THE ringing of the phone pulled Anthony out of a deep sleep, and he fumbled around for a moment, slapping at the top of the bedside table until he managed to find his cell phone. He answered more by instinct than anything else, and without opening his eyes, he held the phone against his ear. “What?”
“Are you still asleep?” The voice of Janice, his personal assistant, sounded both exasperated and unsurprised. “Damn it, Anthony, you have to catch a flight to San Francisco in less than three hours. Or did you forget that fundraiser at Berkeley tonight?”
“No, I didn’t forget.” With a groan, he hauled himself into a sitting position, and then he stared blearily at the bedside clock. “God, it’s noon. Why didn’t you call me earlier?”
Janice sighed with long-suffering patience. “Because I thought you’d be up by now. Or perhaps still up, I should say. Just make that flight, okay? I sent your boarding pass to your phone, and your suit bag and carry-on are hanging in the entry closet. All you have to do is catch the plane.”
“Thanks, Janice. What would I do without you?”
“You’d probably end up dead with the gruesome details covered by tabloid TV for weeks,” she replied tartly. “Now are you going to get in the shower, or do I have to come over there and bathe you myself?”
That made Anthony chuckle. Janice was in her forties and incredibly efficient, and she often treated him like a child without any sense. But he knew he’d never manage his schedule without her help, and moreover, she was happily married and completely uninterested in him—which was fortunate on several different levels.
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, his brain finally starting to function. “Anything else before I go? Dragons to slay? Damsels to rescue?”
“Yeah, one more thing: happy birthday, boss. And here’s to many more.”
Anthony froze. “Thanks,” he said stiffly, and then he ended the call. He’d managed to ignore the approaching milestone for the most part, although whenever he did think about it, he felt nothing but dread. For a man in an industry where youth and looks were worshipped with fanatical devotion, the approach of his fiftieth birthday had seemed almost like the end of the world.
Obviously the world hadn’t ended, but Anthony definitely didn’t feel like celebrating. He hauled himself out of bed and made his way to the bathroom, deciding to focus on doing what he needed to do instead. Shower, shave, dress, catch his flight. Maybe if he ignored the date, he could pretend it wasn’t really happening.
Staring at his reflection in the mirror, however, he couldn’t help but look at himself with a critical eye. His bronzed skin was still firm, even without any surgical assistance. His jaw was still square, and his eyes were still the intense blue that had been one of the keys to him getting some of his earliest roles. He had the kind of strong, masculine face that held a universal appeal, and casting directors hadn’t hesitated to select him for characters who needed to appear striking on screen. Fortunately, he could also act, and so he progressed quickly from secondary parts to leading roles. He’d gotten a huge break when he was cast as the lead in an teen comedy-drama that had been an unexpected box-office smash, which had in turn led to him being offered the role of a hero in a blockbuster action-adventure film. That movie had spawned three sequels in ten years and put him firmly on Hollywood’s “A” list. Anthony Davis had become a star.
A star whose dark hair now had noticeable gray at the temples, he thought sourly. Who had to work out for at least two hours every day to keep the physique he needed to make sure directors wouldn’t pass him over for a younger star. Who didn’t have nearly as glamorous a lifestyle as most people probably thought, since he was well aware of what late nights and heavy drinking could do to a man’s looks. Anthony wasn’t stupid, and he’d worked far too hard and sacrificed too much to get where he was now.
Rich, famous, admired, and completely alone, a little voice in his head whispered to him, and Anthony turned away from the mirror with a snarl. He’d been having that particular thought more frequently in the past year, but he refused to allow himself to dwell on it. He was exactly where he’d always wanted to be. He had done everything he’d set out to do, hadn’t he? And if he had ended up without anyone to share it with, well, that was just the price he had to pay.
IT SAID something about Cal Berkeley, Anthony thought, that they didn’t hold fundraisers just anywhere. This one was in the rooftop garden of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, with some of the finest sculpture of the past century on display for the guests to examine and talk about as they sipped Dom Perignon and nibbled on caviar and truffles. Anthony knew he should be grateful that they’d gone to so much trouble for an event at which he was the guest of honor, but the cultured surroundings and stylishly clad guests seemed more like the set of a movie than real life. It was a disconcerting feeling, and Anthony sipped his champagne and wished for the night to be over.
“Mr. Davis! So glad you could make it!” The note of gushing enthusiasm in the female voice addressing him was all too familiar, and he pasted on his movie-star smile as he turned to face her. “I’m Dr. Benton, chair of the Theater Department,” she added, which perhaps explained why her clothes, while elegant, seemed more costume-like than her peers.
“Dr. Benton, I’m so pleased to meet you,” Anthony said, taking her hand and raising it to his lips in an old-fashioned gesture he’d discovered most women loved. “I must thank you for having me as your guest of honor; I hope my presence helps to raise the money you need.”
“Please, call me Olivia,” she replied, practically giggling like a schoolgirl as she seemed to melt under the rays of his charm. “Believe me, your presence here has done wonders! We’ve never had such high attendance or such generosity from our guests. We’ll be able to fund more scholarships than we expected this year.”
