I couldn’t keep the smile off my face as I walked up the rickety-looking wooden front steps of the restaurant. It was a gorgeous, bright, sunny day in the rural town of Winchester, South Carolina, and I was starved after getting in late from a series of delayed flights last night. As it turned out, flying from the star-studded hills of Hollywood all the way to a sleepy, picturesque country town in the South was not a direct path in the slightest. I was still feeling a little groggy and jet-lagged, having traveled through several time zones to get here, but as an actor, I was used to that.
The sun was out, there wasn’t a single cloud in the bright blue sky, and I could hear birds chittering and chirping in the trees, even in the parking lot of the restaurant. I considered that a pretty good sign. The only birds I ever encountered in Los Angeles were hyper aggressive seagulls that would be just as comfortable swiping a French fry right out of your mouth as they would be flying through the fires of hell. And then there were the omnipresent pigeons. And the exotic pet birds who would routinely escape from the homes of the eccentric Hollywood elite.
But here, surrounded by miles and miles of unspoiled, dense wilderness, there were real birds. The kind you might see in one of those diligently compiled bird-watching guides. But it wasn’t just the avian population that felt more genuine, more down-to-earth. As I walked up onto the front dining porch of Beulah’s Biscuits, I looked around at the tables filled with kind, smiling faces. There were grandparents feeding morsels of grits to their tiny, happy grandchildren. There were couples dressed in church clothes. Many of the women went without makeup, which was a rarity in Los Angeles. The fashion here was so outdated that it could nearly wrap back around and be considered vintage, except that I got the feeling fashion trends were about as relevant as Wall Street in a modest neck of the woods like Winchester.
As I glanced around, I saw a hand-painted sign that read: PLEASE SEAT YOURSELF, SUGAR! I smiled to myself and walked over to take an empty corner table on the side of the wraparound covered porch. It was pretty picturesque, even if it didn’t bode well for my hopes of watching my waistline while here. It was all open-air except for the mosquito netting that blocked out the buzzing insects. A waitress walking by caught my eye and gave me a nod of acknowledgment.
“I’ll be with you in just a minute, hon,” she said with a syrupy Southern accent.
“Thanks,” I replied with a smile.
Seeing an unattended menu on an empty table, I hopped up to go grab it and nearly walked straight into a gigantic, handsome guy walking by in the process. My shoulder knocked against his muscular arm, and I hurriedly swiveled around to apologize. But when he turned to look me in the eyes, the words got stuck in my throat. I stared wide-eyed and slack-jawed at the man, my whole body tingling with arousal. He was impossibly tall and broad, with bulging biceps and a no-nonsense scowl that made him look like some kind of cartoon strongman. I had no doubt in my mind this was a guy who could kick my ass without even breaking a sweat. His appearance led me to wonder if he was some kind of athlete, maybe a professional wrestler or something crazy. I worried for a moment he would interpret my clumsiness as an invitation to a fight, but I need not have worried.
The gorgeous man gave me the faintest of good-natured nods and then kept moving, leaving me to stand in the same spot, gawking after him. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had come here to this small town fully expecting not to see a single man I would be attracted to. Perhaps that was my own fault, my own biases. I had never spent much time in the South, so most of what I had to go by was, admittedly, just a bunch of stereotypes. After all, the west coast was a totally different world from this rural setting.
But the guy I had just bumped into was precisely the kind of man I would have imagined living in a place like Winchester… in my wildest, most vivid fantasies that is. I swallowed hard at the lump in my throat, my hands clasping and unclasping as I stared at the man’s wide, powerful back disappearing through the door to the interior of the restaurant. He looked like he could easily bench-press my body weight, which was saying something in recent days, since I had gained a bit of weight. Like he could pick me up and pin me to a wall, his hard, thick body pushed against me so that I could feel every blisteringly hot inch of him. I could imagine those dark eyes gazing intensely into mine, sending shivers of pleasure down my spine.
What could I say? I loved a guy who looked like he might moonlight as a lumberjack, and this man certainly fit the bill. I found myself fantasizing about being locked up in a folksy wooden cottage with this mysterious stranger, the two of us pressed together in a confined space, his large hands roving down my body, manhandling me, moving and bending me to his will. I licked my lips, nearly salivating at the thought of kneeling in front of him, tugging the engorged head of his shaft between my lips, listening to him grunt and groan with satisfaction as I gave him exactly what he deserved. He had the body of a hardworking man, and I couldn’t help but daydream about getting to be the one to help him unwind. Maybe I could show him how things were done on the west coast, give him a little taste of Hollywood magic.
