in the morning,” her father informed her. “And you’re going to stay there.”

Those words made Aster pull her hands away from her tear stained cheeks. “But I got a part! I’m Serena. I play the lead’s best friend.”

“I don’t care if you’re playing King Kong,” Zach growled. “No daughter of mine is going to be involved in this business.”

“I’m not a child anymore. I’m twenty-four!”

“I don’t care how old you are. You’re my daughter. And you’re in trouble. How long have you been in LA?”

“A week.”

“One week and you’ve managed to get yourself arrested,” he sighed. “This is why I never wanted you here. This town is toxic, Asty.”

Aster could have argued that she was a mature woman with a graduate degree and her father didn’t need to worry about her anymore, but that rang hollow considering the charges pending.

Just as Zach was starting in on her again, a police officer was ushered into their presence. “Mr Wilder, we have some further information on the case,” he said in response to their quizzical looks.

“Yes? What is it?”

“We’re dropping the charges. It seems that one of the photographers at the scene took a picture of someone slipping the bag into her purse.” The officer looked at Aster blankly. “Apologies, Miss Wilder.”

“See, Daddy!” Aster looked up at her father. “I told you they weren’t mine.”

Her father did not seem in any way appeased by the news. He continued lecturing his daughter while the police officer slipped back out of the room, swiping an ashtray as he went. It would no doubt appear on an online auction site at some point.

“That’s not the point here, Aster. The point is you came here in secret against my wishes. You put yourself in harm’s way. You’re not used to how things work here. You don’t understand how far people will go to tear someone like you down, even though you’re completely innocent.”

There was real concern in his voice and Aster knew that he was just trying to protect her as he had always done. Her existence had been a secret for the first thirteen years of her life, until a nosy journalist had tracked her father down at the Montana ranch and blown their idyllic life to pieces with an expose on Zach Wilder’s ‘secret’ family.

“But Daddy, I was good. I got the part. They want me to fly to New Zealand and start shooting next week.”

“No,” he said firmly. “That is not happening.”

“You can’t stop me.”

“Oh yes I can, young lady.”

With tears of frustration in her eyes, Aster knew that it was true. Her father could get her fired with a text message if he wanted to.

“Please,” she said, looking up at him with imploring eyes. “It’s not even going to be in Hollywood. It’s New Zealand. You always said I should travel.”

“Travel, not appear in movies,” he grunted. She could see him relenting. Her father had never been terribly good at saying no to her. There had been a lot of times in her life where he hadn’t been around due to hectic work commitments and as a result she had been more than a little spoiled in some ways.

“Please, Daddy?” She batted her eyelashes at him.

“On one condition,” he said, relenting just as she had hoped that he would. “You are going to have security with you around the clock. You need someone making sure that you’re safe. What if those people had decided to slip pills into your drink and not your bag?”

“Thank you!” She squealed the word, jumped up and wrapped her arms around her father’s neck.

* * *

Aster spent the better part of the day and the next night catching up on her sleep. Her legal ordeal had left her exhausted, and it seemed that all anyone wanted to talk to her about was the arrest. She took to her bed until a new day dawned and her father summoned her via the maid.

Having dressed in the sort of attire that would reassure her father with its modesty and brushed her hair out so her sleek black locks fell around her shoulders in a muted halo, Aster made her way to her father’s private balcony. There she found him and another man deep in conversation. It ended abruptly as she made her appearance.

“Hi, Daddy,” she said, crossing to kiss her father’s cheek. “You wanted to see me?”

“This is Owen Upham,” her father said, indicating the man standing next to him. “He’s a bodyguard, and he’s from New Zealand originally, so he will be able to keep you safe while you’re there.”

Owen was not what Aster had expected. She was used to security being comprised of extremely large taciturn men. Owen was not extremely large. He was tall at a bit past six foot, and he was well built, but not to the extraordinary scale of the usual armed muscle. He seemed to be in his mid thirties, judging by the crinkles around his dark brown eyes and he had the slightly weathered look of an ex-military man. Aster had met a few veterans in the course of her studies, and she recognized the signs in Owen, the excellent posture, the lingering air of restrained respect, the faint air of an acquaintance with danger. He had dark curling hair cut in a rakish fashion, which put her in mind of a modern day Regency gentleman. His eyes flashed with warmth and his mouth was wide, ready to smile. Her first impression of him was very appealing.