“I’m very glad, especially since I was a scholarship student myself,” he replied, still smiling.
Maybe coming hadn’t been a complete waste of time after all, even though few people had spoken to him after the obligatory introduction by the head of the alumni foundation and his short speech. He’d had that happen before, of course. People tended to be nervous around him, and they either gushed over him or avoided him with uncomfortable smiles. He was used to it, and it had never really bothered him. Until now.
“But you’re well past those days.” She offered a bright, flirtatious smile, and her gaze turned coy. There was no ring on her left hand, and warning bells started going off in his head. “You’ve become one of our department’s greatest success stories.”
This was another part of his life—or at least what the public knew of his life—that sometimes came back to haunt Anthony. He’d never been interested in women, but unfortunately, making it big sometimes required one to be a brilliant actor off-screen as well. Things were changing, thankfully, but when Anthony had started his career, it had been in his best interest to keep his preferences to himself. And now… now it seemed far too late, and maybe too pointless, to come out. Now he could never be sure if a partner wanted him for himself or merely for the fame and fortune he had attained.
“I do want to be a credit to my alma mater,” he said, hiding his dismay at her flirtation behind his familiar public mask. “Unfortunately, I need to go soon—acting commitments, you know. Is there anyone I should talk to before I leave?”
She appeared disappointed, but she nodded gamely. “The chancellor is here, if you haven’t met him yet, and some faculty from other departments have joined us. I’m sure some of our graduate students would love to meet you too,” she added hopefully. “It would be such an inspiration for them to see a living success story.”
“Well, I’m not Gregory Peck, but I’ve been fortunate to enjoy some breaks,” Anthony replied. He’d like nothing better at the moment than to get the hell out, since he couldn’t seem to shake the oddly disconnected feeling he’d had all day, but there was no reason to act like a diva when the situation didn’t warrant it. He’d always despised the rudeness of some of his colleagues, and pissing people off without cause was certainly not the way people tended to become stars. “Would you mind introducing me, then?”
“Of course not!” Olivia jumped at the chance eagerly, and she took his arm as she steered him toward the rail, where two men were standing.
The man facing Anthony and Olivia as they approached was an older, distinguished gentleman with silver hair and a neatly trimmed beard; the other man had his back to them, but Anthony couldn’t help but notice his broad shoulders, nicely accented by his fitted tuxedo jacket.
The older man observed their approach and smiled. “Well, if it isn’t our guest of honor. I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. Davis. I’ve seen several of your films.” He held out his hand, and Anthony took it. “I’m Dr. Wilson, chancellor of the university.”
“Pleased to meet you, sir,” Anthony said.
As Anthony shook hands with the chancellor, the broad-shouldered man turned.
“Hello, Anthony.” A soft, deep, and achingly familiar voice made him freeze with shock, and when he whirled, he found himself staring into a pair of warm brown eyes. “It’s been a long time.”
Almost thirty years, Anthony thought dazedly, and yet it seemed like Rob had scarcely changed. Or maybe it was Anthony’s memories superimposing themselves over his vision. All he knew was that Rob Harrison was standing there, looking even better than he had back in college. His light-brown hair was lightly threaded with silver, and there were laugh lines at the corners of his eyes, but he was still lean and fit, and fortunately, there was no trace of lingering anger or recrimination in his eyes as he smiled a welcome at Anthony.
For the first time in living memory, Anthony was speechless. Of course, it wasn’t every day that he was confronted with the specter of the person who was, quite literally, the one who’d gotten away.
Rob had been two years behind Anthony, but from the moment he’d first seen Rob, Anthony had been smitten. He’d begun a discreet pursuit, but Rob had been resistant, which had only made Anthony try harder. Rob continued to put him off, telling him firmly, “I don’t date dicks,” which had brought Anthony up short. He’d never thought of himself as a dick, only as highly focused and driven, but apparently Rob saw him in a different light than he saw himself. Finally, Anthony wore him down, and Rob agreed to a single date, but something came up, and Anthony didn’t show. Rob had never given him another chance after that.
Aware that the others were looking at him, Anthony called on his training to come to his aid. He smiled politely, hoping his emotions hadn’t been plain to everyone. “It’s nice to see you again, Rob,” he replied. “You’re looking well.”
“Thanks.” Rob’s smile widened, and he gave Anthony an unabashed once-over, his gaze frankly admiring. “So are you.”
The light in Rob’s eyes ignited a pool of heat in Anthony’s stomach, a feeling he hadn’t had in a long time—perhaps not since the last time he’d looked at Rob. He’d worked with plenty of attractive men, and he’d had a few very discreet liaisons over the years, but they’d all been passing flings, nothing lasting or real. No one had ever been able to melt him with a single glance the way that Rob had so easily.
“Thanks,” he said, unable to keep his voice from deepening in response. “I’d heard you got your doctorate and joined the faculty. Are you enjoying teaching?”
