Table of Contents
OTHER BOOKS FROM YLVA PUBLISHING
COMING FROM YLVA PUBLISHING IN SUMMER 2015
Being a full-time writer would be a lonely profession if not for my wonderful creative team. A big thank-you to my critique partners and fellow Ylva authors RJ Nolan and Alison Grey for encouraging me and keeping me on track and to my beta readers Erin Saluta and Michele Reynolds for taking the time out of their busy lives to help me with this book.
I’m also grateful to Andrea Lowescher, Nancy Jean Tubbs, and Edie Stull for reading the manuscript in a very short time and providing me with helpful feedback.
Thanks also go to the wonderful team at Ylva Publishing—Nikki Busch for editing, Gillian McKnight for proofreading, Glendon Haddix for creating a beautiful cover, and the rest of the “pack” for their hard work and support.
Last but certainly not least, a big thanks to my readers for continuing to read my books and for taking the time to let me know how much you like them. You certainly keep me motivated!
When a rapid-fire staccato of steps echoed through the foyer and Grace’s mother swept into the living room without knocking, Grace regretted giving her the security code to her Hollywood Hills home. Her mother’s habit of waltzing into Grace’s house unannounced really had to stop.
With the dramatic flair of a former actress, her mother flung a magazine onto the coffee table and stabbed the offending print with a manicured finger. “What is this?”
Sighing, Grace put down the script she’d been reading and sat up on the couch.
The magazine on the table wasTinseltown Talk, one of the trashiest celebrity gossip rags around. “Let me guess. Either it’s another photo of me picking up my dry cleaning without makeup, or I’m secretly pregnant with twins, suffering a mental breakdown after gaining two pounds, or having a torrid affair with Neil Patrick Harris.”
“Neil Patrick Harris is gay.” Her mother lowered her voice and added, “And so are you, apparently.”
Her mother sank into an armchair and shoved the gossip rag across the table.
Grace picked it up and turned it around so she could read it.
The most prominent headline on the cover read in scarlet, two-inch-tall letters:Exposed! Grace Durand caught cheating on Nick! Secret GAY tryst!Below it, they had added in smaller letters:See a shocking photo of Grace and her LESBIAN lover only in this issue ofTinseltown Talk.
Grace snorted. Whatever photo they had was probably as fake as the breasts of some of her co-stars.
“I told you something like this would happen,” her mother said.
“Mom, this is bullshit. I’m not having a secret gay tryst.”
“I know. But if they’re already writing ridiculous things like this, can you imagine the headlines once they find out what’s really going on with you and Nick?”
Grace could, and that was why she hadn’t told anyone but her mother and her lawyer yet. She said nothing.
The silence in the living room was deafening.
Her mother leaned forward. Her gaze darted back and forth between Grace and the open French doors leading to the stone patio. “You aren’t…you know?” she asked, her voice lowered to a whisper.
“Gay?” Grace asked.
“Hush! You don’t want the neighbors to hear you.” Her mother’s gaze went to the French doors again, even though Grace’s home was perched on a hillside bluff high above the city, with no neighbors living nearby. “No, I mean, are you drinking again?”
Grace gritted her teeth. She hadn’t touched a drink since she’d been seventeen years old. She’d worked hard to live up to her mother’s expectations and to make up for the sins of her youth, but apparently, it wasn’t enough to make her mother trust her. “Why would you think that?”
Her mother waved at the magazine.
Frowning, Grace flipped through the gossip rag until she found the page with the headline about her“secret gay tryst.” She skimmed the article, noticing with amusement the exclamation points after almost every sentence, probably meant to let readers know they were reading something scandalous and exciting.
According to the article, Grace had been out partying after she’d wrapped up shooting her latest movie and had gotten drunk with her cast mates.
Grace huffed.Never going to happen.After spending fourteen hours a day, six days a week with her co-stars, she didn’t want to hang out with her colleagues, no matter how much Roberta, her publicist, urged her to.
Well, this probably wasn’t the kind of headline Roberta had been looking for. Being caught in a compromising situation with a fellow actress was not the way to promote a family-friendly movie about a heterosexual love story.
Grace searched the article to see which actressTinseltown Talkwas putting her in bed with.
Oh, shit. Jill.
Her gaze jumped to one of the pictures on the page. It was a little grainy and had apparently been taken with a telephoto lens. In the picture, she and Jill had their arms wrapped around each other while they swayed up the steps to Jill’s trailer. The caption beneath the photo said,Grace Durand and Jill Corrigan stumbling into bed for a drunken tryst.
“Would you excuse me for a minute?” Grace threw the magazine back on the table and reached for her cell phone. She walked past her mother as she scrolled through her contact list and dialed Jill’s number. Her mother’s disapproving stare drilled into her back, but she ignored it for once. This was more important than placating her mother. When Jill picked up, Grace stepped out onto the patio and closed the doors behind her.
“Hi, stranger,” Jill said. “Long time no hear. Are you busy writing your Oscar speech?”
Grace laughed. “Hardly.” They both knew the romantic comedies she usually starred in wouldn’t get her one of the coveted Academy Awards, but they had made her a household name, celebrated as a younger, hotter Meg Ryan. “How about you? How are you doing?”
“No Oscar speeches in my near future either, but otherwise, I’m fine,” Jill said.
“Good.” With her back to the house and her mother, Grace sank onto one of the lounge chairs next to the pool. “Listen, I’m not just calling to say hi. Have you, by any chance, seen the newest issue ofTinseltown Talk?”
“Can’t say that I have. I try to stay away from trash like that. So, who’s pregnant—you or me?”
“Neither,” Grace said. “At least I don’t think so. It would be pretty hard to become pregnant from a lesbian affair.”
Jill let out a wolf whistle that nearly pierced Grace’s eardrum and made her pull the phone away from her ear for a moment. “They seriously think the two of us are doing the horizontal mambo?”
“Yeah.” Morosely, Grace stared down at the skyline of LA beneath her.
“Well,” Jill said after a moment of silence, laughter in her voice. “I’m honored to be sleeping with the woman who has been voted one of the sexiest women alive, but please tell Nick not to kill me.” When Grace didn’t laugh, Jill sobered too. “What’s going on?”
“They photographed us going to your trailer, with our arms wrapped around each other. You have to be more careful.”
Jill sucked in an audible breath. “Damn. You didn’t tell them anything, did you?”
“No, of course not.” It hurt that Jill even had to ask.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that you would…”
Grace sighed. “It’s all right.”
The irritating sound of fingernails tapping on glass interrupted her. When Grace turned, her mother stood on the other side of the doors, staring at her through the glass.
“I have to go,” Grace said into the phone. “Please take good care of yourself.”
“Will do. You too, okay?”
“I will.” Grace said good-bye and ended the call.
Her mother stepped onto the patio. “Who was that?” She gestured toward the phone.
“Was that really necessary?” Her mother frowned as much as that was possible after her recent Botox injections.
Grace pocketed the phone and squeezed past her mother, back into the house. “You don’t think she deserves to know what the tabloids write about her?”
“Well, yes, but you have to think of yourself and your career first and foremost. You worked too hard to let rumors like that,” her mother waved in the direction of the magazine on the coffee table, “destroy everything.”
Before Grace could think of an answer, the phone in her pocket started to ring. Not sure if she should be relieved or annoyed at the interruption, she pulled it out and glanced at the display. “It’s George.”
“I know,” her mother said. “I called him as soon as I saw that article inTinseltown Talk. We can’t have them write something like that about you.”
Grace suppressed a sigh. She was grateful for everything her mother did for her, but sometimes Katherine took her duties as Grace’s manager a bit too far, acting on her own instead of asking Grace what she wanted first. She swiped her finger across the screen to accept the call and lifted the cell phone to her ear. “Hi, George.”
Not bothering with a greeting, her agent asked, “Did you see the newest issue ofTinseltown Talk?”
Grace groaned. “Yes, I did. Mom just brought it to my attention. You know it’s not true, right?”
“Where are you?” he asked instead of answering her question.
That had to be the most-asked question since the invention of cell phones. “At home,” Grace said. “Trying to read scripts.”
“Can you meet me in Westwood in half an hour?” George asked.
“Westwood?” Grace wanted to go back to reading the script, not drive all over Los Angeles. “Why? What’s in Westwood?”
“Your new publicist.”
Lauren cursed herself for agreeing to the nine o’clock slot the reporter had suggested for the interview. It meant that she had to spend an hour crawling through rush-hour traffic on Sunset Boulevard instead of working through the two hundred e-mail messages in her in-box.
The light mist of LA’s infamous June Gloom coated her windshield, and she eyed the low-hanging clouds as she crept east. At least she had booked the photo op for Ben’s new album for this afternoon, when the fog would have burned off.
Just as she lifted the paper cup of black coffee to her mouth, a car crossed into her lane without signaling, forcing her to stomp on the brake to avoid a collision. Coffee dribbled down her chin and soaked her blouse.
Great.This day was getting better by the minute. Lauren hurled a curse at the reckless driver in front of her while putting the coffee into the cup holder and dabbing at her blouse.
Her cell phone rang through the car’s speakers.
She didn’t even have to look at the number on her dashboard display. She had gotten two calls in the last five minutes, both of them from Ben Harrison. She pressed a button on the steering wheel and accepted the call. “Hi, Ben,” she said in a pleasant, upbeat tone, forcing herself to be a professional and forget her shitty day. “Don’t worry. I’m almost there. We’re now going almost thirty miles an hour, which is practically a high-speed race here in LA.”
Ben didn’t laugh as he usually did when she made a quip like that. Only silence filtered through the line.
“No, it’s Marlene.”
Of course. She should have expected it on a day like this. A call from Marlene Chandler, founder and president of Chandler & Troy Publicity Inc., usually meant one of their clients had gotten into trouble and Lauren was expected to handle the resulting PR nightmare.
“Sorry, boss,” Lauren said. “I thought it was Ben Harrison. He needs a lot of hand-holding.”
“I’ll let Judy know,” Marlene said.
“Judy?” Lauren frowned. Why did one of her colleagues need to know about Ben’s jitters?
“There’s been a change of plans. Judy will take over as Ben’s publicist.”
What the hell…?Was this supposed to be another punishment for the Tabby Jones disaster? “But Ben has an interview in half an hour, and he’ll be a nervous wreck if I’m not there to field questions.”
“Judy is already on her way.”
“And he’s got a photo op scheduled this afternoon.”
“Judy will handle that too,” Marlene said. “I need you in the office right away.”
It irked Lauren to hand over a client just like that, but she knew protests were futile. She made a quick right turn into Vine Street and headed toward Santa Monica Boulevard, which would take her to the CTP offices in Westwood.
“What happened?” Mentally, she went through her client roster, searching for the most likely up-to-their-necks-in-trouble candidates. Her money was on either Brittany posting R-rated photos of herself on Twitter again or Leroy being caught cheating on his wife with the au pair.
“We’ve got a new VIP client,” Marlene said.
Lauren braked at a red light and eyed the cement truck in front of her. With the kind of luck she was having today, being behind that thing made her a little nervous. “I thought Ben was VIP.”
“Well, if Ben is VIP, this new client is VVIP.”
Despite her curiosity, Lauren knew better than to ask who it was. They never discussed the names of their VIP clients on insecure cell phones. She’d have to wait until she got to the office to find out more.
“We need absolute discretion,” Marlene said, emphasizing every word.
In the PR business, the need for discretion went without saying. Having her boss remind her of it was unusual. When the light turned green, Lauren sped across the intersection and switched lanes, leaving the cement truck behind. She couldn’t wait to get to the office and find out what was going on.
Lauren pulled into her spot in the office’s underground parking garage and got out of her car. She waved at the security guard in his booth and marched past him to the employee elevator. A quick swipe of her ID card and the elevator doors slid apart.
When they opened again on the twelfth floor, the controlled chaos of a typical Monday morning in the PR business engulfed her. The phones were ringing; people were tapping away at their keyboards, and someone was humming a song that sounded like “Rehab” by Amy Winehouse. She weaved around the desks of hard-at-work publicists, careful not to collide with the interns running around, asking questions, and putting together press kits.
As she passed one of the desks, someone grabbed her arm.
Tina, one of the account executives on Lauren’s team, looked up at her with a desperate expression. She was on the phone and now pressed one hand against the receiver, covering it. “It’s Mark. He called me twice already because he wants to go onEllen. Should we try to get him a spot?”
“God, no.” Lauren firmly shook her head. “Ellenis perfect for a witty client with a good sense of humor, but Mark is about as funny as going through a bout of norovirus with no toilet in sight.”
Still covering the phone, Tina chuckled before her expression switched back to panic. “You’re right, but I can’t tell him that. How do I talk him out of it? He thinks it’s a genius idea.”
Knowing Marlene was waiting for her, Lauren didn’t have time for long explanations. She waved at Tina. “Give me the phone.”
Tina handed it over with a sigh of relief.
“Hi, Mark. This is Lauren Pearce. How are you doing?”
The actor paused for a moment. “Oh, hi, Lauren. I’m fine. Did Tina tell you about my idea? I think it’ll really boost the DVD sales of my last movie.”
His last movie had been a laugh-out-loud comedy, and if his audience realized Mark was funny only if he had a script, they’d be disappointed. Few things were worse than disappointed fans. “Ellenis a great idea.”
Tina stared at her as if she’d grown a pair of green antennae.
“See?” Mark said. “I told Tina you’d think so too.”
“Yes, but the thing is, you don’t have enough movies out yet to secure the lead guest spot.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right.” Mark was silent for a moment. “Doesn’t matter. The second guest spot is still great, right?”
“Depends on where you want your career to go,” Lauren said.
“What do you mean?”
Lauren grinned. She had him now. Like all of her clients, he, of course, wanted his career to go all the way to the top. “Well, if you always accept the second guest spot, people will begin to think of you as second-best. I really think it’s better to pass and hold out for the lead guest spot.”
“Oh.” Mark sounded like a little kid who’d just learned that Santa Claus didn’t exist. “I guess we should wait until I have a few more movies under my belt.”
“Definitely.” With any luck, Ellen would have done the Oprah thing and retired her talk show by then. “I’ll hand you back to Tina. I’m sure she can find you another great interview opportunity.” Preferably one with a reporter who would send them the questions beforehand so they could go over the best answers with Mark.
Tina took back the phone and mouthed, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Lauren nodded and walked past her in the direction of her office. She needed to change into a new blouse, one without coffee stains, before meeting with Marlene.
But luck wasn’t with her today. Marlene’s office door opened just as Lauren walked by. Marlene crooked one finger at her.
Sighing, Lauren changed course, feeling like a child being called to the principal’s office. She had always liked working for Marlene, but since she’d been taken off the Tabby Jones account, she wasn’t sure where she stood with her boss anymore. Reluctantly, she entered the corner office.
“Close the door, please,” Marlene said.
Marlene rounded her large desk and sat in her executive chair. The black leather almost seemed to swallow her diminutive five-foot frame, but Lauren knew that appearances were deceiving when it came to Marlene Chandler. She might look like a fragile toy poodle, but she had the attitude of a pit bull. “Have a seat.”
Lauren walked past Marlene’s freshwater aquarium, peeking at the Siamese fighting fish, a male and his harem. Some of her colleagues said that the fish became aggressive whenever Marlene was in a bad mood. If that was true, Lauren wasn’t looking forward to the conversation with her boss, because the male flared his fins and gills.
Lauren slid onto the visitor’s chair in front of the desk and waited for what Marlene had to say, knowing better than to ask and hurry her along.
For long moments, Marlene sat there without saying anything, just studying Lauren. She raised a brow at the coffee stains on Lauren’s blouse.
Well, nothing she could do about them now. Lauren managed not to fidget under Marlene’s disapproving gaze.
Finally, Marlene returned her attention to Lauren’s face and leaned forward. “I’m sure you’ve heard of Grace Durand.”
“Who hasn’t?” She wasn’t too fond of the type of movies Durand starred in, but Lauren had to admit the woman was hot.
Marlene nodded. “Right. Well, her mother—who is also her manager—just fired her publicist and wants us to take over.”
“Shouldn’t be too hard,” Lauren said. Unlike many other former child stars, who had become tabloid fodder, ending up in rehab, prison, or reality TV, Grace Durand had avoided any scandals so far. Other than attending the occasional red-carpet event with her husband, Nick Sinclair, the golden boy of action movies, she’d stayed out of the limelight and hadn’t created any PR nightmares for her publicist to clean up.
“That’s what you think,” Marlene said. “Her agent didn’t want to discuss it over the phone, but apparently, there’s been a recent development that needs to be nipped in the bud. You’ll find out the details when they get here.”
Lauren’s eyes widened. “You want me to take over as her publicist?”
Marlene nodded calmly. “Yes.”
If the other PR consultants found out that their firm was now representing Grace Durand, they would fight over the account like sharks over a piece of meat. Why was Marlene handing it to her? She couldn’t shed the feeling that she was being tested, and she didn’t like that feeling. In her eight years with Chandler & Troy, she had proven herself time and again. There had been talk of promoting her to account supervisor when she got back from touring with Crashing Guitars, the new, hip girl group. Instead, she was now back at square one.
“Do you feel up for it?” Marlene asked.
Lauren’s spine stiffened. “Of course.”
“Good. I scheduled a meeting with Ms. Durand, her agent, and her manager for ten.”
Lauren glanced at her watch. That would give her just enough time to change into a clean blouse and get herself another coffee. She had a feeling she’d need it.
“Is this really necessary?” Grace asked when she met her agent at the address he’d given her. “Why do I have to meet with a new publicist? I already have one.”
“No, you don’t,” her mother said as she climbed out of the SUV. She frowned back at Grace’s Ford Escape as she did every time she had to get intothat vehicleand shouldered her purse the way a soldier shouldered his rifle. “I fired Roberta.”
Grace whirled around. “You did what?”
Katherine raised her chin. “I fired her. She didn’t do a good enough job as your publicist. Otherwise, your last movie wouldn’t have flopped at the box office.”
Thanks for the reminder. Grace bit her tongue. A sarcastic comment like that would serve no purpose and only hurt her mother. “It wasn’t Roberta’s fault.”
“Your mother is right,” George said. “Roberta wasn’t bad, but she doesn’t run with the big dogs, and these guys do.” He pointed at the high-rise building next to them, built of white travertine marble. “In fact, they eat other big dogs for breakfast. They’re one of the top damage-control firms in town.”
“Damage control?” Grace repeated with a frown. “You think I need damage control, just because of whatTinseltown Talkwrote about me and Jill? No one takes a tabloid rag like that seriously, right?” She looked back and forth between her mother and George.
“Probably not, but what if other, more widely read magazines or blogs pick up the story?” George ran a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair. “You can’t afford headlines like that. Not this close to the premiere ofAva’s Heart.”
Grace sighed. Maybe they were right. Better safe than sorry, right? It couldn’t hurt to at least check out the new firm before making a final decision.
The three of them walked past a glassed-in outdoor workspace, where employees sat, drinking coffee and typing away at laptops.
Grace whistled appreciatively.Nice workplace.
They crossed a plaza between two buildings that looked almost identical, except for the fact that one of the towers was a little higher than the other. Palm trees swayed back and forth in a light breeze like kelp in the tide, and the water in a long pond rippled as several orange and white koi drifted close to the surface. A few employees sat outside on benches, enjoying their coffee break in the sun.
Grace wished she could join them and just sit under one of the palms with a good book for an hour. It had been a while since she was able to truly relax.
But even if she’d had the time, it wasn’t meant to be. Heads started to turn as she walked past. If your face regularly graced the big screen, you couldn’t fade into the woodwork. Grace straightened and put on an automatic smile when she felt gazes on her.
Right before they could escape into the building, a young woman in business attire stopped her. “Oh my God! You’re Grace Durand, aren’t you?”
Her mother tugged on Grace’s arm. “Let’s go in. We don’t have time for this.”
But Grace had promised herself that she would always make time for her fans and not become one of the arrogant divas who thought talking to ordinary people was beneath them. Gently, she pulled her arm out of her mother’s grasp.
“Yes, I am,” she said to the young woman, giving her a friendly smile. “Nice to meet you.”
Red-cheeked, the young woman shook Grace’s hand with a little too much enthusiasm. “I’m a big fan. I’ve seen all of your movies.” She jumped up and down and waved to three of her colleagues, who sat on the raised marble edge of the pond. “Come here, guys! It’s her!”
The woman’s colleagues and other passersby joined them. Soon, Grace was surrounded by people. It always amazed her how fast a crowd could gather. She wondered if all of them even knew who she was. Several people took out their phones and snapped photos while others handed Grace scraps of paper to get her autograph.
Grace gamely signed her name, laughing when one young man bared his biceps and had her sign it.
Finally, the crowd dispersed, transforming from excited fans back into serious-looking business people.
Her mother pulled her into the building before new people could walk up to them.
Grace paused in the lobby for a moment to get her bearings. The interior of the building was as impressive as the outside. The lobby, with its shiny floor, was clearly designed to wow visitors. To the left, the clinking of porcelain came from a café, and to the right was a fitness center for employees. Grace scanned the directory listing the companies housed in the building—mostly real estate agents, investment bankers, and lawyers.
The PR firm really had to be a big dog to afford renting space in this building.
George herded them to the elevators and pressed the button for the twelfth floor.
A short time later, the elevator opened into the PR firm’s reception area.Wow.Chandler & Troy Publicity seemed to occupy the entire floor. Soft recessed lights reflected off a marble-topped desk and several leather lounge chairs. Tasteful works of modern art hung on two walls while a flat-screen TV filled the wall opposite a designer couch.
A frosted glass door opened and closed to their left as someone entered, revealing a large room with cubicles to the left and right.
Grace followed George and her mother across the cushy, burgundy carpet.
The young brunette behind the reception desk smiled at them, obviously used to people pausing to take in their impressive reception area. “How may I help you?”
“This is Grace Durand,” Katherine said before Grace could introduce herself. “I’m her manager, and this is her agent.” She pointed at George. “We have an appointment with Ms. Chandler.”
The receptionist’s smile didn’t waver. She never even stared at Grace. In her line of work, she was probably used to dealing with celebrities. “I believe your appointment is with Ms. Pearce, one of our senior account executives,” she said without consulting an appointment book or her computer. “She’s expecting you. Let me take you to her office.”
While they followed the receptionist, Grace glanced at her wristwatch and winced when she realized they were late. Her encounter with the fans in front of the building had held her up longer than she’d realized. Maybe her mother was right and she did have to learn to say no to her fans sometimes. Being almost fifteen minutes late wasn’t the way to make a good first impression.
The receptionist knocked on a closed door. When no answer came, she knocked again, hesitated, and then opened the door to peek in. “Oh. Ms. Pearce must have stepped out for a moment. Why don’t you wait in her office, and I’ll let her know you’re here.” She opened the door wider and let them enter. “Please have a seat. Can I bring you anything?”
“No, thanks,” Grace said before her mother could bother the receptionist with an extravagant coffee order.
“All right. Ms. Pearce will be with you in a moment.” The receptionist closed the door, leaving them alone in the office.
Grace looked around. The office wasn’t overly large, but the panorama window behind the desk made it look bigger. It offered a great view of Century City, West Hollywood beyond, and the Santa Monica Mountains in the distance. The large desk took up one entire side of the room. It was covered in stacks of papers and files, yet didn’t look messy at all. Quite the opposite, actually. The papers were neatly stacked and the folders sorted by color into piles of red, yellow, and green.
Did the colors mean anything? Maybe they symbolized the importance of the clients or how difficult they were to handle. Grace wondered what color she rated.
The office revealed no hints of the occupant’s private life—no photographs of family members, no personal knickknacks, not even framed diplomas. Instead, autographed photos of celebrities lined the walls, probably famous people Ms. Pearce had worked with.
Grace turned and stepped back to take a closer look at some of the photos next to the door.
Five minutes earlier, Lauren had been sitting behind her desk, drumming her fingers on a stack of files. Every few seconds, she glanced at her watch.
Grace Durand was late. Fashionably late, some of her colleagues might have called it, pointing out that no one was on time in Hollywood.
Lauren didn’t care about that. She hated when her clients were late for appointments. It didn’t bode well for her working relationship with Ms. Durand.You don’t have to like her,she reminded herself.You just have to make sure everyone else does.
A few more minutes ticked by and still no sign of the famous actress.
Huffing, Lauren grabbed her empty mug and stood to get herself another cup of coffee. Of course, as soon as she had entered the kitchen and was about to press the button for a cup of strong, black coffee, Carmen, the firm’s receptionist, stopped her cold.
“Oh, there you are,” Carmen said from the doorway. “Ms. Durand is here. She’s waiting in your office, along with her manager and her agent.”
Figures.Her caffeine fix had to wait. “Thanks, Carmen.” Lauren put down the mug and headed back to her office. Before opening the door, she glanced down at her unstained blouse and the dark gray slacks, making sure she was presenting a professional image. When she was convinced that she looked fine, she swung the door open—only to be met with resistance.
The door hit something or rather someone, she realized. And not just any someone. She had never met her newest client in person, but she had seen her a million times before, on TV and celebrity blogs, in magazines and newspapers. The golden locks cascading halfway down her back, the contrasting dark eyebrows, and eyes as blue as a sunlit ocean were unmistakable. Lauren had just hit Golden Globe-winning actress Grace Durand.
The actress’s full lips formed a startled “oh” as she stumbled back, rubbing her arm.
Still gripping the door handle, Lauren stood frozen in the doorway. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to… I thought you’d be…” Uncharacteristically rattled, she gestured to the visitor’s chair in front of her desk, where she’d assumed the actress would be sitting.
Grace Durand directed her world-famous smile at her. “It’s all right,” she said. “Despite reports to the contrary, I’m not made of glass.” Her voice was husky and melodic, with faint undertones of a Southern drawl, which, as Lauren knew, were holdovers from portraying a character from Georgia in her last movie.
Lauren had never found a Southern accent all that sexy, but now she instantly changed her mind. She couldn’t stop staring at the actress’s classically beautiful face and her eyes. She had always assumed that those blue eyes she’d seen in movie posters were photoshopped, but up close, the color looked real. The rest of Ms. Durand didn’t look as if it needed airbrushing either. She wasn’t exactly a size zero like most other actresses in the business, but Lauren had never liked stick figure women anyway. She much preferred Ms. Durand’s luscious curves.
Yeah, okay, she’s gorgeous. So what?Each and every one of the women Lauren worked with was beautiful, but she had never let herself be impressed by their beauty. Much too often, the gorgeous shell hid a bitchy attitude, egoism, or shallowness. Reality never matched their kind, sometimes heroic on-screen personas, and this time wouldn’t be any different. Besides, growing up around celebrities had made Lauren immune to being starstruck.
Oh yeah? You sure aren’t acting like it.She gave herself a mental kick and moved forward, holding out her hand.
Grace Durand readily stepped forward. Her handshake was unexpectedly firm, and she looked Lauren straight in the eyes, although she didn’t quite match Lauren’s five foot ten.
Even up close, Lauren could detect no trace of makeup—not that Ms. Durand needed it. Admittedly, she was even more appealing off-screen, if that was even possible. “Good morning, Ms. Durand. I’m Lauren Pearce, senior account executive here at CT Publicity.”
“Thank you for meeting with us on such short notice. And please, call me Grace.”
Lauren nodded, even though she would have liked to keep a little more professional distance from this client. But the customer was king, so she said, “Call me Lauren, then.” She realized she was still holding the actress’s hand and quickly let go to greet the other two people in the room, George Benitez, an agent she’d dealt with before, and a peroxide blonde she guessed to be in her fifties. Lauren had done her homework, conducting some research while she waited for the actress and her entourage to arrive, so she knew that the older woman was Katherine Duvenbeck, Grace’s mother. A quick search on Wikipedia had revealed that Katherine had been the one who had encouraged her daughter to go into acting, taking her to her first audition for a diaper commercial when Grace had been just six months old.
At least my folks never did that.
“This is my mother, who’s also my manager, and George Benitez, my agent,” Grace said.
They shook hands, and Lauren gave them polite nods. “Mrs. Duvenbeck, nice to meet you. George, it’s great to work with you again.”
Katherine Duvenbeck’s eyes, not quite the same startling color as her daughter’s, widened when Lauren addressed her with the correct name.
Lauren smiled faintly. “Can I get you anything before we start?”
Grace started to shake her head, but her mother said, “That’d be nice. If you have it, I’d like to have a freshly pulled espresso with steamed low-fat milk that forms a foam cap, no higher than half an inch.”
Lauren nodded, but Mrs. Duvenbeck wasn’t through yet.
“It should be flavored with just a hint of sugar-free vanilla syrup and garnished with a sprinkle of cinnamon—organic, of course.”
Years of practice enabled Lauren to keep a straight face, even though she was inwardly cringing at the culinary crime Mrs. Duvenbeck was committing on a perfectly good cup of coffee. “Of course,” she said calmly.
Grace sent her an apologetic gaze, surprising Lauren.
Since Grace had been a child star, Lauren had expected her to be just as spoiled as her mother. Lauren pressed a button on the office intercom. “Carmen, can you do me a favor and get Mrs. Duvenbeck a coffee?” There was a moment of silence when she repeated the woman’s coffee order, but then Carmen gamely promised to deliver the coffee in a minute.
Lauren rolled her desk chair toward a small, round table and nodded at the three chrome-and-leather chairs surrounding it. “Why don’t we get started by talking about where you want to take your career and what, exactly, you feel your brand is? Or is there something in particular you wanted to discuss?”
Mrs. Duvenbeck gingerly settled herself into the chair next to Lauren instead of reserving that seat for her daughter. “Oh yes, there is.” She rummaged through a giant purse that probably held half the product line of Lancome and finally flung a magazine onto the table. “We need you to make this go away!”
Lauren read the sensational headlines and skimmed the article, managing not to raise an eyebrow at the mention of a gay tryst. She peered over at Grace, who met her gaze with an anxious expression. The actress didn’t set off Lauren’s gaydar, but then again, Tabby Jones hadn’t either, and the photo of Grace with Jill Corrigan looked awfully cozy. “Mrs. Duvenbeck,” Lauren said, deciding to be straightforward. “I’m a publicist, not a magician. I can’t just make this go away, especially not if there’s any truth to it.” She looked back at Grace. “If this is just news you weren’t yet ready to put out, you should realize that the reporters are going to find the truth sooner or later. You might want to bite the bullet and—”
Grace, George, and Mrs. Duvenbeck all spoke at the same time, with Mrs. Duvenbeck’s enraged voice drowning out the others. “My daughter isn’t gay!”
There was no way they could have a productive discussion like this. If there was any truth to the gay rumors, Grace certainly wouldn’t confirm them while her mother was in the room. Ignoring Mrs. Duvenbeck, Lauren turned toward Grace. “Maybe the two of us could go over to the conference room to talk while your mother enjoys her…coffee in peace.”
Mrs. Duvenbeck’s makeup-covered face flushed. “I’m perfectly capable of talking while I enjoy my coffee.”
“I don’t doubt that for a second,” Lauren said, managing to hide any hint of sarcasm. “But the thing is, if I want to represent Grace to the best of my abilities and handle this situation as efficiently as possible, I need to get a good feeling for who she really is as a person, and I can do that better if we’re alone.”
Grace got up and put one hand on her mother’s shoulder. “She’s right. We’ll be right back, I promise.” As soon as the door closed behind them, she lightly touched Lauren’s forearm. “I’m sorry. My mother means well, but sometimes, she can be a little…”
Lauren said nothing. She’d learned the hard way that it was best not to comment on things like this. The loyalty of celebrities could be fickle and change faster than wind direction. Pulling her arm away from Grace’s touch, she pointed down the hall. “This way, please.”
Grace kept her shoulders squared as she followed her new publicist to the conference room. At least they’d left behind that damn magazine in Lauren’s office, but Grace knew she wouldn’t be able to leave the rumors behind as easily.
They settled facing each other at one end of the long table in the conference room.
Lauren put her phone on the table and turned it off, giving Grace her full attention. For several moments, she didn’t say anything; she just sat and looked at her.
Grace took the opportunity to study her too. In a city where even waitresses were drop-dead gorgeous, Lauren Pearce wouldn’t rate a second glance. Her chin was a bit too assertive, her jaw too energetic, and her body a little too sturdy for her to ever make it in front of the camera, but she certainly looked like someone who could do wonders behind the camera, single-handedly rescuing reputations and changing public opinion. Grace guessed her to be a few years older than her own twenty-nine—certainly not the elderly PR veteran she’d expected, but old enough to have a lot of experience in her job. She radiated confidence as she tucked a strand of her chin-length chocolate-brown hair behind one ear with a steady hand. The hazel eyes behind the horn-rimmed glasses were so light that they almost looked golden.
“So,” Lauren finally said, “let’s talk openly.”
Grace nodded. “I’d appreciate it.” Most people in Hollywood were masters at beating around the bush, never coming right out and saying what they meant, so Lauren’s straightforward style of communication was a nice change of pace.
“Look, I know many managers, agents, and even publicists try to keep their clients in the closet, fearing it’ll ruin their careers.”
“Yeah, I’m not a big fan of that strategy either,” Lauren said. “I’m not saying it’ll be easy. Coming out will cost you a few roles, but nowadays, it won’t ruin your career. It’s different for gay leading men, but for women—”
“I’m not gay,” Grace burst out. She felt her cheeks heat, and she cursed her fair complexion.
“Okay,” Lauren said calmly. Nothing seemed to rattle her. “Then what was going on in that picture? You have to admit the two of you looked pretty friendly.”
Grace took a deep breath and tried to sound less defensive as she repeated, “I’m not gay. If Jill and I looked friendly, it’s because we are. Just friends. Nothing more. I’d like for you to set the record straight.”
The corner of Lauren’s mouth twitched at her choice of words, and even Grace felt her tense features relax into a smile.
“No pun intended,” she added. “What do you think we should do? Give a press conference, stating that I’m straight?”
Lauren firmly shook her head. “That would only drag attention to that gossip rag that most people don’t even know exists. Besides, the more you swear you’re not gay, the more it’ll look like you’re either in denial or outright lying.”
“But I’m not!”
“That doesn’t matter,” Lauren said. “We both know that perception is everything in this business.”
Grace slumped against the back of the leather chair. “So you want me to just do nothing? I can’t afford any negative publicity right now. My new movie is premiering in two months, and I need it to do well at the box office, especially after my last movie didn’t gross as much as the studio had hoped.”
“What’s the new movie about?” Lauren asked, appearing genuinely interested. “Some love story set in Georgia, right?”
“Yes. I’m playing a widow from small-town Georgia. Her husband died in a farming accident, and she stopped believing that life has anything good in store for her.” Grace realized that the Southern accent that she’d worked on for months was back full force, and she tried to shake it off. “By the end of the movie, she finds her faith again and a good man to love.”
Lauren tapped her chin. “Hmm. I have to admit that doesn’t sound like the kind of movie that would benefit from having the media out its lead actress.”
“No,” Grace said, gritting her teeth. “It sure doesn’t. So, what can we do to stop this madness?”
“In my experience, one of two things will happen. One,” Lauren raised her index finger, “some starlet is caught driving under the influence or something else happens in Tinseltown that draws the paparazzi’s attention. They’ll simply forget about you. Or, two…” Lauren lifted her middle finger as well.
“I don’t think I’m going to like option number two,” Grace murmured.
“Two,” Lauren said, “if it’s a slow news week or something else happens that gives those gay rumors any ammunition…”
Grace shook her head. “Nothing like that will happen; I can assure you.”
“Okay, then let’s hope for option number one.” Lauren looked as if she’d prepare for option two nonetheless. She sent Grace a warning glance. “From now on, refer all media inquiries to me. If you do address the press, keep it short and simple. Remember that you can’t be caught lying or dodging questions, or your credibility will be shot.”
Grace nodded tersely.
“Lay low for a while and stay out of the headlines,” Lauren continued in the same stern tone. “No parties, no drinking, no warm embraces with other actresses that could be construed as something more.”
It irked Grace that Lauren thought she was one of the fun-loving party girls.Come on. What do you care what she thinks?But she couldn’t change her nature. She cared what people thought of her, always had and probably always would. Her livelihood depended on people liking her. “I’m not into any of that anyway.”
“Embraces with other actresses?” Lauren asked, a tiny smile lurking at the corner of her mouth.
Against her will, Grace had to smile as well. She felt herself relax a little. “Drinking and partying. I don’t mind the embraces—in a strictly platonic way, of course.”
“Of course,” Lauren said, now completely serious again.
“So that’s it?”
Lauren nodded. “Yes. That’s our plan of action. Letting the fire die down by not pouring more fuel into it. It also wouldn’t hurt for you to be seen out and about with that handsome husband of yours, as long as it doesn’t seem like you’re putting on a show for the press.”
That would be much harder to do. Her interactions with Nick had stopped long ago to feel loving and passionate. They were affectionate, but more like old friends and less like two people still madly in love with each other. Not wanting to discuss it with her new publicist, though, she just nodded.
They got up, and Lauren walked her to the door, where they paused to shake hands.
Lauren’s fingers around hers felt strong and capable, and Grace allowed herself to relax and believe that Lauren would guide her through this situation. “Thank you.” She gave Lauren’s hand one last squeeze and walked out to gather her mother and George and make it out of the building with as little attention from fans or the media as possible.
“Dinner and dancing?” Lauren repeated, glad that Peyton couldn’t see her lack of enthusiasm through the phone.
“Yes. You know, that thing normal people do on weekends,” Peyton said, her tone teasing.
After five business lunches, two cocktail parties, and one premiere this week, the last thing Lauren wanted to do in her free time was to get dressed up and head out again, yet she found herself saying yes anyway. Too bad most women didn’t consider hanging out on the couch in sweatpants a proper dating activity.
An hour later, Lauren met Peyton in front of El Niu, the trendy restaurant Peyton had suggested.
“Hi, you.” Peyton kissed her on the lips. “Long time no see,” she said as the hostess led them to their table. Her voice held an undertone of accusation.
Lauren suppressed a sigh. “Yeah, it’s been a busy week.”
“More like a busy month,” Peyton said.
“That too.” Sometimes, Lauren wondered why she even bothered with dating. Her relationships never worked out anyway.
It wasn’t as if she was too picky or had unrealistically high expectations. The only requirement she had was that her date couldn’t have anything to do with the entertainment industry. She wanted a girlfriend whose only connection to show business was going to a movie theater to enjoy a film, popcorn, and tacos on a Saturday night.
As a dentist, Peyton definitely met that requirement. She was also pretty and intelligent, but Lauren still found her attention drifting as they studied the menu and talked about what food they’d order. Behind the cover of the menu, she discreetly peered at her phone, which lay next to her on the table, wondering whether Judy had remembered to keep track of Ben’s social media.
Her cell phone vibrated, indicating that she had new messages, but she valiantly ignored it and kept listening to Peyton’s adventures on her three-day cruise to Ensenada.
Just when the waiter approached the table to take their orders, Lauren’s phone rang. She had kept it turned on, explaining to Peyton that it was just in case of emergency. Of course, an emergency for one of her clients could be anything from a broken nail without a manicurist on set to a dead body in bed next to them. A quick glance at the display showed her that Marlene was calling. “I’m sorry. I have to take this. It’s my boss.”
Peyton nodded with a stony expression.
Lauren pressed the button to accept the call. “Marlene?”
“K-Cee just got evicted from a hotel in Vegas,” Marlene said, not bothering with ahior ahow are you?
“What did he do this time?”
“He took a swing at the concierge. Lauren, I need you to talk to the hotel manager and convince him not to press charges.”
Lauren tightened her grip on the phone. “I’m not sure if we should continue to represent him. This is the third mess he’s created since we took him on last month. No matter how often I talk to him, he just doesn’t want to understand that the old adage ‘the only bad publicity is no publicity’ stopped being true two arrests ago.”
“Let’s discuss this another time,” Marlene said. “Take care of this matter first.”
“All right.” It was Marlene’s company, so she got to make the decisions. Lauren just hoped she was billing K-Cee enough for having to pull his ass out of the fire time and again—on a Saturday night to boot. “I’ll be there in thirty minutes.” Lauren slowly lowered the phone, pocketed it, and met Peyton’s resigned gaze. “I’m sorry. I have to go. One of my clients got himself into trouble. Why don’t we try for dinner sometime next week? Things should have settled down by then.”
Peyton refolded her napkin and put it on the table. “I don’t think so. By then, you’ll probably have another fire to put out.”
Lauren couldn’t even deny it. She’d canceled their second date at the last minute, too, because something had come up at work. If she was perfectly honest with herself, her job had always come first.
“As nice as it’s been, I’m not into ménages à trois.”
Halfway out of her chair, Lauren froze. Ménages à trois? What the heck did Peyton mean?
Peyton gestured to the spot on the table where Lauren’s phone had been. “You, me, and your phone.”
Ouch.Lauren winced but again didn’t try to defend herself. She rounded the table and took Peyton’s hand. “I’m sorry,” she said again, meaning it. “Let me at least pay for your dinner so you can stay and enjoy the rest of the evening.”
“No, that’s okay,” Peyton said, now sounding a little more friendly. She stood, leaned up on her tiptoes, and kissed Lauren, lingering for a moment.
They both knew it was a kiss good-bye not just for tonight.
As Lauren headed for her car at a fast clip, she felt like a loser. She did damage control for celebrities every day, yet couldn’t control the damage her job did to her private life.
The waiter walked up to their table. “Good evening, ladies. My name is Marc. I’ll be your waiter for—” His gaze came to rest on Grace. He did a double take and paused in the middle of introducing himself. “Uh, you are…”
Long since used to it, Grace just smiled and said, “Good evening.”
“Can I get you something to drink while you look over the menu?” Marc asked when he recovered. “Our wine list is excellent.”
“I’ll have a glass of pinot grigio, please,” Katherine said.
“Right away, ma’am.” The waiter turned a questioning gaze on Grace.
Grace suppressed a sigh. On days like this, it was really tempting to order a glass of champagne, her drink of choice in the past. But, as she had every day for the last thirteen years, she shook her head. “Just a Pellegrino for me.”
“Very well.” After bowing slightly, he walked away and returned with their drink orders within less than five minutes. He started to recite the specials of the day, but Grace’s mother stopped him with a shake of her head.
“My son-in-law will be joining us,” Katherine said, apparently enjoying calling Nick that as long as she still could. “We’ll wait to order until he arrives.”
“Very well. Let me know if you need anything else.” After one last lingering glance at Grace, the waiter walked away.
By the time they had both emptied their glasses, there was still no sign of Nick. Grace was beginning to doubt he would arrive anytime soon, if at all.
“What’s keeping Nick so long?” her mother asked.
“I have no idea, Mom. Maybe he’s stuck in traffic or something.” She bit her lip when she realized she was falling into the old habit of finding excuses for him.
Her phone vibrated, rattling around in her clutch, and when she checked, a message from Nick had arrived.
Sorry. Can’t make it. Rooney had us do fifty takes on this damn scene, and now I’m just fried.
“Nick can’t make it,” she told her mother. “He got held up on set.”
While her mother went on and on about neither of them putting any effort into saving their marriage, Grace shook her head at herself.Serves you right.Normally, she wasn’t the calculating type, but after her new publicist had suggested she be seen out and about with her husband, she had let her mother talk her into meeting Nick for dinner in this restaurant, where the waiters were known to tip off the paparazzi as soon as a celebrity arrived. Now they could photograph her having dinner with her mother.