“Nice to meet you, Aster,” he said, speaking with a drawl that was foreign and yet not. She was quite charmed by his accent, which seemed to be a blend of many different accents. She could hear traces of English, a large dash of American tones, and a European twang to boot.

“Is that how New Zealanders talk?”

“Kiwis tend to lose their accents fairly easily,” Owen said with a heart-wrenchingly broad smile. “And I’ve been traveling for a while, so...” he shrugged.

“I want you to follow any instructions Owen gives you to the letter,” her father interjected. “You’re to do as he says.”

Aster felt a faint blush rising to her cheeks. It was so embarrassing to be lectured like that in front of the handsome bodyguard.

“Mr Wilder,” the butler said, making a smooth appearance. “There is an urgent matter which demands your attention.”

“Excuse me,” her father said. “You two get to know one another.” He went to attend to business, leaving Aster and Owen alone together on that balcony.

“So,” she said. “What’s New Zealand like?”

He smiled faintly as he looked at her. “It’s nice,” he said. “You’ll like it.”

Something in his tone suggested that she was going to like more than just New Zealand. There was intimacy in every syllable, so she fancied. Or maybe she just wanted there to be intimacy. Owen excited her on a level not many men reached, and he’d managed to do it in just a matter of minutes and a few words. There was something about him, something that clicked deep inside.

“I hear it’s very beautiful.”

“It is.”

Hardly sparkling conversation, but Aster didn’t mind. Men of action didn’t speak a lot, she figured. Academics tended to talk non-stop and actors, well, they were acting almost all the time.

“I’m sorry about my father,” Aster said, toying with one of the folds of her skirt. “He’s so... I don’t even know.”

“He cares about you, that’s all,” Owen said. “It’s good to have a dad that cares.”

“It would be good to have one that noticed I’m not a little girl anymore.”

Owen didn’t say anything. He didn’t seem overly conversational, which Aster wasn’t used to. Most men went out of their way to engage her in conversation. Those that didn’t were usually shy, but Owen didn’t seem shy, he just seemed too laid back to worry too much about her concerns.

“Little girls do tend to complain about their dads,” he eventually commented.

Aster’s jaw dropped as she scowled at him furiously. “That’s rude.”

“Is it?” Owen seemed mildly surprised. “It’s true.”

“It’s like you’re saying I am some... girl.”

“I’m not saying anything,” he replied. “I’m just saying I didn’t have a problem with how your father set things out. It’s easier to have an obedient client.”

Obedient client. There was something in the way he said those words that made Aster want to squirm where she stood. Owen did not seem similarly affected by her. He leaned against the railing, his eyes scanning the horizon and the gardens below before flicking back to her with caramel warmth. He really did have the most beautiful eyes, when the sun caught them they seemed almost gold in color. Aster found herself staring at him with a kind of nervous incredulity.

“I’m not planning on being an obedient client,” she informed him. “Once I get to New Zealand, I’m going to live my life as I see fit.”

“That’s going to make things interesting for the both of us,” Owen replied. He didn’t seem concerned by her assertion. He seemed very sure of himself, so much so that Aster wondered precisely what he and her father had been discussing before her arrival. She decided it was time to put the bodyguard in his place so he knew precisely where he stood with her.

“My father might think of me as if I’m still in pigtails,” she said. “But I won’t tolerate you treating me as anything less than a respected client, understand?”

“I will always treat you with the utmost respect, Miss Wilder,” Owen reassured her.

She nodded. “Good,” she said stiffly. “I’m glad that we understand one another.”

That said, she turned and left Owen on the balcony. It would have been nice to have further conversation with him, but clearly some professional distance was required where he was concerned.

* * *

She was aware of Owen following her throughout the rest of the day, but he kept a respectful distance and he did not interfere with her plans, which were to meet one of her old friends for a quiet drink down on the strip.

“Oh my god,” Sarah said. “I can’t believe you got arrested!” Her voice rose to an excited pitch as she shoved another magazine in Aster’s face. “At least you look good in the mug shot. Pouty. That’s cute.”

