Rock Sexy by Virna DePaul


Hitting the top of Hollywood’s It List has its perks.

Money. Fame. Girls.

Lots and lots of girls.

I’ve definitely earned my reputation as a player.

But one thing I’m not is a cheater.
Rock Sexy
Rock Sexy by Virna DePaul
I don’t like cheaters. I don’t date them. I don’t stick my dick in them. I don’t do things to justify jealous boyfriends or husbands punching me in the face. Tonight, I’d done all three. Granted, I hadn’t known Missy Ives had a boyfriend at the time, but that didn’t mean shit when I could still picture the guy, looking confused, then hurt, then dangerously pissed right before he came after me two hours ago. I’d been bare ass naked, dealing with my own confusion, and suffering flashbacks to two years ago when I’d caught my girlfriend in bed with my brother. All that had slowed down my reflexes when Missy’s boyfriend swung at me, which is why I now sported the beginnings of a black eye. Truth is, I’d probably have let the guy punch me anyway, that’s how bad I’d felt. Unfortunately, in a few days I was starting my role as the male lead in a new network television series. I prayed the black eye faded before we began filming. Pulling my car into the crowded circular drive of rocker Wesley Shaw’s Beverly Hills’ mansion, I killed the engine, and checked my reflection in the rearview mirror, gingerly touching my eye. The entire lid was purple and swollen. It also hurt like hell. But I wasn’t going to let that stop me from turning my Saturday night around. The bitter memory of Rachel’s betrayal, which I’d mostly put behind me, was suddenly a raw open wound that wouldn’t go away. I needed a drink. Several drinks. And I needed a girl. Maybe several girls. Anything to make me forget what a fool I’d once been to believe in love. And to have enjoyed Missy’s company for a mind-boggling three dates (including one on New Year’s Eve two weeks ago) while starting to think maybe we could actually be more than a casual hook up. What an idiot. Getting out of my car, I took in the scene of my buddy Liam Collier’s 22nd birthday party. Liam was the lead singer of Point Break, the same band for which Wes played the guitar, and Wes had used Liam’s big day as an excuse to throw his first party since moving in to the seven-bedroom villa. I’d only heard about the place until now, and damn it was sweet, with floating levels, glass walls held in place by a striking black frame, and even a circular tower adjoining the entrance. Wes had especially raved about the outdoor terraces that had amazing views of the Los Angeles city skyline. Valets scurried to keep up with the procession of cars as guests arrived. Heavy bass and electronic beats pounded my ears and shook my car windows. A multitude of girls in low-cut blouses and four-inch heels wandered in and out of the house. I didn’t recognize most of them, but that didn’t surprise me. Anyone who was anyone in this town knew about Wesley’s new place, but only anyone who was someone would get inside. Unless she had a great rack to go along with her anonymity. Seeing one of the valets approaching me, I tossed him the keys to my black Bentley Continental GT. “Thanks, man,” I said as I started jogging up the white stone steps of the house. Two hulking men in dark suits worked security. I’d almost reached them when the front door burst wide open, letting out the muffled chatter and bursts of laughter of the hundred people inside. From my peripheral vision, a shirtless figure stepped—or stumbled, more accurately—into my view. It was Point Break’s drummer, Tucker Benning, all lean lines, scruff, and inked flesh. “You made it.” Tucker toted a half empty bottle of Patron Silver, cigarette drooping at the crook of his lips. Long, disheveled brown hair hung in front of his bright green eyes, some sections slicked with sweat. He pushed them back clumsily. A smudged lipstick mark stained his cheek. Swaying precariously, he threw open his arms, tequila sloshing out of the bottle. “We were wondering where the fuck you—Whoa. Man, what happened to your eye?” “I fell into a wall.” I sighed, knowing I’d probably be saying it a lot tonight. Tuck blinked at me as if trying to process my answer. “But I’d never miss Liam’s birthday, Tuck.” Liam Collier and I were friends from high school when we were both drama geeks. Liam had bounced from band to band back then, meeting Tuck our junior year. I hadn’t met his newest bandmates, Wes and Corbin Ross, who ripped the bass guitar, until last year, just before they’d gone platinum. Now they played to sold out crowds and were preparing for their first world tour. Tucker slung his arm around my shoulders, using me as support. “Don’t tell him or Wes I said this,” he mock-whispered, his breath reeking of alcohol. “But I’d miss Liam’s birthday for a chance to hook up with Missy Ives. Jesus, that SI swimsuit spread she did…” “Dude, come on.” Instead of Missy’s swimsuit shots, I pictured the whole tawdry scene with Missy and her boyfriend again. A sudden clenching in my chest had me rubbing the spot and wincing as we crossed the tile floor, splashed with confetti, streamers, popped balloons, and loose glitter raining down from flashy cocktail dresses. “Hey, you were the one who said she seemed different than most girls. I’m not letting you clam up now.” That was before I knew she wasn’t single. Of course, I didn’t say that. Wanting to change the subject, I eyed him oddly. “Tuck, where the hell is your shirt?” He looked down at his naked chest. “I don’t know, man. Earlier, I was shotgunning some beers in the bathtub. And all of a sudden, it was gone.” “Wow.” I leveled him with a condescending smirk, glad I’d gotten him away from the Missy talk. “That’s an impressive memory you’ve got there.” Tucker slowly shoved a finger into my arm. “Dude, I don’t need your judgery. And quit changing the subject. Dish, man. Did you actually hit that? How was it?” “You’re relentless,” I murmured, reaching across his body to snatch the Patron bottle by the neck. I knew if I didn’t say something, Tuck would just keep asking. “We were interrupted.” “Bam!” Tucker boomed theatrically, squeezing me all rough, his eyes growing comically wide. “Cock-blocked by a jealous ex?” “Something like that,” I muttered, taking a swig of the tequila, happy Tuck was obviously too inebriated to connect the cock-blocking with my black eye. “Anyway, too much trouble for me. That’s over.” “Still, three dates is a record, man.” True, which was why I was done talking about it. Tucker and I continued across the foyer and into the kitchen, done in dark granite and stainless steel. Recognizing a few Hollywood types, I tossed them nods of acknowledgement and fended off the flurry of queries about my black eye by reminding people I still did my own stunts. There was a set of twins I liked, for the most part, a brother and sister often cast in the same films together. Their eyes flashed with respect when they saw me. “Hey, Garrick,” the girl twin called. “Congrats on the new series. You’re going to kill it.” She lifted a shot glass in my honor. “Thanks. Should be interesting.” I was an action star, not a romantic lead, but I was hoping my stint as Payton Baber would result in more dramatic roles. As Baber, I’d be playing a college student at the University of New Mexico and frontman for a garage band who becomes romantically involved with a good girl book nerd named Lacey. Point Break would be contributing to the show’s soundtrack, and Liam would be dubbing my musical parts, since I couldn’t sing worth a shit. It was pretty awesome when I recommended him. The network had been set on hiring another band for cost reasons, but when I’d hinted I was reconsidering taking the job, the network had caved and ponied up an insane amount of cash to hire Point Break. Really showed my newfound pull in the industry. Liam was the perfect dude for the gig anyway, with his rich, tenor voice that soared into falsetto at just the right moment. Man, it’d always irked me the way he could do the one thing I couldn’t so well. Not that I hadn’t tried. Believe me, I had. But, as it turned out, even the best voice coaches in the world couldn’t make a frog sound like a canary. I used to sing a lot, even being as bad as I was. Of course, I’d limited it to when I was alone in the shower. No way did I ever sing in public. I’d even refused to sing along to the car radio with Rachel, something that had— Fuck! I hadn’t thought about Rachel in months. Now thanks to Missy, I’d thought of her multiple times this evening. I scanned the room for something—anything—that would drive her from my mind. Cheers broke out in an area of the house. “Where’s Wes?” I asked. “That idiot’s been upstairs asleep since six p.m. I’m pretty sure he’s in the middle of something raunchy, and he doesn’t even know it.” We took a detour into what looked like a den with a huge movie screen. Seeing who was already there, I immediately grinned. I’d asked for something to take my mind off my troubles and this was a pretty good start. “Speaking of raunchy…” I nudged my chin in the direction of the couch where two buxom girls knelt, one a blonde, one a redhead, bracketing a pair of dark denim clad knees. The girls were passionately swapping spit, wearing nothing but their bras and panties. I have to say, they presented quite the erotic sight with their feet tied up in red, strappy heels. The lucky dude in the middle had his head thrown back against a couch cushion. I didn’t have to see him to know he was one lucky son-of-a-bitch. I doubted he was thinking of past betrayals or irate exes at that moment, and that’s what I desperately wanted—to wash away what happened earlier. Going back several years would be nice, since it would mean washing away Rachel completely. I wondered if he’d let me take his place. “Shit,” I commented. “That is not unfortunate looking at all.” The guy’s head came up, and a pair of hands planted themselves between the girls, on their “girls,” nudging them apart. Liam’s chiseled face appeared, short dark brown hair spiked and collared shirt stained with booze, the buttons one hole off. “Gar!” Liam shouted, nodding with a shit-eating grin on his face. I laughed. “Happy Birthday, Liam.” Somehow, seeing my friend eased the pressure inside my chest a little. Liam looked wasted, but good. He’d taken to his recent rock god status like a fish to water without remotely becoming a dick. He had this infectious carefree attitude. He rolled with the punches. He didn’t stress. Everybody loved him from the moment they met him. Friendly, outgoing, laid back, confident, and courageous, Liam could charm the pants off of any girl, and the snarl out of any guy. He remained close to his parents and brothers. And while he was now definitely playing the field, he still believed that one day, he’d find the right girl and settle down. In other words, he was damn naïve. His parents were abnormal. Most people didn’t find love like that. Most people were assholes, cheaters, quitters. Missy had just reminded me what I already knew. I didn’t want to be the one who popped his bubble, but he’d figure it out at some point. “Tucker,” some girl called from the kitchen, poking her head around the corner and brandishing a green bottle before him the way a trainer might dangle a treat in front of a dog. “We’re doing Jågerbombs. Get your ass in here.” “On my way. Later, man.” Tucker smacked my shoulder. “We need to get a few shots in ASAP.” With that, he ducked out and strutted into the kitchen. “Let’s do this,” he announced, followed by a swell of cheers. Liam popped up from the couch, bounded across the room, and attempted to football tackle me. Luckily, I was ready and braced myself in time to avoid being bowled over, giving him a few slaps on the back instead. “What’s up, bro?” “You sneaky little shit,” he chided. “You came.” He smiled lopsided, pleasantly drunk, eyes dilated. “Wouldn’t miss it,” I assured him, clamping my hands around his shoulders, giving him a good shake. I was lying. I probably would have missed it, if I had something in my life worth missing it for. Professionally, that was the case. Personally? Not so much. For half a second, I wanted to be away from the party, the noise, the liquor, even the girls. I thought it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to be able to go someplace quiet and just talk to someone who cared about me. I shook my head to clear it. Fuck, I sounded like a pussy. This was Liam’s birthday party. The guy didn’t need me getting all morose and sensitive on him. I scrambled for something to say. “So. Where’s Helen?” “She’s out in the infinity pool, I think.” Helen had been in our drama class too, and she and Liam remained close friends. As far as I knew, they’d never dated, only drifted in and out of each other’s lives like smoke—like phantoms. Recently she’d taken a job with the band, helping with their merchandising, and I couldn’t help but wonder if that was a little too close for the comfort of their friendship. Liam pressed a gallant hand on his chest. “And on that note, I’m going to check on Helen. Hey, buddy, can you hold down the fort for a while?” he asked, thumbing toward the girls in lacy lingerie, lounging on the white leather sofa, passing a bottle back and forth while they giggled. Good ol’ Liam. What a pal for offering me up the very distraction I’d been admiring moments earlier. As if they had supersonic hearing, the two girls zeroed in on me, their bedroom eyes laced with big, flirty false lashes. They batted them, freshly manicured index fingers beckoning. Yes! There’s no way the shadow of the night’s earlier events, or those of two years ago, could survive me getting it on with these two gorgeous girls. I took a deep breath. “I don’t know, Li. It’ll sure be taking one for the team,” I joked. “And you’ll owe me. Like, huge.” Suddenly, he planted his hands on my face, locking eyes with me. “You can do this,” he said, shaking my face. “I believe in you. HOOAH!” “Hooah!” I bantered, grinning ear to ear. Five minutes later, could I help it if I sat nestled between the two girls on the Italian sofa, my arms around them to keep me warm? The blonde introduced herself as Britney, the redhead as Angela. Britney tsked and lightly touched my bruised eye, while Angela said it made me look even hotter. They both claimed they were big fans of my work. They liked to giggle and give each other kisses. I was more than okay with that. After the first round of kisses, though, their hands instantly gravitated toward my body, as though I was pure steel, and their fingers were magnets. They plucked off the buttons of my shirt, one by one, kissing each other every two buttons. I wondered what they would do by the sixth set. By then, I was half undressed, and Britney pulled my shirt open while Angela rubbed her hand over my crotch, inching closer to what had already begun to tent my jeans. My hands searched for their hips, thighs, and breasts. I took turns kissing one, then the other. I mean, it was only fair. They were both doing such a great job. Britney reached behind the couch to the glass display table and seized the neck of a half empty bottle of whipped vodka. Taking a swig, she leaned close to me and let the shot drop through her strawberry-glossed lips into my mouth. I swallowed the sweet liquid, the burn gone from it, and squeezed her tighter, tasting the flavor between our tongues. Angela sucked lightly at my neck, her mouth trailing over the curve of my jaw to my ear. “Let’s go upstairs,” she purred in her syrupy voice. I groaned, my body more willing than normal since it hadn’t found release with Missy earlier—we’d been going at it pretty hot and heavy when her boyfriend showed up. Unease and bad memories threatened to swamp me again, and for an awful second, my mind actually superimposed Rachel and Missy’s faces over Britney and Angela’s. Talk about fucked up. But then Angela’s hand slid over my groin and pressed. Rachel and Missy’s faces faded away. I was firmly focused on a goal now—getting the three of us off as hard and as many times as possible. “Upstairs?” Angela’s fluffy eyes waited hopefully. Breathless, blood boiling, I nodded. Both girls managed to shed their bras before we reached the top landing, giggling madly and tossing them over the banister onto the guests below. Whistles, hoots, and hollers echoed from downstairs. From somewhere, Tucker whooped triumphantly. “Get ‘em, Gar! Who wants body shots, ladies?” The three of us stumbled into one of the upstairs bedrooms, Angela wielding the vodka bottle by the neck, holding my hand in her free one. A couple was already in the room, but they took one look at me and excused themselves, leaving me in the room with Angela and Britney. Kicking the door closed, Britney hooked her finger into my belt loop and tugged me toward the bed, working those eyes and pouty lips like a fucking pro. She made quick work of my belt buckle while we walked, unbuckling it, then sliding the belt out of the loops. Angela clambered onto the bed, taking a pull from the bottle and purposely letting some drizzle out of her mouth, dripping over her chin, throat, and pert, plump breasts. I reached out to squeeze them even as I turned my head to crash my lips against Britney’s. Still standing next to me, her hands felt around in all four of my pockets until she found a condom. Finally, my jeans came off, pushed down around my thighs, followed by my Calvin Klein boxers. “Baby, you’re so big.” Her eyes danced with delight. Actress. It took one to know one, but at least she knew what to say, right? She ripped the package, removed the condom, and rolled it on me. Dropping to her knees so our profiles were to Angela, Britney enveloped my rock hard cock with the sweet, wet warmth of her mouth. My hand shot into her hair. The glorious pressure, the friction she provided, as her head bobbed back and forth, coiled around me. “Yeah,” I breathed hotly. “Take it all.” She moaned and took my cock down further, as if to demonstrate how well she could do what she was told. Meanwhile, Angela made a show of peeling off her panties. When she was completely naked, she crawled toward me, big bedroom blues ablaze with lust, her knees mussing up the sheets. She licked her lips, rose on her knees, and kissed me deeply. I twisted my torso toward her and slid my hands down her chest, smearing the vodka across her naked body, until my fingers found the liquid heat between her thighs. I bucked my hips forward, pushing my ache into Britney’s throat. She responded with a greedy moan, her nimble fingers trailing up my thighs to cup my balls and fondle to her heart’s content. I groaned my approval and gave her hair a tug. Angela and I went into full kissing mode as I pushed my tongue into her mouth, tasting the sweet sugary vodka with just a hint of cigarettes. She moaned while I stroked her, teased her, fingered her… She broke away from me, laid back, and opened her legs, giving me a front row view while she pleasured herself, middle finger caressing her slippery center. I watched, more aroused by the second, until Britney pulled my cock out of her mouth with a wet pop. She stood, turned around, and climbed onto the bed, positioning herself between Angela’s perfectly smooth thighs then burying her tongue inside her. Angela gasped and writhed. My cock at full mast, I hooked my fingers into Britney’s baby blue thong and dragged it over her perfectly round ass cheeks. Taking a moment to squeeze and admire what she so happily displayed for me, I licked my top teeth like a lion eyeing its next meal. With my shins touching the bed, I gripped her hips and plunged into her. Daaamn, that felt good. Apparently, she liked it too, since she moaned desperately. I was hoping she’d be a little tighter, considering how in shape her body was on the outside, but then again, she probably did this pretty often. No judgment on her. I mean, after all, I did too. Britney licked and sucked and fingered Angela while I fucked Britney, my release inching up my spine. She squeezed her pussy around me, opening her knees wider as if to take as much of me as she could, then she wiggled away all together. What was she going to do now? I could only imagine. Crawling over Angela’s body, she turned around and planted her knees on either side of the Angela’s face, sinking herself down. Instantly, Angela’s tongue sprang into action, and I used the backs of Angela’s knees to lift her legs so I could plunge into her. They both moaned in that theatrical, porn way. Britney mapped out her body with her hands, massaging her own breasts, as she gyrated her hips, gleefully surrendering to the pleasure. I have to say, it was pretty freaking hot. I took Angela’s legs and hooked them over my shoulders, the sight of her strappy heels as her only clothing even more of a turn on. Britney leaned forward, so we could kiss. We swapped positions like that, fucking for the next hour, until we all lay there in a heap of sweaty, sated flesh. Whew. It took a while for my body to cool down and to stop shaking. I felt drained. Empty. For a short time, I’d been granted relief from the sting of Missy’s betrayal and the bitterness of bad memories, but now they returned full force. My inner demons taunted me with my worthlessness, making me feel like shit in general. I’d been working my ass off and partying for two years in an attempt to rid myself of this feeling, and now this episode with Missy had broken through the wall and all I felt was pain. I stared at the textured ceiling, any remnant of physical pleasure swiftly subsiding. Next to me, the girls lay motionless, spent. Not long ago, I would have playfully slapped Britney’s ass then tickled Angela until they got up and dressed, but now, I just lay there. If they wanted to go, they could. If they wanted to stay, I didn’t care. I didn’t know them. I didn’t care about them. I didn’t know them enough to like them. Right then, I didn’t even like myself. But that wasn’t going to work. I was all I had. Me. My career. The partying. The booze and women. I had a life most guys would kill for. I had to remember that. Forcing myself to move, I turned to the girls. “Ladies, that was amazing. Thank you.” Angela propped herself on her elbows. “There’s more where that came from,” she purred. Suddenly, Tucker banged on the door. “Garrick,” he slurred. “Come take birthday shots with us. Before Liam passes out. Come on, bro…dry your dick and get out here.” I scrambled up to get dressed, ready to forget all that haunted me with the help of my friends and a lot of shots. The niggling feeling that I was pathetic pestered me, and I fought to push it out of my head. I don’t know what more I wanted, but I was inexplicably flooded with a desperate certainty that it wasn’t this. Chapter Two Gwen When I woke, I knew immediately by the feel of my luxurious bedding that I was in my old bedroom. Even the air was the perfect temperature, as if the universe somehow knew being too hot or too cold was unacceptable for those who were rich enough. Another clue was the smell of fresh flowers, which Matilda, my parents’ housekeeper, always replenished in the crystal vase on my nightstand. My childhood home was a lot like Cinderella’s glass slipper: It was magical and I was lucky to have it and the privileged life it represented, yet it was also an illusion. Most people couldn’t look beyond its outward beauty to see the imperfections. I don’t mind imperfections. They make us interesting. Stronger. They make life—and love—real because they test our mettle. It’s glass slippers and Prince Charming rescuing Cinderella that’s the stuff of fairytales. Cinderella would have been better off telling her evil stepmother to go fuck herself and striking out on her own. With a shake of my head, I giggled. God, it was a good thing I was an actress considering I had such a flair for the dramatic. Luckily, I didn’t have to deal with an evil stepmother. My parents loved me, and they loved each other. Yes, my dad could be majorly controlling, and sometimes exhibited a temper, but he was always there for me when I needed him. I stretched before getting out of bed, then brushed my teeth and, still in my pajamas, headed downstairs. Gray morning sun spilled in from the skylight, illuminating my way down the gleaming wood staircase. Yawning, my lungs made a lazy grab for clear-headedness. When I reached the bottom landing, my feet found warm wood, courtesy of the heated floors. “Good morning, Gwendolyn,” Mom said as I rounded the corner into the gourmet kitchen. In her ruffled apron, pearls, and tidy chignon, she stood near the stove, dicing fresh strawberries and bananas. Eggs over-easy sizzled in the frying pan, which was incredibly strange. My mom didn’t cook. We had a personal chef for that. “Would you mind starting the espresso maker?” She pouted. “We’re out of tea packets.” “Sure.” Blinking through my fugue of confusion, I turned toward the counter by the sink and stared at the contraption next to it. Hadn’t there been a juicer there last night? I crossed to the machine, plucked a brewing canister from the display rack, inserted it and switched the machine on. “Dad gets back from his conference on Friday, doesn’t he?” “I never left,” boomed a voice from behind me. I spun around, confronted by the regal, hulking image of my father dressed in a tailored suit. He towered over both my mom and me. Even at fifty, he was muscular and strong, and if it weren’t for his shock of silver hair, he’d probably pass for ten years younger. “What are you wearing, Gwendolyn?” he demanded. Puzzled, since my parents had bought my floral flannel pajamas for me last Christmas, I took a gander at my attire. Shock swept through me as I realized that, instead of the pajamas I’d just been wearing, I now wore the equivalent of Cinderella’s rags before they had been transformed into a ballgown: a lilac dress, the skirt smudged with grass stains where I had knelt to help Sean to his feet. He had picked me up for prom hours ago. We had been thirty minutes late getting home and Dad had been waiting on the porch with his hands in well-prepared fists. “I asked what you’re wearing?” Dad repeated, his voice diving into the heavily graveled growl it took on before one of his bouts of hollering. I rounded on my mother for help. She stood unfazed and, thanks to a glossy red ribbon threaded through her lips, absolutely silent. A beeping noise swam into my ears. The espresso must be done. A strange tingling sensation seized my right hand. When I looked back at the espresso maker, it transformed into the juicer, and my hand, now a bloody crooked stump, was jammed inside. I screamed, pulled my hand out, and turned to flee, but I couldn’t. I was surrounded on all sides by the pulpy, noxious walls of a rotting pumpkin. Vicious nasty rats, not cute little Disney mice, crawled over my bare feet and up my limbs. Panicked, I swatted at them, but couldn’t stop them from scurrying under my dress. Ripping through my chest, the rats tore into my heart and— With a stifled scream, I sat up, frantically searching my surroundings. Fine linens, check. Crystal vase, check. I fumbled to turn off the beeping alarm next to my bed, but my heart continued to pound frantically as I realized I’d been dreaming but I was in my old room in my parents’ house. Why? I’d gotten my own place over two months ago. For several seconds I feared it had all been a dream, not just me getting my hand pulverized in a juicer and attacked by rats, but me having actually moved out on my own. Chest heaving, I tried to catch my breath. The more time that passed, the more my senses came back to me. Finally, I remembered that yes, I now rented my own place. I’d merely spent the night because I was leaving town in a few days to begin filming in New Mexico, and my parents had wanted to spend some extra time with me. Last night we’d had dinner at the Club then afterward Dad and I had run lines. But I didn’t live here anymore. Hopefully, as much as I loved my parents, I never would again. I was just beginning to get used to being free of my dad’s constant scrutiny and well-meaning lectures. To not feeling like I was going to disappoint him every time I picked out an outfit myself or talked to a boy. Instinctively, I glanced at my nightstand where I’d placed the five-year-old prom picture of Sean and me. I don’t know why I kept it. It was a memento of a night no one would want to remember. Not because I hadn’t had a good time at prom, but because of what had come after. Police had set up a DUI checkpoint along the highway, funneling traffic into two lanes, and Sean had been thirty minutes late getting me home. My father had been waiting up for us. He didn’t give us time to explain. The second Sean had stepped out of his Corvette, Dad knocked him on his ass. Sean fought back for the first few punches while I shrieked for them to stop, but I knew, even as captain of the wrestling team, he didn’t stand a chance against a man who’d once been crowned Mr. Universe. While Mom stayed inside, watching from the frosted foyer window with her robe clutched closed, Dad accused Sean and me of having sex and promised to sue him for every penny he possessed if a child came from our "irresponsible union." I had never been so mortified. Sean and I had dated for two years, but after that night, he broke things off. Outside of the handful of days we had left in high school, I never saw Sean again. That was the day I learned that I wasn’t worth fighting for, that no boy or man would ever be strong enough to stand by me—not against my father, who stood as the contemporary version of a giant and a dragon in one exceptionally intimidating human-shaped body. And not against other hardships that life was bound to throw my way. At least I thought I’d learned that lesson. Until I’d been weak and Randall Stone had taught me the lesson all over again. * * * After attending Sunday morning church service with my parents, surviving one of Dad’s well-meaning pep-talks slash lectures during brunch, and promising (again) to stay out of trouble in New Mexico, I was comfortably seated in the back of one of his Lexuses and being driven home. As ridiculous as it was that he still insisted his driver transport me to and from his house or work, I didn’t fight him. In my mind, I’d already won the most important battle, which had been convincing my father to let me move out in the first place. My winning strategy had been telling him I wanted to immerse myself in the role of Lacey on Straightlaced, the new television show that Fluidity Films was producing with Sun Studio. My dad was a co-owner and executive producer at Fluidity. Unfortunately, the production company had become a bit of a joke in the film industry due to some seriously unsuccessful films. My dad was counting on Straightlaced—and thus, me—to turn Fluidity’s reputation around. When I’d told him moving out on my own was vital to getting into the head of my character—who had also just moved out on her own—Dad had hesitated, but had eventually given in. I’d been enjoying the heck out of my newfound freedom ever since. Not that I was partying every night or anything. I was serious about my career and saving the reputation of my dad’s production company. But it was nice to finally be out on my own. Thomas, an older gentleman who’d worked for my family since I was ten, pulled into Ventura Breezes with its towering palms and bright hibiscus landscaping. He slowed the car just enough to wave at the gate security and be let through. “It’s the next right,” I told him, taking in the pretty neighborhood I’d moved into just two months ago. It was a huge matter of pride for me that I was paying for my rent with my own money. I’d been a working actress long enough that I didn’t need my father to support me any longer, at least financially. “I know where you live, Miss Gwen,” Thomas chuckled under his breath, his dark eyes smiling at me in the rearview mirror. “Sorry, I know you do. Can you tell my father you walked me in but just leave me at the door, please? This is a highly secure neighborhood, and besides, my roommate will be waiting, so it’s okay. Really.” “Yes, Miss Gwen. But if anything happens…” “I’ll tell him it was my fault,” I interjected. Anything to keep Dad calm, relaxed, and believing that everything was okay, something that had become harder since he had found out about my relationship with Randall Stone six months ago, just after the fourth of July. Randall had been my romantic lead on the set of Diamond Eyes, and he’d been the first man I’d risked getting involved with since Sean all those years ago. It wasn’t difficult to see why I’d fallen for him—he was older, smart, sophisticated, and handsome—he’d also been a married man and had snowed me into believing he was legally separated and soon to be signing divorce papers when the truth was his wife had just gotten pregnant with baby number three. I hadn’t slept with Randall, but I’d gotten damn close, and it had almost killed me when I realized what a cliché I’d been. When my father found out, he’d almost had a heart attack—literally. My mom had called an ambulance and everything. Thankfully, he’d been okay, and afterward he’d spent an insane amount of money paying people off to stay quiet—including Randall himself—in order to protect my reputation and thus my career. After I accepted the role in Straightlaced, my stint on Diamond Eyes had ended with my character being killed off two weeks before Christmas. Now, almost a month later, my dad followed every move I made with an even closer eye than he had before. Not ideal, but still… My father had stuck by me. He always had. It made me feel like the worst daughter ever to think my foolishness had landed him in the hospital. From now on, I was going to make things easier on him, not harder. As Thomas reached 108 Malibu Way, a cute yellow home with white shutters, window flower boxes, and my pure white VW EOS Convertible sitting in the driveway, I had to stop myself from clapping my hands. It may not have been a ten-bedroom estate with maid and guest quarters like the house I grew up in, but it was mine. I got out the back and closed the door, leaning into Thomas’s open window. “Thank you, Thomas.” “Anything to see that pretty smile, Miss Gwen.” I pulled out the keys from my purse. “Bye.” Entering the house through the side door, I heard the din of dishes in the sink coming from the kitchen. “In here!” Violet called, her voice like pure sunshine to match the house. My father had made it very clear that the only way I could live on my own was if I had a roommate, and even she had to be pre-approved. Luckily, I was still best friends with my high school buddy, Violet, who had mentioned needing a roommate before I even told her I might be looking for one. All in all, it was the perfect match, and I couldn’t be happier. Violet stood at the kitchen sink, washing her NutriBullet free of kale and cucumber residue. I didn’t have to see it closely to know that’s what was in it. It was all she’d been having for lunch and dinner for a week now. “Lost eight pounds,” she sang, pumping a fist in the air. “That’s awesome. Go, you. So what’s this week gonna be, moving up to carrots and fruit?” I laughed, plopping my purse onto the counter stool. She set the dishes to dry and wiped her hands. “Actually, yes. Though carrots have way too much sugar, but my friend’s mom insists it’s packed with every nutrient a person ever needs to live, so I’m gonna give it a shot.” “Vi, it’s a carrot. You need more than that.” “I need to lose fifteen pounds is what I need.” “Why? You’re studying to be a nurse, not an actress. Be glad you don’t have the pressure of keeping fit if you want to keep a job.” “What if I want to be a hot nurse?” “You don’t need to lose weight. You need protein.” Violet rolled her eyes. “You and your protein. Your dad and his protein. God, I swear if he hadn’t been Mr. Universe when he was younger, you’d have probably lived a normal existence.” “Um, I hate to point out the obvious, but the reason I didn’t have a normal existence growing up wasn’t because of Mr. Universe.” I gave her a knowing look and took off the jacket I’d put on for breakfast with my parents. “Oh, that’s right. It’s because he’s been a high-up executive producer in Hollywood for thirty years, and he makes you dress like you’re going to a high-stakes business meeting just to visit his house. My bad.” She laughed to herself. “Don’t forget because I’m also an only child.” I grabbed a carrot, pointed it at her, and took a big, crunchy bite. “Three strikes.” Violet came around the corner, flipped up my tight ponytail, and plopped onto the sofa to flip through Netflix. “It’s a miracle you know how to have any fun at all.” “Who says I have fun?” “You know what I mean. You like gardening, fixing up the yard, cooking…” “I’d hardly call that having fun.” “Okay, but you’re not a party type like half the kids of your parents’ friends. You’ve stayed true to yourself, on the right path, with a good head on your shoulders.” “You mean I’m straightlaced?” I laughed, shaking my head at the irony. It was no wonder I’d been cast for the show. It was another thing I took pride in. The fact that despite my father being part owner and an executive producer at Fluidity, his position hadn’t influenced the director’s decision to hire me. In fact, if anything, the director, Lyle Steinberg, had said he’d hired me in spite of who my father was, not because of it. Normally a production company brought in a director of its choosing and called the shots, but in this case, it was Lyle who’d come to Fluidity, giving it first dibs on the production of a show for which Lyle had been handpicked as the director. He’d been afraid that by hiring me, my father would try to stifle his creativity, but after he’d seen my audition, he’d said he’d never find an actress more perfect for the role of Lacey. I slipped into my bedroom for a quick change into a tank top and worn yoga pants my father would never catch me in. Then, I returned to the living room to sit next to Vi. “Man, that was stressful.” “What was? Changing your clothes?” “Going home—well, my parents’ house. We start Straightlaced meetings and readings tomorrow, and my dad is going crazy.” “Because he wants it to go well?” “Because it has to go well. This series has to knock it out of the park, or else everything my father has invested in Fluidity over the past thirty years will be for nothing.” “And you’re the show’s leading lady. No pressure.” “Exactly.” At least it was a testament to how much my father believed in me, if he felt I could bring Fluidity back by leading the show. I couldn’t let him down. “Well at least you’ll be far away from him for a while for filming. You deserve a break. Your dad, he’s just so—so…” “Vi, don’t,” I said quietly, looking out the window at the tomato and basil plants just starting to hold up on their own. “My dad’s given me an amazing life for twenty-two years. I know everyone thinks he’s a huge asshole, but he’s not. He just doesn’t want life handed to me. He wants me to work hard for it, same as he did. So he comes across as a little…overbearing.” “More like tyrannical. He’s a bully, Gwen. He’s controlling and—” Vi’s mouth snapped shut when I glared at her. “Okay, fine. I know you don’t like it when I criticize him. But I just want what’s best for you.” “That’s because you’re a great friend. Thank you.” “Speaking about what’s best for you, what about your leading man? Do you finally know who’s going to play your leading man? Did they get that Blake Murphy guy from all those romantic comedies? I love him.” “I honestly don’t know. The director, Lyle, sort of mashed together a cast last month, and I haven’t heard from him, so I really don’t know who’s working with who. I’ll find out tomorrow.” “So your dad doesn’t even know?” I shook my head. “Lyle’s been holding things very close to the vest. It’s an unusual power dynamic for a director and production company, but since Lyle brought the project to Fluidity, and not the other way around…” “Wow, so your dad really is out of the loop.” “Yup. I’m doing this one all on my own.” The truth was, I was ridiculously nervous about how it would all go down but terribly excited at the same time. Dad wanted me to star in the show and help save his company, so on one hand, I was proud of myself. But on the other hand, the future of Fluidity Films was up in the air. Up to me. With only a mystery cast to help me make it rock. I, for one, was ready. To start a new leg of my career. To prove to my dad I could be independent and responsible and counted on. To let the memory of Randall go, once and for all. To get a full night’s sleep and a fresh start on life in the morning. I let out a deep breath and turned to Vi. “Can your diet allow for one celebratory mojito with me this evening? I’ll even use fresh mint from the garden and your NutriBullet.” Violet cringed. “Can you make mine with Stevia?” I smiled and bounced up from the couch. “Anything is possible.” Chapter Three Garrick Monday morning, when I arrived on the Sun Studios lot, operating on a few hours sleep and two five-hour energy drinks, I checked my appearance in my rearview mirror. Except for the black eye, I saw the exact image I wanted to present: disheveled, medium-length, black-brown hair, warm, olive skin, impeccable threads, and chocolate brown eyes lit with cocky assurance. In truth, Payton was supposed to be a bit of a bad boy, so my battle scar might not be such a big deal. I hoped. I chirped the alarm on my car and headed to the front entrance. Inside the building, I gave a string of “good mornings” to the security guard, front desk lady, and a bunch of other people who welcomed me with big smiles and yes, curious gazes and even a wince here and there or a smirk when they saw my eye. Having filmed at the studio before, I knew my way around and quickly found the breakfast buffet room. Before heading inside, I pulled out my phone to check for messages one last time, since I didn’t want to be caught thumbing through my phone at work. I sighed at another text from Britney followed by a new, pleasantly risqué́ selfie of Angela. I still wasn’t sure how they’d coaxed my number out of me, but I suspected it was when I was browning out in tequila. Not replying would only invite more texts throughout the day—I’d been through this before—so I grabbed the first lie that came to mind. Had fun 2. Headed into a meeting. Text u later. Even though I wouldn’t. Double-teaming had been fun for getting my kicks, but no way would I be hooking up while shooting this new show. Not because I didn’t want the paparazzi finding out, but because I didn’t want any random girls showing up on set. It had happened to me more than once, and it was embarrassing, not to mention awkward. I copied the text and pasted it into Angela’s message as well. On my own time, my whereabouts were always private, but sometimes during filming, it became public knowledge. Anyone could find me, and they had in the past, which still unnerved me. I had even changed my number two or three times since last summer. I hoped I didn’t have to do it again. “Is that real cream cheese?” asked a light-toned, sweetly feminine voice that still managed to hint at confidence. It was an alluring combination. “I believe it is,” another woman replied in a lower tone. “Least they could do for dragging us out here at the ass-crack of dawn.” I let out an internal chuckle. Ass-crack. So true. My attention snapped to the buffet table where two young women stood side by side, filling their plates with food. One towered above the other, tall and willowy, as though the lightest breeze could snap her in two. Her mousy blonde hair was pulled back into a disheveled bun. The sight of her struck a familiar chord, but I couldn’t remember where I’d seen her before. Pretty, I thought, but too wispy. The second girl cut a slender yet curvier figure—the athletic and outdoorsy type—with long, dark brown hair. She wore fitted black slacks and a matching blazer. From where I stood, I caught a glimpse of the blonde’s face but couldn’t check out the brunette without making my presence known, something I wasn’t quite ready to do. I leaned against the doorframe and listened instead. “Good,” the brunette said. “My bagel will be doused with it by the time I’m done.” The blonde bit into a mini cinnamon roll, wiping the corner of her lip with her pinkie finger. “No kidding. Glycemic index be damned.” I predicted this would devolve into a rant about shared hatred of calories and the task of staying fit. Women always discussed such boring subjects. True to her word, the brunette began to smother her bagel with cream cheese—my kind of girl. “I normally wouldn’t eat this way,” she said, stabbing the cream cheese with the knife again. “My dad was a health nut when I was younger.” The blonde cringed. “One of those granola types?” “You could say that. If it was processed or pre-packaged, it didn’t set foot in our house. So whenever I see food like this, I get stars in my eyes for it.” She giggled. The blonde laughed. “Trust me, I get it. My mom was the same, but I’ve been eating super healthy for so long now, I’m just used to it.” She ladled a heaping spoonful of fruit from a punch bowl onto her plate. The brunette nodded. “My dad was pretty hardcore. Is hardcore.” “About food?” “About everything,” the brunette said, and the blonde just nodded and picked at a few pieces of fruit. “He was Mr. Universe, so yeah, you could say I have to watch what I eat.” Wasn’t that contest presided over by a bunch of guys from Long Beach, selling workout equipment? Note to self, never meet her father without some serious prep time in the gym. Not that I would. Meeting parents was never part of the equation anymore when it came to my conquests. “Hell of a thing to have on a résumé if he wanted to apply somewhere intergalactically.” The brunette laughed. “Right?” I suppressed a chuckle. Maybe these girls would make fun friends if nothing else. Not that I kept many close friends. Now that my brother was out of the picture, Liam was the next closest thing, and even before he hit it big, he rarely answered his phone. Sometimes it got a bit lonely inside my head. Then again, the solitary life was the safe life. Little to no risk. I figured the blonde was around twenty-three, a couple years older than me and probably the brunette, who had a younger feel about her, though graceful and sophisticated too, as though she came from an upper class home and was accustomed to luxury. I hoped the enchanting sound of the brunette’s voice wasn’t a ruse. If her face held a fraction of the beauty, I’d be lucky to catch a glimpse of it. I watched as the blonde gave the mystery girl a once over in her perfectly fitted clothing. “That can’t be comfortable,” she sympathized. “Aren’t we just reading today?” The brunette shrugged. “My father discourages dressing for comfort almost as much as processed foods.” The blonde raised an eyebrow. “Do you always do what your father tells you?” “No,” the brunette replied quickly, almost self-consciously. “But let’s just say he plays a big part in my life.” She laughed quietly to herself. “I’m so sorry, I feel like you know way more about my father than you ever wanted to. I’m Gwen.” She held out her hand to the blonde. Gwen. I raked my mind for all the Gwens I knew in Hollywood. Was it Guinevere, another variation of it, or just Gwen? I needed to see her damned face for a complete picture. “Erica,” the blonde replied, shifting her plate to her left hand so she could offer Gwen her right one. “Oh.” Gwen’s voice lit up. “You’re the author. Erica Ellis.” “Guilty,” the tall blonde confessed with a lopsided grimace. Of course. Erica Ellis, author of Straightlaced, the book our TV series would be based on. It sat on my bedside table with her face plastered across the back cover for months, collecting dust. I’d picked it up exactly once in all that time. I’d never been big on researching roles, preferring to jump into them with my own twists. Colleagues praised me for it. Evidently though, Gwen had done her homework. “I can’t believe I didn’t recognize you,” Gwen cried. Erica shook her head. “I’d be a little offended if you had. I know I look different without the blowout and heavy make up. I really need to get that author photo redone.” “I fell in love with your book,” Gwen gushed. “I’m sure you get that all the time.” Erica chuckled and shrugged a frail shoulder. “I do, but never before from a critically acclaimed celebrity.” Critically acclaimed? My brow furrowed. Surely I knew this Gwen, or knew of her. But so far, I couldn’t place her. I straightened my jacket, getting ready to casually enter the room and take command, as though I hadn’t been eavesdropping this whole time. But then… “Do you know who else we’ll be working with?” Gwen asked. “I never heard back from Lyle.” I pulled back against the doorframe to keep listening. If my name came up, this was my chance to be the proverbial fly on a wall. Erica rolled her eyes. “Oh wow, I have the same problem. He never replies. It’s been such a hassle communicating with him. For a director, he’s pretty disorganized. But yes, I helped with the casting process, so I know who you’re working with. Garrick Maze is playing your Payton.” She donned a sly, flirtatious smile. My chest swelled with pride. Wait… Your Payton? So Gwen was…my female lead? I craned my neck for a better look. “Garrick Maze?” Gwen parroted with less enthusiasm. The disappointed tone in her beautiful voice instantly cut me down, and air leaked from my mouth like a deflating balloon. “The guy who starred in Blast Zone?” “One and the same,” Erica said, scrutinizing Gwen for a long moment. “You seem a little uncertain.” “No, it’s just...” I bore the weighty silence of her pause like one waiting for the punch line of a bad joke. What was she getting at? What was so bad about working with Garrick Maze? I heard he was a pretty awesome guy. “Isn’t he an action star?” Gwen asked. “I’ve seen several of his big films but never a romance. I’m not sold on him as Payton. Action actors have a pretty narrow range. Is it too late to cast someone else?” My mouth fell open. Thanks for the vote of confidence, sweetheart! Erica nodded pensively. “I had my reservations about him too, at first, but he was fantastic at auditions. Plus, the guy isn’t bad on the eyes and matches Payton’s description perfectly.” Damn right, I did…do. Gwen gave a noticeable sigh. “He’s talented, I suppose. I just don’t think he’s that attractive. Not for a romance anyway. I don’t know. I don’t believe the hype.” Fuuuuuck. My female lead was a ball-buster of the highest order. Oh, I’ll show you hype... I had endured just about enough of this. Cracking my neck and squaring my shoulders, I strolled into the room and headed straight for the bagels. “Ah, just what I needed this morning…a good glycemic index-loaded breakfast.” Erica noticed me first, and I smirked when she had difficulty swallowing the next bite of her breakfast. Gwen whirled around and immediately swallowed her shock. And I had to admit, so did I… Had my jaw not been held together with flesh and pride, it would have hit the floor. Gwen was a knockout from head to toe with green eyes, full pouty lips, and a light dusting of freckles across the curves of her cheeks and bridge of her nose. She had a holier than thou air about her and a contrasting fresh-faced beauty that left me panting. On the inside, of course. Right now, I was all aplomb and casual interest. The heat in my head rushed south, and I assumed a casual stance to conceal my conflicted feelings. It was hardly fair that I found her irresistible when she couldn’t care less for me. “You’re—” she started before her hair had even settled into place on her shoulders from the whiplash. Her gaze immediately homed in on my black eye and her lips pressed together tightly. “Hi.” I smiled what 99.99% of women considered to be my devastating smile. Gwen fell into the other 0.01%, of course. “Garrick Maze, in the flesh.” “Um, yeah…G-Gwendolyn Vickers,” she stammered, scrambling to reassemble the pieces of her sophistication. Her full name jogged my memory into a mad sprint. Gwen Vickers, the soap star? Oh, I’d heard of her. “Is that so? Your frigid reputation precedes you. Good to know it’s not inaccurate. I hate false gossip.” I turned and nodded at Erica. “And Miss Erica Ellis. I’ve heard nothing but great things.” “Likewise, Garrick.” She glanced at Gwen. “That is…um…” Gwen shifted uncomfortably. “How long were you standing there?” “Long enough.” I grabbed a plate and placed one piece of cantaloupe on it. “You know, you shouldn’t lurk in doorways,” Gwen said with a nervous laugh. “It’s probably the one good piece of advice Disney taught us. Is that what happened to your eye? Did you sneak up on someone who didn’t react well?” I flashed my teeth in an exaggerated grin. “Just living up to my narrow-ranged unattractive hyped-up action hero image.” Gwen’s cheek flushed a dark red and her throat rippled as she swallowed hard. I should have been thrilled she felt uncomfortable, but when she bit her lip all I could think about was kissing her. My teeth nipping at her mouth. My tongue slipping inside. Erica thumbed behind her. “I’m going to go grab a cappuccino.” Quickly making her exit into the adjacent room lined with various vending machines, Gwen and I were left all alone. The tension mounted the longer we stared at each other. “Ah, Garrick,” boomed a voice from the same doorway I had been standing in. Over my shoulder, I spotted Lyle Steinberg, dressed to the nines in one of his infamous mismatched suits. His thick, black-rimmed glasses sat askew on his face, which he corrected after pushing his thinning black hair out of his eyes. His bushy beard made seeing his smile unnecessarily difficult. Aside from losing a little weight, as evidenced by the way his slacks sagged, he hadn’t changed since we’d worked together on another project last year. Creating a square lens with his hands, he placed them over his view of me. “So glad you could make it. Doozie of a shiner there, but if it doesn’t fade completely by filming, make-up can deal with it. If not, I’ll have Erica write something into the script.” I hadn’t realized how anxious I was about Lyle seeing my eye until then. The guy was scattered but cool. “Sounds good, Lyle. Thanks.” “When were you going to notify me that you accepted the role?” I laughed, and tossed my plate and uneaten fruit in the garbage. “I replied to your email the same day you sent it, sir.” The director’s hands danced a flurry of gestures. “Dreadful thing, e-mail. Anyway, I see you’ve met Miss Vickers. Wonderful, just wonderful. What a pair you two will make. Splendid. Grab some breakfast, and we’ll get started in the conference room across the hall. Or maybe it’s the one next door. What room is this?” I cast a glance at Gwen then at her drowning bagel. Drawing my attention back to her annoyed face, I played the winning hand just as Erica breezed back into the room with a steaming Styrofoam cup. “I already ate.” I patted my abs. “I never do bagels anyway. Trying to do the eat-clean thing. Gotta take care of my body, right?” Gwen frowned. Erica brought herself to an abrupt halt, closed her eyes, and exhaled an ominous sigh. Lyle, on the other hand, was perfectly happy in his oblivious corner of the universe. “Ah. Well, then, why don’t you come along with me now? I need to run off a few more copies of the script, and I’m dying to know what’s new. And maybe you’ll tell me the story behind that black eye.” Not going to happen. Not the true story anyway. “You got it, boss,” I said, turning to bow to the girls. “Ladies.” With a farewell nod, I turned on my heel and strolled out with Lyle. A moment later, I heard the rustling of plastic and a dull thud, as though someone had dropped an untouched bagel into the trash. * * * Lyle presided over the meeting, as Gwen, Erica, two other guys, and I took our seats in the conference room. I recognized Tyler Tapia—about five-foot-ten, brown hair, eyes outlined by black-rimmed glasses, and glued to his phone. The other guy—blond, blue-eyed, and built like a jock-boy-next-doorsy type—topped my own six-foot-one by a couple of inches and took a seat quietly. Tyler was an enigma to me. He sat on a strangely untouchable tier of the acting world, in spite of his age. I’m pretty sure he was only twenty, even though