Her mother stopped mid-rant and stared at something at the other end of the room. “Isn’t that your new publicist?”
Grace turned her head. From their discreet corner table, she let her gaze sweep through the room.
Most of the guests were couples holding hands across the table, the candles throwing flickering shadows over their engrossed features. Grace didn’t recognize any of them. “Where?”
“There.” Under the pretense of fluffing her hair, her mother reached up and pointed.
Grace looked in that direction. “Yes,” she said. “I think that’s her.”
At one of the smaller tables, Lauren and another woman were sharing a bottle of wine. Well, the woman was gulping down wine while Lauren was on the phone. Probably an occupational hazard. Just when Grace was about to look away, Lauren stood and rounded the table. She took her companion’s hand and kissed her on the lips, lingering a little too long for it to be a gesture between friends.
What the…? She’s gay?Grace swiveled around to face her mother. “Did you know about that when you hired her?”
Katherine clutched the table with both hands and looked as if she were about to faint, so apparently she’d been as clueless as Grace. “Oh my God,” she whispered. “What on God’s green earth was George thinking? Hiring a lesbian to handle your PR?”
“I have no idea,” Grace murmured, still watching Lauren, who now turned and walked toward the exit.
“Now? It’s almost nine already.”
“Call him,” her mother repeated. “This can’t wait until tomorrow.”
Grace pulled her phone back out of her clutch. She hesitated for a second before pressing the icon with George’s picture on it. “Hi, George,” she said when he answered. “Sorry to bother you this late, but…did you know that Lauren Pearce is gay?”
George didn’t answer for several seconds. “Uh, yes, I knew. Why’s that important?”
Grace wasn’t sure it was, but somehow, it felt that way. “I don’t know, but I would have liked to know before I decided to hire her.”
“So you wouldn’t have hired her had you known?” George asked, sounding stunned.
Honestly, Grace had no idea how to answer that question. “I probably would have hired her anyway, but…”
Her mother waved at her to hand over the phone, but Grace pretended she hadn’t seen. If she let her talk to George, her mother would only shout at him, and George didn’t deserve that.
“Ms. Pearce comes highly recommended,” George said. “Everyone I talked to has good things to say about her. In the last few years, she has made a name for herself as the go-to publicist for celebrities wanting to come out as gay. She’s the best in the business for that kind of thing.”
“Yeah, but this isn’tthat kind of thing! I’m not gay.” Grace realized she’d spoken more loudly than intended and quickly lowered her voice. She looked left and right, glad when she found that no one seemed to pay them any attention in their secluded booth. “My publicist is a reflection on me, and I’m trying to convince people that I’m straight, so do you really think it’s a good idea for me to work so closely with a gay person?”
George was silent for a moment. “You already do,” he said quietly and took an audible breath. “I’m gay, Grace.”
In the sudden silence, the background buzz of the restaurant sounded incredibly loud. “I know,” Grace finally said just as quietly.
“You…you knew?” George stuttered. “You never said anything.”
“I wasn’t sure.” George wasn’t exactly obvious, but since she’d worked in showbiz all her life, Grace could usually tell when she met a gay man. That skill apparently didn’t extend to lesbian women. She hadn’t even considered for a second that Lauren might be gay. “And it just didn’t matter to me.” Grace peered over at her mother, who watched her impatiently. “Listen, George, this isn’t about Ms. Pearce’s sexual orientation. I couldn’t care less about whom she does or doesn’t sleep with. I just don’t want people to think I’m preparing to come out.”
George sighed. “Do you want me to hire someone else?”
“What is he saying?” her mother asked.
“He’s asking if I want him to hire someone else.”
“Yes,” her mother said immediately. “Tell him to fire her and hire someone else. There have to be plenty of competent straight PR consultants in this town.”
Grace nibbled her lower lip until her mother’s disapproving stare made her stop.
“Grace?” George asked. “Are you still there?”
“Do you want me to—?”
Grace made a split-second decision, for once listening to her gut instead of her mother. “No,” she said. “Sorry for bothering you with this. I’ll talk to you later.” She hung up.
Her mother stared at her. “Why didn’t you tell him to fire her?”
Slowly, Grace put her phone away and looked into her mother’s eyes. “Because it’s not right to hire or fire people based on their sexual orientation.”
For a moment, she thought her mother would start ranting and raving again, but Katherine just sighed. “You get that from your father. He was too soft to make it in this business too. Good thing you have me, or people would take advantage.” She got up and gestured for Grace to put a couple of bills on the table. “Let’s get out of here.”
Lauren had been going nonstop since she’d arrived at work, coffee in hand, shortly before eight o’clock. She’d checked HootSuite and skimmed various blogs, websites, magazines, and newspapers. Then, satisfied that none of her clients had gotten into trouble overnight, she’d settled down to answer e-mails and return phone calls.
Now she was clicking back and forth between a press release that one of the interns had written and that needed to be checked, the Twitter strategy for one of the sports stars she represented, and an e-mail marketing campaign for Grace Durand’s new movie.
She looked up from her computer screen.
Marlene stood in the doorway, her expression unreadable. “I need to have a word with you.”
“Sure.” Lauren saved what she’d been working on.
When Marlene entered and firmly closed the door behind her, Lauren began to suspect that nothing good would be coming. Marlene settled her petite frame into the visitor’s chair and regarded Lauren as a mother would her wayward child. “I really don’t understand it. You’re a good publicist. Scratch that. You’re a great publicist.”
Lauren knew better than to thank her for the compliment, sensing that there was something else coming.
“How on earth did you manage to have your client fire you so fast?” Marlene asked with a shake of her head.
Lauren’s first thought was that K-Cee had dropped her as his publicist after her candid words to him.Well, good riddance.She wasn’t exactly sad to see him go. “He just didn’t like it that I called him on the carpet for his self-destructive behavior; that’s all.”
Marlene put both hands on the desk and leaned forward. “I’m not talking about K-Cee. I’m talking about Grace Durand.”
Stunned, Lauren sank against the back of her chair. She hadn’t seen this coming. After talking to Grace alone in the conference room, she’d thought they were on the same page about how to handle the situation and that Grace was willing to trust her and follow her lead. Apparently not. “Grace fired me?”
“Yes. Well, her mother did.” Marlene leaned back. “Maybe she was afraid that it would turn out like the Tabby Jones debacle.”
If she never, ever heard that name again, it would be too soon. Lauren gritted her teeth. “This doesn’t have anything to do with…that.”
“Her mother implied that—”
“Whatever she said is bullshit!”
Marlene’s gray eyes narrowed to slivers of rock. “I beg your pardon.”
Lauren rubbed her face. Normally, she had much better control than this, but the news that Grace—or rather Mrs. Duvenbeck—had fired her really rattled her. “Sorry. But you can’t take whatever she said seriously. I bet she’s just pouting because I practically kicked her out of the meeting.”
“You did what?”
“It was like trying to have a conversation with a three-year-old while her controlling mother is hovering,” Lauren said. “I needed to talk to Grace without her mother interrupting every two seconds. Grace is my client, not her mother.”
Marlene slapped one palm down on the desk, making Lauren’s mug rattle. “Your client is whoever I say it is. Losing this account is not an option. Go and apologize. Do whatever it takes to get them to change their mind.”
Lauren had to unclamp her teeth before she could speak. “Okay,” she finally got out.
Marlene shoved the chair back and stood. When she reached the door, she turned back around. “I didn’t want to put any more pressure on you, but… This account is your chance to prove yourself. Use it.”
When the door closed behind Marlene, Lauren picked up a pen and hurled it across the room. On days like this, she remembered why she had never wanted to be a celebrity publicist. After attending Boston University—a university as far away as possible from her producer mother, her director father, and Hollywood in general—she had worked in the marketing department of a nonprofit organization. Right now, she wished she’d stayed there instead of switching to a more exciting job. Her life might have been a lot less interesting, but at least then she wouldn’t have to apologize to a spoiled actress and her arrogant mother for a perceived wrongdoing she didn’t even understand.
Lauren steered her Honda Civic along the narrow roads zigzagging through the Hollywood Hills. One glance into the red file with Grace’s name on it had shown her that, of course, Grace owned the mandatory multi-million-dollar mansion in Laurel Canyon. Lauren’s navigation system led her to the end of a quiet cul-de-sac. It had been a relatively short drive, just minutes from Sunset Boulevard, yet up here everything felt peaceful and secluded. Grace’s house, a Spanish-style residence, was set back from the street, surrounded by massive stone walls.
Lauren stopped the car in front of a wrought-iron gate, letting the engine idle, and peered through the iron bars to the circular driveway beyond. The security camera mounted on the left side of the gate was outfitted with a motion sensor; it rotated toward her. She lowered her window and pressed the call button on the speaker to her left.
For a minute or two, nothing happened; then the speaker crackled.
She’d expected to be greeted by an employee, but it was Grace’s unmistakable, slightly husky voice that came through the speaker. “Yes, what can I do for you?”
Lauren looked into the camera right above the call button and held her CT Publicity ID card up to the camera’s lens. “Lauren Pearce.”
The electronic gate swung open.
She closed the window and drove through. The gate clanged shut behind her, making her feel as if she were trapped in this uncomfortable situation with no way out. Gravel crunched under her tires as she steered the car along the driveway, flanked by palms and tall cypress trees. Lauren parked in front of the mansion and climbed the stone steps toward the massive front door. More security cameras peered down on her, making her stand ramrod straight as she waited to be let in.
After a moment, the door was opened, and Lauren stepped into a large foyer with high ceilings.
Once again, it wasn’t an employee who greeted her but Grace Durand herself. She had obviously been exercising before Lauren arrived. Her long hair was pulled back into a ponytail, highlighting her sculpted cheekbones. A few blonde tendrils had escaped and were now clinging to her flushed face. A damp, white tank top clung to her chest, and a pair of red running shorts showed off her long, shapely legs. When she reached up to pull out her ponytail, the tank top slid up, revealing a tantalizing glimpse of her flat belly. She shook her head, and her hair streamed down to her shoulders like a golden waterfall.
Jesus Christ.Lauren instantly understood whyPlayboyhad offered Grace a six-figure sum for an in-the-nude photo spread. As her publicist, she was, of course, glad that Grace had refused. Nude photos didn’t fit Grace’s squeaky-clean girl-next-door image.
“Come on in,” Grace said while she put her ponytail up again.
Dry-mouthed, Lauren followed her, keeping her gaze fixed on Grace’s no-name running shoes.
No housekeeper or other staff showed up as Grace led her through the hall that opened into a spacious living room looking like a showpiece out ofArchitectural Digestmore than a comfortable place to relax. The coffee table next to the white leather couch was a glass-and-chrome contraption that seemed to be held up by some gravity-defying magic. Abstract paintings hung in perfect alignment on the walls, but Lauren realized that there was no sign of a TV anywhere.Interesting choice for an actress.Well, maybe there was a media room somewhere in the mansion.
Lauren took in the cobalt-blue armchair, white rugs, and silver lamps, and she couldn’t imagine living here. Not even the brick fireplace could lend this sleek, modern room a hint of warmth.
A spiral staircase led upstairs, but everything was quiet there too. Grace’s husband was nowhere to be seen, and not even a personal assistant was hanging around. As far as she knew, she was completely alone with Grace Durand.
Lauren swallowed. “I’m sorry to barge in on you without making an appointment, Ms. Durand.”
“It’s okay.” She tilted her head. “And didn’t you agree to call me Grace?”
Lauren was caught off guard again. Why was Grace so nice to her? She wasn’t behaving like someone who had just fired her. Was it possible that Grace had no idea what her mother had done? “Uh, right…Grace.”
“There aren’t any new gay rumors about me, are there?” A tiny wrinkle formed between Grace’s brows, indicating that she, unlike many other actresses approaching thirty, hadn’t helped her naturally good looks along by engaging a plastic surgeon.
“Oh, no, don’t worry. Nothing new on that front. I just thought we should talk.”
Grace let a long breath escape. “Okay. Let’s go outside to the patio. Can I offer you something to drink?”
Lauren shook her head. Even though her mouth was still a bit dry, she didn’t want to draw this out any more than necessary.
“Do you mind if I get myself a bottle of water?”
“Uh, no, go ahead,” Lauren said, surprised that Grace would even ask. Was this polite consideration for other people just a well-practiced act, or was it real? Lauren wasn’t sure. Grace was unlike any celebrity she had met so far.
“Go on ahead, if you want,” Grace said. “It’s just through the French doors. I’ll be right with you.”
Glad for a moment alone, Lauren crossed the shiny hardwood floor and stepped through the open doors onto the stone patio. Grace’s Olympic-sized pool and the landscaped backyard with its Japanese rock garden screamed money. What drew Lauren’s attention, though, was the great view of downtown LA. She could only imagine how this might look at night.
Just as Lauren had settled on one of the patio chairs at a round glass-top table, Grace stepped outside with a bottle of water, now wearing drawstring pants and a clean T-shirt. She sat on the chair next to Lauren’s, unscrewed the bottle, and took a healthy swig before she said, “I’m all yours now. What is it that you wanted to talk about?”
“I just wanted to understand why.”
Grace frowned. “Why what?”
Lauren wanted to tell her to drop the innocent act, but she bit her lip and forced herself to stay calm and professional. “Why fire me?”
“Why fire me?” Lauren repeated. “I mean, if you think I didn’t do a good job handling your publicity, it’s your right to look for another PR consultant, but it’s only been a week. You didn’t even give me a chance to prove myself.”
Grace screwed the cap back on the bottle with jerky movements and put the bottle down on the table. “I didn’t fire you.”
“I know. Your mother did.”Same difference.
“I didn’t tell her to do that. I didn’t even know, and I certainly don’t approve. Consider yourself hired back.”
Lauren blinked. This situation was giving her emotional whiplash. “Just like that? Then why fire me in the first place?”
“I didn’t fire you,” Grace repeated with a hint of exasperation. “My mother just…” She sighed. “She probably thought she was acting in my best interest.”
Anger churned inside of Lauren like the bubbling La Brea Tar Pits. She struggled to keep her voice down. “How is firing me in your best interest?”
“It’s probably not. She just thought…” Grace averted her gaze and stared down at the city below them.
Grace continued to study LA’s skyline.
“Thought what?” Lauren repeated with a little more force behind it.
Slowly, Grace turned her head until her disturbingly blue eyes met Lauren’s. “She…we…thought… We were wondering if it’s such a good idea to let myself be represented by a gay publicist.”
Lauren stiffened. Of course, she had faced discrimination once or twice in her life, but, usually, her sexual orientation was no big deal for her clients. She hadn’t thought that the friendly, approachable Grace would care one way or another.You should know better by now. Nothing is real in this town. It’s all just an illusion.
“Whatever you think of my competency as a publicist,” Lauren said, carefully modulating her volume, “I want to make one thing crystal clear: I’m not in the habit of making passes at straight women, especially not straight women who are clients of mine.” Just the opposite. She’d just been put on probation for rejecting the advances of a supposedly straight female client who’d made a drunken pass at her.
Grace shook her head, making her blonde hair fly. “I’m not implying that you would. Really.” She reached across the table and touched Lauren’s arm.
When Lauren stared down at the warm hand on her forearm, Grace quickly pulled her fingers away.
“Personally, I couldn’t care less whether you’re gay, straight, bi, or sleeping with your dog.”
Lauren made a face. “Nice comparison.”
“I didn’t mean it like that.” Grace rubbed her face and then peeked up through her fingers. “I’m really making a mess of this, aren’t I?”
The sheepish expression on her face almost made Lauren smile.Oh, no, don’t let that pretty face fool you. You’re angry with her, remember?“Yeah, I’m afraid you are.”
Grace sighed. “That article inTinseltown Talkhas really made me a bit paranoid. When I saw you…”
“Saw me?” Lauren frowned. “Saw me doing what?”
Grace nibbled on her lip.
“If you want me to continue as your publicist, we need to learn to be completely honest with each other.”
Staring at the bottle on the table, Grace said, “You suggested that it might be a good idea for me to be seen with Nick, so I went to El Niu on Saturday to have dinner with him.”
Lauren connected the dots in one point five seconds. Grace had seen her with Peyton, had probably seen them kiss good-bye. “Oh.”Damn.Sometimes, even a city the size of Los Angeles was too small. Lauren wasn’t ashamed that Grace had seen her kiss another woman, but she liked to keep work and her private life separate.
For a moment, they were both silent. The pumps in the pool came on, circulating the water.
“All I could think of was that I might look guilty by association,” Grace finally said. “I didn’t want anyone to think that I’m gay just because I hired a gay publicist.”
Lauren wanted to hold on to her anger but found that she couldn’t. As silly as such an assumption was, she couldn’t promise Grace that none of the gossips in Hollywood would think that. “Do you want another publicist? I think I could talk Ms. Chandler into taking you on herself.”
“No,” Grace said with a vehement shake of her head. “No, I don’t want another publicist. I told my mother that. You were right with what you said earlier. It hasn’t even been a week, and I want to give you a chance to prove yourself.”
Great.One more person she had to prove herself to.No pressure or anything.
Grace studied her face. “But I’d, of course, understand if you don’t want me as a client anymore.”
Lauren had thought she’d kept her feelings hidden behind a shield of professionalism, but apparently, Grace was good at reading people’s expressions and sensing their moods. “No, that’s all right. I’d like to keep working as your publicist.”
Grace flashed her legendary smile. “Good. Thank you.”
“So you’ll let my boss know that I’m back on your account?”
“I’ll have my people call your people,” Grace said with another smile.
Even Lauren had to grin. She cursed the actress’s charm, which made it impossible to stay angry with her. “I’d better get back to the office, then.” She got up and followed Grace back through the living room and the foyer to the front door.
They both paused in front of the open door.
“I’m really sorry,” Grace said. “It was never my intention to—”
“Let’s just forget it and move on.”
Grace nodded. “Okay.”
Lauren slid her hand into her pocket, searching for her car keys. “If you want, call me later to talk about the campaign for your movie. I contacted the studio, and they sent me the posters they want to use. I worked on an e-mail campaign all morning, and I have some ideas I want to run by you.”
“Sure. I’ll call you later.” Grace’s smile faltered, and her full lips formed a tight line. “But first, there’s another call I have to make.”
Grace hated fighting with her mother. It didn’t happen often, because Grace gave in most of the time, but when they did fight, her mother usually used any argument she could, no holds barred, bringing up every transgression she could remember from Grace’s childhood. For a moment, Grace considered hanging up before her mother could answer the phone, but then she sternly told herself to woman up and clutched the phone more tightly.
“Hello, darling,” her mother said. “We should really try to get you onThe Tonight Showa week or two before the premiere. I just watched an episode with that new guy, Jimmy, and—”
“Mom, you’re my manager, not my publicist. Don’t you think you should leave it for Lauren to decide what talk shows would be best for me to do?”
Her mother was silent for a moment, which would have alerted Grace to the fact that something was going on, even if she hadn’t already known.
“About that,” her mother said and cleared her throat. “I called Ms. Chandler this morning and told her we’d prefer to go with another publicist.”
Grace took a deep breath. “No, Mom. We are not going with another publicist.” There. She’d said it.
“Darling, I’m afraid you don’t understand.”
“No. You are the one who doesn’t understand. You can’t keep making decisions like this without even consulting me first. This has to stop—now!”
Her mother sucked in an audible breath, not used to Grace talking to her in such a firm tone. “I’m only trying to do what’s best for you.”
Grace sighed. “I know,” she said, more softly now. “And I appreciate it. I really do; you know that. But firing one publicist in a week is more than enough. I say we stick with Lauren for now.”
“But she’s gay,” her mother said.
“Yes, she is. That doesn’t make her a bad publicist.”
“Maybe not, but what if people think—?”
“What if they think I fired her just because of her sexual orientation? I can’t afford to alienate any demographic group,” Grace said, using the only argument she knew would work with her mother. “Being caught discriminating against employees is a serious thing.”
Her mother gulped. Finally, she said, “At the very least, she should be more discreet if she wants to continue working as your publicist.”
No way was she telling Lauren that. Grace said nothing.
“So,” her mother said, “what do you think about doingThe Tonight Show?”
Lauren knocked on Marlene’s door at nine the next morning.
Marlene was on the phone but waved her in.
While Lauren sat in the visitor’s chair and listened to Marlene artfully buttering up an Academy member, she mentally went over her to-do list for the day.
After a minute or two, Marlene ended the call and gave Lauren her full attention. “What can I do for you?”
“Have you checked Twitter this morning?”
“Not yet. What’s going on?”
“K-Cee got into a fight with a fan who tweeted that he didn’t like K-Cee’s new album.”
Marlene groaned. “How bad was it?”
“Let’s just say I learned a few new cuss words,” Lauren said. For a man who wrote such boring lyrics, he’d come up with some pretty imaginative insults; she had to give him that. “This is the fourth PR nightmare he’s created in as many weeks. Or is it the fifth? I’ve lost track.”
“What do you recommend?” Marlene regarded her as if she was testing her again, trying to see if she’d stick to her principles.
Lauren calmly met her gaze. “We should give him the ax. Life’s too short to work with clients who never listen. If he continues like this, he won’t just harm his own reputation but ours too.”
Marlene tapped her chin twice and then nodded. “Okay. Do you want me to let him know, or do you want to do the honors?”
“I’ll do it.” It wasn’t that Lauren enjoyed dropping clients from her roster, no matter how difficult they were, but this was her last duty as K-Cee’s publicist, so she didn’t want to shirk it.
“Good.” Marlene turned her attention to her computer screen, wordlessly dismissing her.
Lauren got up and walked to the door.
When she opened it, Marlene’s voice reached her. “Ms. Durand called me yesterday.”
Lauren turned back around.
“She said it was all just a misunderstanding.”
A misunderstanding. Sure.Suppressing a huff, Lauren nodded. “I went over to her house yesterday, and we cleared the air between us. I’m confident there won’t be any other problems.”
“Let’s hope not,” Marlene said.
Lauren heard what she wasn’t saying:or your career at CTP will be toast.
Lauren’s phone rang for the fifth time since she’d sat down to put together the PowerPoint presentation. Still clicking away on the slide she was working on, she reached for the phone and tucked it between her shoulder and ear so she could continue to work. “Chandler & Troy Publicity, Lauren Pearce speaking.”
“Hi, Lauren,” a man’s voice came through the receiver. Before Lauren could place the familiar voice, he added, “This is Stan. Stan Zaleski. I wanted to give you a heads-up about one of your clients.”
Stan regularly blogged forHollywood Affairs, a website that posted news about the love lives and sexcapades of celebrities. Lauren had managed to build a relationship with him in the past year, knowing good connections to the media paid off, even if she personally didn’t like their style of reporting. She bolded the improved social media statistics in the presentation. “Thanks, Stan. You know I always appreciate that. So,” she said with a laugh, “who got caught cheating this week?”
The phone slipped and nearly crashed to the floor. Lauren caught it just in time and hurriedly brought it back to her ear. “I didn’t think you were reading drivel likeTinseltown Talk, Stan. You know that nine times out of ten, they just pull the stories they run out of their asses.”
Stan chuckled. “True. But not this time. I did some digging, and I’ve got a source who swears that Grace spent the night with another actress at the Ocmulgee Riverside Inn while they were shooting in Macon.”
Lauren closed the presentation, her attention now fully on the phone call. “People think they see celebrities all the time. They imagine all kinds of things; you know that,” she said, trying to sound casual even though the tiny hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. Things didn’t look good for Grace. News like that fit right into Stan’s monthly column,The Celluloid Closet,in which he often outed celebrities.
“So you think my witness also imagined them booking the room using a credit card that was registered to someone named Betty G. Duvenbeck?”
Shit.Lauren instantly recognized Grace’s less-than-glamorous birth name. “Even if it were her—and I’m not saying it was—can’t two colleagues share a hotel room without people misconstruing it as something else?”
Stan barked out a sarcastic laugh. “When was the last time you shared a hotel room with a woman in a purely friendly fashion?”
Lauren gritted her teeth. “That’s different. I’m gay.”
“And so is she,” Stan said.
“Stan, you know me. You know I always advise my clients to come out. Don’t you think I would have told her the same if she were gay?”
That made him pause for a second. “If she’s not, she can tell me so herself. I’d really like to include a direct statement from her before I put the article online.”
“What’s your deadline?” Lauren asked. She hated playing his game, but she knew he would post his article with or without her help. At least this way, she could have some control over what he wrote.
“I want to post it before the people on the East Coast are asleep.”
“Today? I don’t even know if I can get a hold of her that fast. Come on, give me some time,” Lauren said. “If what you say is true, it’ll still be a big story tomorrow. But if you’re wrong, it’ll make the entireCelluloid Closetseries look dubious.”
Lauren sensed that she had him hooked. Now she needed to reel him in slowly, using another bait. “Give me until tomorrow, and I’ll throw in an interview with one of my high-profile clients.”
“Deal,” he said. “But I need her statement by noon tomorrow, or I’ll post what I have. I’m sick of celebrities hitting it rich with straight flicks while leading a double life, as if being gay were a dirty little secret they needed to hide.” Stan, gay himself, was passionate in his belief that the stars and starlets had a social responsibility to come out and make it easier for gay and lesbian teenagers to do the same.
Lauren knew he wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger on his column, with or without a statement from Grace. “I’ll get you a statement on time.” She ended the call and jumped up. Leaning over her desk, she powered down her computer. On her way out the door, she stopped at Tina’s desk. “I need you to clear my schedule for the rest of the day.”
Tina opened Lauren’s calendar on her computer screen. “Even the event with your parents tonight?”
Especially the event with my parents.“Tell them I’ll try to make it.”
When she stepped out of the elevator, she reached for her phone and called Grace, not wanting to show up unannounced a second time.
The call went straight to voice mail.
Cursing, Lauren got into her car.
Nick aimlessly walked around the living room, touching the armchair, the coffee table, and the lamp in the corner as if refamiliarizing himself with everything after being gone from the house for months.
From her place on the couch, Grace watched him without saying anything. He looked good—the quintessential action star with a healthy tan, windblown dark hair, and impossibly broad shoulders.
Finally, he turned to face her. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have your lawyer here to talk about this?”
Grace had considered it for a while, but now she shook her head. “I told you I don’t need a lawyer to talk to you. I think we can handle this on our own for now.”
His dark brows knitted together as he regarded her across the coffee table, the suspicion obvious on his handsome face.
Was this what Hollywood had made out of them? Two people who no longer trusted each other’s intentions? That was one of the reasons Grace had decided not to get her lawyer involved just yet. She didn’t want to believe that Nick would try to go after her money.
After studying her for a few moments, Nick plopped into the armchair and gave her one of the boyish grins that had won her heart three years ago.
Grace barely felt like the same woman anymore.
“Some days, I think I’m crazy for letting you go so easily,” he said with a slight shake of his head.
Nothing about this was easy for Grace. Even though she knew it was the right thing to do, she’d struggled with this decision for months. But Grace had been an actress all her life, so she drew on her acting skills to hide her feelings and return his smile. “Well, you clearly are.”
His grin broadened. “Oh, yeah? What about you? You’re just as crazy for giving me up.” Sobering, he put one of his ankles on his opposite knee as if he needed a bit of a barrier between them. “Why are you?”
He’d asked before, when she’d told him it might be a good idea to take a break, some time apart to think. She hadn’t had a satisfying answer then, and she didn’t have one now. How could she explain to him what she barely understood herself? “I don’t know, Nick. I just think there’s something missing. Obviously, you felt the same way or you wouldn’t have found someone new so fast.”
He tilted his head and studied her. “You’re not jealous, are you?”
“Not even a little bit.” It was the truth. Being replaced within weeks by a twenty-one-year-old dancer with abs to die for hurt her ego, but not her heart. “And that tells me that getting a divorce is the right thing to do.” As far as she was concerned, their marriage was over for good. Now it was just a matter of making it official—and that was what worried her most. “Let’s just hope that the media and our fans will think so too.”
Nick’s frown deepened the little scar on his forehead. He liked to tell people that it was from one of the stunts in his movies, when he’d actually tripped in the bathroom and hit his head on the toilet. “You don’t think it’ll hurt your career, do you? I mean, you’re rock solid, right?”
“Let’s hope so. The divorce won’t be final until the end of the year, long after the release ofAva’s Heart, so I should be fine.”
“Shailene and I will keep a low profile until then,” Nick said.
“Thanks.” Grace shifted on the couch. She didn’t want to think about the headlines the press would print once they found out about the divorce and Nick’s new girlfriend, so she instead reached for the paperwork Nick had brought over. “What’s this?”
“My lawyer has drawn up a generous alimony package for you.”
“Alimony?” Grace was careful not to smile since she didn’t want to hurt his male ego. She made more money than he did and had from the very beginning. When they’d first met, Nick had been a stuntman while Grace had already been nominated for her third Golden Globe. “Nick, I appreciate the gesture, but it’s not like I’ll starve to death after the divorce.”
“Okay, then let’s forget about the alimony and talk about the house.” He swept his muscular arm to indicate the Laurel Canyon property.
They had bought it together when they’d married fourteen months ago. Grace looked around, taking in the living room where they had hosted dozens of parties. None of it held any meaning to her. Nick and his interior decorator had picked out the furniture and the ultramodern decor while she’d been on location. She’d thought she would come to like it or at least get used to it over time, but it hadn’t happened. The house, impressive as it was, had never truly felt like a home. She bit her lip to stop herself from saying it out loud. “You can have the house.”
“Did you just say…?”
She nodded. “That you can have the house. It’s too big for me alone anyway. I just want the cottage in Topanga Canyon.”
He stared at her with eyes as round as an owl’s. “You prefer the cottage to the house?”
Before she could answer, the gate buzzer sounded.
Nick glanced toward the foyer. “Are you expecting someone? Your new boyfriend?” he asked casually.
A little too casually, Grace thought. Clearly, he couldn’t help being a bit jealous of any new man in her life. “I don’t have a new boyfriend.”
“No? I thought maybe you and Russ… You looked pretty cozy on set.”
Grace burst out laughing. “It’s called acting, Nick.” Kissing her co-star on film had probably been the most unromantic moment of her life. “Be right back.”
Lauren parked in the same spot as the last time she’d been here and climbed the stairs to the Durand/Sinclair mansion.
Again, Grace was the one who opened the door, with no sign of any employees around. “It seems we’re making a habit out of these impromptu meetings,” Grace said when she stepped back to let her in. She was smiling, though, and didn’t sound annoyed at the interruption. In a pair of faded Levi’s and aCentral PrecinctT-shirt, she was more attractive than any woman had a right to be.
For some reason, that annoyed Lauren even more. She didn’t return the smile. “We need to talk.”
Grace looked back over her shoulder, toward the living room. “Now isn’t a good time.”
“Now is a very good time,” Lauren said. “If we don’t talk about this now, you can read all about it online tomorrow.”
Grace’s eyes widened. “What—?”
A man stepped into the foyer, interrupting them. “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t want you to think I was intentionally eavesdropping on your conversation.”
The surprise and worry disappeared from Grace’s face as if she’d pressed an emotion-controlling button. With a practiced Hollywood smile, she said, “Nick, this is Lauren Pearce, my new publicist. Lauren, this is Nick Sinclair, my husband.”
Lauren would have recognized him even without the introduction. She’d met him only once, but he’d been photographed with Grace often enough. Admittedly, they made a striking couple, his black hair and broad shoulders contrasting nicely with Grace’s blonde hair and feminine curves.
“I think we met at an after-party a few years ago,” Nick said.
“Right.” Almost against her will, Lauren was impressed that he remembered her. With all the classically beautiful actresses who’d paraded around the party in plunging dresses, she hadn’t thought that he’d paid her much attention.
They shook hands before Lauren looked back at Grace. “We really need to talk.”
“I’ll go,” Nick said.
“I didn’t mean to—”
“That’s okay. I’m expected back on set in an hour anyway.” He turned toward Grace and pulled her into his arms.
Lauren averted her gaze, giving them some privacy, but out of the corner of her eye, she saw that he just pressed his lips to her cheek instead of claiming her in a passionate kiss. “Thank you,” he said.
Grace hugged him tightly. “You’re welcome. Just be careful on set, okay?”
“Will do. See you tonight.” He jogged down the stairs, got into his gleaming black Corvette, and drove off.
They stood in the foyer for a few seconds, looking at each other, before Grace closed the front door and said, “Let’s go to the patio.”
They settled on the same two patio chairs they had used a few days ago.
Lauren decided to get right to the point. “I just had an interesting call from a blogger forHollywood Affairs. He found a source who swears you spent the night with a fellow actress in a hotel in Macon.”
Grace gripped the armrests of her chair with both hands, but her carefully schooled features gave nothing away.
“He says you paid with a credit card registered to your birth name,” Lauren added and watched Grace’s face for any kind of reaction.
Grace stared out over the city without saying anything. After a few moments, she got up and walked toward the edge of the pool. She dipped the toes of one sandaled foot into the water as if to buy herself time to think. “What do we do now?”
Lauren followed her and stood next to her so that she could see her face. “The first thing you need to do is to stop lying to me. You can’t be caught lying. Not to the media and certainly not to me.”
“I’m not lying,” Grace said, still staring down into the rippling water.
The impulse to shove Grace into the pool gripped Lauren. Maybe that would wake her up. But, of course, she couldn’t do that. “You sure as hell didn’t tell me the truth either. What happened with Jill Corrigan? It was Jill with you in that hotel, wasn’t it?”
Stan hadn’t mentioned the other actress’s name, but he’d implied that theTinseltown Talkarticle was true.
“That’s none of your business,” Grace said, her voice carefully controlled, no anger leaking through.
“None of my business?” Lauren shook her head. “Your public image is my responsibility. If you don’t give me the information I need to do my job, I can’t keep working with you.”
Slowly, Grace turned toward her. “You want to drop me as a client?”
“No. I don’t want to.” God knows, Marlene would kill her if she did. “But I will if you constantly keep me in the dark. We’ve been broadsided by this because you didn’t trust me.”
“How can I trust you? I hardly know you.” Grace’s Hollywood mask wavered a little. Her eyes, bluer than the water of the pool, reflected so much vulnerability that Lauren was speechless for a few moments.
Lauren understood. There were no friends and no secrets in the showbiz jungle. If you trusted someone with your secrets, it was entirely possible that you could read about it in the tabloids the very next day. “I know you don’t. But you know my reputation. I want to make partner or even run my own PR firm one day. What do you think would happen if I broke the confidentiality clause in my contract?”
“No one would ever hire you again,” Grace said.
“Exactly. I might not be an actress, but image is everything in my profession too. If I did anything that harmed my reputation, it’d be game over for me. So it’s in my own best interest to protect your secrets.”
Grace sighed. “I believe you, but…it’s not my secret to tell.”
Lauren studied her.She’s protecting someone.One person came to mind immediately.Jill Corrigan.“Is Jill gay?”
“I can’t tell you.”
Her stubborn refusal to tell her the truth made Lauren grit her teeth, but at the same time, she couldn’t help admiring her loyalty. In Hollywood, that was rarer than a fifty-carat diamond. “Grace, I need the facts so I can put together a strategy for how to deal with the media.”
“No, I mean, I can’t tell you because I don’t know. I don’t think she is, but we never talked about it. All you and everyone else need to know is that we’re not having an affair.” Grace turned abruptly and walked back to the patio table.
Again, Lauren followed her, sensing there was something Grace wasn’t telling her. They sat facing each other.
“That won’t be enough for the media,” Lauren said. “We have to give them something, or they’ll keep digging. If you don’t talk, they will find someone who will. They’ll bribe your housekeeper, your assistant, your gardener…”
“I don’t have an assistant, and my cleaning service and the company that keeps my yard up come in when I’m not here,” Grace said.
So she’d been right. Grace kept no employees around, probably because she didn’t want strangers leaking intimate details of her life to the press. Once again, Lauren wondered if there was a reason why Grace was so private. Was she hiding something? “Doesn’t matter,” she said. “They’ll snoop through your private life until they find something.”
Grace gulped audibly. She raked her fingers through her long, blonde hair.
“There is something to find, isn’t there?” There always was. Lauren had found that out early on in her life. Nothing was ever as it seemed in Hollywood. Still, she’d hoped that it would be different with Grace. She liked her, no matter how often she told herself not to be fooled by her warm, friendly facade. It was probably just that—a facade.
“Yes,” Grace whispered.
Lauren said nothing, not pressuring her. She sensed that Grace needed to say this in her own time.
“Nick and I…” Grace rubbed both hands over her mouth as if part of her wanted to hold back the words. But then she dropped her hands and looked into Lauren’s eyes. “We’re getting a divorce.”
Lauren sank against the back of her chair. She wasn’t sure what she had expected Grace to say, but certainly not that. She cursed under her breath. “And you’re only telling me this now? Christ, Grace, I need time to prepare a strategy. You can’t just spring this on me out of the blue and expect me to adjust!”
Grace lowered her gaze to the stone patio. “Sorry,” she mumbled. “I’m not trying to make things difficult for you, but like I said…”
“You don’t trust me.” Lauren sighed. Thoughts and media strategies ricocheted through her mind. “Their golden couple separating… Your fans won’t be happy. I bet they didn’t see this coming.” She sure hadn’t. Grace and Nick’s relationship had seemed to be one of the few stable ones in Hollywood. “There were never any jealousy dramas, ugly fights, or separation rumors.”
“No,” Grace said. “And there won’t be any in the future either. It’ll be an amicable divorce. No breaking dishes, no screaming, no tears.”
No passion?Lauren wondered. “So if everything is so harmonic between you, why get divorced?”
“It’s not because either of us is having an affair, if that’s what you’re asking.” A hint of defensiveness crept into Grace’s tone.
“It’s not,” Lauren said. “I’m not trying to be nosy. But that’s the first thing the press will want to know.”
Grace curled one leg under herself on the patio chair and tugged on the hole in one knee of her jeans, making it larger. She pulled a few of the threads free and watched them being blown away by the breeze. “With both of us constantly gone, shooting three movies a year, we didn’t get to spend a lot of time together,” she said after a while. “Let’s face it, actors make lousy spouses.”
Oh yeah.If there was one thing Lauren had learned growing up, it was this. “So there are no other people involved?”
Grace hesitated but then said, “Nick has a new girlfriend. They got together three weeks after we separated, but he swears he never cheated on me. I believe him.”
Lauren wasn’t sure she did. Sometimes, cheating seemed to be a popular hobby for celebrities. Lauren herself wasn’t exactly a by-the-book girlfriend, but she had never, ever cheated, and she would never tolerate it from a partner. She’d had to endure the sham her parents called a marriage for too long to want that kind of relationship. “The press will still call it an affair. If they find out that Nick and his flame got together while he was still married to you—”
“I don’t want the press to tear him to shreds as a cheating bastard.” Grace’s eyes glittered with determination.
“Let’s focus on you and your career and let Nick’s publicist worry about his, okay?”
Grace clearly didn’t like it, but she nodded.
“So, what about you? Is there someone new in your life too?” Lauren asked. Maybe Grace had found someone else too, and that was why she was so forgiving.
Grace shook her head. “There’s no one else.”
Either she was telling the truth, or she was an even better actress than Lauren gave her credit for. “Okay, but if there’s ever someone new in your life, I need to know before you even tell your mother or your best friend. I don’t want to be blindsided again. No more surprises. If there’s ever anything, call me immediately.”
“You’ll be the first to know,” Grace said.
Lauren couldn’t tell if she was being sincere or if there was a hint of sarcasm in her voice. She wondered if Grace ever stopped acting and was just herself. She glanced at her watch and realized it was noon already. Just twenty-four more hours until she had to give Stan something. “This couldn’t come at a worse time.”
“I know. Which is why I’m trying to keep it a secret until after the release ofAva’s Heart.”
Lauren nodded. It wouldn’t help promote a film with strong Christian undertones if the public found out the lead actress was getting divorced from her movie-star husband. “That’s the best strategy for now. But we still have to giveHollywood Affairssomething.”
“Do they know who the other actress in Macon was?” Grace asked.
“Stan—the blogger—didn’t name names, but I’m sure he knows. If he thinks he can out someone, he’s like a bloodhound.”
A flush of annoyance crept into Grace’s cheeks, and Lauren realized that she again wasn’t wearing makeup. She was by far the most low-maintenance actress Lauren had ever met.
“What gives him the right to make that decision for someone?” Grace asked, a bit of heat in her voice now.
“The constitution,” Lauren said.
“Freedom of the press.” Grace’s lips compressed into a thin line. “What about my freedom? Or Jill’s?”
Lauren answered with a helpless shrug. “I know it’s not fair. I don’t like it either, but that’s the way it is, and we…you have to deal with it.”
Grace sighed. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to take it out on you.” After one last tug on the by-now frayed hole in her jeans, she uncurled her long legs, shoved her chair back from the table, and got up. “I’ll talk to Jill and then get back to you with something we can tell this Stan.”
We.For the first time, Lauren felt as if they were really working together as a team. She nodded and got up too. “I need something before noon tomorrow.”
Grace accompanied her to the door. “I’ll try my best.”
They could only hope that it would be enough. Lauren reached for the doorknob. “I’ll see you tonight, then.”
“You’re still going to Russ Vinson’s handprint ceremony, aren’t you?”
Grace raised one perfect eyebrow. “You know my schedule?”
“I’m your publicist,” Lauren answered.
“So you plan to attend all of my public appearances with me from now on?”
“Wouldn’t be a bad idea. But I’d be there tonight anyway. Until then.” Lauren walked away with a short wave. Her private and her professional lives were about to collide, and—as always when that happened—she didn’t like it one bit.
The limousine the studio had sent turned onto Hollywood Boulevard, making its way past souvenir shops and tourists strolling over the star-cemented Walk of Fame.
Frowning, Grace leaned forward and pressed the button to lower the privacy screen that separated the rear of the limo from its front. “Excuse me,” she said to the driver. “Aren’t we picking up Ms. Corrigan?” She’d tried to reach Jill all day—to no avail so far, but since she knew she would see her at Russ’s handprint ceremony, she hadn’t been too worried.
The driver looked at her in the rearview mirror. “She was on my list, but then they told me at the last minute not to drive by her house. Apparently, she won’t be able to make it.”
How weird. Jill was as focused on her career as the rest of them. She wouldn’t just skip this event, knowing the studio expected her to be there and show her support for her cast mate.
“Looks like you’ll have to make do with us,” Russ said, grinning at her and at Nick, who lounged next to Grace on the leather backseat.
The driver pulled the limo to a halt alongside the curb in front of the TCL Chinese Theatre. Paparazzi and fans instantly crowded the limo, trying to see through the dark-tinted windows to find out who had arrived. The security team struggled to keep them back but barely stood a chance against the excited crowd.
“Ready to face the hordes?” Russ asked.
Grace snapped open her compact and checked her hair and makeup.
“Don’t worry,” Nick whispered in her ear. “You look beautiful.”
No longer sure if it was a sincere compliment or just what he thought she wanted to hear, Grace simply said, “Thanks,” and nodded at Russ.
The driver got out and opened the door for them.
Nick climbed out first and reached back to offer Grace his hand.
Grace took one last deep breath and put on her screen-goddess persona everyone expected to see before she took his hand and stepped out of the limo.
Cameras clicked and flashes erupted around them, blinding Grace for a moment as the paparazzi snapped picture after picture. Dozens of voices called out her name.