Aster smiled a little. Sarah’s infectious enthusiasm for practically everything was hard to avoid being affected by. The seriousness of the evening’s events and the fallout thereof was starting to fade away in the intensity of Sarah’s glee.

“And you have a part in a movie,” Sarah shook her head. “I’m so jealous. I could just punch you in the face.”

That was merely an expression. Sarah would not have punched someone if they had paid her to. She was a delicate little thing with wide doe eyes and a very successful career as a catalog model. They had known one another in Montana as teenagers, but Sarah had moved out to Hollywood years earlier. It was nice to see her again.

“We have to have drinks,” she said. “Drinks for days.”

Aster agreed to Sarah’s plan and for a few minutes, all was well. They enjoyed their drinks and Aster enjoyed soaking in Sarah’s admiration. Seeing herself through Sarah’s eyes was quite a relief, because Sarah had no idea how terrible the whole event had been. To her it was just a funny anecdote, something to laugh over.

“I think that guy is checking you out,” Sarah said suddenly. “He’s hot.”

Aster turned, following Sarah’s eye line. It culminated in the figure of Owen in the mid-distance.

“Oh,” Aster said. “He’s not. He’s just the bodyguard my father is insisting follows me everywhere now.”

“Really?” Sarah grinned broadly. “Let’s go say hello.”

“I’d rather not,” Aster said, sipping her cocktail. “He’s a bit weird.”

“He doesn’t look weird,” Sarah said. “I’m going to say hello.”

With no way to stop her friend, Aster watched as Sarah sashayed across to Owen and began chatting with him.

He seemed to enjoy Sarah’s attentions. And why not? Sarah was adorable. Aster couldn’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy though. It wasn’t often she was upstaged by another woman, especially not one of her own circle.

“Oh my god, you’re Aster Wilder!” A shrill voice to her left heralded the beginning of the end.

Aster wasn’t used to being recognized. Then again, she also wasn’t used to having her picture splashed across television, print and the internet. She realized that behind the woman who had recognized her there were a half dozen more people staring at her, and beyond that, several paparazzi with cameras. For a moment, she wondered why they were there. Then she realized it was all on her account.

Simultaneously a little scared and annoyed, Aster glanced around at Owen and Sarah. They weren’t where they had been at the bar. A spike of panic rose in Aster, but a moment later she felt someone touch her elbow. It was Owen, guiding her up from the chair as the paparazzi surged forward, sensing blood in the water.

“Aster!” Someone yelled her name. “How high are you right now?”

The question made her screw her face up. A second later a flash went off, immortalizing her expression for all time.

Aster did not think of herself as being a particularly volatile or aggressive person. Then again, she had never been surrounded by what seemed to her to be human jackals of one kind or another, snickering photographers crowding her unbearably.

“Aster! Is it true you’re addicted to crack cocaine?”

“Aster! Will you be going to prison for these charges?”

“Aster!”

“Aster!”

“Aster!”

Aster never thought she’d be sick of the sound of her own name, but if she heard it again she was fairly certain that she was going to do something she’d probably regret. This was a far cry from the hallowed academic halls of Woolridge College where she had done her postgraduate work. There people knew her only as a top student and a respected academic adviser.

It was all much too much, more than any reasonable person could ever be expected to bear. Her most embarrassing moment had become a matter for public consumption and now she was to be hounded every time she stepped out in public.

Her drink was in her hand one moment and flying at a paparazzi’s camera the next. Owen grabbed at her arm, but it was too late. The drink had smashed into the lens, eliciting excited cries from all and sundry. Flashes went off in a cacophony of light, nearly blinding her as strong arms wrapped around her waist and lifted off her feet. She was carried to relatively safety in Owen’s arms, taken to a nearby SUV and put inside with a hard swat to her bottom.

“Ow! What the hell?” Squealing indignantly, Aster rounded on Owen. In the confined space of the car she found herself practically nose to nose with him as she rubbed her bottom and scowled furiously. “What did you do that for?”

“You shouldn’t be throwing things,” Owen informed her.

Aster threw her hands up. “Did you hear what they were saying to me?”