he’d been in the business for over a decade. A tad nerdy at first glance, he radiated a suave sexiness when the glasses came off. With mussed hair and a tight, graphic tee that showed off his lean, muscular build, I was fairly certain he could pass for my brother. Mysterious and inventive, he could be and do anything with unnatural ease. Guy could have probably gotten into Harvard and joined NASA, for all I knew. Yet he never graduated high school, was always glued to his phone, and was too busy to give the world the time of day. If the rumors were true, it was one of his healthier addictions, the kind that wouldn’t land him in rehab for the second time. Or third or fourth. I’d never actually seen him drunk or high, and I was hoping I never did. The guy was too talented to throw his career away, which almost happened when he was fifteen and disappeared from the spotlight for three years. I’d worked with out-of-control addicts before, and the drama was a royal pain in the ass. “As you may have guessed,” Lyle began, tapping on the mahogany table, “I’ve gathered you all here today to get acquainted before we start shooting. Straightlaced will follow the book as closely as possible. I’ll be working hand-in-hand with Miss Ellis”--he gestured to one side, then, realizing she wasn’t sitting there, quickly corrected his hand to the other side--“to minimize inaccuracies and misconceptions. Let’s go around the room and share a bit. Garrick, we’ll start with you, since you’ve got top billing.” Comfortably settled into my chair with arms folded and heels crossed, I grinned at everyone, lingering the longest on Gwen who avoided my gaze like bad sushi. “Morning, everyone. I’m Garrick Maze. I started acting when I was fifteen. This will be my first TV show. Until now, my work has largely been in film. I’ll be playing Payton.” Gwen smiled, though she still avoided looking directly at me. “My name is Gwen Vickers. I was on the daytime soap series, Diamond Eyes, for three consecutive years until my role wrapped up before Christmas. I’ll be playing Lacey.” Lyle nodded to the jock guy in the seat next to Tyler. “And you, sir?” “Hey, I’m Shane.” A dazed gleam hung in his eyes, as though he were trapped in an alien world, and we all spoke foreign languages. I could have guessed his next statement before it even left his mouth. “I’ve uh...never acted before. I’m playing Mitch.” “What?” Gwen’s tone was incredulous and for a half second she looked embarrassed by her outburst before she wiped her expression clean. “I’m playing Mitch,” the guy repeated, checking the rest of our faces for any sign of support. “No. Before that.” She rewound an imaginary tape with her fingers. Understanding dawned on Shane who repeated himself a second time with less enthusiasm. “This will be my first acting job.” “You’re kidding, right?” Gwen said, looking like she’d swallowed a bug. “No,” Shane said. “My little sister was auditioning for Lacey. I just drove her and happened to get the part, I guess.” “You guess,” Gwen echoed then turned to Lyle. “Mr. Steinberg, this book made the New York Times Bestseller List. The fan base is huge—they’re expecting seasoned professionals. I’m sorry, Shane. It’s nothing personal.” She glanced at Shane for a moment. “But Lyle...isn’t this a bit of a risk?” Lyle’s chest filled with air, as he considered his response, but all heads turned when Tyler spoke. “Actually,” he said without looking up from his Galaxy, “the success of a book turned visual doesn’t necessarily correlate with that of its printed parent, let alone the popularity of its top billers.” He paused to scroll down something on his screen. “Look at Eragon, The Great Gatsby, The Golden Compass, The Scarlet Letter, Bicentennial Man, Stardust, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Water for Elephants, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Inkheart…” he rattled off. Holy crap. It was like he had the line memorized long before the meeting. “All of them bestsellers with a star-studded cast, yet they crashed and burned at the box office. Why? Because literary stardom doesn’t necessarily translate to visual success. So, it’s not so much us, the actors, but our screenwriters who dictate whether we’re eventually picked up or not.” I looked at Shane. “That’s his way of standing up for you.” Gwen crossed her arms and glared at Tyler. “I wasn’t speaking to you. I was speaking to our director. And your attitude could use some work.” “My bad.” Tyler let out a long, heavy sigh. “Are we disputing my argument or my attitude?” Again, Gwen looked flustered before quickly regaining her composure. I found it fascinating, the way she could so quickly hide her reactions. Sure, she was an actress, but she wasn’t playing a role right now. Did that mean she was always on? That she never just let herself be who she was, shields down? And why did the idea of that bother me so much? Why did it make me want to take her aside and spend time with her and keep at her until I learned everything about her that she normally kept hidden? Because I got the feeling, despite her balls-to-the-wall attitude we were getting glimpses of, she hid a lot. She folded her hands on the table, the wooden surface holding up against the burden of her strained smile. “I’m sorry. Who are you again?” “This is Tyler Tapia,” Lyle introduced with a wide swipe of his arm. “Our resident prodigy.” “Yep,” Tyler acknowledged. “That’s me.” Gwen, looking like she had swallowed her tongue, volleyed her attention between the director and Tyler’s bored face. “Didn’t you win an Academy Award when you were twelve?” “Yep.” Tyler still sat there, not looking up from his phone. “Wait,” Gwen said, picking up a pencil and tapping it on the table. “If Tyler has an award under his belt, why does Garrick get top billing?” I straightened in my chair. Her question indicated that despite trying so hard to ignore me, she was still thinking about me. Maybe she’d never stopped. Sure, it could just be annoyance that I caught her talking shit about me, but I was hoping it was more than that. I immediately frowned at my thoughts. I’d known Gwen for less than an hour. She was my co-star. Yes, I screwed around a lot, but I never screwed around with someone I was filming with, ever. So why the hell should it matter whether Gwen was attracted to me or hated my damn guts? “I do mostly indie films,” Tyler answered in a flat-lined tone before Lyle could scrounge up an explanation. “Greater depth, deeper meaning.” Swallowing her envy in light of his potent indifference, Gwen sighed. “Well, Tyler, care to turn your phone off and join us in some greater, deeper team bonding? Today is the first day of work.” Five points for Gwen. As much as I liked Tyler in spite of his aloofness, the phone thing was getting to me. Even I made sure to turn mine to vibrate before we started. Tyler didn’t miss a beat, the inflection in his voice and expression almost undetectable. “The average human brain can handle only three to four tasks at once on top of maintaining all bodily functions.” I rubbed the back of my neck. “Oh, boy, here we go.” “I can easily process twice that much. So not only can I walk, talk, and chew gum, Gwendolyn, I can also write blogs, read articles, and solve three Sudoku puzzles in the time it takes you to do your makeup.” “It only takes me fifteen minutes to do my makeup,” Gwen said. “Well, then, I rest my case, don’t I?” Raising his eyes, he leveled Gwen with a stare that could have stopped an oncoming train. “The phone stays on.” With that, he resumed his mad thumbing across the screen. “I don’t know about you all, but I’m impressed.” Shane glanced around, suppressing a chuckle. I turned to Gwen, wanting to get her to relax. To stop worrying so much and just enjoy getting to know her co-stars. “Tyler gets cranky when he’s bored,” I said. “You’ll learn to love him.” “That seems unlikely,” she said flatly, turning to Lyle to bring some sense of order to this melee. Tyler looked at me briefly and rolled his eyes. I could tell he thought Gwen was an uptight bitch. I’d tend to agree with him if it wasn’t for the way her face had paled and the near-desperate look that had come over her since the meeting had begun. In truth, she looked a little like she wanted to hurl, and she was biting her lip punishingly, the way girls sometimes did when they wanted to stop themselves from speaking…or crying. Interesting. Lyle offered Gwen an ignorant smile. “This is going splendid, don’t you think?” I suppressed a smile when Gwen tapped the pencil a little harder to drive her point home, unable to help admiring her tenacity. “So we have an action hero, a know-it-all brainiac with a phone for a limb, and a third unestablished person, no offense Shane, who has absolutely no experience whatsoever…” “No acting experience,” Shane cleared up for her. “I’m sorry. No acting experience for this acting job.” I threw my hands up, wanting to get the meeting moving but more than that wanting to stop Gwen from alienating Tyler and Shane before things even got started. “That about sums it up.” I leaned in Gwen’s direction and mock-whispered, “Wait, I’m the brainiac, right?” Her eyeballs shot mental bullets at my forehead before turning to Lyle. “And you think this is the right formula for this TV series, Mr. Steinberg?” “Said our leading lady who’s never done anything but Kellogg’s commercials and one daytime soap in her life,” Tyler added. “Lucky for you—or unlucky depending on who you ask—you’re Richard Vickers’s daughter.” Richard Vickers’s daughter? Executive producer of Fluidity Films, the production company filming Straightlaced? The same man with over two hundred producer and executive producer credits to his name who used to hit it out of the stratosphere every time but had suffered a major fall during the past few years thanks to a number of box office flops? It had gotten to the point that being connected to a Fluidity Films project was considered somewhat of a curse. If not for Lyle’s involvement in Straightlaced, I wouldn’t even have considered joining the cast. I suddenly realized why Gwen would be taking this project even more seriously than the rest of us. She was under enormous pressure, not just to advance her own career, but also to help her father and Fluidity Films save face. Even as she was doing so, she’d have to face accusations, just like the one Tyler had made, that the only reason she’d even gotten the role was because her father had influenced the final casting decisions. My gaze shot to Gwen, and to my surprise, instead of looking uncomfortable, her eyes blazed with pride and genuine passion. “I am lucky to be my father’s daughter, Tyler, and if you choose to think that means I was granted special treatment, I’m not going to waste my breath trying to change your mind. On the other hand, don’t diss soap operas. At least not the one I worked on.” Tyler’s eyes flashed with a hint of respect just as Erica held a hand up. “I think that’s enough team bonding for today. Don’t you, Lyle?” “Yes, yes, of course.” Lyle removed his glasses and ran a wrinkled cleaning cloth over them. “Erica, why don’t you tell them a bit about the book and our vision for the series—food for thought before we break off for the day. Tomorrow, we’ll reconvene for part one of the read-through.” “I think that would be a great idea,” Erica said, sitting up a little straighter. I listened while Erica laid out the book’s plot and points most critical to emphasize in the show. The gist of her explanation, like most romance novel summaries, boiled down to two people in opposite walks of life who were never supposed to fall in love, but did. Surprise, surprise. Such bullshit. Everyone knew love didn’t actually work that way and if they didn’t, they should. I may have experienced my fair share of heartache at a younger age, but it taught me a lot just the same. After a while, she began repeating her same points, and Lyle did nothing to stop her, so I found myself tuning out and becoming far more interested in the super-composed way Gwen held herself. She still refused to look at me even though she had to feel my eyes locked on her. Clearly, I had gotten under her skin. It was only a matter of time before I got into her head too. I couldn’t help wondering about something, half wistfully and half nervously, as I watched the way she rolled the tip of her pencil in her mouth: If I wanted it, how long would it take me to get into her bed? Chapter Four Gwen “You can do this,” I assured myself for the third time, firmly rooted in the back of my father’s Lexus again on the way back to Sun Studio. After leaving yesterday, I’d practically stumbled into my house, mustering just enough energy to strip off my clothes before collapsing in bed, where I’d pulled the covers over my head and hidden until Vi had pulled me out for dinner. God, it had been a long day. And to make it worse, I’d come off as a total bitch to almost everyone, all because I feared the entire show was going to be a huge disaster and somehow, my father was going to find a way to blame me. People had no idea what it took to keep Fluidity Films going for over thirty years. They had no idea how much my father had sacrificed, the hard work and dedication he’d put in, the stress and endless hours he’d devoted. It didn’t seem fair that after all that, the company was floundering and now the one director who could save it had carte-blanche to hire no-name actors and action heroes who had no business being in as critical a show as Straightlaced. I had nothing against Shane or Tyler or Garrick as people. Well, maybe Garrick, just a little. But that was mostly because he had a reputation as a major partier slash manwhore, and the guy seemed to get off on antagonizing me. Really, could I blame him? It wasn’t like we’d met under the best of terms. The truth was, I found him very attractive, and had only said the opposite because I’d been surprised to hear he was my leading man. I’d seen a couple of his movies and developed a little crush on him. After what had happened with Randall, I’d immediately panicked at the idea of having strong chemistry with my co-star again. Then there was Erica Ellis, all cool and professional. The last thing I wanted was to look like an air-headed fan girl or give away how intimidating it was to be working with a bestselling author. But after the way I’d acted yesterday, Erica probably thought I was a bitch too. Ugh, this project was quickly devolving into a disaster. “Miss Gwen?” In the rearview mirror, Thomas appraised me with acute concern. “I’m fine, thank you,” I said. Any confession of weakness or uncertainty would make it back to my father in record time. Donning an assertive smile, I collected my things and opened the door. “I’ll see you back here at three. Thank you.” “Yes, miss. Have a pleasant day.” “You too, Thomas.” For the second time this week, I stood on the sidewalk staring at the green and white building where I grew up most of my life. If I put in enough time of my own, I might be producer here one day. But only if I kept things together. And did my part to get Fluidity Films back on the right track. Thomas drove away, and I muttered to myself once again, “You can do this.” Mustering my courage, and determination, I straightened my jacket and marched inside. “Good morning, Miss Vickers,” Norm, the front door security guard, and Bettina, the secretary chimed in near-unison. “Good morning,” I replied as I turned the corner at the first hallway and strolled into the meeting room. Garrick was already there, looking completely nonchalant and ready at the same time. How did he manage to do that? I knew I looked presentable in my tailored slacks and blouse with the top button artfully undone, but I still felt tense, while he looked like he’d just rolled out of bed after having lots and lots of sex. Erica, as amazing as she was, wore what looked like a potato sack with a belt. The girl was a brilliant author, but my God, someone get this woman on What Not To Wear. Maybe if she didn’t completely hate me, I could give her some pointers. Maybe we could even hang out together. I was going to be in New Mexico for quite a long time without Vi as my support system. It would be nice to have a female friend while I was there. Everyone took their seats, mine the farthest from Garrick, then Lyle began… “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Today, I’d like us to do a read-through of the script. Let’s go as far as we can in four hours. Tomorrow we’ll pick up where we leave off. After that, it’s T-minus three days until we head to Albuquerque to begin filming.” “I’m excited to be back in New Mexico,” Erica said. “I wrote the book while enrolled at UNM. It’s pretty specific as far as the setting. All real places down to the color of the street signs and the bars I mention.” Shane opened his copy of the book, browsing through the table of contents. “Are the people real, too?” “Some of them are based on real people, yes, but that’s how it usually is in novels.” She laughed politely. “No real names are used.” I supposed that was half the fun of writing—getting back at people who’d done you wrong by casting them in your book as jerks or conniving bitches. Maybe one day I would write a book and name my Randall character Scandall. Or Lamedall. “So, this disclaimer,” Shane said, flipping to the first page, “about any resemblance to people living or dead being completely coincidental...” “Is bullshit.” Erica smiled then cocked her head to one side, as if asking, Any other questions? Tyler actually looked up from his phone for a nanosecond to crack a smile. “Anyway…” Lyle coughed explosively and smoothed down his thin hair. “We open with a scene where Lacey is in her room, unpacking her last box after moving into her house.” Garrick lifted his hand. “She bought a house?” “She’s renting,” Erica clarified. “Dirt cheap to do so out there.” “As a freshman?” Garrick asked again, narrowing his eyes. “Yep.” Erica leveled off her script with a sharp smack against the tabletop. “The dorms get pretty loud, and she can’t afford to get sucked into that scene. She’s convinced that living in the dorms would mess up her studies and trash her dreams of becoming a veterinarian. Besides, her house is well within walking distance, and she enjoys the exercise.” “Girl should have amazing legs then.” For the first time that day, Garrick looked at me. Then he pushed back a bit from the table and craned his neck aside to glimpse around the table. “Are your legs amazing, Gwen?” I flushed and scooted closer to the table, tucking my legs farther underneath me, away from his prying eyes. But darn if I didn’t wonder if he liked what he saw, even if my legs were currently hidden by my tailored black slacks. “Let’s begin.” Lyle opened his copy of the script, scribbled and re-scribbled over so much that I could hardly tell the difference between his text and the computer’s. “Lacey is in her room studying, dressed for bed. The time is nine p.m. and she’s quizzing herself on the last of her vocabulary. We can skip to the part where she hears music coming from the house next to hers. Page three.” Everybody flipped to the right page. “She gets out of bed, throws on some clothes and shoes, and marches over to their garage, which is opened a few inches for fresh air. She knocks. Payton opens the side door, revealing Mitch and Benny seated in their practice room behind him. Gwen, if you would…” “Hi,” I said, reading Lacey’s first line. “Well, hello to you,” Garrick purred in his lewdest voice. “I moved in next door a few weeks ago. My name’s Lacey.” Erica raised her finger. “The next few lines are said back-to-back with no beats in between until Lacey speaks again. These three boys have practically grown up together and know each other’s patterns of conversation inside and out. Feel free to put personality into it.” PAYTON: “Aw.” Garrick, as Payton, pouted. “What happened to the old stoner dude?” MITCH: “Yeah, we loved the old stoner dude.” With just that one line, my worries about Shane’s ability to handle his part waned slightly. He actually didn’t sound that bad. PAYTON: “He was an awesome dude.” When he spoke, Tyler sounded wistful. BENNY: “That dude gave us free weed.” PAYTON: “Dude.” MITCH: “Dude.” BENNY: “Duuuude.” Tyler added just the right amount of drawl and lazy nod to his words. Erica laughed and clapped her hands. LACEY: “As I was saying. I’m your new neighbor.” PAYTON: “I’m guessing there’s no chance of us bumming hits off you then?” I donned a sour smile. LACEY: “Not a single one, duuude.” PAYTON: “Well, I’m Payton.” LACEY: “Nice to meet you. I think...” PAYTON: “This is Mitch.” Lyle nodded. “Good. Now as you all know from reading the book, Mitch is bi-sexual. Erica?” “Yes,” Erica said. “But Mitch keeps that close to the vest, posing as a straight advocate for homosexual rights rather than a member of the community itself.” Lyle gestured to Shane. “Shane, how would you describe your character?” Shane looked like a deer caught in a fence for a moment, but answered slowly and clearly. “From what I’ve read? He puts on a brave face when a situation calls for it, but he still feels like a coward or a fake. He suffered from abuse as a child. He’s all smiles on the outside, but he’s hurting pretty bad inside.” Something resembling distress flickered across Shane’s face just then, though I was probably imagining it. “Nailed it,” Erica said. “Each of your characters has some significant hurdles they’ll have to overcome throughout the show. We’ll focus more on Payton and Lacey in the first half of the season.” She looked at Garrick and me. Lyle picked up where Erica left off. “The second half of the season will focus on Mitch’s history of abuse and Ben’s drug and alcohol addiction.” From the corner of my eye, I sensed movement. I looked up. Shane’s face looked blank. And even though he was still looking at his script, it looked like Tyler’s fists had tightened a bit when Erica mentioned Ben’s drug and alcohol addiction. That’s when I vaguely remembered hearing the word addiction connected to Tyler Tapia’s name. He didn’t look like a junkie, but outward appearances meant nothing in this business. Actors were called actors for a reason. Diffusing the tension, Shane lifted his script an inch off the table. “The first book covers Lacey’s first year, right?” he asked, and everyone seemed to relax. “And the band’s rise to the top?” “That’s right.” Erica sat back and swiveled in her chair. “If the show does well, I’m hoping they’ll renew the contract for the second season, which we’ll base on the second book.” “Speaking of the band. I should probably warn all of you that I can’t sing a lick,” Garrick mumbled. “Friend of mine will be dubbing my singing parts.” He glanced at me, as if expecting me to make a snotty comment. It made me frown. I couldn’t sing a lick either and even if I could, I hated to think that he or any of the others expected me to be so catty. Obviously, however, in voicing my concerns yesterday, I’d given them reason to think that. My shoulders drooped slightly but I straightened them. I’d made the mess. I’d have to clean it up. “Yes, yes,” Lyle said. “We’ve got a great band connected to the show. Can’t wait to hear them. Now, moving on.” We spent the next two hours reading through the season’s episodes with Erica dictating, explaining, and correcting anything mispronounced. I was hoping my tension with Garrick would dissolve after a good, bonding read-through, but in fact, it thickened. With every scene that was filled with wit and rancor between Lacey and Payton, the animosity between us escalated. When the morning was finally over, Lyle called lunch. Thank God. “That wraps up Episode Three. You’re all free to break for lunch now. We have catering in the lobby. Meet back here in thirty. Or forty. Did I allot forty for lunch?” he asked Erica, but Erica had already scuttled from the room, and Lyle was left guessing what was on the agenda. His voice trailed off, as we all filed out into the hall. Garrick strolled by me, and I caught him by the arm, as Shane and Tyler ambled on ahead of us. “Hey,” I started uneasily without a clue as to what I was going to say. All I knew was that we couldn’t go on this way. It was bad mojo and would transfer to the screen. “Hello.” He made a big show of checking behind him, as though I might be talking to someone else. “Are you lost? Is the apocalypse coming? Because I can’t come up with another reason why we’d be having a conversation.” I sighed. “Can I talk to you? Do you have a moment?” “Sure. I’ll pencil you in.” He patted himself down, checking all his pockets. “Damn, I’ve misplaced my day planner. How may I help you?” I massaged my temples, wishing I had snatched the ibuprofen off my dresser on the way out this morning. “Please, spare me the sarcasm. This is difficult enough.” “You’re not breaking up with me, are you?” he asked with insufferable sincerity despite the laughter in his eyes. “It’s because I’m not attractive, isn’t it?” I wanted to smack him. “I swear, if I had duct tape...” “Oo, kinky.” “Listen,” I said, “before you say anything else, I want to apologize for my behavior yesterday. That was really rude of me, and I hadn’t even met you yet. I’m not in the habit of pre-judging people before I’ve met them. So…I’m sorry.” He blinked, having the decency to look amazed. “Really?” “Yes.” I wilted. “Sometimes, I come off too strong, too judgmental, when really, I’m just trying to make sure things go right. I’m under a lot of pressure lately, not to mention I’m way intimidated by you and Erica. I didn’t want Erica to think I was some stupid little fan girl. She’s published and unbelievably successful at twenty three, only one year older than me.” “Wow. Yeah. You’re a real spinster. Better step it up before you’re in your grave.” I smacked him in the arm, and admittedly, a thin smile came to my lips. In addition to being super hot, he really was equal parts adorable and aggravating. “Just listen. I didn’t mean what I said about you not being capable of taking on anything other than an action role. It was highly unprofessional, and I hope it won’t come between us on set.” “Wow, I kind of like you better when you’re honest.” He grinned, and I swore for a second he looked like he had a juicy secret that he could barely stop himself from telling me. I immediately grew wary. He rocked back on his heels, his hands casually lodged in the front pockets of his stonewashed denims. “Apology accepted.” “Really?” I scrutinized his every feature, waiting for him to cry psych. But he didn’t. “I didn’t expect it to be that easy.” He gave me a noncommittal shrug. “Well, to be honest, it didn’t bother me that much.” Stunned, I blinked. “It didn’t?” “No.” He turned that barbed smile on me again. I’d just waltzed right into his trap. “On the contrary, it was kind of nice to meet a girl who didn’t want to jump my bones the first chance she got.” A spark of unwanted jealousy ignited in my chest. “I take it you don’t meet many of those types of girls.” “Almost never. That is, unless I search YouTube and stock up on slanderous comments and raucous hate mail. Those are mostly from guys, though, the jealous schmucks. The tabloids are typically pretty truthful and kind.” Having had my close call with bad publicity thanks to Randall and taking into account the care I exercised to stay out of the paparazzi’s path, I only wished I could say the same. “Oh. Must be nice.” I cocked a brow. “I wonder what truth they’d report about how you got that black eye.” Something uneasy—like guilt and anger and regret, all rolled into one—flickered over his face. “Well, with all those girls trying to jump my bones, there’s bound to be a jealous boyfriend lurking about.” His tone was joking but he wasn’t as relaxed as he’d been. I could have pounced on his change in mood. Tried to pick at an obvious wound. But I didn’t want to. We’d already wasted enough time thanks to the way I’d insulted him yesterday and besides, God knew I had enough secrets of my own to want to go poking at others’. Plus, there was truth in his tone, too. Whatever had happened, he’d been deeply affected by it. “Sounds wonderful,” I said lightly. He’d been watching me carefully, but at my joking response, Garrick’s expression cleared and his body relaxed slightly. “It’s actually horrible,” he countered with a theatrical scoff. “I can’t go anywhere or do anything without being recognized and half-mobbed. Not to mention all the gifts that come via UPS.” I clucked my tongue at him. “Poor you, being so famous.” I rolled my eyes. “Right? Life would be so much simpler if the world hated me the way I presumed you did.” I sighed. Okay, fine. So maybe we weren’t calling a truce here. And if he was going to continue to dish it out… “Girls must be throwing themselves at your feet.” “Women actually, especially the more experienced ones. Rawrr,” he said. “Rough life, I’m sure,” I practically growled. Garrick’s eyes danced with dare, as he leaned closer. “You’re regretting apologizing to me, aren’t you?” “With every fiber of my being.” But not really. I was actually having to work hard to hold back a laugh. I was used to working with men who were cocky, and Garrick was certainly that. But he had such a charming, playful side to him, and he obviously had no problem poking fun at himself and the whole fame game thing. For a man as sinfully good looking—and yes, talented—as him, it was refreshing. And intriguing. It made me wonder what other hidden depths there were to him. He threw his head back and let out a sincere laugh. He was really having loads of fun with me. “Too late to turn back now,” he said. Indolent steps backward took him down the hall in the direction of the lobby and lunch. “I’ll win you over one day, Gwendolyn, one way or another.” “Yeah, sure you will.” “You’ll fall just like they all do. It’s inevitable, doll face.” I drew my eyebrows together, as though that were the silliest thing I’d ever heard. “Garrick Maze, I wouldn’t fall for you if you were the last eligible man on Earth.” “Even if I was younger than you?” He grinned. I’d been playing at keeping up the animosity between us, but at his implication, I narrowed my eyes. I was not older than him. Was I? “Garrick, Gwen.” Shane poked his head around the corner at the end of the corridor. “You better get in here before we lick the cheese tray clean.” “Thanks, Shane,” Garrick hollered, patting down his perfectly flat stomach. “Man, I’m starving. Time to eat more fruit and carbs. Shall we?” He stuck his arm out, expecting me to take it. “Our public needs us.” I breezed past him. “And what you need is a kick in the ass.” “Only if you’re offering.” He dropped his arm and fell into step beside me. I once again fought the urge to smile and increased my pace to a brisk walk, but I couldn’t shake him. “Do me a favor, and only speak when you have a line.” He chuckled. “As you wish, Lacey.” * * * “Welcome back, everyone,” Lyle said, as we milled into the room after lunch. I planted myself as far away from Garrick as I could. “What was I going to say?” Lyle said under his breath, as if trying to remember something. “Oh! I had a thought while we were all on break. Lacey and Payton have their first kiss in the episode we’ll be reading next. I think it would be a good idea if we went ahead and inserted a real practice kiss where the script dictates to break the ice between our hero and heroine. Sound good?” His eyebrows waited expectantly, as his glance volleyed between Garrick’s and mine. I could have died. I’d just started finding myself drawn to Garrick in a way that had nothing to do with his good looks, and having to deal with that while at the same time having my mouth plastered against his truly frightened me. Staring at Lyle as though he’d just announced the beginning of the apocalypse, I tried to piece together an excuse. I just vomited in the bathroom. I’m still getting over mono. I have the zombie virus, and it’s only communicable through the lips. “I think that’s a great idea, Lyle,” said the most irritable voice in the world. Garrick grinned from ear to ear, drumming his fingers on the table. I pursed my lips, eyes wide in silent, internal shouting to ream him for his comment. “Fantastic.” Lyle clapped once and rubbed his hands together. “You know,” I said with a sunny smile, leaning forward. “I don’t think that’s necessary. We should probably build rapport with one another first before diving into the intimacy of our characters. Wouldn’t you agree, Lyle?” “Well, I—” Garrick interrupted Lyle’s forming thoughts. “Are you saying you don’t think you can handle a little improv?” he asked me. “Used to too much prep-work for those soaps?” I gave him a wan smile. “Not at all. I just don’t want to rush into something we’re not prepared for, because some of us may not be able to handle it.” “Don’t worry. I’ll be gentle with you.” Shane choked and pieces of cracker flew from his mouth to the table. “Sorry.” “No need to be shy,” Lyle said, looking over at me. “After all, your chemistry will be a big part of this show, so you may as well start developing some.” Oh, my God. I felt like the walls were closing in around me. There was nothing I could do. He was right. It was better to get this over with. “Very well,” I agreed. “If this is what the director wants, then of course, I’d be happy to oblige.” For the next few minutes, we took turns rattling off lines around the table. I had read ahead, so I could know the precise moment the kiss was coming, and I was growing more and more apprehensive by the second. The last line lingered in the air like the poised blade of a guillotine. I kept my eyes glued to the paper. “Well, come on now.” Lyle piped up, waving his hand around. “Let’s see it.” It’s just acting. This is professional. I heard Garrick push his chair back, the wheels squeaking under his solidly muscular weight, and cross the carpeted floor. I did the same. We met at the opposite end of the table. With a nod of acknowledgement, I sighed and took a moment to sink back into character. LACEY: “Are we finished here?” I asked as Lacey, leveling him with a droll look. PAYTON: “Not quite. There’s just one more thing I’d like to do before we part ways.” Garrick’s brown eyes zeroed in on mine. LACEY: “And what’s that?” I crossed my arms, not even acting but purely on instinct. Garrick’s arm shot out, coiled around my waist, and reeled me in like a fish on a line. PAYTON: “This.” His lips found mine in a soft, deliberate kiss from which I couldn’t pull away. I tried, for the sake of my pride and my character, to remain incensed, but his kiss began a thawing process within me, one completely against my own volition. In other words—it was just too good. My arms snaked around his neck. I felt his grip tighten on my waist, as he dipped me just enough so my hair slipped off my shoulder. The Earth seemed to stop rotating, and everything around us fell away. For the first time in my career—even when I worked with Randall—I completely forgot I was in the middle of a scene and surrendered to the kiss solely for my own personal enjoyment. My heart pounded against my ribcage. My pulse felt like a living thing trapped inside my neck. The core of my body gravitated toward him. I would never forget this moment. Someone whistled. My eyelids fluttered open, and we broke apart. What on Earth was that all about? I tried to conceal my shock, but a whirlwind tore through me, dispersing my attempts. Surely I had imagined it—the fireworks, the chemistry Lyle was talking about, the pounding of my heart. We stared at one another incredulously, though I couldn’t tell if Garrick was displeased or trying to reevaluate his feelings for me. We both cleared our throats, and, having trouble keeping eye contact, we headed back to our seats. Whatever that feeling was, I needed to lock it in a chest and bury it somewhere. I could not allow myself to feel anything other than duty and work ethic whenever I had to kiss Garrick—Payton—again. The room was quiet when we reclaimed our seats. Lyle spoke first. “Well…no doubt you two have chemistry.” He raised his eyebrows and actually wiggled them. “Can’t wait to see how audiences react.” Yes, it would be interesting. How would audiences react? Considering, that for one brief moment, I went to Cloud 9 and traveled back. * * * In my father’s car on the way home, I typed Garrick Maze into the Google search engine and waited. I’d done it before. Before I’d ever known he’d be playing opposite me. Before I’d ever met him. Skimming the various official and fan-administered websites in his honor, I switched to images. Taking in the wide array of shots for everything from magazines to bio pics, my heart pounded at his sheer, action-hero ruggedness. After several rows of headshots, the unofficial pics of the Internet began to scroll through my phone, and I forced myself to take in all the photos posted of Garrick with other girls. Young girls, older girls, short girls, tall girls, plain girls, hot girls. Modest girls. Skanky girls. Kissing. Holding hands. Hugging. Toasting shots. Taking selfies. Duck-facing. Sunbathing at the pool. Attending parties and premieres. “Garrick Maze, you are a manwhore of the highest order.” I tried to say it with a sneer, but instead it came out a sigh. I’d known he was a womanizer, but now that I’d met him, I felt a jealousy and a pain at the knowledge that I hadn’t felt before. It was pathetic really. But it was also just the thing I needed to strengthen my resolve to maintain my distance from him, which had weakened quite a bit with the kiss we’d shared. “You said something, miss?” Thomas’s smiling eyes appeared in the rearview mirror. “No, nothing. Sorry.” Repulsed, I closed the browser window and shoved my phone back into my purse, preferring to press my nose against the window, watching Century City slide by. There’s no way I’m joining the ranks of that census, I thought. No way. This is one girl he won’t have. Chapter Five Garrick “Good morning, Miss Vickers.” Moseying down the airplane aisle, I hurled my most dashing grin at Gwen, already seated on my left, thumbing through her phone. She smiled tightly and nodded, but didn’t remove the purse she’d placed onto the seat beside her. As tempted as I was to take the seat anyway, I didn’t. She looked stressed and tired, and the truth was I was feeling the same. Over the past week, I’d already been thinking way too much about Gwen, and those thoughts had even started to infiltrate my dreams. Now that we were headed to New Mexico to begin filming, I needed to get my shit together, and that meant giving myself some distance, preferably in the back of the plane where I couldn’t even see her. Passing a slew of cameramen, technical team members, makeup artists, and the costume committee, I found Tyler hunkered down in a window seat near the back of the plane with his eyes closed. The two seats beside him were empty. Shane sat in the row just diagonal to Tyler’s, his attention fixated out the window. “Hey, man,” I said, shoving my suitcase into the empty overhead compartment and making a curious gesture at the aisle seat. “This taken?” “Hm?” Shane, shaken awake, blinked rapidly, his eyes darting from me to the empty seat. “No, dude. Go for it,” he offered. “Sweet.” I plopped down into the seat, sinking low. “You seemed distracted. Didn’t mean to bother you.” Shane shrugged, struggling to smile. “I guess so,” he said, his voice almost lost in the hum of engines as the plane rumbled to life. I didn’t always become buddy-buddy with other male leads, due to jealousy issues, but I was hoping it might be different with Shane. He was untainted by the Hollywood scene, still possessing humility and an air of innocence amid a depraved and carnivorous, materialistic world. I hoped he’d never lose it. Aside from that, there was something about him that I had trouble placing. May have been the effortless way he slumped back, or the hoodie he wore, or the sweats that hung strangely low for a jock dude. Whatever the case, I got a feeling he was harboring a secret side of himself. When he shifted, I could’ve sworn I caught the telling hole of a piercing on his eyebrow. “You nervous?” I asked. Shane winced. “Is it that obvious?” “Well, I didn’t need to consult a specialist to diagnose you.” I eyed him expectantly. “What’s up?” “Nothing,” Shane muttered, shaking his head and redirecting his attention back to the window. “It’s stupid.” I thumped his shoulder with my own. “You can tell me, dude.” With a halfhearted roll of his eyes, Shane caved. “I just can’t get what Gwen said out of my head.” “What? About you having no experience?” I slouched back in my seat, casting a quick glance at Her Royal Iceness. She stood in the aisle now, giggling with Erica while they tried to jam her lumpy blue duffel bag into the overhead compartment. “You’re right—it’s stupid.” “I’m serious.” Shane shrugged. “What if she’s right? What if my inexperience does jeopardize the show’s success? What if I’m a flat-out terrible actor and what got me hired was all a onetime fluke?” “That’s a load of crap,” I said, splaying my hand to emphasize my point. “Lots of first-time actors kill it when they break out of the gate. You will, too. Everyone has to start somewhere.” Shane rubbed the back of his neck, less than convinced. “What if Lyle regrets hiring me?” Just then, speak of the devil, Lyle came careening onboard, frazzled and looking more scatterbrained than usual. Chest heaving and brow glowing with sweat, he lumbered to a row occupied by two camera operators. “So sorry, so very sorry I’m late. Forgot to book my seat. Had to get one at check-in, which meant facing the Sunday crowd.” Shane lowered his voice to a whisper, leaning across the empty seat separating us. “I feel like an ass for saying this, but he seems a bit incapable. Is it just me?” “Nah, don’t let that fool you. His brain is ninety-nine percent creativity and one percent logic. The man’s a genius. Lots of geniuses have organization issues. In fact, I heard they’re hiring him a personal assistant without his approval.” “You’ve worked with him before?” “Several times. And as for him regretting hiring you, that won’t happen, as long as you push yourself and try your best.” Thumbing toward Tyler, I added, “Besides, whiz-kid over there stuck his nose out for you too, so he probably sees something in you that you’re not aware of.” “Or maybe I like playing devil’s advocate,” Tyler supplied in his gloomy monotone, eyes still closed. Shane grinned, obviously feeling better after our talk. “Thanks, man. Hey, do you know where we’re staying?” “Last I heard, we were booked into a hotel called Nativo Lodge, but knowing Lyle, plans may have changed, and he forgot to send the memo.” I laughed. “Don’t sweat it. My one condition when I signed with Lyle was I stay in close proximity to a gym.” Gwen and Erica had finally squeezed the bag into place and managed to close the compartment door. They sat together, chatting in the coquettish way girls did. “So. What do you think of her?” “Who?” Shane propped himself up higher to see over the seats. “Erica?” I frowned. “No. Gwen.” “Oh, right. I can’t really decide. I don’t know much about her, but she seems incredibly committed. My mom used to watch Diamond Eyes. She says, in spite of the cheesiness, it was addictive. Gwen’s character made her cry a lot. What do you think of her?” I shifted uncertainly. “I’m in the same boat.” “Yeah, but after that kiss you shared, I’m guessing you’ve been thinking of her a lot more than anyone else.” I elected not to answer on the off chance it would reveal my secret desires. Elbows on armrests, I steepled my fingers. “If you had to take a crack at her back story, what would you say?” “Gwendolyn Marie Vickers,” Tyler muttered before Shane could answer, eyes still closed. “Twenty-two years old. Daughter to Richard and Melinda Vickers. Richard is a Hollywood producer and the winner of the Mr. Universe Competition. Only child. Avoids trouble, and in so doing, stays out of the tabloids. College graduate with honors. First televised role was a young child in a Kellogg’s commercial. Since then, she has grown up with and frequently endorsed the franchise. Best known for her portrayal of Laura in the acclaimed soap series Diamond Eyes.” “With honors,” I mocked, sulking. “Dude,” Shane marveled. “Are you psychic? Or did you two used to, you know…” “What?” Tyler cracked one eye to look at Shane. “No, it’s all on Wikipedia.” I snorted. “Nice. But that’s not what I was referring to, gentlemen. That’s a basic bio found on any web page...” I smirked, the gears in my mind churning up a storm. “I was talking about real back story.” Turning my attention toward the window, I replayed the kiss Gwen and I had shared for about the millionth time that morning. A surprise. A shock. Nothing could have prepared me for the pure passion I’d felt behind those lips. There had to be more where that came from. Didn’t matter if I slept with her not—I intended to find out. * * * Once we landed in Albuquerque, we had Sunday night to rest. Monday morning we jumped right into filming, which meant while I got to see Gwen constantly, got to speak to her, got to act with her, even got to kiss her just like we’d practiced, it was all in our roles as Payton and Lacey. I could wonder all I wanted (and I did) but outside of her acting chops, I didn’t have time to get to know her or her seemingly passionate nature better either. Whether we were filming in the studio or on site at the University of New Mexico, the cast was companionable and supportive, but the only meals we shared together were at the catered buffet between sets, and that mainly involved scarfing down food before someone was calling our names again. Because of the expedited schedule we were on, we generally started at seven a.m. and finished about twelve hours later. As soon as filming was over, we’d all hang around set for about an hour, relaxing and chatting. Gwen would usually leave after twenty minutes, always insisting that she needed to go over lines before heading to bed. She wasn’t overly friendly, but she wasn’t unfriendly either. She was social and civil, and to an outside observer, we would look like a cast that got along just fine, and that included Gwen and me. It would look like we’d left the tension between us back in LA. But then again, we were actors and I knew better. I felt the tension that built between us with each day that passed. I felt the heat and curiosity to get to know her better, and I felt her equally curious eyes on me when she thought I wouldn’t notice. But I noticed. And I figured eventually we’d do something to appease our mutual curiosity, as soon as we got a decent break in our schedule. That didn’t mean we’d sleep together or even kiss outside of our roles—I repeatedly told myself I didn’t sleep with co-stars for a reason and keeping my career on track was the main one—but that didn’t mean I couldn’t get to know more about Gwen. Maybe even become casual friends with her. The break came on a Thursday, the fifth day we were in New Mexico. We’d just wrapped up filming the pilot episode the day before and were gearing up to begin filming Episode Two. Meanwhile, the editing team was working its magic so the pilot episode could air that night. Production would continue in this same vein for the next six months, with filming on a new episode beginning each Thursday just before the previous episode aired. The timing was highly unorthodox, at least for network television, where normally production spent weeks—not one day—editing film. But one of the things Lyle had insisted on before he agreed to direct the show was creating something that was as close to live TV as possible, with minimal editing. He believed the less polished the final cut, the more fresh and relatable it would be to the younger demographic the studio was targeting. It was a risky strategy, but it meant we’d know right away whether the chemistry between Gwen and me was going to pull in viewers. In other words, less cost to produce and less long term risk for us. It fit my personal philosophy. Why waste time on something that wasn’t working? Better to face the harsh reality and move on. Hopefully, audiences would respond well, production would continue through to the season finale in July, and then we’d pick up production of Season Two next January. So as scheduled, we spent Thursday filming part of Episode Two. By the time we called it quits around seven thirty, I was exhausted and thankful Lyle had set aside Friday, the next day, for us to rest and read lines, although that wouldn’t always be the case. Erica suggested the five of us have dinner together to celebrate the airing of the pilot, which none of us planned to watch. We were, it seemed, a neurotic and superstitious lot. As soon as Erica issued the dinner invitation, my gaze went to Gwen. Her eyes were already on me. She hesitated, and I was sure she was going to say no. Instead, she said yes and I’d felt a ridiculous sense of satisfaction. Hell, the way I felt, you’d think we were having our first date, only with three chaperones along for the ride. An hour later, all of us but Shane, who’d said he’d be a little late, were at Saguaro del Rio, an upscale Mexican restaurant that adjoined the lobby of our hotel, Nativo Lodge. Nice place, really colorful. Festive, I supposed, was the word—everything done in traditional southwestern patterns. The hostess seated us near the back in a private booth framed by wooden screens. The lattices, decorated with fake flowers, corn wreaths, and chili peppers, rose to just above my head. I ordered an iced tea, no matter how badly I wanted a Jack and Coke. Gwen sat in the seat across from me, and, coupled with every other slanderous thing she thought of me, I didn’t want to add “potential alcoholic” to the list. Erica, on the other hand, had no problem kicking off the night with a shot of tequila. At least, that’s what she intended. But no sooner was the order out of her mouth than she shot a quick glance at Tyler, then shook her head. “You know what? Never mind. I’ll just have a soda.” Tyler slouched in his chair and allowed a small smile to tip his lips. He glanced at the waiter. “Bring her the tequila and any other kind of alcohol anyone wants. I’m fine. I’ll have a Coke.” I watched Gwen studying Tyler while trying to pretend she wasn’t studying anybody. The waiter just stood there, and the awkwardness choked us all. I was about to break the silence when Tyler laughed. I think it was the first time I’d ever heard him do that out of character. “I’m clean by choice, people. If I couldn’t handle being around alcohol, I wouldn’t have lasted as an actor as long I have, now would I? Let’s move on.” We all sort of shifted in our seats until I rapped my knuckles on the table and repeated, “Moving on.” I turned to the waiter. “I’ll have a beer.” “You’re old enough to drink?” that delicate, prissy voice I loved said. I turned to Gwen. “Huh?” “You’re so much younger than me, remember?” I grinned. “That’s right, I am. However, I’m legal. For everything that’s fun, in case you’re wondering.” She gasped then shook her head (albeit with a small smile on her beautiful mouth) before ordering her own drink, a girly-girl apple martini. I counted that as a victory. Turned out that surprising Gwen in a way she couldn’t help liking could become addictive. In record time, we had our drinks in front of us. When Shane walked in a few minutes late, the four of us did a double take. He wore black jeans, a Slipknot T-shirt, and a leather jacket. Low and behold, a piercing jutted out of his eyebrow, lower lip, and left ear lobe. I gaped for a moment. The guy looked like an evil twin of the Shane I had come to know. He dropped into his seat, oblivious to our collective stupor, and took up a drink menu. Casually, he raked a hand, fingers crowned in a few rings, through his spiked blond hair. He caught onto our gawking—mostly me and Erica it turned out—and looked up. “What?” “Nothin’, man,” I managed to stutter. Shit. He looked badass. He had pulled off the jock look, likely to look more professional, but this ensemble fit him like a glove. How I could tell him without it being weird was another matter. I hoped Erica or Gwen would take a stab at it, but they didn’t. The waiter swung by to set our table up with two woven baskets of warm, salty restaurant style tortilla chips along with several bowls of guacamole, pico de gallo, and some hot, cheesy dip. Gwen had to be a poor sport and wear a fitted red dress that hardly revealed any skin but still hammered home the fact she had a great body. So unfair. Why did she have to be so hot without trying? I tried not to stare at her, but it was proving to be difficult, and on several instances, our eyes would meet for a moment before she’d rip hers away. “So, Tyler…” Gwen ran her fingertip around the edge of her martini glass, and for some reason, I sensed trouble. “By what you said the other day, I’m guessing you’re not a fan of soap operas. Is that right?” “Oh, boy,” Erica groaned, dunking a chip into the guacamole. I grinned and leaned back in my seat. Comfort seemed paramount if we were all going to have to endure this conversation. “Fireworks coming early tonight.” I found myself looking forward to a variation of our first meeting together. Now that Gwen knew us all a little better, I wondered if she’d revert back to her uptight ways or if she’d loosen up enough to give Tyler a bad time and reveal a more fun-loving side to herself. I was hoping that was the case. “Now doesn’t seem like a great time to have an argument, gang,” Erica said, assuming the mother role of the group, even though she was maybe only twenty-three or twenty-four. I’d been impressed by everything I’d learned about Erica in the past week. She was sharp as a whip and down-to-earth, but she was also the epitome of responsible. Outwardly she was much more laid back than Gwen, but inwardly she was just as reluctant to let others see her true nature or get too close. Not that I could fault her for that; if Erica and Gwen were pots I was definitely a kettle. “We’re out,” Erica continued. “We’re supposed to be celebrating wrapping up the pilot.” Gwen smiled wide and the power of it almost took my breath away. For the first time ever, she looked like she was completely relaxed, comfortable amongst trusted friends. Yeah, I knew it was likely a lie, her way of lining up the pins in anticipation of bowling Tyler over for his insulting remarks last week, but it was easy to imagine that this girl was more like who Gwen was in her everyday life, when she was free of worry or the scrutiny of others. “Well, I think now is the perfect time to talk about it,” she said. “I don’t want to argue, I want to discuss. I was raised with dinner time conversation, unless you all prefer to eat in silence.” “Not me,” Shane replied. “Gwen,” Erica said, tossing her a knowing look. “I’m sure there are other topics to choose from.” “But none of them would be nearly as entertaining to watch.” I gulped back a swig of my beer. Erica scowled at me. “Tyler feels a certain way about my work. I want to know what it is and why.” “Waiter!” Erica called just as the guy was passing our table on her end. “Excuse me, may I have another house margarita?” “Come on, guys,” Shane piped up, eyeing everyone. “We’re supposed to be a team here.” Tyler hadn’t said anything about Gwen’s attempt at conversation. Just sat there staring at us, face impassive. “Why is it we can’t have discussions without thinking it’s an argument?” Gwen asked. “A good debate can build camaraderie.” I shrugged my agreement. “And UST.” Erica caught the waiter by his sleeve before he could slip out of reach. “Can you actually make that a double?” Gwen’s brow furrowed. “What’s a UST?” “Unresolved sexual tension, Gwen,” I said softly, noting with satisfaction the way her eyelids flickered and she blushed before looking away. I straightened a little. Yeah, I knew a lot about UST, and despite trying to fight it, so did Gwen. Maybe with a little push from me, she’d be willing to admit it. “I swear I don’t have one of those…anymore.” Shane laughed, patting out a rhythm on the table. “Sugar, it’s a good thing you’re pretty,” Erica mumbled. Shane scowled with a half-smirk. “Uh…nice to know you think I’m pretty, but I was kidding. Someone has to lighten up the mood.” Erica squirmed and blushed, focusing her interest on her colorful margarita