“Yes, although I don’t teach as much as I used to,” Rob replied. “I’m the assistant chair in the School of Education now, so I do more administrative work than teaching for the time being.”
“Ah. Congratulations.” It surprised him a bit that Rob would choose an administrative position over interaction with students. He’d always been passionate about teaching, but people changed, and it had been a long time.
“It’s temporary,” Rob said, flashing a wry smile at the chancellor, who appeared amused. “I’d rather be in the classroom, but they needed my organizational skills with the course scheduling.”
“I see.” Anthony grinned, somehow relieved that Rob’s desire to teach hadn’t dimmed. Too many things could turn out to be disappointments, and he hated the thought of Rob’s passion being dimmed by dissatisfaction with his chosen profession. “It would be a loss to the students.” He looked at the chancellor as well. “Rob tutored me in Shakespeare. If I can confess a dark secret, I was not a fan of the Bard at first. I preferred more modern work. I would have failed the course if he hadn’t helped me learn to appreciate the classics.”
“Anthony is the reason I realized I was born to teach,” Rob said dryly, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. “I figured if I could help him pass, I could teach anyone.”
But before Anthony could respond to that zinger, another man approached their group, slid his arm around Rob’s waist with easy familiarity, and bent to brush a kiss to Rob’s cheek.
“I didn’t think we’d really get to socialize with the rich and famous,” the man said, turning a friendly smile on Anthony.
“Anthony and I knew each other in college,” Rob explained. “Anthony, I’d like you to meet my partner, Ben Collins. Ben, this is Anthony Davis.”
“Nice to meet you.” Ben offered his hand, and Anthony shook it, noting a lack of alpha male posturing.
Great. Ben was tall, blond, gorgeous, and nice. Anthony hated him at once.
It wasn’t fair, and it wasn’t right. Anthony knew that, and he felt like a complete jerk, but he couldn’t help it. Ben had Rob. He had everything Anthony didn’t.
That was when it hit him like a punch in the gut. His money, his fame, everything he had… they didn’t mean a damned thing. He lived an artificial life in an artificial world. It didn’t matter if he was in front of the camera or not; he was playing a role either way. For thirty years, there hadn’t been anything in his life that was real. He’d achieved the success he’d always dreamed of—that everyone dreamed of—but it meant nothing. He realized with horrifying clarity that when he was gone, nothing he’d done would matter in the slightest.
None of which was Rob’s fault, or Ben’s. Putting on the performance of his life, Anthony managed to dredge up a smile from somewhere. “Nice to meet you too,” he murmured, unable to move his gaze from the sight of Ben’s arm around Rob’s waist. They obviously didn’t have to hide anything from judgmental eyes. Or maybe they just didn’t care what anyone thought.
But while the two of them appeared at ease with each other, their relationship comfortable and warm, there were none of the sparks like Anthony remembered feeling between himself and Rob, and Rob’s eyes didn’t ignite with dark fire when he looked at Ben as they once had when he looked at Anthony.
“Well, I’m sure you’ve got more schmoozing to do,” Rob said, although there was a note of reluctance in his voice, and his gaze lingered on Anthony with what seemed to be wistful yearning. “We shouldn’t keep you.”
For one wild moment, Anthony wondered what Rob would do if he reached out to him and offered to take him away. Would Rob do it? Would he leave everything to be with Anthony? But Anthony knew the answer already in his heart. If Rob had considered him a jerk thirty years ago, his opinion probably hadn’t changed much. Rob was straightforward and honest, and he’d never do anything as despicable as abandon his partner—his gorgeous, nice partner—for Anthony.
“Actually, I should be going,” he said, giving them all a bright, impersonal smile. He couldn’t let anyone see that his whole world had come tumbling down around his ears. That was the first rule for actors: no matter what, the show must go on. “Thank you all for a wonderful evening.”
He couldn’t help pausing for a moment, just looking at Rob. A slight wind had risen, tousling Rob’s hair, and Anthony fixed the picture in his mind, wanting to keep it with him forever. He couldn’t see Rob again, not ever; he didn’t think his heart could take it.
Turning around and walking away from Rob was one of the most difficult things he’d ever done in his life, but he managed it by the expedient of putting one foot in front of the other. He didn’t stop moving until he’d reached the door back into the museum, but when he did, he couldn’t help turning and glancing back to where Rob still stood with the others. The skyline of the city stretched out behind Rob, and Anthony’s gaze was caught by a sudden flash of light above. A shooting star blazed across the sky, a streak of fire that somehow seemed like an omen.
Actors were a superstitious lot, even those who disdained it publicly, and Anthony was no different. Wishing upon a star was silly and childish, but he did it anyway, with all the yearning of a heart that had taken thirty years to realize it was broken.
“I wish I had another chance,” he murmured, his gaze irresistibly drawn back to Rob. “I wish he was mine.”
Then he turned and left, putting foolish wishes behind him. He’d made his choice, and nothing in this world could ever make it the right one.