“It doesn’t matter what they say to you. That’s why they say those things, so you lose your temper.”

Her glare became more intense. “So, what do you care? It’s not your problem.”

“You’re my problem,” he said in that laconic drawl which belied his intensity. He sat back and started talking to the driver, ignoring Aster. The windows of the SUV were tinted which protected her from the cameras, but not from the general commotion. She could hear the hubbub and clamor outside clear as day.

Her phone rang and she answered it.

“Oh my god,” Sarah squealed. “That was hilarious. You are going to be in all the magazines tomorrow too. They’re already talking about your meltdown.”

Aster covered her eyes with her hand and shook her head. This was not good. This was not good at all. For years she’d smugly judged the young women of Hollywood for being complete hot messes. It had taken less than a week to turn into one of them herself.

Her phone rang again, call waiting beeping through Sarah’s glee.

“I have to go, Sarah, someone else is on the line. It’s probably my father wanting to kill me.”

“Good luck,” Sarah giggled as she hung up.

It was not Aster’s father on the phone. It was Dirk Wendigo, the director of the film. “Aster, baby,” he said in energized tones. “You have to pace yourself.”

“I’m so sorry,” Aster apologized. “It’s... none of it is what it looks like.”

“It’s great for the movie,” Dirk boomed. “But leave it a little closer to launch.”

Simultaneously effulgent and cynical, there was not one jot of genuine concern in Dirk’s tone. Much like Sarah, he seemed to find the whole thing hilarious. There were only two people not taking any delight in recent events, Owen – and her father.

Owen was sitting in alert silence next to her. She still hadn’t processed the fact that he’d struck her. Smacked her ass none too gently, in fact.

“When I tell my father what you did, he’s going to tear you up,” she promised Owen after hanging up from Dirk. “You laid your hands on me. You hit me.”

“I gave you a little smack,” Owen told her. It was worse when he spoke, when he looked at her with those maddeningly calm eyes and just stated facts such as they were. “You were getting out of hand.”

“Out of hand? I was the one being harassed. None of that was my fault.”

“You didn’t have to throw anything.”

Frustrated almost to the point of tears both by the passage of events and her own annoyance with herself, Aster felt her temper rising all over again. Owen was sitting there all smug and silent, passing casual judgment on her. Who the hell was he?

“I don’t need your opinion,” she snapped. “Your job isn’t to tell me how to behave.”

“Actually, it is,” Owen disagreed. “It’s my job to keep you safe, which is difficult if you throw glasses at everyone who annoys you. You escalated the situation.”

“I escalated the situation?” Aster’s voice rose to a high squeal. “I’ll show you what escalating a situation is.” She grabbed the nearest thing to hand, which happened to be a can of soda sitting in the cooled cup holder. She held it high behind her shoulder, ready to launch it. At what, she did not know, all she knew was that she was such a mess of nerves and upset that she needed to get some of those feelings out somehow.

Owen nailed her with his golden brown gaze. “Put that down.” All of a sudden, he didn’t sound so laid back anymore. All of a sudden he sounded clipped and authoritarian.

“No,” Aster said. “I can do what I want.”

He didn’t bother with any further discussion on the matter. He reached out with one long arm, took the soda can and Aster’s hand with it and drew it down. Aster found herself pulled unceremoniously across her bodyguard’s thighs as she struggled to keep a hold of her soda.

“Let it go.” He was back to that drawl, which seemed tinged with a touch of amusement. And why not? He had her sprawled across his lap in a position, which wasn’t precisely sexual, but was undeniably intimate.

Aster didn’t let the can go. A part of her knew she was being silly, but another, much more powerful part didn’t want to lose another battle. If she could just keep a hold of the can, maybe she would have some shred of control.

She felt a sudden blaze of heat flash across her bottom as his palm caught her cheeks. This time it was no simple swat. This time it was a hard smack, which made her gasp with pain and outrage. It hurt. It hurt very much, the tingling echoes and the sting sinking through her bottom for seconds after it landed.

Springing up from his lap, Aster looked at him with wide eyes, her mouth open in an expression of shocked surprise. “What was that!”

“Put your seat belt on,” Owen said calmly as if nothing had happened. “I’m taking you home.”

 


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