“Grace! Grace, turn this way!”
“Give us a smile, Grace!”
“Look this way!”
“Over here, Grace!”
Grace turned this way and that, posing for the cameras the way they wanted, and kept smiling through it all, even though her face was starting to hurt and her strappy stilettos were already making her feet ache.
“How does it feel to have to watch Russ being immortalized this way instead of leaving your own set of handprints on Hollywood Boulevard?” one of the reporters shouted.
“It feels wonderful, thanks for asking,” she answered with the biggest smile she could manage. “I’m very proud of Russ.”
“We all are,” Nick added.
She held on to Nick’s arm with one hand and wrapped her other arm around Russ. Together, the three of them made their way toward the roped-off area in the theater’s forecourt, where hundreds of famous actors and actresses had already left their handprints and footprints in cement.
“Remind me again why we put up with this,” Nick whispered out of the corner of his mouth.
“Because we’re crazy,” Grace whispered back.
“Yeah, we established that this morning.”
They grinned at each other, and for a moment, Grace wondered why they were going through with the divorce. He was her best friend and, with the exception of Jill and her mother, the only person she trusted in this crazy town.Because that’s not enough. He deserves more—and so do you.
Russ went ahead to where the block of wet cement was waiting for him.
“Wait up, Russ!” Nick called and followed him. “I’d better join you in case you get stuck and need me to pull you out.”
Grace stayed back, glad that she wasn’t the center of attention for once. She waved at the fans behind the barricades, who were holding up their camera phones, busily snapping away. For a moment, she didn’t pay attention to where she was stepping. Her high heel caught on something, making her stumble.
A strong hand closed around her forearm, catching her and holding on until she’d regained her balance.
Grace thought it was one of the security guards, but when she looked up, she gazed into Lauren’s eyes, which glittered like gold in the sunlight.
“Careful,” Lauren said. “I don’t want to deal with headlines like ‘Grace Durand breaks her foot on red carpet’ tomorrow morning.”
A grin formed on Grace’s lips. She marveled at how different it felt from the trained Hollywood smiles she’d given the paparazzi. “Thanks for the heartfelt concern.”
Lauren doffed a nonexistent hat.
Compared to all the actresses and celebrities around, she should have looked average at best, but to Grace, she stood out in a pleasant way. Lauren was wearing tailored trousers, sensible leather shoes, and a short-sleeved blouse that revealed toned arms. Her sunglasses were shoved up on top of her head, keeping her wind-tousled hair from being blown into her face.
Grace envied her a bit for being able to dress comfortably instead of wearing what was expected of her.
The crowd started cheering, making Grace look away from Lauren and toward Russ.
He knelt on a red velvet cushion and pressed his hands into the wet cement. Flashes went off when he stood and stepped onto the cement, leaving his footprints as well. Finally, he signed his name and the date in the corner of the concrete block.
Someone—Grace wasn’t sure whether it was one of the organizers of the event or a studio lackey—ushered her over to Russ and Nick so more photos could be taken of them posing in front of the cement block.
Russ leaned close, pretending to grab her ass with his cement-smeared hands.
Grace smiled even though she wanted to slap his hands away. She just hoped that they had more chemistry on-screen than off-screen and tried not to think about how their romantic movie,Ava’s Heart, would do at the box office come August. Her gaze swept the crowd in search of Lauren, and when she found her, she sent her a secret get-me-out-of-here gaze.
Lauren just shrugged and grinned.
After what felt like hours, the cement was covered to cure, and the stars and their guests relocated to the theater’s lobby for a party. By now, Grace’s feet were killing her, but she circulated through the room with an ever-present smile, exchanging chitchat with the movers and shakers of the entertainment industry. It was part of her job—not a part that she liked, but a necessary one. Being nice to the top producers and directors might pay off when it was time for them to pick the actors for their next blockbuster.
From time to time, she saw Lauren doing the rounds too. Her publicist clearly knew how to work a crowd. She shook hands and talked to all the important power players in the room.
Eventually, they both ended up in the same corner of the room. When Grace walked past Lauren to greet the director ofAva’s Heartat the other end of the room, she overheard a bit of Lauren’s conversation.
“What did you have to pay them to let Russ leave his prints?” Lauren asked a woman who was old enough to be her mother.
Grace blinked and stopped midstep. She didn’t disagree—there were many actors who would have deserved to have their prints on Hollywood Boulevard before Russ—but she couldn’t believe that Lauren would talk so openly to someone who clearly stood above her in the Hollywood food chain.
Then the woman shifted a little, allowing Grace to see her face more clearly.
Isn’t that Olivia Pearce?She’d met the successful producer once at a charity fundraiser, back when Mrs. Pearce had been the president of production at Universal Pictures, one of few women to head a film studio in Hollywood.Wait a moment! Pearce?The woman wasn’t just old enough to be Lauren’s mother; she probablywasher mother.
They didn’t look anything alike—Lauren had a more solid frame compared to her almost fragile-looking mother—but they both had that intense gaze.
Grace realized that Mrs. Pearce had caught her looking and turned toward her. “Good evening. It’s nice to see you again, Mrs. Pearce.”
“Olivia, please.” The producer pointed to the man next to her. “Have you met my husband, Leonard?”
Grace hadn’t yet met Leonard, but she’d heard of him, of course. He’d given up acting for the most part and had drifted into directing, but he was still very handsome. His tan looked as if he spent more time on California’s beaches than in the director’s chair.
They shook hands.
“Nice to meet you,” Leonard said. His gaze swept down, away from her eyes.
Had he just checked out her cleavage with his wife right there, watching him? Grace pulled back her hand as fast as she could without being impolite.
His wife either hadn’t noticed or didn’t care. “And this is my…our daughter, Lauren.”
“We know each other, Mom,” Lauren said. “Grace is one of my clients.”
“Lucky you,” Olivia said to Grace. “Lauren is the best publicist in the business.”
Lauren groaned. “Mom…”
Grace watched with amusement as the normally confident woman blushed.
“What? It’s true, isn’t it, Leonard? She really should go into producing.”
As much fun as it was to see Lauren squirm, Grace decided to step in before they could embarrass Lauren even more. “I hear we’ll work together next month,” she said to the director.
“We will?” Leonard blinked.
Grace nodded. “I’m guest-starring in one of theCentral Precinctepisodes you’re directing.”
“Oh, wonderful, wonderful.” He launched into a discussion of camera angles he thought worked best for a fast-paced TV show likeCentral Precinct.
Lauren and Grace peered at each other.
“You’ll have to excuse us now,” Lauren said after a minute. “Grace and I have a lot to discuss.” She gripped Grace’s elbow and led her away before either of her parents could protest.
One of the waiters circulating the room walked up to them with a tray of champagne glasses.
“Thanks.” Lauren took two of the glasses and handed one to Grace before taking a long swig. When she lowered the champagne flute, it was half empty.
Grace took the offered glass because she knew it was expected of her but just held it in her hand without drinking.
“Sorry,” Lauren said, gesturing in the direction of her parents.
Grace smiled. “No need to apologize. They’re proud of you. That’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“I guess.” Lauren took another sip of champagne, not gulping it down this time. She craned her neck and scanned the crowded room. “I thought Jill Corrigan was supposed to be here.”
“I thought so too, but the studio’s driver said she couldn’t make it.”
“Missing this shindig isn’t going to earn her any points with the studio. She has to know that. What’s going on with her?”
Grace rolled the stem of the champagne flute between her fingers. “I have no idea. I couldn’t reach her all day.”
“Want me to take that for you?” Lauren asked.
Grace looked up, startled. “Uh…what?”
Lauren gestured at the glass. “Everyone else around is on their third glass, and you haven’t even taken a sip. You obviously don’t like champagne.”
I liked it a little too much.At the last moment, Grace held herself back from saying it.Christ, what’s wrong with you?Just because she’d told Lauren about the divorce didn’t mean she had to spill all her secrets. “I’m just not thirsty.” She put her untouched glass on the tray of another waiter and breathed a sigh of relief as he carried it off.
Lauren looked from the bubbles in her own glass to Grace’s face. “How long has it been?”
Grace stared. She couldn’t be asking what she thought she was asking, could she?
“Since you last had a drink,” Lauren said, her voice so low that no one else around could hear.
Only years of practice kept Grace’s smile from faltering.Damn.Was it that obvious, or was her new publicist just too observant for her own good?
“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.” Lauren looked around. “Want to get out of here and see if we can reach Jill?”
It took them fifteen minutes to make it to the door because people kept stopping one or both of them to talk.
Grace detoured toward Nick, who was demonstrating what was either a dance move or a stunt choreography to a captive audience.
When he saw her coming, he stopped and wrapped his arms around her, drawing her near so no one could overhear them. “You okay?”
“Yes. I’m leaving.”
Nick’s brows bunched together. “Already? It’s barely ten.”
“I know. I want to look in on Jill.”
“You think something’s wrong with her?” Nick asked.
Grace hesitated but then said, “No, I’m sure she’s fine.” She leaned up on her tiptoes and kissed him good-bye, wondering when the butterflies had stopped swarming and her body had stopped reacting to his closeness. All she felt was warm affection.
She waved at Russ and then returned to Lauren’s side.
“You’re a good actress,” Lauren whispered as they reached the door. “That was very convincing.”
For a moment, Grace looked at her, not sure what Lauren was talking about. Then she understood. “That wasn’t an act. I really love Nick.”
“You’re just not in love with him,” Lauren said quietly.
Grace didn’t answer. Followed by Lauren, she left the building.
It had gotten dark outside, and the temperature had dropped, so it was a little chilly now.
Genius.Grace realized she’d brought neither a jacket nor a car.
Camera flashes lit up the night sky around her.
Grace was tempted to try to escape or at least turn away, but she knew it wouldn’t do her any good. They would just keep following her. If she posed and smiled for them, letting them get the shots they wanted, they’d leave her in peace afterward. At least she hoped they would.
“Why are you leaving alone?” one of the reporters shouted. “Where’s Nick?”
Of course the paparazzi had noticed. As casually as possible, Grace pointed over her shoulder. “Still inside. Boy talk with Russ. But for me, business is calling. I have some things to go over with my publicist.” She pointed at Lauren. It couldn’t hurt to let them know who Lauren was. Otherwise, they might run a photo of them with the caption: Grace Durand leaving the party with an unidentified woman.
Fans hurried over, handing her autograph books, postcards, scraps of paper, and even napkins to sign.
Two studio bodyguards rushed forward, trying to stop the fans from approaching Grace, but she waved them away. Even though she was impatient to finally get away and check on Jill, she tried to smile while she signed her name over and over until her hand started to cramp.
Luckily, some other celebrity stepped out of the theater’s lobby, and the fans and paparazzi diverted their attention away from Grace. She used the moment to step out of the limelight and led Lauren to a quieter corner, where she fished her cell phone out of her clutch and called Jill for the dozenth time that day. Once again, the call went straight to voice mail. “Voice mail,” she said to Lauren.
“Why didn’t you leave a message?”
“I left three already.” Grace put the phone away and rubbed her arms. “What now?”
Lauren shrugged. “Not much we can do. Maybe the blogger called her publicist too, and now she’s laying low.”
Grace hoped that was all it was. She couldn’t help worrying. “You wouldn’t happen to have a car here, would you? It seems my carriage turned into a pumpkin.” She gestured to the spot on the curb where her limousine had been. Another car now idled there.
“But it’s not midnight yet,” Lauren said.
“Apparently, modern-day fairy tales stick to different curfews.” The driver had probably been forced to circle the block and park somewhere else to make room for other arrivals. One call would be enough for her to be picked up, but she didn’t want to use the studio’s limo for what she had in mind.
Lauren chuckled. “Seems like it. I left my car in a garage two blocks from here. What did you have in mind, Cinderella?”
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to look in on Jill, see if she’s home.”
Looking at the photographers and fans crowding around the entrance of the theater, Lauren asked, “Want me to get the car?”
Grace hesitated. Maybe it would have been the sensible thing to do, but she didn’t want to stay behind alone. “No. For once, I’d like to walk, like a normal person.”
“All right. Then let’s go.” Lauren marched off, her long strides quickly creating distance between them, forcing Grace to hurry after her.
The two studio bodyguards followed them.
“Not so fast,” Grace called after her. “I’m wearing stilettos!”
“I noticed,” Lauren said and slowed down to a more leisurely stroll.Oh, yeah, I definitely noticed.The four-inch heels made Grace’s legs look even longer. Lauren had also admired the white spaghetti strap dress that Grace wore. Simple but classy, it showed off Grace’s toned shoulders and just the right amount of cleavage. Not that Lauren had allowed herself to look for too long. Grace was a client after all—an especially gorgeous one, but still a client.
Tourists with cameras around their necks started turning their heads as they passed.
At first, Lauren thought they were admiring Grace’s dress too, but then a loud voice cut through the night. “It’s her! It’s little Amber!”
Grace let out a low groan, but when she turned around, she was all smiles.
An elderly lady who looked as if her hair dye job had gone horribly wrong dragged her overweight husband over to Grace.
The two studio bodyguards jumped in to stop them, but Grace waved them away. “It’s okay.”
When the security guards stepped back, the woman grasped both of Grace’s hands as if she were a long-lost relative, completely ignoring Lauren in the process. “Oh, I always wanted to meet you and tell you how wonderful you were onEverything That Counts.”
Grace smiled as sweetly as the little girl she’d played on the long-running TV sitcom.
“You were just so cute.”
For a moment, Lauren thought the woman would reach up and pinch Grace’s cheek, but she didn’t.
“I never understood why they sent you to that boarding school in Europe,” the woman continued and clucked her tongue in disapproval.
“Well,” Grace said. “Education is important.”
The bodyguards, who were hovering nearby, burst out laughing, but Grace looked completely serious.
Lauren didn’t know how she could keep a straight face. Apparently, she was used to fans who confused the real Grace with the roles she played on TV.
“Oh, of course, dear.” The lavender-haired woman patted Grace’s hands, turned toward Lauren, and squinted at her. “Weren’t you the one who always tormented poor little Amber?” She looked ready to whack Lauren with her giant purse.
Lauren held up both hands. “Uh, no, no. It wasn’t me, I swear.”
“She’s the one, isn’t she?” The woman turned to Grace for confirmation.
Grace’s ocean-blue eyes glittered with mischief.
For a moment, Lauren thought she would nod. She gave the security officers a beseeching look, but they just smirked and apparently had no intention of protecting her from the wrath of this little old lady.
Finally, Grace shook her head. “No. She’s one of the good girls. Really.”
“Oh, that’s all right, then.” The woman thrust her camera at Lauren. “Can you take a picture of us with Amber?”
Lauren took the camera and zoomed in a little. On the digital camera’s small screen, it was easy to see that Grace was shivering in the cool night air, but she gamely wrapped one arm around the elderly lady’s shoulders and the other around the woman’s husband, smiling as if she’d just won an Oscar.Amazing.Lauren snapped a few pictures and then handed back the camera.
The woman did a little happy dance. “Thank you, thank you. Oh, just wait until I get home and tell my friends!”
Grace said good-bye, and they continued toward the parking garage, the bodyguards following them at a respectful distance.
Lauren looked back over her shoulder. “What the hell was that? She was about to strangle me with her purse straps for something that somebody did to your character twenty years ago!”
“Now do you understand why these gay rumors are so bad for my career?” Grace asked with a serious expression, talking so quietly that neither the security guys nor the tourists passing by could hear her. “A lot of people still remember me as Amber Haynes. America’s little darling can’t be one ofthose people.”
Are you?Lauren still couldn’t tell. With an actress like Grace, it was hard to say what was real and what was an act. “Trust me, I get it.” If Grace had starred in action movies or had been a character actress in dramas, maybe her sexual orientation wouldn’t have mattered so much. But she had always played Ms. Perfect, the pretty girl-next-door, the one you wanted the movie’s hero to fall for. “I just didn’t think it would be that bad.” Lauren pointed over her shoulder to where the elderly lady had stopped them.
“I thought she was pretty sweet, actually.”
“Yeah,” Lauren grumbled, “because you weren’t the one she threatened with her monster purse.”
Grace laughed, a gesture that didn’t seem at all rehearsed.
“Thanks for not throwing me under the bus, by the way,” Lauren said.
Grace had expected Lauren to drive a BMW or a Lexus, but when Lauren pressed her key fob, the lights of a gray Honda Civic flashed. Most of the PR types she’d met were concerned with status symbols, but apparently, Lauren wasn’t.
Lauren looked at her over the roof of the car. “Something wrong?”
“No, nothing,” Grace said and quickly got in.
Lauren settled in the driver’s seat and looked over with a slight smile. “The carriage not to your liking?”
“It’s fine. I just…”
“You thought I’d drive something a little more…flashy?”
Grace nodded, embarrassed to admit it. She rubbed her goose-bump-covered arms. “Would you mind turning up the heat a little?”
“I can do better than that.”
Their shoulders brushed when Lauren turned and reached through the gap between their seats. “Here.” She handed Grace a red Boston University sweatshirt.
“Thanks.” A hint of Lauren’s perfume—a fresh, citrusy scent with spicy undertones—clung to the fabric, making Grace inhale deeply as she slipped the garment over her head.Hmm. Nice.
Grace looked over at Lauren. “Excuse me?”
“I’m going to need Jill’s address.”
“Oh. Of course.” Grace told her and tried to reach her friend again while Lauren punched the address into her GPS and started the car.
Still no answer from Jill. Grace was really starting to worry.
For once, there wasn’t much traffic, so they covered the eight miles to Jill’s home in Glendale in less than half an hour. The house sat on a corner lot, surrounded by an ivy-covered brick wall. Jill valued her privacy just as much as Grace did.
They got out of the car and pressed the call button next to the gate.
“Seems she went out,” Lauren said.
Grace peered through the iron bars toward the house. “I don’t think so. Her car is in the driveway, and the light is on in one room.”
“Then why isn’t she answering the intercom?”
A reason instantly popped into Grace’s head. She closed her eyes against the image, but it kept intruding. “What if she slipped and fell?”
“Why would she slip?” Lauren asked. “Is she drinking?”
“No.” Grace didn’t offer more of an explanation. Maybe bringing Lauren here hadn’t been such a good idea.
Lauren stepped closer and pressed the call button again—with the same lack of response. “If you’re really worried, maybe we should call the police.”
“No!” Jill wouldn’t like that kind of attention.
“But don’t you want to check on her?”
Lauren eyed the brick wall surrounding the house. “You’re not suggesting we climb the wall, are you?”
“Dressed like this?” Grace gestured to her stilettos and the sweatshirt-covered dress. “No, thanks. I have the security code, but I never used it without her knowing that I’m coming.”
If Lauren wondered why Jill had given her access to her home, she didn’t show it. She waited patiently while Grace typed the code into the panel.
The gate sprang open.
“Come on.” Grace waved at Lauren to follow her, and they entered the property.
Loud barking from the front of the house stopped them in their tracks just a few feet from the gate.
Lauren froze. “Oh, shit. You didn’t tell me she has a dog.”
“She didn’t the last time I was here.” Grace tried to make out the dog in the darkness, but she could see only a shadow on the porch. “Nice doggie.”
The barking started again. It sounded like a big dog. One with sharp teeth. And the barking was coming closer.
“Let’s get out of here!” Grace shouted.
Lauren didn’t have to be told twice. She sprinted toward the gate.
Nearly twisting her ankle in her stilettos, Grace followed. When she slid to a stop next to the code box, Lauren gripped her arm to steady her.
Her heart hammering wildly, Grace entered the code, but the gate wouldn’t open. “Shit!” Hastily, she peered toward the house and thought she saw a big shape charging toward them. “Climb!”
Next to each other, they grabbed handfuls of ivy and clambered up the wall.
Part of the ivy pulled from the wall, almost sending Grace plummeting to the ground.
Lauren gripped the sweatshirt and held on until Grace had grabbed hold of another handful of ivy.
One of Grace’s feet found a brick that stuck out of the wall, giving her a more secure hold. Her heart still slammed against her ribs as she peered down, trying to see where the barking dog was.
“Jesus Christ,” Lauren said next to her. “I don’t think this is covered in my contract.”
For some reason, this struck Grace as funny. She laughed hysterically, almost falling off the wall in the process. Her stilettos scraped over the wall until she found her foothold again.
When the dog continued to bark, lights went on in the house. The door opened. A figure, backlit by the light in the house, appeared in the doorway and then stepped onto the porch. “Who’s there?”
Was that Jill? She sounded strange somehow, but maybe it was just the blood rushing through Grace’s ears. “Jill? It’s me,” she called, “Grace.”
“What are you doing up there?”
“Uh, hanging on for dear life?” Grace glanced into the shadows where the dog lurked. “Can you call the dog back, please?”
“Tramp! Come here!”
Grace and Lauren looked at each other. “Tramp?” they mouthed at the same time.
Lauren breathed a sigh of relief when the dog gave one last bark and then raced toward the house.
After waiting a few seconds to make sure the dog wasn’t coming back, Lauren jumped down, congratulating herself for wearing sensible shoes. Once Grace had climbed down a little, Lauren reached up to put her hands on Grace’s hips. “I’ve got you.”
Still gripping the ivy, Grace slowly slid down and into Lauren’s arms.
A whiff of perfume teased Lauren’s nose, and for a moment, she wanted to pull Grace close, bury her nose in her fragrant hair, and hug her for all she was worth.Are you crazy?Grace was still a client, even though they’d just shared an adventure that seemed right out of an action movie. Quickly, she let go and stepped back.
Grace took one step toward the house and immediately stumbled as one of the stiletto heels finally gave out and snapped.
Lauren quickly caught her before she could fall. With their arms around each other, they tottered across the lawn toward Jill. Lauren could only imagine what a pathetic sight they must be, both of them scraped and covered with ivy and Grace with just one good shoe and wearing an old sweatshirt over her dress.
Jill still leaned in the doorway, holding on to the dog with one hand while gripping the doorjamb with the other.
Now that there was some light on the porch, Lauren realized that Tramp wasn’t the large, mean guard dog she’d imagined when she’d heard him bark in the dark. He was medium-sized, with a golden, curly coat that made him look like a cuddly teddy bear. Wagging his fluffy tail, he strained toward them, apparently eager to greet them and be petted.
Lauren groaned and traded glances with Grace. “That’s the monster dog we ran from?”
Grace shrugged with an impish grin. “It sounded like a much bigger dog.” She called over to Jill, “When did you get a dog?”
“I went to an adoption fair when we got back from Georgia. It was love at first sight, so we adopted each other.” Jill’s voice sounded slurred. The light from the house shone on her gleaming red hair, styled in a cute pixie cut that looked a little messy. Had she already been in bed, and that was why she hadn’t answered the doorbell?
Lauren stretched out her arm so the dog could sniff her hand. “What kind of dog is it?”
“He’s a labradoodle,” Jill said with a proud grin. At their questioning expressions, she added, “A cross between a Labrador retriever and a poodle. But let’s go and talk inside.” When she stepped back to let them in, her legs refused to carry her and she started to fall.
One arm still around Grace, Lauren managed to catch Jill with the other. All three of them tumbled against the doorjamb, both actresses clinging to Lauren.God, if Marlene could see me now… I think I dreamed of something like this when I was younger, but this wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.
“Jill?” Grace peered around Lauren. “Are you okay?”
“Fine,” Jill said but sounded as if she had trouble talking.
Was she drunk? Somehow, Lauren didn’t think so. This close to the actress, she would have smelled alcohol on her breath if that were the case.
The dog jumped around them, barking excitedly and nearly making them topple over, until Jill told him to go lie down.
Lauren caught a glimpse of a couch through an open door. “As pleasant as this is, ladies, I think we should go sit down.”
“One second.” Grace let go of Lauren and knelt to take off her ruined shoes. Carrying the stilettos in one hand, she squeezed past Lauren and wrapped her arm around Jill from the other side.
They led Jill to the couch, where she plopped down heavily. Grace and Lauren sat on either side of her.
After several moments, Lauren remembered her manners and reached out to offer Jill her hand. “Now that we already got up close and personal, maybe I should introduce myself. Lauren Pearce, Grace’s publicist.”
Jill gave her a friendly smile and took the offered hand. “Jill Corrigan.” She gazed at Grace. “What happened to Roberta?”
“My mother,” Grace said.
“Could someone please tell me what’s going on?” Lauren asked.
“I was just about to ask the same,” Jill said. “What were you doing climbing my wall in the middle of the night?”
Grace rubbed one knee that was covered in scratches. “It’s barely ten thirty.”
“That’s not the point.”
“I wanted to check on you,” Grace said. “I tried to reach you all day, and you didn’t show up at Russ’s ceremony.”
Her gaze on Lauren, Jill said, “I’m fine.”
Clearly, she wasn’t. She leaned heavily against the back of the couch and looked as if she was about to fall asleep sitting up. Her speech was slightly slurred and slow, as if she had to focus to form words. She didn’t seem the type to take drugs, but in Hollywood, you never knew. Whatever was going on, Jill was clearly reluctant to admit it in front of Lauren.
“I think we can trust Lauren,” Grace said.
“Youthink?” Lauren repeated. “I nearly got beaten up by an old lady and then eaten alive by Tramp the vicious labradoodle, all because I was trying to help you out. You’d think that would rate a more enthusiastic expression of trust.”
Grace smiled. “Right. Jill,” she said, her voice firm, “Iknowwe can trust Lauren. You should tell her.”
Tell me what?Lauren wanted to ask but sensed that it was better to keep quiet.
The two actresses looked at each other for several moments as if having a silent conversation. There was definitely a connection between them, but Lauren didn’t get the impression that it was anything more than the loyalty of friends who’d been through a lot together.
Finally, Jill inhaled and exhaled loudly and looked at Lauren. “I…” Faltering, she bit her lip and sent Grace an imploring gaze.
Grace took Jill’s hand. “Jill has MS.”
Lauren couldn’t help staring.But she’s too young,she wanted to say but then remembered a former client of hers who’d been an athlete in her mid-twenties—Jill’s age—when she’d been diagnosed with MS.
When Lauren said nothing, Grace added, “Multiple sclerosis.”
“I know. I mean…I know what MS means.” All the pieces of the puzzle suddenly fit together. That was why Jill had problems talking and walking and why the paparazzi had caught them stumbling up the stairs of Jill’s trailer and going to a hotel together. Grace had probably helped her keep it quiet and covered for her whenever Jill wasn’t doing so great.
Lauren looked from Grace to Jill. The actress’s green eyes were so vivid and full of life that it was hard to imagine that she had an incurable neurological condition. She finally decided to say exactly what was on her mind. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Say that you’ll keep it to yourself,” Jill said. “Please.”
“I will, but why? Why not just be open about it?”
Jill shook her head. “I don’t want to be known as the actress with MS. I want to be known for my acting skills, not for this condition.”
“Do you really think you can manage to keep it quiet for much longer? I mean…” Lauren gestured at the actress who sat slumped against the backrest.
“Today’s a bad day, but it’s not always like this. I’m not sure yet if it’s a relapse or just my normal symptoms acting up. When I got up this morning, my legs felt like limp noodles.” She looked at Grace. “That’s why I wasn’t at Russ’s ceremony. I was so tired that I camped out on the couch all day. I heard the phone ring a few times, but it’s upstairs, so…”
“It’s okay,” Grace said. “I’m just glad you’re all right.”
“What was so urgent that you had to come over here and break in?” Jill asked.
Grace hesitated as if debating whether to burden her friend with this.
“She needs to know,” Lauren said gently. “It could impact her career too.”
Jill looked back and forth between them. “Could someone please tell me what’s going on? Preferably before I pass out from exhaustion.”
“Do you want us to take you up to your bedroom first?” Grace asked.
“So the two of you can have your way with helpless little me?” Jill shook her head and then grinned. “Not that I’d put up much of a struggle.”
Grace slapped her leg.
Lauren watched them interact. Was Jill just trying to lighten the mood, or was she gay after all? But surely then Grace, who was deathly afraid of being thought of as lesbian, wouldn’t keep hanging out with her. Or maybe she would. After tonight, Lauren was beginning to think there wasn’t much Grace wouldn’t do for her friends.
“Tell me, please,” Jill said.
Grace blew out a breath. “The paparazzi are at it again. They somehow found out that we shared a hotel room in Macon. So now they’re putting one and one together and coming up with three.”
Painfully slow, Jill reached up and massaged her temples. “Shit.”
“They’re expecting a statement about our affair from me before noon tomorrow,” Grace added, making air quotes with her fingers.
Jill made a face as if she’d just bitten into a lemon. “Can’t we just tell them ‘no comment’?”
“Only if you want them to think you’ve got something to hide,” Lauren said. “Saying ‘no comment’ to a reporter is like waving a red flag in front of a bull. It’ll only make them dig deeper. Didn’t your publicist tell you that?” It was usually the first thing she told clients that were new to the entertainment business.
“I don’t have a publicist,” Jill said. “Like I said, I always wanted my acting to speak for itself, so I stayed away from any other publicity as much as I could. But it seems I really need a publicist now.” She grinned at Lauren, crinkling her lightly freckled nose. “You wouldn’t happen to know a good one, would you?”
Lauren knew she should say no. It wasn’t only that this was shaping up to be a PR nightmare that would have her working overtime in the very near future. Somehow, this felt personal for her, and she usually preferred to be all business when it came to her job. But when she felt the pleading gazes of the two actresses on her, saying no was not an option. “All right. I’ll need to talk this over with my boss, but as far as I’m concerned, you’ve got yourself a publicist.”
When she reached over to take Jill’s hand in both of hers, she hoped like hell that she wouldn’t end up regretting it.
They were both silent on the half-hour drive to Grace’s home. Lauren kept glancing over, but Grace seemed deep in thought, looking out the window, and Lauren was content to let her be and just drive in silence. It had been a long, eventful day for both of them.
When Lauren turned left, taking the Laurel Canyon Boulevard exit, Grace cleared her throat. “Thirteen years.”
Lauren looked over at her with a small smile. “I hope it won’t take us that long to get you and Jill out of this mess.”
“No, I mean, that’s how long it’s been since I had a drink.”
Lauren sensed the importance of this moment. Grace, who was notoriously closemouthed about her private life, had just trusted her with a secret that could harm her career. None of her fans had the slightest inkling that the golden girl of romantic comedies had once succumbed to addiction, and it was best to keep it that way. “Thirteen years,” Lauren repeated, not sure how to react to that big proof of trust. “Which means you stopped drinking when you were…?”
The tension visible on Grace’s face relaxed into a smile. “Is this your subtle way of asking me how old I am?”
“I know how old you are,” Lauren said. “Twenty-nine, like so many other actresses have been for years.”
“I’m really twenty-nine.”
Lauren grinned at the indignant tone. “I know. Which means you stopped drinking when you were sixteen.”
“Almost seventeen,” Grace said.
“Wasn’t that when you left that TV series?”
“No, that happened earlier, when I was fourteen. The drinking began when they kicked me off the show.”
“They kicked you off?” Lauren asked. “Why would they do that?”
“Ratings, why else?” Grace sighed.
“But you had a lot of loyal fans, didn’t you? I mean, purse lady clearly still remembered you fondly after all these years.”
Grace stared through the windshield. “Yeah, but I bet she remembers the cute little girl, not the pimply-faced teenager. As I grew older, I wasn’t so cute anymore.”
Somehow, Lauren doubted that. The actress was cute, even barefoot, scratched, and in a stained dress. Lauren could hardly imagine her as an awkward teenager.
Grace must have seen her skeptical expression, because she said, “No, really. It was bad. I had acne like you wouldn’t believe, and keeping the weight off was a constant battle. After the powers that be sent little Amber off to boarding school in Europe, I had trouble finding work for a year or two. My mother dragged me to every dermatologist and to every cattle call in town. God, that was humiliating.”
Lauren had accompanied a few of her clients to casting calls, so she knew how demoralizing they could be. She could only imagine how Grace must have felt as a teenager—when her self-esteem was low to begin with—having to face casting directors who eyed her every pimple and each extra ounce of fat on her body and told her she wasn’t good enough for a role.
“That’s when the drinking got bad,” Grace said.
“How did you manage to keep it quiet?” Lauren asked. “I’ve worked in PR for eight years now, and I never even heard rumors about it.”
Grace shrugged. “Acting was the only thing that meant something to me. I always stopped drinking early enough to be sober when call time came. My mother was also very creative when it came to covering for me.”
Her mother had covered for her instead of putting her into rehab? Lauren couldn’t believe it. She didn’t know what to say to that, so they drove along in silence, only the hum of the engine filling the space between them.
A loud growling noise interrupted the silence.
Grace pressed a hand to her stomach. “Sorry.”
“No need to apologize for being human,” Lauren said. Truth be told, she was pretty hungry too. She’d skipped lunch and dinner, and by now, her stomach felt as if it were ready to digest itself. She looked over at Grace. “Do you want to stop somewhere for something to eat?”
“At this hour?”
“Hey, this is LA, the city that never sleeps.”
“That’s New York,” Grace said.
Lauren playfully rolled her eyes. “Smart-ass.” She paused when she realized what she was doing. When had their interaction become less professional and more like the banter between friends?
But Grace didn’t seem to mind. The teasing probably introduced a normalcy she didn’t often get in her interactions. “Yeah, but I’m a barefoot smart-ass with scratched-up knees. Even if we find a place that is still open, we can’t walk into a restaurant looking like this.”
She was right, of course. People usually just saw the freedom that money could buy celebrities—a shopping trip to Paris, vacationing on the Bahamas, a new sports car every year—but there were actually a lot of things Grace couldn’t do. Lauren wondered if she’d ever had a beer at a corner bar or taken a stroll through the park in a pair of old jeans and no makeup. “Right,” Lauren said. “Can you imagine the headlines I’ll have to deal with tomorrow if you show up in a restaurant like that?”
“Are you implying that I look less than my usual gorgeous, sophisticated self?” Grace asked in a faux haughty tone.
Lauren looked away from the street for a moment. The headlights of oncoming cars bathed Grace in streaks of light, so Lauren could take in Grace’s scraped knees, the ivy stains on her white dress, and the baggy sweatshirt that kept slipping over her hands. “You look beautiful.” She cursed herself as soon as she’d said it.
Just when she was about to add something such as,For an actress who’ll soon turn thirty,Grace said quietly, “Thanks.”
In the awkward silence, the gurgling of another stomach—this time Lauren’s—sounded overly loud.
“Guess I’m not the only one who’s hungry,” Grace said with a mild smile.
Lauren nodded. “I could eat a horse.”
“Well, I don’t think I have any ungulates in my fridge, but there should be enough other stuff to throw together a salad and sandwiches. You’re welcome to join me.”
Lauren wanted to accept the invitation, sensing that Grace rarely if ever had guests over, but she knew it wasn’t a good idea. “It’s not that I don’t want to, but…”
“You want to keep things professional,” Grace said. “I understand.” She turned her head and stared out the side window to the darkness beyond.
The playful mood was gone, and Lauren almost wished she would have accepted the invitation. “I wouldn’t put it beyond Stan to keep an eye on your house to see who’s coming and going. Can you imagine what he’d write in thatCelluloid Closetcolumn of his if a known lesbian was seen sneaking out of the home of Grace Durand in the middle of the night?”
Grace groaned. “Jesus Christ. Sometimes, a sandwich is just a sandwich.”
“Not when you’re in show business, Dr. Freud.”
“I guess.” Grace looked out the window again.
“Well,” Lauren said when the silence in the car continued, “I’m fairly sure Stan isn’t keeping an eye on my place.”
Slowly, Grace turned her head and looked at her.
“We need to talk about what to tell Stan tomorrow anyway, and we might as well eat while we do that,” Lauren added.
When Grace nodded her acceptance and said, “I’d like that,” Lauren started to wonder whether she’d picked her socks up off the floor in the living room before leaving for work this morning.
Grace suppressed a giggle as they glanced left and right and then, when they were sure no one was watching, snuck into Lauren’s apartment building in Brentwood. She hadn’t done something like this since she had been a teenager, sneaking out to party with some of her older co-stars.
Luckily, everything was quiet as they made their way down the corridor, with no neighbors peeking out of their apartments. Lauren stopped in front of the last door to the right and unlocked it. She reached in to turn on the light before letting Grace enter ahead of her.
Still barefoot, carrying her stilettos in one hand, Grace squeezed past Lauren and looked around.
By the standards of her Hollywood acquaintances, the apartment was small, but Grace instantly liked it. The front door opened directly into a long living/dining room, with no space wasted on a hall. Four chairs were placed around a square dining table on which a stack of bills and magazines waited for Lauren’s attention. To the right, an open archway led into a small, but fully functional kitchen.
The apartment was quiet except for the hum of the stainless steel refrigerator. Grace realized belatedly that she hadn’t asked Lauren if she lived alone. She was curious but didn’t want to appear nosy by asking about Lauren’s private life. Lauren was her publicist, after all, even if she was starting to feel almost like a friend.I guess scrambling up a brick wall together can do that to you, but you’d better be careful.She’d been burned by new friends more than once. People she’d thought she could trust had revealed all kinds of personal information to the media. Nothing scandalous, but still, it rankled her to read in magazines about her battle to keep off weight or about how much she’d paid for her couch. As a result, she’d become slower to trust over the years. Despite her internal admonition, she had a feeling that Lauren wouldn’t betray her, even without a confidentiality clause.
Lauren walked past her and opened the sliding glass door leading to a small balcony. Fresh air streamed into the apartment. She gestured at the camel-colored microfiber couch in the living room. “Please, have a seat while I rustle up something to eat.”
When Lauren moved to the kitchen, Grace stood by the open balcony door for a moment, breathing in the fresh air. Through the palm trees and greenery surrounding the building, the lights of the city glittered in the distance. “Nice,” she said when she finally turned and settled into the plush couch cushions.
“Thanks,” Lauren said from the kitchen, her voice sounding muffled as if she had her head stuck in the refrigerator. “Nothing special, but I like it here. It’s not like I’m home that much anyway, so it’s enough for me.”
“How long have you lived here?” Grace asked as she eyed the stack of scripts on the coffee table. Was Lauren reading them for one of her clients?
The refrigerator door thudded closed, and then pots banged. “About eight years.”
“And before that, you lived in Boston?”
Lauren stepped around the breakfast bar separating the kitchen from the living room and sent Grace a startled gaze. “Did you google me or something?”
Grace laughed. “No.” Grinning, she pointed at the sweatshirt she was still wearing.
“Oh.” Lauren went back to the part of the kitchen Grace couldn’t see. “Yeah, I went to BU, but I was born in LA.”
“Oh, wow. You’re probably the first LA native I’ve met.”
The sound of a jar popping open and Lauren’s chuckle drifted over. “What can I say? We’re a rare breed. Onions?”
“Uh, excuse me?”
“Do you want onions?”
What the heck was Lauren making? “No, thanks.”
“How about you?” Lauren asked and leaned over the breakfast bar to look at Grace. “Where were you born, Betty G. Duvenbeck?”
Grace winced at the use of her birth name. “What? That big red file you have on me told you my birth name but not where I was born?”
“How do you know it’s a red file? There are other colors too, you know?”
“After my mother fired you your first week, I have a feeling I rate the red file,” Grace answered. She realized that she liked Lauren’s gentle teasing. It was so unlike the reverent tone most other people used when talking to her. Lauren seemed unimpressed by her celebrity status and made Grace feel as if she could for once be herself—whoever that was. Sometimes, after spending months getting into the head of a character, it was hard to remember.
A drawer opened and closed in the kitchen. “I’m pleading the fifth. So, where were you born?”
“Londen,” Grace said.
“London? You don’t sound British.”
“Not London. Londen.” Grace spelled it for her. “A tiny little town in Illinois, with nothing but cornfields and one stop light.”
“Did you like it there?” Lauren asked from the kitchen.
Grace curled her bare toes into the soft carpet. “I guess it was okay. I didn’t really spend enough time there to be sure. I spent a lot of my childhood in LA and Toronto, shooting commercials, TV shows, and later movies.”
“We have that in common,” Lauren said. “Well, not the shooting, of course. But I practically grew up on various movie sets too. My whole family is involved in the entertainment business.”
“You mean other than your parents?”
“Yeah. Let’s see… We have several actors, two screenwriters, and a costume designer. Oh, and my godfather and godmother are studio executives. Our family dinners looked more like production meetings. I knew long before I entered school that I never wanted to end up in show business. It’s a crazy line of work, and you have to be a bit nuts to survive in it. Um, no offense intended,” Lauren added as if only now remembering who she was talking to.
Grace smiled. “No offense taken. So what happened to make you end up as a publicist for the people in this crazy business?”
“I guess I missed the California sunshine,” Lauren said.
“That’s your answer? You missed the California sunshine, and that’s why you went into PR?”
“Well, not directly,” Lauren said. “After four winters in Boston, I moved back here. I worked in the marketing and communications department of a nonprofit organization for three years.”
Grace could see her in that line of work, maybe helping underprivileged children, homeless people, or animals in need. Somehow, she got the impression that Lauren was a person who’d throw herself into her job and be good at it, no matter what it was. “What happened then?”
“I did someone a favor,” Lauren said. “An old friend of my family, who is a talent agent, needed something written for one of his clients, so I helped out for a while.”
“And you were hooked.”
Grace wished she could see into the kitchen area and watch Lauren’s face. She couldn’t quite figure out whether Lauren regretted going into PR or thought it was the best thing that could have happened to her career. Before she could open her mouth for another question, Lauren asked, “Ready for my award-worthy midnight snack?”
As if in answer, Grace’s stomach rumbled again. “Beyond ready.”
Lauren rounded the breakfast bar with a tray. “Mind if we eat here, or do you want to move to the dining table?”
“Here is fine.” Grace craned her neck to see what Lauren had prepared.
After pushing the stack of scripts out of the way, Lauren set the tray on the coffee table.
Steam rose off four hot dogs. Other bowls held condiments such as onions, relish, and shredded cheese. Bottles of ketchup and mustard balanced at the edge of the tray.
Grace’s mouth watered as she caught a whiff. “Oh, God. Do you know how long it’s been since I had one of those?”
“Oh. I didn’t think… Is it okay?” Lauren asked.
“I really shouldn’t…” Her mother would have a heart attack if she saw her eat junk food, especially this late in the day.
Lauren pointed at the fridge. “If you’d rather have a salad, I can—”
“No. This is fine.” Grace decided that she’d just spend an extra half hour on the elliptical trainer tomorrow and reached for one of the soft, white buns.
Lauren settled on the recliner across from Grace and watched her pile condiments on her hot dog. During her career, she’d had lunch with many actresses, and most of them just picked at their salads instead of eating heartily.
Not so Grace. She pushed up the sleeves of Lauren’s sweatshirt, picked up the hot dog, eyed it for a moment, and then took a big bite. “Oh God. So good.”
The moans and little sounds she made while she ate made Lauren squirm. She’d watched love scenes in movies that sounded less erotic.
Grace looked up and licked a bit of mustard off her fingers. Somehow, she managed to make even that look sexy.
Lauren averted her gaze and reached for her bottle of water, feeling the need to cool off. Bringing Grace here, into her private life, hadn’t been one of her brightest ideas. Apparently, her libido wanted to share more than just hot dogs.
“Thank you,” Grace said when her first hot dog was gone.
“It’s just hot dogs.”
“Not just for the hot dogs. For everything you did today. Like you said, running from a dog and climbing a brick wall isn’t covered in your contract, so thanks.”
