The Annealing of Aliza Bennett
by Emma Hartley
Aliza Bennett is a multifaceted, self-destructive, quirky actress with a major self-esteem problem and a troubled past. After a devastating and abusive relationship shattered her emotionally, Aliza takes a job filming a TV show on location in a tiny East Coast town, far away from her troubles in LA. When she starts to fall for her co-star, Jesse Black, she must challenge her instinctual flight response, a battle she nearly loses.
Despite its turbulent start, Aliza and Jesse's relationship finally starts to gain some momentum. Jesse is kind, sarcastic, and sexy, yet Aliza has a hard time trusting her feelings for him. Meanwhile, her ex-boyfriend Cameron’s intense jealousy and continued harassment threaten to destroy any gains she makes.
When Aliza survives an act of violence at Cameron’s hands, she questions whether she will ever find a way forward. Can Jesse help her heal and learn to love again?
Release Date: September 11, 2018
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Sometimes the jeweler starts with a sketch, sometimes only with raw metals, sometimes with stones which may drive the ultimate form, imbuing it with meaning. This time, however, she starts with a word, incubating it in her heart like a fragile humming bird egg, tiny yet brimming with possibility. She rolls it off her tongue during silent moments, like a mantra, allowing it to center her, praying it brings the peace it seems to promise.
Jesse Black had never experienced a worse flight. Now that he was safely on the ground, he could contemplate with clarity what a true horror the redeye had been. Between the near constant turbulence, intense enough to feel like a roller coaster, and the persistent, borderline obsessive thoughts of his break-up with Grace only hours before, it was all he could do to keep from swearing out loud and muttering to himself like a crazy person. Wouldn’t the tabloids have a field day?
He had ruminated for hours as he passed over the Rockies, then past the faded patchwork of the Midwest, dawn a distant glimmer on the eastern horizon. Replaying the break-up over and over in his mind, he wondered why he hadn't seen it coming. Because I'm stupid. All the signs were there. He couldn't have thought she would move with him, after all. Not Grace, no way. She was LA personified. A little town like Twin Falls would have actually killed her. She would have shriveled up without the smog and bustle and glamour of the city.
Blasting some loud music on his headphones to distract himself hadn't helped. He’d flipped blindly through the airline magazine, but the only thing he saw was her all-American face, blond hair, perfect skin, and the way she glared at him over her water bottle if he’d said something too suggestive. He had to admit, she had become a part of him. A year is a long time when you're young.
Now Jesse was on his way to the smallest town in the universe. Trapped in a limousine with a chatty young driver and self-professed aspiring actor, all he wanted was some peace and quiet. He thought his noncommittal answers and long, reticent silences should have discouraged the guy, but the quieter Jesse was, the more talkative the driver became.
“I was an extra in a movie when I was a kid. Since then, I've had the bug. I want to be in the movies, and I'm saving money so I can move to LA. Is that where you live?”
“Gosh, that's got to be the life. I can't imagine how great it is. Perfect weather, gorgeous babes everywhere, ritzy dinners. Is it amazing?”
At least he didn't have to elaborate, Jesse thought moodily. This guy's got the whole picture in his mind. He doesn't need me. This, however, freed Jesse's mind up to think about Grace and the life he was leaving behind and the horror vacui of the blank slate ahead.
His girlfriend wasn't the only one who couldn't abide a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. His mother had apparently felt the same. Jesse had only been in a couple of commercials and had a few minor roles on TV shows before, all while his mother supported him. She had told him it would be a foot in the door to take the small parts until he landed something bigger. “Be patient,” was her mantra. He hated to admit, she had been right. When he was cast in a lead role in a brand new prime-time drama, she was overjoyed for him. Then she found out where it was being shot and decided this time he would have to go on his own. He was old enough, after all, and she wanted her life back.
“Where is Twin Falls, anyway?” she had wondered aloud when he told her the news.
Now, as the limo crested another postcard-perfect New England hill, to his left Jesse's attention refocused on reality as the village unfolded before him. Sunlight glittered on the rooftops of every building in the valley. A lively river wound its way through the center of the town, whitewashed bridges spanning the divide. Trees were full of promiscuous pink and white blossoms, filling the vista with cotton candy colors and a Norman Rockwell sensibility. It was enough to make Jesse's stomach turn. This would be painful after LA.
The more positive side of his nature whispered through the angry haze in his mind, It's work. At least you have a gig.
Right, his more morose side responded. It will be work living here. It was no wonder his mother sent him alone and Grace had kicked him to the curb.
Twin Falls appeared to be one of those quintessential old towns, not unlike the one he’d grown up in, where the buildings are all from the late 1800s and there's a town square with a gazebo. Everything looked clean, well-manicured, and perfectly charming. There was very little traffic on the streets, which reinforced the feeling he had stepped back in time.
Jesse vaguely heard the driver's monologue shift to the topic of the “historic village of Twin Falls.” The accolades the driver bestowed upon the quaint town cascaded unheard into empty air as Jesse continued to stare out the window in sullen silence.
They wound their way down the hill into the valley and glided onto Main Street. Wow, Jesse mused. It's actually called Main Street. How friggin' charming is that? He crossed his arms over his chest moodily. The driver pulled the limo up to a brick building with huge windows overlooking the quiet street. People were walking to and fro, but no one looked real. Steeling himself, Jesse got out, brushed off the driver's best wishes with a backward wave, and shouldered his bag.
A girl came out of the building and approached him. “You must be Jesse.” She held out her hand to shake his and said cheerfully, “It’s great to meet you.”