glass while at the same time trying to look like she was perfectly at ease. “It’ll be fine,” Gwen said. “I’m just curious to know Tyler’s thoughts on soap operas. So tell me, Tyler,” she encouraged. “You’ve won an Academy Award already. Surely, you know more than I.” To my surprise, Tyler straightened in his seat and folded his hands on the table, looking for all the world like he was actually happy to engage with the rest of us. “But you wouldn’t value my opinion if I hadn’t.” Gwen pursed her lips in thought. “Probably not as highly, no.” “At least you’re honest,” Tyler said, reaching for some chips. “Does anyone else want a margarita?” Erica asked. “Look, Vickers…” Tyler’s eyes locked on Gwen. “To each their own. Different people enjoy different types of entertainment. Variety is the spice of life and all that. There are just…some forms of entertainment that take more talent to produce.” Crystals of ice appeared in Gwen’s eyes like slivers of moonlight. “And you think your work is superior to mine because soaps use substandard actors?” “Oh, no, no…” Tyler shook his head, and I felt a bit of tension uncoil from the air. But the pressure soared right back to critical when he continued. “Not just substandard actors. Substandard scriptwriters, substandard soundtracks, camera, equipment, mics, stages, settings, characters…everything. It’s a cheesy business designed for a cheesy target audience who can’t appreciate a finer production. That’s all. No need to get your panties in a twist over it.” I winced. Jesus, I’d even known it was coming, but Tyler’s brass balls were still a little too huge to be believed. “My panties are just fine,” Gwen said, and the table got suddenly very quiet. “And I disagree with you.” Tyler sighed, pressing his hands against his forehead. “And I guess we’re pretending for a moment that I care.” “Well, I do care.” Gwen raised her chin. “I care about this whole show and how it turns out. You may be here just for a paycheck, but how our show comes across to viewers means a lot to me. For your information, soap operas portray the pains and pleasures of life in a way that all viewers can understand. The actors have to be relatable, because they endure the same problems we all do.” “The same problems?” Ty echoed. “As in breaking nails, misplacing your boyfriend, and sleeping with a jet-setting brother you never knew about? How is that relatable? That’s so completely opposite of the target audience’s real problems. Soaps are all about rich people.” “Tequila shots.” Erica threw up her arms and opened them, as though she’d just scored the Super Bowl’s winning touchdown. “Not true,” Gwen said, deceptively calm. “The characters might be rich, but their problems involve love, loss, and betrayal, all the things normal people experience every day of their lives.” I’d been sitting back listening to Gwen and Tyler debate. I really liked watching her. Listening to her. What could easily be mistaken as bitchiness was actually a feisty nature and a refusal to back down from something she believed in. I mean, come on, she’d started her career in soap operas. Of course it was a given she’d eventually confront Tyler about what he’d said. But the minute the words “love” and “normal people” escaped her mouth, I immediately stiffened and sat forward. I don’t know why. It shouldn’t have mattered one way or another whether she believed in love or not. Maybe it was because I was thinking of her far too much. That I woke up in the morning excited to see her, and went to sleep the same way. Maybe it was because I wanted her in my bed, but I didn’t want her there if there was a remote possibility she was going to see our fucking as anything more than it was. Whatever the reason, I suddenly felt compelled to dispel her notion that love was a global concern. “You know, Gwen,” I said. “Love isn’t a serious problem for everyone. Some people prefer life without it.” Gwen looked startled and eyed me cautiously. There was a soft curiosity in her face. “Are you speaking from experience?” Anger flooded through me that had nothing to do with Gwen and everything to do with Rachel and the pain and betrayal I’d experienced years before. “You bet your ass I am.” “I think with love, preference is irrelevant. Love is a human emotion, a chemical reaction—an all-powerful compulsion—not something you can turn off and on at will,” Gwen said softly. “Love is a choice,” Erica said, surprising me. And by the looks on their faces, surprising everyone else at the table, as well. She didn’t appear to be addressing anyone specific, more like reflecting on her own pain we would never know about. “Garrick can choose not to want it.” Eyes wide, Gwen looked around the table. “Is that what you all believe?” Shane and Tyler remained quiet. Watchful. Gwen shook her head. “Because no one who thinks that can understand the core of a soap opera, which is targeted toward people who thrive on passion and love. The whole point is that no matter what horrible struggles or obstacles life throws at us, we can overcome them because of the love and support we receive through our relationships with others. And those relationships are never easy to maintain. They’re never perfect. But they’re worth it.” What she was saying was too good to be true and I felt it was my duty to call bullshit. To stop her from spouting it to anyone else. Blind belief in love only resulted in disappointment and grief. I held my ground. “What are you going to tell us next? That you believe in fairytales? Or was mentioning Disney the first day we met indicative of the movies you truly watch?” To her, love was the key to overcoming any obstacle? She had absolutely no idea what she was talking about. No idea. She looked stunned then tilted her chin defiantly. “How can I expect you to understand? All your career has been about are explosions, gunfire, and ass shots.” “Wow,” I growled, uneasily aware that the progress we’d made in the past week was disintegrating, and all because I was being an asshole. But for some reason, I couldn’t stop myself. It was like I was watching one of my films, unable to stop myself from making a colossal mistake. “You really boiled action movies down to three important components there. Sounds like you’ve indulged in a few yourself. Guilty pleasure?” She folded her pretty arms over her chest. “Love exists, Garrick, whether you believe in it or not.” “Love is a flare,” I fired back. “It ignites, burns for a while, then dies.” “My parents have been married for thirty years, and they’re still going strong,” Gwen said. “That must be a pretty damned big flare.” I smiled briefly, but even I had to admit it felt mean. “I’m sure something a little more substantial is holding them together, especially if your dad is the prime breadwinner in your family. If your mom’s hot, then maybe sex is a factor, too. But it’s not love, princess.” Hurt flashed across her face, and it was like I’d suddenly been jerked back on a chain. What the fuck was I doing? Even if what I’d said was true about her parents, she had the right to believe in them and in love. Who was I to rain on her parade? “You take that back,” she snapped. But I wouldn’t. And I couldn’t stop, for some reason. “It’s true. Many marriages are for convenience, not love. The sooner you wake up to that fact, the more prepared for life you’ll be.” “Guys…” Erica groaned. “What would you know about love, Hollywood playboy who dates a new girl every two weeks?” Gwen said. “Two weeks?” I guffawed. “Damn, girl. You could solve world hunger with the amount of faith you put in my ability to keep a relationship. Try three days.” “Yes, that’s only too clear. As you told me, the tabloids never lie, right?” “For someone completely uninterested in yours truly, you sure seem to know a lot about me. Let me guess. You looked me up after we talked that day. And now you have it in your head that I’m some scummy player who slept his way up the Hollywood popularity ladder?” I asked. “I’m right, aren’t I? Isn’t that what you just admitted?” I wasn’t going to let her win this. “How many pictures did you scroll through before you had me pinned? Five? Twenty? Because I guarantee by the fiery shade of cherry in those freckle-dusted cheeks, you wish you were lucky enough to be in every single one of them.” Her mouth dropped and she pushed away from the table. “I hate you.” “Good,” I concluded, even as a giant boulder formed in my throat. It was like my mouth belonged to someone else, and no matter how much I wanted to stop it, I couldn’t. Finally, I ripped my gaze away from her and turned my attention to the other members of our party. “Anyone have an extra menu?” “Here,” Gwen retorted, surging to her feet and flinging her menu at me. “I’ve suddenly lost my appetite.” “Aw,” I mocked. “And here I thought dinner discussions were your thing.” “Honey, don’t leave,” Erica piped up gently. “You haven’t eaten anything.” “I’ll order room service instead,” she said, her eyes glistening. “Goodnight, Erica. Tyler. Shane.” “Night, Gwen,” Tyler murmured. “Goodnight,” Erica said sullenly. Shane waved. With that, Gwen spun around and breezed out of the restaurant, the swish in her hips reflecting the anger in her heart. I knew I had hurt her, but I just couldn’t let it go. “Was it something I said?” “Dude,” Tyler said, without glancing up from his phone. “Freckle-dusted cheeks?” I didn’t answer. I just stared at the menu Gwen had thrown and mentally cursed Rachel. She’d really screwed me up. So badly that now I was hell-bent on wrecking other people and their hope for a future as a couple with someone they cherished. How unfair was that? Forty minutes later, after I’d forced down some food, I studied those around me. They didn’t look like they’d enjoyed their meal any more than me. I pushed back from the table. “I’m going to hit some bars. Anyone want to join me?” Chapter Six Gwen Unbelievable. I couldn’t get away from him fast enough. I hate, hate, hated the fact that I’d let him get to me, that I’d left in such a huff, leaving Erica alone with the boys, but I had to put as much distance between myself and Garrick as I possibly could before I exploded. “Stupid jerk,” I snarled, slamming the door to my hotel room. I threw my purse and card key on my bed and kicked off my heels on the way to the kitchenette. “Impossible, insufferable, irresponsible asshole. The sooner you wake up to that fact, the more prepared for life you’ll be,” I mocked in my best Gar-dick impression. I picked up a pillow from the bed and flung it at the wall. It bounced back and landed on the floor. “There is nothing more substantial than love, you moron. What a complete and total loser. My parents aren’t perfect, but they love each other. And I’m going to have a love like that one day. Just because stupid you doesn’t believe in it doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Just because Lacey is going to let Payton into her heart doesn’t mean I have to care about you or anything you think. I don’t care how hot you are. And no way would I want to be one of those girls in your stupid selfies.” I was crying and sniffling. I couldn’t believe he was making me feel this way. “I’ll bet you can’t cry on cue, you sorry excuse for a human being. ‘Cause that’s totally what I’m doing right now. As if you could make me cry, you jerk.” I quickly wiped my cheeks, furious at the thought that he could bring me to tears. My phone vibrated in my purse. Figuring it was Garrick (Lyle had made us all exchange cell numbers last week) and infuriated that he’d have the audacity to call, I ripped it out of my bag and answered. “Are we seriously doing round two now?” “Gwendolyn? Dear?” My father’s deep voice resonated from the other end of the line. I froze, my spine suddenly encased in ice. My eyes flew open and, in spite of being rooted in place, I frantically tried to backtrack. “Dad. Hi. Um…I thought you were someone else.” I even tacked on a little laugh. “Is everything alright?” he asked, not quite fooled yet. “You sound upset.” “Oh, no,” I assured hurriedly. “Everything’s fine. I was just rehearsing some lines and answered still angry. Ha, ha.” “Who the hell did you think I was?” “Uh…no one.” Scrambling for a name, I blurted out, “Stacy.” Who was a makeup artist, not an actor. “Just one of the cast members helping me prepare for next week’s shooting. She was supposed to call me, so we could reenact the scene.” “I see. Isn’t it your night off?” Of course, he was keeping track of my schedule. “Yes.” “Such a hard worker. That’s my girl. But I expected you to call by now. How do you like Albuquerque? They gave you a top notch suite, right?” Drinking in my lush and spacious surroundings, I nodded. “Absolutely no complaints here. It’s nice. The food is really good. Different, and spicy, but good.” “I’m glad to hear that. Did you hear that, Melinda?” “What?” I heard my mother’s muffled voice respond in the distance. “How could I hear anything with you in the other room?” “Gwen says her hotel is great, and so is the food.” “Wonderful.” “Your mother and I saw the pilot for Straightlaced,” he said without further comment. I froze, straight as a flagpole. “What did you think?” I asked tensely, struggling to keep the apprehension out of my voice. “It was excellent. Very snappy dialogue. And your character really seems to have a good head on her shoulders.” Heaving a sigh of relief, I spun around and dropped back on my bed. He wasn’t going to yank me out of yet another contract and drag me home. He believed in me. “Thank you. That means a lot to me.” “I can see how kids these days will eat it right up. Everyone loved Lacey.” I furrowed my brow. “Everyone?” “Yes. Well, when I say everyone, I mean only a few dozen people.” He chuckled subtly. “We hosted a premiere party at the house.” “Dad.” I balked in surprise, yanked the phone away. He hosted a premiere party? For me? “How embarrassing.” And I hoped I sounded as humbled as I felt. “Don’t be silly. You’ll have to get used to the fame.” He paused, voice trailing off in the way I always knew meant criticism would follow. “But I think you already know I didn’t approve of the underage drinking in that garage scene.” Ugh, and that’s one reason Fluidity Films is tanking, Dad. Because of your insistence that teens and twenty-one-year-olds be depicted like little kids. Of course, I didn’t say that. “They weren’t really drinking, Dad. Just pretending. And most of them are of age in reality.” Except for Tyler, who’d confirmed at dinner he’d done far more than his fair share of drinking in the past. I could barely imagine it, being so addicted to something that I’d let it jeopardize my career. My whole life. Yet it was staggering, the number of young actors who went off their rocker and fell out of good fame for things like drugs, sex scandals, and too much drinking. Some so bad that they had to be committed to a facility completely cut off from the real world to properly function. That’s what had probably happened to Tyler. “And we talked about absolutely no cigarettes, fake or real, before we signed the contract.” Annoyance poked at me. He said we’d signed the contract but I was an adult and the only one who could legally commit to anything. As my manager, all Dad was technically entitled to was a 15% commission. Yet, legal entitlement or not, I definitely made my decisions based on Dad’s input so it was pretty much the same thing. Of course, I hadn’t exactly been following my dad’s advice when I got involved with Randall, but thankfully my dad had handled that disaster. He knew the business way better than me and would always protect me. “I won’t, Dad,” I promised. “Everything’s fine.” “Wonderful. Well, I’ll let you go, darling, since you’re expecting a call. I just wanted to congratulate you and remind you to stay out of trouble while you’re out there. I’m not around to keep you in check. Remember our agreement.” “No booze, no boys, no barbs in the tabloids. Dad, you know I never get into trouble.” “Mm hmm…” Great, he had to bring Randall up in just a humming noise. “I mean rarely do I get into trouble. That’s over, Dad. I’m back on the path and stronger than ever. I promise. I’m going to do everything I can to make Straightlaced a success so that Fluidity Films can move on to even bigger things.” “Excellent. Goodnight, Gwendolyn.” “Goodnight, Dad.” I hung up and exhaled an enormous sigh of relief, dropping my phone and raking my fingers through my hair. I flopped onto the bed to calm my racing heart. “Shit.” Disappointing my father was at the top of my Don’t Do list. Suddenly, the memory of another day I’d messed up came into my mind, as much as I was trying never to think about it again. I’d just turned twenty-one, had indulged in one too many celebratory drinks at dinner, and had accidentally dropped my plate on the way to the kitchen. Accusing me of being drunk, Dad flew into one of his rages. I excused myself and hurried to my room, locking the door. He followed me and when he found I’d shut him out, he kicked the door down and screamed at me never to lock the door again. The replacement came the next day. But still, every time I passed that doorframe, I shuddered. I couldn’t make him angry again. He’d worked too hard in this life for me to upset him. I lived to make him proud. Through dedicated, grueling work, I would prove my talent as an actor to him and to the world. It was the least I could do for everything he had done for me these last twenty-two years. But assuming the show did well, could I handle the fame? Could I live a normal life with strangers across the country always peeking into it? Could I get along with infuriating co-stars who were hell bent on making me crack? Even if Garrick and I did decide to date— Wait. What was I saying? I rubbed my eyes, as if doing so could clear my head. No, I could not fall into the same pattern again. I could not allow myself to feel anything for Garrick Maze or any guy on the set. My job was to stay focused, be the best Lacey I could be, pull in the ratings, and make my father’s production company a success again. No more, no less. And that was exactly what I intended to do. * * * That night, I decided to relax and basically be as low key as possible. Thinking about my dad would only depress me, and thinking about Garrick would only get me a flustered shade of infuriated…and confused. The more time I had to think about it, the more I realized he hadn’t been trying to hurt me when he said he didn’t believe in love, at least not at first. He had just been stating what he truly believed, and for him to be that jaded, that adamant that love was a “flare,” he had to have been really hurt by someone important to him. It was weird, thinking of Garrick as anything more than a playboy who never got serious about a girl except in bed. What he’d said at dinner indicated he was capable of love on a very intense level but simply didn’t want to risk being hurt. And what was more alluring than that—a man who’d already been over the top hot before he’d revealed what he probably wanted most out of life was love—the kind of love she could give him. It was classic female thinking, that it was possible to save a man with her love. It was the kind of fairytale that Garrick had accused me of believing in. And I was so not going down that road. I cracked open a bottle of Arbor Mist, took a long, hot bath, shimmied into my Victoria’s Secret pajamas, painted my nails, and caught up on some shows. Erica texted me a couple of times, telling me they’d gone bar hopping and asking if I was okay. I assured her I was fine. I had just climbed into bed to do some reading, if only to put me to sleep, when I heard a knock at my door. I checked the digital alarm clock on my bedside table. 2:15 a.m. Figuring it had to be Erica returning from downtown, I slid out of bed and hurried across the room. I still had half a bottle of Arbor Mist left. It could be fun to have some girl talk for a while and live vicariously through her wild night. I opened my door and instantly felt the wine in my legs. “Garrick,” I realized, balking. He stood in the hall, wearing a sloppy, sleepy eyed smile that nearly melted my knees, which I suddenly realized were bare. Dressed in my tiny shorts and satin spaghetti strap, clearly braless, I darted back inside and closed the door enough to conceal myself. I peered out through the open sliver. “What?” “Missed you, baby,” he said. Stunned, I blinked. “Are you drunk?” He held his fingers up a half an inch apart and squinted one eye. “Lil’ bit.” He looked so darn cute with his suspenders undone, shirt half untucked, and his tie loose. “Where’s Erica?” “In Ty’s room with him and Shane. Ty passed on going out, but we convinced him to do a bit of partying before calling it a night. Wanna join?” He smiled stupidly. And yet, it still shone devilishly handsome. “We have Fireball.” “We’re supposed to be fighting,” I reminded him with a glare. “Cinnamon fixes that,” he declared, though I didn’t necessarily follow his logic. He swayed, but managed to make it look suave, and opened his arms. “I’m a dick, Gwen. But you like it.” He thrust his finger toward me. “So what do you say? Commit.” I took a breath, strangely excited to be invited, but my mind flashed back to my earlier conversation with my father… and I chickened out. “I can’t. Too tired,” I lied. Garrick pouted incredulously. “You know, if you didn’t hate me, I could like you. I may already like you,” he tacked on, slurring a few words. “You are really drunk right now,” I mumbled, fighting a blush. He snickered. “I’m not drunk enough to forget you in that lingerie.” I huffed, frazzled, and hugged myself. “I thought you were Erica.” “You can call me Erica if you want to.” He chuckled. I wanted to smack and cuddle him simultaneously. Drunk Garrick was… kind of adorable… in a lewd, brutish sort of way. “Well, have fun tonight. Don’t be loud. If you get caught, Lyle won’t like it.” Garrick clumsily waved his hand. “Lyle doesn’t care. ‘Night, sexy shorts.” He thinks my shorts are sexy? Too surprised to reply, I watched him amble back down the hall toward Tyler’s room, making a zigzag pattern. I sighed, shut my door, and decided to finish the bottle of Arbor Mist alone. Chapter Seven Garrick Friday afternoon, the day after the pilot aired, Shane, Tyler and I had been running lines for about an hour before Tyler said, “You going to make things right with Gwen?” I stiffened, momentarily stumped for words. Then I narrowed my eyes at the guy. “What do you expect me to do, Ty? Apologize?” “You probably should,” Shane said. “It’s going to be awkward for all of us if you continue on like you have been.” When I hesitated, Tyler said, “Didn’t you learn to apologize in Kindergarten like everyone else?” My mouth tightened. “She chewed me out for not believing in love. I didn’t ask for that shit.” Well, maybe that was a bit of a lie. Tyler hummed a low note in his throat. “You also kind of seriously insulted her parents, who seem to be her prime example of love, the mantra for her entire career. I mean, I’m a callous bastard and even I wouldn’t have gone that far.” They were right. I shouldn’t have said what I did and I truly regretted hurting her. But I had an image to uphold and I didn’t want to let on how strongly Gwen affected me. I vaguely remembered getting an extra potent dose of her allure last night when I found myself standing outside her hotel room. “I didn’t mean it,” I mumbled after snatching Shane’s Coke and taking a swig. “She just pressed a hot button of mine.” “By talking about love?” Shane asked. I shrugged. “By assuming everyone wants it. Needs it. She was so damn sure of herself. So damn arrogant about it. It just pissed me off.” It also had highlighted a major difference between us. That she still believed in love and I didn’t. It wasn’t like it mattered. I wanted her, sure. And somewhere between dinner last night and now, I’d decided that if by some miracle, she wanted me in her bed, I’d climb in whether she was my leading lady or not. That’s how hot I was for her. If she didn’t want to play, big deal. I could move on to someone that did. But the thought of her not wanting to play suddenly had me all riled up. And I realized that I’d been feeling exactly the same way before I’d gone off on Gwen the night before. Like I was scared our different philosophies about love were not only going to be a stumbling block to me getting to know her better, but they were going to be the equivalent of a fortified castle, complete with moat, armed sentry, and a fire-breathing dragon. Tyler found his feet and dropped his phone into the pocket of his pullover. “Look, smooth operator. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Gwen is actually scary similar to Lacey. She comes off as confident and self-assured, but she isn’t as sure of herself as she seems.” I frowned. I recalled the day I’d first met her, and how at the initial script reading, she’d been all sass and bravado, but she’d been clearly trying to hide her nerves and the fact that the success of Straightlaced meant more to her than just another professional accomplishment. It was important to her in a very personal way. “Put your big boy boots on and ask yourself—What would Payton do?” Tyler said. Taking a moment to mull that over, I crossed to the window overlooking I-25 and the Bosque beyond that. In the episode we’d started filming yesterday, it was clear that Lacey and Payton were from different worlds and that on the outside they had nothing in common. But they were drawn to each other, and Payton, determined to explore the attraction, had made a concerted effort to put aside his preconceptions about Lacey and actually get to know her. “What would Payton do?” I echoed. “What would Payton do?” Chapter Eight Gwen Saturday morning, two days after Garrick called me “sexy shorts,” I filed into the conference room with a flood of other cast and crewmembers. Avoiding Garrick at all costs, which was no different from any other day I wasn’t specifically pitted against him on set, I skirted around behind the mahogany conference table, excusing myself as I wove between people, and found a deserted corner to make camp. I pretended I didn't see Garrick when he entered, framed by Shane and Tyler. "Hey you." I spun around to face Erica, wearing a sunny smile, who had somehow managed to come upon me unawares, I’d been that absorbed in Garrick and feigning disinterest. "Morning," I replied, trying to mirror her expression. Giving me a playful elbow to the side, she said, "We missed you at the bar last night." They had gone out again, and this time I didn’t answer my door when someone knocked at two a.m. But I’d really, really wanted to. With a sheepish smile, I shrugged. "I really shouldn't be going out. My dad is rather strict when it comes to my... extracurricular activities." “Maybe, but your dad’s not here, right?” I shrugged, thinking in some ways my dad was always in my head. How pathetic. Conversation swirled about the room, billowing like a jolly storm as the place got packed. Last to enter was Lyle with a young woman who couldn’t be over 5’0” marching dutifully behind him. Curvaceous, tiny around the middle, and full lipped, she had short, glossy auburn hair that feathered and flared out at her naked ears. Her shade of lipstick, not a single line smudged, nearly matched the midnight autumn color on her head. She wore a sharp blazer and pencil skirt, outfitted so professionally that she could have been the poster child for the ideal secretary. “Oh, good!” Erica whispered with soft, enthusiastic claps of her hands. “Alice is here!” “Alice?” I asked, oddly bewitched by the tiny young woman who simultaneously seemed like she could be a Disney princess who talked to animals, as well as an alarmingly militant captain in said princess’s army. “The assistant I hired for Lyle. I interviewed ten candidates via Skype last week. She’s even more adorable in person!” Taking his place at the head of the room, Lyle raised his hands and tried to take command of the clamor. “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen!” The noise only escalated. “Settle down... settle down!” “Sir,” Alice murmured, tapping him on the shoulder and offering a small megaphone that she seemed to have produced out of thin air. Lyle’s eyes lit up. “Yes. Adorable, and startlingly prepared,” I muttered. Erica nodded. “Well, look at who she works for. I chose the best of the bunch. She seemed to have answers before I even asked the questions, yet they didn’t even sound rehearsed.” “Nice,” I said, impressed. “Ah. Thank you, Alice.” Lyle pulled a chair out from the table and climbed up on top. His head nearly touched the ceiling. Raising the small megaphone to his lips like a weapon, he filled his lungs and boomed, “IF I COULD HAVE EVERYONE’S ATTENTION, PLEASE.” I cringed. Rounding on Lyle, some with their hands pressed tightly over their ears and others groaning, the garrulous audience went silent as a tomb. “Much better.” He staked his fist on his hip. “Thank you all for attending.” Perusing the room, he seemed to grow more pleased by the second. “Wow!” he exclaimed. “This is smashing! We actually have a much larger turnout than usual.” “That’s because Alice sent the memos out yesterday morning,” Erica said. Lyle blinked. “She did?” He glanced down at Alice from his perch. “You did?” “I did, sir,” she verified flatly. “Oh. Well, thank you! You’re one of my best investments!” “Thank you, sir. I’ll have that carved into my gravestone.” Across the table, Tyler snickered, which caught me off guard. Tentatively, I met his gaze and smiled. He actually nodded and smiled back at me. “Anyway, I’m very pleased to announce that Straightlaced is a tremendous success! Give yourselves a hand.” The room erupted in hoots, hollers, and claps, with me probably clapping the loudest. Relief covered me like a warm blanket. Thank God. The noises of celebration died down after only a moment so that Lyle could continue; no one wanted him to have to use the megaphone a second time. “We continue shooting Episode Two on Monday, and we’ll be following the same weekly schedule for completion and release from here on out. Each season will be twenty-two episodes. We’re looking at the end of Season One putting us at the beginning of July. Fans across the States, as well as in Canada and Europe are clamoring for more. Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook are all abuzz with hashtag Paycey!” “Paycey?” Garrick parroted incredulously. “The ship name—a merging of the names of the two people in a couple,” Erica explained. When Garrick leveled her with a blank stare, she fluttered her hands to dismiss his confusion. “It’s a Twitter and Tumblr thing.” To everyone’s delight, Lyle handed the megaphone back to Alice. He clapped his hands together. “I’m also thrilled to announce that Miss Ellis’s book sales have quadrupled since even before filming began.” “Really?” I whispered to her, conveying with my face my surprise and playful admonishment for not being told sooner. Erica shrugged coyly and I had to marvel at her humility. Lyle continued. “We also have an offer from the network for a second season!” Shocked, I gave thanks for the wall behind me, because I may have fallen over had it not been there to hold me up. “That fast?” I asked above the eruption of cheers. “Well,” Lyle replied, eyes locked on me, “it’s mostly rumor, nothing in print yet. But when a show achieves this big of an impact, no one should be too surprised. Our two main characters are hot, hot, hot!” I felt a rush of heat light up my face when Garrick leveled me with a smug, satisfied smirk and fought the urge to stick my tongue out at him. “We have a solid fan base, but…” “But?” Erica asked. “Oh, I don’t like the sound of that.” “Nothing major, just a few tweets brought to our attention.” “Out with it, man,” Tyler prompted, suddenly focused on Lyle. “There is some skepticism about whether Payton and Lacey will actually become a believable couple in the end because of how far they have to go to reach a middle ground between their personalities.” He cringed, no doubt awaiting a negative reaction from us all, as though we had never experienced a breath of criticism in our lives. Still, it did come as a shock. “What?” Garrick and I said simultaneously. Erica only chuckled. “They’re very different. I expected this.” I huffed softly and crossed my arms, wedging myself tighter into my corner. “That being said… I do have several housekeeping things I’d like to go over.” Lyle tapped his fingers together, as though emphasizing how harmless he was and that attacking him would be tantamount to attacking a toddler. “Uh-oh,” I heard Tyler mumble. “Garrick and Gwen, it has been brought to my attention that you’ve hit a few rough patches out of character. I understand that not all actors get along. I don’t get along with very many actors either,” he added with an awkward laugh. “Everything is riding on the interactions the audience sees, even the minor details. Don’t hold back.” Erica, whom I assumed had to be his informant, turned to me, her eyes tracking between Garrick and myself. I flashed her an accusing traitor scowl. “I think what Lyle is trying to say,” Erica told me, “is that if this is going to impede your ability to accurately portray Payton and Lacey that you need to work it out as soon as possible. You can agree to disagree, and learn to be civil.” I inhaled, ready to respond, but Garrick beat me to it. “You’re right,” he admitted. I blanched and rounded on Garrick, certain I had heard him wrong. “I take this,” he went on, averting his eyes occasionally as though keeping his attention on me was difficult. “It’s my bad. And it reflects badly on the whole team. I’m sorry, Gwen. I haven’t been acting very professionally. And I did purposely pick a fight with you at dinner the other night. I didn’t mean what I said about your folks. Can we start over?” “Are you feeling okay?” I finally managed. A wave of hushed chuckling rolled through the crowd. What in the world had gotten into him? Was he drunk again? Was I dreaming? Had he been abducted and an alien was using his body? Garrick rolled his eyes. “Please don’t make me say it twice. My pride is already a bruised, misshapen lump of pulp.” Gathering myself to full height, and coming away from the wall, I crossed to him. “Then… I’m sorry too. Yes. We can start over.” “As professionals,” he confirmed, extending his open hand. I took it, his touch igniting a nauseating swarm of butterflies in my gut, and gave his hand a firm shake. “As professionals.” I stared at him, realizing suddenly that his black eye had completely faded, and wouldn’t even need to be covered with make-up for filming anymore. It seemed strangely fitting given what seemed to be our mutual determination to start fresh. Lyle gave a cheer and a clap of approval. “Wonderful. Keep running lines with one another when you have the time.” After a gentle tap to his arm, Alice came up on her toes and whispered something to Lyle. “He’s here, is he?” Lyle asked. “Splendid. Do show him in.” With a smart nod, Alice breezed around behind him and swept herself out of the conference room. “Now. I’d like to introduce a special guest today. He’s been working with us behind the scenes and has finished up for now.” All heads turned to the door as Lyle gestured to it. Alice trotted inside with a tall young man. I gulped. I knew instantly the guy was that legendary beast that was even cockier and hotter than a Hollywood bad boy—he was a genuine rock star. He had more swagger in his little finger than I had in my entire being and he had a right to be. He was Liam Collier, frontman for Point Break, one of the hottest bands around. I loved their music—part punk, part melody—and I’d been thrilled the band was doing the soundtrack for Straightlaced. I swallowed hard, almost bursting out laughing when Erica put a hand on my arm and said, “Well, hot damn.” Tall and muscular, Liam had short brown hair, casually gelled, and an easy airbrushed sort of smile. I could feel my bones liquefying. Hot damn indeed. “Howdy, all!” he said. “This is Liam Collier, lead singer for Point Break,” Lyle said, probably unnecessarily as most of the room already knew who Liam was. “He’ll be doing the show’s cover song as well as voiceover for Payton.” I was going to move forward and introduce myself, which I felt overly giddy about doing, but before I knew it, Garrick had crossed the room. “Gar!” Liam exclaimed. They grinned and embraced each other with stiff pats on the back. “You know one another?” It slipped out before I could stop myself. “Since middle school,” Garrick replied. “But we didn’t bond until we were both drama geeks in high school.” “This champ fought for me with the studio,” Liam chuckled. “He’s the reason I landed the part.” “Oh,” I said, unable to mask my surprise. I had heard the studio was initially reluctant to dish out the cash that would land Point Break, but I figured they’d come to their senses on their own. I studied Garrick. It must have smarted to get one of his old friends to fill in where he lagged, but he was looking at his friend with nothing but affection. I also hadn’t pegged Garrick as the sentimental type who had friends from grade school. Was I missing something there? The cast welcomed Liam and introduced themselves. Relaxed and utterly disarming, Liam carried himself with the aplomb of a trained socialite. The news that this would probably be his only appearance came with a sting of disappointment, but for me it wasn’t because he was so hot. Rather, it was because he knew the real Garrick Maze, the Hollywood stud who’d once been a self-proclaimed drama geek in high school. I barely resisted the urge to grab Liam’s hand and drag him off to extract every tidbit of information about Garrick he’d allow me. “With that settled and squared away—” While everyone resumed their seats, Lyle patted himself down and peered over his glasses at the chairs around him. “Where did I put that damn thing?” Alice, deadpan, handed him his aqua blue clipboard, which she held up in front of his face. “Ah!” he exclaimed triumphantly, adjusting his glasses as he fumbled with the paper trapper. “Now for payroll!” * * * That night, after an early dinner and a jog on the treadmill, I decided to make use of the hotel’s indoor water facilities. They had a pool, hot tub, and sauna. To my knowledge, Garrick and the guys were running lines again. Erica had locked herself away to write, so it looked like I was flying solo, which was nothing new. Leaving my towel on the peg outside, as I didn’t want it to get damp from the humidity, I slipped into the sauna and shut the door. My bathing suit top had gotten a little small lately, and it made my breasts look larger than normal, but due to the season, I didn’t think I’d need to run out and buy another. Victoria’s Secret wasn’t cheap and even though I was here in New Mexico, I still had to cover my rent in California. Using the ladle that had been hanging from the hook on the wall, I scooped out a helping of water from the basin that had been provided and drizzled it onto the coals. With a sigh, I closed my eyes. I immediately pictured Garrick and once again felt the same burn of curiosity in my chest that had made me want to interrogate rocker Liam Collier about his friend. Strange, but even after that horrible incident at dinner the other night, my obsession with Garrick just seemed to be growing bigger and bigger. I knew that had to do with his innate attractiveness, what had turned out to be an undeniable talent on set, and yes, the way my body still trembled whenever I thought of him visiting my room two nights ago. You know, if you didn’t hate me, I could like you. I may already like you. You are really drunk right now. I’m not drunk enough to forget you in that lingerie. My “sexy shorts,” he had called them. What had Garrick meant about potentially already liking me? Had that been the liquor talking, or had the liquor simply freed him of his inhibitions enough to speak the truth? I snorted. More likely, it had freed him of his inhibitions enough to want to get laid, even if it would be with the uptight priss who’d yammered on about love at dinner. My eyes snapped open when I heard the hinges of the sauna door creak. Garrick, dressed in white and blue swim trunks that made his natural tan sinfully apparent, stopped short, steam pouring out into the colder air behind him. “Oh. Hey, girl,” he said stiffly with a hint of apology. “Hi,” I whispered back. Stunned by his appearance when I’d just been thinking of him and suddenly feeling very self-conscious, I hugged myself and scooted to the corner of my slippery wooden bench. “I can come back,” he offered, eyes darting from me to the coals and back again. “It’s fine,” I stated awkwardly, tucking a strand of damp hair behind my ear. “Great minds, huh?” he tried, stepping inside as I swallowed thickly. There were two other benches, smaller ones, framing the walls. Surely, he wouldn’t think to sit with me. But I was wrong again. He planted himself in the middle of my bench, not the opposite end, and I felt my pulse rev up. “I just had a lift session at the gym. Can you tell?” he teased. He flexed, sporting an arrogant grin. After a glance, never quite able to fully fuse my eyes with his, I stared at the door. “Quite the specimen,” I muttered. Of course, Hollywood’s new playboy would have an incredible physique, but I didn’t need him naked in front me, flexing his muscles to know that. I, along with thousands of other girls, had probably fantasized about his body while watching him in action on the big screen. And given I’d actually been on set with him for hours and hours, and had spent time with my lips pressed against his… Well, fantasizing about Garrick Maze’s body had become a habit. “I was joking,” he insisted, leaning toward me and giving me a gentle bump with his shoulder. “Loosen up, doll.” With a subtle roll of my eyes, I uncrossed my arms and settled my hands on the bench. “Killer suit,” he said and I had to fight to keep my arms down. Suddenly, I felt feverish. “Thank you. Yours is nice too.” I swallowed thickly and hoped the wall would inspire me to say more. “It was nice meeting Liam today.” “Yeah. He’s cool. We fell out of touch after high school. He went his way in the music industry after he got signed and I went mine. We party together occasionally.” “Sounds fun.” I smiled. “Yeah.” One could have cut the awkward tension with a knife. “I—I—” I stammered, “I thought you were running lines with Shane tonight.” Garrick huffed dramatically and slumped back against the wall, somehow accentuating his shoulder and chest muscles all the more. I blushed. “Ty took him from me, the traitor. Said Shane has more potential than I did at his age, so he wants to be his mentor now.” Surprised, I blinked. “How brutal.” He shrugged, settling back into his casual, lackadaisical coolness. “Eh, brutal honesty helps you get places in this business.” His dark hair, moistened and weighed down by the humidity, hung in his eyes in wavy pieces. He was so, so handsome. “That’s true.” I reached up and nervously twisted my hair over my shoulder, wishing I brought something to tie it up with. “Speaking of brutal honesty…” I said softly, worrying at my lip. “Do you remember our conversation the other night?” “What other night?” “The night you got back from downtown and came to invite me to party with you guys in Tyler’s room,” I clarified, hoping it would jog his memory. He frowned and turned his head to give me a queer look. “I did that?” My spirits sank. Adjusting my posture, I sat straighter and stared at the door, firmly resolved not to be hypnotized by his rippling pectorals. “Never mind.” I figured that he wouldn’t remember something that had been plaguing and nagging at me at all hours of the day. And the night, especially the night. He probably said similar things to all the girls, his hundreds of pictures on the web a testament to that. I had to stop focusing on this and get my mind back on track again. Where was the cool, confident woman I had been when I started this job? Deciding that it was entirely Garrick’s fault, like most recently recurring atrocities were, I stood to collect my things. Chapter Nine Garrick The truth was… I remembered. I remembered everything. I’d been just drunk enough to lose my filter, but not quite so much that chunks of time fell out of my memory. I could still picture Gwen exactly as she looked that night—long glossy black-brown hair hanging loose and attractively disheveled, as though she had been running her fingers through it for hours at a time. I wanted to do the same. I saw it as clearly then as I did now. I pictured it often. Her pale green silk lingerie, which I could only assume came from my favorite lady store of all time, enhanced the jade in her eyes and the shape of her body. I knew her breasts were impressive from the beginning, and they were the kind I wanted to squeeze, feel against me, lick (the whole shebang) as often as possible. That vulnerable image of her out of her professional attire and picture perfect poise stuck to my brain like gum on a shoe. I wanted to explore that side of her. That frightened me senseless. And the fear had forced me to admit something I’d fought like hell accepting. If I had her, it wouldn’t be exclusively about sex for me. I could get that anywhere. I wanted Gwen, the Gwen who was a ball-buster, whether it was because someone had caught her talking shit, she was worried about something, or she was defending something she believed in. I also wanted the Gwen who let her hair down and answered the door in her pajamas. Hell, I even wanted the Gwen who’d stared all googly-eyed at Liam when he’d visited the set, the one who for the very first time, had made me so jealous I’d wanted to immediately punch Liam in the face. Even going out partying the last two nights hadn’t been as great of an idea as I had hoped. I kept seeing her face everywhere, in spite of the fact that she sat in the hotel, tucked far away from downtown. At first, I attributed it to guilt. However, after two hours of the elusive sightings, I knew better. I had even tapped a girl on the shoulder thinking Gwen may have changed her mind and came to meet us. What the hell was happening to me? Again, I reminded my head that I couldn’t, I wouldn’t, do this to myself. Nothing about me stood ready for intimacy, which always entailed the danger of falling. Hell, forget falling. Intimacy was a crash and burn waiting to happen. And I couldn’t put myself through that. Not a second time. Not when I knew that I could fall for Gwen in a way I never had with Rachel. But my body wouldn’t listen. Before I could fully curb the impulse, my hand shot forward, almost as though it had a mind of its own, and grabbed her wrist. I surged to my feet and yanked her back to me, spinning her around like a dainty top, and kissed her as her hair settled back around her shoulders. The feel of her silky lips, like sinking into solace, hit me like a ton of bricks. I would remember this moment forever. She didn’t feel at all like Rachel, and that was glorious. I had kissed her before, and felt the same rush, magnetized toward her. But this was different. This wasn’t Payton kissing Lacey. This was me kissing Gwen. And it was fucking fantastic. To my astonishment, she didn’t fight me. It wasn’t until I pulled back and opened my eyes that I understood why. She hovered in front of me with a look of pale, dazed shock on her heart shaped, freckled face. A mix of astonishment and terror colored her features. I immediately let her go. “I lied,” I blurted out. “I do remember. Everything.” “What?” she asked, her jewel-like eyes tracking between mine. Even though I had released her, she hadn’t moved. With so little space between us, I could feel her body heat, her bikini covered breasts against my chest. What I wanted most was to push her up against the wooden wall and kiss her all over again, maybe even go farther. However, something in her eyes told me to make another call. “I meant it. I don’t think I’ll ever forget. Gwen, I like you. And I don’t expect you to believe me after I’ve been a complete asshole to you. I have. I have my reasons. They suck. And I’m sorry.” Where were these words coming from? Why was I saying them? Was the heat going to my head? Or, more accurately, my cock? Being this close to her felt utterly intoxicating. Of course, she had another theory not quite in line with my meaning. “Why are you saying this now? Are you drunk again?” The spark of panic in her eyes had dissipated, replaced by skepticism and worry. I felt my expression fall as I gazed down into her gorgeous face. “Working out drunk and then sitting in a sauna doesn’t exactly make much sense if one doesn’t want to die of dehydration,” I muttered. The hope that she’d forgive me and give me a second chance, even a first chance at something special with her, bled out of me. Quickly filling the empty space, anger rushed in. “Am I really that repulsive to you? Did you actually mean what you said the first day we—?” But I didn’t get to finish because in the next second, she hooked her hand behind my neck and pressed her lips against mine. Stunned, I couldn’t respond at first. However, as my senses rushed back to me, I quickly wrapped her up in my arms. Breath catching in my throat, I turned her, walked her the step or two it took to get to the wall, and pressed her against the damp wooden boards. When her back bumped up against them, she graced me with a soft moan. I craved more of those. The heat of the room, as well as her body, sky rocketed from pleasant to sweltering. I pressed tight against her so she could feel how turned on I was, how crazy she made me. Able to feel every firm curve and crevice, my hands explored her sides and the rounded cheeks of her ass. We fit together like two pieces of a puzzle. She melted against me and I loved the feel of it. My nerves buzzed with anticipation. Unable to help myself, as my lips remained too occupied with hers to ask for permission, I kept picturing her nude figure, accentuated by the sheen of the moisture in the air, against mine. I wanted her bikini top off… now. I slid my hands up her ribs, forgetting all about the glass door, foggy or not, that formed the only barrier between the two of us and potential onlookers. My hands inched up and around behind her, tangling into the strings keeping me from her plump breasts. She sucked in a sharp breath of air, planted her hands against my chest, and suddenly wriggled away. I jerked around to face her and we stared one another down, chests heaving in an attempt to catch our breath. The attractive flush in her cheeks sent a fresh wave of desire through me. I swallowed thickly. Opening my mouth to say something, I tried to take a step toward her to ask why she was wearing a what just came over me look on her face. She retreated. “I have to go,” she stammered, voice weighted down with arousal, but buoyed by panic. With that, she whirled away and fled, snatching her towel off the hook and wrapping it tightly around herself the instant she was out the door. I stood alone in the sauna, watching the muggy shape of her hurry away. The glass eventually fogged over too thickly for me to see anything. It was like standing in a dream and seeing a vision—experiencing a taste of a walking phenomenon—and then . . . waking up. Chapter Ten Gwen The world buzzed by me as I made my way back to my hotel room, which somehow shone like a temple, a sanctuary, to my crazed mind. If anyone called my name or asked me to slow down, I didn’t notice. If God himself had sent a glory of angels to sing me to a halt, I would have completely ignored it. Rounding the corner into my hallway, uncaring if I dripped the entire trip, I made a beeline for the third door. With a swipe of my card key, I swept through the door and shut it soundly behind me, pressing my back against the sturdy white wood and panting for fear that I’d faint and fall over. My eyes frantically searched the floor for answers. What had come over me in there! I could still feel him on my lips and the racing of my heart like a frantic bird in the cage of my ribs. I could feel the butterflies storming around in my stomach and glimpse the fireworks that had flared before my eyes. The explosion of chemistry and desire had catapulted me into a state of being, of desperately wanting, that I couldn’t even name! It had felt the same the first time we’d touched, and what had shocked me the most was when I realized that he must’ve experienced the same barrage of sensations that I had since the first day at Sun Studios. I hadn’t imagined my desire for him, and it swam so much deeper than mere physical attraction. Bless him and his gorgeous honey colored eyes, he remembered when he’d come to my door at two a.m. and that had shocked me stupid. It had surprised and thrilled me to think maybe, just maybe, I darted through his mind as often as he darted through mine. It had thrilled me so much, I had kissed him. Me! And in that moment, all thoughts of my father, all inhibitions swirling around the future of my career and what could be at stake when getting involved with a man like Garrick, jumped ship in a matter of seconds. The traitors! As a matter of fact, I had felt absolutely no trace of fear for my father’s rage while Garrick held me in his arms. Pitched headlong into the riotous rush of too much too soon, I floundered. Was this why he irritated me so? Had I wanted him this badly all along? The lingering liquid heat between my thighs certainly attested to that answer. What would Erica say? Should I even call Erica? Who could I call? Go to? Talk to? Certainly not my mother, because any information would leak back to my father in the time it took Albuquerque’s weather to change. I could call Vi, but she worked night shifts. Plus she didn’t know Garrick, not the way Erica did. I pushed my trembling hand back through my wet hair, uncertain if the dampness came from the humidity in the sauna or the fact that sweat still beaded on my skin from that amazing, glorious kiss. Coming up from the door like a shot, I ripped off my towel and shed my bathing suit on the way to the bathroom. I flipped on the shower and, without waiting for the water to warm, I jumped inside. “Shit!” I shrieked at what felt like icicles pelting my back. But I folded my arms and, like a stubborn statue in a snowstorm, forced myself to stand there. The heat coursing through me ebbed, trotting away to the sound of chattering teeth. The water warmed after what felt like an eternity, but was probably only a minute and a half. I did a little dance in place to kick the blood back into my veins. I untangled my arms and let them hang limp at my sides. Leaning back, I slid down the turquoise tiled wall to sit on the cool shower floor. I wanted to cry, scream, giggle madly, victory dance, and swoon all in the same cycloning space of time. “That arrogant, insufferable asshole is the hottest thing I have ever seen,” I whispered with a moan, tipping my head back to bump it against the wall several times. “You know better than this. What are you, doing, Gwen? Why can’t you find a nice, quiet, country boy? Why does it have to be a Hollywood heartthrob?” The answer rammed into me like an oncoming train. Why? Because, in spite of all my efforts, in spite of my predetermined prejudices… I was falling for Garrick Maze. Erica. I had to call Erica. * * * “What!” Erica exclaimed excitedly, suddenly sitting upright on the edge of my bed. “I know,” I groaned, flopping unceremoniously face first into my plethora of pillows. “I can’t believe this is actually happening,” she announced, her syrupy voice unusually enthusiastic. “It’s like watching my book in real life!” Assuming a frown and glancing up at her through my mess of wavy, unkempt hair that I had never dried after my cool-down, I mulled that over. Expression going slack and heart melting into a puddle of hot, gooey realization, I whined. “Nooo. It is, isn’t it?” I moaned, sinking back into my coverlet. Erica clapped her hands and chuckled. “So, dish, honey! How was it?” “Amazing,” I mumbled. She shimmied her broad, frail shoulders. “Thinking of doing it again any time soon?” My hand shot out, grabbing a stray pillow and I chucked it at her. She caught it and cuddled it against her chest, propping her chin on top. “Well, then. What are you going to do now?” With a sigh, I turned