Chapter One

Isabel Chase sang quietly to herself as she climbed the stairs. Angry singing would be the most accurate way to describe it, born from the soul-sucking night she’d just experienced at the hands of the food service industry in America. She clutched tightly to that Bon Jovi anthem, the effects of which were half security blanket, half soothing cocktail. She sang the song quietly to herself as she climbed the final flight to her third-floor walkup. She sang a little louder once she landed outside her door, her outrage over the night’s happening bubbling to the surface with each step closer to home. She was pissed off, and though it was close to midnight, angry, aggressive singing helped.

Today had been yet another sucky day among many as she slogged through the dim, dark drudgery of her current existence. Her calves pulled from the climb, coupled with the lengthy night on her feet. At long last she opened the door and stared blankly into her studio apartment. “So, I got fired,” she said matter-of-factly, and tossed her bag onto the floor of her cluttered makeshift living room. “Again.” She slammed the door, causing pages of her most recent screenplay to flutter and scatter in a beautiful snowstorm of white. Only there was nothing beautiful about tonight. Nothing at all. She blew a strand of dark hair off her face only to have it flutter back and cover her right eye. Well, wasn’t that just par for the golf course of defeat?

Isabel’s black-and-white cat, Fat Tony, blinked back at her in utter disappointment. Of course he was disappointed. They needed that job for food. His disapproval seemed endless lately, and today it had surely hit a new low. Because who loses five jobs over two years? Okay, so she’d quit three of them herself and maybe, possibly, she was projecting the disappointment onto her cat, but it cut deep regardless. Fat Tony’s opinion mattered. She didn’t have very many people she could count on in her life, but Tony was a constant.

“You don’t understand, Tony, or you wouldn’t look at me that way.” She walked past him into the room, grappling for the right words to properly express her outrage, to articulate the injustice of this particular job dismissal. “That waiter captain guy is an ass who’s been gunning for me for six months now, ever since I came on at that restaurant. He’s been waiting for any opportunity to take me down, and tonight he found one. I’m pretty sure he’s banging the hostess, too, if that matters to you.”

Fat Tony blinked.

“So I didn’t know the precise seasoning on the special. Is it the end of the free world? The dish is seasoned, right?” She held out a hand to punctuate and then repeated the gesture for extra emphasis. “We know that much. So just order the sixty-five-dollar special and I will happily bring it to you with a smile.”

Fat Tony stared back at her evenly.

“You come to a five-star restaurant to have seasonings listed back to you? No. No one does that! Fennel is a stupid seasoning anyway. I think we can all agree. As in, who wakes up in the morning and thinks, tonight I’m going out for something with a little fennel in it? Zero people. That’s who.”

She was halfway to shouting at Fat Tony and felt bad about that. He, on the other hand, didn’t seem to care and jumped in supreme boredom from his spot on the entryway table to underneath the flap of the shabby and threadbare armchair, leaving her to commiserate on her own. “Fine. You’ll be back when I pop the can on your dinner. Why? Because you and I need each other, Buster. Just don’t expect me to list the ingredients.”

Annoyed that she still wore her all-black server’s attire, she unbuttoned the shirt as she walked to her portable closet and exchanged it for a comfy off-the-shoulder sweatshirt that felt like a magnificent exhale. Oh, yeah. That was nice. A beer would also alleviate some of the tension, and there was a stout in the fridge with her name on it.

Isabel popped it and sat at her very simple wooden desk, the one she loved with her whole heart. She’d found it at a secondhand store right there in Keene and stored away extra cash until she could bust it free. They’d been inseparable ever since. The small town in New Hampshire where she’d lived most of her life carried very little in the way of excitement, except for the brilliance that came each autumn when the leaves changed and the landscape streaked with bright purples, yellows, oranges, and all hues of red. She loved it when the seasons shifted, dazzling the eye. That didn’t mean she wasn’t ready to get the hell out of there, first chance she got. Leaves and colors only went so far.