Lauren reached for her own hot dog so she didn’t have to look at Grace and see the gratefulness in her eyes. It was easier to think that she’d just fulfilled her duties as a publicist, nothing more. She tilted her head in silent acknowledgment and said, “That second hot dog is yours.”
“I shouldn’t,” Grace said, even as she reached for it.
Chuckling, Lauren heaped relish on her own hot dog.
After polishing off the last crumb of her second hot dog, Grace insisted on doing the dishes.
“That’s not necessary,” Lauren said. “I have a dishwasher.”
“Does it rinse the plates and put the food back into the fridge too?”
Grace sent her a telling gaze. “Well, then I guess one of us needs to do that. And since you cooked…”
Lauren gave up and followed her to the kitchen with a clipboard. She leaned against the breakfast bar and watched Grace put the mustard and ketchup back into the refrigerator and rinse the plates and bowls. How surreal this was. Grace Durand, three-time Golden Globe winner, was in her kitchen, doing the dishes. Lauren shook herself out of her haze and lifted the clipboard. “Let’s talk about what to tell Stan tomorrow morning.”
“Not much we can tell him,” Grace said. “Not as long as Jill isn’t ready to tell the public that she has MS.” When she bent to put the plates into the dishwasher, her dress slid up a little, revealing a smooth expanse of thigh.
With some effort, Lauren forced her gaze back onto the blank page. “She should really think about doing it soon.”
“I understand why she’s hesitating. She mostly plays spunky sidekicks, characters that are upbeat and full of life. What if casting directors think someone with MS can’t convincingly portray those characters once the public finds out?”
Lauren didn’t have a good answer for that. Life as an actress sometimes simply wasn’t fair. “Okay. Then what do you want to tell Stan?”
Grace closed the dishwasher, turned, and leaned against it. “Can’t we simply tell him that Jill and I are just two friends who wanted to spend a quiet night away from the set?”
“That sounds too much like a romantic getaway,” Lauren said. “But I like the premise. How about we rephrase it a little?” She scribbled something down, describing the stressful life on set—five o’clock call times, fourteen-hour days, endless repetitions because the director wanted one more take—and then stating that the two actresses had retreated to the hotel for its whirlpool and room service. That was how most people viewed actresses anyway. She held out the clipboard so Grace could read it.
When Grace finished reading and looked up, admiration sparked in her eyes. “Brilliant. You really have a way with words.”
“The inn did have a whirlpool, didn’t it?” Lauren asked. Stan was an old-school journalist. He’d check out each and every little detail of their story.
A tiny wrinkle formed on Grace’s forehead. “I have no idea. Once I finally had Jill in bed, I didn’t leave the room.”
Lauren pointed at her with the pen. “Don’t say that to the press.”
Grace rolled her eyes. “You’ve got a dirty mind.”
Chuckling, Lauren led her back to the living room.
Grace sat in Lauren’s recliner, both feet up, Lauren’s MacBook on her lap while Lauren rummaged around in the next room.
“Did you find anything?” Lauren asked when she returned with a first-aid kit.
Grace nodded and pointed at the website on the laptop’s screen. “They do have an outdoor whirlpool.”
“Great. I’ll send Stan the statement tomorrow morning, then.” Lauren put the first-aid kit on the coffee table and opened it. “Now let me see your knees.”
“They’re just a few scrapes, nothing serious.”
“Even scrapes can get infected,” Lauren said. “It’s better not to take any risks. I don’t want to have to handle headlines like ‘Grace Durand hospitalized with an infection she contracted when she climbed the wall surrounding Jill Corrigan’s property in a sapphic midnight remake ofRomeo and Juliet.’”
Grace had to laugh at the headlines that Lauren kept making up. “You’re right. We can’t risk that. I prefer movies with happy endings.”
Lauren soaked a cotton ball with antiseptic and knelt next to the recliner.
They both looked down at Grace’s legs. Several scratches covered her knees, a few trailing down to her shins. Most of them hadn’t broken the skin, but some had been bleeding. Half-dried blood and bits of dirt now clung to her legs.
“This might sting a bit.” Lauren lowered the cotton ball, hovering just an inch from Grace’s skin. “Ready?”
Grace nodded and braced herself. A burning pain flared through her when the antiseptic touched her skin. She clamped her hands around the armrests of the recliner and looked at Lauren, the dark head bent as she worked on getting the dirt out of the wounds.
Lauren’s hands, broad, with long fingers, moved gently over her skin.
Grace couldn’t remember the last time someone had taken such tender care of her.
When Lauren was done with the antiseptic, she squeezed out a bit of antibiotic ointment and used cotton swabs to dab it onto the scrapes without touching them directly.
Grace thought it was overkill for a couple of harmless scrapes, but she didn’t have the heart to tell her.
Finally, Lauren placed Band-Aids over the deepest cuts, re-capped the tube of ointment, and clicked the first-aid kit shut. “There.” She smiled up at her. “All better now.”
Grace cleared her throat. “Thank you, Dr. Pearce.” She put Lauren’s laptop on the coffee table and stood.
“Do you want me to drive you home now?” Lauren asked.
“That’s not necessary. I’ll call a service that I sometimes use to drive me to the airport. They’re very discreet.”
Lauren frowned. “I can drive you.”
“Thanks for the offer, but remember the headline you quoted earlier? How would you like to handle a headline about Grace Durand getting out of the car of a known lesbian in the middle of the night, wearing said lesbian’s clothes?” Grace tugged on the sweatshirt she was still wearing.
“Hmm. You might have a point there.”
Grace called the service. By the time the driver arrived, it was nearly two in the morning. Yawning, Grace walked to the door and turned back to Lauren.
They smiled at each other.
“Thanks again for everything,” Grace said, meaning it.
“You’re welcome. Good night.”
“Good night.” One foot already outside the apartment, Grace remembered something and turned back around. “Your sweatshirt.” She moved to take it off, but Lauren shook her head.
“Keep it. Remember—”
“Yeah, yeah. I know. You don’t want to handle headlines about Grace Durand catching pneumonia.”
They shared another grin, and then Grace left.
What a crazy day,Grace thought as the door closed behind her. Somehow, though, Lauren’s presence had made it all okay. She hoped tomorrow would go just as well.
Lauren jerked awake. After untangling herself from the sheets, she rubbed her eyes and sat up. Remnants of a dream still clung to her hazy mind like cobwebs, images of running across a lawn with Grace, scrambling up a wall, and then patching up Grace’s knees. Pretty much a realistic repeat of last night—only that when Lauren had glanced up with the cotton ball in hand, Grace had lowered her head and kissed her.
She pressed her hand to her tingling lips and tried to tell herself that it was perfectly harmless. Millions of people worldwide had dreams like that about Grace Durand, right?
Yeah, but those people don’t have to work with her.Maybe she should put some professional distance between them and cut out the friendly banter that had somehow made it into their interactions.
Finally more awake, she realized that bright sunlight was filtering in through the shades. Her head swiveled around.
The glowing numbers on her alarm clock told her that it was already after eight. Why hadn’t the damn thing gone off? Had she forgotten to set the alarm before finally drifting off to sleep around three?
No time to figure it out now.
She jumped out of bed without checking her e-mail, as she usually did right after waking up. She was showered, dressed, and on the way to the office in record time. When she walked into the lobby of CTP, there was only one thing on her mind: coffee.
“Lauren!” Tina’s urgent voice reached her before she could start her search for a cup of the coveted beverage. “Thank God you’re here. I’ve been trying to reach you for the last hour. The press has been calling all morning for a comment from you or Ms. Durand.”
Frowning, Lauren reached into her pocket and pulled out the phone she’d grabbed on her way out. She’d turned it off before the handprint ceremony yesterday and had then uncharacteristically forgotten to turn it back on.
Now, as she powered it back on, it chimed frantically. She had eleven missed calls, three of them from Stan Zaleski, three from the office, and five from various reporters.
Oh shit.Whatever was going on, it wasn’t good. “What happened?”
“Uh, maybe you should just listen to your messages or read your e-mail,” Tina said, clearly not wanting to be the one who gave Lauren the bad news.
Nearly plowing down an intern, Lauren rushed to her office and powered up the computer while she listened to her messages.
The first one was from Stan. “Lauren? This is Stan Zaleski. There’s been a change of plans. Can you call me back, please?”
The next one was from him too. “Stan again. I’m in a bit of a predicament. One of our writers didn’t send in his article on time, so my boss wants the article about Grace Durand to go live sooner. Can you send me her statement tonight?”
Lauren started cursing.
Then Stan’s voice came again. “The article just went live. I’m sorry.”
Listening to the messages of bloggers and reporters who wanted more information about Grace’s newfound sexual orientation, Lauren clenched her jaw and opened her browser. Seconds later, Stan’s blog post appeared on her computer screen.
Lauren skimmed it quickly.
Unlike the sensational garbageTinseltown Talkhad published, this article was intelligently written, and Lauren agreed with a lot of what was said. Instead of focusing just on Grace, Stan Zaleski had written about the don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy of Hollywood studio heads and casting directors who pressured actors and actresses to stay in the closet, fearing they’d lose money due to the part of their audience that might not like gays and lesbians in leading roles. The sad thing was that many of the studio execs, agents, and other power players were gay themselves—and Stan vowed to expose their double lives, starting with Grace Durand.
He’d included the picture of Grace and Jill climbing the stairs to Jill’s trailer, holding on to each other, and romantic snapshots of the Ocmulgee Riverside Inn at sunset.
At the end of the article, he’d stated that “neither actress could be reached for comment,” which made them look even more as if they had something to hide.
The blog post had gone live not even twelve hours ago, but it already had hundreds of comments, some of them from fans claiming they’d always known that Grace was a lesbian and Nick just a “beard,” while others were links to blogs and websites that had already picked up the story.
Lauren shoved back the keyboard tray. She didn’t want to even glance at Twitter, knowing that a storm of speculation had most likely descended upon them. What had started out as a mention in a gossip rag that no one took seriously had now turned into a media hurricane.
She itched to pick up the phone to call Stan and rip into him, but she knew it wouldn’t do her any good. What was done was done. Now she needed to focus on damage control—and fast.
A hand on her shoulder startled Grace awake, nearly making her jump out of bed—and out of her skin. She bumped her head on the headboard as she jerked upright and clutched the sheet to her chest.
Her mother loomed over her in a pink skirt suit.
For a moment, Grace thought she was still dreaming, having one of the nightmares in which her mother dragged her out of bed and to a casting call, where Grace stood in front of the casting director naked and utterly unprepared. But when she pinched herself, the image in front of her remained.
“What are you still doing in bed?” her mother asked, her hands on her hips. “Haven’t you seen what’s going on?”
Well, apparently not, since I was sleeping.Grace bit her lip so she wouldn’t say it. “I had a late night after Russ’s party,” she said instead. No need to tell her mother where she’d been. It would only lead to discussions since her mother wasn’t a big fan of Jill—or Lauren.
Her mother took a step back and stared at something on the floor. The color drained from her heavily made-up face. “That ugly thing isn’t yours, is it?” Her gaze went to the bathroom door. “Oh my God! Is there someone in there?”
Still not fully awake, Grace glanced from the bathroom to her mother and finally to the floor. Lauren’s Boston University sweatshirt lay beside the bed next to her dress, where she’d stripped it off before falling into bed last night. “Oh, you thought…? No, that’s just Lauren’s.”
But that didn’t seem to calm her mother’s concerns—quite the opposite. “Lauren?” she screeched. “That…that publicist? You mean you and she…?”
Grace sighed. Why did she have to deal with all this drama so soon after waking up, after a night like the last one? She reached for the bathrobe draped over a nearby chair, slipped out of bed, and put it on. “No, Mom. Nothing’s going on between Lauren and me. She just lent me her sweatshirt; that’s all. I’m not gay, remember?”
“Then what’s this?” Her mother reached into her large purse and threw a printout of a celebrity website onto the bed.
Grace caught a glimpse of her own face in a photo before her mother threw another website printout on top.
This one had a photo of Grace and Jill on the set ofAva’s Heart, their shoulders touching as they looked at a page of last-minute script changes that Jill held.
A glossy magazine landed on top of the printouts. “And this?”
With trembling fingers, Grace picked up the magazine and leafed through it until she found the article about her and Jill. It was peppered with photos of the inn where they had stayed while shooting in Macon. The tabloid called it theirromantic little love nest.
Shit.Grace plopped down onto the bed and reached for the cell phone on her nightstand. Just when she was about to call Lauren, the phone started to ring and Lauren’s name flashed across the display. Grace quickly accepted the call. “Did you see it?” she asked instead of a greeting.
“Yes,” Lauren said, sounding as if she was gritting her teeth. “Stan ran the article last night, and a couple of other bloggers picked up the story within an hour.”
“It’s not just the bloggers. There’s at least one gossip rag that worked really fast and printed the same nonsense.” Loud honking made Grace jerk the phone away from her ear. Cautiously, she moved it back. “Where are you?”
“On my way to Glendale,” Lauren said.
That could mean only one thing. “You want to talk Jill into telling the press the truth.”
“Yes. It’s the only way out of this mess. By now, not telling them is hurting both of your careers much more than revealing the truth ever could.”
Grace blew out a breath. “I think you’re right. Drive carefully.”
“I will. Please be careful too. Don’t leave the house if you don’t have to,” Lauren said. “I bet the paparazzi are somewhere out there, just waiting to jump on you.”
“I’ll try to stay in,” Grace said. Not much else she could say or do, so she ended the call.
“Telling the press the truth?” her mother repeated, sounding alarmed. “What truth is that?”
“I can’t tell you that,” Grace said.
Her mother’s lipstick-red mouth formed a startled O. “But…but you always told me everything.”
“And I would, Mom, but this isn’t my truth to tell. Have some patience, okay? I promise you’ll find out soon.” Grace wanted to crawl back into bed and pull the covers up over her head, shutting out her mother, the media jackals, and the entire world, but she knew she couldn’t. With her mother’s disapproving gaze following her, she headed to the bathroom to get ready for whatever this day would have in store for her.
Rush hour still hadn’t ended, so it seemed to take forever until Lauren reached Glendale. When she finally turned the last corner and Jill’s house came into view, she started cursing and smashed her fist against the steering wheel.Dammit.She should have known the paparazzi would get there faster than she did.
Half a dozen vehicles lay in wait in front of Jill’s house, most of them SUVs with dark-tinted windows, which were typical for celebrity-hunting photographers.
If she went in through the front door, she’d end up in the tabloids. The press vultures might even try to follow her in, not caring that they were breaking the law.
Lauren stopped her car two houses down, ignoring the fact that she was blocking someone’s driveway. For a moment, she contemplated climbing the wall at the back of Jill’s property, where the paparazzi couldn’t see her, but she immediately dismissed that crazy idea. She didn’t want to even imagine what the media would write if she got caught doing that.
Just when she was about to pull out her cell phone and call Jill, a black town car rounded the corner. It slowed in front of Jill’s house, but the SUVs were blocking the front gate. The town car stopped, and one of the doors in the back opened.
Lauren craned her neck to see who was getting out. “Jill, if that’s you, stay in the car,” she murmured.
Of course, it was Jill. Her red hair gleamed in the sun as she climbed out of the car.
The paparazzi crowded around her before she could take even one step toward the gate. Cameras flashed, making Jill flinch back. One of the men pulled out a reporter’s notebook.
“Oh, no, no, no. Don’t say anything, Jill.” Cursing, Lauren jumped out of the car and locked it hastily. As she sprinted over, the paparazzi peppered Jill with shouted questions.
“How long has it been going on?”
“Does Nick know about the affair?”
“Does he know his wife is gay?”
“Nonsense,” Jill said. “Grace isn’t gay.”
Like a shark scenting blood, one of the reporters pressed closer. “But you are?”
“No!” Lauren shouted and ran faster to reach them before it was too late. “Don’t say anything, Jill!”
But apparently, Jill didn’t hear her over the snap of cameras and the shouts of the paparazzi. She had shrunk back, clutching the open door of the car for support. Now she slowly straightened. “Yes,” she said and lifted her chin. “Yes, I am.”
More flashes went off.
Lauren pushed past the paparazzi, nearly getting an elbow in the eye, and took up position in front of Jill. “That’s enough, gentlemen.”And I use that term very loosely.“We’ll prepare a statement with more details. If you leave me your cards, I’ll e-mail it to you.”
The paparazzi grumbled, but when Lauren stood her ground, they finally handed over their business cards and backed off. They climbed into their SUVs and cleared the driveway, but they didn’t drive off, hanging around just in case something else exciting happened.
Jill let go of the car door, closed it, and stumbled away from the town car, which slowly drove off. She looked at Lauren with wide eyes. “Oh, shit. Did I really say that?”
Lauren sighed. “Yes, you did.”
“Jesus, Grace is going to kill me.”
Only if I don’t do it first,Lauren thought and helped the shell-shocked actress into the house.
Jill sank onto the couch and raked her fingers through her hair, thoroughly messing it up. Tramp ran over and leaned his muzzle on his mistress’s leg, whining as if he could sense that something was going on.
Lauren got a glass of water and pressed it into Jill’s hands. “Here.”
Jill gulped down the water. “I wish I could have something stronger right now, but the doctors don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“What were you thinking?” Lauren asked.
“The only thing going through my mind was ‘whatever you do, don’t sayno comment.’”
Lauren groaned. She should have instructed Jill more carefully about how to handle the press, but there had been no time last night, and she hadn’t thought things would move so quickly. Perching on the other end of the couch, she studied Jill’s face. The actress was pale but seemed to be doing better than she had last night. “So you’re gay?”
Jill threaded her fingers through Tramp’s curly coat and looked up. A hint of humor returned to her green eyes. “Aren’t you supposed to be able to tell? You’re gay too, right?”
“Yes, I am. But it seems being chased up a wall by a dog puts my gaydar out of order,” Lauren said with a shrug.
Jill snorted. “He hardly chased you up a wall. Tramp might bark, but he’s more likely to invite intruders in for a petting session.”
“Does Grace know?” Lauren asked.
The light in Jill’s eyes dimmed. Pressing her lips together, she shook her head. “I don’t think so. She might suspect, but I never came right out—no pun intended—and said so.”
“Then we’d better figure out what to tell herandthe media.” Now that Jill had outed herself, even the more serious press might print articles about her possible involvement with Grace.
Moaning, Jill buried her face in the dog’s fur and then peeked up at Lauren. “Can’t you do it for me?”
“You are my publicist, aren’t you?”
“I’ll handle the press. You handle Grace.”
Jill let go of Tramp and fell back against the couch. She sent Lauren a pleading gaze. “Can’t we do it the other way around?”
Lauren raised her brows. “You aren’t afraid of her reaction, are you?” While Grace hadn’t reacted too well to finding out she’d hired a lesbian publicist, Lauren hadn’t gotten the impression that she was homophobic. Grace had seemed totally relaxed when having hot dogs in Lauren’s apartment with her.
“I don’t want her to think…” Jill looked down to where she painted invisible patterns onto the armrest of the couch.
“Do you know how many people pretend to be her friend in the hopes of getting something from her—her money, her body, a role in her next movie, a bit of the limelight…?” Jill shook her head. “I don’t want her to think I’m one of them.”
“Why would she think that?” Lauren asked. “Just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you’re a gold digger or out to seduce her.”
Jill said nothing.
Lauren hesitated, wanting to grant Jill some privacy, but she needed to know. There’d been too many surprises blindsiding her already. “You’re not in love with her, are you?”
“No,” Jill said quickly. A little too quickly, perhaps.
Lauren kept looking at her.
Red-cheeked, Jill threw a pillow in her direction, making Tramp strain to jump up on the couch because he wanted to join in on the game. Jill pushed him back down. “Oh, come on. She’s gorgeous. What dyke wouldn’t be just a tiny little bit infatuated with her?” She looked into Lauren’s eyes. “Aren’t you?”
Images of her dream flashed through Lauren’s mind, and she again felt Grace’s soft lips on hers. She stiffly shook her head. “This isn’t about me.”
“Oooh.” Jill’s wolf whistle made the dog bark. She soothed him before sliding closer to Lauren on the couch. “Do tell!”
Lauren gritted her teeth. “Nothing to tell. And don’t try to change the subject.”
“Said the pot to the kettle,” Jill murmured.
“Jill,” Lauren said with a warning undertone. “Seriously.”
Jill held up both hands. “Okay, okay. So, to answer your question, I might have a little bit of a crush, but I’m not in love with her. I’m her friend. How do we get the media and the fans to believe that?”
Sighing, Lauren pinched the bridge of her nose. “That’s the million-dollar question.”
When Grace realized she had read the same page of the script three times without remembering one word, she threw the stapled stack of paper on the coffee table and got up from the couch. She restlessly prowled the house and finally settled down in the breakfast nook, where she’d left her laptop.
Her mother looked up from the smoothie maker that she was trying to figure out. “What is it, darling?”
“Nothing.” Grace forced a smile. “Just checking my e-mail.”
“You really should hire a housekeeper who’s here twenty-four/seven, you know?”
Grace got up, walked over to her mother, and put the pieces of the smoothie maker together before sitting back down. When she opened the lid of her laptop, a notification alerted her of new messages. She accessed her in-box and glanced at the unread e-mail, most of them messages from George and some that Lauren’s office had forwarded her. None of them looked urgent.
No new messages from Lauren, though. Was she still talking to Jill?
She frowned when she saw an unread e-mail from someone whose name she didn’t recognize. Probably just spam. She clicked on it to make sure. After reading the first sentence, she realized it was from a fan. How the heck had he found out her personal e-mail address?Great. Like things aren’t bad enough.Now she’d have to change her e-mail address—again.
She skimmed the rest of the message. It was from someone who’d signed the e-mail “a former fan” and promised her that she’d burn in hell. A wave of anger swept over her with such force that she nearly shoved the laptop off the table. Why was someone who had been a fan suddenly sending her hate mail just because of these stupid rumors? Sometimes, she just didn’t understand people.
Calm down. Lauren will make it go away.She took several deep breaths before deleting the e-mail and emptying the trash.
There.The message was gone forever. She hoped she wouldn’t get another one like this but knew better. Instead of opening the other unread messages, she logged out of her e-mail program.
Her e-mail provider displayed a colorful page of celebrity news.
Grace rolled her eyes and was just about to close the browser when one of the pictures caught her attention.
It showed a redheaded woman getting out of a town car, her eyes wide as if the photographer had surprised her.
Grace’s finger froze on the trackpad.She leaned closer to the screen to study the small image.That’s Jill!The caption beneath the picture said,Yes, I am.
Huffing, Grace clicked on the picture just to see in what clever way the tabloids had distorted the truth this time.
The headline of the short article was set in all caps, practically screaming, YES, I AM—JILL CORRIGAN COMES OUT AS GAY!
“Yeah, sure,” Grace mumbled and started to read.
Jill Corrigan, best known for her role in the popular TV showCoffee to Go, has recently been photographed getting up close and personal with Grace Durand, even spending the night at a romantic little inn with her.
We caught up with the actress in front of her Glendale home this morning to hear what’s up with the two hotties.
When asked if she’s gay, Jill said, “Yes, I am,” confirming the rumors in true Ellen DeGeneres-style.
Grace still hasn’t commented one way or the other, so stay tuned!
Grace blinked and reread the article. The “yes, I am gay” echoed through her head. Part of her wanted to dismiss it as fake news made up by a couple of reporters out to make money, but the photo had clearly been taken in front of Jill’s house. After her adventure last night, Grace was intimately familiar with the ivy-covered brick wall in the background of the picture. If the photo was real, maybe the rest of the article was too.
Had Jill indeed said that? Or had the media made that up or somehow taken it out of context?
The website didn’t provide any answers, no matter how long she stared at it. She slammed the laptop closed and jumped up. No more rumors and lies. She needed answers—now.
She got her cell phone from the coffee table and called Jill.
The call went directly to voice mail.
Jesus! Can’t she pick up for once?
Grace pressed the end button without leaving a message. She wanted answers now, not whenever Jill got around to checking her voice mail. She thought about calling Lauren but then shook her head. Lauren had probably gone back to the office by now, and she didn’t want to add more stress to the publicist’s already stressful job.
Her mother abandoned the smoothie maker as Grace reached for her car keys. “Where are you going?”
“I need to talk to Jill,” Grace said on her way to the door.
“Now?” Her mother rushed after her. “But you can’t—”
Grace stopped and turned. “I can’t just sit around here and be the last one who finds out what’s going on. This is my career. My life!” She tapped her chest.
“Then I’m coming with you,” her mother said in a tone that brooked no further discussion.
For a moment, Grace considered staying home. The conversation she needed to have with Jill wasn’t one she wanted to have with her mother in the room. Well, she could just tell her to wait outside and keep Tramp company. The thought made her grin despite her tension.
Several cars and SUVs were parked in front of her driveway, blocking the now-open gate.
Her mother tugged on Grace’s arm. “Let’s go back inside and—”
“No.” Grace clutched the steering wheel. She didn’t want to be a prisoner in her own home, having to find out from the tabloids what was going on. Instead of putting her Ford Escape into reverse, she leaned on the horn.
Four men and a woman came running around their cars and stopped at the open gate, cameras at the ready.
Grace bit her lip. Somehow, a female paparazzo—a paparazza, she supposed—felt like a betrayal. She honked again, but they didn’t back away or move their vehicles. Slowly counting to three, she lowered the driver’s window and tried to sound civil as she said, “If you don’t mind, could you—?”
Flashes went off in her face, blinding her. For a few moments, stars danced in front of her eyes. She threw her arm up to shield her face. “Please,” she said politely, but firmly. “Back off and let me leave.”
The intruders kept snapping away, still blocking the gate.
She had always tried for an amicable relationship with the press, but this was too much. “Enough!”
More flashes went off.
“If you don’t move your cars right this instant, I’m going to call the police!”
“One question, then we’ll leave,” one of the men said.
Grimly, Grace nodded at him to ask his question.
“Are you gay?”
Her mother leaned across Grace’s lap to shout at him. “That’s outrageous! I’ll have you sued for slander!”
The paparazzo just grinned and snapped a photo of her. “Is that a yes?”
“That’s a no comment!” her mouther shouted. “And now get out of the way, you insolent little punk!”
Great.Now that her mother had waved theno commentred flag, they’d never leave her alone. Grace groaned and hastily stabbed the button to close the window before her mother could do even more damage.
The paparazzi trotted to their vehicles, got in, and backed up enough so Grace could leave the property. As soon as she had driven a few yards, they followed her.
Determined to lose them once they hit Laurel Canyon Boulevard, Grace kept driving, keeping an eye on them in the rearview mirror.
Her mother pulled her phone from her oversized purse. “I’m calling that publicist of yours! She has to do something about this rabble!”
“Mom, Lauren told you she’s not a magician.”
Of course, her mother didn’t listen. She lifted the phone to her ear, tapping her index finger against the cell phone’s plastic shell as she waited for Lauren to pick up.
Lauren leaned back in the armchair and watched Jill return from the kitchen with a bottle of water. “I think it’s time to come out to the media and the public.”
“I thought that’s what I just did.” Navigating carefully so she wouldn’t lose her balance, Jill rounded the coffee table.
Lauren was tempted to jump up and help her to the couch, but she sensed that Jill didn’t want that kind of attention—which would make her next words not very popular with the actress. “I’m not talking about coming out as gay. I’m talking about coming out as someone who has MS.”
Jill flopped down on the couch. “Are you sure I wouldn’t just be shooting myself in the foot?”
Lauren tilted her head. “What do you mean?”
“As an actress, it’s my job to convince people that I’m someone else.” Jill let her hand dangle down, resting it on top of Tramp’s back. “If I tell them too much about myself, especially things that contradict the roles I’m playing…”
“I understand. You’d like to be a blank canvas.”
Jill nodded. “Something like that.”
“I don’t think that’s possible. People are too nosy to just ignore your private life. If you don’t fill that canvas, the tabloids will do it for you.”
“And sling some mud on Grace’s canvas too while they’re at it,” Jill said, sounding resigned.
“I’m afraid so. This is quickly turning into one big public-relations mess, and it’s starting to hurt both of your careers much more than just telling the truth ever could.”
Jill scratched the dog behind his ears, making him let out a contented groan. She trailed her fingers through his golden coat before finally looking up and at Lauren. “All right,” she said. “I don’t like it, but I’ll do it.”
For Grace.There was no doubt about it in Lauren’s mind. She respected Jill for taking a personal risk for a friend. “I’m sorry that it has to be like this.”
“It’s not your fault,” Jill said.
“I can still be sorry, can’t I?” Lauren was sorry for more than just the situation with the media. A person like Jill didn’t deserve to have multiple sclerosis.No one does.
The ringing of a phone stopped Jill from answering.
“It’s mine,” Lauren said and pulled her phone out of her pocket. It was a minor miracle that they hadn’t been interrupted by calls before.
The display indicated that Katherine Duvenbeck was calling.
“It’s Grace’s mother.” Lauren couldn’t help groaning and then realized that she was practically bad-mouthing one client to another.Damn.Somehow, she had gotten too familiar with these two actresses. “I mean…”
Jill laughed. “Don’t bother. I met Katherine.”
Lauren lifted the phone to her ear. “Mrs. Du—”
A high-pitched scream nearly shattered her eardrums.
She jerked the phone away from her ear.What the…?Slowly, she moved the phone back. “Mrs. Duvenbeck? Are you all right?”
“Did that sound like I’m all right?” Grace’s mother yelled after a few seconds of silence. “These men are trying to kill us!”
“What?” Lauren jumped up from the armchair. “Calm down and tell me what’s going on.”
“They’re hunting us like rabbits!”
Lauren’s adrenaline spiked. “Who’s hunting you? Where’s Grace?”
Jill sat up and slid onto the edge of the couch, mouthing, “What’s going on?”
Lauren held up one finger in a give-me-a-minute gesture.
“Right next to me,” Mrs. Duvenbeck said.
“Can you give her the phone?” Obviously, Grace’s mother was hysterical, so she wouldn’t get a clear answer from her.
“No, I can’t!” Mrs. Duvenbeck nearly shouted. “She’s trying to get us away from the paparazzi.”
The paparazzi were chasing them? Images of high-speed chases and accidents flashed through Lauren’s mind. She paced up and down the living room, nearly wearing a hole in Jill’s carpet.
Tramp, sensing her agitation, let out a low whine, but Jill kept him next to her.
“They keep following us,” Mrs. Duvenbeck said in that tone of voice that reminded Lauren of chalk screeching across a blackboard.
“Goddammit!” Lauren wanted to hurl the phone across the room but kept it pressed to her ear instead. “What are you doing out there? I told Grace to stay in the house!”
“Don’t talk to me in that tone,” Mrs. Duvenbeck answered.
Lauren took a deep breath, then another.Okay, okay, don’t upset her while they’re driving.“All right,” she said as calmly as she could. “Where are you right now?”
“How am I supposed to know?”
A rustling sound reverberated through the phone; then Grace’s voice came through the line. “We’re a mile or two from Glendale. Are you back at the office or still with Jill?”
“Dammit, Grace! What are you doing—trying to get yourself killed?” Sometimes, Lauren wanted to put some of her clients over her knee. She hadn’t thought that Grace would be one of those clients.
“Don’t worry,” Grace said, sounding much calmer than her mother. “It’s not as bad as my mother made it sound. The paparazzi are backing off a little now. Maybe they realized they’re scaring us.”
Lauren snorted. “You think they care? No, they probably realized where you’re going so they know they can catch up if they lose you.”
Grace sucked in an audible breath, as if only now realizing that she was leading the paparazzi right to Jill’s doorstep. “Maybe I’d better turn around and head back.”
The thought of Grace driving all the way back with the paparazzi tailing her made Lauren frown. “No,” she said more sharply than intended. “Keep driving. You’re almost here now. We’ll have to deal with the press sooner or later anyway.”
Grace sighed into the phone. “I had hoped it could be later.”
Well, you should have thought of that before you left your goddamn house,Lauren wanted to say but held her tongue. She could tell Grace exactly that as soon as she made it here in one piece. “If they catch up with you, just tell them that you and Jill are preparing a statement, okay? Remember not to say ‘no comment.’”
Silence filtered through the line; then Grace murmured, “Too late.”
“What do you mean?”
“Mom already waved the red flag.”
Lauren rubbed her face with her free hand. Why oh why did she have to deal with amateurs who thought they were God’s gift to public relations? “Just get here in one piece, okay?”
“Will do,” Grace said and ended the call.
Within thirty seconds of entering Jill’s house, Grace wished she would have stayed outside with the paparazzi. Tramp rushed over, greeting her like a long-lost friend, nuzzling her hand, and letting her pet his soft fur.
Lauren’s greeting was less friendly. Her gaze swept Grace from head to toe, and as soon as she had made sure Grace was fine, she started shouting. “Dammit, Grace, what were you thinking?”
Grace opened her mouth to explain or defend herself, but Lauren wasn’t finished yet.
“Life isn’t one of Nick’s action movies! If a car chase goes bad, you can’t just yell ‘cut’ and do another take.” She was shaking with anger, and her eyes sparked with intensity.
“Don’t you think I know that?” Grace asked, struggling to rein in her own anger. She hated being treated like a misbehaving child. Her mother was doing enough of that, and she didn’t need it from Lauren too.
A strand of Lauren’s chin-length hair fell forward, into her eyes, and she shoved it back with an impatient hand. “You sure don’t act like it! You took a big risk coming here—and not just a risk to your career.”
Before Grace could reply, her mother pushed past her. “Don’t you dare talk to my daughter like that!”
“I wouldn’t have to if she’d done the sensible thing and stayed in.” Lauren turned away and added more softly, “Not every injury can be patched up with a Band-Aid.”
“Band-Aid?” Grace’s mother asked, catching up with Lauren, who stomped into the living room. “What do you mean? What happened?”
“Nothing,” Lauren and Grace said in unison.
“Grace? What is she talking about? I demand to—”
“With all due respect, Mrs. Duvenbeck,” Lauren said. “I think you should stay out of this. You’ve already done enough damage.”
Grace’s mother paled, and then a flush swept up her neck, matching her pink skirt suit. “Why, you—”
Jill walked over, swaying almost imperceptibly, and gently gripped her sleeve. “Why don’t you help me make some coffee, Katherine? I have a feeling you’ll all be here for a while.”
When her mother dug in her heels, Grace walked over to her. “Please, Mom. I promise that I’ll explain everything later.”
“All right.” After one last glance back, Grace’s mother let herself be pulled to the kitchen. Tramp trotted after them.
Lauren’s gaze followed the trio. “You know,” she said, more calmly now. “You’re not doing yourself any favors letting her handle the media.”
Grace opened her mouth to defend her mother but then closed it again without saying anything. Even though she didn’t like to hear it, she knew Lauren was right, and she admired her for telling her straight out what no one else had the courage to say. She sighed. “I know. But she’s my mother.”
“Then maybe she should be just your mother, not your manager too.”
If only things were that simple. Her mother had managed her for nearly thirty years and had gotten Grace to where she was today. How could she now, after all these years, come right out and tell her mother that she didn’t want her as a manager anymore?
Knowing she wouldn’t be able to resolve that particular problem anytime soon, Grace decided to focus on the situation at hand. “I read an article online that said Jill confirmed she’s gay. Did they pull that out of their asses too, or…?”
“I think you should ask Jill that question,” Lauren said.
Grace knew a confirmation when she heard one. She squinted at Lauren. “Was that ano comment?”
“What? No! I…” Lauren plucked her horn-rimmed glasses off her nose and started to clean them as if she needed an excuse not to look at Grace. “Just talk to Jill, okay?”
“Okay,” Grace said. “I’ll go talk to Jill, and you’ll keep my mother entertained and out of the kitchen.”
Lauren froze with her glasses halfway to her nose. “Uh…”
Grace smiled and then sobered. She took a step toward Lauren. “I really didn’t mean to cause any trouble by coming here. In hindsight, I should have stayed home, like you told me to, but Jill didn’t pick up her phone and I was sick of sitting around, not knowing what’s going on.”
“And I didn’t mean to shout at you,” Lauren said, the anger and gruffness now gone from her voice. “That wasn’t exactly professional behavior.”
They looked at each other for several moments.
Grace glanced into Lauren’s hazel eyes and realized that Lauren hadn’t just been angry with her because her presence at Jill’s house might have messed up whatever PR tactic she’d planned. Lauren hadn’t just been worried about Grace’s public image; she’d been worried about Grace as a person. A hint of a smile played around her lips as she walked over to the kitchen. What a nice surprise. For once, she had a publicist who didn’t see her as only a paycheck.
When Grace entered the kitchen, her mother and Jill were leaning across the sink, peering through the blinds.
“Are they still there?” Grace asked.
At the sound of her voice, Jill whirled around and then swayed.
“Careful!” Grace hurried over and gripped Jill’s arms to help steady her.
“Thanks,” Jill said. “I’m fine now. Just turned a little too fast. And yes, the paparazzi are still around. Well, at least they are no longer blocking the gate.”
Grace slowly let go of her. She glanced at her mother, who watched them with an expression that Grace had learned to interpret as a post-Botox-injection frown. “Mom, would you mind taking the coffee to the living room?” She gestured at the tray that held coffee mugs, milk, sugar, and cookies. “We’ll be there in a second.”
With a dramatic sigh, her mother reached for the tray and carried it out of the kitchen, mumbling something under her breath. Tramp bustled after her, his tail wagging, as if he hoped she’d drop one of the cookies.
Grace watched them go and then turned toward Jill.
Jill sent her a puzzled grin. “Are you sure it’s a bright idea to leave her alone with Lauren?”
“I’m sure they’ll be fine for a minute. There’s something I need to know. Is it true?”
“Is what true?”
For some reason, Grace suddenly found it hard to say the words. Maybe because the media had made it sound so much like a scandalous thing. She sucked in a breath, held it for several seconds, and then said in a rush, “Are you gay?”
Jill gripped the kitchen island. For a moment, Grace thought she’d try to divert, but then Jill raised her chin, looked her in the eyes, and simply said, “Yes.”
“Wow. I think I need something stronger than coffee now,” Grace mumbled. They had known each other for years and worked together on two movies. How was it possible that she hadn’t known something so essential about her friend?
“Did you really never suspect?”
Grace mutely shook her head.
“You didn’t wonder why I’m never photographed with a man, not even at red-carpet events?” Jill asked.
“I thought you were just dating in private, away from the cameras.” And very likely, that was what Jill had been doing; she just hadn’t dated men. “Why didn’t you ever tell me? You could have trusted me, you know?”
“I know. It’s not that I didn’t trust you. It just didn’t matter between us.”
Grace thought about it. Would Jill’s sexual orientation matter if not for the media circus? Nothing had changed between them now that she knew. Jill was still the same person. Straight or gay, she was still the loyal friend who’d run lines with her until three in the morning when a scene had given Grace trouble.
“I know I sometimes joke around, but…”
Grace gave a dramatic little gasp. “Joke around? You mean you’re not actually head over heels in love with me?”
Jill stepped closer and gave her a little shove. “Sorry to flatten your ego, Ms. Big-Shot Actress. Although God knows how I manage, because you are just too damn charming for your own good.”
Grace hip-checked her and then quickly held on to her when Jill stumbled. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay. Damn MS is messing with my balance. One more reason why my sexual orientation doesn’t matter,” Jill said. “It’s not like I’m good dating material anymore.”
Oh, no.Grace couldn’t let her friend believe that. She took Jill’s face between her hands and forced her to look into her eyes. “Any woman would be lucky to have you.”
Jill’s chest heaved under a big breath, and then she smiled. “Any woman? Is that a come-on, Ms. Durand?”
“You wish, Ms. Corrigan. I meant any lesbian woman.”
“What are you doing?” Grace’s mother demanded to know from the doorway, looking back and forth between them.
Grace let go of Jill’s face but forced herself not to step away from her. She had nothing to hide and wouldn’t feel guilty for being Jill’s friend. “Just talking to my friend, Mom.”
“The coffee is getting cold,” her mother said.
“We’ll be there in a second.”
Her mother lingered in the doorway for several moments before sending Jill one last glare and then marching off.
When Jill moved to follow her, Grace held her back. She’d tried for weeks to get up the courage to tell Jill but had postponed it time and again, telling herself that it wasn’t the right moment. Maybe that right moment was now. “While we’re making personal confessions, there’s something that I have to tell you too.”
Jill leaned against the kitchen counter and regarded her with a curious gaze. “What is it? You’re not gay too, are you?” She grinned weakly.
Grace rolled her eyes. “No. But Nick and I…”
“Oh my God!” Jill eyed Grace’s belly. “You’re pregnant!”
“Only if immaculate conceptions are back in style,” Grace muttered.
A wrinkle formed between Jill’s brows. “What’s that supposed to mean? You and Nick…you don’t…?”
Grace wasn’t in the mood to go into details about her troubled marriage or her lack of sex life, especially not with her mother and Lauren in the next room. “We’re getting a divorce.”
Jill sank against the kitchen counter. “What?”
“I heard you the first time. Why didn’t you ever say anything? I know you. You wouldn’t just give up on a relationship. This must have been going on for quite some time.”
Grace had thought about it often, but she still had no idea when she and Nick had stopped being happy together. If she was perfectly honest with herself, maybe getting married had been a mistake, but after being together for two years and living together for nearly as long, saying yes had seemed like the right thing to do when Nick had proposed. “I don’t know. I think I didn’t want to face it.”
“But you’re sure it’s over for good?” Jill asked.
Grace nodded. There was no way back for her and Nick.
“Come here.” Jill spread her arms wide, and Grace willingly stepped into an embrace. “Are you okay?”
“I’ll be fine. I’m more worried about what the divorce might do to my career. Does that make me sound like a cold-hearted, selfish bitch?”
Jill let go to look into Grace’s eyes. “Only to people who don’t know you. Jesus, I couldn’t have picked a worse moment to out myself. I’m sorry, Grace.”
“You couldn’t know,” Grace said. “At least now one of us doesn’t have to pretend anymore.”
“So you and Nick will pretend to still be crazily in love with each other?”
“Just until afterAva’s Heartis released.”
Jill frowned. “That’s two months away.”
“I know.” Probably the two longest months of her life. “Come on.” She wrapped one arm around Jill to help her keep her balance. “Let’s go to the living room before Lauren quits because my mother drove her crazy.”
This time, it was Jill who held her back. “Are we okay?”
“We’re okay,” Grace said without hesitation. She just wished she could say the same about their careers and the situation with the press.
Just as Lauren wanted to go after Mrs. Duvenbeck and haul her out of the kitchen, the woman marched back into the living room. She moved the blinds aside with two pink-painted fingernails and peeked out the window before whirling around to face Lauren. “My daughter isn’t like that. You have to make them,” she stabbed a finger toward the window, “realize that.”
“Like what?” Lauren asked even though she knew exactly what Mrs. Duvenbeck meant. She couldn’t help baiting Grace’s mother a bit.
Mrs. Duvenbeck gestured. “Like…like…well, like you.”
Lauren put down her mug of coffee and enjoyed the much-needed caffeine surge for a moment. “Oh, you mean she isn’t as tall as I am? I think the press noticed that already.”
With her hands on her hips, Mrs. Duvenbeck glared at her. “You know exactly what I mean.”
“I do. Just let me do my job without interfering.”