over and cast a despondent look at the ceiling. “I don’t know. I guess… It’s his move.” Chapter Eleven Garrick I dropped onto the wooden bench, still reeling from shock. What I wanted most was a bottle of bourbon and a rousing dose of the independent I don’t need a woman reality I had left behind. Or maybe what I longed for even more fervently was to sprint after Gwen and make her indisputably mine in front of several witnesses. But, unlike Gwen, I had visible evidence of my desire for her tenting my shorts that needed to disappear before I could skip out into public space like a normal human being. Running my fingers through my hair and scrubbing my face with my hands, I groaned. We had kissed before, at the read-through and during a few other practices. But the true passion I had felt lurking behind her lips then hadn't been exposed to me until now. Everything I had simultaneously longed for and dreaded came upon me like a massive rain during monsoon season. I had it bad. Not only did I like kissing her, but I wanted to do it again, as often as possible. Denying it was no longer a viable option. I could feel my priorities shifting involuntarily, yearning to pursue Gwen and put her on a pedestal above all the rest. My chest heaved. My heart hammered. Worrying at my lip, I shifted uncomfortably, denying myself the urge to find release while savoring the memory of how she’d looked and felt and tasted in my arms. For all I knew, a mother and daughter could walk in at any moment and that was the last thing I needed plastered all over the morning grocery store magazines. Gwen would never talk to me after an exposure like that. Or would she? What shocked me most was the fact that she kissed me. I had anticipated the opposite happening, especially considering I had initiated contact moments before only to have her stare, mortified, back up into my face afterwards. How could I get her to kiss me again? How could I ask for permission, or plan around her skittish, strangely explosive nature? The reward certainly outweighed the risk, but I'd have to be tactful about how I went about reaping it. Things could either fall into place perfectly, or shatter into an irreparable mess. Who was Gwen? She certainly wasn’t the ice queen she had shown me at times, not with a smoldering kiss like that. When my raging ache had abated enough to be tolerable, I righted myself, stalked out of the sauna, and wrapped my towel around my waist. Should I talk to someone? Tell someone? Who could I talk to? My dilemma about friends came roaring back to me, as did my reservations to opening myself up to anyone. Rejection sucked, I knew, though I had never experienced it myself. But worse still was betrayal. That, I could still practically taste. No one had the ability to disappoint or betray me so long as I never let them in. However, I wanted to let Gwen in, and I wanted her to afford me the same courtesy. I wanted to be the one she leaned on and confided in. And to my utter shock, I suddenly wanted to be the one to make Gwen's vision of love go from dream to iron clad reality. How could one girl turn me this upside down, inside out, and batshit crazy with one—no make that two—amazing kisses? How could I profess my feelings to Gwen without scaring her away? How much would come out of my paycheck for punching a hole in the wall to my right? Shit. I needed to get it together. After stepping out of the sauna and fishing my phone out of my gym bag, I scrolled down to Liam’s number. I called. After five rings, it went to voicemail. And I couldn’t bring myself to leave a voicemail. He was probably partying. He was probably high, drunk, or both. I left the pool, wandered the maze of hallways, and finally stormed into Shane's room. I found the door ajar, propped open with the silver attachment at the top. Irritable and frustrated and damned near ready to explode from confusion, I planned to make a beeline for the fridge and the bottle we hadn’t killed last weekend. Shane and Tyler stood in the middle of the suite. Seemingly startled, so much so that Shane fumbled with and dropped the book, presumably a prop, that he had been holding. They looked up at me. I paused, staring back at them, when I realized how close they stood together. "Uh," I began, eyes darting between them. What the hell had I just walked into? Shane did a good amount of stammering, talking with his hands, but saying nothing coherent. "Don't get any smart ideas," Tyler warned sardonically, moving away from Shane to drop onto the overly cushioned ottoman and swipe his Galaxy from the coffee table. "I was teaching him about intensity. His character is battling some serious demons standing in the way of his sexual orientation." “Oh. Cool.” I breezed by them to the kitchenette, tore open the freezer, and yanked the Jim Beam from the top shelf. "Whoa. Man, what's wrong?" Shane asked, finally finding his voice, probably glad for the shift in subject. I debated whether or not to spill the beans as I twisted off the cap. Tyler beat me to it. "It's pretty obvious to me. Something happened with Gwen. Nothing else, with the exception of getting fired, could rile him up this much." "Shit!" exclaimed Shane, rounding on me. "You didn't get fired, right?" I leveled him with a dour stare. "Another fight?" Shane inferred in disbelief. He opened his arms, hands open and inquiring, and lifted his shoulders. "You hardly know one another. What do you guys even have to fight about? Did she not like your trunks, or something?" "Oh, no,” I mumbled, voice gravelly. “She liked those," I murmured. Shane went silent. Tyler looked up from his phone. They both stared intently, waiting for me to continue. I realized that this would probably devolve, quickly, into some chatty gossip session that I really didn’t want to be a part of. I contemplated locking myself in my room and hoarding the bottle to myself. "Forget it," I silenced before either one could prompt me to elaborate. Mercifully, neither one pushed me further. "Why don't we go do something?" Shane suggested. "Such as?" Tyler droned, attention once again ensnared by his phone. "We could drive up to Sandia Peak, if anyone has a car. A bunch of people keep telling me to see it. Maybe Lyle would let us borrow one? We could take a six pack and chill for a while." "The overlook would be closer," Tyler suggested in his this isn't a request voice. "I'll lose service that far up." "No phones allowed, man," Shane countered, as if he had a death wish. Tyler sank deeper into the chair, expression slack and disinterested. "I don't see why I need to put my agenda on hold for Garrick's emotional constipation." He knew, I realized. Tyler had probably known from the instant I walked in that my secret feelings for Gwen had been actualized, and how much it dug at me. Wow, I realized. This felt… strangely like… having friends. "Erica has a car," Shane revealed. Fishing his phone out of the back pocket of his jeans, he pulled open his contacts and scrolled through them. "I'll shoot her a text." The way he was talking about Erica, it seemed they’d become better friends than I’d realized. Were they just friends? In many ways, Erica was basically a bro when it came to their crew. I couldn't help but wonder if the recent developments between Gwen and myself would not only make it back to Erica, but also drive an awkward, uncomfortable wedge between all of us. Not that I particularly cared. Just because I had plans to ease my way into Gwen's life if she'd have me did not mean I suddenly considered these people on par with true companions. Right? Because… they weren’t friends. I didn’t have true friends with the exception of Liam; even his bandmates were more acquaintances, though I liked them the more I got to know them. Shane and Tyler and Erica…and Gwen…they didn’t actually care about me. Did they? I shook it off, certain the booze ignited images, flickers, and hints of things that weren't actually there. "Are we seriously going out?" Tyler said. "Because, if so, Garrick, please put on a shirt. I don't want to be mobbed by throngs of shrieking fan girls on the way through the parking lot." "Tsh," I scoffed. Toting along the bottle, I escorted myself out of Shane's suite and across the hall into my own, but not before I had thrown a fleeting glance toward the opposite end of the hallway and Gwen's room. Was she thinking about me? Was she just as tormented as I was? Shouldering my door open and barging inside, I sneered. What if this made her quit? What if she up and left without a word and I never saw her again? I remembered the way she looked at me before she left, as though she had just engaged in some taboo, unforgivable horror, such as human sacrifice or shopping at a thrift store. I wasn't that bad of a kisser, right? Unable to bear the thought of not getting to kiss her again, I tore off my trunks and shrugged into some jeans and a t-shirt. I'd spend tonight with the guys, drinking away my frustration and vexation, and the worry whirling through my mind that I had crossed a line from which there could be no backtracking. To hell with everything. I'd figure out what to do about it tomorrow. Before making my way out into the hall to meet the guys, I grabbed a pullover and doused my neck in cologne. I could have used a shower, should have taken one, but that would have exhumed images I couldn’t think about without tenting my trousers, a luxury I didn’t have time to conceal if I wanted to tag along on this trip. “You get us a car?” I asked Shane, pulling my door closed. “Yep!” Shane grinned just as Erica’s door swung open a few paces away. “Okay,” she said, nodding her hair out of her face and sliding her purse farther up her shoulder, keys jingling from the lanyard caught in her right hand. “If we’re going to do this, we’re going to make a night out of it, starting with a stop at Panda Express.” “Wait,” Shane piped up, lagging as she breezed between us. “You’re coming?” “Of course I’m coming, you idiot,” she called over her shoulder, wearing a look of mock surprise. “It’s my rental car.” Shane threw a telling glance back to the left and broached the question I wanted to, but couldn’t. “What about Gwen?” “She’s not feeling up to it tonight,” Erica explained, voice fading as she got farther away. “Said something about being behind on Monday’s scene. Are you guys coming or what?” * * * An hour later, we were hanging at a lookout point that afforded us a view of The Sandias, which Erica explained meant watermelon in Spanish, and that pretty accurately described what the mountains looked like at sunset. The sun had just barely begun to dip behind the horizon, splashing the sky in vibrant yellows, oranges, and pinks. I had heard New Mexico, referred to as The Land of Enchantment by some and The Land of Entrapment by others, was known for its sunsets… but I never expected to see anything like this. I wished to God Gwen had come. Sharing this with her would have been perfect. We had hit Panda Express as well as the grocery store to grab some Coors Light. Take out containers littered the trunk of Erica’s car, popped open to create a storage space for the beer as well. Shane had somehow managed to coax Tyler away from his phone with the cheap football we had found at Walmart. They passed to each other, Shane skidding in the dirt to try and catch Tyler’s objectively terrible passes. I had been spot-on in my first impression of Shane. His throwing, completely on point, totally gave away a history on the high school football team. Erica and I moseyed along the rim of the overlook, debating on finding a boulder to camp out on below. “We’d totally get arrested if the cops showed up right now, wouldn’t we?” I laughed. Swapping her orange chicken to her other hand, Erica cleaned the corner of lips with a crass sweep of her thumb. “Totally.” She nodded. From inside my back pocket, my phone buzzed. I fished it out and thumbed through my notifications. I had a text from Liam, asking why I had called. Apparently, he had been passed out at the time. Shocker. It didn’t surprise me at all. Furthermore, I wasn’t in the mood to talk to him right now. Rolling my eyes, I stashed my phone. “So,” I murmured after a swig of my beer. “Why are you really here? I think we both know Gwen isn’t behind on anything.” “Oh, you’ve noticed her obsessive dedication too, huh?” Erica shrugged a shoulder. “Figured getting to know you outside of work would be a good idea. As an author, I’m a pretty good judge of character.” “Shit.” I tipped the can up, downing a few more swallows. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell her you’re not actually a terrible person.” She winked. I snickered. “What a relief.” After picking our way down an irritatingly steep and slippery path, we dropped down to sit on a rock, the top smooth and pitted as though used frequently as a perch for onlookers. Above, back on the overlook outcropping, the overhead floodlights came on. “She told you, didn’t she?” Erica smacked her lips, having the decency to feign ignorance of a truth I already knew. “Told me what?” I rolled my eyes with a wry smile. “What happened in the sauna.” Erica cracked a grin, her eyebrows jumping up. “Oh. Yeah.” She shoveled the last piece of chicken into her mouth. With a grunt, I combed my fingers through my hair. “What do you think about all that?” “You and Gwen?” “Nah. Relationships in general. Are you single?” Erica shook her head, jamming her fork into her empty Chinese takeaway box, folding it up, and setting it aside. “Man, at any given time I’ve got twelve conversations and five to six relationships going on in my head. I don’t think I need one in reality too.” “So,” I interpreted, “it’s all bullshit to you.” She assumed a mild frown and canted her head. “Not at all.” I blinked in surprise. Draping my elbows over my knees, I waited for her to continue. “I mean, why would I write romance if I didn’t believe in it?” Lowering her voice, she leaned closer to me. “Aside from exploiting the public’s insatiable thirst for literary porn.” We laughed. “No, seriously though. I think love and relationships… They’re kind of like driving to a new coffee shop, you know? It’s unfamiliar territory. It’s not a straight line. Sometimes you go left, or right or in a giant circle. Sometimes you have to stop altogether, or make a U-turn when you go down a wrong road. Sometimes you get so lost, you have to pull over and ask for directions. Getting there can be fun, frustrating, informative, and undeniably exhausting.” “That’s a pretty damn good metaphor.” “Yeah.” She grinned, snatched my beer out of my hand, and took a long pull. “I’ll bill you for my time later.” “Are you one of those people like Gwen? Who thinks there is someone for everyone, and everyone is constantly searching for it?” “No,” she replied honestly. “I think everyone has the right to choose to search, or to be alone, where some people are perfectly content to be. I think there are multiple someones for multiple people too. I mean…” She laughed lowly. “Can you imagine how much pressure that would be? To be searching and know that if you miss your chance once, or something goes awry with your significant other, you can never have it again?” I swallowed hard. “Level with me, Erica. Is there any chance for me and Gwen?” “Which you, Garrick?” she asked. “E-Hollywood Story you? Or this one?” Tightening my jaw, I averted my eyes. “Look, Garrick. I’m not going to pry into your past. Frankly, I don’t want to know. I’m sure you’ve got demons you’ve been dealing with for years. You fit a classic male character profile I’ve been using since creative writing in high school. And all I can say to you is the more you lie to the world to convince yourself you’re invincible, the more the truth will hurt, and the easier it’ll be for you to crumble inside. And what’ll suck the most is that in the end, you won’t be fooling anyone but yourself.” I took a deep breath as she tucked the beer can back into my hand. “Speaking completely hypothetically, if one had a seriously shitty experience with an old coffee shop, how do you let yourself trust another? How do you move on?” “Off the record?” she suggested, as if telling me that this would never get back to Gwen. “Completely, if you please.” “You start driving. And you don’t look back.” Chapter Twelve Gwen "Gwen!" Alice called from the trailer a stone's throw away. "You're on in five." "Okay!" I called back. Returning my attention to the mirror, I took a deep breath and smoothed my hands down the denim fabric of my jean skirt. The blouse I wore breathed easily, layered with a mesh top and a tank underneath. Flattering, but not slutty. It had been several days since I kissed Garrick, and the past week had been a strange, awkward hell. Shooting Episode Two, every other scene placing Garrick and I together, made for a rough time. Garrick had tried to take me aside more than once during breaks, or in between cuts where we had stand-ins. I knew he wanted to talk about what happened between us, but I just wasn't ready. I still hadn't settled on an explanation for what happened in the sauna, and I wasn't ready to own up to my realization in the shower. It made my heart clench and my stomach tighten just thinking about it. Erica had broached the subject, delicately, a few times back inside Nativo Lodge, mostly during late nights when we settled in to watch something on Netflix. I had ignored her, doing my best to dance around the topic and waltz into another. Talking about it made it too real, and I was content at the moment to keep it more akin to a dream. I couldn't start seeing someone, not when I stood on such thin ice with my father. If he knew, he'd yank me out of Albuquerque so fast that Flash Gordon couldn't even keep up. His pride in me took one of the top tiers on my priorities list, partially because I feared his rage, sure, but mostly because of his identity as my father, provider, and role model. After an hour alone that unforgettable Saturday night, while Erica had gone out with the guys, my senses had sobered up. The mad swarm of butterflies had died down and I sank comfortably back into my old, cool self. Erica’s presence and support and wry encouragement had lulled me into a schoolgirl fantasy. I could have kicked myself for allowing such ridiculous delusions now. Too much was at stake to get wrapped up in a young, unbelievably sexy heartthrob in the middle of filming my very first network television series. But I didn't know what I would say when I finally did talk to Garrick. Would I apologize? Would I choke on my own tongue? What if he hated the kiss? What if he was trying to pull me aside to tell me this wasn't going to work and he was no longer interested? Despite my own strengthened resolve, that would burn like liquid nitrogen. Swallowing my dread, I ran a brush through my hair one last time, checked my lipgloss, and stepped out of my trailer. I stopped when I saw Garrick at the bottom of the pull-down stairs. "Hey," he said, flashing me the first uncertain smile I had ever seen on his face. "Hi," I said back robotically, frozen on the top step. My mind reeled for an alternate route, another solution, preferably one where I flew over his head and sprinted for cover. "Do you have a moment?" "I'm on in less than five to begin shooting Episode Three,” I told him honestly. “I really should be going." I hurried down the short steps, but he caught me by the wrist. "Gwen." His large hand slid into mine. Feeling fire in my face, body and mind yanked back into the glorious heat of the sauna, I jerked my hand back like his touch was toxic and crossed my arms. I cleared my throat, inclining my chin to make sure no one had seen my slip into weakness. My father could have spies, informants, anywhere. "What is it?" I asked, struggling to mask my emotions. Don't bring this up here. Not here, I wanted to beg him. There are other people around. Was this where Garrick showed his true colors, the colors I had known he wore all along and imagined away when he donned white swim trunks? Was he about to reject me in public as penance for the snide things I had said to him since day one? Was he about to take my dreams of love and trample them under his feet? The look on his face morphed from indeterminate to dogged and before I knew what had happened, he had backed me up against the trailer. Eyes wide, I gulped and stared at him, up into those sweet chocolate amber eyes. "I can't stop thinking about what happened in the sauna," he confessed. Oh, God. Here it comes. I fidgeted, searching for a way to escape. "Gwen, look at me," he pleaded. I did, albeit reluctantly. His brown hair hung in attractively disheveled waves. His lips dared a gentle smile at me. "I'd like to do that more often. Is there any possibility you'd give me a chance to?" Stunned, I blinked rapidly. "I—" He frowned as I grappled with how to respond. “Why do you always get that look on your face? When I try to talk to you, you shy away. When I touch you, you practically have a heart attack. When I kiss you, you panic.” “I’m easily flustered,” I said, trying to scrounge up a believable excuse. “I need to remain professional, Garrick. Our interactions, especially on set, need to remain professional. We’re vulnerable in the public sphere.” The light in his face dimmed as though someone had snuffed out candle somewhere. “Can’t bear to be seen with me that much, huh?” “That’s not what I meant,” I contradicted. “And it doesn’t matter. Why would you want to be seen with me anyway? I’m not a one-and-done type of girl. I don’t want to be just a picture on Google. Not for you, or for anyone. I thought I made that clear at the restaurant that night.” “I know,” he assured me, sweeping my hands up to sandwich them between his. “I don’t want you to be that for me either.” I drew in a breath to brace myself, needing the extra support to rally my confidence. “We’re clear, then.” He didn’t want me. “Whatever started, whatever happened… It’s over.” I gave a curt nod. “Not for me.” “What?” “Gwen, we need you on set!” Alice called again, poking her head out from behind the trailer. “I’ll be right there!” I called back to her with a sunny smile until she ducked out of sight again. For the second time, I tried to wriggle out of the cage he had created around me with his tempting body. “I can’t do this.” “Why not?” he wanted to know, persistence latched onto every syllable. No booze. No boys. No barbs in the tabloids. “You wouldn’t understand,” I whispered. “No, I won’t,” he agreed. I felt his hand on my chin and I found myself staring into his eyes, locked like swords in combat, the next moment. “Not unless you talk to me.” “Gwen!” Alice yelled. “Lyle needs you now!” I jerked my chin away. “Yes, I’m coming!” Alice’s voice had startled Garrick into a fully upright stance, allowing me enough space to make my getaway. He caught my hand and spun me around. “Please let go,” I muttered, my gaze shifting left and right, anywhere but up into his face. “At the shoot? Will you talk to me at the shoot?” I stared back at him, my throat going dry. I had forgotten about the photo shoot scheduled for that afternoon. Lyle had told us that we’d stop filming early and let out around three to head into downtown. “Well,” I stammered. I couldn’t bear to tell Garrick no, to squash the hope in his face. “Maybe. We’ll see.” He relinquished my hand and I hurried away to become someone else, unable to cope with standing in my own skin. * * * We arrived at the photography studio, a swanky place off Central, just after 3:30. Attendants bustled around the floor, preparing equipment and setting up makeup stations. The background, white and red draperies, spilled down to the floor. A step stool and several big blocks sat in the center. I had purposefully ridden with Erica in her rental to delay the inevitable conversation with Garrick still to come. She said nothing on the way, leaving me to my thoughts, and I had to wonder if she had overheard our conversation because I caught her flashing me a few looks of concern, and a few more of kind-hearted encouragement. Garrick’s words outside my trailer swarmed through my mind. He wanted to kiss me again. He didn’t want me to be one of his Google girls. It thrilled me. It frightened me. How was I going to keep my resolve to stay away from him after all that? I tried to start by banishing him from my thoughts and focusing on the task ahead. I had done what seemed to be a million photo shoots for Diamond Eyes. Soaps were pretty big on those. I knew they’d block us for framing before slathering us in makeup and wardrobe. Alice and Lyle stood in the back, observing and chatting with each other quietly. Our photographer, a woman in horn rimmed glasses and painter pants, roped Shane, Garrick, Tyler and me together. We took a few dozen group photos first, some with Erica and some without her. Because I got to step back into Lacey’s persona, I found it enjoyable, even funny at times. The photographer had us do cute things like hold hands, or jump simultaneously, or hold our hands up in fists as though we were rallying for a throw down or a bar brawl. In some, I grinned. In others, I glared. Occasionally I pouted, bit my lip, or smirked. Garrick had perfected the smolder before the first flash exploded. Shane and Garrick were naturals, Tyler less so. He seemed to have only one or two expressions that he displayed, bored and more bored, in spite of his range on set. And no matter how hard the poor photographer tried to coax another look out of him, Tyler remained unnecessarily obstinate. Probably, I imagined, because this separated him from his phone for an unnecessary hour and a half. Garrick had to tickle and poke him to trigger a goofy grin. “Alright,” the photographer announced with an overly animated smile, adjusting the new lens she had just fitted into place on her camera. “Let’s go ahead and do some pictures with just Gwen and Garrick now to capture the intimacy between Payton and Lacey. The magazine spread is pretty broad, and I think they’ll want a pairing picture for the cover.” My heart plunged into the pit of my stomach where it beat erratically, nauseating and exciting in the same instant. I felt the color drain from my cheeks and my eyes grow several sizes too big. I should have anticipated this. Shane and Tyler shuffled off, muttering to each other and snickering, working the tension out of their wrists and shoulders. They high-fived with Erica, who had her nose in a copy of Straightlaced, wielding a highlighter. I could tell by the relief in their voices that they were glad to be through with their part, whereas my true struggle was only about to begin. The attendant had me change into a different outfit—a daring, sexy dress that she claimed would hint at Lacey’s rarely explored sexuality, the vixen that lay beneath her sophisticated façade, just waiting to be released. I didn’t think it fit me very well, as evidenced by the way my breasts bulged above the brim, but the attendant insisted that was how the gown was made. She finger-combed and curled my hair and applied a fresh shade of midnight red lipstick. My heart started racing when Garrick stepped back into the room in khaki slacks and a snug button up that accentuated his shoulders. He gawked right back at me. Self-consciously, I crossed my arms. “Let’s get you two together now. If you could meet in the center of our step up and stand back to back, that would be wonderful.” I gathered the fabric of my dress up off the floor and crossed to the display. Garrick joined me. “Chin up a bit, Gwen!” Erica called. “Lacey is Payton’s rival, not his lesser shadow.” “I’ll give you a moment,” the photographer offered with a serene smile. And I knew that meant my cheeks shone cherry red. Clearing my throat, I smoothed my hands down my hips, eyes glued to the floor. Stop shaking, I commanded myself. Feeling the heat of him on my predominantly bare back, I suppressed a shiver and racked my memory for a time when shooting for Diamond Eyes had me this nervous. Unable to resurrect such a scene, even in spite of the number of gorgeous actors and supporting cast contracted alongside me for the series, I groaned. In vain, I tried to put myself in the frame of mind I used back then. They’re just pictures, I told myself. Depictions of a relationship portrayed on television, meant to attract viewers and grow the fan base. Depictions I desperately hoped my father would never see. With any luck, any unnecessary cleavage would be doctored… As the photographer instructed Garrick to turn toward me and wrap me up in his arms from behind, I secretly chastised myself for failing to talk to him earlier and get things settled between us. This would have gone much smoother had we been on the same page, and he realized where I was coming from, why I couldn’t give myself to him. “Gwen, why don’t you face Garrick now,” the photographer suggested. “And relax, both of you! My word. At least pretend to like each other. You look like you’re dreading every second of this. Would either of you like something to loosen up?” She chuckled. “We keep a bottle of Grey Goose for just such a purpose.” “No,” Garrick and I answered simultaneously and too quickly. Apparently both of us considered adding alcohol to the mix a highly dangerous idea. “Fair enough.” Extending her open hand, the photographer flapped her fingers. “Go ahead and get comfortable. I’ll be taking warm up shots from various angles to find the best places to shoot from. Ignore me and focus on each other.” “Do they have to be in the room?” Garrick murmured, indicating Shane and Tyler. Tyler sat preoccupied, glancing over at Lyle and Alice every so often, while Shane stood beside him, making kissy faces at us. “Very mature,” I told him. Erica stared, trying to suppress grins of her own. I puffed my cheeks at her. “Focus on each other,” the photographer reminded. The photographer moved around the edge of the drapery, her lens flashing every few steps. Garrick’s arms encircled my waist and he put his chin on my shoulder. I lifted my arms to slide my hands over his forearms, feeling every muscular indentation. Hesitantly, I glanced up to meet his eyes and, to my surprise, found him gazing down at me. He didn't look disturbed or reluctant like I pictured he might, like the photographer had alluded to. It occurred to me then that of the two of us, I was most likely making it awkward and the photographer had addressed us as a unit to avoid individual embarrassment and take the pressure off me. Garrick's hands slid down my waist, coming to rest on my hips. The calm, oaky scent of his cologne filled my nose, encasing me in a cloud of serenity. I felt safety descend. A tiny scar, one that I had never noticed, marred his chin. Faint creases, the itch before a wrinkle, had started to appear at the corners of his eyes. Either he smiled a lot, or he carried something heavy on his otherwise blithe heart—possibly something to do with past hurts and his vocal thoughts about love at dinner. But I was too entranced at this up-close-and-personal view I had of his face to start thinking about that. He even had a few freckles of his own here and there, things one would only notice a breath away and in the right light. Garrick raised my hands to his mouth and pressed his lips against my knuckles, looking me square in the eye. The world around me melted away. He took the lead, his sure and steady hands positioning me as he saw fit. One moment I was standing before him, grinning bashfully, and the next I hung in his arms, the expensive fabric of my slitted dress cascading down to the floor while he held me bridal style. My smile came easy, natural and broad. Everything brightened. He'd place me in his lap, his chin over my shoulder, and play with my hands. Lips coming to my ear, he'd say silly things, voice low, and I would laugh. The flashes and constant buzz of conversation around us fogged out into insignificant background noise. I found his hand on my upper thigh, his other snaked around the small of my back as he dipped me, and grinned down into my face. Heart racing and face flushed, my body gravitated toward him again, longing for any little touch he graced me with. No matter what I told myself, the revelation that had come to me in the shower still sang true, and I was just as much putty with him now as I had been in that sauna. I fought the fierce desire to kiss him, to pull myself against him and beg never to be released from his embrace. Spellbound, I memorized the details of his face, chiseled chest, and arms. I had judged him wrongly, of that I stood certain. Garrick Maze had to be more than a Hollywood playboy if he could ignite my heart with a touch of his hands and a single glance. I burned for him. I’d give anything to stay like this forever. Unprompted by the photographer, Garrick leaned down and granted my wish. I couldn’t have stopped him even if I wanted to. Slipping his hand to the nape of my neck, cradled in his arm, he pressed his lips to mine. The flashes dissolved as my eyes fluttered closed. Completely enraptured in his dreamy embrace, I instinctively bent my knee, hiking it up a bit higher on his thigh. "That's a wrap, ladies and gentlemen!” the photographer announced. A light wave of unanimous clapping moved through the room. My eyes snapped open, intensely aware that I’d forgotten the rest of the crew in our passionate embrace. “Splendid, splendid” Lyle exclaimed, wiping tears off his cheeks. Alice’s eyes, glued to the floor, refused to look at us. Erica held Straightlaced in front of her face, just below her eyes, hiding what had to be a healthy blush. Shane and Tyler sat in the corner, twiddling their thumbs. What in the world had just happened? I blinked in surprise, having gotten lost in the moment, and found the attendants I had forgotten about cleaning up and packing away equipment. Noticing pressure on my hand and between my fingers, I glanced down to see Garrick’s hand clasping mine. With a chuckle, he tugged me off of the background tapestry. “So. About that talk,” he prompted, eyes tracking across my face, my neck, and back to my lips. Shyly, I looked away. What else was there for me to say? My body and my logic warred against one another in the thick of his presence. I needed time to regroup. “May I take you to dinner?” he asked. “I know this great place called Jordy’s Café. We checked it out one night downtown. Erica showed us.” The time had come. He’d made his move. It was up to me to step up to the plate or flee in the opposite direction. Slowly, dumbly, I nodded. He grinned, relief and pleasure shining in his expression. “Would you like the others to come? Or can it just be you and me?” And judging by the gleam in his eyes, he had a preference for the latter. Dinner wouldn’t hurt, right? It was just dinner. “You and me,” I answered. “Can we meet there?” That way I’d have an out. It wouldn’t look like a date, should any paparazzi get a snapshot. Erica had mentioned going out again tonight to mingle with some peers in the business. Perhaps she wouldn’t mind dropping me off and swinging by when her business had concluded. “Sure,” he obliged with a grin. We agreed to meet there in half an hour, parting ways to get changed and, at least for me, to find a place to vomit out all the butterflies. Chapter Thirteen Garrick Anticipation burning a hole in my gut, I trotted out of the photography studio. Max, one of our local lighting guys, had loaned me the keys to his car. He had a tech party to attend this evening and wouldn’t be needing it. Plus, he owed me a favor for covering the cab home the other night. Hitting the unlock button on the keychain, I saw the headlights of his Dodge Challenger light up at the far end of the lot. I was still reeling from my interaction with Gwen at the photo shoot. She’d looked stunning in that gown, her luscious lips so kissable I could have cried. Until I’d touched her. Connected with her. The way she’d looked at me—God, it had filled me with a pride I’d yet to experience. The sun had set, little Albuquerque blanketed by a pale purple night sky, alluding to just enough time to stir up trouble before the real parties began. Things were finally coming together. I'd meet Gwen at Jordy's, where I'd take her on a real first date. I'd have a real conversation with her. I’d introduce the real me, and slowly lure her out of her shell. What we could be, what I really wanted and fervently yearned for her to want too, would become tangible. At last! "Garrick?" That voice stopped me in my tracks, ripping me out of what I could only describe as euphoria and hurtling me into Hell. I knew that voice. I'd never forget it—a purr issued from lips like rose petals, plump with additional injections of collagen. I turned toward the girl who’d spoken and her perfectly enhanced breasts, my feet positioned at the edge of the battlefield that had become the space between us, my body primed for a fight. "Rachel," I replied mechanically. What was she doing here? How did she get here? How did she…? She straightened from the stucco wall where she had been leaning, or lurking more accurately. Her armor consisted of designer jeans and a scoop neck, all of which hugged her perfect, surgically modified body too well. I struggled to keep my eyes on her face as she approached, the click of her heels like the sound of a miner's pick ax. I felt cold and hot, frozen and boiling. Hatred and nostalgia swirled through me in a molten mass of yuck. "Hi," she gushed. I hadn’t seen her for two years. For the first few months, every night before bed, I’d work myself into a sweaty, seething rage, stewing over all the insults, all the shit I wanted to fling at her. And now, for the life of me, I couldn’t think of anything to say. “Why so quiet, sugar?” she asked with a windy giggle and a flirtatious shimmy of her sun-tanned shoulders. She met me in a hug, which I did not return. This couldn’t really be happening. I had to be dreaming. Or nightmaring. Wake up, dammit! “How have you been?” she asked, hands fawning over me, touching my cheeks and hair as though nothing had changed. “I’ve missed you. When I heard you were in town, I just about died of surprise! I’m down visiting a friend in Old Town. Maybe you know her. Tina Orchatta? You look just superb. I hear Straightlaced is going fabulous.” Oh, yes. I recognized the name Tina, some friend of Rachel’s from high school. My senses came roaring back when I felt my back bump up against a Chevy Suburban. I’d been walking—no, retreating—and had fallen directly into her trap, without realizing it. I had to seize control of the situation before this man-eater had me for dinner! “I’m so sorry about what happened between us,” she confessed with a pout. Like a viper, her hand drifted down to my inner thigh, where she pressed hard and crept upward. She leaned in, dusting her lips over my jawline and neck. “Sorry?” I repeated dryly, eyes focused over her head. She nodded as she pulled back, her eyes boasting a sickeningly insincere sheen of fresh tears. Wide eyed and incensed, I tried to process the word. “You slept with my brother.” Clamping my hands on her upper arms, I shoved her away. “We had been steady for four years. I was on my way to asking you to marry me. Sorry doesn’t even begin to cut it, Rachel.” “He made me, Garry,” she insisted quickly. “I told you that. I gave in once and he started blackmailing me. I made a mistake, sugar. Can’t you forgive me? Even after all this time apart? My heart aches to hold you again.” Reaching out, she laid her hand on my chest. I knocked it away. “Don’t touch me. I believe that about as much now as I did the first five times you fed it to me,” I sneered. She huffed, assuming a pout. “Why are you being so mean? Here I came to make amends and heal old wounds, and you’re determined to carve new ones.” “I have no interest in you,” I informed her, coming up from the car and straightening my rumpled shirt. Gwen flashed through my mind. “I’m seeing someone new.” It slipped out before I could catch myself, and from the subtle shift in her expression I knew I had just made a strategically lethal move. “Excuse me?” she growled, as if no one on the planet could compare to her. And a little over two years ago, I would have wholeheartedly agreed. After the strange darkness faded, Rachel balked, giving the impression that the lightest gust of wind could blow her over. “Who?” she demanded, staking her fists on her hips. “That’s none of your business.” In the next instant, I saw Gwen emerge from the photography studio with Erica, fishing her keys from her purse, beside her. My eyes betrayed me with that glance, and how I corrected myself too rapidly afterward. “Oh,” Rachel hissed with an unspoken threat, poisonous glare locked on Gwen. “Isn’t that cute.” “You stay the hell away from her,” I warned quietly. She sighed and fluffed her hair. “Just as you’ve risen in popularity over the last two years, so too have I, Garry. I’ve got all sorts of connections these days. We’ll see how long you and your new squeeze last. It would be such a shame if something popped up and tarnished her reputation.” I tightened my fists. “Rachel, I swear to Christ. I will bury you.” Unaffected and confident, she stepped into me. “I’m going to have you back, Gar-bear. You remember, I’m sure, just as well as I do that I always get what I want. Ta, sugar.” She tapped the tip of my nose with a delicate bop of her taloned finger, winked, and sauntered off, leaving me to roil in my anger. In a fog, I walked to Max’s car, yanked open the door, and slid into the passenger seat. I slammed it shut and locked the doors on the off chance that Rachel would appear again like a creature from a horror movie. My mind couldn’t make sense out of what had just happened. There was no worse moment on the galactic timeline that Rachel could have appeared. Just when a silver lining had peeked out over my horizon, her clouds descended. Was this some sort of sick, cosmic joke? I sat back and gritted my teeth, trying to will away her image, her scent, and the sound of her voice. But the horror of discovering my brother’s betrayal and Rachel’s infidelity crashed over me. In a matter of seconds, she had reduced me to the shocked shitless nineteen-year-old I had been. It happened on a Friday night. I was supposed to attend a cast party for Blast Zone, and had called Rachel to invite her. Saying she felt under the weather, she told me to go ahead and have fun—to text her when I was on my way home and that she’d wait up. We had moved in together the Christmas before, and had shared an apartment since. I drove to the party and stayed for half an hour before I grew bored and realized making appearances wasn’t worth it if I couldn’t see her at the same time. So, without texting, figuring I would surprise her, I sped home. I even stopped at the store to pick up a gallon of Rocky Road and a bottle of pink moscato first. Yeah. That was how whipped I was. She loved sweet things. And I didn’t mind doing stupid stuff like that for her. When she was happy I was happy. I figured we could have our own cast party on the comfort of our sofa. Lastly, I picked up a Redbox movie. I couldn’t recall the name now. I unlocked the door to our place and walked in. I found Rachel on our couch alright—with her legs wrapped around my older brother, Dominic. I had blocked out the rest. I vaguely remembered shouting, throwing a few punches, smashing the moscato on the counter, and hurling the gallon of ice cream at the television. And Rachel, standing in the midst of it all, had cried buckets of tears before it was through. The image I remember most distinctly was standing up from beating the tar out of Dominic, looking into her face, into those summer sky blues, and realizing that none of those tears were for me. They weren’t even for my brother, jeans still down, who lay on the floor cradling his broken nose. They were for her alone. She had been caught. And life as she knew it had ended. So, I packed a duffle, walked out of the apartment, and never looked back. I didn’t tell my parents about what happened. I couldn’t bring myself to ruin things that way. I couldn’t tell them why I didn’t show up at Christmas anymore, or attend mass on Easter Sunday. The two bonds, family and true love, that I had held tantamount to God as the most unshakable forces in the universe had both come crashing down on me the same night. I had been planning to propose the following weekend on Thanksgiving Day. To escape, I booked a Caribbean party cruise instead, my family under the illusion I was working on a last minute shoot in Cancun. Ever since then, I hadn’t stopped partying. I hadn’t stopped living in the fast lane. The quicker my life sped by, the sooner I left her behind. How had she caught up with me? The answer bubbled up in my brain, and so did the memory that I was supposed to meet Gwen at Jordy’s in five minutes. But I was no longer in a good place, no longer the smooth operator thoroughly engrossed in taking Gwen on our first date. I knew that if I went now, I’d screw up everything. I would soundly flout the one chance she had given me to prove I was worthy of her. Yet again, potential bonds would break apart before my eyes. I tried to talk myself into going, tried to shove my buzzing, clamorous feelings into their box labeled Past and get over it. But I couldn’t. Because I still hadn’t dealt with Rachel’s betrayal. It was a bridge I hadn’t reached the end of yet. Fishing my phone from the pocket of my jeans, I dejectedly punched in a text to Gwen. I couldn’t call her. She’d hear it in my voice. So sorry. Something came up. Rain check? I waited for a reply for ten minutes, staring at the screen with bated breath. Finally, she replied. Heaving a sigh of relief, I opened the message. Don’t bother. Chapter Fourteen Gwen “I can’t believe I fell for it,” I mumbled lethargically, staring blankly out of Erica’s passenger side window. The day’s exhaustion settled into my bones. All I wanted to do was curl up in bed with a warm blanket and a whole cookie sheet of gooey cinnamon rolls. “Honey,” Erica said from the driver’s seat, reaching over and giving my leg a pat. “You really shouldn’t jump to conclusions.” Swiveling around to face her, I glared. “You saw him with that girl. You know exactly where he went and why he canceled. He didn’t even have the decency to call me because they were probably already locking lips in the back of her car.” Erica set her mouth into a grim line and I could tell she stood in the midst of a heated mental debate with herself. “I know this looks bad, but I didn’t get that vibe from him. He’s really not like that. Besides, I can’t even picture him with a girl that plastic anyway. He’s into you. He thinks you’re gorgeous. Have you seen the way he looks at you? Just wait until those pictures come out. It was like you two were the only two people in the world during that photo shoot. Even I was close to swooning—” Unable to hear anymore, I snapped, “He was probably just playing a part. He’s an actor, Erica. You’re an author. It’s a completely different line of work with completely different laws and expectations attached. We lie for a living.” With a heavy sigh, Erica stuck her key in the ignition. We had pulled off the road on the way to Jordy’s when Garrick’s text came through. “Would you like to go out?” she asked, throwing a chipper note into her voice and a small smile on her face. “Have a girl’s night? I’m sure he has a good explanation, but I don’t want to see you sit around and sulk about it until he gives it to you, sweetie.” “No,” I replied softly, sinking into my seat. “Just take us to the hotel, please. I have to call my father for the weekly report anyway.” Erica stared at me for a moment. I could feel the weight of her eyes and her disappointment, and potentially her pity, settle on my shoulders. She put the car into drive and pulled out of the parking lot in front of the local theater. We cruised up Central, headed for I-25. Crowds had already gathered outside of the bars and restaurants, milling about like clusters of merry insects, their smiling faces probably illuminated by the neons hanging in the storefront windows. But I couldn’t see any of it very well. Because I had tears in my eyes. * * * We arrived at Nativo Lodge roughly twenty minutes later. Erica had caught me crying on the way and managed to talk me into having a drink with her at the bar of Saguaro del Rio. We chatted for a while, the majority of sounds from me being the clink of ice against my glass. Erica had a flair for tequila. Margaritas just seemed to agree with her. She kept trying to buoy my spirits, which felt nice, but ultimately futile. I kept my phone beside me just in case my father texted. He typically did when he got off work, or out of whatever business meeting required his undivided attention. The time crept by and Erica’s chatter faded into background noise while my attention drifted over the glossy, dark, multi colored marble countertop. I even caught myself slouching, I felt so depressed. I desperately wanted to enjoy the moment with her, but I couldn’t yank myself out of the funk I had fallen into. Erica had been correct about me jumping to conclusions about Garrick and Ms. Parking Lot, but what else was I supposed to think? The optimist in me suggested I give him a call, or shoot him a text. My last one had been a little harsh. But hadn’t he deserved that? At eight thirty p.m., Erica gave me a squeeze and headed out to meet a few fellow authors. I floated off to my room, my single rum and Coke still buzzing through my system. Once inside, and seated on the edge of my bed to pull off my boots, I quickly realized it was nowhere near enough to knock me out for the night. I dropped back in my bed and alternately kicked my striped plush sock covered feet up. I should have taken Erica up on her offer for a girl’s night. As crappy as I felt at the bar, it wasn’t nearly as bad as the wave of despair, regret, and shame that washed over me alone. Receiving my father’s text a while later, I dialed his number. I had never been so relieved to hear his voice, if only to distract me from my own thoughts. Pacing my room to steady my nerves, I rattled off the usual agenda of events, goals, gains, and promises, assuring Dad that I wasn’t seeing anyone and the relationship I had with my lead, the Maze boy, remained strictly professional. Guilt crept up on me fairly quickly. I hated lying to him, and not just for the fear of his reaction if he ever discovered the truth. Lying to him meant lying to Mom, something I knew I could never directly manage over the phone or face to face. She would never know, but she would believe my every word, which somehow made the act exponentially more detrimental and treacherous. Dad told me he and Mom had just watched Episode Two and loved every moment of it, except of course for the parts I was with my lead, which comprised roughly half of the running time. I shrugged it off. An hour after our call, I found myself lying in the exact same position I had been when I toed off my Uggs. Five minutes later, halfway to my dresser to fish out my newly laundered pajamas and shed my skirt, I heard a commotion in the hall. “Hey!” Shane’s voice announced cheerfully. “There he is!” I froze, hand hovering over the drawer handle, and listened to heavy footsteps stalk down the hall. “Dude, what’s wrong?” Shane asked. “Don’t fucking touch me,” Garrick sneered. Blinking rapidly, I rounded on the door. Garrick’s voice had sounded raw, powerful, and primed for battle. What had him in such a foul mood? “Whoa,” Shane agreed, presumably backtracking and pulling his hand away. “Okay, man. What’s up?” “I’m going to bed,” Garrick grumped. Was he angry about the last text I’d sent him? Glancing over my shoulder, I checked the digital clock on my nightstand. 