I watched closely as the handsome guy walked through the small diner and took a seat at a booth where a middle-aged woman was sitting. I saw the light come on in the woman’s eyes, crinkling into crow’s feet at the corners with genuine affection. As soon as the handsome man sat down, he reached across the table to briefly embrace the woman’s hands. I could see the pure love and admiration in her eyes, as well as his, and for a split second, I wondered if he was dating an older woman. But when I looked a little closer, it became evident to me that she was his mother, a fact that immediately made my heart melt a little. Even though he probably outweighed her by at least a hundred pounds of muscle and she looked to be barely over five feet tall, she looked at him like he was a big, soft teddy bear. The trust and love apparent in their dynamic were impressive to me. How sweet. A southern country boy meeting up with his beloved mom for a little catch-up date at a folksy brunch restaurant. The contrast of the man’s bear-like, intimidating appearance with his heartfelt reunion with his mother, who clearly adored him, was almost too much for me to handle.
It looked like something a friend of mine would have filmed for a made-for-TV feel-good movie about family and togetherness, but it wasn’t for any camera or audience. It was genuine and real. If that wasn’t a good sign of things to come during my little retreat from the harsh lights and judgmental culture of Los Angeles, I didn’t know what was. As much as I loved the hustle and bustle of Hollywood, it could get a little tiring having to cope with the constant rat race, the insincerity of relationships, the fact that everyone was looking for a head to step on to get ahead.
There were lots of fun times to be had out on the famed west coast, but it took a lot of energy. Even a guy like me, who sometimes thrived on stress and a busy schedule, could get burned out from time to time. I was happy to be here in Winchester, where the pace of life seemed to be slowed down to half speed compared to home. Then again, I knew I’d feel comfortable here. The reason I had chosen Winchester was because my parents had taken me on a couple of road trips when I was a kid, and we had stopped in Winchester along the way. The town had been beautiful and peaceful. It had left an impression on me as a child, and I knew it was the perfect place for me to escape to as an adult. I had a good feeling I was going to like it here, especially if that handsome guy and his mom were any indication.
As I finally tore my eyes away from their adorable interaction, I did a double take. A waitress came through the back door onto the wraparound porch carrying a massive tray, balanced with several plates of delicious-looking food piled high. A veritable smorgasbord of various sweet, savory, buttery aromas wafted past my nose, and I sucked in a deep, appreciative breath.
“Wow. I want all of that,” I murmured to myself, not realizing at first that I’d said the words out loud. That is, until the waitress giggled and caught my eye.
“If you want to take a seat, I’ll be right with ya, darlin’,” she remarked.
“Right. Yes. Of course,” I said, a little flushed around the cheeks.
As she carried the tray to a table of locals dressed up after church, I slid back into my seat at the corner table and started to look at the menu. It took all my willpower not to continue stealing glances over at the handsome guy and his mother through the glossy diner window, but if there was anything on this planet most likely to distract my attention, it was the paragraph-long descriptions of menu items like “Buttermilk Biscuits ‘n’ Gravy Tower with Applewood Bacon”, or “Swirly Cinnamon Bun Pancakes”, or possibly my favorite: “Beulah’s Gut-buster Brunch Bonanza.” That last one made me actually pick up the menu and hold it up closer to my face, as though my eyes had to be playing a trick on me.
But nope. It was real.
My mouth watered as I read the description below. It involved southern-style cheesy grits with house-made spicy sausage gravy, a fried green tomato BLT biscuit, a side of hash browns, three eggs cooked to preference, and, almost as a final Hail Mary toward any semblance of a balanced meal, a cup of fresh fruit.
I could hardly believe what I was reading. It was easy to get caught up in the photos of food and the nearly pornographic descriptions of menu items. But luckily, I had thought ahead. Last night, while waiting for the rental car company to finish my paperwork, I had searched for local breakfast joints on my phone. Naturally, I had decided on Beulah’s. And because I often had trouble deciding what to order, I had inspected the menu online beforehand. Somehow I had managed to skim past the Gut-buster, but I had already mentally selected an item amusingly named “The Six-Count of Monte Cristo,” which was a deep-fried ham and jam sandwich dusted with confectioners sugar and accompanied by no less than six slices of thick-cut bacon.
It was a pun plus bacon and powdered sugar. How in the world could I say no?
Just as I set down the menu, fully secure in my decision, the waitress came over to my table with a pen nestled behind her ear and a big smile on her face. She couldn’t have been any older than nineteen, fresh-faced, and friendly looking. Her name tag, to my endless enjoyment, read FLO.
“You got any questions ‘bout the menu this morning?” she asked, tilting her head to one side so that her flouncy blonde ponytail bounced cheerily.
“Not about the menu, no. But I have to ask: is your name really Flo?” I chuckled.
She grinned and rolled her eyes. “Believe it or not, yep. Well, technically, it’s Florence. But Flo is what I prefer. I’m Beulah’s granddaughter,” she replied.
“Wait, there’s a real Beulah?” I asked, taken aback.
She giggled, looking at me like I was insane. “Of course there is, silly! Who else would the place be named after?” she said with a laugh. “She retired a couple years ago, but it’s still my grandma’s place through and through. You know, she designed the whole menu herself.”
“Well, she did a great job. Everything sounds fantastic,” I replied.
