“No. Stop.” I lean forward, pulling my arms in, curling into a ball. Suddenly I feel devastated: not just that he’s here, but that he’s a mallet and my love for this project is a precious sheet of glass, and I worry just having him near me is going to shatter it. I love Milkweed so much I don’t want him to say a single thing that ruins it for me. “I don’t care. I don’t. This was the film that was going to really test me; maybe even get me short-listed for awards. This is my shot at something better. Don’t try to tell me about you, or this, or why.”
I feel like I’m going to cry. I take an enormous breath, pushing back the emotion until I feel nothing. I fill myself with nothing but air. It’s been a while since I did this—since I felt this much and needed to tamp it down—but the instinct comes back so easily.
Sam shifts in his crouch, resting a forearm on his knee. He’s wearing a soft, cream Henley, open at the throat. Olive jeans. Boots. I chance a peek at his face again. The comma scar is hidden beneath the beard. He has barely looked away from my face.
“I tried to tell you,” he says. “And I knew it would be hard. So I told the studio heads we might want to go a different direction for casting.”
“Are you serious?” I ask, grateful for the anger rising out of the blankness, stabilizing me. “You told them you didn’t want me as Ellen?”
He exhales and looks at the floor for a beat. “I said we knew each other when we were younger and I wasn’t sure you’d want to take the role. Contractually, I had casting approval. They held firm, though, and I’m glad. I think you’ll be great in it, Tate. I really do. It wasn’t about my preference, it was about yours.”
“How can I have a preference if I didn’t even know there was a choice?”
He frowns. “I emailed you four times.”
Liar. “I never saw anything.”
“I promise: I tried to contact you.”
This is impossible. And it’s impossibly frustrating. I’m caught so off guard, but I don’t have the luxury of working through this with some quiet and a glass of wine. The minute I step out of this cabin I have to be on, I have to be poised. I have to get to work.
I look up at him again, and he attempts a sad smile. His eyes search my expression. In them I see regret, but also so many other things I can’t bother to decipher. It’s so much—too much. He’s still . . . Sam, with the dark green eyes I wanted to fall into, the mouth I kissed until it was red and bruised, the body that felt like a fortress.
“Tate,” he begins, heavily, and I shake my head. Too fast; the room tilts. “God. We have so much to say to each other.”
“We don’t, actually.” You’re a liar and a thief. You stole my shiny innocence, my belief that my first love would be pure and real and good.
And yet he managed to write a masterpiece like Milkweed, with a heroine so strong and brilliant I cried the first two times I read the script, hoping alone, in the privacy of my house that I could be even a tiny bit like Ellen someday. He wrote tenderhearted, unbreakable Richard, and the flawed, loyal William. Sam may be a monster, but every part of this gorgeous script came from his brain. I don’t know how to reconcile the two.
He stands now, sliding his hands into his pockets and bowing his head again. He stares at his feet, shoulders hunched. I’d forgotten how tall he is, how much space he takes up. Physically, yes, but in my memory, in my past—and now, in this room, this set, in my present day, he’s just so present.
He glances at his watch. “Tate.”
“God, stop saying my name.”
“It’s six thirty.”
I close my eyes—hating the weird goose bumps that rise on my skin when he speaks—but as soon as I my lids close, I know I could immediately succumb to the blackness of sleep.
“Should I tell Gwen we need some more time before the table read?”
Eyes flying open, I stand, irate. “Absolutely not.”
He sighs. “This is big, though. I thought you knew. I mean—really? You’re going to go to do the read right now? You look like you’re about to fall over.”
And with the insinuation that I might be delicate or need any help from him, I feel my spine come back together, the muscles reconnecting, my brain zapping awake. I’ve been doing this for nearly a decade and a half. It has also been that long since he used me and ran. I am not the amateur here, and I will not let Sam see me fall apart.
“It’s a shock,” I admit. “And not a good one. But I’m okay. I’ve dealt with bigger problems than having a scumbag ex come onto the set.” It’s a lie, but he winces, so at least I got what I wanted. “Give me five minutes. Tell Gwen I’m on my way and you held me up.” I lift my chin to the door. “And we’re not friends, Sam. Keep away from me.”
WHEN THE DOOR CLOSES my bravery seems to desert me.
“You’re okay. You’re okay. You’re okay.” I repeat the words through gulps of air, willing them to be true. There’s a whooshing in my ears, a pinprick that registers in a dusty, hidden spot in my rib cage.
It was only two weeks of my life, a long time ago, but I loved him. I remember the feeling; it’s still the only time I’ve ever felt it. Maybe this is why I can call it back whenever I need to—though it’s been a long time since I tortured myself that way. And it was easier in some ways not having any photos to pore over. But seeing him here—completely without warning—after not seeing his face for over a decade has me light-headed.