“Interfering?” Mrs. Duvenbeck repeated in a much higher pitch. “I have been guiding my daughter’s career long before you even knew how to spell PR. If you’re implying—”
“You two didn’t eat all of the cookies, did you?” Jill asked as she entered the living room with Grace.
Lauren regarded the two actresses.
Grace had her arm wrapped around Jill’s waist, helping her keep her balance. If Jill had really told her, Grace was earning points with Lauren for not shying away from Jill now that she knew she was gay.
“I’m not in the mood for cookies,” Mrs. Duvenbeck said. “We need to find a way to deal with the media. What do we tell them?”
“The truth,” Jill said.
Grace studied her. “Are you sure that’s what you want to do?”
“Yes. Just give me twenty-four hours. I need to tell my parents first.”
Grace’s eyes widened. “You haven’t told them?”
“Told them what?” Mrs. Duvenbeck asked.
No one answered.
Jill shook her head. Tramp ran over and nosed his mistress’s hand as if feeling her anxiety. “They know I’m a lesbian, but I haven’t told them about—”
Mrs. Duvenbeck gasped. “You’re a…a lesbian?”
Jill looked her right in the eyes, not ducking her head. “Yes, Katherine, I am. I hope you won’t hold it against me, just like I’m not judging you for being straight.”
Go, girl!Lauren wanted to clap her on the shoulder but abstained from doing so.
“B-but the photos…the things those reporters wrote…” Mrs. Duvenbeck looked back and forth between her daughter and Jill. “They aren’t…?”
“No, Mom,” Grace said. “I’m not gay. You know that. The reporters misinterpreted the situation. I was merely helping Jill to her trailer; that’s all.”
“Then you need to tell them that,” her mother said. “Now. Why wait around, eating cookies, while the world thinks that you’re…” She lowered her voice. “…gay?”
Normally, Lauren would agree and deny Jill the twenty-four hours she’d asked for. When it came to doing damage control, a rapid response was essential. With the Internet, news traveled fast, so they needed to act quickly before rumors snowballed out of control.
But when Jill and Grace looked at her, she nodded reluctantly. “Twenty-four hours,” Lauren said. “Not one second more.”
Ten minutes later, Lauren realized that Jill was fading fast. The actress was slumped against the back of the couch, looking as if she’d just run a marathon. Lauren and Grace exchanged glances; then Lauren gestured at the door, and Grace nodded.
“I think it’s time for us to leave,” Grace said.
“Leave?” her mother echoed, her eyebrows hiked up her forehead as far as they would go. “But the paparazzi are still outside. I don’t want them to take more photos of you, writing all kinds of ridiculous things about you and Jill.”
“You’re parked right in front of the house, inside of the gate, right?” Lauren asked.
“Good. Mrs. Duvenbeck, are you up for playing the decoy?”
Mrs. Duvenbeck eyed her warily. “What do you mean?”
“I want you to put on a baseball cap or something, take Grace’s car, and drive out of here as fast as possible,” Lauren said. “Hopefully, the paparazzi will follow you.”
“I won’t be able to fool them for long,” Mrs. Duvenbeck said.
“Doesn’t matter. By the time they realize it’s just you in the car, Grace and I will have made it out of here too, with no photos taken.”
Mrs. Duvenbeck didn’t seem happy, but she allowed Grace to outfit her with a coat to hide her pink skirt suit and one of Jill’s hats, all the while complaining about it ruining her hair.
Tons of hair spray had turned her platinum-blonde hair into what looked like a helmet, and Lauren idly wondered how a hat could possibly mess up the bulletproof creation.
Finally, Mrs. Duvenbeck was ready. Acting as if she were an actress stepping onto the red carpet to accept an Oscar, she left the house and got into Grace’s SUV.
“Ready to head out too?” Lauren asked.
Grace nodded. She hugged Jill, whispering something in her ear that made Jill clutch her a little more tightly.
Lauren averted her gaze to give them some privacy, but she couldn’t help wondering what Grace had said.
After a moment, Grace joined her next to the front door.
“We have to be quick, just in case any of the paparazzi are still around,” Lauren said.
“No problem. I’m not wearing stilettos this time.” Grace held out one sneaker-covered foot.
A chuckle escaped Lauren. Somehow, she’d ended up in the most adventurous situations since becoming Grace’s publicist. She turned her head and nodded at Jill. “I’ll send you the statement for tomorrow as soon as I have it. We should hold the press conference in the CT Publicity offices, with both of you there.”
“Okay,” Jill said. “Be careful out there. The paparazzi are crazy.”
She opened the door for them, and they hurried toward the gate with Lauren in the lead. A quick peek revealed that their plan had worked—the paparazzi’s SUVs were gone. Still, Lauren took Los Feliz Road instead of choosing the direct route, heading west on the freeway, as Mrs. Duvenbeck had probably done. She didn’t want to encounter any of the paparazzi who had surely turned around when they realized their mistake.
“You didn’t seem surprised to hear that Jill is gay,” Grace said after a few minutes of silence.
Lauren gave a vague shrug, not wanting to break any confidences. After all, she was Jill’s publicist as well as Grace’s. “Well, you know, we lesbians are supposed to have gaydar.”
Grace turned toward her in the passenger seat, her knee pressing against the middle console. “Gaydar?”
“Like radar, just…gay.”
“You mean lesbians can tell if another woman is gay, just by looking at her?” Grace sounded baffled.
Lauren glanced into the rearview mirror to make sure they weren’t being followed. Luckily, the coast was still clear. “Some can.”
“How about you?” Grace asked. “Can you do that?”
“Sometimes.” Very aware that she was talking to a client, she would have preferred to talk about something else—anything else.
The sound of the tires on the road sounded overly loud in the silence between them.
Lauren risked a quick glance to her right, wondering what was going on in Grace’s head.
Before she could ask, Grace cleared her throat. “What about me?” she asked quietly.
“You? Are you asking if you have gaydar?”
“No, I don’t need to ask that. I already know that I don’t,” Grace said. “I had no clue that Jill is gay, and it never occurred to me that you could be too. But that’s not what I’m asking. I mean…what does your…that gaydar thing say about me?”
“Why are you asking?” Wouldn’t any straight woman just assume that Lauren’s gaydar would identify her as heterosexual?
“Well, if gaydar works on me, at least my gay fans—if I have any—should realize that I’m straight, no matter what nonsense the press writes, right? So, what does your gaydar say about me?”
Lauren clutched the steering wheel and pretended to need her full attention for driving. “Um…Nothing.”
“My gaydar didn’t say anything about you.”Probably because it got drowned out by my libido.
“Hmm.” Grace seemed to think about it for a minute or two.
“Besides,” Lauren added, “gaydar isn’t exactly a scientific measuring method. Sometimes, it’s affected by wishful thinking.”
Grace tugged on the seat belt so she could turn even more toward Lauren. “What do you mean?”
Lauren tapped the indicator before making a right onto Franklin Avenue. “Your straight audience likes to imagine that you’re just like them, someone they could hang out and be friends with. The men might even fantasize about—”
Grace pretended to stick her fingers into her ears. “Lalalalala,” she sang loudly. “Nope. No way. Never happens.”
Lauren laughed. “If that’s what you’d like to think, I’ll try not to ruin your illusions.”
“Thanks. So you think my lesbian fans might do the same and wish the rumors about me and Jill were true?”
Mentally repeating the comments her lesbian friends made about actresses like Grace, Lauren nodded.
Grace sighed. “No matter what I do, who I am, I can never satisfy everyone, can I?”
“No one can do that,” Lauren said and wondered why she would even want to try.
“Sometimes,” Grace said very quietly, as if talking more to herself than to Lauren, “I think the Native Americans were right.”
The non sequitur made Lauren turn her head to look at her before returning her attention to the road. “Right how?”
“They believed that if you have your picture taken, you’ll lose your soul. Sometimes, I think that happens to actors and actresses too.” Grace stared through the windshield.
Lauren braked at a red light and looked over at her. “I know what you mean. But…if that’s what you think, why did you go into acting?” Then she remembered that Grace had been in front of cameras since she’d been in diapers and added, “I mean, why did you continue in acting as you grew older?”
Grace glanced over.
Once again, the disturbingly blue eyes startled Lauren. She sat staring for several moments until the driver behind her started honking. Quickly, she cleared the intersection.
“My father died when I was eight,” Grace said quietly.
Lauren wanted to reach over and squeeze her arm or her knee, but she was very aware how inappropriate that would have been, so she kept both hands on the steering wheel. “I’m sorry,” she said, hoping Grace could hear the sincerity in her voice.
Grace nodded her acknowledgment. “Thanks. I’m not saying it to make you feel sorry for me, though. Back then, I was devastated, of course. I have always been a daddy’s girl, right from the start. My father really got me. I could talk to him about anything, while my mother…” She bit her lip. “I think she coped by throwing herself into managing my career. So I learned to do the same. When I was in front of a camera, I forgot about everything else. I could strip off all the pain and the expectations and just…be someone else for a while.”
Lauren thought about Grace’s words while she drove beneath an overpass and continued west.
“Do you think that’s weird?” Grace asked when Lauren didn’t comment immediately. For such a famous person, she sounded remarkably insecure.
“Not at all.” Lauren understood her better than she liked to admit. Her last girlfriend had accused her of doing the exact same thing—avoiding her relationship issues by escaping into her job, where she could deal with other people’s problems instead of her own. “It’s not that different from what a lot of people are doing—using their jobs to avoid dealing with other, more painful areas of their lives.”
“Christ, you make me sound like someone who could use a lot of therapy,” Grace murmured.
Lauren smiled. “You mean you don’t have a therapist? Don’t you know that it’s a status symbol?”
“You saw my car,” Grace said. “I’m not into status symbols.”
True.Grace’s mother had driven off in the compact SUV that clearly was a few years old, and now Lauren peeked over at Grace’s Levi’s and sneakers. She decided she liked Grace in jeans.
Apparently, neither wanted to delve more deeply into the topic of therapy or their private lives, so they spent the rest of the drive in companionable silence.
Lauren navigated the narrow, curvy road, every now and then glancing left to enjoy the incredible view of the city below them. When she rounded the last bend, past the bougainvillea-hung villa at the corner, and caught sight of Grace’s home, she slammed her foot down on the brake.
Reporters and paparazzi were camped outside of Grace’s mansion. Either they had waited here the entire day, or they were the same ones who’d been in front of Jill’s house and they had driven straight to the house when they’d realized it wasn’t Grace in the red SUV. Their vehicles were blocking the gate.
Lauren put the car in reverse and backed up before the paparazzi could spot them. “What now?” she asked as she used a neighbor’s empty driveway to turn the car around. “Is there somewhere you could stay? Some place the paparazzi won’t know about?”
Grace nibbled on her lip as if considering whether she should tell Lauren about whatever hideaway she might have. Finally, she nodded. “Go back to Laurel Canyon Boulevard and then take the Ventura Freeway west.”
“And then?” Lauren asked. Where was Grace leading her? Did she own another luxury villa, maybe in Malibu or some other place where the rich and famous lived?
But Grace gave nothing away. “You’ll see.”
“Turn left here,” Grace said as Lauren navigated the constant twists and turns of Old Topanga Canyon Road.
Lauren eyed the dirt road to the left. “Are you sure this is the right way?”
Grace smiled. “Trust me. It is.”
“All right.” Lauren slowed to a near crawl. Her poor car bumped along a steep, winding dirt road that constantly narrowed. With damp palms, Lauren clutched the steering wheel, hoping that no rocks would damage the bottom of her car. She was beginning to understand why Grace drove an SUV. Just when she thought the road would end in the middle of nowhere, the car made it up an incline and a cottage lay in front of them.
“This is it,” Grace said, a pride in her voice that hadn’t been there when she’d invited Lauren into her multi-million-dollar mansion.
Lauren parked where Grace indicated, and they got out. Bending, Lauren checked to make sure the oil pan and the car’s undercarriage had survived the drive up. Everything seemed to be fine, so she straightened and looked around. The cottage was nestled among a grove of trees that screened it from view. The scent of sagebrush hung in the air. Lauren lifted her nose into the light ocean breeze and inhaled deeply. It was hard to believe they were just forty minutes from LA.
Grace led the way to the cottage’s front door and unlocked it.
This small, modest home was as different from her Hollywood Hills luxury villa as possible. Grace’s little hideaway up in the Santa Monica Mountains was all wood from floor to ceiling, including the simple furniture. A rocking chair, a pockmarked oak coffee table, and a couch with a brown-and-white afghan faced a wood-burning fireplace. A tiny kitchen was tucked into one corner of the room, and a ladder led up to a loft, probably a bedroom right under the eaves.
The tense set of Grace’s shoulders seemed to relax as soon as she entered.
This was her home. Lauren sensed it without an explanation. “This is nice,” she said and realized she had lowered her voice as if she were in a sacred place. Maybe she was. She would bet her next paycheck that Grace didn’t bring visitors here very often.
“Wait till you see the view from the patio.” Grace opened the sliding glass door and waved at Lauren to follow her.
Several small lizards that had warmed themselves on the patio darted away when they stepped outside.
The cottage was nestled high up in the mountains, and the patio offered a breathtaking view of the canyon, which was blanketed in thick, blue-green stands of chaparral and sage. Lauren thought she could even detect a very distant glimpse of the ocean.
At a piercing cry above them, she looked up and saw a red-tailed hawk soaring in large circles against the blue sky.
Lauren made a living with words, but now she didn’t know what to say. “Wow. This sure isn’t the luxury beach house in Malibu I expected.” She bit her lip when she realized what she’d just blurted out.
But Grace didn’t appear insulted. She just grinned. “Disappointed?”
“God, no. I could see myself hiding out here. Well, if not for the fact that you probably don’t have Internet or phone reception.”
“Yeah, phone reception is pretty spotty here, but the Internet works most of the time. If you want to stay and write that statement for tomorrow…”
Lauren thought about it. She wanted to stay and enjoy some peace and quiet for a change, but was it really the proper thing to do? If the media found out they had stayed together overnight in this little cottage with just one bed, it would start the rumors flying. But then again, if the paparazzi found their way up here, she didn’t want Grace to have to face them alone. If she returned to LA, she’d leave Grace stranded without a car or a means to call for help should anything happen. The thought made her shiver despite the warm sunshine. “I’d love to,” she said firmly.
Grace nodded. “Let me get you my laptop.” She returned with a sleek, silver device, settled down at a small wood table, and opened the laptop’s lid. “I just need to send my mother a quick e-mail to let her know I’ll be staying here, then the laptop is all yours. Feel free to use the Internet or try the phone reception out here on the patio if you need to let anyone know where you are.”
“No, it’s okay.” It was a bit sobering to realize that no one would miss her if she didn’t make it home. By now, it was Friday evening, so unless there was a PR fire to put out, no one at the office would wonder where she was either.
After a minute of hunt-and-peck-typing, Grace closed her e-mail program and got up. She swept her arm toward the laptop. “All yours. Can I get you anything while you work?”
“Coffee would be great, if you have it,” Lauren answered as she settled at the table.
“Sure. How do you take yours?”
Remembering Mrs. Duvenbeck’s coffee order, Lauren gave her a horrified glance. “No milk, no sugar, no extra flavor.”
“Oh, you’re one of those people.” Grace nodded knowingly.
“The ones who like their coffee so strong that the spoon stands up in it.”
Lauren chuckled. “Guilty as charged.”
“One coffee, John Wayne style. Coming right up.”
Lauren watched her walk away, even managing not to ogle her firm backside in the formfitting jeans.Grace Durand is serving me coffee.Sometimes, her life was just crazy. With a shake of her head, she slid the laptop closer and got to work.
Grace stretched out in the hammock under the ancient oak tree, gently swaying back and forth, while Lauren sat at the table, working. The sun soaked into her skin, and the warm, dry breeze ruffled her hair. She closed her eyes and felt the stress of the last two weeks melt away. This was the most relaxed she’d been since the media circus had started.
Up here, the typical noise of the city was absent. The only sounds drifting over were the chirping of crickets, the soft warbling of birds, and Lauren’s typing. Strangely, the rapid-fire clickety-clack of the keyboard didn’t disturb her, and neither did Lauren’s presence. Other than Nick and Jill, no one had ever stayed in the cottage with her. This was her refuge from the world, so she had been a little hesitant to bring Lauren here. To her surprise, though, Lauren’s presence didn’t feel like an intrusion.
Lazily, Grace opened one eye and watched Lauren type. Her long, strong fingers darted over the keyboard without Lauren having to look down. Grace watched her for a while and then closed her eyes again, content to let Lauren deal with the problem. Hiring Lauren back after her mother had fired her had definitely been a good idea. Grace realized that she trusted her in a way that she’d never trusted Roberta, her previous publicist.
The sound of a car door slamming shut interrupted the peacefulness. Seconds later, the doorbell rang.
Alarmed, Grace opened her eyes and sat up, nearly tumbling out of the hammock in the process.
But Lauren was already closing the laptop and getting up. “Stay put,” she said, her tone brooking no discussion. “I’ll deal with whoever that is.” She strode inside and then turned to close the sliding door. Their gazes met through the glass, and Lauren gave her a soothing nod before crossing the living room.
Grace’s heart drummed a rapid beat against her ribs. Had the paparazzi found them up here?Calm down. They wouldn’t ring the doorbell.It was probably just her mother, who had jumped into her car as soon as she read Grace’s e-mail, horrified about her daughter spending the night in the cottage with a lesbian. Grace sighed. When had her life started to revolve around her sexual orientation?
“What are you doing here?” Nick’s voice, loud and gruff, drifted over. “Where’s Grace?”
“On the patio, but I’m not sure—Hey! You can’t just barge in here and—”
“The hell I can’t!” Nick shoved the glass door open.
Lauren hurried after him and grabbed his shoulder to stop him.
Nick whirled around, towering over her, but Lauren didn’t back off.
For a moment, Grace thought he would hit her. “Nick! No!”
Nick turned toward her and rolled his eyes. “What? Do you honestly think I was about to hit her? Don’t worry; I won’t touch your little girlfriend.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Grace asked, her hands on her hips.
“You tell me.” He folded his muscular arms across his chest. “You and Jill are all over the tabloids, and now I find you here with her.” He pointed his thumb over his shoulder, indicating Lauren. “You never bring anyone here. What the fuck is going on? Is this why you wanted a divorce?”
Grace really didn’t need this kind of drama on top of everything else, but she knew she had to deal with it. And he had every right to be angry. She had reminded herself to call him when she’d seen the paparazzi at the mansion but had then forgotten about it, so now he’d gotten ambushed by the media circus.Damn. We used to be better at communicating.“It’s okay,” she said to Lauren, who was still hovering nearby as if she were Grace’s bodyguard instead of her publicist. “We’ll just talk—civilly,” she added in Nick’s direction.
“I’ll be right inside,” Lauren said. It sounded like a message to Nick, warning him to be on his best behavior.
Nick stepped onto the patio and closed the glass door. Calmer now, he sat on the chair that Lauren had vacated a minute ago.
Grace took a seat on the other side of the table. She reached out, saved the document Lauren had been working on, and then closed the laptop.
“What’s going on?” Nick asked. “When I got up this morning, you and Jill were all over Twitter. Hundreds of websites swear that Jill just came out as gay and that she confessed to having an affair with you.”
“Do you remember when the tabloids wrote about you and that stuntwoman the year before we got married?”
“Why are you bringing up that bullshit now? I told you there was nothing going on between her and me.”
“Yeah, and I believed you over the tabloids,” Grace said. “Now you can give me the same courtesy. Jill and I are friends, nothing more. We’ll give a press conference, clearing that up, tomorrow.”
Nick slumped against the back of the chair. “I knew it couldn’t be true. Just because we haven’t exactly steamed up the bedroom the last year or two doesn’t mean you’re gay.”
Grace’s cheeks heated. She just hoped their voices didn’t carry through the glass door.
“And neither is Jill,” Nick continued. “I think she has a pretty big crush on Russ.”
Grace nearly barked out a laugh. Jill couldn’t stand Russ and had come up with some creative excuses for why she couldn’t sit next to him on the plane to Georgia and back. “Actually,” she said and took a deep breath. “Jill is gay.”
Nick’s Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. “So it’s true?”
“I’m not,” Grace answered, not feeling the need to add anything else. Having to discuss her sexual orientation was getting old.
“What about her?” Nick pointed to the cottage.
Grace turned her head and looked through the closed glass door.
Lauren sat on the edge of the couch, ready to jump up and come to her defense at any moment should it become necessary. When their gazes met, Lauren tilted her head in a silent question.
Grace lifted her hand, silently telling her to stay put. “She’s my publicist.”
“But she’s a lesbian, isn’t she?”
Her patience ran thin. She had no intention of discussing Lauren’s sexual orientation in addition to her own. “She’s my publicist,” she repeated. “And a damn good one. Anything else is none of my business—and none of yours either.”
Nick rubbed the scar on his forehead. He looked as if his head was spinning. “You’re right,” he finally got out. “It’s just… I’m trying to understand. I don’t want to sound conceited, but I really don’t get why you suddenly want a divorce. When I told you about Shailene, I was prepared for a temper tantrum, a breakdown…anything. But you just sat there and said nothing, never once appearing to be even a little jealous, for old times’ sake.”
A temper tantrum? Grace shook her head. He didn’t know her as well as she’d thought. “I had my last temper tantrum when I was three years old and my mother forbade me from wearing my worn denim overalls to a casting call.”
“All right, maybe I wasn’t really expecting a temper tantrum, butsomekind of reaction. At first I thought you were acting, because that’s what you do when you’re hurting. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something else going on. When I read that shit about you and Jill, I thought maybe that’s why…”
Grace sighed. “It had nothing to do with Jill or any other person, man or woman.”
“Then what else is going on?”
“Come on, Grace. Help me understand.”
“I guess I just…” She studied the wood pattern of the table, not wanting to look at him and see the hurt in his eyes. “I fell out of love with you somewhere along the way.”
For several seconds, the chirping of the crickets was the only sound on the patio.
“When?” Nick asked, his voice hoarse.
“I don’t know.”
“When?” he repeated more forcefully. “When did you realize you don’t love me anymore?”
Grace kept her gaze on the table. “I do love you,” she said softly. “I’m just not in love with you anymore.”
“Semantics,” he grumbled. “When did you realize?”
She knew he wouldn’t back down until he got an answer. Biting her lip, she peered up at him. “I’m not sure. Maybe when I was shooting in New Zealand.” They’d spent nearly five months apart, and it had dawned on her that she didn’t miss him as fiercely as she should. While some of her cast mates spent almost every available moment on the phone, calling their loved ones at home, she had taken trips and tried to see as much as possible of the beautiful country.
His chair scraped over the stone patio as he shoved it away from the table—and from her. “But…but that was two years ago!”
Grace said nothing.
“That was before we got married!” He jumped up and paced around the table.
The glass door slid open, and Lauren stuck her head out. “Everything okay out here?”
“Yes,” Grace said. “Nick was just about to sit back down.”
He glared at her and at Lauren but then sat. “I’m sitting, see?” He lifted both of his hands as if showing Lauren that he was unarmed.
Without another word, Lauren closed the sliding door and returned to the couch.
Nick stared at her retreating back. “Jeez! For someone who’s just your publicist, she’s damn protective of you.”
Grace groaned.Not that again.“Nick…”
“Okay, okay.” He swiveled on his chair and studied her across the table. “Why did you marry me if you weren’t in love with me?” His voice was calm now, almost defeated.
“I didn’t know,” Grace whispered, her head lowered. She glanced over at him. “I thought that’s how people felt after being together for a while. I never meant to hurt you.”
He didn’t answer, instead turning away from her to gaze out over the canyon. “Guess it doesn’t matter anymore.”
Grace saw right through his stoic action star routine. “Now who’s acting?”
He turned and glared at her, but one corner of his mouth soon curved up into a hint of a smile. “Dammit. You know me too well.” He eyed the sliding door. “Think I can get up and leave without your guard dog trying to bite my ankle?”
“Yeah, yeah, your publicist, I know.” He rose and walked to the door, this time without a hug, their customary good-bye. “Be careful, okay? There was a horde of paparazzi hanging around the villa when I was there, looking for you.”
“I know. That’s why I’m staying at the cottage. Are you sure no one followed you here?”
“One hundred percent sure. I’m Special Agent Ray Harper, remember?”
“You play him on TV,” Grace said.
He shrugged. “Still. I learned enough from him to trick the paparazzi.” He tipped an imaginary hat, slid the door open, and stepped inside.
“Nick?” Grace called.
He turned back around.
Grace nibbled her lip and hesitated, knowing that she would sound like a cold-hearted, career-driven bitch, but this needed to be said. “Even after Jill and I make a public statement tomorrow, the media will probably still keep an eye on us. It’s more important than ever for us to appear happily married. Do you think you can pull that off after…everything?”
He huffed. “Please. I’m an actor.” He threw a fleeting glance over his shoulder at Lauren. “Have your publicist call me, and we’ll set up a date where I’ll make doe eyes at you in a very public place.”
“Thank you,” Grace said quietly.
The sliding door clicked shut behind him. He crossed the living room with long steps and stopped in front of the couch, where Lauren sat.
Grace tensed, but before she could get up and hurry inside, he said something and then left. Exhaling sharply, she folded her arms on the table and buried her face in the bend of her elbow. God, and she had thought the day couldn’t get much worse.
When the door closed behind Nick, Lauren got up and walked to the window, watching him get into his car and slowly make his way down the dirt road until he disappeared around a bend. Everything was quiet outside, so apparently he had managed not to lead the paparazzi here.
Lauren crossed the room and reached out to open the sliding glass door but then paused.
Grace was sitting at the edge of the patio, her knees pulled up to her chest, her arms wrapped around her legs, and her forehead pressed to her knees.
Maybe it was better to give her a few minutes to collect herself.
Lauren went back to the couch. Had she ever been in such an awkward situation with a client? She didn’t think so. She had been on tour with bands, had witnessed them fight like sworn enemies and then hug each other like the best of friends for the cameras, but she’d never been in the middle of such a personal crisis. Perhaps it would have been better if she left and went back to LA, but one glance at the figure outside made her want to go out there and comfort Grace instead. Besides, the sun would set soon and she didn’t think she could safely navigate the dirt road in the dark.
When Grace lifted her head off her knees, Lauren slid back the glass door and joined her, sitting next to her. “Hey,” she said quietly. “Are you okay?”
Grace nodded without looking at her. Her expression was calm and collected, but Lauren still didn’t believe her. Grace hadn’t won three Golden Globes for nothing. “I’m sorry you had to witness that,” Grace said. “He’s usually not such a…”
“Asshole?” Lauren provided.
For a moment, Grace looked as if she wanted to defend her soon-to-be ex-husband, but then she nodded. “Something like that, yes.”
They sat side by side in silence, watching the sun set over the canyon. As the sun dipped lower and then sank below the horizon, ribbons of orange, crimson, and purple stretched across the sky. The moon was already rising, reflecting the orange light of the setting sun. Wisps of clouds drifted on the breeze, casting shadows over the canyon.
Lauren turned her head in Grace’s direction to say something but promptly forgot what she’d been about to say when she caught sight of Grace. The sunset bathed her in a dusky golden glow, weaving specks of light through her hair. She looked as if she were in a scene from one of her romantic movies.
“What?” Grace asked as if sensing her gaze.
Lauren looked away. “Nothing. It’s just…beautiful out here.”
Grace gazed toward the horizon, where only a single band of orange remained. “It is,” she said quietly.
As darkness fell, the full moon rose over the hills and the stars came out. There were no neighbors and no street noise, just crickets chirping and a coyote howling in the distance. An owl hooted in a nearby tree.
Finally, Grace unwrapped her arms from around her knees, leaned back on her hands, and looked at Lauren. “What did Nick say to you before he left?”
“He gave me his card so I can call him to set up a public date for the two of you and then he told me to take good care of you.” A little too patronizing for Lauren’s taste, but he honestly seemed to care about Grace.
Grace sighed. “I need a good soak.” She walked over to the above-ground redwood hot tub and flipped a switch.
“Now?” Lauren asked. The temperature had dropped after the sun had set.
“It’s either that or a drink. Feel free to join me. The hot tub is large enough for two.”
A picture of her and Grace, their wet bodies pressed together in the hot tub, rose in front of Lauren’s mind’s eye. Her breath caught.Very, very bad idea, she firmly told herself even though her body said something else.“Uh, no, thanks. I didn’t bring a swimsuit.”
“I have one I could lend you,” Grace said.
Lauren’s thoughts raced, trying to come up with an inconspicuous reply. “Thanks, but I think I should try to get that statement written for tomorrow.” She marveled at how calm and professional she sounded. Maybe Grace’s acting skills were rubbing off on her.
“Right.” Grace got up and went inside.
Lauren fled to the small table on the patio and opened the laptop, planning on being totally immersed in her work by the time Grace came back out in her swimsuit or—God help her—a bikini.
She didn’t look up when she heard the sliding door open a few minutes later. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a flash of a shapely leg and skin that looked soft in the moonlight.Work! You’re here to work, not to ogle a client.
But that was easier said than done as the sounds of a towel being dropped and then water splashing drifted over. Lauren cursed her overactive imagination, which showed her the water rising up a bare belly as Grace lowered herself into the hot tub. Droplets slid down her neck and into her bikini top and—
Lauren roughly shook her head. Christ, what was wrong with her? She’d never fantasized about any celebrity, and now was not the time to start. Turning the laptop a little so that the screen blocked her line of sight to the hot tub, she focused on finding the right words to tell the public that Jill had multiple sclerosis.
Grace sank onto the built-in seat, letting the warm water envelop her until she was submerged to her neck. The tension in her shoulders was killing her, so she slid a little to the side until her back was against one of the jets. She hoped a good soak would loosen her muscles and help clear her head.
Moonlight glittered on the surface of the swirling water. Steam wafted up into the darkness as she reached up to tug a strand of damp hair behind her ear.
Taking a deep breath, she slid down until the churning water closed over her head. The sounds of the crickets and Lauren’s typing faded away, and she felt as if she were in a world of its own—a silent realm where none of her problems mattered.
She emerged only to take a deep breath and then went down again, staying under water for as long as possible. When her lungs started to burn, she pressed her feet against the bottom of the hot tub and shot upward. Her head broke the surface, and she looked directly into Lauren’s eyes.
Lauren stood next to the hot tub, regarding her with a worried expression. “Jesus, Grace! You scared me half to death. I was about to reach in and pull you out.”
Grace brushed her wet hair away from her face with both hands. “Nah. Don’t worry. I’m a good swimmer.”
“Lots of pool parties in your youth?” Lauren asked, now sounding calmer.
Grace placed her arms along the edge of the hot tub, enjoying the difference in temperature and the steam wafting up from her skin. “I wish. No. My mother thought swimming was a good form of exercise for a girl, so she made me get up an hour early every day so I could swim before school.”
Lauren didn’t comment. “I’d better get back to work. Try not to drown on my watch, okay? I’d hate to have to deal with the headlines.”
Grace grinned and leaned back against the jets.
When the tips of her fingers started to prune, she finally climbed out, dripping water onto the stone patio as she headed over to the chairs, where she’d left her towel.
Lauren was still tapping away at the laptop. Every now and then, she stopped typing, pushed up her glasses, and rubbed her eyes.
Grace regarded her with a shake of her head. “You’re a worse workaholic than I am, and that’s saying something.”
Lauren’s head jerked up as if she hadn’t heard Grace get out of the hot tub and walk over. “Uh, what?”
“I said you’re a worse workaholic than I am,” Grace repeated. She took the towel off the back of the chair and rubbed it over her arms before bending to dab it over her legs.
“It’s not always like this,” Lauren said. “Just…” She trailed off, sounding distracted, and stared at something.
“Just?” Grace straightened and tried to see what Lauren was looking at, but the silver moonlight reflected off her glasses and made it impossible to see her eyes.
“Uh, just… Okay, it’s like this a lot of the time.” Lauren raised her hand to cover her mouth as she coughed.
A cool breeze brushed along Grace’s back, making her shiver. Goose bumps raced over every inch of her skin. She wrapped the towel around herself. “I’d better get inside and change into something dry. You should come inside too before you catch a cold. That cough doesn’t sound good.” A wave of protectiveness swept over her, surprising her. But perhaps it was only logical. She needed Lauren healthy so she could do her job as her publicist.
“I’m fine,” Lauren said and coughed again.
Grace raised one brow at her.
“Really,” Lauren said. “I’m not sick. I always start coughing when I’m tired.”
“You cough when you’re tired?” Grace squinted at her. She’d never heard of such a thing.
“I swear it’s true. My doctor couldn’t explain why. It’s just a weird little thing.”
Grace kept studying her. “But he’s sure that it’s nothing bad?”
“Yes. It’s just a cough or two, not like I’m hacking up a lung or anything,” Lauren said. “I don’t get it very often, just when I’m really exhausted.”
“Well, it’s been a long day.”
Lauren nodded. “You can say that again. And tomorrow probably won’t be any better.”
“So come on in and let’s go to bed,” Grace said.
The chair creaked as Lauren shifted her weight. “I’ll just finish this up and be inside in a minute.”
“Okay.” Another gust of wind made Grace hurry inside. Shivering, she went into the cottage’s tiny bathroom, dropped the towel, and stripped off her swimsuit. The wet material peeled off her goose-pebbled skin and hit the floor. Routinely, she swept her gaze over her naked form, taking in every ounce of fat on her hips with a critical eye and then traveling up. Her nipples had hardened into tight peaks in the cold. She reached into the shower to turn on the hot water, then froze and looked back down at her chest. Blood rushed to her cheeks, heating them. Was that what Lauren had been staring at?
She considered it for a moment and then rolled her eyes at herself.Don’t flatter yourself.If she thought that everyone desired her, she’d definitely been in Hollywood for too long. With a shake of her head, she stepped into the shower.
As soon as Grace had disappeared inside, Lauren closed the laptop and fanned herself with both hands. Despite the dropping temperature, she was overheated. Being kissed by Tabby Jones, the attractive singer who’d been on the cover of bothRolling StoneandPlayboy, had left her cold, but the sight of Grace in just a swimsuit, the wet material clinging to her chest, water dripping down her curvaceous body…
Jesus! Stop it! The woman is your client—your straight, married client.She’d probably fire her, this time for good, if she knew where Lauren’s thoughts were headed. Lauren had worked with models, beauty queens, and actresses, all of them gorgeous, some of them lesbian or bi, and a few even interested in a quick adventure with their publicist. Still, it had never been this difficult to keep her libido in check and stay professional. What the heck was it about Grace Durand that made it so hard to think of her as just a client?
Minutes went by, but Lauren didn’t find an answer. Maybe she was just building this up in her mind, making more out of it than it really was. Only a person in a coma would be able to resist taking a peek at Grace Durand in a swimsuit. Being attracted to one of the sexiest women alive was perfectly normal for a lesbian, right? It was just a physical thing, easy to ignore.
With that kind of encouragement in mind, she picked up the laptop and went inside.
Everything was quiet in the cottage. Just when Lauren started to wonder where Grace had gone, the door in the corner of the living room opened.
Grace stepped out, wearing nothing but a towel. The damp material did nothing to conceal the shape of her full breasts or her curvy hips. Her cheeks were flushed from her shower. She had wound her golden-blonde hair into a knot on top of her head and secured it with a clip, giving Lauren a view of her elegant neck and her bare shoulders.
Lauren struggled not to stare.This is so not fair.
“Sorry,” Grace said when she saw Lauren standing frozen in the middle of the living room. “I forgot to take a change of clothes into the bathroom with me. Feel free to take a shower too.”
“Thanks. I’ll definitely take you up on that offer,” Lauren said, managing to sound fairly normal. She needed a shower—a cold one.
“I’ll put out something for you to wear.” Barefoot, Grace padded past Lauren and climbed up the ladder to the loft.
See? Just a physical thing,Lauren repeated her new mantra.No problem, right? Easy to—
Grace’s towel rode up, revealing a glimpse of bare thigh and the rounded bottom of her ass.
Lauren quickly looked away and clamped her teeth around her bottom lip to suppress a groan. Marlene couldn’t have picked a better test for her. Determined to prove her professionalism, she marched to the bathroom for a cold shower.
Twenty minutes later, Lauren entered the living room in the clothes that Grace had put just inside the bathroom door for her. Grace had to smile as she caught sight of her. The sweatpants were too short for her by a few inches since Lauren was a bit taller and heavier, but she didn’t seem to mind. She wore them with the same confidence as she would a pair of tailored slacks. Her hair had apparently been towel-dried and finger-combed; it hung loosely around her face.
Grace decided that she liked seeing her that way. It was a refreshing change of pace from the high-maintenance divas she often worked with.
“Was there enough hot water left?” Grace asked from the tiny kitchen unit.
“I didn’t…uh, yeah, thanks. And thanks for the clothes.”
“You’re welcome.” Grace carried the tray she’d prepared over to her and gestured at Lauren to take a seat on the couch. “I thought we should eat something before we go to bed.” With an apologetic shrug, she put the tray of cheese, salami, and crackers on the coffee table. “Normally, I hit the store in town before driving up to the cottage. I don’t keep much food here, so it’s not exactly haute cuisine.”
“Unlike the extravagant meal I prepared for you yesterday,” Lauren said, grinning.
Grace had to think for a moment before she grasped her meaning. Somehow, it seemed much longer than just a day since they’d eaten hot dogs at Lauren’s place. “Yeah, we seem to make a habit out of this. Let’s not tell my mother, or she’ll put me on a diet.”
Lauren snorted. “Please. You don’t need a diet.”
Grace popped a piece of cheese into her mouth and studied Lauren while she chewed. “Why, Lauren Pearce,” she said with a teasing smile. “Was that a compliment?”
“It’s in my contract, isn’t it?” Lauren assembled layers of crackers, cheese, and salami into a mini-sandwich. “The publicist shall provide the aforementioned client with daily compliments. Any delay or failure to perform this obligation will result in an immediate termination of the contract,” she said, sounding as if she were reading from a legal document.
With a cracker halfway to her mouth, Grace paused. Now no longer teasing, she said, “While we’re exchanging compliments… I think I should tell you that I’m really glad I didn’t allow my mother to fire you. You’re doing a good job as my publicist.”
Lauren stopped chewing. A hint of red tinged her cheeks.
Grace smiled, charmed by her modesty.
“Uh, thanks, but I don’t think I deserve that praise,” Lauren said. “I didn’t get your statement to the blogger on time, and things went downhill from there.”
The self-critical response was a surprise. Most people Grace had worked with so far were quick to blame everyone else when things didn’t go well. “He posted his story long before the deadline he gave you. That’s hardly your fault.”
Lauren reached for a slice of salami and held it in her hand without eating. “Still…”
“Stop beating yourself up for something that wasn’t within your control.”
“Good.” Grace gave her a smile. “Or you’d have to handle a headline tomorrow about Grace Durand beating some sense into her publicist.”
Grinning, Lauren popped the piece of salami into her mouth.
Finally, when the last crumb of their impromptu dinner was gone, Grace cleared the table and then settled back on the couch. She gestured at the laptop that Lauren had brought inside. “Can I see the statement you prepared for tomorrow?”
“Sure. We should talk about how to handle the press conference anyway.”
Grace pulled the laptop over and opened the lid. The document that Lauren had left open appeared on the screen, and Grace read through it. “Hmm,” she said when she looked back up. “I don’t think Jill will like this. It makes her look like a helpless damsel.”
“It makes her look like someone who has a neurological condition and therefore needs help on occasion,” Lauren said. “It’s the only way to make people stop questioning your presence in Jill’s trailer and her hotel room.”
True, but still… For the first time, Grace wondered whether it had been the best idea for Lauren to become Jill’s publicist too. “So you phrased it like that for me? What about Jill? Shouldn’t we use a statement that protects her?”
Lauren looked her in the eyes. “I honestly think this is best for Jill too. I don’t know her very well, but from what I’ve seen so far, I think her MS will become obvious to the people she works with sooner rather than later. What if she has a flare-up in the middle of shooting a scene or during a press event?”
Grace had asked herself the same thing before, but she didn’t have an answer.
“If she stops pretending everything is all right and openly discusses the limitations that come with MS, I think people will only respect her more.”
After thinking about it for a moment, Grace nodded slowly. “Maybe you’re right.”
“Yes. But there’s something else you probably won’t like.”
Not sure she wanted to hear it, Grace gestured at Lauren to tell her anyway.
“I want to allow a few questions from the media at the end of the press conference,” Lauren said.
Grace sucked in a breath as she imagined the kind of questions the reporters would ask. “But won’t that open us up for questions that we really shouldn’t answer? What if they bring up my marriage to Nick?”
“We’re taking a bit of a chance, but if we just read the statement without answering the reporters’ questions, it will only feed the media frenzy and make them even more hungry for additional information.”
Unfortunately, she was right. Grace played with the laptop’s trackpad, making the mouse arrow stagger across the screen. “So what do I tell them if they ask about Nick and me?”
“Don’t lie, but don’t tell them the truth either. You could tell them that Nick is just as outraged as you about the accusations of infidelity. In fact…” A cough interrupted her. “Sorry. It would be a good idea to have Nick there for the press conference, showing his support. I should have thought of it when he was here earlier, but…”
“It’s okay. I don’t blame you for being thrown off stride by that little bit of celebrity drama.” God knows she had been caught off guard by it too. “I’ll call him first thing tomorrow morning and ask him to come.”
“Why don’t you let me do it?” Lauren said. “I need to coach him on what to say anyway.”
Grace studied her. Was Lauren trying to spare her the indignity of having to ask her future ex-husband a favor? Well, after today’s conversation with Nick, she wasn’t too proud to accept that offer. “All right. Thank you.”
Lauren coughed again.
“Come on. Let’s go to bed before you do cough up a lung.” Grace got up and made up the couch with a spare set of sheets while Lauren made a quick trip to the bathroom.
Finally, with their teeth brushed, they stood facing each other in the middle of the living room.
“Good night,” Grace said. “And thanks for today. Driving me up here and everything. Giving compliments might be in your contract, but I know most of the other things you did today aren’t.” She hesitated but then gave in to the impulse. Quickly, she leaned forward and hugged Lauren for just a second before backing away.
She was halfway to the ladder before Lauren’s “you’re welcome” reached her.
Smiling, Grace climbed up into the loft and crawled into bed.
From below, the sounds of Lauren getting settled on the couch drifted up.
It should have been slightly awkward to sleep practically in the same room, especially here in her private sanctuary, but for some reason, Grace found it comforting to know that Lauren was down there. She turned off the light, closed her eyes, and listened to Lauren’s soft coughing until she drifted off to sleep.
By the time Lauren woke, the gray light of dawn had crept into the cottage. She reached for her wristwatch that she’d set on the coffee table serving as her nightstand. It was barely after five. She listened for a few moments, but upstairs, in the loft, nothing moved.
As quietly as possible, she gathered her clothes and tiptoed to the bathroom.
Finally, armed with her cell phone and Grace’s laptop, she went outside to the patio so she wouldn’t wake Grace.
The signal strength icon on her phone showed a single bar. Despite a momentary flash of guilt because of the early hour, she called Tina and told her which reporters to invite to the press conference. Just when she contemplated whether it was a good idea to call Nick so early, the glass door behind her slid open and Grace joined her on the patio.
“Good morning.” She set a mug of steaming coffee on the table next to Lauren and kept a second one for herself.