“Why, thank you! I’ll be sure to pass that on to Grandma,” she said with a wink. “Now, have you made a decision about your breakfast today, sir?”
“Mhm. I’d love to have the Monte Cristo, please,” I said. “And a black coffee.”
She took the pen from behind her ear and a notepad from a pocket on her apron, scribbled down my order, and then gave me another big smile. “Alrighty! I’ll go put this in right away. I’ll be back real soon with your coffee.”
“Thank you,” I said. She gave me a nod and walked away, back inside the restaurant.
As soon as she was gone, the worry began to set in. Biting my lip, I glanced down at my waistline and promptly laid out a napkin in my lap to hide some of my stomach pudge. It wasn’t a massive weight gain or anything. For most people, it might not have even seemed like much of an issue. But for me it was different.
It was true what they say about the camera adding ten pounds. Unfortunately, though, my diet and exercise regimen (or rather the lack thereof) had added a good ten to fifteen on their own. In Hollywood terms, that was a big difference. People in L.A. were constantly trying to shrink themselves, always trying to be the most trim, the most chic. It could be a little toxic spending all my time in that hyperconscious world full of gossip magazines and celebrity blogs. Personally, it didn’t bother me all that much except for when someone pointed it out. One might think that polite society of today would frown upon such remarks, but in Hollywood, everything a relatively famous actor like me does is under intense scrutiny.
On set, my costars were all supportive and friendly as always. After all, we had been working together for years. Soap operas functioned on a high-speed turnaround, with long days of filming and a lot of downtime on the sound stage. That meant I got to spend a lot of time chatting and bonding with my coworkers. The cast of Bannister Heights, of which I was an integral part, were all much chummier and tight-knit than we seemed on television, where soap opera rules dictated we should always be in some kind of conflict. That was what kept the show moving forward, after all: the drama. And most of the time, I loved it. Landing the role of heart-breaker Adrian Bannister was a milestone in my acting career. I wasn’t quite a household name yet, but in some households where soap opera legacies reigned supreme, the name Jesse Blackwood was well known.
For diehard fans of the show, who had been following its highly dramatic plot lines for nearly a decade now, the introduction of Adrian was a big deal. I loved my job. I loved my audience. I loved my coworkers. But I had to admit that the grueling hours and constantly living under a microscope had caused me to play fast and loose with my own well-being and health.
That was why I had come here to Winchester, as an official break from acting. I needed time to relax, to get myself back into fighting condition so I could come back to the show at my best. And as I looked around at the pleasant crowd here for brunch, I felt secure in my decision. Nobody was ogling me. Nobody was trying to surreptitiously snap a photo of me with their cell phone. People weren’t whispering and shooting furtive glances my way. Out here, in rural South Carolina, I could just blend into the crowd. I could be just like everybody else for once.
And then I heard it.
Click. Click-click. Flash.
My heart began to race, and my confidence plummeted. There it was. The telltale sound of a camera flashing nearby. I glanced at a spot around the corner of the restaurant, and my eyes landed on the culprit, a photographer with a big, fancy camera. I did what I always did. I turned away and tried to ignore him, though I knew my discomfort was obvious on my face. Of course I couldn’t escape the paparazzi, not even way out here. They were so persistent! I should have known I would be an irresistible target for one of those slime balls.
I was just about to get up and go inside to tell the waitress to make my breakfast a to-go order when I felt a firm, large hand on my shoulder. I looked up, surprised to see that the handsome guy from earlier was standing over me, a fierce but calm look on his face. Before I could say anything, he glanced over at the paparazzo and then gave me a look that clearly indicated that he was going to take care of the issue himself.
“Wait here,” he said gruffly.
“Okay,” I replied in a near whisper.
He marched down the steps of the porch and right up to the camera guy, his hands curled into fists. My heart raced like crazy as I half expected a fight to break out. But then, I realized that the mysterious stranger was just giving the guy a very stern talking-to. And judging by the look of fear on the paparazzo’s face, it was very effective.
The guy sheepishly handed over his camera, a feat I had never seen happen before back in L.A. My rugged hero promptly deleted the photos, gave the guy back his camera, and pointed for the guy to leave. To my complete amazement, he did as he was told. No contest. I watched with awe as the tough guy walked back to my table. I stared at him wide-eyed, barely able to think clearly. I was normally so quick and snappy, but he had truly stunned me into silence.
He gave me a self-assured nod and said in a low growl, “Sorry about that guy. He shouldn’t give you any more trouble. Welcome to Winchester.”
With that, he walked away back inside to his charming date with his mom. I stared after him totally dumbfounded, feeling as though there must be pink cartoon hearts flying around my head. My waitress returned to give me my mug of black coffee, and as I sat there trying to come to terms with the amazing event that had just transpired, I gazed adoringly at the man, obscured by the line of hot steam emanating from my coffee cup.
Maybe my stay in Winchester would be more exciting than I had hoped.