Rather than shake the hand held out to him, Jesse, looked past her. “I'll take a cup of coffee with cream and sugar. Bring it in as soon as you can. I'm dead tired.” He started to brush past her, ignoring the extreme blush coloring the girl's cheeks.
“What in the hell are you talking about?”
“Coffee. C-O-F-F-E-E,” he spelled out condescendingly. “Ever heard of it?”
“Wow. You clearly have no idea who I am.” She looked thoroughly incensed and hit him a withering glance. “I'm your co-star, you total ass. Welcome to Twin Falls.” With a final hard glare, she spun around and strode into the building.
Shame welled up in Jesse's chest, settling in with his other preoccupations, weighing his mood down even more. How had he not realized this was the same girl from every tabloid on the newsstand? Aliza Bennett, child star, struggling actor, ever-troubled love life, and constant fodder for every rag on the market. He hadn't even looked at her. Great. Could this get any better? What a day.
Peering through the window before he entered the building, he saw Aliza had started telling a small crowd of people what had happened. She pointed towards the door as he gathered enough courage to step through it. He heard laughter and realized he was being intentionally ignored by the majority of people in the room. Off to a great start. Lovely.
Coffee, however, was the priority at the moment. Apologies and introductions could wait. Immediate access to caffeine was of the essence. He sauntered towards a table set with various confections and beverages, tried to look casual, poured a cup of coffee with a splash of milk, and downed it. After his second, he felt almost human again. He took a deep breath and turned to face the crowd, knowing what must be done.
Aliza stood with a group of awkward looking people, clearly techies. She, on the other hand, was quite stunning, now that he could look at her. A certain sort of punk independence electrified the very air around her, intensified by her anger at him. Heavily outlined ice-blue eyes blazed beneath dark lashes. The magazine pictures didn't do her justice. He started towards her, stopping only to pluck a little white flower out of the table arrangement. Of course, she’d noticed him but continued to pretend to ignore him. He stopped just short of her little entourage, knowing his presence was commanding enough to make them turn to face him, even if they weren't aware of the fact.
Silence descended on the group as he approached. Jesse offered her the flower. “Sorry about what happened outside. I'm utterly useless until I've had about a hundred cups of coffee. Please forgive me.”
Reluctantly, Aliza accepted the flower, but her expression gave away her lingering annoyance.
He continued, undaunted. “I'm looking forward to working with you, Aliza.”
“I hope you're not going to be that kind of rude all the time,” she replied fiercely.
“Just before eight, I'm afraid,” he responded. His playful smile was usually a powerful mollifier. She remained unmoved, but he enjoyed a challenge.
* * *
Jesse turned his gaze towards some of the people around them and introduced himself. They were easier to win over, and Aliza resented it. Magnetic or not, Aliza’s skepticism won out. His apology was probably an act. She was not convinced of his sincerity, fearing he had showed something of his true nature out there on the sidewalk before he knew they were equals. Her guard was solidly in place. She’d had enough of guys who thought they ruled the world, and she was only twenty-two.
Soon, Rudy, the director, called everyone's attention to the front of the room. Aliza adored this small, charismatic man. He had been a family friend forever. Someone had put out a crate for him to stand on for his speech. Granted, he wasn't very tall, but a box? Really? The more she thought about it, the harder it became to hide her smile. Luckily, he must have been trying out some of his new material. Several of the people in the room were giggling out loud, and most were smiling as the director talked. She stopped holding back and let out a laugh, thankfully blending into the crowd.
She sensed a presence near her, much nearer than she would have preferred. Without looking she knew it was Jesse. She didn't want to move away. To do so would have showed him that he made her uncomfortable. Unable to concentrate on the director's words, they slipped past her, unabsorbed, flickering through the air and out the back door. She resented Jesse’s distracting presence. Her conscious mind was fully occupied by assessing Jesse's motives. He took a step closer. One more move on his part and their arms would be touching. How could she let her discomfort show now?
Rudy started calling out names. People raised their hands and introduced themselves, briefly. When it was her turn, Aliza started to tell a little about herself, and in her animation, she knocked right into Jesse's chest with her gesticulating hand.
“Beating me up already? I guess I deserve it.” His whisper, although barely audible above her own voice, sent a little jolt of electricity through Aliza.
She continued her speech gracefully. “I feel honored to work with such a talented cast and crew.” With those last words, she turned to face Jesse with a cool smile.
Now it was Jesse's turn to introduce himself. He spoke for a shorter time than Aliza had, and ended by looking straight at her. “Thank you for the warm welcome. I look forward to getting started.” He smiled broadly at the room. Everyone smiled back.
Rudy wrapped up his comments and people broke off into groups again, or in some cases, they got back to work. Aliza turned towards Jesse with a fiery expression. “What in the hell was that?”
“What are you talking about?” he replied, nonchalantly.
“Why were you standing so close to me? Were you trying to throw me off my guard?”
“Ah, the direct approach. You don't see much of that anymore, especially with people of our generation. It's refreshing, Aliza.” He smiled again. “I'd offer you a cup of coffee, but it looks like you've already had enough.”
I'm going to torture him, she thought, fuming, as he walked away. As Aliza schemed some dark designs to take him down a peg, her thoughts flickered involuntarily to Jesse's unique eyes, aqua, with a dark green ring around the iris, set off by dark lashes. If she had a weakness, it was light eyes with dark lashes. She gathered herself, put his attractive face out of her mind, and turned to the work ahead.