The Maverick

I know you’ve heard about me. 

The middle Hayden brother, the one whose wife ran off. 

I’m not the short-tempered new owner of the Hayden Cattle Company, like my big brother. I’m not the wild stallion with a mystery ax to grind, like my little brother. 

I’m Warner Hayden. Single-father, second-in-command of my family’s ranching dynasty, and my steady, secure world is about to get rocked by America’s sweetheart. 

I’d heard Tenley Roberts was coming to our small town to film her latest movie, I just didn't think she’d be driving a 1976 Bronco. So, no, I didn't know the identity of the beautiful stranger I helped on the side of the road, but I figured it out a few days later. And I haven't been the same since. 

Tenley is unexpectedly funny, and complicated. I’m recently divorced, fearful of the way she makes my heart beat double-time, and gun-shy.

Despite all this, we’re too wrapped up in each other to care. 

But then things with Tenley take an unforeseen turn, and everyone assumes I’ll take my licks the way I always have. 

Not this time. 

Maybe I am the nice, dependable brother. 

But I’m also a Hayden, born and bred. 

And this bull has horns.

Chapters 1 and 2

Warner 

Everything it took to get to this point… well, it feels like it should’ve happened to someone else.  

Peyton and Charlie sit opposite me in the booth, munching on kid-sized cheeseburgers. I have no idea how I’m going to handle this, only that I will. 

Being a single father isn’t something I pictured for my life, but then again, neither is any of what I’ve gone through the past few years. 

We’re on our own now.

Tenley

If I could change one detail about the whole story, it would be that he should’ve chosen better. 

An extra? 

It’s so… so… common. 

Plump lips, slim hips, fake tits. 

He could have damn near anyone, and he chose the human equivalent of vanilla ice cream. 

Celebrity Dirt broke the news. I don’t read that trash, but others do. Like my best friend, Morgan’s, aunt. Living alone in a double-wide trailer in Utah, Aunt Patty enjoys crocheting, her air fryer, and following celebrities. 

On that Monday morning, she settled in her worn blue armchair, opened her phone, and navigated to her favorite celeb gossip site. The story was less than a minute old. Aunt Patty was the first to comment, a fact she mentioned proudly when she called Morgan. 

It was Morgan who called me. 

“Rule of thumb is never to believe this garbage, I know. But...” She stopped, as if she were gathering enough strength to continue. 

It was her pause that made me jump from the treadmill. “Go on,” I instructed through labored breathing, sweat matting my baby hairs to my neck.  

“There are photos.” Morgan’s tone was an apology, as if she was the person who should be apologizing. 

That was four days ago. Four days ago. 

Ninety-six hours to disassemble a life we spent two years building. 

The headline read Tate Mack Caught Canoodling With Extra. If it hadn’t been for the pictures, I’d have written it off. 

Just like I’d always done.  

* * *

He came for his blender. 

I sat at the dining room table and watched him. His tail should’ve been between his legs, but his ego is too large to allow such a thing. 

He stands in front of me now, the high-powered blender cradled in his arms. The machine can make ice cream, soup, and macerate fruit. I feel as though my heart has taken a turn through its blades. 

He stares at me. His shirt hugs his muscled arms, his sweats fit just right. Damn him for looking so good. I’ve been crying, and it shows. 

“Tenley,” he starts, stepping closer. 

My hand leaps into the air between us, stopping him. “We both know you could have bought another blender. You could have bought one hundred blenders.” 

His features arrange into genuine sadness. “I wanted to see you.” 

His scratchy voice makes me feel the tiniest shred better, but I bat it down. I need the anger to stay in place while he is here. He cannot sweet talk his way out of this one, or apologize, or even grovel. But deep down, buried beneath the anger, my broken heart is there.  

To the world, he is Tate Mack, box office god and sexiest man alive. To me, he was just Tate. My boyfriend. 

Ex-boyfriend. 

I blink and look away. “I hope she was worth it, Tate. I hope she was worth losing our relationship.” 

He rushes forward. The blender tumbles to the ground, plastic cracking, and Tate drops to his knees. He grabs my hands, pulling them to his chest. 

“Please,” he moans. “It was a mistake. A moment of weakness.” 

His words are like lemon juice in my fresh wound. They are acid, and they burn. There is no apology on this earth that could make me consider forgiving him. Extracting my hands from his grasp, I push my chair back and rise to my feet. “You made your bed, Tate. Now you get to lie in it.” It would be so much easier to accept his apology, to move on. Nothing would have to change. His blender could stay on my counter. He could stay in my life. 

But no. I can’t have that. I can’t live with myself, knowing I condoned that behavior. And what about next time? With a person like Tate, there will always be a next time. 