“Morning. Thank you.” Lauren peeked into the mug and grinned. Grace had remembered her preference; the coffee was black and hopefully strong.
They sat next to each other at the small table, their hands wrapped around their mugs for warmth, slowly sipping their beverages while they watched the fog roll in and sweep through the canyon below. The first hue of dawn lit up the mountains and hills surrounding them. With a view like this, Lauren understood why Grace didn’t keep a TV in the cottage.
Neither of them seemed to feel the need to fill the silence with small talk, and Lauren was grateful that Grace wasn’t one of the chatty stars she represented.
Finally, when her coffee was gone and the sun was climbing higher, she turned toward Grace and took in the faint shadows under her eyes. Grace probably hadn’t slept too well, maybe going over possible questions and answers in that state between sleep and wakefulness.
“Don’t worry,” Grace said as if guessing Lauren’s thoughts. “Nothing a little concealer won’t cure.”
“All right. I’ll call Jill and Nick to let them know when to be at CTP, and then let’s get going. We need to stop by my apartment so I can get changed, and I want to coach Jill on what to say before we head to the office for the press conference.”
Grace tugged on the sweatpants and the long-sleeved T-shirt she was wearing. “Any advice on what to wear?”
Lauren considered it for a moment, her mind showing her flashes of the clothes that Grace might have in her closet. She quickly discarded the more elegant dresses, no matter how beautiful Grace might look in them. “Pick something that says ‘helpful friend’ rather than ‘sexy vixen.’”
“You’ve got something against sexy?” Grace asked, a light smile playing around her lips.
Oh, not at all, believe me.Lauren bit her lip and stopped herself from saying it. “No. I just think we should play on your friendly girl-next-door image. We want them to see you as Jill’s friend, not as a woman she might lust after.”
“Got it. Helpful friend it is.” Grace got up and headed inside.
Lauren squared her shoulders and walked over to the corner of the patio where she had the best cell phone reception. When the display finally showed one bar, she pulled Nick’s business card out of her pocket and typed in the number.
The phone rang and rang and rang.
Just when Lauren thought voice mail would pick up, Nick’s groggy voice came from the other end of the line. “Yeah?”
“Nick, it’s Lauren Pearce.” When only silence answered, she added, “Grace’s publicist.”
Sheets rustled. “Is she okay?” he asked, sounding wide-awake now.
“She’s fine,” Lauren said quickly. “I’m sorry to bother you this early on a Saturday, but I need a favor.”
“A favor?” he drawled.
“We’re going to hold a press conference at ten, trying to stop the rumors once and for all by telling the press that Jill has MS.”
That stunned him into silence for several seconds. “MS? What the fuck? Is this some PR trick?”
“No. I wish it were, but sadly, it isn’t. I would never say something like that if it weren’t true.”
“Damn. I had no idea.” Nick sighed and then asked, “Does Grace know?”
Lauren hesitated, not sure how much Grace would want him to know.
“Don’t bother. Of course she knows. Why didn’t she tell me?”
“I don’t know. Jill probably didn’t want her to,” Lauren said, feeling the need to defend Grace.
Nick huffed out a breath. “And now she suddenly wants to tell the whole world?”
“She’s doing it for Grace.”
“You know, Grace said the rumors aren’t true, but sometimes, I really wonder what’s going on between those two,” Nick muttered.
“It’s called friendship, Nick.” Not that she, herself, had a friend like that in her life.
Soft noises indicated that Nick was getting out of bed. “So now you want me to be her friend too and show up for the press conference, right?”
He sighed. “When and where do you need me?”
The paparazzi had picked up their trail somewhere on the way from Lauren’s apartment to Glendale and followed them to Jill’s house.
Grace gritted her teeth in the passenger seat when she saw the SUVs and the cars behind them. “Damn.”
“Don’t worry,” Lauren said. “We’ll clear up what’s really going on in an hour anyway, so even if they post the photos they’ll take of us entering Jill’s home, it won’t matter anymore.”
True. Grace just hoped things would settle down after the press conference. She couldn’t take this constant hide-and-seek with the paparazzi for much longer.
Jill’s housekeeper opened the door when they rang the bell. “Oh, thank God you’re here, Ms. Durand,” she said, clutching Grace’s shoulders and nearly dragging her inside.
Tramp ran up to them, wagging his tail so hard that his rear end shook from side to side.
Grace gently freed herself of the housekeeper’s grip and petted the dog while she looked at the stairs leading to the master bedroom. Concern gnawed at her, but she stopped herself from rushing upstairs. “Is Jill all right? Are the symptoms worse today?”
“Oh, no, it’s not that. She’s just a nervous wreck because of the press conference. She’s been upstairs in her room since you called earlier.”
“Would you mind waiting down here?” Grace said to Lauren, who had entered after her. “I’ll go up and see if she needs any help getting ready.”
“Sure,” Lauren said. “I’ll keep Tramp company. Come on, boy.” When she patted her thigh and walked off in the direction of the living room, Tramp bounded after her.
Grace climbed the stairs, taking them two at a time.
The door to the master bedroom was closed, so she knocked.
A grunt answered.
Hesitatingly, Grace opened the door a few inches and peeked inside the room.
Jill stood in front of the mirrored closet doors, wearing just a pair of panties. She held a bra in her hands but seemed to struggle with the tiny hooks.
“Jill? Can I come in?”
“Sure, if you don’t mind seeing me in my birthday suit.”
Grace had seen Jill half-dressed before and had even helped her undress in the hotel in Macon, when Jill hadn’t been able to manage on her own. Now that she knew Jill was gay, it felt different, though.Oh, come on. That’s stupid. She’s the same old Jill.She gave herself a mental push and entered.
Her lips pressed together, Jill continued to fumble with the bra closure. “This goddamn clasp just won’t…argh!” She threw the bra across the room.
It ricocheted off the doorjamb next to Grace and hit her in the chest. She caught it reflexively and raised one brow. “Do you think this is a new phase in my career? I never had women throw their bras at me before.”
Jill stared at her and then began to laugh. The frustration fled from her expression. “You’re one of a kind, you know that?”
Grace shrugged and closed the door behind her. “So, what’s wrong with the bra?”
Jill scowled at the offending garment. “Nothing. The MS is just messing with my fine motor skills, so I can’t get the clasp to close.”
“Want some help?”
“Yes, please,” Jill said after a moment’s hesitation. “I don’t think Lauren would want me to show up at the press conference without a bra.”
“I doubt it.” Grace carried the bra over to her friend and then looked back and forth between Jill’s face and the article of clothing. “Uh, how do we do this?”
“I don’t know. You just put it on.”
“Easier said than done.” Grace’s attempt to give Jill some privacy by not looking at her naked chest wasn’t making it any easier. “I never helped another woman put on her bra before.”
“Me neither. My experience is limited to taking them off.” Jill grinned and winked.
Grace socked her in the arm, and some of the awkwardness disappeared. She helped Jill slip first one arm, then the other through the bra straps before walking around to fasten the hooks.
Jill adjusted her breasts in the cups. Grinning, she watched Grace in the mirror. “You’re not blushing, are you?”
“No, of course not!” Grace pulled on one bra strap, letting it snap against Jill’s skin.
“Ouch! Hey, you’re here to help me, not to relive junior high.”
Reaching over Jill’s shoulders, Grace adjusted the bra straps for a more comfortable fit. “Well, I never really went to high school, so…”
Jill turned to face her. “You didn’t?”
“I was schooled at home and on sets by my mother and tutors,” Grace said. At the mention of her mother, she sobered, remembering that Jill had wanted to tell her family about her MS. “Did you call your family yesterday?”
Jill just nodded. She walked over to her closet and pulled out a dress, holding it out for Grace to see. Except for its color, it resembled Grace’s light blue summer dress, so it probably fulfilled Lauren’s helpful-friend-not-sexy-vixen criteria. Grace nodded her approval.
“How did they take it?” she asked while she helped Jill pull the dress over her head.
Jill put up a brave front most of the time, hiding behind witty comments, but this time, her expression was serious as her face reappeared through the dress’s opening. “It was bad, like I expected. My mother cried as if I would fall over dead any moment, and my brother declared it my punishment for being gay.”
Grace nearly ripped the fabric of the dress she’d just straightened. “Excuse me? What kind of brother would say that?”
“My homophobic asshole brother.”
“He doesn’t deserve a sister like you.”
“I know,” Jill said, now with her trademark impish grin.
Grace pointed at the jewelry on Jill’s dresser. “Jewelry?”
Jill batted her lashes at her. “Isn’t it a little soon in our relationship for that?”
“You!” She backhanded her across the shoulder but couldn’t help returning Jill’s grin. She knew that humor was Jill’s way of dealing with things. “I meant do you want to wear any jewelry?”
“No, thanks,” Jill said. “I think I’ll goau natureltoday.”
Grace fastened a pair of flat sandals for Jill and peeked up at her. “Will any of your family be there for the press conference?”
“No. I don’t want them to come. How about your mother? She’ll be there, right?”
Only now did Grace realize she’d forgotten to call her mother to let her know about the press conference. She pressed her hand to her mouth. “Oh, shit.”
“I forgot to let her know.” Grace looked at her watch. It was too late now. Her mother would never get ready in time.
Jill laughed. “I think I’d rather call my mother again to tell her I have MS than call your mother and tell her you forgot to inform her about the press conference.”
Grace stepped up to the microphone and adjusted it, ignoring the camera flashes. She gazed down at the sea of reporters that had crowded into Chandler & Troy Publicity’s conference room. There were even two news teams with cameras and microphones.
Even though she was shaking inside, she flashed her Hollywood smile and gave them a friendly nod. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you all for coming.”
Next to her, Jill gripped the side of the podium with both hands.
Grace wasn’t sure if her friend had problems with her balance again or was just nervous. She reached out and wrapped one arm around Jill.
More flashes went off.
Grace glanced to the left, where Lauren stood slightly behind them, with Nick by her side. In a gray suit and a purple blouse, she looked calm and composed. She gave Grace an encouraging nod.
Squeezing Jill’s shoulder, Grace took a deep breath. “You probably all followed the headlines about me and Jill that have flooded the media in the last two weeks. We called this press conference to set the record straight—pun intended.”
A few of the reporters chuckled, and Grace smiled. Lauren had written a great beginning for their press conference, making sure to keep the tone friendly and not turn the entire event into a confrontation with the media.
“Yes, it’s true that I accompanied Jill to her trailer on more than one occasion while we were on location, and we also booked a hotel room in Macon together,” Grace said and paused to let the hastily scribbling reporters catch up. “But I’m afraid the reason is not nearly as exciting as you think.”
She turned toward Jill, who was so pale that her freckles stood out in stark contrast.
Jill leaned closer to the microphone, shifting some of her weight onto Grace. “I found out last year that I suffer from MS—multiple sclerosis.”
A collective murmur went through the conference room. One or two of the reporters even had the decency to look ashamed for the bullshit they’d been writing.
Jill lifted one hand, asking for silence. “Most of the time, I manage just fine,” she continued, skipping over the list of symptoms in Lauren’s original statement, “but the long days on set take their toll, so Grace helped me when I was too exhausted to make it back to the trailer alone.” She turned her head to look at Grace.
To Grace’s surprise, tears shimmered in Jill’s green eyes.
“She has been a good friend to me throughout a very difficult time in my life, and I ask you not to repay her kindness by spreading lies about her. Thank you.”
Lauren stepped up behind them. “We will now take a handful of questions, but we ask you not to tax Ms. Corrigan’s energy too much, so please stick to relevant topics.”
Every reporter in the room raised his or her hand. A few waved like overeager students.
A lump formed in Grace’s throat as she waited for the first question. She was grateful for Lauren’s soothing presence behind her.
Lauren pointed past Grace to one of the reporters in the first row. “Mr. Abner, right?”
“Go ahead and ask your question,” Lauren said.
The man stood. “How long have you known about Ms. Corrigan’s…condition?”
Grace relaxed a little. She glanced at Jill, who gave her a nod. “She told me right before we started shootingAva’s Heart.”
“Will you give up acting?” another reporter asked, addressing Jill.
“Hell, no,” Jill said.
Several journalists laughed at the energetic response.
“Seriously, I will continue to act for as long as possible. The kind of MS I have is called relapsing-remitting, which means that I get episodes of symptoms and then fairly long periods of remission.”
“But won’t your symptoms get worse over time?” another journalist asked.
Jill shrugged. “They do for about fifty percent of patients with relapsing-remitting MS, but I don’t know yet if that’s true for me too. I’m hoping for the best, but I’m prepared to muddle through even if the symptoms get worse.”
Grace squeezed her softly, once again impressed with her friend’s braveness. She didn’t want to even imagine how she would handle having a disease like MS.
“Ms. Corrigan, can you confirm what you said about your sexual orientation yesterday?” another reporter asked.
Jill lifted her head and looked directly at the man who’d asked the question. “Yes. I’m a lesbian.”
After Jill had answered two other questions, Lauren said, “All right, ladies and gentlemen. One more question, then let’s wrap this up.”
Before any other reporter could step in, a man in a tweed suit rose in the last row.
Grace knew him. He had followed her career for various magazines and newspapers over the last twenty plus years and had practically watched her grow up. While they weren’t exactly friends, the articles he wrote about her had always been favorable, so she breathed a sigh of relief and nodded at him to ask his question.
“Ms. Durand, while I commend you for your loyalty toward Ms. Corrigan, isn’t it true that your relationship with your husband is less loving?”
It stung that this probing question came from him. Forcing down her anger, she looked him straight in the eyes. “If you’re asking whether I’m having an affair, the answer is no.”
“What about Mr. Sinclair?” Abner asked. “Is he having an affair?”
Grace’s mind reeled. How could she answer that without lying? “Nick would never cheat on me behind my back.” Technically, it was the truth. While Nick was with someone else now, it had happened after their separation and he’d been up-front about it.
“So everything’s fine between you and Mr. Sinclair?” Abner asked. “He didn’t move out of your villa and into an apartment in Silver City?”
Damn.How had he found out about that? The apartment in Silver City wasn’t even in Nick’s name. She glanced at Lauren, hoping she’d step in and end the press conference, but Lauren almost imperceptibly shook her head. Grace understood. If Lauren cut off the reporter’s question, it would have the same effect as saying “no comment.” It would make the media even more suspicious, so they would dig deeper to find out what was going on.
Before Grace could think of something to say, Nick walked past Lauren and pointedly wrapped one arm around Grace and the other around Jill. “Since I’m here, why don’t you ask me directly, Mr. …?”
“Dinsmore,” the reporter said. His gaze drilled into Nick. “So, why did you move out?”
“Who says I did?” Nick countered. “I’m just staying in the apartment in Silver City for a few weeks. It’s more convenient right now, since it’s so close to the studio where I’m shootingHard as Steel III.I will continue to live in the villa in the future.”
Which was true, since Grace would move out once they no longer needed to hold up appearances.
Nick pressed a kiss to Grace’s cheek. “We love each other,” he said, radiating sincerity. “My wife never cheated on me, not with Jill and not with anyone else.” He paused and then grinned and winked at the reporters. “Even though these two would be damn hot to watch, don’t you think?”
The reporters laughed and started to gather their notes.
Grace didn’t know whether to kiss him or to kick him in the shin for that last remark. “I seriously underestimated your acting skills,” she whispered as the last of the journalists filed out of the room. “Thank you.”
He let go of her and Jill and stepped back. “You’re welcome. I need to get back on set. We’re working on a new stunt.”
“Be careful, please,” Grace said.
“Will do.” He walked off, passing Lauren on the way to the door.
“That went well,” Lauren said as she joined them. “Although I could have sworn there was a sentence or two about the symptoms of MS and how they affect you somewhere in that statement.” She gave Jill a pointed look.
“Oops.” Jill grinned. “Guess I forgot to mention that. You do know that MS can affect people’s memory, right?”
“Right.” Lauren looked at her for a moment longer before turning to Grace. “The media circus should settle down now, but try to lay low anyway.”
“You mean no climbing walls in stilettos at midnight?”
“None of that,” Lauren said sternly but then cracked a smile.
Grace smiled in return. “Okay.” She wouldn’t miss the tabloid craziness and being hunted by the paparazzi. Still, she had enjoyed working so closely with Lauren the last three days. A strange feeling of regret washed over her, but she quickly shook it off.
“Do you want me to drive you home now?” Lauren looked back and forth between Grace and Jill, who’d both driven to the CTP offices with her.
“That’d be nice,” Grace said. “Can you drop me off at my mother’s? I still need to pick up my SUV from her.”
“And tell her about the press conference,” Jill added.
A groan escaped Grace before she could hold it back.Oh, God.She’d forgotten about that or maybe shoved it back into the recesses of her mind. But, of course, she had to face her mother sooner or later.
“Is that going to be a problem?” Lauren asked.
“No. I just forgot to tell her with all the chaos going on yesterday and this morning.”
Lauren kept studying her with her much-too-perceptive gaze. “Do you want me to tell her?”
“Thanks, but no.” This was something she had to do, or her mother would be even angrier with her.
“Are you sure?” Lauren asked. “Remember we’re trying to avoid making headlines, including one about Grace Durand being clobbered to death with her mother’s makeup case.”
Amazing how she could make Grace laugh even in the tensest of situations. Grace chuckled and put her hand on Lauren’s arm for a moment. “I’m sure. Thanks, though. I appreciate the offer.”
Lauren looked down at the place on her arm where Grace’s hand had been a second ago, then cleared her throat and jingled her keys. “All right. Then let’s get going.”
“I gave you the security code. Why do you keep ringing the doorbell?” her mother asked when she opened the door.
Grace stepped into the Beverly Hills home. She’d lived here for a few years as a teenager, but it felt even less like a home than her mansion in the Hollywood Hills. “I didn’t want to give you a heart attack by walking into your home unannounced.”The way you keep doing,she mentally added.
“Ah, pish-posh.” Her mother peered over Grace’s shoulder before closing the door. “How did you manage to lose the paparazzi?”
“Um, why don’t we take a seat in the living room?”
Her mother dug in her high heels and stopped in the middle of the tiled foyer. “What’s going on?”
There was no way to delay the inevitable. She took a deep breath and said, “The paparazzi backed off because we just held a press conference and gave them the information they wanted.”
Her mother’s mouth gaped open. She looked at Grace as if she’d just told her that aliens had landed in her backyard. “You…you held a press conference? Without me?”
Grace bit her lip.
“I have been there for every press conference, for every single event in your entire career, from the moment your backside became the official derriere of Dry ’n’ Tender Diapers! I changed all of those diapers too! I gave up my own life to get you where you are today, and now you suddenly no longer find it necessary to at least let me know or ask my opinion?”
For a moment, Grace contemplated telling her that she hadn’t asked her to give up her life or to be dragged to cattle calls when she’d been a toddler and to spend her childhood in front of a camera, but, once again, she held back, not wanting to open that particular Pandora’s box. “I’m sorry, but we couldn’t wait—”
“We?” Her mother’s voice went quiet. Dangerously quiet, like the silence settling over a town before a tornado blew through.
Grace swallowed. “Jill, Nick, Lauren, and I.”
“I see.” Her mother stalked past her and strode into the living room, where she stood by the window and stared out.
Grace squeezed her eyes shut, stood in the foyer with slumping shoulders for a moment, and then followed her. “Mom…”
Her mother held up one hand but didn’t turn around. “No, that’s all right. I understand. You’re listening to other people’s advice now and don’t need me anymore.”
God, how Grace hated that exact tone of voice. Still, it never failed to have its desired effect—making her feel guilty. “That’s not true.” She pulled her mother around by one shoulder. “I still value your advice and always will.”
“Then why didn’t you talk this through with me? That’s not like you, Grace. You’ve never made any decision without consulting me first. At least not regarding something that could affect your career.”
“I just forgot to tell you. Things were so crazy yesterday, and then we ended up staying at the cottage, where I don’t have cell phone reception most of the time, and this morning—”
“We?” her mother repeated.
“Um…”Shit.She’d jumped out of the frying pan, right into the fire. “Lauren drove me to the cottage and then stayed because you still had my SUV and she didn’t want to leave me without a car.”
“How considerate of her,” her mother said, sounding anything but appreciative.
Grace studied her mother’s face. What was it about Lauren that made her dislike her so much? Grace didn’t get it. Was it just the fact that she was a lesbian? Or was it that Lauren, unlike everyone else Grace’s mother surrounded herself with, told her straight out what she thought? Grace found it refreshing, but her mother apparently didn’t appreciate it. “Mom,” she said, treading carefully, “you were the one who fired Roberta and told George to find a new publicist.”
“Yes, but I never meant for her to repl—” Her mother bit her lip and turned back toward the window.
Was that what this was all about? Her mother was jealous because she felt that Lauren was replacing her in Grace’s favor?Oh, for heaven’s sake.Not for the first time, Grace understood why Lauren initially hadn’t wanted to get involved in show business. The egos of many people in the entertainment industry were so unbelievably fragile. “Mom, she’s not replacing you.”
Her mother didn’t answer.
Again, Grace pulled her around.
The tears in her mother’s eyes made her reach out and pull her close. “Oh, Mom.”
Katherine clutched her with both hands, clinging to her the way she had after Grace’s father had died.
Grace shoved that memory aside. She stroked her mother’s hair with one hand, even though the hair spray made it stiff and unyielding. “Lauren is my publicist, and I value her advice. That doesn’t mean I don’t value yours anymore. Where’s that sudden insecurity coming from?”
“I just don’t want you to shut me out of your life,” her mother said in a near whisper. “You’re all I have.”
“I won’t. I promise to involve you more in the future. Okay?”
Her mother sniffed and nodded against her shoulder. “Okay.” After a few more moments, she pulled away and wrinkled her nose. “You smell like dog.”
“Oh, that’s Tramp.”
“You mean Jill’s dog?”
“Yes. Let me tell you about my first meeting with Tramp.” Grace pulled her mother over to the uncomfortable white designer couch. She’d probably get an earful from her mother, but she’d promised to involve her more and not make her feel left out. A promise was a promise, after all.
Lauren dragged her tired self out of bed at eight. She stared at her red eyes in the bathroom mirror. “What am I doing?” It was Sunday, and she’d worked late last night, getting some of the gossip rags to print retractions and admit that they’d jumped to conclusions about Grace and Jill. Why was she getting up instead of staying in her cozy bed for some much-needed sleep? Clearly, she’d worked in Hollywood for too long and all the craziness had rubbed off on her.
Speaking of Hollywood craziness…She made herself a cup of coffee and settled on the couch with her laptop. A notification popped up on the screen when she opened the lid, informing her that she had new e-mail.What else is new?She always had new e-mail. Ignoring the notification, she opened her screenwriting program instead.
It had been a while since she’d last found the time to work on her script, so she started by rereading the last few scenes. She liked the parts in which her characters struggled to survive the earthquake and then the fires destroying the city, but the scenes that came afterward somehow fell flat. Her third act wasn’t working, and she had no idea why. What was she missing?
She reached for her mug and took a sip of coffee, making a face when she realized it had gotten cold. She got up to reheat it. While the mug rotated in the microwave, she poured chocolate cereal into a bowl and opened the fridge.Damn.She’d forgotten to buy milk during the media crisis of the last few days. Now she would have to do without.
She carried her now-hot coffee and the bowl to the couch and made herself comfortable again. Inspiration still refused to strike. She typed a line of dialogue and then deleted it again when it didn’t ring true to her characters. In moments like this, she was tempted to delete the entire script and never write again. Why was she even bothering? Even if she finished this script at some point, it didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of ever being made into a movie. She wasn’t sure if that was what she wanted anyway. Becoming a screenwriter would make her a part of the Hollywood factory, something she’d sworn she’d never be. But every time her finger hovered over the delete button, she just couldn’t bring herself to press it.
Writing called to her in a way that even working in PR didn’t, so she finally decided that she’d dabble in it just as a hobby, with no intention of ever letting anyone see one of her scripts. No harm in that, right?
But even with that resolution, the words wouldn’t come today. She stared down into the dry cereal.I might as well pretend it’s popcorn and see what’s on the tube.Maybe watching a few lines of a good movie would inspire her.Yeah, right.Even knowing she was procrastinating, she reached for the remote control. Her laptop still open next to her and the bowl on her lap, she flicked through the channels and crunched a handful of her improvised popcorn.
She nearly choked on the cereal when Grace’s face appeared on her TV screen. It seemed there was no getting away from her clients, even on a Sunday. Still, she didn’t change the channel. Glued to the scene on the screen, she popped a handful of the chocolate-flavored cereal into her mouth without looking at the food.
It had to be one of Grace’s many romantic comedies, probably an early one, because she appeared to be several years younger. In this scene, Grace—or rather the character she played in this movie—walked down the aisle in a dream of a wedding dress that enhanced her generous curves and revealed just a hint of cleavage.
Lauren stopped chewing.Beautiful.She rolled her eyes at herself. Of course Grace was beautiful, but so was every other person in the movie. They made a living looking good for the camera, after all. Still, Grace stood out. She was also the most talented actress in the movie by far. The tears in her eyes looked real as she repeated the marriage vows. Lauren wondered what she’d been thinking of to make herself cry. Grace’s fingers even trembled as she pushed the wedding ring on her fictional groom’s finger. Her acting skills were totally wasted on the type of movies she made, Lauren decided.
The happy couple on her TV screen met in a kiss, Grace’s full lips moving against those of the lucky guy who played her new husband. Lauren swallowed against her suddenly dry mouth. With a grunt, she dragged her gaze away and flicked off the TV. She didn’t need that kind of inspiration; she wasn’t writing a love story after all, and she certainly didn’t need any more erotic thoughts about Grace.
She reached for the laptop and tried to immerse herself into her own fictional world, imagining her characters wandering the streets of their burned-down city. They would stop at the top of a hill, look down at the smoldering ruins of San Francisco, and then…
Yeah, what then?The only image flickering through her mind was of the two women kissing. One of them suddenly looked suspiciously like Grace, even though Lauren had described her as having red hair in the opening scene, and the other one—
The phone rang, making her jump.
With a sense of relief, Lauren reached for it and accepted the call without even glancing at the display. “Lauren Pearce.”
“This is Grace. Grace Durand. I’m so, so sorry to disturb you this early, especially on a Sunday, but Jill just called me and now I have a question and I think I already know the answer, but…”
Lauren laughed. So even world-famous actresses sometimes rambled.Cute.“Don’t worry about it. You saved me from…”
My bad writing.“Getting bored,” Lauren said. She hadn’t told anyone about her writing and intended to keep it that way. “I was just hanging out on the couch, watching sappy movies. So, what can I do for you?”
Grace was silent for a moment and then said, “I’m thinking about walking in the gay pride parade today.”
Lauren shook her head. She hadn’t expected that. Grace was certainly keeping her on her toes. “So this is the call you promised me?”
“Uh, I promised you a call?”
“Yeah, informing me when you got involved with someone, especially a woman.”
“What? No, no, I’m not…”
“Relax,” Lauren said. “I’m just joking.”
“That’s so not funny,” Grace grumbled. “You’d better keep your day job.”
Yeah, she’s got that right.Lauren looked down at her script and then reached out with one hand to close the program. “Okay, seriously, what’s this all about?”
“Jill called me an hour ago,” Grace said. “Now that she’s out, they asked her to march in the parade, and she’s thinking about going, but she doesn’t want to do it alone, so I was thinking about going with her. It’s set to start at eleven, so I need to make a decision fast. What do you think?”
Resolutely, Lauren closed the laptop with a slap of her hand. “I’m thinking there’s no way in hell I’d agree to that.”
Grace sighed. “I told Jill you’d say that.”
“Grace, as a lesbian, I really appreciate your willingness to support Jill and the rest of the LGBT community, but do you honestly think being photographed marching between a guy in a studded leather thong and a woman in assless chaps is a good idea?”
“Thanks for that lovely mental image,” Grace said dryly. The phone speaker crackled as she blew out a long breath. “I know you’re right. I just hate to tell Jill she’ll have to go alone.”
Lauren understood more and more how little freedom Grace really had, despite all her money and fame. “I’m sorry. Maybe in a few years, things will be different for you, but right now, it would only make all the rumors start up again.”
“I know. Thanks for setting me straight…so to speak.”
Lauren gave a faint smile. “You’re welcome. Is everything else okay at your house? The paparazzi are gone, right?”
“I think one or two are still hanging out, but most of them are gone,” Grace said. “There are rumors that Amanda Clark is pregnant, so they’re probably camped out in front of her house, hoping for a snapshot of the baby bump.”
Well, if that was true, then Amanda’s partner was more talented than Lauren had given her credit for, because she was fairly sureCentral Precinct’s leading lady was gay. She wasn’t in the habit of outing one actress to another, though, so all she said was, “Good.”
“Again, sorry for disturbing you. Have a nice Sunday.”
When they ended the call, Lauren stared at her closed laptop. She knew she wouldn’t get any more writing done today.Might as well get some fresh air.She reached for her cell phone again and scrolled through her contact list on the way to the bedroom to get dressed.
A shiver of dread skittered down Grace’s spine when her mother waltzed into her living room—again without an invitation or a warning—and threw a glossy magazine onto the coffee table.
The last two days had been wonderfully quiet on the media front, with no new headlines about her, and Grace had just gotten used to the new feeling of peace.I should have known it wouldn’t last long.Nothing good in her life really seemed to. What had the damn hacks written now? She reached for the magazine.
Her mother plopped down on the couch next to her. “Your friend,” she said, giving the word a derisive emphasis, “really shouldn’t make such a spectacle out of herself.”
So this wasn’t about her and Nick. But Grace couldn’t relax just yet. Had Jill somehow gotten herself in trouble? She flicked through the magazine until she got to a headline saying,Out and proud—Jill Corrigan living it up at the LA Gay Pride parade.
Grace glanced at the first picture and rolled her eyes. In jeans and a T-shirt with a rainbow-colored peace sign on the front, Jill looked downright tame compared to the guy in drag next to her and a half-naked man behind her. “She’s hardly living it up, Mom. I think she’s just celebrating that she doesn’t have to hide anymore.”
“Volunteering for an MS fundraiser would have been a better way to do that,” her mother said.
“You know what? That’s actually a good idea.” The pride parade was a little too wild for Grace’s taste too, but if it was Jill’s idea of fun, she had still wanted to support her. “Maybe Jill and I should look into that. We could—”
The ringing of her cell phone interrupted.
Grace smiled when she saw who was calling her.Speak of the devil…She swiped her finger across the display to accept the call. “Hi, Jill.”
Her mother let out a huff and stalked to the kitchen.
“I hear you were living it up at the parade,” Grace said into the phone.
Jill snorted. “Who said that?”
Grace looked up to make sure her mother was out of hearing range. “A little bird brought over the newest gossip rag.”
“Oh, I think I know that mockingbird.”
“I don’t know why you keep defending her,” Jill said.
Grace lay back on the couch and stared at the ceiling. “She’s my mother.”
“And that gives her the right to control everything you do, including who you make friends with?”
“No, of course not. It’s just…” Grace didn’t want to get into this topic now. “Tell me about the parade. How was it?”
“Crazy,” Jill said with a laugh. “But it was really cool to see all the people out on the street, supporting gay rights. Must have been a few hundred thousand. It was such an empowering feeling. I wish you could have been there.”
Grace rubbed the back of her hand across her forehead. “I’m really sorry you had to go alone.”
“Who says I was alone?” Jill said, a hint of teasing in her voice.
“Oh.” Grace had never known her friend to date, but maybe Jill just hadn’t told her because she’d dated women and hadn’t wanted Grace to know. Or had she attended the parade with an acquaintance? “You weren’t?”
“No. Guess who called me and offered to go with me?”
“I have no idea. Angelina Jolie?”
Jill laughed. “I wish. No. Lauren.”
“Lauren who?” Grace’s eyes widened. “You mean our Lauren? Our publicist?”
A warm feeling flowed through Grace, and she smiled into the empty living room. Lauren had gone with Jill because Grace had mentioned that she hated for her friend to go alone—and she hadn’t said one word about it. Their publicist was one classy lady.Amazing.Few people in Grace’s world would do something so selfless, giving up her own weekend plans and maybe even risking her boss’s disapproval for ending up in a gossip rag instead of creating PR.
“Guess your little bird didn’t tell you that, did she?” Jill said.
“No, she didn’t. Let’s see…” Grace reached for the magazine on the coffee table and took a closer look at the pictures of the parade.
There she was. In one of the photos, Lauren was marching next to Jill, laughing about something that Jill must have said. Instead of the tailored business suits that Grace was used to seeing her in, she was wearing jeans and a simple white T-shirt. A pair of sunglasses dangled from the T-shirt’s V-neck.
“She looks good in her lesbian uniform, doesn’t she?” Jill said as if she knew what Grace was looking at.
Yes, she does.Grace glanced at the picture again before closing the magazine and throwing it back onto the coffee table. “I guess.”
“Oh, come on. You’re straight, not blind. Even you can acknowledge when another woman looks good, can’t you?”
“All right, she does look good. Happy now?”
“Yes,” Jill said, sounding as if she was grinning broadly.
“By the way, I thought the lesbian uniform was a plaid flannel shirt?”
“Not in LA,” Jill said.
“Right.” Grace sat up. “So, no regrets?”
“About the way Lauren dressed for the parade?” Jill laughed. “Heck, no.”
“About coming out.”
Jill hesitated for a moment. “None so far, but it’s too soon to tell if or how it’ll affect my career.”
“Do you have anything lined up for the rest of the year?”
“Just some voice-acting for an animated movie, lending my voice to a little piglet.” Jill let out a series of loud oinks.
Not exactly a dream role. And on bad days, the MS made it hard for Jill to speak clearly, so voice-acting wasn’t the ideal job for her. “Do you want me to ask around and see if—?”
“No,” Jill said and then added more softly, “Thank you. I know you mean well, but this is something I have to do on my own.”
Grace could respect that, even if she worried about her friend.
Banging and clanging sounds came from the kitchen.
“I’d better go before my mother destroys my smoothie maker,” Grace said. “They have an ongoing feud.”
A loud cracking noise drifted over. Grace grimaced. “My mother.”
“All right. Talk to you soon.”
“Take care.” Grace ended the call and hurried to the kitchen.
Elbow-deep in Grace Durand posters, Lauren realized she’d again skipped lunch when her stomach made itself heard.
“I like that one.” Zachary, their newest intern, pointed at one of the posters spread across the large table in the conference room.
I just bet you do.Not that Lauren could blame him.
In the movie poster he’d pointed at, Grace was standing in the middle of a cornfield with rain pouring down on her, her off-white sundress clinging to her curves.
“It’s good,” Lauren said. “But don’t think about what you like or don’t like. Think about what our target audience—”
“Lauren?” Carmen, their receptionist, called from the doorway.
“This was just delivered for you.” Carmen held out a big, white box with a red bow and a little envelope.
Frowning, Lauren rounded the conference table. She wasn’t expecting anything. It didn’t look like a PR-related delivery. Who else could possibly be sending her something here? Even when she’d been dating, her girlfriends had always known better than to send gifts to the office. “Who is it from?”
“I have no idea. The security guard brought it up. All I know is that it smells heavenly.”
It smelled heavenly? Had someone sent her flowers?
One of the interns giggled. “How sweet. You have a secret admirer.”
Lauren ignored the girl’s comment and took the box from Carmen. “Thanks.”
Instead of returning to her desk, Carmen lingered in the doorway, clearly waiting for Lauren to open the box or at least the envelope.
Oh, no.Lauren had no intention of letting her co-workers see whatever was in the box. “Why don’t you take your lunch break now, and we’ll meet back here in an hour?” she said to the interns. With the box in her hands, she squeezed past Carmen and went to her office.
Once she had settled in her desk chair, she removed the envelope that was taped to the box. Lauren’s name was scripted across the front in black ink. When she opened the envelope, a small card slid out.
That was all the card said. Lauren mentally leafed through the women in her address book. If she left out business contacts, it was a rather thin book, and no woman whose name started with G came to mind.
Maybe the contents of the box would give her a clue. She removed the red ribbon. Carmen was right. Whatever was in the box smelled heavenly, but not like flowers. More like some kind of baked goods. She opened the lid of the box.
There had to be at least half a dozen different kinds: blueberry, chocolate, banana, lemon/poppy seed, corn, and one that Lauren couldn’t identify by sight alone.
Her stomach loudly growled its approval.
She glanced at the card again. A vague idea began to form in her mind. Had Grace sent the box? It couldn’t be, could it?
As if on cue, the phone rang and the display revealed that it was Grace calling.
Laughing, Lauren lifted the phone to her ear. “Muffins? You’re sending me muffins?”
“I thought everyone liked muffins. Don’t you?”
“Of course I do.” As if to prove it, she picked up one of the muffins she hadn’t yet identified and bit into it. The taste of cinnamon, apple, and a subtle coffee flavor exploded on her tongue. “Oh my God.” She moaned into the phone.
Grace cleared her throat.
“Sorry,” Lauren said and quickly swallowed. “I just discovered the cinnamon/coffee ones.”
Grace chuckled. “I thought you’d like those.”
Lauren popped another little piece into her mouth. “I do. But I thought you wanted us to stop eating junk food?”
“I said thatIshouldn’t eat it, but you’re not on the Hollywood diet. Besides, I thought sending flowers to another woman might not be the best way to follow your order and lay low, so…”
“So you sent me muffins,” Lauren said, still a little puzzled.
“I wanted to say thank you.” Grace’s voice had gone serious now.
Lauren dusted a little cinnamon off her blouse and shook her head, even though Grace couldn’t see it. “You don’t need to thank me. I get paid to do my job.”
“I’m not thanking you for getting me out of the hot water with the media, although I’m grateful for that too. This is for what you did on Sunday.”
“Oh.” Lauren rubbed her cheek with her free hand. So Grace had heard that she had accompanied Jill to the LA Gay Pride. A little uncomfortable with Grace’s gratefulness, she said, “Well, I got paid for that too. I’m Jill’s publicist, remember?”
“I’d bet my salary fromAva’s Heartthat the time you spent marching in the parade won’t show up on the bill your company will send Jill,” Grace said.
Damn. She’s beautiful and perceptive.A dangerous combination. “I have a confidentiality clause in my contract, so I can’t discuss what I might or might not bill another client for,” Lauren said, trying for a dignified, businesslike tone.
Grace laughed. “That’s a ‘no comment,’ right?”
Lauren just chuckled and said nothing.
“Seriously, though, thank you,” Grace said. “It meant a lot to Jill—and to me.”
“You’re welcome.” Lauren eyed the muffins and picked a banana one.
Before she could take a bite, a knock sounded at the door and Carmen poked her head around the doorjamb. “Sorry for the interruption. Sheryl Blackstone-Wade is here.”
Lauren frowned and covered the receiver with one hand. “She doesn’t have an appointment, does she?”
“No, but she’s wondering if you have a minute.”
So much for her lunch break. Lauren suppressed a sigh. “All right. Give me a minute, then send her in.”
“Will do.” Carmen turned away.
The receptionist showed up in the doorframe again.
“Catch.” Lauren threw her the banana muffin.
“Ooh, thank you.” Beaming, Carmen caught it and hurried back to her desk.
Lauren took her hand off the phone’s receiver. “Grace? I’m sorry, but I have to go. Duty is calling. I’ll contact you later this week to go over movie posters, okay?”
“Okay,” Grace said. “Enjoy the muffins.”
“I will.” Lauren ended the call, closed the box of muffins after one last, regretful glance, and put them in her bottom desk drawer, hoping there would be time to indulge her sweet tooth later.
Lauren was in the conference room, showing two of the interns how to put together EPKs—electronic press kits—when Carmen burst into the room. With a sense of déjà vu, Lauren hoped there wasn’t another box of muffins waiting for her or her team would start to think that she had a new girlfriend.
“Mrs. Duvenbeck just called,” Carmen said. “She wants you to call her back right away.”
Lauren frowned. In the three weeks that she’d been Grace’s publicist, Mrs. Duvenbeck had never called her before. “Did she say what she wanted?”
“Just that she has an assignment for you.”
An assignment? Lauren didn’t like the sound of that. She enjoyed working with Grace, but her mother was another story. “I’ll call her back when we’re finished here.”
Once they had chosen the music clips, bios, and interviews for the press kits and she’d sent the interns off to work on other things, Lauren went back to her office and reached for the phone. “Mrs. Duvenbeck. This is Lauren Pearce. Our receptionist said you were trying to reach me?”
“Finally! I’ve been trying to reach you all day.”
Lauren was used to exaggerations from the Hollywood divas she worked with, so instead of reacting to the implied complaint, she asked, “What can I do for you?”
“My daughter’s birthday is July 3. It’s her thirtieth,” Mrs. Duvenbeck added in a whisper, as if giving away a national secret, “so I’d like to do something special and surprise her with a party.”
Lauren relaxed a little. “That’s a great idea. I’m sure she’ll love that.”
“Yes, but the thing is, I can’t plan the party without her finding out about it ahead of time.”
It couldn’t be that hard, could it? They didn’t even live in the same house. The tiny hairs on the back of Lauren’s neck stood on end as she started to suspect where this was going. “So you’re calling me because…?”
“Because you’re her publicist, of course. You could put together a wonderful party, invite all the guests, and—”
“I’m a publicist, not a party planner.”
“For three hundred dollars an hour, I’d think you’d do whatever I wanted.”
Lauren bit back a sharp reply at the last second and abstained from telling her that it was Grace’s money, not hers. “Mrs. Duvenbeck,” she said, trying for a patient, calm tone. “Grace is my client, and I doubt she’d want me to waste my billable time on—”
“Ms. Chandler already okayed it,” Mrs. Duvenbeck said, stopping her midsentence.
Dammit!That manipulative witch had gone straight to Marlene, who had okayed it, of course. If Lauren took over the party planning, it meant more billable hours for the firm. “With all due respect, but maybe my boss wasn’t the right person to ask. If Grace is going to have to pay for it, she should be the one to okay it.”
“You want Grace to okay the surprise party we’re planning for her? That would defeat the purpose.”
For once, Mrs. Duvenbeck was right. It still irked Lauren that she was spending her daughter’s money as if it were going out of fashion, but if Grace didn’t rein her in, it certainly wasn’t Lauren’s place to do so.
“So,” Mrs. Duvenbeck said, “are you going to take over the party planning?”
There was no way she could refuse. Not while she was still on thin ice with Marlene. But she didn’t want to give in without at least trying to appeal to Mrs. Duvenbeck’s sense of reason—if she had any. “Do you really think this is the best use of my time, just eight weeks before the release of your daughter’s new movie? I should be focused on promotion right now.”
“Who says you can’t do both? You haven’t given me a chance to explain what kind of party I want.”
That you want? Shouldn’t it be about what Grace wants?“I’m listening,” Lauren said, even though she wanted to hang up.
“I’ll send you a list of producers, filmmakers, directors, and actors I want you to invite,” Mrs. Duvenbeck said. “That includes my son-in-law, of course. And I want you to invite selected members of the press—the ones that’ll give us the best exposure.”
It finally dawned on Lauren why Mrs. Duvenbeck wanted her to plan the party instead of doing it herself—Lauren had better connections to all the right media people.I can’t believe that she seriously wants to turn her daughter’s birthday party into a promo event.
“I’ll leave the choice of venue and food up to you, but please make sure that no alcohol will be served,” Mrs. Duvenbeck continued.