9:45 p.m. He had surely had enough time for a hookup in the last few hours. Maybe he had only just received the text because he had turned his phone off? It seemed the most plausible explanation, and there had been ten minutes or so of lag time between when I got his rain check message and countered—time enough for him to turn off the device and attend to Ms. Parking Lot. In the next moment, I swore off Max’s Challenger forever. But what had he expected my reaction to be anyway? That’s fine, have fun with your sleaze and let me know? And how could my reaction incite such anger in him? He had been the one to stand me up! Curious, irritated, hurt, and torn between wanting to comfort and kill him, I hurried to my door. “I feel really bad for your mattress,” I heard Tyler mumble. “Shut up, Tyler,” Garrick snapped. “Just leave me alone.” I opened the door in time to see Garrick stomp by, headed for his room. “Garrick?” I questioned incredulously as Shane and Tyler slunk back into their rooms. “Don’t bother, ” he dismissed, breezing by. I grimaced. “Garrick, wait,” I insisted, hurrying to swing around in front of him and plant myself in his path. “What happened? What’s wrong?” He avoided my eyes, making to dart around me. “Nothing.” My irritation escalating, I poked him square in the chest. “I think it would be a good idea if we talked.” “Not right now, it wouldn’t,” he snapped. “Listen to me! Will you just wait a moment? You understand why I reacted the way I did, don’t you?” “Get out of my way,” he warned, locking eyes with me. “This isn’t about you.” “Isn’t it? I don’t get why you’re this upset! You’re the one who stood me up for some other girl! After all that talk about us and what we could be and wanting to try and—” “What girl?” he guffawed insincerely, having the audacity to look offended. I came unglued. “The girl I saw you with when you were walking to Max’s car! Don’t try to deny it, Garrick! I know you went with her instead of taking me to dinner. Did things not go your way?” His eyes widened, as if appalled. “Move!” he boomed, sending a tremor of fear through me. In that moment, he reminded me a little too much of my father and I wavered in my resolve as a series of flashbacks hurtled through my mind. The terrifying leer in his eyes looked more akin to a lion than a man. I had no idea what cosmic force seized me by the throat and squeezed out what I said next. “N-No!” I fired back. Gritting my teeth together, I willed fresh tears away and balled up my fists. “You owe me an explanation!” He snorted his indignation at me. “I don’t owe you a god damn thing!” “Then just do it so I’ll get out of your face!” I exclaimed, my voice cracking. “Isn’t that what you want?” I heard a door open down the hall. Garrick must have seen the alarm in my face, having realized that we had been arguing in public and what had been said could be easily interpreted as a lover’s quarrel. He reached around me, shoved his key card into a slot, and pushed the door open. Backing me into the room, he shut and bolted the door behind us. My throat went dry when I attempted swallowing. I realized, heart starting to beat erratically, that I had never been alone in a bedroom with him before. His bed lay only paces away, the sheets pulled taut and meticulously made, suggesting that housekeeping had stopped by while we were out. The curtains hung closed and the only light in the room shone from a single bedside lamp, giving the impression of absolute privacy. Even intimacy. But that wasn’t why we were there. Focus, Gwen. “So,” I prompted, standing awkwardly in the heart of his suite. If Garrick noticed the tension, or my currently warring feelings, he gave no indication of it, completely absorbed in his own mind with his cold, bullet colored eyes fused to the floor. “Are you going to tell me what’s wrong? Are you going to tell me the truth?” “The truth about what?” he mumbled. “The truth about her,” I clarified. “Who is she?” Garrick heaved a sigh, losing some of the tension in his shoulders, slouching forward as he carded his fingers through his hair. He stalked by me and took a seat on the edge of his bed. “Park it,” he mumbled, hunched over his knees, broad shoulders somehow smaller, in a defeated pose. I swallowed hard. It’s only to sit, I told myself. I crossed to him and did as he asked, or rather commanded. Worrying at my lip, I wrung my hands discreetly. “You were right,” he muttered. My heart plunged into my gut. “Oh,” I said softly, assuming he meant that I was right about him blowing me off to spend his evening with the woman from the parking lot. I nearly sprang to my feet and sprinted toward the door. “I was in love once.” I froze. Surely I had heard him wrong. Love exists, Garrick, whether you believe in it or not. Love is a flare. It ignites, burns for a while, and dies.” Shocked, I turned my head to gawk at him, memories and hurtful words storming through me. His voice, our conversation at the restaurant, came into sharp focus. Struggling to wrap my mind around his confession, I blinked and clumsily sputtered, “What?” Garrick averted his eyes. “The girl you saw me with. I dated her for four years.” Four years?! My mind reeled. What would you know about love, Hollywood playboy who dates a new girl every two weeks? Two weeks? Damn, girl. You could solve world hunger with the amount of faith you put in my ability to keep a relationship. Try three days. “Then why did you say all those things? Why lie to me?” I whispered, unconsciously scooting closer to emphasize how much I desperately wanted to understand. “Why did you try to convince me you’re immune to it? That love’s not real?” He cocked his jaw askew, bounced his knee a few times, and shook his head. “I caught her cheating on me. And until recently, I didn’t think love was real.” Until recently, he’d said. I swallowed hard, immediately feeling a spark of hope in my chest, something I suppressed as he continued speaking. “I hadn’t seen her since it happened,” he continued. “She showed up out of nowhere, and it tanked my mood—took a bomb to it. I didn’t want to take it out on you, because I had to work so hard to get you to trust me enough for one date. The date would have been ruined, as would my chances with you, if I had arrived in the state I was in.” Breathless, I stared at him, eyes wide and probably a shade lighter than pale, if not green. A storm of guilt, surprise, and pity descended on me, replacing every ounce of anger. I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions. I should have given him a chance to explain in his own time. I should have listened to Erica. Garrick wasn’t always the playboy I thought he was. Mind reaching into the past, I recalled Erica’s reluctance to tell me what they had discussed. Was this the secret he had revealed? Was this why Erica stood so insistent that I give him a chance, and the benefit of the doubt? I must have looked and sounded so incredibly stupid in the car. “I’m sorry,” I said gently, my attention falling away from him. “I misjudged you. I can’t believe I was so rude when you asked for a rain check.” “You didn’t know.” I shook my head, sick with myself. “No, Garrick. I threw you into a stereotype, thoughtlessly and callously dogged you for having an outlook on life that didn’t match mine. I judged you when I didn’t even know you. And I feel awful for doing it.” Suddenly, he had me by the hand, his other one gently but firmly holding my chin to guide my attention back to him. “I didn’t let you know,” he assured me, his thumb dusting over my skin as he held my gaze. “I’ve spent years hiding this, Gwen. Not just from you, but from everyone and everything.” I couldn’t look away, the once aloof, angry pools of amber melting into molten caramel before my eyes. “I do want to take you to dinner, Gwen. I want to do a lot of things with you.” I held my breath. “Like what?” I whispered, warmth rising in my cheeks. “Like this.” He leaned in, hesitated a moment as he surveyed my expression, and pressed his lips to mine. As though drunk, I felt the world fall away from under me. Instinctively, I shut my eyes. My fluttering heart thrummed loud in my ears and I grew self-conscious, certain he could hear it. I felt the mattress give when Garrick moved, felt his hands slide from my face to my hips as he came around in front of me. Increasing the pressure of his persistent, passionate kisses and inserting his knee between my thighs, he managed to back me up into the center of the bed. The next thing I knew, I was falling. Looping his arm around me, he leaned me back and laid me down. I weaved my arms around him, squeezing the nape of his neck and the meat of his back. Excitement coursed through me. His lips left mine and he nosed his way under my chin to run his tongue over the sensitive skin of my neck. Nerves abuzz with excitement, I shuddered when he started opening my blouse, his large hands making quick work of the buttons. “Garrick,” I breathed, stomach storming with butterflies and a contagious warmth that quickly combed my inner body. Reaching around him, I hooked my fingers into the hem of his shirt and pulled. With his help, I peeled it off, leaving me with the tantalizing sight of his glorious, muscular upper half. He reached around me with a bewitching sort of ease and unfastened the clasp of my bra. Fingers splayed over the skin of my back, he pulled, prying the straps off and over my shoulders, sliding the garment down my arms, and disposing of it somewhere beyond my line of sight. Garrick had shared his pain with me only moments ago, connecting us on an emotional level. Could he see into my soul the way I hoped he could? At first, I had wanted to hide things from him, just as he had from me. But after his confession, I craved nothing greater than to open myself fully. Blotto off the moment, and gripped by intense, fiery desire, I nibbled at the shell of his ear. The heat between us quickly escalated, just as it had in the sauna. His hands swept across me, engulfing my torso until they found my breasts, which he cupped in his warm, slightly calloused hands. My body prone and willing, liquid heat began to pool between my legs, concealed by the stylish, floral skirt I wore. He leaned down and took my nipple between his lips, gingerly sucking before he gently bit down. A tremor of delight ran through me. The scent of his cologne wafted up into my nose and I found myself enthralled, desiring him as I had desired no man before. Slowly, purposefully, he removed my skirt and half soaked panties. I had never been so thoroughly aroused, toes curling in the sheets as he feathered kisses down my ribs and abdomen. I watched, breath hitching in my throat, as he slid his hands over my hips, spread my legs, kissed my inner thigh, and dipped his head. An unbidden moan floated up from my lips as I felt his warm, wet tongue against me. He licked. I squirmed. Reaching down, I slid my fingers into his hair. With mind-blowing deftness, he flicked his tongue against me. Sliding his hands beneath me, he cupped my buttocks and lifted just enough to get the angle he wanted. My cheeks flooded with warmth and I bit down on my knuckle to keep from crying out in pleasure. Suddenly, his tongue entered me—flexing and pumping. It should have been a sin for any man to be this good at this. Soon, he replaced his tongue with two fingers and resumed licking. Quickly coming undone, I writhed for him. I stood on the cusp of ruin when he suddenly stopped. Chest heaving and ready to beg, I opened my eyes to find him looming over me, gazing down, and beholding me like I was truly something special. I swallowed hard. His hand worked to open his jeans, the prevailing question evident in his eyes. Aching with need and want for him, I nodded. We exchanged playful smiles before clashing together in a steamy, passionate kiss, somehow managing to get him into a condom between the two of us. I raked my nails up his back, memorizing every delicious curve beneath my hands. He sank down onto me, settling his weight onto the center of me like the anchor holding me to the earth—the pillowed cloud of the mattress beneath us. Deftly, he looped his arm around me, just under the small of my back. His other hand kneaded my thigh, drifting downward, until he caught the back of my knee and lifted my leg. The expert way he could manipulate my body thrilled me. “Garrick,” I moaned. In the next instant, I attempted to sit up, fully willing to provide him the same pleasure. He silenced me with a firm, dominant kiss and guided me back down to the bed. I gladly drank him in. As he eased into me, I gasped. Wanting more, I rolled my hips up to him, wriggling in the pursuit of greater friction. I folded my legs around him while he eased in, inch by inch. I could see now why he took his time. Garrick had no need to compensate for anything where his manhood was concerned. I mewled, moaned, and pleaded under my breath, ravenously soaking up all the pleasure he would give me, and eagerly, desperately wanting to please him. He filled me. Finally, fully embedded, he willed his hips forward, the two of us finding the perfect rhythm. Already brought to the point of nearly screaming during our foreplay, I dropped back against the mattress, mouth agape and worshiping him in incoherent spurts of sound. Meanwhile, he bent down to suckle the skin of my collarbone as he planted his hand firmly on the mattress just above my shoulder. His pace quickened. His force increased. I tried to tell him how close I hung to coming undone, but I couldn’t formulate words. With a loud moan, he pushed me over the edge and release rocketed through me. Soon after, his liquid heat filled the condom. We rode the cosmic feeling through to its conclusion while gazing into each other’s eyes. It had been so good. Garrick Maze was clever, capable, handsome, successful and smart. Most importantly, he could be affectionate with me and show me without words, something I heard professed on a daily basis—lies for the sake of the silver screen—how he felt. Boneless bodies lightly misted with sweat, we clung to one another for a few precious moments until sleep found us, and we drifted off in each other’s embrace. Chapter Fifteen Garrick Sensing I wasn’t alone in bed, but that Gwen had strayed oddly far from me, my eyes fluttered open. Clumsily, I lifted my hand and rubbed the sleep out of them. Gwen, her sexy, slender silhouette blooming into focus, sat on the opposite side of the mattress, her spine ramrod straight as she stared at the thick, coarse curtains draping down from the window bar and drawn across the majority of the wall. I was reminded of the afternoon of the first read-through, when she held her perfect posture for what seemed like forever, her eyes fused with Lyle, Tyler—anyone but me. The faintest rays of morning light shone in through the crack between the fabrics. It gave her body an angelic halo, skin ablaze in faint white fire. Assuming a quirky, curious smile, I sat up, moved toward her, and peppered her shoulder with kisses, trailing my way to her neck. My hands planted and spread over her back, a feature of hers I found irresistible—so fair and well-shaped and supple, the sweeping lines and scoops of her tenderly defined muscles flawless in the dim light. “Hey, baby,” I greeted, voice husky. Being sure to touch every part of her I could, I snaked my arms around her slender waist, wanting to pull her back into my lap and map out her body with my hands once more. “Hi,” she whispered numbly. She didn’t move to touch me in return, which should have been my first clue. Glancing over her shoulder, I saw that her hands hung trapped between her knees. The spike of desire I felt seeing her this way fizzled out. Something told me that she wasn’t in the mood. And something else told me that the reason went deeper than the absence of sexual arousal. Frowning, I eased around her in order to peer into her face. She got to her feet before I could manage it. “Gwen?” She paused before replying, attention locked on the curtains before she started to rapidly shake her head. “We shouldn’t have done this,” she fretted, scrambling to collect her clothing, which lay strewn around the bed. She discovered her bra beneath the coverlet. “This can’t leave this room.” Suddenly cold, I pulled my brows into a frown. “What? Gwen—” I tried to get her attention, but she didn’t listen, too busy pulling her clothing back on. “Gwen!” I exclaimed, hand launching out to catch her wrist. Finally she met my eyes. I balked, the blurry black beneath her sea greens telling me she had been crying. “Did I do something wrong? Did I hurt you?” “No,” she sputtered quickly. “No, not at all.” Floundering in my confusion, my mouth worked to say the words building up behind the blockage in my throat. “Was it… bad?” She blinked, light coming into her face. “No,” she assured again, taking a softer tone as she sat on the edge of the bed, in much the same way she had the night before. “It was wonderful.” I watched her swallow, avert her eyes, and tense up. “But this can’t happen again. You and I—we have to remain professional. We’re coworkers. This has to be our secret.” “We could keep it a secret,” I offered, trying to reassure her. “No one else has to know we’re seeing each other.” “We’re not seeing each other, Garrick. This…” A watery sheen appeared across her eyes as fresh tears sprang into them. She looked up, firmly fixing her attention on the ceiling fan. In spite of her attempt to compose herself, her voice cracked. “This was a one time thing.” “I thought you said—” I couldn’t bring myself to finish, my pride too deeply wounded. I distinctly remembered her telling me that should we be together, it wouldn’t be a one-night stand, because she was not that type of woman. Was I so unworthy that even she would change her creed if given the chance to be with me? I hadn’t felt a sexual, spiritual, and mental connection with anyone during sex like I had felt with Gwen only hours ago. Did she not feel that? Would she so easily let me go? Freshly beaten by my run-in with Rachel the night before, Gwen’s rejection was too much for me to successfully bear. Inwardly, I crumbled. “If that’s what you want, then I’ll support it. I won’t chase you anymore.” Gwen took a breath, the faint, small sound hitting me like a dagger to the heart. She wanted to say something, but couldn’t bring herself to. Instead, she found her feet and hurried to the door. She opened it cautiously, slowly, and I didn’t have the nerve to watch. I weighted myself to the bed, coiling one hand up in the disheveled sheets to root myself not to follow her. I had absolutely no issue chasing women. I enjoyed it, for the most part, and I stood ready to do so if ever the time arose. That time had passed for us, it seemed—a dull glimmer in the distance. “Love is a flare.” Why hadn’t I listened to myself? Truly listened? Why had I taken Gwen into my room last night? Just the sight of her had been a balm to the raw burning in my heart. However, the sting had returned in full force now. Dropping back into bed, I swallowed thickly, fixed my eyes on the ceiling, and tried to pretend I couldn’t still smell the scent of her hair on my pillow. * * * Later that day, I slouched on the small sofa in Shane’s room, half listening to him run lines with Tyler. The two of them hadn’t mentioned my blow-up last night yet, for which I stood fairly grateful. I had told the story, at least in part, once. I was in no hurry to reiterate it. My mind drifted in and out, attention foggy and temper frayed. At some point in the session, Tyler excused himself to go and grab a Coke from the vending machine at the end of the hall. Shane and I were left alone in the suite, and I knew the guy didn’t do well with silence. “So,” I heard Shane’s voice prompt. I couldn’t suppress the roll of my eyes that followed. “You and Gwen. Saw you guys head into your room last night.” “Yep,” I replied curtly. “And she left awhile later when she realized I wasn’t in the mood to humor her.” A lie, obviously. But I had made a pact with Gwen. I couldn’t let Shane know that we had slept together. It could jeopardize her precious reputation. “Oh.” Hearing thuds, I glanced to my right to see Shane horizontal on the ottoman, throwing a baseball against the wall, catching it, and throwing it back. “You gonna date her?” “No, man. I’m not.” “Ha!” he laughed, sitting up and bracing himself on one elbow. “Awesome. You want to get in on playing a prank on her when we start filming again on Monday? I feel like she needs to loosen up and honestly, I don’t know much more about her than the day I got here.” “And you think playing a prank is a good way to do that?” Shane shrugged. “It’s what a lot of actors do on set, or so I’ve heard. I mean, I do have four sisters. I would list pranking on my resume if it was a legitimate skill.” I thought about it, then reluctantly agreed. Gwen and I wouldn’t be sleeping with each other but hopefully we’d remain friends of sorts. Friends pranked each other. If I remained too protective of her, it could suggest that I had feelings for her, feelings that she didn’t want me to have, which would be doing no one any favors. “Sweet!” Shane exclaimed excitedly. “Alright. So, here’s what I was thinking.” Chapter Sixteen Gwen After leaving Garrick, I snuck back to my room. Once there, I had an absolute melt down, bombarded by guilt at the brutal way I had left things. I’d hated being the cause of the hurt I’d seen on Garrick’s face. Only I’d had no choice. He didn’t understand that, but how could he when I hadn’t explained? I had betrayed all my promises to my father by letting things get this far, and if I didn’t rectify things quickly, there was going to be hell to pay. Besides, the chances of anything serious developing between Garrick and me? Come on, it was ridiculous. He was interested in me now, but that would fade. Then what? My broken heart would just be the beginning. I told myself I’d done the right thing, only why did I feel so horrible? What if I’d made a mistake? I fretted about it for a few hours, unable to fall back asleep. Finally, I showered, dressed, and threw myself into memorizing my lines for the next episode. While today was Friday, and the cast normally ran lines together, I’d tell Lyle I needed time alone to get into my character’s head. I’d hole up in my room. Maybe I’d even get a room at a different hotel altogether. Monday, we would continue filming Episode Three, as well as a few scenes on location for future reels. In a frenzy, I flipped through the pages of my script, searching for the next kiss between Payton and Lacey. Luckily, it didn’t occur for a few more episodes, and I would have time to cool down and put distance between myself and Garrick. * * * I ended up spending the weekend locked in my room and while I had indeed practiced my lines, I’d spent most of the time under the covers, alternately replaying my time with Garrick to either savor the memories or berate myself for my foolishness. By the time Monday morning rolled around, I felt drained and confused and still terribly tempted to run straight to Garrick and ask him to please forgive me for the way I’d run out on him. Instead, I put on my professional mask and ran lines with Erica and the girl playing Marisol, Lacey’s friend from her biology class, or rather the girl from biology class intent on making herself Lacey’s friend, who would be featured in a handful of episodes to come. Throughout the morning, I did my best not to make eye contact with Garrick for fear that the longing look I returned would undoubtedly give me away. Erica tried to bring up Thursday night, asking what went on after our chat at the bar. Apparently, the boys had mentioned that Garrick showed up in a rage, and that he and I had spoken for a while. I shook my head, assured her that nothing happened and returned to my meticulous combing of the script. I had little interest in small talk, even when lunch rolled around. Erica went to get lemonade while I saved our table. I had only just sat down and dug my fork into my brown rice when Garrick and Shane appeared out of the corner of my eye. Inhaling deeply through my nose and swallowing a sharp pain of guilt and wistful desire, I prepared myself to talk to them. “Nice one, Gwen,” Shane said with one of those boyish upwards nods, a click of his tongue, and a wink. “I’ll say,” Garrick agreed. I frowned up at them. “What are you talking about?” “The picture,” Shane clarified. Still confused, and thoroughly unamused, I jutted my chin out. “What picture?” “Your nude,” Garrick replied. My pulse flat lined. My body, instantly cold as ice, felt like it could explode in a billion different directions at once with the softest touch of a finger. “Yeah.” Shane chuckled. “It’s gone viral on the net.” “W—what?” I choked. My mind raced, scrambled, trying to piece together the implications of this. Had someone taken a photo of me changing at the photo shoot? Had someone taken a photo of us when we’d been together? The former seemed more plausible, as Garrick looked utterly calm about the whole thing, meaning he couldn’t be in it. Then again, with a guy like him, a nude could only help, not hinder his reputation. In a panic, I whipped out my phone, turned it on, and started searching. What would my father say? Unable to control my emotional upheaval, having only just survived having sex and ending a potential relationship in a matter of days, tears sprang to my eyes. I did have enough sense to keep them carefully concealed from the guys though. In my mad rush to pinpoint the scandal, I suddenly became aware of snickering. Blinking rapidly to force away the tears, I looked up to find Garrick and Shane in a fit of hysterical laughter. “You should have seen your face!” Shane exclaimed. “Priceless, man. Priceless,” Garrick chimed in. Sick, angry, though admittedly relieved, I jumped to my feet, whirled away from them, and stalked out of the makeshift cafeteria, battling tears. How could he do a thing like that? Had he been trying to get back at me? Did he tell Shane about our evening together? Was that why they had concocted this vicious little plan? Furiously wiping my cheek, I made a beeline for my trailer. I would be taking a long lunch break and Lyle would just have to deal. Otherwise, I couldn’t promise that Garrick wouldn’t soon be sporting another black eye. Chapter Seventeen Garrick “Nice going, Smooth Operator,” droned an unimpressed voice from behind us. Shane and I turned around to see Tyler holding a tray of chicken and avocado salad in his hands, staring us down like the Devil himself. “What?” Shane asked, his chuckles yet to taper off. “It was just a prank.” “Just a prank, huh?” he asked, less than convinced and judging us with every emotionless blink. “Have you ever seen something spontaneously combust, Garrick?” My brows knitted together. “No.” “You almost did just now. I guess you somehow missed that she nearly burst into tears when you told her?” I balked. “It was just a joke.” “Yes, indeed,” Tyler added. “A joke that could trash her entire image and infuriate her father, and potentially get her yanked out of the business had it been true.” “Her father?” I echoed. “Yeah. Mr. Universe? Remember him? I expected this from Shane, but not from you.” “Hey,” Shane whined. “What gives? I play tricks like this on my sisters all the time.” “Your father isn’t Gwen’s.” I blinked rapidly. “Did she tell you something?” “No,” Tyler stated flatly “I just noticed the way she’s constantly checking her phone, responding to a certain text tone, always dressing in conservative clothing, and staying out of the tabloids. I thought this was common knowledge. She refuses to go out, and won’t be seen with you. She doesn’t have a boyfriend, and her dad is pretty hardcore from what I read online. There are even some rumors of abuse. I’m not sure if there is any stock to that. It could be vicious gossip from jealous neighbors. ” “Abuse?” I sputtered. “You read up on her father?” I reiterated in disbelief. “When?” “Somewhere between a MMRPG and the Sudoku championship. Now, if you’ll excuse me. I have a salad to eat.” With that, Tyler pivoted on his heel and stalked off to another table to eat his greens in peace. “Shit,” I breathed. “I fucked up. I just fucked up so bad. I have to go apologize.” Even Shane looked sheepish as he rubbed the nape of his neck, eyeing me uncertainly. “Can I come?” “Later,” I assured him. “I have to do this on my own. You didn’t know, and I completely, completely should have.” “You can tell her it was my idea,” Shane offered, his hand dropping to his bicep. With a sidelong smile, I shook my head and clapped him on the shoulder. “Thanks, man. But I’m just as much to blame. I’ll let you know when it’s safe to join.” “I guess our objective was achieved,” Shane muttered, kicking at a pebble on the dusty ground. “What do you mean?” “We know a little more about her now.” “Yeah. I suppose we do.” Spinning toward Gwen’s trailer, I trotted off after her. Chapter Eighteen Gwen “Gwen!” Garrick’s voice called, along with the crunch of his Vans on the loose gravel. “Go away,” I snapped coldly, ascending the steps to my trailer. “Gwen, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t think that through. I was so stupid. I promise I didn’t know about your dad.” Shock scaled my spine. I whirled on him with a scowl of indignant accusation. “What do you mean by that?” “Um, well…Tyler told me how strict your dad is. Even if he isn’t, I should have stopped and considered how this would affect you. I guess I was a little bitter about what happened this morning, and…” He pushed his hand back through his hair, brushing it out of his eyes. Sincerity shone through them, giving me pause. “I have no excuse. I really don’t. I’m sorry. It was stupid. I swear I’ll never hurt you that way again.” I stared at him. After a moment of silence, he took a step forward and reached for my hand. Instinctively, I recoiled. A flash of hurt crossed his face. “Why don’t you want to explore what we have? Why did you spend the whole weekend hiding from me? I know you felt something when we were together. I saw it in your eyes. I felt it too. You have to believe me.” “I do,” I whispered. “So, why?” he repeated. I sighed in defeat, lifting my hand to massage the bridge of my nose. “It’s not that I don’t want to explore what we have, Garrick. It’s about the risk of doing so.” He set his jaw, filled his chest, and planted his foot on the first step of my trailer. “Take a risk on me. Let me prove to you that it’s worth it to stick your neck out once in a while, to dive into uncharted waters.” “Like you did today,” I reminded, tilting my head and quirking my eyebrow, lips set in a grim line. Obviously ashamed, he shook his head. “I’ll never do something that idiotic again.” And somehow, I believed him. “I guess… it was kind of funny,” I said, rolling my eyes and crossing my arms. It would have been comical if my father hadn’t been borderline psychotic about the pristine repute of his only daughter. “It was Shane’s idea, wasn’t it?” “What?” Garrick asked, guffawing. “You think I can’t come up with something as ingenious as that?” “I have my doubts.” He chuckled. So did I. “So…” he prompted. “About that risk.” I drew in a deep breath. The prank, in spite of it being a prank, had actually significantly helped me see beyond my own fears. Confronted for the first time with what it would have been like to deal with scandal, I realized that it was something that, like the seasons, would pass. My prudence and care to remain conservative assured me that any scandalous pictures would never come from my end, and would have to be completely the result of someone spying and overstepping their bounds as a photographer. My father wouldn’t have taken out his anger on me for that. He would have hunted down the perpetrator and gutted him or her like a fish. Dating Garrick would certainly present a risk, but so long as we kept it between us, as he had been readily willing to agree to earlier that morning, things could be fairly safe. Besides, if I ever had the opportunity to have an intimate connection with Garrick again, how could I pass it up? My eyes tracked over his handsome features as he seemed to wait with bated breath for my answer. Finally, I smiled and nodded. “Can I get that rain check you promised me?” Chapter Nineteen Garrick The day I was finally able to take Gwen on the date came that Friday, the day after we started filming Episode Four of Straightlaced. We snuck away while the sound crew struck the set and the rest of the cast watched the editors fit the final frames into the reel. What Tyler said, the brief insertion about possible abuse, had been bothering the shit out of me, but I just didn’t know how to ask her. I was worried more than anything. I didn’t want to rush her, so I took her somewhere safe and open—somewhere she could escape, if she felt like she needed. Somewhere public, but quiet. Taking Gwen’s hand, and Max’s car, we sped off to Starbucks, grabbed some coffee, and headed up to the overlook, the only place I could think to show Gwen that would not only give us privacy, but be beautiful as well. When we were almost there, Gwen turned to me. “So you said you can’t sing a lick, but I can’t imagine you not doing anything amazingly. How about singing me a few bars—just to prove you’re not being modest about the whole thing.” I glanced at her, smiling at the teasing glint in her eye that matched her voice. “Sorry, no.” Her eyes widened slightly. “That’s it? No? Come on, this is our first date.” “That’s why I’m not going to sing. I don’t want it to be our last.” “Please?” “Nope,” I said with a grin. I reached out, grabbed her hand, and kissed her knuckles. I could tell she liked the gesture. A lot. After giving a playful huff, she thankfully didn’t push the singing thing anymore. Thank God. Things were just looking up between us. I didn’t need to give her one more reason to see me as the lesser of our species… At the overlook, I led her carefully down the embankment to the boulder where Erica and I had sat. The sun would be setting within the hour. I flashed her a grin. “What do you think?” I asked, taking inventory of her expression as she looked out at the horizon, spotted with shrubs, evergreen plants, and more colors than a Picasso painting. “Wow,” she breathed, her jewel-like green eyes tracking across the sunlit, scorched scenery. “It’s so picturesque. This is beautiful, Garrick.” “Not nearly as beautiful as you,” I countered with a squeeze to her hand. She rolled her eyes with a beaming grin as I tugged her down to sit beside me on the smooth boulder. “So,” she said, turning toward me a bit, our knees bumping up against one another. She glanced down at the contact and peered back up at me through her luscious black lashes, freckle-dusted cheeks tinted a light pink, unintentionally seductive in every way. I swallowed dryly. “So,” I parroted. I used to hate that word. But when she said it, it sounded like a symphony. “Tell me about you,” she encouraged. I shook my head. “Nah. I’ve had my fill of talking about myself for a while. I want to know about you.” Gently I bumped up against her shoulder. Was now a good time? “I know about your father now, and that he’s a little overbearing?” She cringed, shrugging her shoulders. “That may be a bit of an understatement.” Assuming a lopsided frown, I wondered if I had broached the wrong subject first. “I’m sorry, baby.” “What?” she whispered, facing me with a startled expression. I blinked. “I’m sorry.” “No,” she corrected. “The part where you called me…” “Baby?” I finished, tilting my head with an incredulous smirk on my face. Judging by her reaction, I’d be using it a lot more in the future. “Yeah.” She stared at me as though dazed, the distant look on her face suggesting a visit to a memory. “You said it… as though you meant it.” “I do.” I snorted playfully. “You usually say it like a general term for all women.” My eyebrows jumped up. “You’ve been keeping track of the way I say words?” “Not really,” she muttered, followed by a lengthy sip of her coffee. I found my attention fixed on her throat, desperately desiring to lavish it with kisses. “It’s just easy to pick up when one of them changes.” “You’re one in a million, Gwen. I’d never rope you in with all women.” With that, I leaned in and pressed a kiss to her lips, lingering as I felt her melt against me. “You’re a lot different than I thought you’d be,” she whispered when the embrace ended. “Why are we back on the subject of me?” I laughed. Gwen’s smile thawed, mellowing out as she turned her attention to the horizon where the sun sat halfway dunked behind the distant mesas. “I was born in San Marino, California. I attended an all-girls Catholic school through high school.” I let out a low whistle. “You suffering from the Catholic Schoolgirl Syndrome? Because I have a feeling I can help you with that.” “Shut up, perv,” she joked with a giggle. “My first pet was a black lab named Destiny. I love dogs, Sephora, and shopping via catalogue. My guilty pleasures are Forever 21, The Big Bang Theory, and cheap costume jewelry.” “Doesn’t seem all that bad to me. What about boyfriends, if you don’t mind me asking?” She stiffened slightly. “I had a high school boyfriend, but that fizzled out soon enough. And after that…” She cleared her throat, looking decidedly uneasy. “I didn’t date much.” “But?” She glanced at me, her eyes suddenly filled with fear. I cupped her cheek. “It’s okay. Tell me.” “On Diamond Eyes. I got involved with my leading man. I—I—” She closed her eyes and shook her head in obvious self-disgust. “I believed him when he said his marriage was over. But it wasn’t.” When I said nothing, she opened her eyes. I hated the fear I still saw there. “So you made a mistake. Love makes us do stupid things.” She swallowed hard. “What did it make you do?” It was my turn to take a large gulp of my mocha, after which I took a deep breath then slowly exhaled. “It made me believe in a girl whose faithfulness was as fake as the rest of her.” “You don’t still have feelings for her?” I laughed harshly. “Feelings, yes. Good ones, no. I don’t want her in my life. I have no interest in her or her games.” A look of relief washed over Gwen’s face. Reaching up, she hooked her glossy black-brown hair behind her ear and swept what remained over her shoulder, cascading down her back. I realized that I hadn’t told her everything the night we talked about my past. On top of leaving out the part about Dominic, I also conveniently forgot to mention that I had stood a week away from proposing to Rachel. However, those were not things she needed to know at the moment. The only time I would have to tell her one or both, to my nearest prediction, was if she ever came to meet my family. I had never brought a girl home after Rachel. My poor mother would probably die of shock. I reached over, slipped my hand into Gwen’s, then leaned in and stole another kiss. She pulled me closer, giggling. Chapter Twenty Gwen Still giddy from my date with Garrick the evening before, I grinned all the way to the hotel gym. When I got there, I took to the machines, clad in a sports bra and yoga pants. I’d also brought a light sports coat too—something I would don for my journey back up to my hotel room. I never went overboard when it came to exercise. My father had always taught me that women should keep their feminine shapes and leave the heavy lifting to the men. However, I did light weight bearing exercise and a few miles on the treadmill to keep me fit. Blissfully, I had the place to myself and could blast all the sappy, romantic music from my earbuds that I desired without the potential of being disturbed. I could replay the memories of the night before all I wanted and I did, making the warm blood pumping through my veins race faster and pool south. Once Garrick and I had slipped back into Max’s car, we drove down to the foothills where we parked for another half an hour and fooled around. It had been heaven. After I finished running, I snatched my towel from the handlebar and wiped down the machine. To cool down, I did a few stretches in front of the wall-sized mirror. Even after a workout, I felt gorgeous. I felt gorgeous because whenever I closed my eyes, Garrick was smiling back at me, touching me with his mind, his hands, and his laughter. I couldn’t wait to see him again. Sorely in need of a shower, I slipped into my black sports jacket, glad I had thrown my hair up into a messy bun to avoid the sweat on my back. The jacket clung to me, feeling strangely cold and uncomfortable. I took my keycard, towel, and water bottle and made my exit. On my way past the lobby, I heard a voice that grated on my nerves with unnatural effortlessness. “Hi. I’m here to see Garrick Maze. Can you tell me which room he’s staying in?” “I’m sorry, miss,” replied to concierge, “but we’re not allowed to give out the room numbers of our customers.” My memory flashed back to the girl in the parking lot. I had to see this for myself. I crept across the hall in my sneakers and peered around the corner. Sure enough, standing at the receiving end of the front desk was the Barbie I had seen talking to Garrick. Rachel, I recalled. “Oh, he’s expecting me,” Rachel assured the suited man. She’s expected? A pang of worry wormed its way into my chest. Garrick couldn’t still be seeing her, could he? “Then I’m going to have to suggest you phone him and inquire, miss.” “Admittedly, I don’t have his number. He told me to meet him here. May I call up to his room?” I gritted my teeth together, rage radiating with the sweat of every pore. You stay away from him, you two timing plastic bitch. Garnering my courage, I stepped out from my corner and strolled across the lobby. “Hello, there,” I said cheerfully. Rachel spun around to face me, thick lip liner and all. After giving me a once over, she acted like I wasn’t worth her time. “Sorry. You probably don’t recognize me. My name is Gwen Vickers.” Coming to a halt before her, I companionably extended my hand. Women didn’t fight with fists. They fought through their eyes and through their words—something my mother had drilled into me. And I was going to stand my ground where Garrick was concerned, especially in the face of a toxic person like Rachel. I didn’t want to give away that I knew her name, because that would reveal Garrick had been talking about her, which wouldn’t convey the right message. “Oh!” Rachel exclaimed, donning a false smile. “No. I didn’t.” Her eyes darted to my hand. Instead of taking it, she hooked her hair behind her ear. “I’m Rachel. Just come from the gym?” “As a matter of fact, I did,” I answered, dropping my hand. “Not afraid of a little sweat, are you? Just means you put in a good effort.” “Oh, I put in great effort,” she assured me in a syrupy voice I could have sworn sat underscored by a threat. “Look. I know we’ve never met.” I shifted my weight, jutting a hip out as I crossed my arms. “But Garrick’s a good friend of mine. And I think you should stay away from him.” “Do you?” she purred. “Yes. Did I stutter, dear?” She canted her head, appraising. “What are you? His girlfriend? Are you the little cutie he was harping about in the parking lot? I thought it may have been you. That other twig bitch was a bit too skinny.” I narrowed my eyes viciously, wishing I could sock her in the face. “Erica is a gorgeous and wonderful person. Furthermore, she’s also a millionaire.” Rachel pursed her lips, staring me down the way a vulture would its dying meal. I knew that would get her goat. Money always did with girls like her. “I’ll only say this once more.” I dared a step forward. “Stay away from Garrick. He doesn’t need you in his life.” “Yes he does,” she defended. Flatly, and quite insincerely, I smiled. “Then why hasn’t he contacted you?” Rachel’s eyes flashed, nostrils flaring. “You just wait, Vickers. We’ll see who wins and who gets stepped on.” I cocked my eyebrow, unafraid. “I don’t want to win. He’s not a prize, and we’re not together. We’re just friends,” I lied. She scoffed. “Yeah. Feed that story to some other girl, babe. I’m not fooled.” Her eyes scaled my body once more with a distinct expression of disdain. “I’m late for a luncheon anyway.” With that, she spun on her heel, forcing me to dodge the barrage of blonde hair that blew up in her wake. “Ta,” she sang, lifting her hand and fluttering her fingers as she breezed toward the door. Growling under my breath, I left the lobby in the opposite direction, eager to rinse off the stink of Rachel’s perfume more so than the salt from my sweat. Chapter Twenty-One Garrick I walked into Nativo Lodge after my business meeting. A snooty guy in an expensive suit had contacted me earlier that week, insisting that we get together to chat about potentially swapping my agent for him. Thought he was a real big shot. But I couldn’t blame him when he showed me the impressive list of former clients he had up his sleeve. And even though his smile had been as well-oiled as his hair, I had to turn him down. My agency had landed me a roll in Blast Zone and Straightlaced, and I was loyal to them for that. It had been nice to be picked up in a limousine though. Despite the fact that our interlude hadn’t gone the way he hoped, the guy held true to his offer to take me back to the Lodge the way we had come. That was a big relief, considering that if I stood out on the curb, awaiting a ride or taxi, I’d have no protection against the throng of fan girls that could come squealing at me should I be so unfortunate as to be recognized. I was passing the reception desk when the clerk called my name. “Excuse me, sir, but um—someone left you a message.” I cocked a brow at how uncomfortable the clerk looked. Silently, he handed me a piece of paper. “Thanks.” My body tensed immediately when I recognized Rachel’s handwriting. Better keep a close eye on your little bug of a girlfriend. I would hate to see her get squashed. R “What the hell?” I sneered under my breath. Jaw clenched, I strode toward the elevators. “Hey, man!” Shane greeted when I came around the corner, a towel slung over his shoulder. Beside him, Tyler held a pool noodle, looking as unimpressed, uninspired, and unwilling as usual. The surly guy didn’t smile either. For a split second, I wondered how Shane had coaxed him out of his room for a dip in the pool, a place he most certainly couldn’t take his Galaxy. “Not now,” I said. “Well what about later?” Shane called behind me. I couldn’t even stand to take the elevator. Instead, I took the stairs in leaps of twos and threes. Finally, I came to our floor. “Gwen!” I said insistently, banging my fist against her door. A moment later, she answered, face drawn in a confused, slightly incensed frown at my urgency. “What?” she snapped, long, wavy locks of sopping wet hair cascading over her shoulder. She clutched a towel around her, tucked between her breasts. My throat went dry, heat kicking up into my face and down into my second brain. “Is there a fire?” Opening her door a breath more, she peered out into the hall, looking left and right. Soft jazz music played in the background. The fragrance of her shower products wafted into my nose, saturating my senses. Shit… I had nearly forgotten why I came in the first place. Beset with the need to wrap her in my arms and bury my nose in her hair, I set my jaw and shook my head. She blinked, eyed me, and suddenly blushed, probably having realized that she stood before me in nothing but a towel, makeup notwithstanding. I had seen her naked, and she had been beautiful. But seeing her completely natural made her gorgeous. “Well, don’t just stand there!” she insisted in a timidly harsh whisper, shifting to linger behind the door and poke her head around the edge. “What’s wrong?” I blinked myself out of my stupor. “Can I come in? It’s important. And I can’t talk about it out here.” The cherry bled out of her cheeks and her eyes dropped straight to my crotch. “You don’t have—?” she questioned with a look of horror. Mind scrambling to finish her thought, my eyebrows plunged into a frown. Suddenly, her meaning blasted through my mind. “What! No!” I exclaimed, all but sputtering as I stepped forward and shouldered my way into her room. She shut the door behind me. “Girl, seriously? I don’t have an STD or anything else you wouldn’t want.” “Oh, thank god,” she breathed, moving to collapse on the edge of her bed, having been swaying as though she might fall before reaching it. She planted her hand over her heart. “Then what?” “Did you talk to Rachel at all? Today? Yesterday?” I had to know, inching closer. Gwen suddenly looked uncomfortable. “Yes. Today.” I balked. “Where? When!” “She was in the lobby, asking for your room number. I told her to leave.” Heaving a sigh of both wonderment and dread, I dragged my hand down my face. “Baby, you can’t get yourself involved with her. You can’t get tangled in her web. I’m sure she did that just to bait you, if not to smoke me out. I disconnected my phone last week, because she had tried to call.” “That’s what I thought. That’s why I told her to go away. She wouldn’t even listen to the concierge.” “Gwen, you don’t want to fight against her.” “Why? What’s so terrifying about her? Aside from being more than 60% silicon… She’s practically a Transformer.” Crossing to her, I knelt and rested my hands on her bare, warm knees. “She has a lot of connections to a lot of dangerous people—people who can create any tabloid rumor, frame any celebrity for any act, and trash careers.” Gwen’s eyes widened. Tearing her eyes from me, she searched the floor. “Oh my God,” she breathed. “I didn’t realize.” She worried her lip. “Though I’m not sure knowing would have made a difference. She’s horrible, Garrick.” “Just promise me that you’ll stay away from her. I got a text from her about half an hour ago, and it specifically threatened you. What you did was brave, and I’m sure it wasn’t easy. But I can handle myself. The last thing I could stomach is you somehow being hurt over this. I know how much your reputation means to you, and I respect that.” Assuming a sheepish, shy smile, she nodded at me. “Thanks, Garrick.” Wearing a lopsided grin, I nodded. Realizing she still sat in her towel, the dew of undried moisture droplets still spotting her elegantly curved shoulders, I found my feet. "Sorry I . . . interrupted your bath time," I muttered. She giggled somewhat bashfully. "It wasn't bath time. I was in the shower. The tub is way too big to use by myself. Pretty sure I would get lost." I snorted out my agreement, slipping my hands into the back pockets of my jeans, and chuckled. "Right? Why do they make those things for five people in a two-person suite? If someone wanted to soak, wouldn't they just go down to the Jacuzzi?" "That's my thought," she bantered back. "Yeah." My voice trailed off and I caught myself nodding awkwardly. My tongue darted over my lip and I tried to mask it with a casual looking bite, recalling our conversation about “one and done.” Sure, we’d had fun on our date last night; I didn’t want to push things too far yet. "Well, I should let you get back to it." Nodding toward the door, I backtracked. "Pretty sure Shane and Tyler think I'm a madman with the way I bolted past them, and they're probably expecting me at the pool. I'll catch you later." Pivoting to the door, I let my fake smile tumble off my face and reached for the handle. "Garrick," Gwen called gently, stopping me in my tracks. "You don't have to leave." Shocked, I felt my silent inhale and internally screamed for joy. Gradually, I faced her. "I mean,” she gulped, “if you have places to go," she hastily added, trying to mask any hope that I would change my mind, as though Tyler and Shane stood leagues above her company on my priority list, "you should go. I just thought, maybe, since neither of us have tried the bathtub, then maybe we could brave it together." Her eyes darted to and from my face, as though scouring for some sign, some tell, to betray my answer before my lips did. "Absolutely," I answered aloud, excitement surely blatant on my face. She glanced up at me through her luscious lashes, freckled cheeks swelling as she turned a smile. * * * "I like your hands," Gwen commented moments later when we both sat submerged in a warm, sudsy bath. Still filling, the water had reached our navels. Gwen sat with her back against my bare chest, and had taken up an intense study of my hand, mapping out every crease, callous, and line with her delicate, feminine fingers. I smiled to myself, nestling my nose in her damp hair, watching contently and inhaling the scent of her shampoo. "Yeah?" I inquired rhetorically. "Yeah," she stated anyway. "They're strong." I chuckled. After placing a kiss on her shoulder, I said, "If you say so." "I do," she insisted with an octave more conviction. Goddammit, I loved her this way. This was the same vulnerable sweetheart I had discovered the other night, the woman she was a few stages before passionate vixen. The way she touched me left tingles in the wake of her fingers, lulling me into a sleepy-eyed, almost contented state. She sat too close to completely ignore my other urges. My free hand slid around her and I pressed it against her abdomen, fingers splayed possessively as I applied enough pressure to draw her a breath closer to my body. Leaning down, I found her ear through her hair, my lips brushing over the shell as I said, "They'd like to hold you." I could hear the conflict, and the hot, huskier hue of desire fill her tone when she replied, "They are holding me." "No. Not like this," I corrected. What I envisioned, and what my hands craved, stood far more intimate than a watery cuddle session. Gwen paused. I could feel the muscles across her body tensing, as if poising herself to spring away and leap out of the bathtub, clear across the room, and sprint out into the hall. My hand didn't move from her abdomen while I awaited her verdict with bated breath. Her shoulders relaxed, rising and falling, chest swelling and floating, with the rhythm of her lungs as she inhaled deeply. "Then hold me," she whispered. Slowly, she turned her head to gaze over her lightly freckled shoulder and into my face. Blood instantly hotter than the water, and body chomping at the bit to respond, I laid my right hand against her throat, thumb propping up her chin, and kissed her plump, pink lips. I loved the taste of her, like bubble mint toothpaste. My submerged hand eased lower in search of the intimate place I wanted to touch most. To my delight, she purred against my mouth as my hand dipped over her, fingers caressing. She squirmed against me, subtly at first until it progressed to more of a writhe. I grew painfully hard against the small of her back. The energy between us built and built until it exploded. Suddenly, she withdrew from me and spun around, some of the water sloshing out over the side of the tub with the lightning swift switch, and we met in a passionate kiss. Clumsily, I reached aside to fumble with the faucet and knocked it into the off position. Meanwhile, Gwen looped her arms around my neck and straddled my lap. I felt her firm, warm, water splashed breasts against my chest, her pert nipples as hard with desire as they had been the other night. I wrapped my arms around her, planted my hands on her ass, and squeezed. She moaned. I panted. Guiding her hips, I pulled her tighter against me, almost losing my mind at the feel of her most tender flesh against my bare, condomless cock. Shit. “Condom,” I barely managed to choke out. “I’m not wearing a condom.” She moaned, rested her forehead against mine and stared beseechingly into my eyes. “Garrick…” she whimpered. “I—I’m on the pill. Are you—are you…?” My fingers tightened on her hips, my first instinct to whoop for joy and plunge inside her. But this was Gwen and more than the pleasure of her body, I cared for her. And I wanted to protect her. “I always wear a condom. Always,” I said. “But I…” I’ve been with a lot of girls. I choked on the words, not wanting to taint the moment with them. But this was Gwen and the pill wasn’t foolproof and damn it, I wasn’t going to do anything to jeopardize her or her future. “I have a condom in my wallet. Let me take care of you, Gwen.” She stared at me, eyes intense and almost wondrous, then she nodded. Swiftly, but with probably less grace then I would have liked to admit, I gently nudged her back until I could reach over the side of the tub to grab my pants from the floor. The whole time, Gwen watched me, panting, trembling, as if she couldn’t wait for me to fill her up. God this girl drove me fucking crazy and I was going to relish every damn second of the insanity that I could. Finally finding the condom packet, I ripped it open and covered myself, cursing when my wet skin made it a challenge and laughing shakily when Gwen’s eager hands tried to help and only ended up drawing out the task a few more hellish seconds. But then I was covered and she shoved my hands away and… Wriggling, she slid down and onto my cock, quickly enveloping it into her tight wet warmth, even more white-hot than the water. Together, we gasped in pleasure. Holy fuck, she felt good. My hands slipped down to squeeze her creamy, smooth thighs. As I began to slather her neck in sloppy kisses, she started to roll her hips. And I lost it. Roping an arm around her, I sat up, taking her with me and came forward, laying her down on the side bench used to lounge on the jets. Bracing one palm against the tub's slick, porcelain edge, I started pounding into her. She tangled her limbs around me, encouraging me by flexing her calves, a glorious shade of pink bursting into her freckled cheeks. Her fingernails bit into my back. The delicious feel of her, even better than she had felt the other night, sent my sane mind into a tailspin. Frenzied, I became carnal, possessive, wanting to mark every inch of her stellar body to let any other interested party know precisely whom she belonged to. Mine. The word echoed through my head in an endless refrain. I hadn't even known feeling this way could be possible after the crap that went down and the heartache I endured with Rachel. "Garrick," she whimpered, arching her back and clenching around me. "Fuck," I breathed, floored by the outpouring of ecstasy that knotted itself in my stomach and spread tantalizing tendrils into my extremities. "Gwen," I groaned. I had never been with a woman who felt this damn good. And it wasn't just the fact that she was tight, or drop dead gorgeous, or really any of the physical aspects. What struck me hardest was that when I looked into her face, I could see the two of us sensationally barreling toward utter ruin and coming undone, chasing release together, neither using each other just for pleasure, and enjoying the journey there just as much as the ultimate destination. Gwen was present with me in this moment. She felt me. And I had never felt more real. "Harder!" she pleaded, moans like barbs tearing into her lusty gasps. The water splashed around us, lapping at the slippery white walls as I gladly increased my speed and upped my force. "Does that feel good, baby?" I asked huskily. "Yeah. Yes! Garrick!" she exclaimed. I had to wonder if it was me that made her this horny, or if she had been planning a private self-love session in the shower before I came barging in. God, the thought of that only made her hotter. It certainly made my chest swell with pride to see Gwen unravel this way too, willingly placing herself at my mercy—letting me make her mine. Snaking my free arm under her, I pumped in to the hilt. She mewled and writhed beneath me, the two of us baking in the heat created between our wanting, insatiable bodies. Sounds escalating and continuously tightening around my cock, I knew I couldn't hold back any longer. She squeezed the meat of my back, legs stubbornly encasing my hips. With one last fierce thrust, I came, practically seeing stars as the subsequent orgasm shot through me like Artemis's arrow. Seconds later, I felt her forced over the cusp of her own peak. I kept my arm tightly wrapped around her while she plunged headlong into bliss. Chests heaving, we met eyes. She seemed uncertain, packed full of emotions she either didn't want to, or didn't know how to express. We kissed. After a moment, Gwen swallowed hard and turned her attention to the drenched tile floor at the base of the bath. “Oops,” she mumbled apologetically. "Well. I think I see what the bathtub is for now," I rasped out, the corner of my lip kinking up in a crooked smirk. Like magic, she threw her head back and laughed. * * * After disposing of the rubber, cleaning up with a playful shower, and a quick mop-up of the shallow pool that had become her bathroom floor, Gwen and I tossed all the wet towels into a pile and poured our naked selves into her bed. She lay against my side in the crook of my arm. The silence between us hung peaceful, and somehow more romantic than any words I could string together. "So," I said, absently caressing the silky skin of