Her eyes fell to the small framed photo of her and her dad when he’d lifted her onto his shoulders following a softball game when she was nine. She’d only played one season and was easily the worst on the team, but he had wanted her to play so badly. She adjusted the frame in its spot and made a mental note to call him the next day. See if he wanted to grab a beer. Make sure he was eating. Check in on any possibility he might go on a date and end his long streak of “lonely but okay with it.”

Isabel opened her laptop to her latest project, a short she’d been tweaking for submission to the Vital Reel Film Festival in New Mexico. With any luck, they could start shooting in a couple of months once the budget and logistics were somehow squared away. Just thinking about it made her feel better about the fennel. She’d always found success on the festival circuit and waited for the moment it would turn into more. Any day now, right? Until then, she schlepped from one annoying day job to the next, living for the moment she could return to her laptop and lose herself in another crazy, awesome, or human story. There weren’t a million things Isabel was good at in life, but writing was one of them. She just hadn’t been able to convince the wider world of that thus far. So she pressed on. It’s what she did.

Bzzz. Bzzz.

She flicked a gaze to her vibrating phone across the room.

Bzzz. Bzzz.

She could stare at it until it stopped or make the short journey to answer it. Uh-uh. No thanks. People sucked lately, and sometimes, she just needed a few hours away. Plus, her feet hurt. When the notification ceased, she pulled in a breath and refocused on the project. This one was grittier than her last. She’d already killed two characters. Perhaps a result of her own soul-murdering struggles of late. But really, who knew?

Bzzz. Bzzz.

“This day is not finished with me.” She stalked the length of the room and answered the phone without bothering to check the readout. “Isabel Chase, glutton for punishment.”

A pause. “Izzy, is that you?”

Celeste. Isabel smiled at the sound of her good friend’s voice and sank into the armchair. They’d gone to Boston University together, bonded in a creative writing course, and had never looked back. She and Celeste could go months without speaking only to fall right back into their unique friendship groove whenever they did. Not too many people got Isabel. Celeste did.

“Yes!” She tried to backpedal. “Oh, man. Sorry about the asshole greeting. Rough night.”

“I think it’s about to get better.”

Isabel smiled curiously into the phone. “Why? Whatcha got?”

“I’m taking off next week for London. One of their indie networks is gonna shoot my pilot. The one about the bipolar funeral director looking for love.”

Isabel shot up from the chair. “Get out. I love that script.”

“If you mean get out of the country, then yes. That part is already happening. I’m packing as we speak. It’s been a whirlwind.”

“You’re getting a TV show in England?” Isabel asked slowly. She tapped her lips, attempting to process. “Are you magical or just way better at your job than me?”

“Neither. But there’s more.”

“You’re a very generous infomercial. What else could there possibly be?” Isabel squinted at the wall as she tried to fathom what it must be like to be Celeste. To be successful doing what she’d always wanted to do. To be out there writing for a living wage and not living project to project with a side of waitress. “But you should also know that the awful part of me is nothing but envious right now and wishing you overwhelming failure as soon as your plane lands. It’s not pretty in my head and I’m not willing to apologize.”

Celeste chuckled. “Yeah, well, you wouldn’t be Izzy without the sarcasm-laced death threats every now and then. I’ve come to expect them.”

“I’m not that bad, am I?” Isabel asked.

“No. It’s endearing generally. I just wish you believed in yourself as much as I do.”

Isabel kicked the end table softly. “Working on it. So, tell me the more.” Fat Tony peeked out from beneath the chair and swiped at her feet. She dodged him and the game continued. Unfortunately, he was better at it than she was.

“Now that I’m heading to London,” Celeste said, “there’s a staff writer job open on Thicker Than Water.”

Isabel went still, her game with Tony forgotten as his claws latched onto her sock. Thicker Than Water was the family drama Celeste wrote for. The hit family drama that lived at the top of the ratings. Everyone and their mother watched that show. It warmed hearts and tugged at heartstrings. That’s what it was known for. The romances weren’t half bad either. Steamy, if predictable. “Oh yeah?”

“It’s possible I was able to slide the spec script you wrote over to Taylor Andrews. It’s also possible she wants to meet with you Monday morning on my recommendation.”