“But we’re so good together, Ten. Come on.” He stays on his knees, his face upturned, his eyes big and pleading. Maybe for other women this routine would work, but not me, because I recognize that exact look. I acted opposite that same expression, in the movie we made right after we met. In the film, my character dropped to her knees and kissed him. But this is real life, and I’ll stay on my feet.  

Calmly, I walk to the front door. By the time I’ve reached it, Tate is off the ground and walking toward me. He passes through the door I’ve just opened. He doesn’t stop. He won’t grovel twice. The fact that he groveled even once could be labeled another moment of weakness. 

I watch, stony-faced, as he guns the engine of his canary yellow Ferrari. The car creeps forward. His eyes meet mine in the rearview mirror. He looks contrite. For the first time since he showed up, I let down my guard and let him see my heartbreak. The tears fall. His brake lights illuminate. 

No. 

I step back, swallowed up into my foyer, and slam the door. The last thing I see is his Ferrari rolling forward through my gate. 

An hour later, Morgan shows up with champagne and tacos. She strides into the kitchen and dumps her bags and purse on the counter. Her dark hair is wound into a wild bun on the top of her head, a pen shoved through the coil to keep it secured. She plucks at the end of the pen, and her hair tumbles down around her upper arms. Pen in hand, she grabs an envelope off the top of a stack of mail. “Let’s make a list of everything you didn’t like about him.”  

“Tacos first,” I grumble. 

Morgan waves a hand at the brown paper bag, where grease stains soak through the bottom. “Well, duh.” 

I reach in, coming away with a parchment-wrapped taco. “Heaven,” I announce, biting into the warm picadillo. Sauce dribbles down my chin and she throws me a napkin. 

Morgan looks down at the envelope she turned over. I peek. She’s already written three things, and titled the list Cons. 

“Where is the pros column?” 

She shakes her head. “Cons only.” 

I read them aloud. “Ranch on pizza. Looks at himself in reflective surfaces every time he passes one. Sits down to pee.” I shake my head, my finger poised above the third con. “He only sat down right after sex. He said the first pee was unwieldy.” 

She shrugs. “Still. It weirded you out the first time he did it.” 

“True.” 

She writes another and I read it out loud. “Tendency to tell dumb lies.” 

Morgan’s not wrong about that. Tate had a problem telling inconsequential lies. Stupid stuff, like saying he went shopping for something when he hadn’t. But once he told the lie, he would make good on it. He’d do what he claimed to have already done. More of an aspirational liar. 

“You know why he did that,” I point out, starting on my next taco. 

“Right,” she agrees, grabbing some food of her own, knowing I might very well eat it all. “Everyone has childhood shit. We all act out as adults. People can still choose to dislike us for it.” 

Tate once told me that if he had to grade his parents, they’d get a C-. An only child, he was fed, clothed, and mostly ignored. He began making up stories in his head, ones where fantastical events occurred. Some as simple as buying every type of candy the grocery store sold. One day he told someone his story, but delivered it in past tense, casting himself as the main character. It made him feel important and special, and he kept going, being certain to keep it small so that it was attainable. He didn’t see it as a lie, because he always made sure it came to fruition. I didn’t have the heart to tell him it wasn’t normal behavior. 

But honestly, what do I even know about normal behavior anymore? I’m the one who just found out my parents, the famed actors who’ve defied divorce statistics for decades, are in seriously hot water. The kind that roasts you as you drown. 

I glance at Morgan. She’s been my best friend since her mom was my nanny. In a pinch, Morgan accompanied her mom to my house when she didn’t go to school. We clicked, and I begged Margaret to bring her daughter every time she was out of school. Margaret cleared it with my mom, and I had a playmate for life. Even when my little sister Jasper came along, Morgan remained my best friend. She’s tagged along on family vacations, joined me on movie sets, and was my roommate until Tate began spending so much time here, she couldn’t take it and found a place of her own. 

I swallow the last bite of my second taco and reach for the champagne. “You have a valid point,” I admit, bracing the pads of my thumb on the cork and grimacing as I push against it. It releases with a loud pop. Lifting it to my lips, I drink directly from the bottle. It’s that kind of evening.  

Morgan takes it from me and sips. “Have you talked to Christian recently?”

“Not since this morning.” My publicist called to remind me to stay off the internet. For God’s sake, he’d said in that perpetually exasperated voice of his, if there was ever a time in our relationship that you listen to me, let it be now. 

I listened. I’m too chickenshit to go looking for what people are saying. You’d think everyone would be Team Tenley, but no. The public is a fickle beast, it feeds and feeds and only wants more. As much as it eats, it’s never sated. My saving grace is that I will only be top story on the homepage until another disaster befalls someone they deem worthy of talking about. And down down down on the page my story will go, until it eventually becomes a link in another story that mentions me. 

I say all this to Morgan. She appraises me with her watchful eyes, the ones that see past my public persona and deep into the soul I keep closely guarded. 