her arm. "So," she echoed in a sing-song voice while her fingers danced across my chest, tracing meaningless patterns. “Remember those times you used to bicker with me about stupid stuff and pretend you didn’t want me?” “I didn’t want you,” she defended. “Don’t lie,” I joked. “You did too.” “Maybe a little,” she grumbled. I snickered and squeezed her. She wriggled nearer. "I'm no expert or anything, but I think our bathtub mission was a success." She giggled, snuggling in even closer to me. "Agreed. I don't believe we could have done that down in the Jacuzzi." "Not without potential heat stroke and some awestruck onlookers, probably not. Talk about a spectacle though!" Chuckling, I gave her another, softer squeeze. "Speaking of onlookers." With her slender, dark eyebrows knitting together, she raised her head off my chest to look up at me. I took a deep breath. "It’s just that…next weekend is Valentine’s Day. And I was wondering… Are you feeling any different about us? About what we could be?" "We've already talked about this, Garrick," she warned softly as she sank back down, though her body seemed tenser and less accessible than a moment ago. "I know, baby," I assured her. "But... you can't deny that there is something here. What if the show keeps getting bigger? The more publicity we draw, the harder it will be to keep our feelings under wraps. Wouldn’t it be easier to be in a known relationship? We have something special between us. I know you feel it too. So what if we get to hold hands in public? So what if we sit closer to each other sometimes or, heck, even get spotted together at a romantic restaurant on Valentine’s Day? Would the world outside of you and me knowing that we do have something special really be so bad?" She clenched her jaw and I watched the muscles bulge. "If said world did not include my father, probably not." "I'm not scared of him, Gwen." "Well, you should be," she candidly informed. "As big and bad as Rachel is, my father and his connections are better, and his reach is wider. You know those old movies where the villain in the bowler hat swears 'If I don't get my way, you'll never work in this town again'? Yeah. Dad is the modern day version of that." "Look, I get that with my reputation, your dad wouldn’t approve of me, but you’re an adult. He’s got to trust your judgment and I’ll do everything in my power to prove I’m worth giving a chance.” "It's not that simple," she sighed. "The image you've built around your name is pretty set in stone. I know you did it as a barrier to shield yourself against past and future pain, but he'll never understand that. No matter how much I want to be with you, Gar, to date in public and share my feelings about you outside of this hotel room, I just... I don't think it's possible." A frown formed on my face and deepened as I mulled this over. "So, what you're saying is... you do feel something for me?" "Oh, hush." She snorted out a laugh, giving my chest a light slap. "You're worse than a tweenage boy." "What if I promised to alter my image? What if I started showing the world who I truly am, instead of what I want them to think I enjoy being? Would you reconsider?" "I don't know," she admitted softly. I could hear sorrow encroaching in her voice. “I want to keep exploring what we have, but I guess… I’m afraid.” “I’m here,” I reminded her. “And you’re a strong, badass woman. Why would you be afraid?” “I’ll think about it.” Giving her a squeeze, I suggested, "What if I make adventures in the bath a daily thing?" The symphonic sound of her giggles filled the air. I wanted to ask her about Valentine’s Day again. Ask if I should make reservations someplace nice. I hadn’t wanted to spend Valentine’s Day with anyone in two years. But I figured I’d pushed her enough. Craning my neck down, I pressed a kiss against the part of her hair. "I'm going to figure this out, baby," I swore. "Somehow, I'll make dear old dad see that he can trust me with his greatest treasure." She mumbled something that I didn't catch. When I asked her to repeat herself, she dismissed me with a 'never mind, it's nothing' and kissed my throat. "I'm not so sure you know what you're up against." After a thoughtful pause, I said, "Well… he can't be anywhere near as ominous as the bathtub." She laughed. Chapter Twenty-Two Gwen The next Friday, we were filming Episode Five on site at the University of New Mexico, surrounded by a bustle of activity. Despite the chaos running rampant in my head, I tried to stay focused, but it was difficult. All I could think about was my conversation with Garrick the previous Saturday. What was he thinking with all that talk about trying to win my father over? The man wasn't a Hallmark Dad… Still, hope started building inside me like a tower of children's blocks. I told myself that surely my father would understand my desire to pursue romantic relationships, and that he would just have to accept it. I was a grown, capable woman. Yes, I’d made a mistake with Randall, but what about all my other achievements? Hadn’t I done enough by now to earn his trust even when I had stumbled? But then I’d start thinking about the promises I’d made him. How I’d been keeping things from him. Even if I started slowly broaching the subject of The Maze Boy differently, he’d immediately accuse me of lying. Lying spoke ill of my character. He would grill me about how long this had been going on, and forbid me from letting it continue. When I fought back, he’d explode. When he exploded, I’d cave. It was the cycle I was accustomed to, and the thought of Garrick seeing me that way… Suppressing a shudder, I returned to leafing through my script, though the lines merely blurred together into a tangled jumble of unimportant symbols thrown onto the paper. "Hey," Erica greeted, dropping her hand on my shoulder. Startled, I squealed and lost my grip on the script. She caught it before it hit the ground, and I was grateful I had remembered to staple it that morning. "Whoa," she laughed, straightening out the stack and replacing it in my hands with a light tap. "You okay? Seem a bit flustered." "Yeah. I think so. I don't know." "It's Garrick, isn't it?" "Keep your voice down," I reminded her with a trying-to-be reprimanding smirk. Failing miserably, I averted my eyes and grinned. "It’s not like your dad has spies around here,” she stated, snickering. “I mean, he could but I know most of these people, extras included, from UNM’s film school. You really need to update me about what's going on," she instructed, leveling me with an accusing leer. "I know I've been AWOL. Book Two is killing me. And the vultures at my back aren't making it any easier.” “Shall we go bowling for buzzards later?” I teased. Erica blinked, fixing me in a look of surprise. “Did you just quote The Lion King? It’s like I don’t even know you anymore,” she joked. I chuckled and dropped my eyes to my script. We had just finished page ten, and Lyle was about to call cut for the day. Thank God, because I was famished. Lyle’s voice came over the intercom, constantly questioning someone beside him about the data compiled. He announced the names of the actors needed for the last few corrections. I was not among them. “Are you going to the cast party tonight?” Erica asked, jotting notes down on the same copy of Straightlaced she had been toting around for the last few weeks. Already having enough on my plate to fret over, I shrugged my shoulder. ‘I’m really not sure.” “Not sure?” she echoed with conviction. “If you don’t go, it’s going to be me, the guys, and a bunch of extras who only came to see the guys. I need you there so I’ll have someone to talk to.” “You’re excellent at making conversation with anyone.” Expression slipping into a scowl, Erica huffed. “But I’d rather talk to you.” Rolling my eyes fondly, I flipped to page eleven. “Hey, Gwen,” Erica asked from over my shoulder. “What does your father look like?” I chuckled. “Are you interested in my dad, Erica? I didn’t think you were the type to go for body builders.” She took a breath. “Out of curiosity, how would you describe him?” I shrugged. “A little over six feet. Broad shoulders, muscular build. Cloudy blue eyes, white hair. He usually shaves his face, but sometimes he lets it grow into the beginnings of a beard.” “Uh-huh. Does he always dress in suits?” My eyes slid to her. “Yeah. Why?” A strange shade of pale green, Erica lifted her hand, gesturing toward the trailer lot with her pointed finger. I spun around, slipping out of my chair, and froze, stunned at the sight approaching. I realized that Erica’s questions had not come out of the blue at all. “Dad,” I managed to stutter, throat going dry. My father came strutting toward us. I floundered in my confusion. He wasn’t supposed to be here. Like a pop quiz in high school, he had come to examine my habits, and ascertain how well I was following his study schedule. Internally shrieking, I prayed that I was dreaming. Quickly scrambling to get reacquainted with my old persona and find ways to prove that I was following all of his rules, I assumed the brightest smile I could and crossed to him. He opened his arms and I met him with a hug. “Hello, dear,” he greeted with his sweetest grin. Lifting his hand, he touched the collar of my denim jacket. “I see you’re wearing your birthday coat. It still looks lovely on you.” “Yes,” I instantly agreed. “I hardly take it off! What are you doing here?” I asked. “What a surprise!” He chuckled, hands shifting to clutch my shoulders, and pulled back to look me in the eye. “Do I need an excuse to visit my daughter?” I laughed. “No, not at all! When did you get in?” “An hour ago,” he answered. Transitioning to talking out of the corner of his lips, as though being secretive, his eyes darted to the left. In spite of the innumerable eyes fixated on us, he continued. “And I have to say, Gwendolyn, I’m very impressed with the airport.” I laughed nervously. “They call it the Sunport. Albuquerque is kind of a smaller town masquerading as a big city. It’s truly wonderful once you get to know it.” Realizing that Erica, like a lighthouse in my fog, stood a reach away, I turned to her, hoping she could somehow hear my inaudible shrieks of terror. “Dad, this is Erica Ellis, author of Straightlaced. Erica, this is my father, Richard Vickers.” Bless her and all her aplomb, Erica donned a sunny grin and stretched out her hand. “Rich, please.” My father took it with a deliberate shake. “Pleasure, Ms. Ellis.” “Likewise, Rich,” she greeted. Just then, the shrill bell signaling the end of the day rang out through the air. I exhaled a silent breath of relief. Everyone would be busy with striking the sets and piling into cars. That gave me the opportunity to divert my father’s attention from the rest of the cast, namely Garrick. I knew I couldn’t let my father anywhere near him. They couldn’t meet. Garrick was the only gray area in my dutiful, perfect daughter world. I hadn’t prepared myself, and Garrick had not been prepared either. “Are you hungry?” I asked him. “We should go to dinner. I know lots of nice, authentic places,” I smiled. Straightening his jacket and smoothing out his tie, he nodded. “Lead the way. I’d love to see what delights this quaint place has to offer.” From the corner of my eye, I saw Erica purse her lips and force herself to stare into her purse. She rummaged through it, searching for something that was probably unnecessary, but her only distraction from the annoyance. A pang of guilt stung me for letting my father belittle the city she had come to love and gone to school in, but the last thing I could do was argue with him. He had only just arrived. Surely he would change his mind after a little sightseeing! Fortunately, I knew all the right roads to take him down by now, as well as the ones to avoid. Albuquerque shone a glorious, culture rich mecca in some places, and a graffiti coated dump in others. If the heavens were kind, my father would have missed the murder and crime statistics when he researched the area, as well as the gang warnings. That was probably the last thing I wanted to explain to him. “I’ll drive. I parked just over there,” he added with an impatient smile, plucking me from my thoughts. “I rented a car from, what did you call it? The Sunport? The cab service here is atrocious.” “Isn’t it?” And I knew that meant he had waited for a cab for a grand total of ten minutes before marching back inside and demanding a vehicle of his own. I sent a silent breath of thanks to my guardian angel that my father would be driving. That meant he couldn’t get drunk, which would significantly bolster my chances of making it through this ringer with my future unhampered. All of my fears and paranoia came shooting back to me. Mind rambling off a list of suitable places, the restaurants most like home in contrast with the others, I took his arm and led him away from the filming stations. Plenty of diners sat hunkered down within walking distance, but I knew he wouldn’t find them as charming as I did. My phone buzzed. I plucked it from my skirt pocket and checked my messages. Holy shit, Gwen! Is that your dad? Garrick had asked. Can I meet him? My heart plunged into my gut. Looking up, I saw Garrick and the boys standing over by Cornell parking garage, adjacent to Johnson soccer field. UNM was an impressive campus, sprawling for what was probably a mile. Shane had a soccer ball tucked under his arm. We had filmed on location since lunch. To my shame, I quickly averted my eyes, pretending not to have seen them, and shoved my phone back into my pocket. Carefully, I wheeled my father away from them. * * * Are you coming? As in now? I’m dying here! Erica's text message read. Currently seated in the back of a yellow cab, I sighed. The driver cast occasional glances at me in the rear view mirror, as though trying to ascertain if he knew me or not. Dinner with my father had been pleasant enough. We had driven up to the northeast heights to try the sushi bar and grill called Samurai—one of those upscale places with fountains, koi fish, and exceptional chefs who cook in front of you. That had been part of my scheme too, because the show distracted him from probing. He seemed pleased, which took an enormous load off of me. I had tried not to think about Garrick through the meal, and how I had blatantly ignored him. How could I have been so cruel to him? I hoped he wouldn't hold it against me. My choices had been so limited on such short notice, and I couldn't be sure that my feelings for Garrick, my yearning to explore what we had and my desperate desire for my father to like and approve of him, wouldn’t have come pouring through my eyes. And even in spite of all that, Dad had the unnaturally intuitive instinct to bring up The Maze Boy on the drive home… after we had exhausted every other subject imaginable. I had just been lectured by my father for an hour, sitting in the parking lot of Nativo Lodge, about how I should be putting my career first. He had told me that, after watching the past few episodes of Garrick and me, he had noticed the way Garrick looked at me, and had to come make sure he wasn’t out to steal my virtue. Even when I assured him, more than likely falsely, that what he had seen was Payton's character and his feelings for Lacey, he scowled, shook his head, and saw right through it. As a last ditch effort to make it out of the car before morning, I ended up having to tell him that the cast party was mandatory, and it was for team bonding. It turned out to be the only excuse that could stand up against his questions and concerns. He bid me goodnight and let me go. Dad had booked a room at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, Sandia Resort and Casino, ten miles from Nativo Lodge, just off the same highway. After showering, I spent half an hour getting ready, feeling rushed and sick to my stomach. My hair wouldn't do. I looked bloated in my royal blue dress. My face and eyes appeared puffy, as though I had been crying. Knowing Erica would be happy when I arrived had made the hassle almost worthwhile, and I forced myself through the ceremony of applying makeup. A short time later, I arrived at Double Tree, the location of the party. I paid the cab his fare, put my strappy blue heels on the cement, and crossed the paved entry to the crystal glass doors. A man dressed in a stiff black collared suit and white gloves opened it for me. I nodded my appreciation. Following the signs, and other courteous concierges, I took the elevator to the top floor. The elevator opened to reveal coarse gray carpet, the landing bracketed by the glass balcony, leading to what looked to be a room for conventions, or some other sort of assembly. Feeling more like I was attending a high school prom than a Hollywood cast party, I breezed toward the doors. Stepping inside, I noticed the pretty decorations, flower bouquets, edible arrangements, and buffet table. As though she had a sixth sense, Erica’s head popped up from the bar. “Oh my God,” I heard her breathe in unbridled exasperation. Hopping out of her seat, she hurried to me. She didn’t even bother to say goodbye to the scrawny guy standing much too close to her. “Thank you, savior.” “That bad, huh?” I giggled. “You don’t understand,” she insisted, eyes widening. “I’ve been here for two hours.” “Two hours! Why?” “Because I promised I’d help Alice set up,” she whined, slouching forward and dropping her head on my shoulder. With another glance around the room, I noticed that most of the attendees were over forty. Frank Sinatra played in the background. “You’re right. This is a nightmare,” I murmured. “Tell me about it,” Shane’s voice said as he came up behind me with Garrick and Tyler flanking him. “I was going to spike the punch bowl… but it’s covered.” And he looked quite upset about this too. I chanced a glance and a smile at Garrick. His eyebrows jumped up, lips only moving to continue to chew his gum, and looked away. I deflated and guilt washed through me. Of course he was mad at me. How could I expect him not to be? “Damn, Gwen,” Shane suddenly announced. “What?” I blinked. “You look—” He could only shake his head, stare, and exhale a whistle. I even caught Tyler staring. Straightening, Erica agreed. “Right?” Glancing down, I realized that my cleavage had come up a bit during the cab ride. I also realized that the cabbie hadn’t recognized me at all… Quickly, I adjusted myself. “Why don’t you wear sexy clothes more often?” Shane teased. I swatted him with my clutch. Erica pulled us into a huddle, wearing one of her famous smirks. “So. Now that we have the gang together… you guys wanna go to a real party?” Chapter Twenty-Three Garrick “You’re sure your friend is going to be cool?” I muttered dubiously as we piled out of the cab. The guy had been nice enough to take all five of us, even though the car only seated four passengers. We tipped him well. As the taxi pulled away, we all lined up on the curb, staring at the one story squat adobe house with a rickety porch and a sagging wooden fence around the property. The windows had been blacked out. Muffled bass boomed from inside. “Well. This isn’t sketchy as fuck at all,” Tyler observed, deadpan. “Yeah, Garrick,” Erica said. “I’m sure. I’ve already told him.” “Right,” Shane added, looking more nervous than skeptical. “But sometimes, people lie.” Erica snorted. “Logan’s cool. So is his housemate. Her name is Stephanie, by the way.” “I don’t think this is a good idea,” Gwen chimed in, wringing her hands and then clutching her elbow, eyeing the house as though it might lurch forward and bite her. “Isn’t this the wrong side of Central? Aren’t we all… overdressed?” Still pissed at her, I didn’t answer. She had blown me off just hours ago, despite what I’d told her about wanting to prove myself to her, the world, and her dad. How was I supposed to prove myself if she never gave me the chance? Erica turned to us, gave us all a pointed once-over, and shook her head. “I think you guys seriously overestimate how much being famous means to real people.” She strolled up the drive, hopped up the steps of the porch, and opened the door. Pulsing base roared out from the house, enough to rattle the station wagon parked in the side yard. With a look of impatience, Erica waved us to join her. “Come on! I didn’t fall in love with Albuquerque, the place. I fell in love with Albuquerque, the people!” She grinned. “Vamos!” Shane and Tyler broke from the line first, shuffling up the steps to sink into what awaited us inside. Gwen and I exchanged glances. I pulled my hands out of my pockets, opened my arms, and gave her a hapless shrug. Together, we ascended the driveway. I’d been to countless parties like the rager at Wes’s mansion weeks ago. Still, I couldn’t believe what I walked into. The bulb in the kitchen was on but had been replaced with a black light that made outfits glow like fireworks in the night. The air smelled of flavored hookah and booze, intermingled with a hint of weed and sweat. People of all body types—not the cookie cutter types abounding in Hollywood—created an eccentric and exotic mélange, like a decoupage coating a girl’s nightstand. Dudes in guyliner and hoodies stood over a cooler, shot-gunning beers with guys in Polo shirts. The Latinas who spoke clique-Spanglish had teamed up with two girls with more piercings than I had fingers and toes to take on a group of frat guys in beer pong. Sporty chicks in sweats swayed near the couch, giving lap dances to Star Trek shirts, and the guys were giving them right back. A guy with, admittedly, killer assets, stood near the wall, teaching a girl with the figure of a very effeminate boy, dressed in furry boots and a strip of a skirt, how to twerk. On the floor, to the right, seven or eight people sat in a circle around an empty glass, no doubt rallying for King’s Cup. And everyone, in one way or another, was smeared with glow-paint. “Where… the fuck… are we?” I managed, stunned, and mildly horrified. Gwen and I slowly met eyes. And I legitimately considered snatching her up and high tailing it out of there. “Shots, newbies!” someone called above the music from the kitchen. “Come on!” said a brunette with deep olive skin who popped up from seemingly nowhere. Flashing the most bizarrely unassuming smile I had ever seen, she seized Gwen’s hand. “You have to catch up!” And with that, she tugged her off to the kitchen. Gwen followed her, flashing me a helpless, but oddly excited expression. I couldn’t help but turn a smile back at her. For the second time, my eyes swept the scene. No one recognized us, and if they did, it didn’t matter. No one started screaming. No one started pointing. Erica appeared, clasping the hand of a built guy in a collared shirt. His hair, in tight ringlets that suggested a mixed heritage, stuck out an inch or so from his head. It took me a moment to recognize him from the front as the twerk teacher. “This is Logan,” Erica introduced. “Logan, this is Garrick!” “Hey, man,” Logan greeted, jutting his open hand forward. Still a bit blindsided, a measure of lag time passed before I mustered the sense to shake his hand and nod. But somewhere in my shock, an epiphany dawned on me. I had forgotten what it was like to be a regular person, to enter a room and not be swamped with attention. And damn, did it hit me like a kick in the gut—how desperately I missed that normalcy. Another rush of thoughts followed, the sort that painted a miraculous picture of what Gwen and I could be… had we not been pieces of the celebrity chessboard. From the group beside us, a guy yelled, “Bottoms up!” “That’s two games you’ve lost, and two cups you’ve drank!” another girl squealed. Logan laughed at my silence, clapped his hand on my shoulder, and wheeled me inside. A minute later, Gwen joined me. Stephanie, the one who had taken charge of Gwen when we first walked in, had given her a change of clothes, insisting that she would never be comfortable dressed as she was. She now wore a relaxed Reese’s t-shirt and rolled running shorts, long hair down and disheveled. She giggled and gave me a twirl. She had never looked more stunning to me. She wandered off to do some socializing on her own. I talked to people. I drank. I had a genuinely good time, all the while keeping my ears and eyes on Gwen. And it was getting harder and harder to stay mad at her. When she broke away from a girl she was talking to and walked toward me, I took her hand and tugged her into a quiet corner. “We need to talk,” I declared, struggling to keep my eyes on her face and off of her tantalizingly curvaceous body. Gwen swallowed thickly, her pretty jeweled greens darting around behind me for any sign of eavesdroppers. “Okay,” she agreed, not without reluctance. “Today. On set. That was your dad, wasn’t it?” She nodded sheepishly. “Why didn’t you introduce me when you got my text? You completely ignored me, and we were standing a stone’s throw apart. I saw you read it. You could have at least told me that he was coming. What was it? My clothes? My hair?” Gwen licked her lips, loosened by the alcohol. “I had no idea he was coming, Garrick. It caught me completely off-guard too. I panicked. I’m a damn good actress, but I haven’t practiced hiding my feelings about you from him. And I was afraid he’d see right through me.” I huffed to convey my irritation. “We already talked about this. I can take him, Gwen. What the hell is so bad about your dad knowing that you’re happily coupled with a sexy guy like me?” She thumped me in the chest. “Garrick, I wanted to introduce you. I did. I just… I got scared. You haven’t been coached on what to say.” I balked. “You have to coach me on what to say? What’s the point of him meeting me at all if I have to pretend?” With a huff of frustration, she massaged her temples. “My dad is a time bomb, Garrick. I don’t expect you to understand. I’ve had bad experiences in the past, experiences that led to another guy I was seeing getting hurt. And I don’t mean in the emotional sense of the word.” I crossed my arms over my chest. “Did these bad experiences result in you getting hurt? Does your dad hit you, Gwen?” Her eyes widened and when she looked away, I could barely swallow past the lump in my throat. “Oh God. Oh baby. Tyler said there were rumors about abuse but—“ She shook her head vigorously. “No, no. My dad, he’s never hit me. But he does have a temper. He does scare me sometimes. But I know him. He’d never hurt me. He just wants the best for me.” I wasn’t sure I believed her about her dad not hurting her. I wasn’t even sure she realized how scared she looked of him. “Gwen,” I began. “Garrick, I’m trying. Give me time.” “How much time do you need?” “I’m not sure. And I know that’s a cop out, and a vague answer—not what you’re looking for. I’m sorry I ignored you today, and made you feel crappy. It was a horrible thing for me to disregard you like I did. But trust me. It would have been much worse if I had introduced you, and things went even the slightest bit wrong.” Frowning, I looked away until she gingerly slipped her fingers under my chin and turned my face toward hers. “I’m sorry,” she repeated, a sheen of tears appearing in her eyes. “I really am.” At last, I nodded, adopting what I could of a smile. “You’ll meet him,” she promised. “Someday. And I’ll work on it. It’s not you. It’s me. And it’s him. Can’t we just forget it and enjoy our time together here?” I uncrossed my arms, threaded our fingers together, leaned in, and kissed her. “I’d like that.” Logan and Stephanie, climbing up on a fold-out chair, switched off the house mix, directing our attention to them. After explaining the directions of the drinking game about to begin, they made sure everyone had a drink in their hand. Then all of us, possibly thirty people, stood around a laptop and played Thunderstruck. From there, the night came in flashes. * After an exceptionally awkward and hilarious round of Pass the Orange, Tyler put his phone in his pocket and actually started talking. * Erica pulled Shane onto the small square of empty space that served as a dance floor. * Gathered around the beer pong table, Erica and Gwen shot against Tyler and Shane. I stood with Logan, cheering them on, and watching Gwen’s face, glow hearts sketched onto her cheeks, light up. * “How can you drink so much?” Gwen slurred, sleepy eyed and grinning as she clumsily reached for Erica’s hand. Erica took her hand and pulled her close, which was probably a good idea because Gwen looked as though she might fall over. “It’s the only way I can shut my brain off,” Erica answered. * At some point, Alice Barnhart showed up. And Tyler suddenly looked stupid happy. * Logan, Erica, and I teamed up against another trio and played flip-cup. And, by some fortunate glitch in the cosmos, we won. * Soundly drunk, the girls hiccupped and giggled their way into the bathroom together, where they surely plotted the destruction of all males… and took a billion selfies for the next fifteen minutes. * Gwen, Stephanie, Logan, Erica, Shane, Tyler, Alice, and I congregated for a round of strip poker. * “No way!” Tyler exclaimed to Alice. “You’re flowerbombbarista?!” Alice laughed, nodding. “I can’t believe you’re hardwired15!” “Is this even real life?” Tyler exclaimed, talking animatedly with his hands. “I don’t know,” Alice cackled, unable to stop as she lifted her hands to cover her flushed face. * Erica had Shane in the corner, and they were kissing like their lives depended on it. Momentarily confused, but too delightfully drunk to care, or string more than two thoughts together, I pounded back a round of tequila shots with Logan. * * * Shortly after three a.m., Gwen decided that she wanted to go home. We caught a cab with Uber less than five minutes later. Nestled beside me in the backseat, my arm strung around her, Gwen’s eyes kept fluttering closed. She had to be exhausted, especially in light of the fact that partying was practically a foreign concept to her. Still dressed in Stephanie’s clothes, as she had been afraid to ruin her dress in the process of pouring herself back into it, she lifted her head. She pouted up at me. “Do you like Steph better than me?” she asked, her voice assuming a silly sort of childish quality, adorably slurred from the liquor. “Why would you ask that, goof?” I chuckled. With a huff, Gwen nuzzled into the crook of my neck. I could still smell the Midori, limeade, and vodka on her breath. Kissing her would be like sucking on a starburst, and my sweet tooth was jonesing for a taste. “Because she’s fun. She’s really fun and nice, Garrick. She let me borrow her clothes. Look.” As if I hadn’t noticed, she directed my attention to her shorts. “Yes, baby. She did.” I gave her hair a kiss and squeezed her gently. “No, I don’t like her better than you. I don’t like anyone better than you, to be perfectly honest.” “Good,” she stated bluntly. “Because I would bleach these and she would never ever ever get them back if you did.” Punctuating the promise with a stiff nod, she gave me a lopsided smile. “Does that mean you’ll go out with me tomorrow night?” Her brows furrowed in confusion. “It’s Valentine’s Day,” I explained. “I made reservations at a nice restaurant. Nothing fancy. Just in case. But if you’d rather not—” “No. I do. Want to go out with you tomorrow. Tomorrow would be…perfect.” She leaned in to kiss me softly and I grinned like a crazy person. With a sigh, she resumed her contented position on my shoulder, then promptly fell asleep. It took us half an hour to get back to Nativo. The driver pulled off the highway and cruised into the parking lot of Nativo Lodge just as I felt myself start drifting off too. We rounded the corner toward the front entrance only to be suddenly bombarded with a storm of camera flashes. Chapter Twenty-Four Gwen “What the hell?” the driver said, sitting up straighter. I sat up like a shot from my Garrick-shaped niche, suddenly wide awake in the path of the incoming throng of paparazzi. Surrounding us, they blocked all access to the road. Commotion and questions buzzed around the car like a swarm of hornets. I heard my name called over and over as reporters tried to get my attention from outside the window. “Oh my God,” I choked, gripped by nausea and an intense burst of panic. “Get us out of here,” Garrick ordered the man in the driver’s seat, his arm tightening around me. “I’ll pay you whatever you ask.” The driver glanced into his rear view mirror, the vehicle now at a full stop, and gave a sigh of dismay. “Sorry, man. But I just paid this car off. And I’m not about to drive over anybody and land my ass in jail. You’re going to have to get out.” At some point, I had started trembling. I only noticed because Garrick took me by the upper arms, turned me to face him, and gave me a shake of his own. “It’s going to be fine. We’ll be fine,” he assured me. “Just hang on to my hand, okay?” I nodded dumbly. Quickly, Garrick shrugged out of his jacket and helped me into it. This was bad. This was so incredibly bad. “How did they know?” I forced out, struggling to keep my voice from cracking as my arms shot through the sleeves. “I didn’t post anything. No one posted anything!” The night had gone so well, so wonderfully without a hitch. That it had to end this way felt almost surreal. “I don’t know. Keep your head down and watch your step. Don’t you dare let go of my hand,” he commanded. “We’ll get inside and up to my room. Hopefully, the security guards will play escort, and get the crowd under control soon.” “Okay.” I swore with the strength of a mouse. Not only was I in another woman’s clothes, but they were pajama quality at best. I was getting out of a taxi at 3:30 in the morning with my male lead. It looked horrible from every angle, no matter how it would be spun the next morning. Garrick counted to three and opened the door, keeping an iron grip on my hand. The pressure, and slight pain of his bruising force, kept me on my toes, sobering me up enough not to trip on the asphalt. I kept my dress tucked under my free arm and my fingers tightly hooked into my heels as he strung me along. The hellish clamor around us only escalated and the flashes bled together, creating a giant flood of constant, blinding light. Half of the paparazzi tore into Garrick. The other half zeroed in on me. “Gwen! Over here! Smile for the camera!” “Holy cats! Are you two dating?” “Have you just come from a party?” “How’s the nightlife in Albuquerque?” “What’s your favorite club?” “Rough Friday night, Miss Vickers?” “There has been talk of a serious relationship developing between you two. Can you substantiate this claim?” “How long have you been seeing each other?” “What’s it like to be dating Garrick Maze? You’re both so different.” “Are you two exclusive?” “Can you give us any insight on Straightlaced? What can we expect?” “Have you been intimate?” “Is this just a stunt to promote the relationship between Lacey and Payton?” I shut my eyes tightly, trying to block it all out, and tripped on the curb. Garrick caught me before I fell, but the surprise knocked my heels out of my hand, and we were swallowed up in the sea of reporters by the time I scrambled to collect them. Garrick reeled me in and wrapped me up in his arms. My head throbbed. “Are you hurt, Gwen?” “A little too much to drink tonight?” “Why are you dressed like that?” “Gwen.” “Gwen!” “GWEN!” “Leave me alone,” I whispered, feeling the drink, the dread, and the humiliation crawling through me like parasites. Garrick kept me close, trying to blaze a trail through the wall of people. Like I vowed, I never released his hand. The questions kept coming, rising like the tide. They had caged us and crept closer, closing us in, thrusting microphones in our faces. Why I picked now of all times to grow a spine, I couldn’t say. I had had more fun tonight than the last five years combined, and they had to ruin it all for the sake of a cover story. “I said leave me alone!” I shouted, hand jutting out to smack away the microphone practically against my lips. This only incited a fresh wave of more pressing inquiries, and my irritation steadily compounded. “Wow! We’ve never seen you make an outburst like that!” “What’s wrong, Ms. Vickers? Trouble in Paradise?” “Yes! It’s you!” I barked. “She said leave her alone,” Garrick commanded, trying to shoulder his way through the vultures, taking photo after photo. I fought tears as the cameras loomed closer. “So you are dating?” “You’re awfully protective of her, Garrick. Why is that?” “He doesn’t need to protect me!” I snapped, the copious amounts of alcohol talking for me. “No. We’re not together. That’s all rumors. My career will always come first. And it’s not your business! We’re just friends. Now, go away!” Only when I felt Garrick staring at me did I realize how what I had just said must have felt for him to hear. Unable to meet his eyes, my courageousness turned to cowardice, I searched for an opening to dash away and hide. Then, like magic, the sea parted… and in barged… My father. The magic morphed into a nightmare. He wore a terrifyingly blank expression as flat ironed as his suit in spite of the glacial fire in his eyes. He gave me a once-over, taking note of my attire and the way I clutched the flaps of Garrick’s coat closed around me. They had come open when I tripped, but I had managed to secure them again. Surely, someone had snapped a picture. Stephanie’s clothes were about to be famous. His silence, like a thunderhead before the hurricane, or the eye of the storm itself, conveyed an unmistakable message—I was in so much trouble. What I had experienced of my father’s wrath thus far would be nothing in comparison to what lurked on the near horizon. “Dad,” I choked, feeling the color bleed out of my face. New questions erupted from our onlookers. For the life of me, I couldn’t make any sense of them. Surging forward, he seized me by the arm and practically dragged me out of the frenzy and I dragged Garrick behind us, refusing to let him go and leave him to the camera toting sharks. Dad, considerably bigger built than any of the microphone wielding army, crassly knocked several of them out of the way. The rest parted ways for him, some reeling back to do so, and others bowled over in their haste. Dad yanked us into Nativo Lodge, ushered in by the four security guards who had just amassed at the entrance. “Incompetent idiots!” he roared. “Don’t you have protocol to follow in situations like this! Good God, man!” “We sincerely apologize, sir,” said the oldest of the four through his mustache. “A commotion had drawn our staff out back—” “A distraction you mean!” Dad sneered. “Make yourselves useful now and clear those morons out! My daughter could have been hurt! And I would have sued you for every penny you own!” The guards scurried away just as we turned the corner, safely out of camera range. Then, Dad rounded on Garrick. “And you,” he growled, appearing more akin to a bear than a man at the moment. “How dare you corrupt my angel? You’re never to see my daughter again!” “Sir, if I could explain—” Garrick started. Panic climbed my spine as I realized he was going to try to hold his ground in a battle I didn’t think he could win. “Explain?” Dad echoed mockingly. “It’s fine. He’s right. It’s fine,” I said quickly, moving to step between them, accidentally slurring the last sentence. I gulped. “Is that tobacco I smell?” Dad locked eyes on me like lasers. “Have you been smoking? And drinking?” he hissed. In my haste to be the buffer, I had forgotten to keep the coat closed, so Dad could see the full picture of me in Stephanie’s little shorts and tee while it hung open. “What are you wearing, Gwendolyn? Where have you been?” “I was—” I stammered, feeling smaller by the second. “We were at a friend’s house.” “I thought you were at the mandatory cast party,” he countered, glowering down at me. “We were. I was,” I promised, fighting not to stutter in the shadow of his ire. “But after that, we went to hang out with some other friends and I was extremely overdressed. They gave me some extra clothes so that I could be comfortable.” “After you, in your drunkenness took the other ones off, no doubt! I knew this would happen. You’re still an irresponsible little girl. You’re not ready for this career or the pressure of something like Straightlaced!” My father’s fists clenched, his knuckles whitening, and I instinctively braced myself. “Don’t touch her,” Garrick commanded. Laying his hand on my shoulder, Garrick ushered me out of the way and took my place. Paralyzed by my father’s last sentence, I could only gawk. “Out of the way, Maze. How I discipline my daughter is none of your business.” “With all due respect sir, which I infer isn’t much, your daughter is an adult. A very smart, capable, wonderful person. I think it’ll be best for everyone if you leave.” Dad countered with a shove. Garrick faltered slightly, but managed to hold his ground and dig his heels in. A brutal flashback of Sean and my father surged into my memory. This could turn ugly so fast. No, no, no, no! Throat dry as a California sidewalk, my heart dropped into my gut. It felt as though my skin had been overrun by a horde of ants, my hands too stiff and clammy to brush them off. My father leered, growing more livid by the second. The muscles in his arms coiled, rallying for action underneath his suit. He lifted his massive hands, planted them on Garrick’s chest and shoved again—hard. Garrick staggered backward. Dad advanced. “How dare you speak to me this way, you low-life, half-witted ingrate! You think because you stand in front of a camera and talk a good game that you can stand up to me? You’re nothing but a scoundrel. My daughter is far too good for the likes of you! Well… on most occasions,” he scoffed, shooting me a pointedly poisonous look of disapproval. “She’s far too good for me all the time,” Garrick corrected. My heart hammered. I lost feeling in my knees. Half convinced I would faint at any moment, I locked them. “But you’re making a scene,” Garrick accused. “And if you haven’t noticed, Gwen is shaking. This isn’t the place to do this.” Dad glanced at me again. I felt like I was going to vomit. “Good, prudent children fear their fathers, boy,” Dad snarled. “If you need me to teach you a lesson, and instill that sense in you, then I’ll gladly do so.” His features, sharpened by the whetstone of rage, seemed to have been cut from marble. Like a mountain, he would never yield. “If you had any brains in that empty head of yours, you’d follow her example.” My common sense, though clouded, slowly came back. I knew Garrick had had a lot to drink—more than I had, most likely. And even in spite of the differences in our tolerance levels, he couldn't be completely unaffected. Plus, when he stepped in, I noticed that Garrick's demeanor was missing the adorable element he had shown that night he stood outside my door and caught me in my lingerie. Now, he just looked primed for battle. I had to stop them! “Maybe you’re right, Mr. Vickers. But that’s not my experience. Not like this,” Garrick declared, inclining his chin to demonstrate his bravado. “Good fathers don’t demand fear from their children. Gwen has done nothing wrong. She has been scared enough tonight. Your approval is all she talks about. It’s all she strives for. You know, when you arrived on set earlier, she didn’t even—” “That’s enough, Garrick,” I forced out, unable to look at him. Any moment, I knew this could turn into a physical altercation. And I couldn’t bear the thought of my lover fighting my father. If my dad beat Garrick the way he had Sean all those years ago, the press would eat Garrick alive. He was an action hero. That kind of humiliation would taint his image. I had to remove Garrick from the line of fire, and I could think of only one way to accomplish that. “He’s right.” “Of course I am!” Dad growled. Clamping one hand around my arm, he jerked me away from Garrick and positioned himself between us. “What?” Garrick stammered. I swayed slightly, aching all over. “We can’t be together, Garrick. I’ve screwed up again. But it’s the last time it’s going to happen.” “Gwen!” Garrick exclaimed, daring a step closer. I tensed. “Stop this,” Garrick begged. “Listen to me.” “Shut up, boy!” Dad gnashed back. “Don’t do this to yourself!” Garrick pleaded, ignoring my father. “Please. I meant to tell you. I started reading Straightlaced. We can be that, Gwen. I want that with you.” “You are on dangerous ground, Maze. You will not entertain this nonsense, Gwendolyn!” “This isn’t your fault,” Garrick insisted, trying to snatch my attention from the floor. “Don’t you dare shut me out after everything! We’ve come so far! Let me help, dammit! I’m falling in love with you.” The words pierced through me, and I had to stifle my instinctive cry of pain. Of longing. I wanted to throw myself into his arms. Beg him never to let me go. But one look at my father told me that Garrick would never be able to shelter me the way I wanted him to—the way I needed him to in order for us to have a chance at withstanding my father’s wrath, the press, the pressures of the business, all the girls, all the Rachels that would try to separate us… God, the list was endless. I’d thought love could overcome all obstacles, but with the litany of things standing in our way, I no longer believed it. Garrick and I had switched places. He believed in the power of love. I no longer did. After a shaky inhale, I licked my parched lips, and broke my own heart with a lie. “I’m sorry, Garrick. I don’t want this. I don’t want you.” Garrick staggered backward as though I had physically struck him. “Maybe I was wrong about you,” he whispered, his expression as lax and hopeless as a dead man. “You’re not even speaking for yourself. It’s like you’re a completely different person. Maybe you never actually wanted me. Maybe we are incompatible. Because you bet your ass I wouldn’t stand here and take this from anyone. I fought for you. I’d fight for you again. But how the hell am I supposed to win if you’re fighting against me too?” “Just go,” I choked out tearfully. “Please.” And just like that, Garrick turned and walked down the hall. I caught a glimpse of his devastated expression as the elevator doors closed. My father gave his grunt of approval and released my arm. I could feel bruises in the shape of his large hand purpling under Garrick’s jacket like spring blossoms. It wasn’t lost on me that only hours before, I’d assured Garrick that my father would never physically hurt me. Had I ever really believed that? Or had I just been too much of a coward to admit the possibility? Giving a stiff tug to the hem of his coat, he straightened his appearance. “As pleased as I am with the sensible choice you just made, dear, you’ve not only jeopardized your own reputation this evening, but mine as well. And I can’t let it go unpunished. You know I love you. You know I want what’s best for you. That boy is trouble. You’re not to see him again. This project is over. You’re not ready.” A wave of hot, fresh tears sprang to my eyes. Gripped by the dilemma of fight or flight, a hidden strength, fueled by liquid courage, jumped out of my mouth. “I am perfectly responsible!” I exclaimed, balling up my hands. “I’m twenty-two years old, and perfectly legally allowed to have drinks too! And stay out late! And play as hard as I work! We took a cab home. We didn’t drive. I didn’t embarrass myself outside, or say anything incriminating! I lied to those people and hurt someone I cared about for you! I’ve made you proud my whole life! I’ve tried my hardest every moment of every day!” “Clearly, you’re not trying hard enough. Look at the mess you’ve created for yourself, and for me! Getting out of a cab at three thirty in the morning, drunk and dressed for god knows what sort of activity! It’s disgraceful.” “I have been a picture of grace since the time I could apply my own makeup!” I screamed. Dad’s expression turned wry and impassive. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, dear. You’ve been poised at best. There will always be room for improvement.” The tears spilled over, scalding my cheeks with shame and bitterness. “Tonight was a night to celebrate me! And my accomplishments as an actress! And the accomplishments of the cast as a unit!” “Yes, and look how you’ve squandered it. I’m sure we’ll all be celebrating tomorrow when you wind up on the front page of the National Enquirer. I am so glad that sweet friend of yours called. Who knows what might have happened if I hadn’t arrived when I did.” He adjusted his tie. “Sweet friend?” I repeated, spitting the words out like venom. “Yes. That lovely Rachel girl. What an angel. She phoned me about half an hour ago to tip me off about the paparazzi, and your scandalous arrival.” I balked, momentarily forgetting I’d been on the verge of throwing a very public tantrum. All of my focus narrowed to one distinctly despicable individual. I wanted to kill Rachel, a sensation I had never before experienced. I wanted to wrap my hands around her skinny little neck and wring it more than anything. This was her fault. She must have tipped the reporters off. Either she had a connection at the party we hit, or she had tailed us from the Convention Center. That dirty, rotten shrew of a rat! Outside, the commotion had died down, leaving me to believe that the paparazzi had been ordered to leave the premises and relocate elsewhere. I wondered if the hotel owner had phoned the police. The vindictive part of me hoped that at least two or three were arrested for loitering, or assault. The alcohol had unearthed a whole new side to me, a side I didn’t necessarily like, but a side that was necessary, even essential, to becoming a woman with her own strength. The issue was how to keep her part of me. “Gwendolyn, are you listening to me?” Dad rebuked, roping me back into the ugly, awful moment. Steeling myself, I turned back to him. “I hear you, Dad. But I’m not listening anymore. I’m a grown woman, and I’ve not only made a name for myself, but become a capable, confident person—something you make a point of questioning every time you’re near me. Garrick makes me happy! He lifts me up!” “No! That’s a child’s thinking!” he bellowed back, ensnaring the full attention of the security team, who had been eyeing us since the argument began. “He has deluded and distracted you from your job, and convinced you to flout the pact you made with me. Do I mean nothing to you? Have my years as your father and provider not met your seal of approval? How ungrateful! Are you truly so willing to dispose of me for a fling with a man who couldn’t care less about what’s impacting your life so long as you’re spreading your legs for him!” Shaking with anger, guilt, shame, and heartache, I couldn’t string words together. I could only glare defiantly through my watery eyes. “Now march yourself up to your suite and go pack your bag this instant. We’re going back to my hotel, where I’ll get you your own room and you can shower and sleep,” he instructed. “We’ll be on the first flight home tomorrow.” Lips pinched, I tried not to break into hysterics. I had never felt so alone, so incontestably alienated, in my life. “Answer me, Gwendolyn.” Suddenly exhausted, my liquid courage dissolved. My fists uncurled. “Yes, Father.” * * * Fifteen minutes and a fit of senseless, private tears later, I stepped out of the elevator, toting my poorly packed bulging suitcase. Upstairs on our floor, I had spent five of those minutes standing at Garrick’s door, knocking in an attempt to apologize profusely. He hadn’t answered, which hit me like a machete to the gut. I had pleaded with him to give me a moment, if only to say goodbye. No sound came from behind the door. I had tried to explain that I only said those things to prevent the situation from escalating—to stomp out the flame before it became an inferno. I had no excuse for my cowardice in front of the paparazzi though, and he was welcome to be angry with me for that, as I deserved. He had said nothing. Soon enough, I had become too hysterical to form coherent sentences, and had fled to my room. Erica, Shane, Tyler, and Alice were all still at the party, and none of them had answered their phones when I tried. I had no one to run to, no one to rely on. No one but myself, and I’d already let myself down in too many ways to count. I had always gone along with my father’s rules and his attempts to restrict my freedom, telling myself he did it out of love, and that I needed to respect that. Garrick had been correct, no matter how much I loathed the truth. I hadn’t taken responsibility for my right to be an adult. I’d compromised myself all for the sake of my dad’s approval. I’d needed it like an addict needed her drug of choice. I’d hurt others because of it. Worst of all, I’d hurt Garrick. And as I replayed everything that Garrick had done and said downstairs, how he’d confronted my father, how he’d believed in me when I hadn’t believed in myself, I began to reassess the things I’d always taken as a given, starting with the strength of my mom and dad’s relationship. Mom had never seen fault in Dad to my knowledge. She held him in the highest esteem—on a pedestal not even she could reach. I’d always viewed her love for him as something to envy. Now I realized the ideal relationship I’d always pictured them having was a sham. The night I drank too much at dinner, I had listened to Dad critique the food, berating her with every breath, for an hour and a half. And that was why I kept returning to the liquor cabinet—kept pouring the booze down my throat. I couldn’t bear it. I finally admitted to myself that my parents were the furthest from perfect where marriage was concerned. My mother had no voice—no opinion of her own, shut away in a big, empty three story house day and night—a whitewashed prison of silk sheets and diamond earrings. Was that really how I had defined love? Powerlessly under the control of a man too strong to be gentle, even to me? I would never doubt for a second that my father would kill to protect my mother. But I had never seen him take her hand. Hold her. Kiss her. I had seen him command and belittle and expect perfection. And she gave it to him. How had I missed that? The ugly truth hit me like Thor’s hammer. It wasn’t money that glued them in place. My mother had come from money. My mother indeed cut a gorgeous figure, but she had aged quicker than Dad. Physically speaking, especially with his resume, he could easily land someone my age. Plenty of Hollywood men less full of vigor than he was did these days. No. It wasn’t those things at all. It was, as agonizing as it was to admit to myself, the fear of him that kept her from leaving, that held them together. Mom was trapped. I wouldn’t be that woman. I wouldn’t be that daughter either. Not anymore. Not ever. No. No boy or man would ever be strong enough to save me from my father. If I wanted rescuing, I realized, I had to save myself. I, completely autonomously from the people stitched together in the web of my heart, had all the power I needed to change my life. It was time to grow up. It was time to take the reins of my life and dash ahead, out of my father’s shadow, at a mad gallop. It was time to take risks and stand for my future and my independence. It was time to stop being so damn straightlaced. Chapter Twenty-Five Garrick For the last week, I had made myself scarce around Gwen, only communicating with her when we had a scene together on set. I didn’t text her, dine with her, or chat between takes. My heart couldn’t handle it. I kept my mannerisms cordial, but far from fond or flirtatious. We didn’t even banter anymore. I could tell our on-screen chemistry was suffering due to my standoffishness, and there were times I witnessed her break character, and caught myself doing the same. Tyler had been right. The similarities between Lacey and Gwen, and Payton and me were astonishing. But I could always tell the difference between when I took over versus when Payton stood in control. The fact that we had to shoot take after take to get things close to acceptable did not ease my mood or allay my frustration. My fire for Gwen, and the enormous bucket of ice she took to it the night we confronted her father, had consumed my thoughts. It didn’t even end when I slept. I dreamed of her. I thought about her all the time. I still heard her, in the eerie corners of my mind, knocking at my door, pleading with me to hear her out. I had sat on the other side, feeling the vibrations of her fist against my back and listening to her voice crack like egg shells, her words pouring out into the frying pan of our dying affair. She could say whatever she wanted to me, I had thought. Nothing got through. She would always stand in her father’s shadow, never risking a thing for the sake of his approval. I had risked everything opening myself up to her, prepared to put her at the forefront of my agenda. But in her eyes, I would be merely background noise, and a dirty little secret for her. I’d never be proudly introduced to her family or her friends. Time with me would pale in comparison to the time taken up by her career. At some point, I even had the fleeting thought that she had meant to use me as a springboard to catapult her into the spotlight all along. It wasn’t until I said it out loud in front of the mirror that I realized how ridiculously arrogant I sounded. Gwen wasn’t that kind of woman. When had I forgotten that? Somewhere between the paparazzi fiasco and bonding with Daddy, I supposed. I’d started to realize that I was just as much to blame for the distance that had continued to separate Gwen and I for the past week. She’d tried to talk to me that night, and I’d let my pride get in the way. I had sworn to be there for her. I had promised her the world with me as her knight. But somehow I knew she’d taken that role instead for me. Despite her repeated warnings about her father, I hadn’t listened. When he’d been going off the deep end, it had taken everything I had just to open my mouth in the man’s presence. No wonder Gwen had caved. Not just for her own benefit, but—something I’d begun to suspect later on—probably for mine. After her dad had pushed me, I’d seen the horror on her face. Things had been escalating out of control, and she’d acted to stop it. I was sure of it now. The thing that struck deepest and still resonated with my innermost anger was the fact that Rachel had been the one to tip off the press, something Gwen’s dad had told Lyle and Lyle had told me when things had calmed down. Today, we were continuing with Episode Five, filming in the Student Union Building. A room had been set aside for us on the second floor to unwind in and take a breather. On the way to grab a soda and chill out, I heard muffled conversation ahead. “You know,” snipped the calm, cold voice of a female, “you’re much more interesting online, and friendlier when you’re sloshed.” “Sorry to disappoint you,” Tyler’s voice answered. I realized that the woman must have been Alice and held back a moment more to listen. “Apology accepted,” she granted, as though she had taken his sarcasm, chewed on it for a moment, and spat it back at him. “Basically, you’re telling me that you’re not interested in interaction when we’re not behind a computer screen?” With a hum, Tyler continued, “I don’t really dig live action relationships.” “Oh. So you were thinking of dating me online then?” “What?” Tyler said. “I can see that. I mean, I’d be a little intimidated to be out in public with me too.” I could hear the tart smile in her voice. Tyler actually stuttered. “Tha-That’s not what I—” “I just don’t picture it working out though.” She sighed dramatically. “It’s such a pity we have nothing in common aside from our interests, intelligence, literary tendencies, personality, taste in music, and favorite foods. Well. See you around! Have fun scrolling through that NASA thread. Spoiler alert: The soil sample doesn’t contain any trace of water. Sad day. I read it this morning.” With that, Alice’s tiny suit-clad self breezed out of the room, sparing me a polite smile on the way by. I didn’t have the sense, or the mental capacity (currently stretched too thin with the circumstances between me and Gwen), to interpret what I had just heard. Plus, prying into Tyler’s life would be like herding cats into a coffee can to pull their teeth. Nope, nope, nope. I entered the break room, and for a moment, Tyler, unaware of my presence, looked grim. When he caught sight of me, however, his expression wiped clean and he picked up his Galaxy. “So, that last scene with you and Gwen was interesting.” If he suspected I’d heard him and Alice talking, I had to give the guy credit; he still looked cool as the flipside of my pillow felt. “Don’t start, man,” I groaned, crossing to the fridge and opening the door. “And by interesting, I mean horrible. You know I mean horrible, right? That was painful, Garrick. And I was clear across the lot.” Shane, Tyler, and Erica had learned what happened through hearsay, and had mercifully left me alone until now. The last thing I wanted to do was scratch the scab off fresh wounds, and I did my best to ignore Tyler. “What the hell is going on between you two?” “Nothing,” I muttered. “Really?” he deadpanned. “Nothing has you staring into an empty refrigerator for two minutes?” I blinked in shock, emerging from my mental fugue to find that the shelves sat empty. Remembering that it was Tuesday, and that the people who stocked it didn’t usually show up until three p.m., I closed the door. Sadly, that didn’t erase the idiot I had made of myself. “Well what about you?” I asked, shifting subjects as I pulled out a chair from the table and dropped into it. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to bring it up after all. I had nothing else with which to dig at him. “When Alice arrived at the party last week… you seemed awfully excited to see her.” “Being that you were three shots and two drinks ahead of me, I hardly think you were sober enough to properly judge my expression. Also, you’re evading my question.” I leveled him with a sidelong smirk. “I know the look of a guy with an eye for a girl a mile away. You were practically drooling.” Not to mention I heard the tail end of your conversation a few minutes ago… Tyler went back to scrolling, seeming indifferent to my persistence. “That’s not a hobby I make a point of keeping, unlike Neanderthals like you.” He smiled tartly and I battled the urge to clock him across the mouth. “How’s that NASA thread treating you?” Tyler scowled. “Well,” Shane announced, marching into the fray with his own brand of arrogance. “This Neanderthal has a hot date tonight.” Glad for the distraction, I sat back and swallowed my pain, kicking my eyebrows up. “Oh, really? And is she a young millionaire author, by chance?” I had never seen Shane flush that particular shade of carnation pink, but he did. “No,” he muttered. “You’re kidding. By the way you guys were locking lips at that party, I thought I was going to have to pry you two apart with a crow bar. I didn’t imagine it, did I?” His jaw clenched. I could tell he wanted to say something, but instead he digressed to another topic. “I met this other girl last week when I went to grab some coffee. We’ve been texting.” “You got a picture?” I asked, humoring him with a lewd grin. “Oh, please,” Tyler begged at his Galaxy, his voice lacking all sincerity. “Yes. Show us a picture. I can hardly contain myself.” Shane bucked up, fishing his phone out of his jeans. “Yeah. We took a selfie before I left. Better brace yourselves. She’s super hot.” Opening his phone, he pulled up the picture and passed me the phone. I could have died on the spot. “Her name is—” “Rachel,” I finished, sick over the image of the blond-haired blue-eyed Barbie with her lips pressed against Shane’s cheek. “Yeah!” Shane laughed. “You know her? Small world! She’s great.” He started rambling. I couldn’t hear a word even if I wanted to over the blood roaring in my ears. Rational thought left my mind, replaced by a spiny, clawed madness. Standing up suddenly and upending my chair, I thumbed over to his contacts, scrolled down to her name, and dialed the number. “Whoa, man! What’s up?” Shane asked, clearly unsettled as I put the phone to my ear. After three rings, her syrupy voice answered. “Shane! Hi, sugar!” “This isn’t Shane,” I growled, fixing my eyes on the wall and envisioning the shock I hoped hung on her fake face. She didn’t say a word because I didn’t give her a chance to. I honestly hoped that on the other end of the line, she stood choking on her tongue. “You know damn well who it is. I’ll say this once, and only once. You stay the fuck away from my friends. And you stay the fuck away from Gwen. I’m dropping her, but I’m never coming back to you. No matter who you puppet, or what lies you spread, I am never putting myself in your slimy, sinister, traitorous hands again. That shit you pulled with not only the press, but with her god damn father was low. I never thought you’d sink to that level. Gwen has her issues, but she didn’t deserve that. There was a time I did what I do to make you jealous, to seek revenge when I made it big, and left you in the dust. Those days are done. I’m doing this for me now. I’m going to be successful, happy, and whole for me. After this moment, know that I will never think of you again. But if you continue to contact me, or my friends, I will file a restraining order. I will drag your synthetic ass through court and the mire of public scorn for being the psycho, grasping bitch you are. Do not test me, Rachel. This is the only warning you’re going to get.” With that, I ended the call and dropped the phone on the table. Ignoring Shane and Tyler’s pale expressions of horror, I stalked out of the break room. Chapter Twenty-Six Gwen Feeling as though I had been hollowed out with a newly sharpened ice cream scooper, I sat in the chair in the conference room, oblivious to the buzz of conversation around me as more of the crew filed in. Even though I’d been shaking in my boots, I had succeeded in standing up to my dad, informing him that I was continuing my role on Straightlaced. I had never heard him scream at me like that before. But with Lyle’s support, I’d stayed strong. I’d told my dad I didn’t want to see him or hear from him until he could be civil. Then Lyle had gone the extra mile and told my dad if he didn’t leave, he’d be forced to call the police. When I’d said nothing, my dad looked like I’d plunged a knife into his stomach. I’d almost caved then, but I didn’t, not even when my dad turned and walked away from me without another glance. Two weeks had since passed—two agonizing weeks with no word from my dad. Two weeks of being close enough to touch Garrick, and simultaneously a thousand miles apart. The tabloids had had a field day, the story erupting across the internet. I tried to steer clear of it. I tried not to put myself through even more agony by reading the comments. I tried. But I failed. What a slut. Wow. WHORE. I knew she’d go crazy. They all do eventually. Where did she buy that crap outfit? Walmart? Her father must be so proud. Ew. That guy can do so much better. HE’S SO HOT!!! Go die, bitch. It all echoed in my head—a hellish symphony that never shut off, and no one around to cover my internal ears. Now, aside from Erica (who had been too engrossed in production of the second book to have time for me), I had no one. Garrick had written me off, something I justly deserved after what I had put him through. Tyler and Shane had both tried to talk to me, to buoy my spirits on set, but they hadn’t succeeded. While I appreciated the effort, what I wanted most was to be left alone, the only place I felt safe anymore. I didn’t even try to call Vi, who had always been a wonderful confidant and shoulder-to-cry-on in the past, because I was in New Mexico and California seemed a world away, and without her physical presence to comfort me, I knew talking to her over the phone would just make me feel worse. I had entered protective mode, fully absorbed in self-preservation and enduring the least amount of hurt possible. The less I gave credence to my emotions, the less propensity they had to be wielded as weapons against me. “I think you all know why I called you here today,” Lyle’s voice announced, breaking me out of my reverie. I looked up to find Garrick, Shane, Tyler, Erica, Alice, and a slew of other extras seated around the table. When had they all come in? From the behavior Garrick had demonstrated toward me, I inferred that he had no desire to reconcile the damage done. Why would he? Garrick had said he was falling in love with me, and I had thrown that back in his face in front of my father. We’d never recover from that. He had not failed me that night. He had fought—played his strongest hand in my defense. I had folded. Lyle clapped his hands together and rubbed them excitedly. “Tomorrow, we have our very first open press panel at Winrock Mall.” “Woohoo!” Shane cheered, thrusting his fist upwards. I wished I could have shared in his joy even as Tyler rolled his eyes. Chuckling, Lyle pushed his glasses up his nose. “They’ll be holding it in the open store space adjoining the food court. I’m sure you’re all as eager as I am to talk about the show! However, I wanted to be sure to remind you not to give away any spoilers for future seasons. Since Episode Six will have already aired, you can discuss matters leading to Episode Seven, but nothing beyond that.” He shook his finger and clicked his tongue as though he stood surrounded by kindergarteners. “You’re under contract, and discretion and secrecy is mandated. If all goes well, we may be appearing at other conventions in the near future!” With that said, Alice ventured a step toward the front and took the lead. She stood with her hands behind her back, supporting my earlier musings that she may have had some army training after all. “I have sent reminder emails to all of you, detailing the time you should arrive, and the questions you should be prepared to answer. Try to be as cryptic as you can about the direction Lyle plans to take Straightlaced, and as detailed as you can with questions directed specifically at your characters, and how you may have grown as an actor or actress while playing him or her.” She sighed softly. “We anticipate the typical bias between male and female questions. Gwen, try not to take offense when most of your queue is strictly physical. They’ll ask about your diet, your exercise regimen, how you prepared for the role, etc. I sincerely wish we could mandate equality as far as the quality of your roster, but it’s rare that society thinks females have the brains to answer serious queries. Understood?” A series of yeses and nods went up from the collective. I stared blankly, cataloguing Alice’s warning into a part of my brain that I had set aside for important information, but in no way responding emotionally. Drained and deadened, I couldn’t scrounge up even a shadow of a smile. “Also,” Lyle spoke. “Gwen and Garrick, it’s very possible that you will receive an enormous amount of questions and suspicion regarding your activities and relationship off screen. I sincerely apologize for not organizing a better security system for you. Most of them were still at the cast party, where we had expected you to be.” I nodded, faked a smile, and said, “It’s nothing. Over with now.” Garrick grunted his agreement, but we didn’t meet eyes. Concern stamped on his expression, Lyle’s attention volleyed between us, as though trying to prompt a magnetic reaction between our gazes. “Nevertheless, I would recommend preparing your answers together, to avoid confusion. That goes for the panel at the Winrock Mall, as well as your individual appearances on the Carl Marsh Show, which have been scheduled over the next two weeks.” That’s right, I thought. Alice had told us about our guest appearances on the Carl Marsh Show weeks ago. At the time, I’d been thrilled. Now, it just seemed like another obstacle to navigate. “That’s not necessary,” Garrick stated. “We both know precisely what happened. We’ll handle it.” Sick inside, I let my attention fall away and drift on the waves of what was, and what might have been. Chapter Twenty-Seven Garrick With a stone sulking in the pit of my stomach, I took my seat on stage amidst the cheering of our audience gathered inside Winrock Mall. Faking a grin had never been hard for me, and the enthusiasm coursing through the room caught on like a contagion. I waved. Whistles and whoops resounding through the conference hall the size of a small auditorium answered me. Chancing a glance at Gwen, I did a subtle double take and struggled to conceal my alarm. She wore a strangled, wan smile—plastic as Rachel’s nose—directed at the crowd. My insides constricted at the strange shade of pale coloring her face. I had noticed that yesterday, at Lyle’s meeting, she seemed distant and flat. It took everything in me to restrain myself from reaching out to her. She probably wanted to be left alone. At least, that had been my conclusion with how standoffish she seemed on set. So, I turned cold. Not to mention the fact that being around her ached like a festering wound. I had not endured that level of embarrassment, that level of rejection, since the night I walked in on Rachel and Dominic. Gwen had stated her feelings very clearly. And though we had yet to make our peace, it hadn’t been my impression that she needed further closure. But Hell knew I did. It was a matter of judging when she was ready to give it to me. Unlike her, I hadn’t been able to just turn off my feelings. And that in itself was completely backwards. Solely based on our personalities and history, I should have been the numb one. How had one girl, one chance firework of chemistry, so profoundly altered my way of living? What had happened to enjoying all the things that life had to offer, and not deluding myself or restricting my focus to one woman, or an abstract concept? I had come to realize that Gwen shone as the best offering. That was how. That was why. The only problem was, she didn’t want me. I had thousands of girls pining for my attention. The only one I wanted to lavish with affection and effort had publically shoved my face into the dirt of denial. However, I had to gather all that angst up and toss it into a suitcase to be sorted through later. I knew what this panel meant for the show, and to Lyle. And it scared the shit out of me, for the first time in our professional relationship, to start doubting Gwen’s ability to do the same. With a gentle tap to her elbow, I tried to ensnare her attention, if only to remind her to buck up. She didn’t look at me. Shit. Our host introduced us one by one, Shane on the far left and Tyler beside me on the far right. Erica sat beside Gwen. The host, who disclosed that she doubled as a news anchor, wore a nametag that read Cera Silverman and a sinfully tight pencil skirt. After a few preliminary messages and basic inquiries about Straightlaced, Cera took questions from the audience. Most of them were directed at Erica to begin with, all about her plans for the series and what inspired her to write it. Gwen fared alright initially, a bit flat and emotionally dead, but she completely crumbled at the first mention of our relationship off screen. From that moment on, it was like a feeding frenzy. The first drop of blood had been spilled into the water and the sharks came in swarms. Some of them grilled Gwen about the night of Logan’s party. Others insisted that she tell all about our private activities. Thirty minutes in, I saw Erica take Gwen’s hand under the table and squeeze. And not to comfort her, but to rouse her. Gwen was sluggish, dead—completely unenthused by the entire scene. A bee could have stung her and she wouldn’t have reacted. It was as though someone had stolen Gwen and replaced her with an empty husk, puppeted from somewhere offstage. The final blow for me came when a young woman that looked frighteningly familiar raised her hand and asked me if I “had fun” at Liam Collier’s birthday party, as well as how it felt to have him singing the voiceover for Payton’s band. Britney, I realized. It would always be a sore spot for me that I couldn’t sing, but I was speaking the truth when I told Britney that it was an honor to work with Liam. Thankfully, that shut her up. I was even more grateful she didn’t broach the scandalous activities that she, Angela, and I had indulged in all those weeks ago. I’d have to remember to thank her for that. And make sure she had no plans for future disclosure later. The cherry on top of this rubbish pile was that, about halfway through the interview, I noticed Rachel standing at the back of the room with her Prada purse hanging on her shoulder, shouldering a column. She stared at me, scrutinizing every word. Just then, a girl in glasses raised her hand and Cera called on her. The girl stood up, clutching a copy of Straightlaced. “Gwen, is it true you may be leaving the show?” Glasses asked. “Well—I,” Gwen faltered. “No—” “What prompted you to consider it? It wasn’t Garrick’s singing voice, was it?” Shit. I knew it was bad when an audience member had to make a joke to lighten the mood. Thankfully, some angel (or devil—I haven’t really decided) called out, “Sing a few bars for us!” The audience laughed, giggled, and squealed with excitement. More onlookers joined in, voicing their agreement and goading me on. From the corner of my eye, I saw Rachel stand a little straighter. Just as Gwen had, she had tried in the past to prod me into singing to her. Just like with Gwen, I had refused. “Come on!” “Sing something, Garrick!” “Yeah, sing!” “Sing something for Lacey!” Nerves spiking, my mind frantically reeled for what to do next. I could say no, right? Because honestly, making a mad dash for the parking lot and peeling out in a stolen car sounded far more appealing. I quickly weighed the pros and cons of the alternative. I’d look like an idiot, and soundly thrash any lingering doubt about my musical capacity, but… I looked at Gwen. We still needed to talk. No matter what, I needed her to know that when I’d told her I was falling in love with her, I’d meant it. I needed to apologize for not opening my door that night when she’d tried to talk to me. I wanted to know if there was still any part of her that held hope for us. And right now, I ached to snap Gwen out of her funk. I needed to try. Why not do that all in one fell swoop? I wondered if she’d get it. If she’d understand the significance of what I was about to do. To quiet the crowd, I raised my hands and huffed out a laugh through my nose. The hush hung tense with apprehension and unrealistic expectation, as though I lied about my voice, and the moment I opened my mouth, The Heavenly Host would open the sky to strike up a band and a flash mob would spontaneously dash to my side. But this wasn’t fucking Glee. Turning to Gwen, I mustered my courage and shrugged out of my dignity. And of course, my mind lay as blank as an empty canvas when I tried to think of a song. But then, just as I took a breath and opened my mouth, unbidden lyrics leapt out. I sang the refrain from Swim Through Fire, the song that Payton sang to Lacey in Episode Four. Beyond the barbed wire wall sits a table for two. An ocean away, these blurred visions through blue. I built you a bridge, a boat, all soon ashes and soot, To help you cross what you hoped I'd brave on foot. Burning blood brought blazes red, arsonists often do. Now even water burns but I'll swim through fire to you. So happy to be tone deaf, as I knew I had royally butchered everything but the words, I rubbed the back of my neck and held my breath. I awaited some kind of reaction, some sign that Gwen had heard the words I’d sung. That I’d reached her. That she understood. I’d swim through fire to get to her. But Gwen stared at me… and through me. I felt my heart wither at the naked wasteland in her gaze. I had failed. I couldn’t bring myself to look at the others to gage their reactions. It felt as though I had been smacked and stabbed by blunted objects meant to bludgeon with memories and rejection. The lyrics I had unconsciously selected thundered through me, followed by a nauseating revelation. I wasn’t over her. And I never would be. Because I was madly, desperately, and inalterably in love with her. She could deny me, slash my work, and bug the piss out of me. I wouldn’t have minded. Nothing hurt as badly as this. Everything ached under the weight of a love unrequited even as Rachel and I exchanged one meaningful glance, during which she smiled sadly, her gaze filled with acceptance. She raised her hand in a gesture of goodbye, then turned and walked away. I forgot about her the instant she left my view and thought only of Gwen. What had I expected? That she’d suddenly leap up from her seat, toss her arms around me, and profess to feel the same? I had been searching for an identical reflection in her eyes of the feelings coursing through my heart. I wanted to bridge the gap between us. I wanted to close the rift. I was willing to go any distance, and brave any storm. A tenuous wave of applause and genuine laughter, if only to humor me, resounded from the audience. I had put myself on the chopping block, and she had let the proverbial ax fall. Not through any action of her own, but by doing nothing. Where was the Gwen I fell in love with? Who was the woman who sat across from me now? When the panel concluded and the group of us were dismissed, Gwen’s sullen mood hung over us like a dismal cloud. * * * Once we arrived at the hotel, I tailed—or stalked, more accurately—Gwen through the lobby and into the elevator with half a mind to shake her and half a mind to lock myself up and drink myself stupid. All the frustration coursing through me threatened to boil over at any moment. And I fully intended to dump it on her, should that happen. Yet again, she seemed oblivious to my frustration, her eyes always ahead and unfocused, staring at the world through a lens I couldn’t name. Rounding the hall into our corridor, I made my decision as she fished for her card key in her clutch. “What the hell was that?” I asked, unable to keep the anger out of my voice as I barged into her room behind her and shut the door. Gwen turned, her eyes round with surprise. “What are you talking about?” she whispered. “Don’t play dumb with me. I know you’re sharp as a whip. The panel, Gwen. That was—without mincing words—a disaster. You’ve been this way for days. What the hell is going on?” I balked when, instead of firing back at me, she sighed, all of the energy seeming to leave her body with the breath of air she released. She sank down to sit on the edge of her bed. “Gwen?” I prompted. “I’m empty, Garrick. I lost you. I lost myself. I think I lost my father too, or at least I lost any hope of having him understand. I’m just… lost.” ‘This is about me?” I asked, surprised. “Of course,” she answered, her voice containing none of her old fire. On a whim, I went to her and knelt at her feet. “Listen. I’ve done a lot of thinking the past two weeks. I’m sorry I didn’t talk to you when you came to my room. I know that just because you weren’t ready to make our relationship public doesn’t mean that you weren’t serious about me. I know that by sending me away, you were actually trying to protect me.” She shrugged haplessly. “It doesn’t matter now, does it?” “It absolutely matters!” I exclaimed, seizing and sandwiching her hands between mine. This finally garnered her attention. “Gwen, you singlehandedly showed me that love does exist. Everything you said at dinner that night was true. Everything in that stupid book is beautiful. Underneath all my pain, and all the crap I let pile up inside me, I do want a relationship, and someone to share my life with. You dug me out of that mess, baby.” “And then I heaped more of it on you. I hurt you by lying in front of my father. I do love you, Garrick. I have for a while now.” “I know,” I assured her, my throat constricting and my grip becoming gentle. My phone buzzed from my pocket. I yanked it out to silence the call, but stared at the name instead. Dominic. Finally, I shook my head and swiped to ignore. Gwen watched me curiously. This was the moment. I needed to tell her. I needed to show her just how fucked up my past truly was. “There’s one more thing I want to tell you, and I think it will explain why I was so hard to reach for so long, and why I don’t understand the bond you have with your family.” She gazed at me, focus reappearing in her gorgeous green eyes, like a doe peering cautiously around an oak. “The night I came home and caught Rachel with another man… That other man was Dominic, my brother.” Skin going a shade lighter than pale, Gwen’s full attention locked me in place. And I knew I had breached the barrier she had erected between us. It hurt like hell, as she was the first person I had ever admitted it to. But I was willing to endure the pain if it meant she would be there at the end to help me heal. “I’m so sorry, Garrick,” she whispered, her voice breaking, suddenly fragile as an eggshell. Tears welled in her eyes. Somehow, I knew they weren’t just for me. They were for us, for her, and for the shambles and semblances of broken dreams and new truths surrounding us. And then, spark and magic rekindled, she came forward, flung her arms around my neck, and planted a firm kiss against my lips. A kiss that was all at once an apology, a statement, and a promise. I shot to my feet, holding her as though I would never let go, and we kissed as I had never kissed anyone. Locked in her embrace, I was happy and whole. The steady thuds of my heart found their place with the fluttering of hers. She was safe here, with me, uncertain as she was. I wanted to prove it to her. My hand combed its way through her hair, coming to rest behind her head. I looped an arm around behind her and pulled her body, tiptoes and all, against me, supporting her with ease against my frame. The power behind the embrace dipped her back slightly. I backed her up until her bare knees bumped up against her bedside. There, I laid her down, a hand behind her head when I did, taking my place over her and sweeping her hair to one side as I removed it to trace down her shoulder and the snowy skin of her arm. I breathed her in as we molded further, hands wandering up and over the back of her thigh, beneath her, and between us. God, this is really happening. We were completely sober too. This was the real deal. I gazed down into her eyes, touching my nose to the tip and side of hers, watching the hope and the need residing there reach out to me. “Garrick. Make love with me.” Suddenly bursting with emotion, I had to smile. Her request only fanned the burn of lust, blood approaching a boil beneath my thick skin. I kissed the corner of her lips and beneath the curve of her jaw, causing her to tilt her head back a bit. She sighed out in pleasure. In the dim light, my fingers trailed over the waistband of her black slacks, thumb dipping beneath it to graze over the bare skin of her abdomen and hip. So soft, supple, and smooth. Her curves pressed against me while I kissed her. I pushed her shirt up, exposing her midriff and with a flick of my thumb unfastened the top button to her pants. Warm palm pressed to her firmly, I snaked my hand around and pushed it under her, taking generous, but gentle purchase of her bare behind. She moaned—a silky, delicious sound that I needed to hear again. I continued to kiss her throughout the somewhat playful, awkward process of undressing. She giggled. “Don’t laugh,” I teased. “This takes skill and finesse.” “Well, hopefully we’ll have lots of practice.” Smiling wistfully, she reached up and planted her palm on my chest. I sheltered that hand with my own, fingers entwining with hers. And when our eyes met again, I knew she had all of me. Lately, she had seldom smiled. But when she did, it was like a shot to my heart and tantamount to the rising of the sun. My hands roamed up over her sides and the rounds of her breasts, feeling with a hunger of their own the perfect flesh of her feminine figure. I kissed her while my palm traced the path down her outer thigh, gently lifting and angling her leg at my side. I gulped my way through a short moan, breathing in the scent of her skin with my lips ghosting over her neck. “God, you’re gorgeous,” I whispered, fishing a condom from my pocket, jeans tossed aside in a heap. “Wait,” she gasped out, her breaths hot and heavy with desire. For a moment, I lay terrified that she would tell me to stop—that she wasn’t ready. But she didn’t. “Lay down.” Confused and aching to give her attention, I blinked as Gwen masterfully stole the condom packet from me. She huffed. “Just… lay down on your back,” Gwen said, worrying at her lip as she ushered me into position. She tore the pack open. My throat went dry with want. At first, I wondered where this was going, but I shouldn’t have. Gwen moved to gracefully straddle me, sinfully seductive in every way, and slide her merry path down my body. I could feel the heat radiating from her inner thighs, and I immediately stood at attention. “Gwen,” I whispered, my voice already husky. “Shh,” she soothed coquettishly—or teased, I couldn’t quite decide. Taking hold of my hard-on, the contact kicking a gasp from my throat, she rolled the condom over me. Soon, she sank down and I came up on my elbows to watch. At first, she breathed against me, teasing me with licks and tiny ghosts of touches. I had to grit my teeth against the urge to beg. I wanted to be one with her so badly. Heat roiled in the pit of my stomach. When I thought I could take no more, she enveloped me into the wet warmth of her mouth. My bones melted. “Oh,” I groaned, my head falling back and my eyes rolling up. At first, she focused on the head, where I was the most sensitive, using her tongue to cushion me before sliding lower. The friction felt phenomenal and the unbidden moans from my throat told her precisely how much. “Baby—mmf.” Her talented mouth worked me with care and I grew impossibly harder when, after regaining my senses, I caught a glimpse of her staring up at me through her luscious lashes. It was hot to the highest degree. The fire in Gwen’s eyes had returned. And I was so ready to burn in it. I tried not to eagerly buck my hips into her lips, but I couldn’t help myself. She felt so good. Just as I reached down to weave my fingers into her hair, she removed my length from her mouth. I stroked her glossy brown tresses. Breathless, I all but whined. Shit. Had I ever been this turned on? I rallied to sit up, throw her down, and show her how much she meant to me, but she stopped me with a hand on my abdomen. “I—” She blushed… and I could have died. “I want to ride you.” Stunned speechless and thrilled beyond words, I gawked at her. No one had ever offered to do that for me before. Even Rachel had refused. The effort usually sat on my shoulders. Gwen actually cared about my pleasure, and I floundered with the stirrings that created. Assuming a crestfallen pout, she asked, “Is that okay?” “Fuck yes.” I breathed out before I could stop myself. Her face lit up with an explosive smile. As she climbed up my body, I wrapped my arms around her, helping her get situated and secretly longing for that embrace. With me positioned between her legs where the liquid heat pooled in wait, she sank down onto me and I slowly eased into her. We sighed together, and it elated me to see the tension leave her face, replaced with pleasure. She went at her own pace, as she hadn’t allowed me to prep her. I was ecstatic to feel that her body wanted me just as desperately as mine wanted hers, her core slick and burning hot. She began to roll her hips. “Garrick,” she praised. I could have fucking cried. With the pleasure came the passion. I moaned, briefly pulling myself up to breathe in the scent of her skin and kiss her neck before falling back again. I throbbed in the best way. The push of her hips drove me deeper, working in unison to bring us both the beginnings of what would ultimately culminate in sheer bliss. I forged my way deeper still, dragging the experience out with the precision of my subtle thrusts and wandering hands while she bounced above me. My hands crept up and down her body, one of them easing down between us when she allowed the space. I pressed a thumb to her most intimate area as she rode. Her breath hitched—like a sigh from a goddess. The muscles across my body began to coil, readying for a release that was sure to come. A hiss followed, sucking air into my lungs through my teeth, groaning. I sat up again, this time to kiss between her breasts and over her nipples. My torso was slick from sweat, glazing the curves of my muscles with a clear sheen, mingling with the moisture on her skin. I had not experienced any connection like this before. Making love, I had believed, was reserved for those individuals unburdened by misfortune, regret, or remorse. But as my lips found her neck again, lightly sucking and nipping at the flesh beneath them, moving with her and against her, I knew differently. She smiled and I smiled back, glancing from her eyes to her plump, soundly kissed mouth, as I sported a softer version of the cheeky grin she was so accustomed to seeing me wear. This smile was just for her. “Garrick, yes!” she cried out, throwing her head back in abandon. My name on her lips was music to my ears. I held on to her possessively. The pace to my motions below increased slightly, the drive toward ultimate satisfaction for the both of us heightened by the friction. I pressed my lips to her neck, brushing the bridge of my nose to the curve of her jaw, and groaned. "Gwen," I whispered hotly in warning. It felt so good. Another hiss followed, sucking air into my lungs through my bared teeth, and I moaned. “Don’t you do it,” she commanded in a velvet whisper. “Baby, don’t you come without me.” “Shit.” I clutched her tighter and forced myself to hold back for the final few seconds, teetering on the knife’s edge of orgasm. Goddamn. I moaned low when I felt her electric-like release, answering it with my own, pleasure amplified immensely, spilling my seed into the condom while knowing someday, I’d be spilling deep into her. She was mine. This woman was all mine. I closed my eyes, exhaling to wash her neck in more warmth. My entire body tingled with sensation as we rode out our release, both of us moving until our muscles threw in the towel and she slumped against me. We dropped back in bed and I pressed my lips to her neck. “I love you,” she purred, stroking her fingers through my hair. I brushed her lips with mine. “I love you too, baby.” * * * An hour later, we lay in her bed, all wrapped up in each other’s naked embrace and disheveled sheets. I breathed steady now. “I’m so sorry about everything, Garrick,” she whispered, caressing my hands. “I was scared.” “Me too. But it’s over now. Are you ready to take the next step?” I asked with a gentle kiss to her shoulder. “I have an interview on Thursday, and if you want, I’ll announce our commitment to each other to the world.” The thought ignited a tangle of burning excitement in my chest. She paused, considering. “I’m not quite ready. There’s something I have to do first.” I had a suspicion she was referring to speaking to her parents, which evidenced how serious she was about us. I pulled her close to me, swaddling her with warmth and support. “Can I help in any way?” She hesitated again, searching the ceiling for her answer before saying, “Thank you, but this is something I have to do on my own.” Nuzzling into the back of her neck, I smiled. “Fine. But only on the condition that you do something with me first.” She squirmed around in my arms and fixed me with her gaze. “And what would that be?” “You’ll have to wait until tomorrow night to find out.” Chapter Twenty-Eight Gwen The following evening, after finishing up with the last scene of shooting for the next episode, Garrick took me on a date. That had been his one condition, and I had been happy to oblige. Lyle had seemed far more pleased with our performance today than the last couple weeks, and Erica seemed more relieved than anyone. I slid into the passenger seat of Garrick’s car. And I always had to use that term loosely, being that Garrick’s car was typically borrowed from someone for the evening. He probably had his own, if not several, back in California. It occurred to me then that material possessions had never been a big subject between us. Discreetly stealing a sidelong glance at him, his chocolate brown hair tossed by the breeze from the open window, I couldn’t help but marvel at how handsome he was, and how relieved I felt that I hadn’t lost him. Reaching across the console, I snuck my hand into his. Tonight, Garrick had planned our date. He refused to tell me even the smallest detail as we cruised down the interstate, but strangely enough, I wasn’t nervous. I felt calmer, happier, and more serene than I had in weeks. I could breathe again, and measure time in contented sighs instead of minutes and the ticking of a clock. “What are we doing here?” I asked suspiciously as Garrick pulled into the parking lot of Century Rio 24, a popular movie theater in town. “You’ll see,” he teased before leaning over and silencing any complaints I might make with a chaste kiss. He led me inside, the two of us donning our disguises of hats and sunglasses to fool the crowd, and took me through the snack bar. We ordered popcorn, candy, and a soda to share, all things my father would have balked at. Needless to say, I had already pegged the agenda. He had taken me here to see a movie, and most likely one he had starred in, which would be great. After all, I loved watching Garrick in whatever capacity. Ten minutes and four full arms later, he escorted me into one of the first, and largest, theaters and we ascended the carpeted incline. “There’s no one here,” I observed when we reached the top of the landing, met by a sprawling view of three hundred empty seats. “Yep. And it’s going to stay that way.” After flashing a devilish grin at me, he turned and started climbing the stairs. I followed. He selected a row halfway up, and headed to the two seats smack in the middle. “Oh!” he exclaimed. “I almost forgot.” I blinked back my confusion as he leaned forward and reached under his seat. I heard the rustling of paper. When he sat up, he held a white sack. Dipping his hand in, he grinned and extracted something about the size of a fat CD wrapped up in an individual packet. “This is for you.” And he handed it to me. “It’s a ring.” “Spoiler alert!” I sputtered and teased. “It’s a ring?” With an incredulous smirk, I set my drink aside in the cup holder and accepted his strange offering. It was warm. I carefully unwrapped it and quickly burst into a fit of bittersweet, nostalgic laughter. A bagel. Loaded up with cream cheese. “A ring, huh?” I giggled. “Well, I never said you could wear it. And yes. It’s real,” he stated ostentatiously before I could ask. “Garrick,” I sighed, flooded with memories and emotions. Some guys bought jewelry. Mine bought me a bagel. And it somehow meant so much more. “This is the sweetest non-dessert thing anyone has ever done for me.” “Hope you saved room,” he snickered back. Rolling my eyes, I softly elbowed him just as the lights began to dim. “Shh!” he instructed with playful austerity. “It’s about to start.” Trying to contain my smile, I settled back into my cushioned seat and took a bite of my bagel, the pastry practically melting in my mouth, and hummed my approval. Halfway to taking a second bite, I froze. The intro music for the film started, and oddly enough, I recognized it. “Is this a preview?” I whispered, my mind reeling to put a name to the track. He smirked. And just when I was about to inquire further, the introduction sequence to Diamond Eyes bloomed onto the screen. With a gasp, I covered my mouth, wishing my bottom lip would stop trembling. “Oh, Garrick. You rented out an entire theater to watch a soap opera with me?” I squeaked tearfully. He nodded and gingerly took my hand. “That I did, baby girl. And not just Diamond Eyes. We have a whole line up of love stories in store for tonight. With dinner from Jordy’s.” I threw my arms around him, giving no care to the mascara running down my face. Chapter Twenty-Nine Garrick After straightening the collar of my suit, I emerged from the bathroom where Tyler, Erica, and Shane sat together on my bed. Erica whistled. Gwen was preparing some kind of speech to give her parents when she called them later. Erica had taken a brief break from her work on the next manuscript to see me off. “Come on then,” Tyler muttered sardonically. “Give us a twirl.” Just to spite him, I kicked back on my heel, opened the flaps of my suit, and executed a perfect, flashy spin. Erica giggled and clapped for me. “Are you nervous?” “Nah,” I answered, nonchalant. “I’ve done a million of these.” Just none of them when I was in love with Gwen. “Good.” She nodded sagely “Carl is the sweetest guy and a terrific host. I’ve been on Happy Hour twice now. It’s a breeze.” By chance, my eyes caught on Shane, who looked a little like a puppy someone had accidentally left outside. He wouldn’t have missed a chance to make fun of me in this clown suit. Something had to be bugging him. “Hey, Shane,” I prompted. He looked up at me as though he was a student I had shaken awake. Ironically, I did feel like a professor in this get up. “You okay? Is the dismal grey of this suit catching?” He huffed out a sigh and shifted uncomfortably. “No. Yeah. I don’t know.” Then, he mumbled something unintelligible and scrubbed his face with his hands, further muffling the tail end of the sentence. “I’m sorry. I don’t speak Gibberish,” Tyler muttered. Shane huffed. “You promise not to laugh?” Seconds away from reassuring Shane, Tyler stated flatly, “What are we, five?” “I have to kiss a dude next episode,” groaned Shane. Erica hugged herself as she doubled over laughing. My trembling lips gave me away and, with that accusatory glare, I could tell he knew I wasn’t far from the same. “Aw, man, don’t stress!” I encouraged. “Just pretend he’s Erica.” Silence struck the room. I realized, to my chagrin, that this was one of those times I should have thought before I spoke. Shane had lit up like a Christmas tree, red as a beet and staring intently out the window. Erica, however, had fixed me with a distinctly female dark-eyed leer, clearly incensed. “And why, pray tell, would he equate me with a man?” “File your butt hurt report with someone else,” Tyler instructed, dropping back against the headboard. “He just means you two have good kissing chemistry.” I opened my hands. “Exactly!” I never thought I’d think this, but thank you, Tyler. Erica blinked rapidly, furrowing her brow. “What would make you think that?” I spun around and waltzed back into the bathroom to truss myself up in a tie. “The party,” I reminded her, elevating my voice to be heard and looping my tie around my shoulders. It didn’t click until Erica, after a pause, asked, “What about the party?” Safely out of her line of vision, I bit my lip, shut my eyes, and cursed myself. She doesn’t remember. She didn’t remember kissing Shane, which must have been why he had clammed up in the break room. Shit. “Guys, what about the party?” she repeated, her tone suspicious. Emerging from the bathroom, I looked at Tyler for help. “You started this fire, Garrick. You’re on your own.” I gulped. “Well,” I rattled off, nervously running my hand through my hair. “At the party, I saw you kissing someone.” She balked. “Kissing someone? Who?” While she turned to glower at Tyler, I flashed Shane a questioning look. Wide eyed with alarm, he shook his head vigorously. “L—Logan,” I lied. “You guys were in the corner. And, hell, I thought you were a pretty good kisser. Or, you looked it anyway.” Trying to be convincing, I shrugged. “Oh!” Erica replied, seemingly satisfied and smiling again. “We’ve kissed before. It doesn’t mean anything. Just something we both tend to do when we drink. I had a blast that night.” She rounded on Shane, beaming. “You had fun too. Right, Shane?” He lifted his eyes, landed his gaze on her, and I knew. The guy had it bad. “Yeah,” he answered softly. “Totally.” After a sincere but oblivious smile at him, Erica’s attention snapped back to me. “So are you going to tell the world about you and Gwen?” I shook my head. “We’re going to wait awhile longer for that.” It occurred to me that in my struggle to keep my private life to myself, I had excluded the opinions of the people who had become my only friends. “How do you guys feel about that, by the way? Me and Gwen?” “I think it’s marvelous,” Erica stated smugly. “I predicted it long before it happened.” It floored me that she could be so intuitive about my love life, yet be completely in the dark when it came to her own. “If you’re happy, I’m happy, man.” Shane grinned. “Thanks, you two,” I said. “Tyler? What about you?” “As long as it means you’re not butchering your craft, drowning my ears in the tedium of your problems, and acting like a bunch of lovelorn morons off screen anymore, then I approve.” I laughed. * * * I stepped out from behind the curtain and made my way across the stage. The audience, hidden partially by the blinding lights that haloed the catwalk, burst into a chorus of cheering. I waved graciously. Tonight was my individual interview—the first I had accepted in months. Carl Marsh, whose real name was Carlos, surged to his feet and met me by the overly cushioned armchair, still standing on the other side of his desk, and stuck out his hand. I clasped it and gave it a firm shake. With big, bushy blond eyebrows and beady blue eyes, Carl Marsh cut the figure of a classic Viking—enormous and loud with a laugh to match. What made him so intriguing, if not addicting to listen to, was his Spanish accent, a trait that completely belied his appearance. We took our seats. “Mr. Garrick Maze,” he greeted. “Thank you for joining us today.” “Thank you for having me,” I replied before throwing a coy smirk and a wink at the audience. “Hello, everyone.” The studio audience cheered wildly as I waved. “Hollywood’s new heartthrob, right here in my studio. What do you think of that, folks?” Throwing open his arms, he gestured to the fake scenery of the city with the Sandia Mountains at sunset in the background. The audience hooted and hollered. “Now. Before we dive into the juicer part of this interview, how are things?” “Things are great, Carl,” I answered honestly for the first time in years. “Things are wonderful.” I couldn’t scrounge up a more appropriate word. His eyebrows jumped up, revealing that his eyes weren’t truly so beady. “Wonderful? Well, I think an answer like that merits an explanation, don’t you?” he asked, indicating the audience, who whooped their agreement. I felt a flush come into my face and I shook my head, humoring them. “Now. What about the show, Garrick? What’s it like working on a rom-com? I mean, we all knew you as this big gun-toting action star.” “Yeah.” After lifting my hand and turning my smirk into more of a happy cringe, I scratched at the nape of my neck. “As a dear friend of mine once said, my career could be summed up by three things.” I counted on my fingers: “Explosions, gunfire, and ass-shots.” Laughter rumbled through the audience. “You’d spend hours with the greatest personal trainers learning everything from jujitsu to feng shui—“ Another bout of laughter. “But seriously though, folks, this guy knows many of the mixed martial arts—and here you are, starring in a contemporary television series. What in the world has that been like for you?” I shifted, pondering my reply. “You know, I’m going to be honest. When I first got the call and got involved with Straightlaced, I planned to use it as a spring board to branch out and find other gigs, and what I thought would be ‘bigger and better things.’ I wasn’t very passionate about this job.” “And are you now?” I nodded unreservedly. “Fully. I’m completely committed.” People cheered. “What changed your mind?” Expelling a breath, I brought my ankle up to cross it at the knee. “A series of events, really. I learned a lot from my character. And midway through our season, I finally read the actual book.” I slapped an unapologetic, yet expectant smile on my face. More laughter. “That’s probably a good career move,” Carl joked. “Can you relate to Payton at all?” “I sure can. The thing about Payton is that he has so much potential, but he doesn’t want to put out the effort to display that. He’s trapped in a routine, and a stereotype, that he doesn’t want to break. He feels that focusing too much on school will inhibit his growth in music, yet at the same time, he’s terrified that if he focuses solely and seriously on his music that they’ll get noticed.” “So it’s all about personal fears,” Carl inferred. “Exactly. He wants the fame, but not the responsibility. He wants the success, but not the strings attached. And as a college bum, who plays bars on the weekends, he’s pretty much living his dream, or deludes himself into believing that… until he meets Lacey.” I too had been deluding myself, convinced I was living my fantasy, when in actuality, I had turned my life into a personalized torture chamber. Carl sat forward with interest sparkling in his blue eyes and folded his enormous hands. “Ah, Lacey. Miss Gwendolyn Vickers, isn’t she?” “Yes. Lacey has such drive and dedication. She wants to be a veterinarian so badly that it really throws a mirror up in Payton’s face and forces him to look at his life choices, and lack thereof. “ “Interesting. And I hear that Payton rubs off a bit on Lacey too.” I grinned sheepishly. “He does, eventually. Lacey actually starts accidentally hanging out with Payton, Benny, and Mitch while she’s trying to get them evicted from their house.” Carl sat back, feigning offense. “That’s not very nice.” “Well, their constant ruckus interfering with her studying isn’t all that cordial either. And she doesn’t realize how much she enjoys being with them, and how much fun she’s having with such free-spirited people, until about halfway through the book.” “That really does sound like a fascinating romance dynamic.” “Yeah. And that’s really all I can tell you in terms of the show itself.” Grinning, I had to stifle a laugh when I imagined Lyle sitting at home with his eyes glued to the television, constantly cleaning his glasses, and Alice standing just behind him to take notes. Luckily, Carl took my hint and ran with it, leaping headfirst into the questions I had been truly anticipating. “Let’s get personal,” Carl stated, sitting forward and scooting closer to me. The audience laughed. “Okay,” I agreed, pretending to be somewhat apprehensive. “Let’s get personal.” He squinted, eyeing me with every ounce of theatrical skepticism he had. “How’s the dating life going? Are you still playing the field?” “Actually.” I took a breath and shook my head. “No. I’m not.” A collective gasp and a myriad of feminine whines shot up from the crowd, followed by a series of clapping. I adjusted my cufflink. “It’s probably safe to say that I’ve restricted myself to one particular person’s yard.” The women aww’d, though I knew internally, most of them sat fuming. “Well, this is a surprise! Can you tell us who this special lady is?” He waggled his brows, trying to charm me into telling. But I had made up my mind beforehand, and prepared my answer ahead of time in case it came up. Gwen did not want us to be an item in public yet. She wanted to tell her parents first, and give them time to process it. And I wouldn’t force my desperation on her. “I won’t be telling you that, Carl. I’m sorry. I want to. However, our relationship is still in its infancy, and I’m extremely protective of it. We feel that it’s still a little early to go public. It’s the most precious area of my life, and the most precious person in my world. So I’m going to take my time, if that’s okay with you.” More awws and claps. “Of course, of course.” Carl, however, wasn’t quite placated. “Rumors have just been swirling like crazy about you and Gwen out of character and off set. Can you substantiate any of these rumors? Is Gwen the Juliet to your Romeo?” I settled back into my chair comfortably, donning my broadest grin before I got real with him. “No. I can’t substantiate those. I really enjoy working with Gwen. Her passion for her own craft, coming from an actress who was trained and talented in the world of soap operas, provides a stark contrast to my own background. And I won’t deny that, like Payton and Lacey, she throws her own mirror in my face from time to time, and I too questioned my decisions. She’s a wonderful influence and a fantastic young woman. And I look forward to finishing up the season, and the many, many more seasons to come.” After my interview, I strolled backstage, loosening my tie. Dying to know how it went for Gwen, I yanked my phone out of my pocket and checked my messages. I had one text from her, telling me she hadn’t called her father yet but she was going to. Though I worried for her, I nodded to myself. Scrolling down I noticed I had three other texts and two missed calls. Dominic. Cold around the collar, I bit my lip. I hadn’t talked to Dominic since the night it happened. He had tried to call me more than a lot, but the attempts had dwindled during the last five months. It occurred in bouts and spurts now. I knew how he got my cellphone number even after I changed it. We weren’t close but my mom or dad always had my number. They never gave up wanting their sons to make up. I never talked to them about it because that would acknowledge Dominic’s attempts to contact me, which I didn’t want to discuss. Now he had probably seen the interview and got the guilty urge. I had never listened to his voicemails, deleting them before they played. His texts repeated the same spiel I had read a thousand times, the message he had been trying to convey since that terrible night. He was so sorry. He was stupid. Hurting me had been the last thing he had ever wanted to do, and it would never happen again. He was damn right about the stupid part. In the past, I would have deleted his messages and ignored him completely. However, seeing Gwen’s courage to mend the rift with her parents made me think twice. And as I was leaving the studio and his third call came through… I took it. Chapter Thirty Gwen Garrick had left for Carl Marsh’s late show a few hours ago. I stood at the foot of my bed, staring down at my cell phone—the same position I had held for the last five minutes. Before that, I had paced my room probably fifty times, having full length, elaborate conversations with myself in preparation for calling my father. Finally mustering all of the courage I could weld together, I picked up the device and dialed. Dad answered after the second ring. That was curious, being that it usually rang five or six times, especially when he wasn’t expecting my call. “Dad,” I said quickly, my free hand fisted at my side as a cold sweat beaded across my forehead. “There is something I need to—” “Gwen,” he interrupted. The gravelly, weary sound of his voice gave me pause. “Before you say anything, I’d like to invite you home for the weekend.” Shock ascended from my toes to the top of my head. “Th-this weekend?” I stammered. Though, to be fair, the anger I had assumed would lace his voice wasn’t there. And it was more genuine surprise than fear of the reason or his rage that caused me to flounder. “Yes. I know we need to talk. Your mother and I will pay for your ticket.” “Mom will be there?” I said softly. “Yes.” He took a deep breath. “I’ll understand, or try to, if you’d rather talk over the phone. But we have some things we want to say in person. And I hope you’ll come.” A lump formed and lodged in my throat, swelling with each passing second. I could either decline and draw a line in wet cement that, once dried, could never be erased, or I could cross over, one more time. I took a deep breath, stared out of my hotel window above the cityscape draped with a starry tarp, and said, “I’ll be there.” * * * Twenty one hours later, we sat together in the parlor—Dad and Mom on the loveseat, and me in the arm chair. My father slumped, hunched forward, as though someone had let all the air out of his shoulders. The skin around his eyes hung lined and dark, as though he had not slept in days, if not weeks. “Two days ago,” Dad began, “I read a follow-up article about an incident that had occurred years ago. It mentioned an actor whose sister was in a coma, because she had tried to run away from her living situation—from her father—and got in a car accident. It made me realize—as did you pushing me away in New Mexico—that in my burning quest to keep you close, I have only succeeded in pushing you away, and in so doing, I almost lost you too.” Breathlessly, I watched Mom reach over and take Dad’s hand. She held it between hers, lending support I did not know she could show. “Your father felt so gutted and horrible when he returned from Albuquerque. I’ve never seen him so unhappy.” “Unhappy?” I echoed, riddled with vexation. “I thought you were enraged.” “I was,” he confessed. “At first with you. Then myself. I was also terrified.” I balked. “Terrified? But you’re not scared of anything.” “Ooohh, yes I am,” he breathed with a guilty nod. “Mostly of losing you.” “He sat in your room for an entire day and he found the picture of Sean in your bedside drawer,” Mom added softly. Dad shook his head somberly. “Looking back, there is no excuse for me losing my temper that night, or any of the other nights. I know I ruined your prom—something like a rite of passage, and one of the most important magical evenings in a teenager’s life. And there is no excuse for me exploding at you the way I do when you enjoy alcohol. But there is a reason. Several, in fact.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Surely, this had to be one of my dreams. Any moment, things would turn black and broken again. “How do you see us, Gwen?” asked Mom. “Honestly?” I questioned. “Honestly.” She managed a strangled smile. I hadn’t heard my mother talk this much in one sitting in ages. “I don’t think either of you are happy,” I blurted out. “I think you’re especially unhappy, Mom. I think you’re afraid. And Dad, I… I think you’re scary and, moreover, what’s scaring her. Before this year, I always saw you as the perfect couple. I measured my future by you. I love you both, but… It’s hard sometimes. You’re so rigid and… Mom, you haven’t talked to me like this in so long.” A pained look came into my mother’s face, tears welling up in her eyes. “We’re terribly sorry, sweetie. We’ve raised you to believe that we’ve never made mistakes—never stepped outside the box—that we’ve always been perfect, and the cookie cutter family. And I think, to some degree, you’ve finally realized that’s not the case at all.” She squeezed Dad’s larger hand. “Your mother and I have kept some very important things from you,” Dad told me wearily. “We did it partially to conceal our mistakes and partially to withhold what could have been influential over some of your decisions. We have talked it over and we feel that we have hidden our past from you long enough, and you need to know why I do what I do, and I am the way I am. Assumptions can make or break families, and we know now that we should have told you sooner.” “I told you that I graduated college, honey,” Mom said. “That’s not true. In my sophomore year, I delved into the drug scene. And dropped out. I had a trust from my grandparents of fifty thousand dollars. And I spent it all within three years… on heroin.” Cold with shock, I sat rooted to my chair. “Meanwhile, as a member of the elite football team at my college, I was heavily into steroids and alcohol,” Dad added, grey with guilt. Her lower lip trembling, struggling to maintain her small smile, Mom shook her head. “We didn’t meet on an island vacation, Gwen.” Finally, Dad met my eyes, surrender dimming his own. “We met at a treatment facility for addiction in Hawaii.” My mouth fell open. “Your mother and I fell in love, married, and worked ourselves to the bone to turn our lives around. It was torture. Every day.” Mom nodded, sniffling and dabbing her nose with a handkerchief. “I was never very strong, and I had several brutal slides backward. My therapist found that I had internal triggers. Certain clothing, or foods would flip a switch in my brain, and I’d crave the high. I couldn’t hold down a job for years.” Something clicked and kicked on inside me—the first spark that would illuminate some deeply guarded secret. “That’s why we live the way we do, honey. Your father is so strict because he lives in fear—of me and of you going down wrong paths that we can’t reverse.” She flashed a teary, fond smile at him. “But our love for each other has never wavered.” “But I never see you holding hands, or expressing any affection for each other. Why?” Mom adjusted her hold on Dad’s hand, weaving her arms around his bicep. He placed his hand on her elbow. “We told you that you’re an only child. That too is somewhat of a lie.” Her voice cracked. “You’re our only living child,” Dad stated gravely. “What?” I croaked, my hands clutching the armrests hard enough to whiten my knuckles. “Before you were born, your mother suffered two miscarriages.” Mom hung her head and nodded, a picture of anguish. “The doctor said it was a lingering result of the drug and alcohol abuse.” “On both our parts,” Dad seemed to remind her, squeezing her arm. “She said that we had destroyed our bodies inside, and they were still rebuilding, too fragile to support another life.” “Your father went on to pursue the Mr. Universe competition to get stronger and prove to himself that he could be the best without steroids. He quickly got sponsors, and gained a following. And he did it. All by himself.” She smiled at him proudly. “And I was able to stay close to home all the time, through every pageant, to be close to your mother.” Inhaling, Mom found her smile again. “So, when you—our little miracle came—we were shocked, and thrilled. The doctors had said that a healthy baby wasn’t in our future. Your father named you Gwendolyn because it means blessed one. The light of our life.” Throat dry and mind grasping wildly to understand, I asked her, “That’s good, isn’t it? Didn’t that, didn’t I, bring you closer?” “You did. I became pregnant again six months after you were born. Rich and I…” Her voice trailed off and she averted her eyes, struggling under an unknown weight. “We celebrated you, Gwendolyn. Too much. Too often.” “I didn’t know that I was pregnant until…” Her nostrils flared as she battled a sob. “We didn’t realize that we were back on the path to addiction until we lost the fourth baby,” Dad said. “So, since then, we’ve almost stuffed ourselves into bodies that are more machine than human, more mechanical than emotional.” “I didn’t know how to cope with the pain. And I blamed myself. I still do. I thought it meant that I was not fit to be a mother. All I thought about for months, if not years, was how badly I wanted to shoot up to escape the hurt. Your father saved me.” “And your mother saved me with her love.” “His dedication, power, rigor, and adherence to a strict routine and schedule kept me sane. I’m not unhappy, Gwen. I’m not unhappy at all. I’m just dealing with ghosts and grief every day.” “I love your mother, Gwendolyn. And you. More than anything.” Mom’s voice grew scratchier. “I’m so sorry I let you believe that I was afraid of your father when I was really only scared of myself. I love your father. I didn’t know how to talk to you because I never thought I deserved it. And I was always afraid I’d slip up and say something that would reveal who I used to be.” “Who we used to be,” Dad muttered sadly. “I’ve been sober for twenty one years. And it’s all thanks to him.” Dad shook his head, reached out, and took my hand. “I’ve gone about this all wrong. I thought I could control the future, and you, with rules and lies and fear of failure. I haven’t been truthful to myself for decades. There is nothing I want more than to let loose for one night and step back in time, even to step back from the present and watch you blossom. But either of us relapsing is the second thing that scares me the most. The less I controlled you, the less I felt like I controlled myself. And the more you started to pull away, the worse it got.” “Living with that fear has turned us both into people we don’t like. If addiction is genetic, then you're definitely predisposed. And that’s why your father got so angry every time you’d enjoy alcohol, or go out.” I only became aware of the tears on my face when my mother sat forward and carefully swiped one away with her thumb. The two people sitting in front of me whose personas were years in the making had changed so much in a matter of moments. “Mom. Dad.” Awe struck, the spark of illumination turned into a blazing flame. “What kept you together was the fact that you were able to overcome your fear, your addictions, as a unit.” Not sex. Not money. Not fear of my father. Dad held my eyes and my heart shattered, along with whatever disdain I had harbored for him, when I saw tears appear in his eyes. “I can’t ask for your forgiveness enough.” “Neither can I, sweetie,” Mom confessed. Lips in a trembling line, I shook my head vigorously. “You don’t need to. I already forgive you.” My father swallowed a sob. Guilt smacked into me. “I’m so sorry I’ve been such a handful lately. I didn’t know.” In hindsight, it made so much sense. And I felt like garbage for thinking so poorly of my father. Granted, he hadn’t made it easy for me to see the golden knight in him, but I hadn’t been looking very hard either. “Sweetie, please don’t apologize. I love you so much.” “We’re going to get through this together.” Mom smiled, looking between the two of us. I looked at my empty hand. “How can I help?” “By enjoying yourself, safely of course, and sticking to your craft. Your father and I are going to back to Hawaii—to the treatment center—to come up with alternate methods of living, and a whole new lifestyle. We’ve realized that it’s time to make some changes, and we need help forgiving ourselves. It’s a beautiful facility, dear. A lot like a dream vacation.” I smiled through my tears. “That’s wonderful. When do you leave?” “Monday morning.” “So soon?” I questioned, beset by a twinge of panic. My parents would be away from the mainland, and I would be the farthest away from them that I had ever been. And so soon after uncovering such an epic secret? Dad laughed as best as he could. “I would have purchased the flight today had any seats been available. We don’t want to live this way anymore. And we don’t want to put you through it either.” “Don’t worry, honey,” Mom reassured me, as though she could read my mind. “We’ll call from the island. When we get back, we would love to meet your new friends.” I blinked rapidly, suddenly remembering. “That’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about. Dad, do you remember that night at Nativo? When Garrick said he was falling in love with me?” “I’ll never forget it,” he mumbled with a wry smirk. “Boy had balls.” “Richard,” Mom chided him softly. “Sorry, Ab. Guts. I saw so much of the old me in him.” “And that was why you hated and mistrusted him so much,” I finished. “I can see that now. He gave me a bagel.” “What?” Mom and Dad said in tandem, clearly not appreciating the gesture as much as I did. “It’s a long story,” I chuckled. Mom lit up. “I want to hear all about it when you have time. How do you feel about him, dear? Do you love him?” “Yes. I love him too. I came to tell you that we’re going to start dating for real—in public. And I wanted you to know before the rest of the world did, because I deeply respect you both. And I want you in my life, even if you don’t approve of him. Dad, thank you for your guidance and support and encouragement, and even your strict rules that guided me to the successful path I’m on. But…” “It’s time for you to establish your own rules, follow your own road, and declare your independence.” I nodded. And he smiled with tears in his eyes. “Then I think a reevaluation of Garrick Maze is in order.” Chapter Thirty-One Garrick Over four weeks later, just after wrapping up the mid-season episode of Straightlaced, I stood hand in hand with Gwen on the red carpet. Shane and Erica stood on our left and Tyler on our right. We were back in Hollywood. The entire cast of Straightlaced had received invitations to the premier of Up in Flames, the prequel to Blast Zone. Due to the fact that my character had not been born, I hadn’t been cast. Didn’t bother me in the slightest; even if they offered me a role in an upcoming sequel, I’d decline in favor of continuing the television series anyhow. The members of Point Break had been invited to attend the premier, too, as they had landed the honor of writing and producing the theme. However, they were currently on the North American leg of their first world tour. After the tour first started, Liam had called me, needing some advice, confiding that he’d met a girl he was interested in. I’d told him not to let the fact they were different stop him from going after what he wanted. After all, taking that kind of risk had brought me where I was today. When I’d told Gwen about Liam’s call, she and I had talked about meeting up with the band at some point. I’d teasingly accused her of wanting another close-up look at Liam. She’d laughed and kissed me and told me—her expression and voice completely sincere—that Liam couldn’t hold a candle to me when it came to singing a love song. Believe it or not, the girl had gotten me to sing to her several times now, and the way she always looked at me when I did just made me sing louder. I had patched things up with Dominic as best I could, and I promised to come home for Christmas for the first time since the incident. It felt good to have that burden lifted. We would never be what we were, but this was a start. “Hey,” I whispered, leaning over toward Tyler. “Where’s Alice? The invite said you could bring a plus one.” Waggling my eyebrows, I grinned. He stared idly, exuding more disdain than he usually did for me, and promptly switched to stand beside Shane and Erica. I chuckled. Gwen’s parents had returned from Hawaii last night, and we would be visiting them for dinner at their house this weekend. Feeling thrilled to see the house in which Gwen grew up, I was also battling nerves. Meeting her father had been nerve wracking. What would it be like to step foot in his home? However, Gwen always dismissed my concerns as needless, claiming that he was seeking help. She did not share everything with me, but she had said that her mother and father had stayed at a transformational facility to relax, distress, and cope with unresolved issues. Gwen had been on the phone with her mother and father on a daily basis, checking in. I had never seen her so happy. “Tonight’s the night,” I said, leaning in to whisper into her ear. She bit her lip excitedly and shimmied her shoulders. Once we had passed the picture section of the walkway and came to the press pad, it finally happened. Shane, Tyler, and Erica had gone inside, bypassing the throng of flashes and questions. Before she vanished, Erica flashed me an enthusiastic thumbs up. “I see you’re holding hands,” exclaimed a female reporter, eyes primed with a thirst for good gossip. I caught her name with a glance at her press tag, hanging from a slender lanyard. “That’s right, Gina. We are.” “Are you a couple? Or is this all for show?” Turning my head, I looked at Gwen, searching for any sign of fear or shadow of doubt on her pretty, freckled face. “Yes. We are an exclusive couple. We’re in love. We’re happy. And that’s how it’s going to stay.” The paparazzi within earshot instantly cut their interviews and clamored to get closer, the din around us escalating from a buzz to a shouting match. Gina, however, would not be bullied out of the way and thrust her microphone at us once more. “Well, this is news! Aren’t you worried that a relationship between you off-screen could affect the show? What if you break up? Isn’t it traditional not to date fellow actors until the film wraps up?” I flashed Gwen a confident smirk, reflected back at me through her own. “Geez, Gina,” Gwen said with a radiant grin, facing the reporter with squared shoulders. “Don’t be so straightlaced.” * * * After the premiere, Gwen and I hit a swanky bar on Sunset Boulevard for a private, playful evening. Inside, we had a few drinks and many toasts to celebrate our success, as well as that of the action movie industry, to Gwen’s capricious, amazingly seductive chagrin. I certainly had plans for the remainder of our night once we found ourselves alone. We filed outside where a cab waited at the curb around two a.m. I held Gwen’s hand. There was rarely a moment we were together these days that I wasn’t holding her hand. On the way to the car, my phone vibrated in my pocket. Normally I would have ignored it, but just then Gwen stopped to rifle through her purse. I pulled out my phone and glanced at the text, grinning when I saw it was from Liam. You were right. That was it. No explanation needed. I’d been right about him needing to take a chance on the girl he’d told me about. Instinctively I knew that if Liam really had found the one, his lifestyle was probably going to be a huge hurdle to overcome. But hey, I’d done it. I had faith he could do it, too. Don’t blow it, I texted back. I slipped my phone back in my pocket. Yep, Gwen and I definitely needed to track Liam down, especially if it meant meeting the girl who had finally entranced the hard-partying rock star. I turned to tell Gwen but before I could, she wrapped her arms around me and squeezed. “I’m so happy,” she said. “The happiest I’ve ever been.” My heart swelled and my body buzzed with warmth and all I could think was: This girl. Thank God I found her. I rested my forehead against hers, hugged her, and rocked us back and forth, enjoying the moment. Basking in the knowledge that our futures were going to be filled with moments upon moments just like this one. Love isn’t a flare. It isn’t even an eternal flame. For Gwen and me, it’s a magnificent, white-hot, never-ending inferno. Thank you for reading Rock Sexy. If you enjoyed spending time with these characters, be sure to check out Liam’s story in Rock Strong. Here’s a sneak peek: ROCK STRONG EXCERPT: Chapter One Abby When Dr. Bronsky handed me my Master of Music diploma from Juilliard in December and said, “You and that cello are going places, Miss Chan,” I was pretty sure he didn’t mean the North American leg of a rock band’s world tour. Needless to say, it’s not what I pictured myself doing either. By now, I was hoping to be playing for the New York Philharmonic, making my way to Principal Cello and shining like the diamond of the string section, as I’d imagined it my entire twenty-three years up until this point. However, a cellist cannot live on bread alone. So when good friend, fellow string performer, and violinist Rosemary Bourré told me that Point Break, the rock band on the cover of the most recent Rolling Stone (four guys covered in tattoos and piercings—how original), was looking for an on-tour cellist to replace the one who’d dropped out last week, I forced myself to hear her out. Rose had already auditioned for their string section months ago and had gotten the part. Join me, Abby! she said. It’ll be fun! she said. According to Rose, all I’d have to do was play backup to their two love ballads, sleep on a bus from April through July, and collect my paycheck. At summer’s end, I’d return to NYC and hopefully have enough money to pay off some school loans and put down money for my first apartment on the Upper West Side. I could audition for the Philharmonic, make my mother proud, marry a famous conductor, and live the rest of my life in perfect harmony. Hey, a girl could dream. So when I’d told her that I hadn’t even had to audition—the manager hired me over the phone based on Dr. Bronsky’s recommendation—Rosemary had squealed, bounced, and hugged me tighter than an E string. I am so crazy for doing this, I’d thought, and Samuel, my boyfriend of four years, agreed, warning me if I took the job, he couldn’t guarantee he’d be there for me when I got back. Is that right? So be it, I’d thought. In fact, I’d taken the opportunity to do what Samuel had been hedging doing: I’d broken up with him. Part of me knew I had to do it, if only to see what the world had to offer outside of Samuel Bautista. Part of me was relieved that taking the job had forced an end to a relationship I knew hadn’t been working for quite some time. And part of me, well…part of me just needed eighteen thousand dollars. So here Rosemary and I were, a week after they signed me on and two days after arriving in LA for the first time, ready to see what the world of rock ’n’ roll had in store for us. After a couple of informal rehearsals sans band, the string section seemed ready. Now, I was about to jump my next hurdle—getting through Point Break’s Feel the Burn kickoff party—a real rock star soirée as far from Brooklyn as one might possibly imagine at the posh Southern California home of their manager, Robbie Levine. Never would I be accused of being a party girl back in Brooklyn. In fact, the most partying I’d ever done was the night after my Strings final exam at Samuel’s parents’ house where Rosemary, Jaromir, Kim Lee, and I all sat around the Bautistas’ living room, laughing, drinking wine, and talking about how we were going to make it big one day. We’d meant playing for any of the world’s most prestigious orchestras, not following around a screaming front man and his guitar-plucking toadies as they reveled in alcoholic excess and female companionship. So this house…this was another league altogether, and to be honest, it was scaring the crap out of me. Next to me, however, Rosemary was all fluttery eyes. “Wow, Abby. Did you ever imagine this would be our first real gig?” She beamed, beer bottle in hand, glancing around the partyscape. We’d been working since we graduated, of course, but that had entailed the occasional wedding. Nothing like this. “I imagined it a little less…LA.” I mean, we were in LA, so that didn’t quite make sense, but even this was beyond where my imagination had gone. I clung to my wine glass like it might keep me afloat in the sea of money and fluff. “Abby, we’re in Beverly Hills. Beverly frickin’ Hills.” “Don’t say frickin’, Rosemary. It’s so…” “Rock star?” “Exactly.” She giggled. Giggling suited the tall, blond, skinny French coquette thing she had going on. Next to her graceful swan self, I felt like a mallard duck. “Rehearsal went really well this afternoon, don’t you think?” she asked. “Sure. If you consider the actual band members not participating a success,” I said. She smirked. “I think it was meant for everyone else. Strings, lighting, sound crew…” “What kind of musicians don’t need to rehearse?” I scoffed quietly. She leaned into my ear. “The kind whose songs are all four beats to the measure. So I think the rehearsal was only for us new people.” “Ah, yes. Please don’t remind me.” I couldn’t have felt more out of place. In one corner of the mansion’s palatial gardens was a group of Greek goddesses dressed in white and gold bikinis all fawning over a man in red pants and a black T-shirt. The girls must have coordinated their hairstyles before coming, since they all had either streaked curls or severe ponytails pulled up tight, making their eyebrows arch up high. On another part of the patio, sectional sofas abounded with more tanned, glossy-legged women all gathered around a man in black pants and open shirt, knees apart, each of his arms laced around a fine Coppertoned set of shoulders. Wow, LA women took their beauty seriously, but that shouldn’t have been a surprise. Seeing it front and center somehow drove the point home, however—and made me wonder if I should have skipped the wine, given I was probably one of the only women at this party whose thighs actually touched. The music blaring from the speakers thumped and pounded. An honest-to-goodness DJ spun real records, pressing headphones to her ears, and dancing to her own mellifluous offerings, all while sporting a tight turquoise minidress. “How many people do you think are here?” Rosemary scanned the crowd. I did a quick calculation of the patio and pool deck and estimated another fifty or so inside the house, more in the rooms upstairs, I was sure. “A hundred fifty, at least.” “You think they do this before every tour?” “Jaromir said they do this before every show. And every night in between.” Rosemary’s eyes widened. “Are you serious? How would he know?” “He said he’s a Point Break fan. Rose, there’s money in this business. It’s all showmanship, album covers, women-filled videos, self-inflated promotion… Real musicians don’t care about stuff like this. Real musicians just want to play, even if it’s to an empty auditorium with three cats listening.” Even as I spoke, I mentally winced. I sounded like a ripe old snob, and a bitter one at that. Real musicians shouldn’t diss other musicians, period. I knew that. And normally I didn’t. But now…here… I needed to hold on to some semblance of confidence. If I was overcompensating, I was only doing it in front of Rosemary, who hopefully wouldn’t hold it against me. “You don’t have to tell me twice.” Rosemary downed her beer. “But it’s still awesome to be a part of it. You want something to eat? I’m gonna go get something.” “I’m fine, thanks.” I wasn’t so sure there was anything awesome about this. In this world, music was a means to a lavish lifestyle. In my world, the lifestyle was a means to the music. Losing yourself in the music was all that mattered. Which was why I’d made it a point not to get sucked into Point Break pics, gossip, and drama before coming. I read only what I needed to know about the band—recording history and discographies. Wikipedia—nothing more, nothing less. “By the way, you look really hot in that dress.” She winked and slinked away. In this? I fidgeted with my pearls, glancing down at the only cocktail dress I owned, a black A-line more at home at a Manhattan shindig than a party in the Hills. “Thanks,” I said, not entirely convinced. Before I knew it, Rosemary skittered away, leaving me alone with my so not-hot self. I should have gone with her, but I’d been following her around the whole night, clinging to her skirt like a little girl behind her mama, hiding from scary boys. Which wasn’t too far off from the truth. In retrospect, now that Rosemary had left me alone, I wished I would have perused Point Break’s online pics before coming, so I would at least know what they looked like. But between my mother’s life lectures, packing for the trip, and fighting with Samuel, I didn’t have much time. Plus, I’ll admit I hadn’t wanted to look. I told myself it didn’t matter who my bosses were or what they looked like. It didn’t matter if I liked or respected them. This was just a temporary job, one I had to get through to make my own dreams come true. However, I’d started to think I’d been unprofessional by not doing more homework. I should at least introduce myself to my new bosses and thank them for the job. That’s the main reason I was here. Looking around, however, I tried guessing who the band members might be, hoping no one would notice the solo cellist standing by the potted tree. Much to my dismay, it was a bigger call to attention than I’d feared. A pair of smiling eyes zeroed in on me from the opposite end of the pool. Wearing loose jeans, a leather vest over his strong, bare chest, a cowboy hat, and a big, silver belt buckle, the guy looked like a punk cowboy who’d lassoed himself a few ladies. Flanking him were…one, two, three, four, five girls in bikinis. Although, upon closer inspection, it appeared that two of them were topless. They played with his hat, laughing and taking it off, passing it around. His heavily tattooed right arm was wrapped around a girl’s waist. His other hand held his phone. He raised it, aimed it in my general direction, snapped a shot, then tucked it back in his pocket. Did he really just take a picture of me when he was surrounded by all those nearly naked girls? I tucked my hair behind my ears, feeling more self-conscious than ever, fingering my pearls some more. No, that didn’t make my awkwardness any more obvious to him, of course not. I wanted to hide, call it a day, and run back to my hotel room to the safety of my big, fluffy Hilton Hotel comforter. Two guys careened by me just then, loud, obnoxious, holding each other up in their inebriated stupors. “Oh, sorry,” one said. If I hadn’t stepped out of the way just in time, he would have knocked me into the pool. He had a stubbly, short beard, intense brown eyes, and a rascally smile when he flashed it at me. In the illuminated blue water, a bevy of bikini angels laughed at them. “Jacob! Throw Corbin in!” one of the girls cried. Corbin! I recognized the name. Was the cutie with the short beard part of the band? And what about his friend Jacob? Was there a Jacob in the band? No, I was pretty sure the band members were Liam, Wes, Corbin, and…one other one. “Yeah, we’ll take care of him!” The other girl laughed, boobs bouncing up and down, beach ball in her manicured hands. I watched with mixed emotions. On one hand, I was annoyed that anyone could laugh so outwardly, without shame and pure confidence, while wearing strings and flaps of fabric for swimwear. Who gave them the right to look so perfect? On the other hand, I envied them—not just the girls and their beautiful bodies, but the guys, too, the way they managed to get the girls’ attention and be so at ease while goofing around. It was baffling to me. I would never fit into this group dynamic, not in a million years. But I didn’t have to fit in. I was just here for background noise, literally, and only for a few months at that. If Samuel were here, he’d tell me they were all drunken buffoons, Neanderthals, devoid of intelligence or class. However, since Rosemary and I arrived, everyone in this production had been super nice. Catered meals throughout the day, a car to go anywhere, whenever we needed it… Apparently, money either made you act incredibly stupid or incredibly generous. Finally, after more poolside wrestling, Jacob and Corbin faltered and sank into the pool with a huge splash, eliciting cheers from the partygoers. The bikini girls flocked to them, hanging off their shoulders. Short Beard started making out with one of them. “Nice!” Standing near me, a guy with incredible green eyes lifted his drink high into the air, his arm wrapped in a tribal tattoo much like Punk Cowboy’s. Like most of the men at the party, he was easy to look at, though not as easy on the ears. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” he shouted, bending over to laugh. Then he straightened and walked past me, surveying my side of the pool. Suddenly, his eyes fell on me, and the man literally turned on his heels to head my way. Oh, God… Where was Rosemary when I needed her? He sauntered over and paused in front of me, one hand on his hip, the other lifting his square glass of ice and clinkiness to his lips. His eyes, face, and brain took in every inch of me from head to toe, not that I had much on display for him to ogle. “Helloooo, Asian Persuasion.” Ugh, no. He did not just say that. “That’s not funny.” I gave him a deadpan glare. “You’re right. I apologize. Sort of, but not really. Can you, um…” He grazed his cold glass along my arm. He smelled like vodka…I thought. “Wear a kimono for me later? I promise I’ll make it up to you.” Eyebrows danced over those bright green, but mischievous eyes. “How about I kick your balls in instead?” I said before I could calculate a more refined response. His eyes flew open for a moment. “Ha!” Then, he closed them and shook his head in silent laughter. “A feisty one, I love it,” Vodka Breath said, holding on to his stomach. Meanwhile, my stomach sank. My heart pounded. I was about to get away from him. But then… “Tucker…” The scent of sweetness and sun-warmed skin wafted by me at the exact moment my mouth was open and ready to send this idiot back to his cave. It was Punk Cowboy from across the pool. He had light brown eyes, and was over six feet tall, well-built with strong hands shoving the green-eyed douchebag in the shoulder. “Shut up, bro. What the fuck’s wrong with you?” He towered over me and my five-foot-two frame, scowling at my aggressor. Vodka Breath—Tucker, I guessed—was shorter than Punk Cowboy, but still a lot taller than I was. He held his arms out wide. “I’m just talking to her, dickhead. What the fuck’s wrong with you?” “Bro, have some class. Don’t you see you’re clearly out of your league here?” He gestured to me, side-glancing with a tiny smile that made me think perhaps this was an act and the two were in cahoots in a chick-pickup scheme. Not that they needed me to hit on at a party full of silicone goddesses. “I’m sorry if he’s bothering you.” Punk Cowboy placed a gentle hand on my lower back. Though he was certainly taking liberties, the small gesture felt nice, and I wasn’t about to object. He was hot, though I normally did not check out a guy’s physique before his personality. Then again, he was being a gentleman, too, compared to his friend. “I wasn’t bothering her, bro, but look at her. Tell me she doesn’t look like that chick from the happy massage place that was here earlier today.” Tucker pushed his drink tumbler in my direction. “Am I right?” Great, high school jokes all over again. I clucked my tongue. The last time I clucked my tongue, Samuel’s friend, Nicolas, earned himself my handprint on his face. Enough was enough. I didn’t need any more Asian jokes when I was already feeling like an idiot for being here. “Say it again,” I prompted. “Say what again?” Tucker pressed a hand to his chest. “You’re not mad, are you? Sweetie, I’m just paying you a compliment. You are, without a doubt, the finest Japanese princess I have ever laid eyes on—” “Dude…stop.” My defender shoved Tucker’s chest and simultaneously pulled back on his shirt, throwing him off-balance. Which was actually helpful, given I’d just shot out my wine glass and dumped its contents down his hairless chest at that precise moment. The liquid created a shiny trail down into his pants. “I’m not Japanese. I’m American, of Chinese descent, if you must know. We’re not all alike. Unlike assholes. I heard that once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all.” Punk Cowboy scoffed a laugh, and I turned to walk off, find Rosemary, leave the party—at this point, I didn’t care—but I wasn’t going to stay here and take this. The people next to me broke into cheers over my display of bravado, but I couldn’t focus on them. I’d come here for one thing and one thing only—not to party, not to bond with my fellow tour mates, not to experience a Beverly Hills party for the first and last time in my life. No, I’d come only to meet my bosses, wherever they were, if they were even here. “Hey…” Punk Cowboy’s hand reached into mine—warm and strong—and he spun me toward him. “Are you okay?” “I’m fine.” “I’m sorry about Tucker. Not to defend him, but he’s just drunk. Normally, he’s a stand-up guy.” “I hadn’t counted on harassment being part of the job.” Guess I already had something to report to my boss. “Can you tell me something before I go? You seem a decent enough guy.” I took my hand back and gripped my purse strap instead. “Sure, anything.” “Can you tell me where Liam Collier and the other guys are? I just came to say hello then get going.” He studied my face carefully, as though maybe I was kidding, as though I was some clueless fish that just flopped out of the water. “I’m Liam Collier.” His hand, covered in silver rings, extended toward me. “Pleased to meet you. And you are?” Mortified. Abby “Mortified” Chan. Chapter Two Liam The angel standing before me was a cross between Audrey Hepburn and Lucy Liu, a vision in classic black, with porcelain skin and minimally painted eyes. Yeah, she stood out like an Aston Martin among Chevys and Toyotas, but I liked that about her. Her delicate hand slipped into mine, and I felt the thick pads of her fingertips. Okay, maybe not so delicate. “Oh. I didn’t realize…you were…nice to meet you…” She fumbled with her words, squeezing my hand softly instead of shaking it. “I’m Abby. Your cellist.” Cellist? “No shit?” My depraved mind flew to an image of this tiny girl, naked and cradling a huge cello between her milky white legs, head tossed back in ecstasy. Whoa. I shook away the vision. “Yes, shit.” She smiled. “Sorry, I mean, wow, that’s awesome…that you work for me. And that you play cello. Fantastic.” I was fumbling my words, a pretty fucking amazing thing. Few people left me speechless anymore. I’d seen and done it all these last few years, but I’d never had a prim and proper class act join my tour before. She stood wringing her hands as though we were at an eighth-grade prom and I was asking her to dance. I didn’t know why, but I felt like I had to be on my best behavior around this chick. “And here I was, thinking you didn’t need me for anything after the way you handled Tucker over there.” I gestured in the general direction he’d fled after Abby scorched his ass. “Was he a friend of yours?” she asked. Man, she really didn’t know us from a hole in the wall, did she? Refreshing! “Tucker? He’s our drummer. You’ve probably heard of Tucker the… You know what? Never mind. And that guy right there…” I pointed to the guy in the pool who’d been wrestling with Jacob in front of her before they’d both fallen in. “That’s Corbin Ross, our bassist.” “Right. What about Wesley Shaw?” she asked. “Wes?” I scanned around for our lead guitarist, but he was more the private type and was probably upstairs in a bedroom taking his pants off as we spoke. “I don’t know where Wes is. Probably better that way.” “Well, you’re wrong. I do need you,” she said, clearing her throat. “For something, that is. My paycheck,” she clarified, breaking out another thin smile. “Ha, ha, good one.” I grinned. Then, because I’d talked to everyone at this party except for her, I sat my ass against the edge of one of Robbie’s potted plant things, crossed my legs, and studied her—the way she scoped around, trying not to notice the naked people in the pool, as if hoping horse blinders would appear on the sides of her face. I wanted to put my arm aound her and tell her it was going to be okay. The lifestyle might be a little crazy, but we weresically all good people. We’d never had a string section on tour with us before, but back in December, I told the guys that I thought Save Me Tonight and Never Again could use some instrumental backup onstage. Other bands did it for their live shows, and their songs were all the richer because of it. Wes, Tuck, and Corbin had been on board, but the hard part had been convincing Robbie. He’d thought it would give us too serious an appearance, like an older band wanting to grow as musicians when we should still come across as bachelor playboys. He’d finally relented, if only because I insisted, so I was really bummed to have missed the string rehearsal this afternoon. Unfortunately, there’d been a thousand and one things to do before we headed for San Francisco. But if I’d known Abby was going to be there… “Well, I just wanted to say thank you…for employing me.” She laughed in a really cute nervous way, hands clasped in front of her. “I look forward to the tour starting tomorrow.” “You’re welcome. Thanks for doing an awesome job…you know…playing the cello.” I pretended to hold an oversized cello upright and slide an imaginary bow across the strings. She reached out, placed her small hands over mine and corrected my wrist, swerving it back and forth. “It needs to bend, like this, in order to keep the bow straight.” “Oh. Gotcha.” I did my best to imitate her hand movements, but the truth was, I couldn’t focus on anything but the touch and feel of her hands on mine. “Thanks for the tip, Teach. I’ll see you at the buses tomorrow.” She smiled, and holy shitballs, Batman…Tucker was right—she looked like the girl from the happy massage place, yeah, but ten thousand times prettier. Without hardly any makeup, without her hair done, with most of her body covered, too. It was hard not to imagine her dressed in something shorter, tighter, with maybe a pair of black patent leather boots up to her knees and some cherry blossom red lipstick outlining that perfect mouth. My brain shivered. “Will do. Have a good night.” She turned to leave then stopped and faced me again. “And thanks for stepping in earlier. That was nice of you.” “Anytime.” I gave her my best smile, and she walked off, joining a tall, leggy blonde waiting for her nearby. I wondered if she worked for me, too. But my interest in the blonde was fleeting. Abby was smaller in stature, but the impression she’d left on me was huge. Again, I pictured her naked and playing her cello. And like a string, I quivered. * * * Once the party died down, I meandered through the house, wondering where everybody was. Even Helen usually followed me around—had since middle school—but tonight, she seemed to be missing in action as well. I headed upstairs to Robbie’s guest bedroom where I’d be staying tonight. All four of us would be sleeping at the house. It was tradition the night before a tour, and though I wasn’t fucking hammered as balls as I usually was, I was tired and ready for bed. I opened the door and spotted Corbin in there, half-naked with the pool chick he’d been sucking face with earlier. Actually, I’d been with her before, too, but I fucking forgot her name. “Hey…uh…both of you,” I said. Man, I was out of it. I’d completely forgotten about the threesome Corbin had planned for us tonight. “Bro! We’ve been waiting for your ass,” Corbin cried, holding out his arms to welcome me. He sprawled out on the bed with Pool Chick lying alongside him, her upper half propped up, as though she’d been kissing his chest before I opened the door. “Yeah, Liam, bring that hot ass over here.” She beckoned with a glittery silver fingernail. I distinctly recalled the feel of those sharp nails digging into my ass at some point. Oddly enough, the memory didn’t have me hardening. Didn’t even have my dick twitching with mild interest. “Wow, you know what? I totally forgot about this, uh…meeting, and I’m actually kind of tired. So you guys party without me.” “Are you fucking kidding me?” Corbin’s eyebrows flew up. “Dude, Bella wore her good-luck bikini just for us, for the tour.” Bella, that was her name. “Yeah, Liam.” She reached back and undid her bikini top, freeing the most beautiful set of perfect tits the world’s eyeballs had ever seen. “You sure you’re tired?” Okay, so I wasn’t dead. A stirring in my pants called to me. Corbin cocked his head. “Dude, it’s bad luck if you don’t help me. I mean, look at her. Clearly, I need backup.” I laughed. “You’re man enough to handle her alone, Cor.” “What? Liam, what the fuck’s gotten into you lately? What happened to our kickoff tradition? Now, watch…something bad will happen, and it’ll be all because you wouldn’t help me suck her tits. Come on, bro. Take one for the team.” Bella giggled. Funny. Four years ago, I was a senior in high school and would’ve given anything for a woman of this caliber to want me, and now here I was, actually considering skipping her. Was this life actually getting old? Still, I couldn’t let Corbin or even Bella see how tired I felt, or word would surely get around that Liam Collier was losing his mojo. “Fine, I guess I’ll sacrifice myself.” I overacted the martyr thing. “There you go!” Corbin pumped his fist then resumed making out with Bella. Pulling off my vest, I tossed it onto a chair and climbed into bed on Bella’s other side, loving the big, comfy pillows piled up behind me, wishing I could sink in and just fall asleep there. But Bella had other plans. She turned to me, ran a hand up my leg, then cupped it around my package and squeezed. Leaning into me, she kissed the side of my face until my lips connected with hers and soaked in her strawberry-flavored scent. Fucking beautiful woman, no doubt of that. So why couldn’t I get into it? Bella pulled away and gave me fantastic blue eyes before turning back to Corbin and undoing his jeans. She pulled them down just far enough, fished around inside his shorts, and pulled out his cock, dropping her head and starting to work on him. I closed my eyes. Did not need to see my buddy’s bits and pieces, but I could hear the sounds of skin and sex, including the slurping and gagging that she was so good at. Gah, now I really do remember her. After a minute of me lying there, listening to Corbin groan, watching her head bob up and down, she turned to me. “Oh, baby, I’m so sorry. Am I neglecting you?” “Nah, you’re good.” I would’ve been fine just watching, but her body twisted, and she threw a leg over my torso, straddling me, leaning forward to press her sweet tits into my face. Ohh, sweet mercy… Those amazing nipples grazed my lips, but I couldn’t drink them in. She lowered her face to kiss me, but I turned my cheek, so she kissed my neck and ears instead. She was beautiful, yes, but there was something so intimate about kissing, so entirely personal, that I just couldn’t bring myself to do it tonight for some reason. Closing my eyes, I felt her breasts leaving a warm trail down my chest as she kissed down my body, pausing at the sensitive skin just underneath the button of my fly. Her hot breath waited there while she fumbled with my zipper. Between my swirling, half-drunken thoughts and a dizzying sensation, I couldn’t think straight, and for a moment I thought—hoped maybe—that she could be someone else. The cello girl. I imagined Bella was Abby, tugging with need at my jeans, pulling them down, wanting desperately to envelop me in her mouth. Now that would be awesome, experiencing that reserved, shy woman unfold and give herself to me. No offense, Bella, but I expected it from you. But Abby? Warm, slinky hands reached into my shorts and wrapped around my cock, hard and ready at the thought. All I had to do was let her pleasure me, relinquish and just feel, the way I’d done hundreds of times before with a different flavor woman every other night, but what did it all mean? What good was all this sex if the person you were having it with just disappeared and didn’t scratch your back afterward, didn’t care if you suddenly became an average guy with an average income? My mom didn’t care if my dad couldn’t buy her a new car, keep her in a condo overlooking the ocean, or buy her jewelry every day of the week. Mom loved Dad despite him being an average Joe all these years. Now that shit was real. My mom and dad had material things now because of me, so did my brothers, but it had never been a requirement to love one another. I wanted that same kind of love for me. Maybe not now, not on the first day of a new tour, and not for a while. But eventually—one day. I wasn’t ready to give up the life just yet. Hell no, a life like mine would be brutal on a girlfriend. I would never subject a woman to life on the road and to our endless raunchiness. That was why I’d let go of Vanessa, my high school girlfriend. It was why I’d broken her heart, prompting her to… Ugh, I couldn’t think about that right now, or things would deflate. Literally. One of the saddest days of my life. “Mmm, baby, you’re one of a kind,” Bella cooed. My eyes popped open to see her holding my cock with both hands, ogling it like it was going to be difficult stuffing it all in her mouth. Instead of turning me on, it highlighted even more that I was just a famously rich piece of meat to her. “You know what? That feels really good what you’re doing…” I pushed her hands away gently. I had no interest in insulting her. “But we have to get up early, and I’m kind of buzzed. I’d hate to not remember this in the morning. I’d much rather you do it once I’m sober so I can really enjoy it.” I gave her my best smile. No pun intended, but I didn’t want to come across as a dick. Girls could be so sensitive, even dangerous ones like her. Her brow furrowed and she pouted. “You sure?” “Yeah. You and Corbin have fun.” I sat up, pushing myself back into my shorts and zipping up my jeans. Although this was supposed to be my bed tonight. I guess I’d have to sleep downstairs or, hell, even at home. I grabbed my vest. My wallet went back in my pocket, and I pulled out my bike keys. “Dude, what is up with you?” Corbin gave me a worried look, as Bella fell over him again, her head bobbing up and down. “Since when do you not want this magic mouth all up in your business?” “Just staying focused, bro. I’ll see you in the morning.” I left the room and closed the door behind me before he could say anything else, pressing my back up against the wall. I sighed. What the fuck was wrong with me? I slinked past people sitting on floors and lying on sofas, and past women giving blow jobs to our roadies and crew. When I made it to the front door, there was Helen, my best friend, face all somber, as though someone killed her cat. “Helen…geez. You fucking scared me, coming out of nowhere like that. What’s up, Wednesday Addams?” “Where you been?” she asked, like she was my mom or something. Helen could be so fucking clingy sometimes. I gave her a once-over. She looked pretty hot tonight in tight jeans, a perfect, fitted tank that hugged her boobs, and lots of necklaces tangled in her cleavage. I’d touched them once. The boobs, not the necklaces. Sophomore year. But I’d been drunk, and we’d both laughed it off. “I was upstairs getting a blow job. Blew my load all over her face. It was fucking awesome. You?” I knew the answer would disgust her, but that should teach her not to ask where I’d been anymore. “Bullshit.” She called my bluff. “You’re going home. Nothing happened.” My chest deflated. “How’d you know that?” Helen scoffed, shook her head. “You think you know a person.” “What’s that supposed to mean?” “It means, whenever you have sex, you stay in bed till at least noon the next day with said person. If you’re leaving early, it’s because you’re tired and want to sleep undisturbed.” “Am I that transparent?” My eyebrows flared. “To me, you are.” There was the girl I was used to, though there was something in her face tonight that tipped me off. Something had changed. I just wasn’t sure what it was. Had she met someone? Did he not feel the same way? Was that why she seemed so gloomy? I knew I should be a good friend and ask her. But right then, I just wanted my bed and some sleep. “Okay, well, I’m heading out.” Her eyes narrowed, and she swirled around the contents of her glass—Jack and Coke, most likely. “Need someone to go with you?” she asked suggestively. Uh…what? Sleeping with a warm body would be nice, and Helen did know me better than anyone, but we weren’t bed buddies. Maybe she was just lonely and wanted someone to cuddle with, but if she was that vulnerable, I didn’t want to risk leading her on. I’d never thought of her that way before. She was just Helen, my best friend since middle school—no more, no less. “Thanks, man,” I said, “but I’m really shot. Don’t want anything tonight but my own company and some z’s.” “That why you got a blow job?” I forced a laugh. “I was kidding about that.” Helen stared at me for a second before her face relaxed. “Ah, I’m good for it. I’ll see you at the buses tomorrow. Can I ride with you this time, or are you going to make me ride with the merch crew again?” “Uhhhh…” I stammered. Well, she was our merch manager. Was this a trick question? “You know what? Forget I asked. See you tomorrow, Lee.” She punched my arm and dragged away, thumping the wall softly as she disappeared down the hall. My head was spinning with confusion. For a second, I wanted to go after her, but then decided I’d talk to her tomorrow, when I wasn’t so tired. Outside Robbie’s house, the valet brought my Suzuki GSX-R600 and handed me my helmet. “Thanks.” I slipped a fifty into his hand and straddled the bike. Before I took off, though, I sat there thinking about the weirdness of the evening— wanting to chat with the cello player, not wanting to partake of Bella’s talents, and Helen acting different. All of a sudden, it hit me. There was something I’d been wanting to do all night. Since I met Abby. Poor girl must think all rock musicians were assholes, the way Tucker behaved. I wanted to send her something to change her mind. To reassure her there was no reason to regret taking the job and going on tour with us. I hesitated, though. Any gesture I made could be misconstrued, could lead Abby on just as much as I feared cuddling and snoozing with Helen could do to her. But no, that was different. I wasn’t talking about having physical contact with Abby here. I only wanted to be a good boss. To right a wrong, not marry her. She’d see that. Pulling out my phone, I summoned Siri’s help.


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