Well, at least she had that much consideration for her daughter. “I’ll make sure of it.”
When Lauren didn’t question the reason behind the order, Mrs. Duvenbeck noticeably paused, probably astonished that her daughter had trusted Lauren with that secret. “One more thing,” she finally said. “It might be better not to invite Jill Corrigan.”
“What?” Lauren thought she hadn’t heard correctly. “Why? As far as I know, she’s Grace’s best friend, so why wouldn’t we invite her?”
“You should know better than anyone that it’s not in my daughter’s best interest to be seen with Jill all the time,” Mrs. Duvenbeck said, her voice as cold and cutting as steel.
“I expect you to honor my wishes.”
Before Lauren could think of a reply that wouldn’t put her job at risk, Mrs. Duvenbeck said good-bye and ended the call.
Lauren smashed her fist onto the desk, making her pens rattle in their holder. “Goddamn bitch!”
A gentle knock on the door interrupted her cursing.
The door was opened, and Grace peeked into the room. “Um, is this a bad time? I thought I’d drop by to see the posters you were talking about, but it sounds like this might not be the best time.”
Lauren’s anger subsided. “No, it’s fine. Come on in. Sorry you had to hear that.”
“Don’t worry. I heard it all before. When they have to do thirty takes in the pouring rain, even the most well-bred actors start to curse like sailors.” Grace smiled as she walked toward Lauren, casually dressed in a pair of formfitting black jeans and a sleeveless cream top. “But maybe I should have brought muffins. That sounded like you’re not having the best of days.”
It just got a lot better.At the mention of doing thirty takes in the pouring rain, Lauren’s mind flashed to the poster of Grace in the nearly see-through wet dress. She gave herself a mental slap and got up from behind her desk. “No, I think I should lay off the muffins. They go right to my hips.” She patted the body parts in question.
Grace’s gaze swept down her body and then back up to her face. “Nonsense. You look fine.”
Lauren blinked. Heat crept up her chest.Did she just check me out?She imperceptibly shook her head at herself. Even straight women could look at other women. It didn’t mean a thing. “Come on. I’ll show you the posters.”
At least she wouldn’t have to deal with the guest list for the party while Grace was here.
Sometimes, Grace thought that her mother must have cameras installed in her living room. Every time she sat down to read one of the scripts George had sent her, her mother showed up or called. Sighing, she put the script aside and answered the phone.
“Are you doing anything important?” her mother asked.
“Reading a script.”
“Oh, good. Then I’ll pick you up in half an hour. We’re going shopping.”
Grace groaned. “Shopping? Now?”
“Yes. I saw this exquisite dress in one of the boutiques on Rodeo Drive. It will look marvelous on you.”
Rodeo Drive meant the paparazzi would be there within seconds, following them from store to store. “Mom, I’ve got two closets full of dresses. I don’t need a new one.”
“Trust me, you do,” her mother said firmly.
Something about her tone made Grace suspicious. Why would she need a new dress even though the premiere ofAva’s Heartwas still nearly eight weeks away? “You’re not planning on throwing me a birthday party, are you?”
“What would make you think that?”
Grace switched the phone to her other ear. “I don’t know. Maybe the fact that you want me to buy a new dress? Or that you’re answering a question with another question?”
“Can’t I want to spend a nice afternoon shopping with my daughter? I miss spending time with you.”
Shopping on Rodeo Drive with a horde of paparazzi following them around wasn’t Grace’s idea of a nice afternoon, but she had to admit that she hadn’t spent much time with her mother lately. “All right. We’ll go shopping. But you’ve got to promise me, no party.” While she appreciated the effort her mother put into planning parties for her, Grace knew she’d have to attend countless parties and red-carpet events to promote her movie very soon. She didn’t want to spend her birthday holding on to a glass of champagne that she couldn’t drink, making small talk with the movers and shakers of the entertainment industry. “Please, Mom.”
“All right. I promise that I won’t plan a party. Happy now?”
“Yes. Thanks, Mom. See you in half an hour.” Grace got up and went to get her credit card.
Lauren sat at her desk, clicking through possible venues for Grace’s birthday party. They were all equally luxurious, impressive, and high-priced. Any of these Michelin-starred restaurants and glamorous ballrooms would probably make Mrs. Duvenbeck happy, but Lauren kept hesitating. Was this really how Grace would want to spend her birthday, a milestone birthday no less?
When the phone rang, she bookmarked the websites and accepted the call. “Chandler & Troy Publicity, Lauren Pearce speaking.”
“Do you ever sleep or go home?” Jill’s cheerful voice came through the phone.
Lauren glanced at the clock in the task bar of her computer and realized that it was after nine. “Every once in a while, when you Hollywood stars don’t keep me too busy.” She swished her chair from side to side. “How are you doing? You sound good.”
“Thanks. I am. No complaints at the moment. Well, maybe one,” Jill said. “I hear there’s going to be a surprise party for Grace, and I have no idea what to get her for her birthday.”
Lauren froze mid-swivel. “Where did you hear that?”
“Russ told me,” Jill said.
Thanks a lot.Now she had a problem. Of course Jill assumed she was invited, and Lauren had to find a way to politely uninvite her. She felt like such a traitor. Jill didn’t deserve this. “Sorry,” she said lamely, “but I have no idea what to get her for her birthday either.”
“Actually, I do have an idea. Instead of a present, how about we throw her a party she’ll never forget?”
“That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Jill made a tsking noise with her tongue. “Not one of those awful parties her mother usually throws for her.”
“Grace doesn’t like them?”
“She hates them!”
Lauren stared at the open tabs on her computer screen. “She does?”
“Oh yeah. For once, I would like her to have a party that is really for her, not for publicity’s sake. That’s why I’m calling you.”
“Me? I hate to point it out, but I’m the publicity gal.”
“Yes, but you’re also the person who’s putting together this year’s party, right?”
“Uh, yes. But—”
“I have a fun idea for where to have the party.” Jill’s enthusiasm was unstoppable. “It’s a bit crazy, but…well, it’s been a crazy year, so maybe it fits. I think Grace will love it.”
Lauren’s gaze lingered on the gourmet restaurant on her screen, which had been her top choice so far. Now was the moment when she had to tell Jill that she had already put together a plan for the party—and that she wasn’t on the guest list. But then a mental image of Grace’s face as she bit into the hot dog flashed through her mind. She still vividly remembered how much Grace had enjoyed such an ordinary thing, probably because she didn’t get to experience it very often.
Her middle finger hovered over the right mouse button. Two clicks and she would delete the bookmarks for the restaurant and hotel websites.No, don’t do it. That’s career hara-kiri.
“Lauren? Are you still there?”
To hell with it.This was Grace’s birthday, not Katherine’s. She deleted the bookmarks and closed her browser. “I’m listening.”
Lauren wiped one clammy palm on her slacks as she walked up the stairs to Grace’s home, her other hand clutching the gift basket she carried. She hadn’t been this nervous since her first date.Oh, come on. Don’t be ridiculous. This is not a date.
It was Grace’s birthday—and the day Lauren figured she had a good chance of getting fired. Maybe she did have reason to be nervous. She squared her shoulders and rang the doorbell. Seconds ticked by slowly while she waited, basket in hand.
Finally, the door was opened.
Instead of Grace, Katherine Duvenbeck stood before her. “Is everything ready?” she whispered.
Lauren nodded. “Everything’s ready.”Just not the way you wanted.Mrs. Duvenbeck would find that out soon enough, but Lauren wasn’t in a hurry to reveal it.
Grace appeared behind her mother. “Lauren? I thought we wanted to meet at your office for the interview?”
“Yeah, well, I wanted to say happy birthday without the media around. And I wanted to give you this.” Feeling a little awkward under Mrs. Duvenbeck’s watchful eyes, Lauren thrust the basket at her.
“Oh. That’s so nice of you. Thank you.” Grace took the basket, studied the assortment of fruit, chocolate, jams, and jellies, and laughed at the bright streamers and the helium birthday balloon tied to the basket’s handle. “This is great. Thank you. Come on in.”
Lauren followed her into the living room, where a floral scent greeted her.
A sea of bouquets covered almost every available surface of the room—roses, orchids, and other flowers, all of them looking expensive.
Lauren began to think bringing Grace a gift basket had been a bad idea. The balloon in particular might make it look a little juvenile next to the classy bouquets. Well, too late. She ran her empty hands down the outer seams of her slacks.
But then Grace touched her arm and sent her a smile. “I love the balloon. My father got me some of those every year for my birthday.”
Was Grace just saying that to make her feel better? Lauren couldn’t tell. “I’m glad you like it.”
Lauren returned her smile and relaxed, finally deciding that Grace genuinely liked her gift basket. “Happy birthday.”
“Thank you,” Grace said quietly.
Their gazes met and held.
Mrs. Duvenbeck pushed between them and eyed the gift basket. “Do you have any idea how many calories these things are?”
“Mom, please. Not today.”
“Whatever.” Mrs. Duvenbeck waved one manicured hand. “Let me put the chocolates in the fridge while you go change into something more elegant.”
Lauren turned away, pretending to inspect the flowers Grace had gotten. If this was how Mrs. Duvenbeck treated her now, she didn’t want to even imagine what would happen once she found out what kind of party Lauren had put together. It would truly be a surprise party—and not just for Grace.
Grace started to smell a rat when her mother told her for the third time she had to change into something more elegant. “I think slacks and a blouse are just fine. It’s an interview with a local newspaper, not an official reception with the president. Right, Lauren?” She looked over at her publicist, who was wearing similar attire.
What was going on with Lauren? She looked more nervous than Grace had ever seen her, even at the tense press conference.
“Trust me, darling,” her mother said, drawing Grace’s gaze back toward her. “You really want to change.”
Lauren cleared her throat. “Actually, what you’re wearing is just fine.”
“How can you say that? It’s not—”
“Trust me, Mrs. Duvenbeck,” Lauren said and glanced at her silver wristwatch. “We should be going.”
Grace followed her outside and raised her brows as she saw the limousine in her driveway. It seemed Lauren had decided she should travel to the interview in style, since it was her birthday. She didn’t protest when her mother climbed in after her, insisting on coming with her to the interview.
As the limousine navigated the curving roads and then the busy city streets, she quietly reflected on what a strange way to spend her birthday this was. Well, at least the interview would be over in an hour and she didn’t have to spend the entire rest of the day at a party. Sometimes, playing the role of Grace Durand could be tiring.
She spent the half-hour ride mentally going over each question the reporter could possibly ask. It took her a few minutes to realize they had already passed Lauren’s office in Westwood, where they were supposed to meet the reporter, and were heading toward Santa Monica. “Uh, Lauren…”
Lauren grinned over at her. “Don’t worry. Just a little change of plans.”
Grace’s head sank against the backrest. “Let me guess. There is no reporter waiting for us.”
“Oh, yes, there is,” Lauren said, still grinning. “Several of them, actually.”
Damn.So her mother had put together a party and invited the press after all. Somehow, she’d even roped Lauren into helping.
“Don’t worry,” Lauren said quietly. “You’ll like it.” She glanced at Grace’s mother. “I think.”
As the driver turned left onto Colorado Avenue and headed toward the Santa Monica Pier, Lauren nervously shifted on the leather seat.
The limousine approached one of the expensive seafood restaurants. Mrs. Duvenbeck stopped complaining about her daughter dressing so casually and gave Lauren a grudging nod, apparently thinking that was where the party would be held.
But the limo continued on, passing the restaurant and also another one on the pier, famous for its lobster bisque.
“Where on God’s green earth are we going?”
“Just a little farther,” Lauren said.
“Farther?” Mrs. Duvenbeck screeched. “But there’s nothing but the ocean!”
The limousine crossed the bridge and rumbled over the boardwalk.
“Actually, there is.”
The driver pulled the limousine to a stop in front of a metal barricade.
“We’ll have to walk the rest of the way,” Lauren said. “It’s just a few steps.” She led Grace and a grumbling Mrs. Duvenbeck toward a building directly on the pier. Security guards blocked the entrance, but they quickly stepped back when they realized who was approaching. Lauren pulled Grace inside before she could stop to ask questions.
Three dozen people jumped out from behind video game machines, air hockey tables, pinball machines, and a shooting gallery, loudly shouting, “Surprise!”
Grace jumped and pressed both hands to her chest. “Oh my God! You’re throwing me a birthday party at an arcade?” she shouted over the chaos toward her mother.
Stiffly gripping her purse, Mrs. Duvenbeck glared at Lauren. “I certainly did not!”
Grace looked at her too. “You did this?”
A lump in her throat prevented Lauren from speaking, so she just nodded. She nearly tipped over when she suddenly found herself with an armful of Grace.
Laughing, Grace hugged her for all she was worth. “This is fantastic. Thank you!”
The subtle scent of Grace’s perfume made Lauren dizzy. Or maybe it was the feel of her curvaceous body pressed against hers. She didn’t want to examine that too closely. Very aware of all the people watching them, including Mrs. Duvenbeck and several members of the press, she awkwardly put one hand on Grace’s back. “You’re welcome. I’m glad you like it. There are some reporters here, but I made sure they’re the friendly, reputable kind. There are no video cameras, and they are only allowed to take photos for the first hour. After that, you can relax.”
“Thank you,” Grace said again and looked as if she wanted to say more, but then she was whisked away by her guests.
Grace’s laughter trailed after her, and Lauren couldn’t help grinning at the childlike glee.
“What on earth were you thinking?”
Mrs. Duvenbeck’s voice was like a bucket of ice-cold water, instantly dousing her joy. Slowly, Lauren turned around. She knew she was about to face one of the biggest battles of her career. “Well, you wanted me to pick the venue…so I did. It has all the requirements you wanted—there’s no alcohol being served, and I invited several reporters.”
“Don’t play innocent. You knew this isn’t what I wanted!” Mrs. Duvenbeck stomped one high-heeled foot.
“What about what Grace wants?” Lauren asked softly.
A flush rose up Mrs. Duvenbeck’s neck until Lauren thought steam was about to come out of her ears. “How dare you presume to know what my daughter wants? I’m her mother. I single-handedly raised her while you’ve barely known her for a month! I’m going to call your boss right now and tell her about this…this…” She swept her hand around, indicating the arcade. “This travesty!”
Lauren watched with gritted teeth as she pulled her cell phone out of her purse and pressed a few buttons.Figures that she’d have Marlene on speed dial.Her boss wouldn’t like this one bit.
The phone rang, and Mrs. Duvenbeck waited for Marlene to pick up, her triumphant gaze directed at Lauren.
“Oh, Mrs. Duvenbeck! There you are!” A blonde woman of about Grace’s age rushed over and took Mrs. Duvenbeck’s shoulders in an enthusiastic grip, showering her with air kisses left and right.
Mrs. Duvenbeck blinked rapidly. Her hand with the phone dropped to her side as she stared at the newcomer.
“This is such a wonderful idea,” the blonde said, twirling once to indicate the entire arcade. “I just told Mr. Garner from theLA Timeswhat a great event it is and that you are the one responsible for it. He was very impressed.”
“Uh, he was?”
“Yes, of course! I mean, how could he not be impressed? It’s a genius idea to have the wealthy guests pay for tokens and then have the proceeds go to a nonprofit organization raising money for MS research.”
Mrs. Duvenbeck looked back and forth between the blonde and Lauren.
A muffled voice came from the phone hanging limply in Mrs. Duvenbeck’s grasp. She lifted it to her ear. “Yes?”
Lauren recognized Marlene’s voice but couldn’t tell what she said. Probably the polite PR equivalent of “Why are you calling me on a Friday evening?”
“I just wanted…” Mrs. Duvenbeck’s gaze veered up to the blonde, who gave her a sweet smile. “I just wanted to thank you for all the great work CT Publicity has been doing for my daughter,” she said with an expression as if she’d been forced to drink a gallon of sour milk.
Weak-kneed, Lauren bit back a relieved grin.
Just as Mrs. Duvenbeck ended the call, the sound of Grace’s laughter drifted over from a nearby video game.
Both Lauren and Mrs. Duvenbeck turned their heads.
Gripping a plastic gun with both hands, Grace was fighting virtual zombies shoulder to shoulder with Jill.
Mrs. Duvenbeck whirled back around and stabbed an accusing finger in Jill’s direction. “What is she doing here? I told you not to—”
“Actually, Mrs. Duvenbeck, she’s my plus one since my partner is away on a photo shoot and couldn’t make it,” the blonde said, once again saving Lauren’s ass.
“Oh. Well, then… I’ll go greet the reporters.” Mrs. Duvenbeck’s gaze drilled into Lauren. “I will talk to you later. Don’t think for a minute that you’re going to get away with this.” After one last glare, she marched off.
Lauren blew out a breath. She wanted to hug the blonde, but instead stuck out her hand. “Thank you. You saved my life—or at least my career.”
“It was my pleasure.” The stranger took Lauren’s hand in a grip that was unexpectedly firm for such a slender woman. “I met Grace’s mother when we were shooting in Vegas, so I know how she can be.”
Shooting in Vegas? Lauren took a closer look at the blonde. “Oh, wow. You’re Amanda Clark.” Jill had probably put her on the guest list. Lauren had seen her on TV, but once again, the old adage about the camera adding ten pounds was true. The actress looked different than she did onCentral Precinct, the TV show she starred in.
Amanda grinned and tipped an imaginary hat. “In the flesh.”
“Lauren Pearce. I’m Grace’s publicist.”
“I gathered that when I saw Mrs. Duvenbeck spitting fire at you because of the party,” Amanda said.
“Thanks again for slaying that dragon.” They shared a grin. “But you know, I didn’t invite anyone from theLA Times.”
Amanda shrugged. “Yeah, but Mrs. Duvenbeck doesn’t know that, does she?”
Laughter bubbled up from Lauren’s chest. “Guess not.”
“I think I’ll go say hello to the birthday girl before she saves the world from the second attack of the zombies,” Amanda said, pointing over to where Grace was just finishing a game.
Lauren nodded and watched her go. What was suddenly going on with Hollywood? This was the third actress she’d met within the last few weeks who actually seemed to be a decent human being.
Grace hugged her colleague, for once omitting the air kisses and the fake, minimal-body-contact embrace so common in Hollywood. “Oh my God, don’t tell me this is a member of theCentral Precinctcast out and about before midnight?” She let go of Amanda and pressed her hand to her chest in pretend shock. Then, becoming serious, she asked, “Has your shooting schedule become any lighter?”
When she had guest-starred in an episode of the popular TV show last year, they’d rarely finished shooting before eight or nine o’clock in the evening, sometimes working for fourteen or more hours a day.
“I wish. But I didn’t want to miss this, so we did some creative rearranging of scenes, and here I am.” Amanda greeted Jill with a hug too and then looked around. “This is great.”
“Yes, it is.” Grace took in the large arcade, which had more games than she had ever seen in one place in her entire life. Since she’d spent most of her childhood in front of a camera, that didn’t say much, but this place made her feel like a giddy preschooler.
In one corner of the room, Nick and Russ were wielding plastic shotguns; across from them, the director ofAva’s Heartwas gobbling ghosts at a Pac-Man game, and a reporter Grace had seen at the press conference was making rock star poses with a guitar controller.
Grace reached out and squeezed Jill’s arm. “Thank you again.”
“I wish I could take all the credit, but I just came up with the idea,” Jill said. “Lauren did most of the work, booking the arcade for the day and sending out most of the invitations.”
Grace looked around. She hadn’t seen Lauren since they’d entered the arcade. “Where is she?”
“Probably hiding from your mother who wasn’t too happy about thistravesty,” Amanda said, making air quotes with two fingers of each hand. She held on to Grace when she wanted to march off and rescue Lauren from her mother’s wrath. “Don’t worry. I calmed her down by telling her how much the journalists like it.”
Grace again let her gaze sweep the room. There was still no sign of Lauren, but the reporters did indeed seem to enjoy themselves. They probably were as sick of boring cocktail parties as Grace was.
Jill hooked her arms through Grace’s and Amanda’s. “Come on,” Jill said and pulled them with her. “Let’s see what kind of mischief we can get into. Ooh, they have Skee-Ball! Let’s play.”
Grace looked at the different-sized rings at the end of an inclined ramp. “I have no idea how to play.”
Jill was already feeding tokens into the machine, making nine wooden balls clatter down into a chute. “Don’t worry. It’s not rocket science.”
While she listened to Jill’s explanation of the rules, Grace let her gaze wander through the arcade again. She was beginning to think that maybe Lauren had gone home now that the party was in full swing when she finally found her bent over the air hockey table.
Grace couldn’t make out whom she was playing since the other player’s back was to her. Lauren’s face, bathed in the glow of the bluish light in the arcade, was intent like that of a warrior readying for battle. Grace wondered if she approached every part of her life with this intensity. For a moment, an image of Lauren in a heated embrace with another woman flashed through her head before she forced the thought from her mind.
Lauren shoved an unruly strand of hair out of her face and glanced up.
Their gazes met.
The puck shot past Lauren’s paddle and clattered into the goal slot while Lauren’s opponent let out a triumphant cry.
“Sorry,” Grace mouthed.
Lauren grinned and shrugged.
Jill tugged on her sleeve. “Hey! You’re not paying attention.”
Grace turned back toward her. “Go ahead and show me. I’m watching your every move with complete and utter attention.”
Jill swung her arm as if she were bowling and rolled the first ball up the inclined ramp.
Lauren wandered the arcade, every now and then stopping to play a game with someone who hadn’t yet found a partner. Even though Mrs. Duvenbeck had already left in protest, she was sure she hadn’t heard the last of it from her, so if she was in for more ass-chewing, the least she could do was make sure everyone else thoroughly enjoyed the party.
Grace certainly did.
Grinning, Lauren looked over to the Skee-Ball ramps, where Grace was playing with Jill and Amanda. It was hard to believe that she was watching three well-known, seasoned actresses. They looked more like carefree children as they competed against each other and did little victory dances when they hit one of the high-score slots.
When it was her turn, Grace took one of the wooden balls, pretended to spit on it, and rolled it down the lane. It launched off a short ramp, gave a little hop, and landed squarely in the fifty-point ring at the top.
Grace threw her arms up and cheered.
Lauren’s grin grew. This made the confrontation with Mrs. Duvenbeck worth it. She would bet her next paycheck that Grace had never gotten to play in an arcade as a child or teenager and was glad that she had helped give her a chance to experience it now.
She leaned against an out-of-order Galaga machine and watched as the three women wandered over to the shooting range to try something else.
Russ and Nick were already there, and they happily showed the women how the game was played. Nick wrapped his arms around Grace from behind, pressing against her back, his hands covering hers as he showed her how to aim the plastic rifle.
Lauren’s grin withered, and she mentally gagged.Oh, come on.As Grace’s publicist, she knew she should be happy that Nick was willing to play along and pretend that he and Grace were still the deeply in love, touchy-feely couple. Still, she didn’t like it. It wasn’t that she was jealous, she told herself. She just didn’t like them putting on a show, acting even though the cameras weren’t rolling. She’d had enough of that at home growing up.
She pushed off the out-of-order machine and headed toward one of the shooting games. Blasting up some zombies was exactly what she needed now.
After a few more games, Grace realized they’d lost Amanda somewhere in the crowd and that Jill was getting tired. Her movements were slower than before, and she blinked repeatedly as if she had trouble seeing in the dim, bluish light of the arcade. “How about we take a break?”
Jill dug in her heels when Grace tried to drag her away from the games. “No. I demand a rematch.”
Christ. Women.Why did they have to be so stubborn? Grace glanced around for something that would help distract her friend. “But there’s a fortune-telling machine over there.” She pointed in the direction of the oak-and-glass cabinet. “Let’s go and see what the future holds for us.”
“I’m not so sure I want to know,” Jill muttered.
Grace rubbed Jill’s arm. “Hey, come on. It’s my birthday. No morose thoughts allowed.”
“Sorry. I don’t usually—”
“I know,” Grace said. Now completely serious, she looked into Jill’s eyes. “You never complain, and you always seem happy and upbeat. I know it’s probably not like that deep inside. If you ever have a bad day and want to bitch or cry or whatever, you can call me any time. You know that, don’t you?”
Biting her lip, Jill nodded. She hugged Grace for a moment and then pushed her away. “Come on. Your bright future is waiting.” She dragged Grace over to the fortune-teller puppet in the oak cabinet and pressed a token into her hand.
When Grace put it into the slot, the life-sized puppet started to move, sagely nodding her head, which made her red-and-gold headscarf sway. The crystal ball in front of her lit up as she circled her bracelet-adorned hand over it. “Come closer and listen to what Zamira the Gypsy has to tell you.”
Jill nudged Grace forward.
“Here’s my wisdom for you,” the gypsy said, her mouth opening and closing. “Your hard work will pay off in the future.”
“Oooh,” Jill whispered. “There might be an Oscar in your future after all!”
“But laziness pays off right now, so use this day to relax and enjoy yourself. You deserve it.” The puppet’s mouth snapped shut, and the crystal ball went dark.
“That’s it?” Grace said. “That was all?”
Jill grinned and elbowed her. “What were you hoping for?” She lowered her voice, “A hookup with some tall, dark, and handsome stranger?”
Grace snorted and leaned toward Jill to whisper, “No, thanks. I think I’ll stay away from men for the foreseeable future.”
“Ooh, look. There’s a card.”
Grace looked at where Jill was pointing. A printed card with an image of Zamira the Gypsy on the back slipped out of a dispenser. Expecting the same generic enjoy-yourself-today fortune that the puppet had handed out, Grace picked up the card and read it.
Although you may not look for it, love will soon arrive, changing the course of your life. It might not look like a blessing at first, but remember that the greatest pleasures in life often come from unexpected sources.
She stared at the card for a moment.
“What is it?” Jill asked and tried to peer at the card.
“Nothing.” Grace shook her head. It was just a generic fortune, not intended for her specifically. Everybody probably got the same card. She pocketed it and let herself be dragged away from the fortune-telling machine.
It was close to eleven already, but the party still showed no signs of winding down. Everywhere Lauren looked, celebrities, entertainment professionals, and reporters were still playing with abandon.
Jill sidled up next to her and bumped Lauren with her hip. “Looks like Operation Fun Birthday is a success. And Katherine hasn’t killed you either.”
“She’s just waiting until we’re back outside, where the blood won’t be so hard to remove from the floor,” Lauren said.
Jill laughed. “It was worth it, though, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah. It definitely was.” The joy on Grace’s face as she played had made it all worthwhile.
As if conjured up by Lauren’s thoughts, Grace appeared behind Jill and pressed a bottle of water into her hands. “Here. Drink this.”
“Yes, Mom.” Jill emptied half of the bottle in several big gulps.
Lauren studied her and lifted a brow at Grace, silently asking whether everything was okay with Jill.
Grace subtly shook her head. “How about we wrap up this party?”
“Now?” Jill asked. “But everybody’s still having so much fun!”
“Yeah, but now that I’m thirty, I tire more easily,” Grace said without missing a beat.
Lauren hid a grin. She liked the unobtrusive way Grace took care of her friend without making her feel as if she were being treated like a child.
“Spoilsport,” Jill grumbled. “All right. But first, I want to play one last game with you two. Your pick, Lauren.”
After letting her gaze roam over the nearby games, Lauren pointed decisively. “How about pinball?”
“Do you know how to play?” Grace asked, eyeing the vintage pinball machine.
“Please. I’m a lesbian. We’re contractually required to be good at pinball, or we lose our lesbian card.”
“Is that so?”
Grace’s drawl made goose bumps erupt all over Lauren’s body.
“Yes,” she croaked out and sent Jill an imploring gaze. “Right, Jill?”
Jill looked back and forth between them. “Right. Go ahead and start.”
Lauren cracked her knuckles and stretched her fingers like a piano player preparing for the concert of a lifetime.
“Uh-oh,” Grace said. “Why do I get the feeling we’re about to be hustled?”
Lauren just grinned and popped two tokens into the machine, which lit up and started playing eighties music. She pulled the plunger and flung the silver ball into play.
Her first ball quickly escaped through the paddles. Christ, it had been some time since she’d last played pinball. She tried to remember how long it had been since she’d taken any time off to just enjoy herself, but other than a few hours of writing on Sundays, nothing came to mind. Maybe Grace was right. She was a workaholic.
She propelled her next ball upward, this time getting back into the rhythm of the game, pressing the buttons at exactly the right moment. The ball banged and bounced against the rubber bumpers, and then she flung it up into the megapoints zone.
Lights flashed, and bells rang.
Lauren lost herself in the game, no longer keeping track of time. When she finally straightened and stepped back, she felt gazes on her and turned.
“Not bad for an old woman,” Jill said. She gestured at Grace to go before her. “Age before beauty.”
Grace stepped forward and bent over the pinball machine, involuntarily drawing Lauren’s gaze toward her firm backside.
She quickly looked away, just in time to see Jill winking at her. Scowling, she kept her gaze directed at the pinball machine.
Grace sent the ball flying the way she’d seen Lauren do it, but it quickly rolled down a gutter. The second ball fared no better. Grace’s shoulders slumped. “Good thing I’m not a lesbian, or the committee would revoke my card,” she mumbled.
“Let me show you.” Lauren stepped behind her before she could stop herself.
“Hey, no helping allowed,” Jill said.
“I’m her publicist. It’s my job to make her look good with so many journalists around.”
Grace turned her head and grinned over her shoulder. “Yeah. We wouldn’t want Lauren to have to handle headlines about Grace Durand sucking at pinball, would we?”
Jill flung up her hands. “Whatever.”
Grace slid her feet shoulder-width apart and braced herself for the next game. She felt Lauren step up behind her, so close that her front almost touched Grace’s back. Then Lauren reached around her and her hands covered Grace’s on the red buttons that moved the flippers.
Part of Grace wanted to protest this closeness. What if one of the reporters saw them and misunderstood? She told herself she was overreacting. It was just a game after all. Even the journalists would see that, and her mother was no longer here to watch her every move.
“Ready?” Lauren asked from just inches away, her breath hot on Grace’s ear.
A shiver went through Grace.Just the excitement of the game.Focusing on the pinball machine in front of her, she nodded.
The silver ball streaked up the ramp and ricocheted its way down.
“Wait, wait,” Lauren whispered. “Wait…now!” Her left hand pressed down on Grace’s.
The flipper snapped up, hitting the ball at exactly the right moment and volleying it up. It careened through a ramp and hit a couple of targets, which lit up in red, white, and blue colors.
Sirens and bells went off.
The ball bounced back and forth between bumpers before dropping down.
With one quick squeeze of their hands, Lauren catapulted it back up.
It clanged through a series of bumpers and bells, quickly making the number on the scoreboard climb.
Her skin warming and all her senses involved now, Grace pressed the buttons along with Lauren. They managed to keep the ball in play for quite some time until it finally dropped straight down.
“Oh, shit.” Helplessly, Grace watched as the ball came down right between the flippers, where she couldn’t reach it.
Just when she thought it would be game over in a second, Lauren thrust her hips against her from behind, nudging Grace against the pinball machine.
The ball changed its trajectory, and Lauren shot it back up with one flick of the right flipper. “You have to play with your entire body, not just your hands,” she said right into Grace’s ear. “Try it.”
Her body felt as if it was on fire.Game fever.Grace waited until the ball was on its way down again before she rocked her hips against the machine.
The scoring lights went out, and “tilt — game over” flashed on the scoreboard.
Lauren dropped her arms from around Grace and stepped back.
Dazed, Grace turned. Her cheeks were hot, and she felt flushed with the excitement of the game. “What happened?”
“You nudged it too hard and triggered the tilt mechanism, which shuts the game down,” Lauren said and took another step back. Even in the bluish light of the arcade, her face looked flushed too.
No wonder. It was pretty warm in here. Grace turned toward Jill. “Not bad for an old woman, huh?”
“Not bad at all.” Jill grinned broadly and shouldered past them. “My turn now.”
It was after midnight when Grace finally stepped out of the arcade. The ocean breeze ruffled her hair and cooled her overheated body. She was exhausted, but at the same time, she was sad to see the evening end and the last of her guests leave.
Her mother had fled back home with the first person leaving the party, and Grace hadn’t seen Lauren since she’d walked Jill to her car. Just when she started to wonder how she’d get home, a quiet voice reached her.
“Grace, over here.”
She peered into the almost darkness at the edge of the pier.
Lauren stood at the railing, leaning against it with one hip.
Smiling, Grace walked over.
“Who’s your cute friend?” Lauren asked.
For a moment, Grace had no idea what she meant, but then Lauren gestured at the stuffed animal that Grace had just traded for her stack of tickets at the prize counter. She held it out for Lauren to see. “I think she’s a lynx.”
Grace shrugged and stroked one of the soft, bushy ears. “I don’t know. She just looks like a female to me.” She leaned against the railing next to Lauren. “Didn’t you get yourself anything for the tickets you won?”
“I gave them to one of the journalists I know. He has three kids at home,” Lauren said.
Grace smiled. For someone who showed the world just her tough publicist persona most of the time, Lauren sure had a soft heart.
They both listened to the sound of the waves rolling in and the bustling of the people in the amusement park still open somewhere behind them. After a while, Grace spontaneously turned and pressed the lynx into Lauren’s hands. “Here.”
“For me?” In the dim light, Lauren’s eyes looked just as big and round as those of the stuffed animal. “But it’s your birthday, not mine.”
Grace glanced at her wristwatch. “Not anymore. It’s five minutes past midnight.”
“Still. You won it fair and square.” Lauren tried to give back the lynx, but Grace refused to take it.
“Please. Keep it. At least until I can come up with a better idea to say thank you.”
“You don’t need to—”
“Yes, I do. I want to. This was by far the best birthday I ever had, and I know you risked my mother’s wrath by making it possible.”
Lauren’s brow furrowed. Did she find it pathetic that a day at the arcade was Grace’s best birthday of all time? Finally, she nodded, accepting the stuffed lynx and cuddling it to her chest. “Thank you.”
They looked at each other, then Lauren pushed away from the railing. “Come on. The limo is waiting to drive you and Betty home.”
Grace frowned at the mention of her birth name. “Betty?”
Grinning, Lauren lifted the little lynx.
“Oh, no. You did not name her Betty!”
“Oh, yes, I did.”
They playfully argued about it all the way to the limousine.
Lauren had worked on the electronic press kits forAva’s Heartall morning, putting together a series of sixty-second clips of the movie and behind-the-scenes footage the studio had sent. She laughed at a blooper in which a hen kept pecking at Grace’s leg. It clucked and thrashed its wings when a production assistant tried to grab it and drag it away from Grace.
“Grace Durand, chick magnet.” Lauren laughed and shook her head. The memory of the magnetic effect Grace had exerted on her in the arcade last week resurfaced. Showing her how to play pinball hadn’t been one of her better ideas. As soon as she felt Grace’s heat against her body, she’d wanted to wrap her arms around her and press even closer.
Thank God the remainder of her professionalism had kicked in before she could make a fool of herself or draw the attention of a journalist. How would Grace react if she ever found out how much Lauren had enjoyed their semi-embrace?You’d better make sure she never finds out, or her mother won’t have to bother trying to get you fired.
Not wanting to linger on those thoughts for too long, she double-clicked on the next video. It was a day-in-the-life segment that followed the actors ofAva’s Heartthrough an ordinary day on the set. The footage started at five o’clock in the morning, with Grace entering the makeup trailer, carrying two paper cups of coffee.
Two?Even a known coffee addict like Lauren usually contented herself with one cup on the way to work.
When Grace placed the second paper cup next to the makeup case, Lauren understood. She’d brought in coffee for the makeup artist. The logo on the cup indicated that it wasn’t the free swill from the studio’s catering area but a rather expensive designer coffee. With every other actress, Lauren would have snorted and assumed that she’d done it just this once to make herself look good on camera, but Grace seemed like the kind of woman who’d do that every day.
In the video, Grace settled in the makeup chair.
The makeup lady spun her into position in front of a backlit mirror and started applying concealer and foundation. Then a close-up of Grace’s full lips followed as a medium pink lipstick glided over them, following their gentle curves. Grace’s mouth opened slightly.
Blindly, Lauren grabbed for the nearest piece of paper on her desk and used it to fan herself. Maybe this would be a good clip to include in the press kit. If it had this effect on her, it might work for Grace’s male fans too.
Her phone rang, interrupting her in-depth study of Grace’s lips. She reached for it without looking away from the screen. “Chandler & Troy Publicity, Lauren Pearce speaking.”
“Hello, Ms. Pearce. This is Katherine Duvenbeck.”
The cool voice made Lauren sit up straight and close the video that was playing on her computer screen. She felt like a teenager who’d been caught watching porn. “Uh, hello, Mrs. Duvenbeck. What can I do for you?”
She waited, almost afraid of the answer. Since Grace’s mother had stomped out of the arcade, Lauren hadn’t heard from her, but she hadn’t forgotten Mrs. Duvenbeck’s promise that she’d talk to her later.
“I want you to call my son-in-law and set up a date for him and Grace in a place where they will be photographed together,” Mrs. Duvenbeck said.
Lauren took a pen from her desk and started fiddling with its clip. “Is that really necessary?”
“I thought you agreed on that strategy?”
“Well, I didn’t outright object to it. But the fundraiser at the arcade gave Grace a lot of positive press, making the public forget about the mud the media was slinging before. A fake date won’t be necessary.” After seeing Grace and Nick together at the birthday party, Lauren wasn’t eager to look at photos of them playing the happy couple.
“Leave that for me to decide,” Mrs. Duvenbeck said.
The clip broke off the pen and ricocheted across the room. “I’m just saying. If the media finds out that they’re going through a divorce, this date will make them look like they’ve been pretending all along.”
Mrs. Duvenbeck seemed to think about it for a few seconds. “No, we’re going through with this. Who knows, maybe when they start spending some time together, they’ll reconcile and forget about this stupid divorce.”
Oh, come on.She couldn’t really believe that, could she? Grace had appeared quite certain that her marriage was over for good.
“So go ahead and call him,” Mrs. Duvenbeck said, making it sound like an order—which it was. “You have his number, don’t you?”
“I do.” Lauren gritted her teeth.Who does she think I am—a pimp?Why didn’t Mrs. Duvenbeck call her beloved son-in-law herself if she was so eager for them to go out? Then she understood. This was Mrs. Duvenbeck’s revenge—her way of showing Lauren that she wouldn’t allow her to ignore her orders.
“Good. Talk to you soon.”
Not if I can help it.Lauren hung up after a stiff good-bye. Her jaw muscles bunched as she held the phone in her hand for a few moments.Come on. Get it over with.She scrolled through her contact list and called Nick to set up a date for Grace.
Nick instantly agreed. “I need to talk to her anyway,” he said.
Lauren furrowed her brow, wondering what a couple about to divorce could possibly have to talk about. Was he indeed aiming to reconcile, as Mrs. Duvenbeck hoped? She rolled her eyes at herself. Christ, when had she become so curious? Grace would tell her whatever she needed to know as her publicist. The rest was none of her business.
She kept repeating that to herself as she called Grace to let her know about her date.
“Hi, Lauren.” Grace sounded happy to hear from her. “How are you?”
“Uh, I’m fine.”
“Good. And how’s Betty doing?”
When Lauren realized Grace was talking about the stuffed animal, she had to laugh. “She’s doing fine too. Reigning over my couch and demanding lots of adoration and many hot dogs.”
“What? The couch? She’s not allowed in your bed?”
Lauren bit back a comment about reserving her bed for women.She’s a client, remember?“Um, listen, I’m calling about a date…uh…about your date with Nick.” God, what was it about this woman that made her stammer like a starstruck girl?
“Do you really think that’s still necessary afterEntertainment Weeklypublished the photo of Nick teaching me how to shoot in the arcade?” Grace asked.
“I personally don’t think it is, but your mother insisted.”
“Gosh, this feels like being sixteen again and having Mom pick my dates,” Grace mumbled.
Lauren felt her eyebrows creep up her forehead.Her mother picked her dates for her?
“She wanted me to be seen with all the right people,” Grace explained as if sensing the unasked question. She was silent for a few moments before saying, “Okay. If she thinks it’s for the best, then let’s do it. When and where?”
“Saturday at eight in The Aerie,” Lauren said.
“That posh rooftop sushi bar in Venice Beach?” Grace sounded less than enthusiastic.
“Well, if it’s any consolation, the sushi is supposed to be good, and you can watch the sunset from the top of the building.”
Grace sighed and mumbled, “I’d rather join you and Betty for hot dogs on the couch.”
Lauren was stunned into silence. Did Grace really mean that? Of course, she couldn’t ask.
“Okay,” Grace said. “I wrote it down. Tell Nick he’s got a date.”
Okay, that’s it. If she drags out one more thing, I’ll just go naked.Grace stared at the stack of clothes piled on her bed. Her mother had regarded each item for a second before declaring it not good enough. “Mom,” Grace said before her mother could pull out the other half of her closet too. “It’s just Nick.” If left to her own devices, she would have grabbed the article of clothing on top of the pile and put it on. Case closed.
But with her mother, things were never that easy. “Just Nick?” She shook her head. “That’s the kind of attitude that made your marriage fail.”
Maybe she was right. While Nick had always been important to her, he’d never played first fiddle in her life. She itched to remind her mother that she’d encouraged Grace to put her career first but knew it wouldn’t do any good. Trying to be patient, she watched her mother rummage through her walk-in closet.
Finally, she handed Grace a fiery-red dress with a plunging neckline.
Grace held it to her chest and peeked down at herself. “Isn’t that a little over the top for a sushi bar?”
Her mother sent her a gaze that made Grace duck her head.
“Okay, I’ll wear it.”
At least she would make some paparazzi happy.
Grace knew something weird was going on with Nick even before their date started. He called her the day before, asking if she would mind driving and picking him up so he could have some sake with his dinner.
Normally, he didn’t drink around her. But apparently, he thought he needed alcohol to make it through dinner with her. Grace frowned. Were things really that bad between them? They were still friends, weren’t they?
They found a parking spot not too far from The Aerie.
A horde of fans and paparazzi surrounded them as soon as they got out of Grace’s SUV. Someone—probably her mother—must have tipped them off. Camera shutters clicked, and strobe flashes went off as Nick gallantly wrapped one arm around her.
Grace slung one arm around Nick’s athletic middle and put on her infatuated-wife smile.There, Mom. Happy now?
Young women, barely out of their teens, screamed and waved pen and paper at Nick, wanting his autograph. A few of them seemed to want more than just autographs, as a red lace bra arched through the air.
Nick caught it, grinning, and blew a kiss at the overeager fan.
Grace just shook her head and signed some autographs of her own. She realized that she wasn’t jealous anymore. After considering it for a moment, she discovered that she’d never been jealous of young women throwing their underwear at her husband. Maybe that should have been a clue.
Finally leaving their fans behind, they veered around a couple of skateboarders and strolled toward the sushi bar. Perched atop a hotel, it offered a great view of the palm tree-lined beach and the Pacific.
A cool breeze from the ocean made Grace wish she hadn’t listened to her mother and had worn something other than the revealing dress. Nick seemed too distracted by whatever was on his mind to appreciate it anyway. But then again, she was wearing the dress for the media, not for Nick, and the paparazzi who’d followed them up to the rooftop certainly seemed to like it. They snapped picture after picture. When two waiters descended on them, they finally left.
Grace allowed herself to relax and tipped the waiter generously as he brought her a blanket. While she looked over the menu, her mind went to the hot dogs Lauren had served her last month.