“Is thirty too young to be jaded?” She hands me back the bottle and digs into the bag for another taco. I do the same. Food never tasted so good, like spicy salsa and soothed feelings. 

“Possibly,” I sigh, tipping my head to the side and biting down. 

“Maybe it’s a good thing you’re leaving in a few weeks. Change of scenery and all that.” 

“Right,” I agree, saying nothing about the fact that I’d be going to a small town in Arizona even if I didn’t need a change of scenery. Not only have I signed on to do the movie, but my parents are betting the proverbial farm on its success. They are bankrolling the entire thing. No pressure there. Nope. None. 

I didn’t want the role. I’d just wrapped the final movie in a three-picture deal and was ready for a break. I’d even been toying with making the break semi, if not completely, permanent. But then shit hit the fan.  

Morgan plucks the champagne bottle from the counter and starts for the glass doors leading out to the deck. I follow. 

I’m tired of LA life, but I’ll never tire of this view. Spread before us are the twinkling lights of a living, breathing soul. Places to go, things to do, traffic to sit in. This city has a pulse. 

“Champagne was a weird drink choice,” I murmur, taking the bottle from Morgan and bringing it to my lips. 

Morgan chuckles. “I know, but it seemed appropriate. We’re not celebrating that Tate cheated on you, Tenley. We’re celebrating that you found out he’s a cheater before it was too late and you had serious baggage. Before you invested any more precious minutes of your life with him.”

I frown. “Seems like an excuse to drink champagne.” 

She sneaks a smile in my direction. “Well, I mean, yeah. Duh.” 

I pull one knee into my chest and stretch my other leg out. “Do you ever think about marriage? Or kids?”

“Sometimes. It’s just”—she motions in front of herself—“out there somewhere. In the future.” 

“We’re already thirty.” 

Morgan side-eyes me. “Watch who you’re calling old.” She says the word like it’s gum on the bottom of her new shoes. “Women are having babies later than you think.” 

“Maybe.” Morgan reaches for the champagne but I hold her off and take another sip before handing it over. “I’m afraid one day I’ll wake up and it’ll all have passed me by. I won’t fall in love again and I won’t get married. I won’t get to do everything different.”  

“I won’t let that happen. I’ll wake your ass up before all your opportunities are gone. You’re going to get a redo. Promise.” She does a wink and nod thing. “Did I look like a cowboy just now?” 

She makes me laugh, and I feel grateful for her. How can I be fearful of a grim future when Morgan is here, working hard to make my present so damn enjoyable? I reach for her hand. “Thank you for coming over.” 

“Nowhere else I’d rather be. I’m going to miss you when you’re on location in the Wild West.” 

I laugh. “I think the Wild West is a thing of the past.”

“If that’s true, I’m going to be very disappointed. I was planning to come visit you and meet a cowboy for the weekend. Maybe a bull rider.” She wiggles her eyebrows. 

I laugh again, and it feels good. I’ve been doing the opposite of laughing since I found out about Tate. An idea pops into my head. “You should stay here while I’m gone.” 

“You want me to move back in?” 

I nod. “As early as tomorrow. Right now. Yesterday.” It suddenly feels like the most important thing that Morgan move back in with me. I’ve been moping around the house. I need someone to remind me that even if my relationship with Tate is dead, I am still alive.  

“I don’t know…” 

“I have houseplants that need watering.” The lie comes out smoothly. 

Morgan frowns and thumbs back toward my place. “You don’t have a single houseplant in there.” 

I hold up a lone finger, signaling one moment and reach for my phone. It takes a grand total of three minutes. I look up at Morgan. “In two days, I will be the proud new owner of two snake plants, one Ficus tree, two peace lilies, and something called a ZZ because its real name is too hard to pronounce.” I toss my phone beside my thigh on the chair. “If you don’t water them, they will die.” 

Morgan shakes her head, but the corners of her lips turn up. “Wouldn’t want plant blood on my hands.” 

“Never,” I agree solemnly.  

“I have a lease,” she reminds me. 

“I’ll pay the breakage fee.” 

“I knew you’d say that.” 

I take a drink of the champagne and hand it to her. “Roomie?” 

“Yes,” she says, drinking. “You’re quite persuasive when you want to be, you know that? Forget being America’s sweetheart, you should have been a lawyer.” 

“Jasper’s the lawyer.” My little sister’s working at a firm in NYC, as far away from the glitz and glamor of Hollywood as she can possibly be. She never tells people who her family is. 

“You could’ve been one also.” Morgan eyes me. She knew before she said it that she would strike a nerve, but she said it anyhow. That’s how Morgan operates. She never treats me with kid gloves, like so many other people in my life.  

I shrug. “All’s well that ends well.” 

The following day, Morgan moves back in. For the next few weeks, I run lines with her and prepare to live in Sierra Grande, Arizona for the next three or so months. As for what comes after that? Well, I don’t know. My future is one great big question mark.

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