They nibbled on shitake tofu, spicy tuna rolls, and yellowtail carpaccio and talked about the party at the arcade, Nick’s new movie, and Grace’s upcoming trip to Las Vegas. Nick downed his sake in one shot and poured himself another from a small ceramic bottle.
The sun sank lower and dipped below the horizon, coloring the ocean and the clouds in shades of orange, gold, and crimson. Grace leaned her chin on her hand and gazed toward the horizon, but Nick didn’t seem to even notice the beautiful view.
Finally, Grace leaned back and regarded him across the table. “What’s wrong?”
His head jerked up. “Excuse me?”
“I asked you what’s wrong.”
“Nothing. Not really.”
Grace shook her head at him. “You might be an actor, but you can’t fool me. Something’s going on.”
He glanced left and right. “Not here. I’ll tell you in the car.”
The tension at the table rose. Grace’s mind churned, coming up with all kinds of things he might have to say. Was he sick? Giving up on acting? Or maybe he wanted to have the cottage instead of the house once the divorce was final? Whatever it was, it was probably bad if he didn’t want to tell her in public, afraid she’d make a scene.
She quickly finished her water so they could pay and leave.
“Would you like to get the rest of that to go?” the waiter asked as he brought them the bill.
“No, thanks,” Grace said while Nick answered, “Yes.”
The waiter looked back and forth between them.
“Yes, please,” Nick repeated.
Grace gritted her teeth. Now they’d have to wait for the waiter to wrap the tuna rolls. Was Nick trying to delay the inevitable?
Ten minutes later, they finally left the sushi bar. Neither of them said anything until they got into the SUV and pulled out onto the street. Now no one could overhear what Nick was about to tell her.
Grace glanced into the rearview mirror but couldn’t make out any cars following them as they drove toward Silver City. She gripped the steering wheel with both hands. “Tell me.”
He rubbed his mouth as if trying to hold back the words. “I don’t know how to say it.”
“Just say it. Whatever it is, I won’t bite your head off.”
Nick glanced at the dashboard, the rearview mirror, the back of Grace’s seat…everywhere but at her. “Shailene is pregnant.”
Grace nearly hit a telephone pole before she got control of herself and the SUV again. The words echoed through her head on auto repeat, so she shook her head to stop the audio loop. “How the hell did that happen?”
“Uh, the usual way,” he said, one corner of his mouth quirking up into a small smile.
Grace braked at a red light and turned her head to glare at him, making the smile drop off his face. “You think this is funny? Let’s see if you’ll keep your sense of humor once the media starts writing crap about you. Now we’ll never be able to sell them that neither of us was having an affair.”
His jaw muscles clenched. “I know. But don’t worry. This won’t fall back on you. I’ll be the cheating husband, and you’ll be off the hook with the media and the public.”
It wasn’t that easy. At least some of the gossip rags would try for a different angle. “That’s what you think. I can already see the headlines: Poor Nick. Grace was so focused on her career that she refused to give him kids. He couldn’t help going elsewhere to start a family.”
The light turned green. Grace stomped her foot down on the accelerator.
“What would you have me do?” A little anger crept into his tone. “Pressure Shailene into getting an abortion?”
“Jesus, no. I never said that.”
“I’m sorry, but it happened and I can’t undo it,” Nick said stiffly. “I’m not even sure if I’d want to. You know I always wanted kids.”
That had been the only bone of contention in their marriage. Nick wanted children—the more, the better—but Grace was ambivalent. If she ever had kids, she didn’t want them to grow up the way she had, on movie sets. That meant giving up her career. Grace hadn’t been ready for that.
Her mother had advised her to wait and said that she could always start a family later, but if she hadn’t made it in Hollywood by the time she was thirty, she’d never make it.
Now she was thirty, and her soon-to-be ex-husband was having a baby with another woman.
She shook her head at the irony of it all.
“I want to marry her as soon as the divorce is final,” Nick continued.
Grace clutched the steering wheel more tightly. “Of course,” she answered stiffly. She tried to be happy for Nick, even though this was going to be a public-relations nightmare for her. This was what he’d always wanted. He’d been the one who had wanted to get married while Grace had been content to just live together. Finally, she’d given in at her mother’s encouragement, even though part of her had always known she’d never be happy having 2.5 kids and a house with a white picket fence with Nick.
She pulled onto I-405 and headed north, keeping an eye on the rearview mirror. The same car had been behind them since they’d left the sushi bar. “Great,” Grace mumbled. “There’s a paparazzo glued to my rear bumper.”
When they reached Nick’s apartment, Grace stopped the SUV.
The paparazzo was still right behind them, probably snapping pictures.
Nick craned his neck. “Shit. He’s watching us. I can’t just say bye and get out.”
No, he couldn’t. If they wanted the media to buy that Nick was staying at the Silver City apartment only because it was closer to the studio, just a quick wave wouldn’t do; they needed a more heartfelt good-bye.
“Well, we’re actors, so…” Grace breathed in deeply and glanced at his lips. There had been a time when she’d liked kissing him, but she could barely remember. As much as she wanted to feel even one little spark of the old passion, it wasn’t happening.Method acting 101. Think of someone else.But she wasn’t interested in anyone else either. Sighing, she wrapped one arm around Nick and leaned across the middle console.
The familiar scent of his cologne brushed her nostrils. He slid one arm around her, so close now that she could feel his body heat.
An image flashed through Grace’s mind—or more of a sensory memory, really—of Lauren’s warm body pressing against her from behind while they played pinball. The mental picture surprised her, almost making her pull back, but then she calmed herself. No big deal. She had thought of the strangest things during her film kisses—fantasizing about how much she craved a chocolate bar, calculating camera angles, and brainstorming ideas for her mother’s birthday present.
Nick pressed his mouth against hers and kissed her.
Jesus, this is awkward.
At least he was smart enough to know he’d lose his tongue if he tried to slip it into her mouth.
Flashes went off outside of the SUV.
Grace waited another second, until she could be sure the paparazzo had gotten a couple of good shots, and then pulled back, lightly grazing his cheek with her fingertips for effect as she did.
Nick cleared his throat. “Good night. And thanks for dropping me off.” He reached for the door lever and climbed out of the SUV.
Just as he was about to close the door, Grace called, “Nick?”
“Yes?” He stuck his head back in.
Grace forced a smile. “Congratulations. I’m happy for you, even if your timing really sucks.”
“Thank you. I really… That means a lot.” He gave her a grateful nod and then closed the door between them.
For once, Lauren didn’t have a red-carpet event or a promo op she had to attend on Saturday night. Finally a chance to get caught up on her e-mail! She rolled her eyes at herself.That’s your idea of a fun weekend? Wow, you really are a party animal, aren’t you?
Shaking her head, she settled down on the couch with her laptop and a glass of red wine. Once she was done with her e-mail, she opened her screenwriting program, rubbed her fingers together to warm them, and then touched them to the keyboard.
But again, the words wouldn’t come. Writer’s block still had her tightly in its clutches. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t come up with a satisfying ending for this damn script.
Instead of seeing her main characters in the burned-down San Francisco, the only image that formed in her mind’s eye was of Grace out on a date with her husband. Lauren wondered how that was going. Were they having a good time, or could Grace barely wait to get back home? Had they taken separate cars, or would Nick drive her home, maybe come in for a cup of coffee…or more?
Growling, she refilled her glass and took a big sip of wine, then a second and a third.
She rarely drank, so just a glass and a half of wine made her a bit tipsy. Since she was at home, she didn’t mind but resolved to nurse the remainder. The wine didn’t help with her writer’s block anyway.
Just when she contemplated giving up for today and heading to bed to catch up on some much-needed sleep, the doorbell rang, making her jump.
Jesus.Who could that be at this hour? It was close to eleven already. Barefoot, she marched to the door and peeked through the peephole.
Even though her famous face was distorted by the fish-eye glass, it was unmistakably Grace standing in front of her door.
Lauren looked down at the pair of pajamas she was wearing. Not exactly the kind of clothing she wanted to wear while talking to a client. But then again, Grace wasn’t visiting her at the office. After a second’s hesitation, she slid back the deadbolt and pulled the door open.
Grace stood in front of her in a crimson dress that ended mid-thigh. Its plunging neckline gave a stunning view of her ample cleavage. A pair of blood-red stilettos made her legs look even longer.
Her mouth suddenly dry, Lauren had to swallow and look away before she could say, “Isn’t it a little late to come over for hot dogs?”
Grace didn’t smile.
“What’s wrong?” Lauren asked, alarmed.
“I’m sorry. I know it’s late, but… Can I come in?”
“Of course.” Belatedly, Lauren stepped back and closed the door behind Grace before leading her to the living room. “Make yourself at home.”
Grace plopped down onto the couch and eyed Lauren’s half-full glass of red wine.
“Uh, let me get rid of that.” For a moment, Lauren contemplated just gulping down the rest of the wine. Somehow, she had a feeling she would need it in a minute. But she didn’t want to drink in front of Grace, so she carried it to the kitchen and poured it down the drain.
When she returned, Grace had picked up Betty from the corner of the couch and cuddled the little plush lynx against her chest.
Lucky cat.Lauren gave herself a mental slap.Stop it, idiot. Mind on the job!She sat across from Grace in the armchair. It was better to keep her distance while she felt a bit intoxicated by the red wine and the sight of Grace in the stunning dress.
“I’m really sorry to just drop by on a Saturday night, but this is something that I didn’t want to discuss on the phone,” Grace said. “I also didn’t want you to be blindsided by it, so…”
After all the things Grace had kept from her in the beginning, Lauren appreciated being kept in the loop. But what was it that Grace had come here to say? What could be so urgent? “Did something happen while you were out with Nick?”
Grace stalled by putting the lynx down and smoothing its tufted ears.
Lauren slid onto the edge of the armchair. “Did he…try to get back together?”
“Oh, no. That ship has sailed—for both of us,” Grace said. “It seems Shailene isn’t just his rebound girlfriend after all.”
“Shailene?” Who the heck was that?
“His new girlfriend. She’s pregnant.”
For a second or two, Lauren was relieved. Nick and Grace wouldn’t get back together. Then her slightly buzzed brain grasped the meaning of what Grace had just said. She jumped up. “Jesus! We get one nightmare with the press cleaned up and now this. It’s starting to feel like being stuck in a soap opera.”
“Tell me about it,” Grace muttered.
“How are we supposed to sell it to the media that it’s an amicable divorce?”
“Why are you asking me?” Grace grumbled. “You’re the public-relations expert, not me.”
Lauren sank back into the armchair. “I’ll think of something. Don’t worry.” Her mind was spinning, already putting together a media strategy and brainstorming the best news outlets for an exclusive interview. After a minute or two, she remembered that she wasn’t alone and glanced over at Grace.
Her skin looked a little pale against the deep red of her dress, and her full lips were compressed into a thin line, but otherwise she appeared perfectly composed.
“Do you think this could end up hurting my career?” Grace asked, a tiny wrinkle between her brows.
“Ultimately, I don’t think so. Nick is the one who got involved with someone else while you’re still married, not you.”
“Yeah, but he’s an action star,” Grace said. “People expect him to be a virile macho who has women throwing themselves at him wherever he goes. Fathering a baby with another woman won’t ruin his image. But if people start thinking I’m a cold-hearted career woman who denied him the chance to have a family…”
“That won’t happen. When the time comes, we’ll go public with some interviews that will have even his fans wanting to castrate him with a blunt, rusty instrument.”
Grace cracked a smile but then shook her head. “No mudslinging, remember? I want this to be a clean divorce, despite everything.”
She sounded so reasonable, so levelheaded. What was really going on inside of her? “How are you doing with this?” Lauren asked quietly.
“Like I just said, I’m worried about how this will affect my career.”
Lauren shook her head. “I’m not talking about your career. I’m talking about how it affects you as a person. As a woman. I mean, your husband just told you he’s going to have a baby with another woman…”
Grace shrugged, her expression calm. “Nothing I can do about it.”
“You know, there are no cameras in my apartment,” Lauren said.
“Excuse me? I don’t understand what you mean.”
“I mean that you can stop acting,” Lauren said. “You don’t need to put on a show for me. You have a right to be hurt and angry.”
For a moment, Grace looked as if she would rebuke her for her open words. “You want anger?” Her cheeks flushed, and her eyes hurled daggers at Lauren. “All right. I wanted to ram the goddamn chopsticks the waiter put into the doggie bag down Nick’s throat and kick him where it really, really hurts.” She kicked out as if demonstrating. Her bare shin hit the coffee table. Moaning, she bent over and clutched her leg. “Ouch. Dammit. See? That’s why I try not to get angry. The only person who ends up getting hurt is me.”
Lauren hurried over, pushed the coffee table out of the way, and knelt. “Let me see.”
“Let me see,” Lauren repeated and gently pushed her hands away.
Grace let go of her leg and leaned forward to inspect the damage too.
Their heads hovered inches from each other, so close as if they were about to kiss. Now it was Lauren’s turn to flush. She quickly inspected Grace’s shin, trying to ignore the smooth skin under her fingers. “It’s perfect. Uh, I mean, it doesn’t look as if you hurt yourself.”
Grace leaned back. “Thank you.”
Was she thanking Lauren for checking her leg for injuries or for the involuntary compliment? Lauren couldn’t figure her out.
“You’re right,” Grace said, her voice so low that Lauren had to strain to hear. “I am angry and hurt. I mean, I knew he had a new girlfriend, but I thought it wasn’t very serious between them, just a rebound fling or something. But, no, he wants to marry her and have the 2.5 kids, the dog, and the white picket fence.” She shook her head. “Maybe it’s just my Hollywood ego, but it’s really a slap in the face that he’d get over me so fast.”
Marry her? Wow.Lauren didn’t know what to say to that. She certainly didn’t understand it either. If she were involved with a woman like Grace and their relationship ended, she wouldn’t get over it anytime soon. Belatedly letting go of Grace’s leg, she got up and settled on the other edge of the couch. She picked up Betty the lynx and put her on the cushion between them.Need a chaperone, Lauren Pearce?
“But then again,” Grace continued, “I’m the one who filed for divorce, so I can’t blame him for finding someone else. I just wish he’d have waited a little longer. It makes me wonder if what we had was ever real or just one of these Hollywood illusions.”
“Was it real for you?”
Grace opened her mouth, and Lauren knew her well enough by now to see that she was about to give her a stock answer.
“Not theEntertainment Tonightanswer, please.” She wasn’t asking because she needed to know as Grace’s publicist; she was genuinely interested in the answer.
“I’m not sure, to be honest. There was a time in my life when I thought I was really in love with him, but…” Grace picked a piece of lint off Betty’s fluffy tail. “Despite everything that’s going on now, Nick is a decent guy. I loved his sense of humor from the start. But looking back, I’m not sure I was ever head over heels for him. Maybe I just confused caring for him with being in love with him.”
Huh.Lauren wondered how that could happen. She had never fooled herself into thinking she was in love when she wasn’t.
“He just seemed to fit into my life so well,” Grace said as if guessing Lauren’s thoughts and trying to explain. “He understood my career; he was busy with his own, and my mother loved me being with him. She still hopes that we’ll reconcile.”
Oh, yeah. Trust me, I noticed.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Grace said quickly, “that’s not why I was with Nick, but when you’re in the limelight all the time, your public and your private persona can get kind of mixed up.”
Lauren had seen that more than once with her celebrity clients. That was one of the reasons why she avoided dating within the entertainment industry. It was too hard to tell what was real and what wasn’t. “Maybe you should do what I’m doing.”
“Which is?” Grace quirked a smile. “Dating women?”
Laughter burst from Lauren’s throat. She tried to imagine Grace with another woman. To her surprise, the image came without effort. She tried not to dwell on the fact that Grace’s imaginary lover had the same shortish, brown hair that she had. “No. Although I can personally recommend it, I wouldn’t like it as your publicist. What I meant is staying away from Hollywood types romantically.”
“Is that what you’re doing? Not dating anyone in show business?” Grace tilted her head and regarded her with a curious gaze. “Did you get burned?”
“Oh, yeah. One of your colleagues left some third-degree burns. I dated an actress once, when I was just starting out as a publicist. Not one of my clients, mind you.”
“What did she do?” Grace asked.
The memory still left a bitter taste in her mouth. “It turned out she was more interested in being introduced to my parents than in me.”
“Ouch.” Grace looked as if she wanted to pat Lauren’s knee but then seemed to change her mind. “You can’t judge all actresses by this one flake. We’re not all like that, you know? There are some nice ones too.”
“Yeah. I’m beginning to realize that.” The more time she spent with Grace, the more she became aware of how different she was from other actresses and from her tabloid persona.
They smiled at each other.
“Still, I think I’ll stick to my rules,” Lauren said, partly so Grace wouldn’t think she was interested in her.Which you, of course, aren’t.She suppressed a snort.Yeah, right.
They sat in companionable silence until Grace sighed. “I’d better go. I see you’re still working.” She gestured at the laptop that sat open on the coffee table but made no move to get up. Slumped against the back of the couch, she looked as if she was running out of steam, emotionally exhausted from the events of the day.
“Oh, no, I wasn’t working. I was…”
Lauren wanted to slap herself for almost telling Grace that she’d been trying to write. “Uh, just looking at some stuff.”
A teasing smile darted across Grace’s face. “Stuff. I see.”
Great. Now she probably thinks I was looking at porn or something.Her cheeks warming, she idly trailed her fingertips across the trackpad.
The screen came to life.
Lauren quickly closed the laptop before Grace could see what she’d really been doing.
But Grace had already seen. “Oh, you’re reading a script for a client? Excuse me, but that counts as work in my book.” She regarded Lauren with a shake of her head. “You really shouldn’t work so much, you know? After all, where would it leave me if my publicist had to quit because of burnout?”
“I wasn’t working, really,” Lauren blurted out defensively. “That’s just my script.”
“Your script? You mean…you’re writing one?”
Lauren didn’t need a mirror to know that her face had taken on the color of Grace’s dress. Where was the confident senior account executive, the seasoned PR veteran? She tried to shrug it off. “Yeah, but—”
“Wow.” Grace’s ocean-blue eyes gleamed with interest. “What’s it about?”
Lauren looked away, pulled the laptop off the coffee table, and held it against her chest, needing the protective shield. She wanted to slap herself silly for telling Grace about the script. “Nothing interesting. It’s probably not very good. Just some way to while away the time on weekends.”
“Why don’t I believe that? You don’t seem like a person who’d do anything halfway.”
She wasn’t, but it startled her that Grace apparently knew her that well already. “I think I have the dialogue down pat, but the plot sucks, so this,” she gestured at the laptop, “will never see the light of day.”
Instead of letting the subject drop, as Lauren had hoped, Grace asked, “What’s wrong with the plot?”
“I have no idea, but I can’t get the third act to work.”
“Do you want me to read it?” Grace asked. “Maybe I can help. I mean, I must have read thousands of scripts in my life, trying to find the best roles for me.”
God, no,Lauren almost blurted out. Just the thought of letting someone, anyone, read her script made her break out in cold sweat. It was too personal, as if she were revealing her inner self. Plus Grace was a client. Granted, she was starting to feel more like a friend. Still, Lauren hesitated.
“You don’t have to. It was just an offer,” Grace said, lightly touching Lauren’s knee. “I understand if you’d rather not. It’s pretty personal, right?”
It was. But then again, Grace had revealed things about herself that were about as personal as one could get. Was it fair to hold back? She struggled with the decision.
“It’s okay. Really,” Grace said. She glanced at her delicate golden wristwatch. “It’s getting late. I should go.” She patted Betty’s head and then got up.
Lauren hesitated for another moment. Then, before she could chicken out, she logged into her e-mail program, typed in an address, and attached the document to a new message. Inflating her lungs, she clicked the send button and then blew out a breath.Done. No way back now.Acid burned in her stomach, and something heavy lodged in her chest, making it hard to breathe. “Grace?” she called.
Already at the door, Grace turned and smoothed her hands over her hips and down her half-bare legs in a gesture that looked entirely unconscious.
The sight of her made Lauren breathless for a different reason. “I just sent you the script.”
“You…you did? Wow. I hope you didn’t feel pressured to do that.”
Lauren shrugged and wanted to shove her hands into her pockets before realizing that she was wearing pajamas, which had no pockets. Maybe a little pressure was just what she’d needed to get over her writer’s block. “It’s okay.”
“Thank you,” Grace said quietly, as if sensing what this meant for Lauren.
“It’s not a romantic comedy, though.”
A mild smile crossed Grace’s face. “I do read other stuff, you know?”
“Sorry, I didn’t want to imply…”
“It’s okay. People know me for my rom coms. I’m fine with that.”
Was she really? Or was she secretly wishing she could shoot a movie that would challenge her acting skills but afraid to lose her audience? Lauren bit her tongue before she could ask. Now was not the time to get into that topic. For tonight, they’d had enough discussions that crossed into personal areas.
She walked over and joined Grace by the door. “Drive carefully.”
“I will. Getting home safely shouldn’t be a problem. Even the paparazzo went home after he got the shot he wanted.” Grace gave her a nod, said good night, and slipped out the door, leaving Lauren to wonder what shot that was.
Well, she’d find out tomorrow morning when she’d routinely check the gossip blogs and celebrity sites. Somehow, she had a feeling she wouldn’t like it much.
Lauren felt a migraine coming on when she saw the name on her caller ID, even though she normally didn’t get migraines. Pinching the bridge of her nose, she lifted the phone to her ear with the other hand. “What can I do for you, Mrs. Duvenbeck?”
“I want you to stop Grace from appearing on that lesbian show!”
The pressure behind Lauren’s forehead spread to her temples. She bit back an aggrieved sigh. “What lesbian show?” She had all of Grace’s appearances in her calendar, and there was no lesbian show among them.
“ThatCentral Stationthing, of course! As her publicist, you should really be more aware of her schedule, Ms. Pearce.”
Lauren gritted her teeth. “It’sCentral Precinct, Mrs. Duvenbeck, notCentral Station,” she said as calmly as she could. “And it’s not a lesbian show. It’s a critically acclaimed crime show about a homicide detective who—”
“Who goes on a honeymoon with another woman! Didn’t you read the episode’s script?”
Lauren hadn’t. It wasn’t part of her duties as a publicist. Besides, she was working almost fourteen hours a day to coordinate campaigns for the worldwide premieres ofAva’s Heart. “I assume Grace did, and she was in the third-season episode that started the same-sex romance between the detective and the medical examiner, so she’s probably fine with it. Didn’t you watch that episode?” Lauren asked, smirking at being able to give back the question.
“Of course I did. Well, I saw the scenes Grace was in. But if I had seen those other scenes, I would have never allowed her to guest-star again, especially now!”
Allow her?When would Mrs. Duvenbeck finally understand that her daughter wasn’t eight years old anymore and could make her own decisions? “It’s a little late to pull out now. She already signed the contract, and the cast is flying to Vegas tomorrow.”
“There must be something you can do. After all, we’re paying you a lot of money!”
We?Lauren suppressed a snort. “Grace is paying me to protect her public image—and I’m doing exactly that by not telling her to break the contract.”
“Please.” Her tone of voice made it clear that she was rolling her eyes. “How is that protecting her public image?”
“Grace has a stellar reputation in this town. Every director and producer in Hollywood knows that she always fulfills her contracts without any diva drama. They know they can rely on her to show up on set on time. If she backs out now—for no good reason, I might add—she loses that reputation. Is that really what you want?”
Mrs. Duvenbeck was uncharacteristically silent for several moments.
Lauren’s throbbing head rejoiced.
“No, of course not,” Mrs. Duvenbeck said gruffly. “But if being on that lesbian show starts that whole media circus again, I’ll blame you.”
Of course you will.Grace’s mother always found someone else to blame. “Understood.” As Lauren hung up, she made a mental note to buy season three ofCentral Precincton her way home. She had a lesbian storyline to catch up on.
Dawn was just breaking as Grace’s driver pulled the town car to a stop in front of the terminal at LAX. Knowing the paparazzi would descend on her as soon as she got out, she suppressed a yawn.
The passenger side door of the SUV in front of them opened, and a blonde woman climbed out.
Hey, that’s Amanda!Most of the crew and cast ofCentral Precinctwould probably be on the same plane.
A tall man climbed out from behind the SUV’s wheel, walked around to Amanda, and pulled her into his arms for a tender kiss.
Grace grinned. Good to know at least one of them had some romance in her life.
They let go of each other with obvious reluctance, and he lifted Amanda’s luggage out of the SUV’s back for her. The movement stretched the fabric of his shirt across his chest—and Grace realized with a start that Amanda’s boyfriend wasn’t a boyfriend. A jolt went through her. Her co-star had been kissing another woman!
Someone cleared his throat next to her, making Grace jump. She realized that the driver was holding the door open for her—and probably had been doing so for quite some time. “Thank you,” she mumbled and climbed out.
As expected, she was immediately bathed in a meteor shower of camera flashes.
The driver lifted her carry-on and the bigger suitcase out of the trunk.
“Thanks,” she said and tipped him. “I can handle it from here.”
“Hey, Grace!” Amanda waved and squeezed past the paparazzi to join her. The SUV with her girlfriend was gone.
More flashes went off as they greeted each other with a short hug.
“Grace, look up!” one of the paparazzi called. “Over here!”
“How are you, Grace?”
“Where are you two going?”
“Looking good, ladies.”
She just kept smiling, gave them a quick wave, and tried to make it past the automatic doors into the building, but with the ring of paparazzi, fans, and curious onlookers surrounding them, it was almost impossible.
At times like this, Grace wished she had a team of bodyguards or at least an intimidating-looking personal assistant. But she didn’t want to be one of the celebrities who had a gaggle of staff around all the time.
Almost inch by inch, they made their way inside. Once they entered the terminal, more of the paparazzi practically living in the airport joined them, surrounding them from all sides. Some of them walked backward so they could keep snapping pictures as they followed them through the airport.
Security and airport employees hurried over. “Move back, guys,” one of them shouted. “Let them through.”
Reluctantly, the paparazzi stepped back but kept following them for as long as they could. Grace was grateful for the help of the airport employees, who herded them through check-in and security in record time.
With twin sighs of relief, Grace and Amanda finally dropped into plush chairs in the VIP lounge.
“Jesus.” Amanda wiped her brow. “Is it always like that?”
Grace gave her a tired smile. “Sometimes, it’s worse. Just wait a year or two. I have a feeling you’ll get there too.” Even though Amanda was beginning to be quite well-known among crime show fans, it hadn’t been that long since she’d starred only in commercials. But before too long, she probably wouldn’t be able to kiss her girlfriend good-bye in front of the terminal anymore. If the tall woman actually was her girlfriend. Dozens of questions spun through Grace’s mind, but she thought it impolite to ask about a colleague’s sexual orientation. Still, she couldn’t get over the fact that suddenly everyone she worked with seemed to turn out to be gay.Must be something in the Hollywood air.
“What’s that grin for?” Amanda asked.
Grace put on her most innocent face. “Grin? What grin?”
Amanda gave her a look and got up. “I’m going to check out the buffet. Do you want anything?”
“A banana or an apple would be great. Thanks.”
Minutes later, Amanda returned and handed Grace an apple before setting her plate down on the small table between their chairs.
Grace eyed the plate, piled up high with a Danish pastry, two muffins, some fruit, and a bit of cheese. “Are you sure you’re an actress?”
Amanda chuckled. “Pretty sure. I just missed dinner last night and didn’t have time for breakfast either.”
Was that a blush dusting her cheeks? Grace bit her tongue and abstained from asking what had made Amanda miss two meals in a row.
As soon as the fasten-seatbelt sign turned off, Amanda started rummaging through her backpack and pulled out a slightly tattered script. The title on the cover page said “Lucky in Love,” which was the name of the episode they’d start shooting tomorrow. “Do you mind?”
“Of course not. Go ahead.” Grace had already studied her lines at home. She had fewer scenes than Amanda, so it wouldn’t take long to go over them again tonight. When Amanda started studying her lines, she pulled out her laptop and opened the document Lauren had sent her. She’d been itching to read Lauren’s script for days, but this was the first time she had to herself all week.
As they flew toward Vegas, she quickly became involved in the script, following along the adventures of the two heroines in 1906. Her finger clicked the button to turn the pages faster and faster as the earthquake struck.
“Hey, that’s good.”
Amanda’s voice brought her back to the here and now. She turned her head and realized Amanda had put her script away and was reading over her shoulder. “Yes, it is. Very captivating.”
“What is it?” Amanda asked. “Your next project?”
“I wish.” As she said it, she realized it was true. The women she played never got to save themselves the way the two female main characters of Lauren’s script did; they always had to wait around for their knights in shining armor to charge in and save the day.
Amanda peered at her with a curious expression. “Why are you reading it, then? Don’t tell me you read scripts just for the fun of it.”
Grace hesitated, knowing Lauren was quite shy when it came to telling others about her writing. Although after reading the first act of the script, she really didn’t know why. The story was well written and engaging. It didn’t read like the work of someone who was just dabbling in screenwriting to while away the time on weekends.
When Amanda kept looking at her, she finally said, “A friend gave it to me. She wants a second opinion because she thinks the third act isn’t working.”
“And? Is it?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t read that far yet.” Grace pressed two keys and skipped ahead to the end of the document. After a moment’s hesitation, she turned the laptop a little so that Amanda could read the last page too. The ending was, admittedly, a little dark. The two heroines had survived, but they were standing on a hill, looking down at the smoldering ruins of their once-proud city.
“Hmm. Pretty dreary ending,” Amanda said.
“I wouldn’t call it dreary. It’s historically accurate.” The need to defend Lauren’s script surprised her.
“While I’m sure that would satisfy history aficionados, most people go to the movies to be entertained and forget their own troubles for a while, not to be educated about history.”
Grace had to agree. That was the reason why her mother and George advised her not to stray from her romantic comedies. Escapist entertainment was always in high demand. “The script is entertaining. It just needs a more hopeful ending. Maybe L…the writer could show the cable cars start running again or something, just as a symbol that the city will survive.”
“Ooh, that’s good. But I think you’d need something else to balance all the destruction and the chaos in the rest of the script. How about adding a love story?”
“A love story?” Grace scratched her head. “Between who? There are no men in this script who’d make believable love interests.” In fact, the story focused mostly on the two young women’s struggle to survive, learning to overcome their class differences and their fears as they saved each other time and again.
Amanda gave her a pointed look. “I wasn’t talking about one of the men.”
“Oh.” Grace stared down at the screen. “Oooh. You mean…?”
“Why not? I read only a little bit, but the chemistry between those two just jumps off the page. Didn’t you think so?”
Grace clicked through a few pages and read bits and pieces here and there. Maybe Amanda was right. Very little was missing to make the audience believe that the two women were falling in love with each other while trying to survive the inferno. She rubbed her chin. “But wouldn’t that narrow the commercial appeal of the script?”
“Maybe,” Amanda said. “But I think it might be worth the risk. It still wouldn’t be a lesbian movie, just a movie about two women who happen to be lesbians. I’d like to think that audiences could deal with that nowadays. I mean, just look at the episode we’re about to shoot.”
“Right. I almost forgot that you and Lorena are supposed to be honeymooning in Vegas before you get involved in that case.”
“Well, Detective Halliday and Dr. Castellano, not really Lorena and I, but a lesbian storyline on a prime-time TV show is a good indication that including a little same-sex romance in a script like this,” Amanda pointed at the screen, “is a viable option. Or do you think the writer would be adamantly against having a lesbian relationship in one of her scripts?”
Grace tried to hide her grin. “No, she definitely doesn’t have anything against lesbian relationships.”
“Good.” Amanda reached for her own script again and started mouthing the words, making little gestures, as if she were already getting into character.
Grace watched her for a while. When Amanda paused at the end of a scene, she gathered her courage. “Can I ask you something?” She pitched her voice low so that the people surrounding them wouldn’t hear.
With one finger between the pages, Amanda lowered the script. Her eyes twinkled. “No, I didn’t get a boob job; yes, the scar on my shoulder really is from a camel that was co-starring with me in a commercial, and no, I didn’t sleep with any of the producers to get the lead role inCentral Precinct.”
“Uh, thanks for that enlightening background information, but that’s not what I wanted to ask.”
“So what did you want to know?” Amanda asked, now with a more serious expression.
Grace nibbled her lip. “The woman who dropped you off at the airport earlier…”
“Her name is Michelle.”
Amanda’s tone was so soft that Grace didn’t need to ask the other questions running through her mind. Clearly, the tall woman wasn’t just a fling or a nice distraction between shoots for Amanda.
“You didn’t know I’m a lesbian, did you?” Amanda asked.
Grace shook her head. “Why do people always think it’s somehow tattooed on their foreheads and I should be able to tell?”
“Aha. Well, Jill was deeply in the closet up until a very short while ago, but I never was. Every tabloid from here to New York City wrote about it when we first introduced the romantic storyline onCentral Precinct.”
“That may be, but I never read those gossip rags unless my mother brings them to my attention,” Grace said.
Amanda shrugged. “Guess she missed those headlines.”
Thank God.If her mother knew that she would be working with an actress who didn’t just portray a lesbian on TV but was gay in real life too, she would have been even more insistent about Grace pulling out ofthat lesbian show.
They were silent for several moments, the muted conversations of other passengers and the hum of the engines filling the space between them.
“Doesn’t it affect your career?” Grace asked after a while.
“Me being gay?” Amanda leaned her head against the backrest and seemed to think about it. “Hard to say. I’ve never been in the closet, so I don’t know if it made any difference. Maybe it did. It took me forever to break out of commercials and tiny little walk-on roles. But in the end, it might have even helped me. When the powers that be were looking for an actress to play a lesbian detective, someone thought of me.”
Grace considered it for a moment. “I doubt it would be like that for an actress in my genre. Tough, crime-fighting heroines can be gay, but the cute girl-next-door the hero is supposed to fall for? I think some people would have a problem with her being a lesbian.”
“Well,” Amanda flashed a grin, “good thing you’re straight, then.”
“Yes. Good thing I’m straight,” Grace repeated and went back to reading the script.
God, what a day.Lauren felt as if she hadn’t slept in days as she pulled into the parking garage of her apartment building. One of her clients had been caught buying cocaine, so Lauren and her team had worked their asses off trying to control the damage to the singer’s career. When her cell phone started to ring, she jumped. “Jesus Christ!” She parked the car, turned off the engine, and then reached for the phone. If that was Marlene or a client, she might go ballistic.
A glance at the display made her frown. It was an out-of-town number that she didn’t recognize. “Lauren Pearce.”
“Hi, Lauren. This is Grace.”
So it really was a client. Lauren smiled and released the seat belt. Well, she didn’t mind hearing from this particular client. “Hi. How are things going in Sin City?”
“So far, so good.”
“No ugly headlines for me to handle?” Lauren asked and grinned. “Drunken brawls in the hotel? Skinny-dipping in the Fountains of Bellagio? Losing millions in the casinos?”
“We don’t have time for any of that. Oh my God, your father is a slave driver! He had us shoot eight pages of script today! Eight pages! If we have to do the same tomorrow, there will be a real murder to solve for Detective Halliday—even though she might be involved in the crime.”
Chuckling, Lauren got out of the car. “Tell me about it. I grew up with that man.” More or less. Her father hadn’t been around much while she was growing up, always on location or traveling to promote a new movie. She closed the car door with more force than necessary.
“Where are you?” Grace asked.
Lauren started to wonder why Grace had called her. She didn’t mind at all, but Grace had never called her just to chat. Did she feel lonely in her hotel room in Vegas? “Just getting out of my car and heading to my apartment.” Lauren covered the phone with her other hand when she had to cough.
“You’re just now getting home? You’re really working too much.”
The concern in Grace’s voice warmed her, but she didn’t want her to worry. “It’s not that bad.”
“Oh, no? Then why are you coughing?”
Damn.That weird little trait was a dead giveaway. “Maybe I’m getting a cold.” She tried to sound innocent.
“Nice try, but you should leave the acting to me,” Grace said.
Her other clients would have let her get away with her evasion, but Grace seemed to really care about her well-being. Usually, Lauren carefully avoided mixing her private and her professional lives and smothered any attempt by a client to become friends. With Grace, she didn’t have the heart—or the will—to push her away.
Lauren unlocked the door to her apartment. She kicked off her shoes as she entered and padded to the fridge. After a day like this, she didn’t have the energy to cook, so she began to slap a sandwich together, the phone tucked between her ear and shoulder. “Other than having to shoot eight pages a day, how do you like shooting a TV show?”
“It’s definitely a change of pace,” Grace said. “Very different from shooting a movie.”
“How so?” The sandwich and a beer in hand and the phone still tucked against her shoulder, Lauren opened the balcony door and stepped outside.
“It’s more intense. There’s not much time to rehearse, and you can’t do as many takes to get a scene just right.”
Lauren took a big bite out of her sandwich and then set the plate onto the small table on one side of the balcony. She leaned against the railing and enjoyed the cool night air. “Sounds stressful,” she said and sipped her beer.
“It is. But it’s also fun. There’s a great sense of camaraderie on set, and the script is good.” Grace paused. “Speaking of scripts…I read yours.”
Beer dribbled down Lauren’s chin as she nearly choked on a mouthful. Her hands started sweating, even though she was clutching the cold bottle. The bite of sandwich sat like lead in her stomach. “Oh.” So that was why Grace had called her. Maybe she was just as nervous as Lauren about it, so she’d struck up a friendly conversation first to soften the blow. “So what did you think?” She tried to sound confident, as if she let people read her scripts every day.
Grace chuckled. “Don’t sound so skeptical. It’s great.”
Lauren’s tension receded. She wiped one palm on her slacks and took a swig of beer. So the friendly conversation wasn’t just to soften the blow. Grace liked talking to her—and she liked the script. “I’m glad you think so.”
“I do. Is this the first one you have written?”
“No. Not by a long shot.” Over the years, she’d written dozens.
“Have you ever shown one of them to a producer or a director?” Grace asked.
“Not even to your parents?”
“Especially not to my parents,” Lauren said, surprising herself with how openly she talked to Grace. While Grace was still a client, she was beginning to feel like a friend too. With her workload, Lauren didn’t have many of those. “If one of my scripts is ever turned into a movie, I want it to be because of its quality, not because of who my parents are.”
Grace made a sound of approval. “I respect that. And if I’m not mistaken, you don’t need your parents’ influence to sell this script.”
“You really think so? But what about the ending?”
Something rustled on the other end of the line.
Bedsheets? Was Grace already in bed? Lauren tried not to dwell on that thought; she focused on the conversation instead.
“Yes, I think you were right about that. The ending needs to be revised. Maybe you could tweak it a bit, have it end on a high note, not with a shot of San Francisco lying in ruins. People need to see that the city will survive.”
“So I end with a shot of the stores opening again or city hall being rebuilt?” Lauren’s mind was already busy coming up with new scenes.
“Or maybe the cable cars start running again,” Grace suggested.
Lauren abandoned the half-eaten sandwich and went back inside to get a sheet of paper and write it all down. “Ooh, I like that idea. They could catch the first cable car and…” She plopped down on the couch and started scribbling down ideas. Finally, she paused. “Do you really think that’s all the script needs?”
“Well, it could do with a love story too.”
Lauren laughed. “A love story? Are you a closet romantic, Ms. Durand?”
“As my publicist, you should know that I’m not in the closet about anything,” Grace said with a faux haughty tone.
“Whatever you say. You’re not romantic at all. Got it.”
For a moment, only the sound of Grace’s breathing filtered through the line. “Actually, I wasn’t the one who came up with the suggestion to introduce a little romance into the script.”
Lauren clamped her hand around the pencil so tightly that the writing utensil nearly snapped. “You showed it to someone else?”
“Yes. No. Well, not on purpose. I read it on the plane, so Amanda saw it.”
Amanda.Okay, that wasn’t too bad. She owed the actress one for saving her from Mrs. Duvenbeck.
“I’m sorry,” Grace said quietly. “I know you didn’t want anyone else to read it. I didn’t tell her who the author was.”
What was done was done. Lauren dropped the pencil and shook her stiff fingers. “It’s okay. So, what did she think?”
“She just read a couple of scenes, but she loved it too.”
A warm feeling spread through Lauren. Two experienced actresses couldn’t both be wrong about the quality of a script, could they? Maybe her script wasn’t that bad after all. She stretched out on the couch, folding her free arm behind her head. “So Amanda wanted me to write a romance into the script? Since the men in the script are mostly minor characters, are we talking about a lesbian romance?”
“Yes. She thought it was a really good idea.”
“Of course Amanda would think that,” Lauren said before she could stop herself. She hadn’t meant to out Amanda, since she wasn’t sure Grace knew her colleague was gay. “I mean…”
“I think it might be a good idea too,” Grace said.
Lauren blinked. “You do?”
“Yes. Well, I’m not sure if it would make the script harder to sell, but it would fit the story and the characters.”
Huh. What do you know? Grace Durand suggests a lesbian romance subplot for my script.Lauren still wasn’t sure about it, though.
“You don’t like the idea?” Grace asked.
“I’m not sure it’s the kind of story I want to write.”
“What kind of story do you want to write?”
Swirling her fingertips over the laptop on the coffee table, Lauren said, “Thrillers. Historical dramas. Stories about ordinary people going through extraordinary circumstances.”
“Well, falling in love during a major earthquake could be seen as an extraordinary circumstance, couldn’t it?”
“Depends on who you fall in love with,” Lauren mumbled.
“Sounds like your relationships weren’t all that extraordinary. Not that I’m one to talk, since I’m going through a divorce.” Grace was quiet for a moment and then started to chuckle. “Maybe I should risk some of my millions in the casino. Unlucky in love, lucky at cards, right?”
If that was the case, maybe she should take up gambling too. “I’ll think about rewriting the script, weaving in a love story.”
“Let me know if you want me to reread anything,” Grace said.
“Thank you.” Lauren coughed and emptied her beer bottle to get rid of that dry feeling in her throat.
“I’d better let you get some sleep,” Grace said. “I wouldn’t want your boss to have to deal with headlines like ‘Grace Durand’s publicist collapses after working too hard.’”
She was right, of course. It had been a long, busy day, but Lauren still found herself reluctant to end the call. “When will you be back?”
“The day after tomorrow. We’re shooting the big finale with a lot of stunt scenes tomorrow.”
Last night, Lauren had watched the firstCentral Precinctepisode in which Grace had starred, so she knew the kind of fast-paced action scenes the show was known for. “You’re not going to do your own stunts, are you?”
“Just some of them,” Grace said. “Nothing too dangerous.”
Somehow, that didn’t appease Lauren’s worries. “Please be careful.”
“Are you worried about me?” Grace sounded as if she was smiling.
Lauren tried to shrug it off. “Ah, you know. Just trying to spare myself the work of having to deal with—”
“The headlines about my unfortunate accident on set, I know.”
Grace’s laughter, warm and soft, trickled through Lauren, soothing her stressed nerves. She grinned into the empty living room. “Yeah, exactly.”
They were both quiet for several moments, then Grace said, “Well, then… Good night, Lauren.”
“Good night.” Once the call ended, Lauren lay there and stared up at the ceiling, watching the fan move around in circles. She liked talking to Grace.You like it a little too much.Sighing, she squeezed her eyes shut. Just one more minute, then she’d drag herself into the bathroom for a shower and then to bed.