Isabel didn’t say anything. She couldn’t. There were no words. She’d written that spec script for an episode of Thicker Than Water on the off chance Celeste would see a moment to present it without damaging any of her professional relationships on the show. And now it had happened. And it had worked. Taylor Andrews was the showrunner on Water and executive producer at only thirty-two years of age. She was the It Girl in TV these days, as pretty much anything she touched turned to solid gold in the ratings. She offered the occasional master class online, which Isabel had hoped to be able to afford one day. “So, what you’re saying is—”

“That there’s a very good chance you’re the next staff writer on Thicker Than Water, so don’t blow it. And make sure you bring a copy of your short, the one that won at South by Southwest. Totally her style. She’ll eat it up.”

Isabel moved to her desk and began scribbling notes as she listened, little goose bumps popping up on her arms as a powerful bolt of energy hit. She felt the dreaded prickling on the back of her neck and gripped the phone hard, fighting off the irrational fear. Nope. She would not do this now. “Got it. What else? What can I do? Any tips? This is too major to screw up, and sometimes I babble when I’m nervous.”

“Well then, don’t be nervous. Be yourself, but maybe not…too much.”

Isabel laughed as her symptoms receded. “Got it. Keep my snarky opinions under lock and key.”

“At least for now.” Celeste rattled off the important details of the meeting and let Isabel know that the gate guard at Paramount would have her name. God, she would need a plane ticket. A hotel room. A Valium.

“I owe you big-time, Celeste. I’m serious. I’m not even going to wish bad things for you in England anymore. No poisonous smog. Not even a minor mugging. If there is anything I can ever do for you, consider it done.”

“Trust me,” Celeste said, “I know you will. It’s what we do, the two of us. Now quit yammering and start making plans to get here. Oh, and pack light. It’s summer in LA.”


Chapter Two

The iconic Bronson Gate at Paramount Pictures loomed large in front of Isabel’s rental car. She swallowed, but her mouth was dry. This gate, though a replica of the original, was historic. The arch was recognizable in most any social circle, and looking at it now made this whole thing a little more real. And terrifying. Must not forget the dash of that.

She gave her name to Jesse the gate guard (it said so on his name tag). He took her license into his booth to call the Thicker Than Water production offices to announce her arrival. Isabel took a moment to ruminate on the people throughout Hollywood history who’d passed through this very entrance. Cecil B. DeMille, Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson, Gene Kelley. Don’t even get her started on the Brady Bunch. Jan Brady was more than just an idol. She was a way of life. Imagining herself creating a character that would resonate with someone similarly had Isabel chomping at the bit to get to that meeting and prove herself. If only underneath that passion wasn’t an ocean of crippling self-doubt and anxiety. Story of her complicated life.

Isabel wasn’t new to the writing game. In fact, she couldn’t remember a time when she wasn’t crafting stories. As a kid, she’d have her Transformers act them out, doing all the voices for the different characters. Nowadays, she collaborated with her director friends and found nothing as rewarding as seeing her work brought to life with skilled precision, even if on a small budget. She’d received awards, local write-ups, and film festival glory. None of that had amounted to a full-time career. No one had come banging on her door as a result.

But all of it had led up to this meeting.

The one that could be the break she needed to put away her server shoes forever. She’d pretty much auction off her soul for the chance. Cheap too. She’d Craigslist the sucker.

“Ma’am, Ms. Andrews’s assistant will meet you in Bronson Parking Lot E to your right once you’re through the gate. Put this on your windshield.”

She accepted the visitor’s pass and smiled. “Will do. Thanks.” The guard saluted her with a grin, which seemed both excessive and exciting. Seconds later, she was off, her heart thudding away with nervous, pent-up energy. Cue a reprisal of the goose bumps as they trotted back onto the stage of her life.

She drove slowly, nodding to the steady beat of the song on the radio, doing her best to take in as much of the studio’s property as she could on the short drive. Who knew when she’d be back? She passed the wrought iron original Bronson Gate just inside and wondered how she could get her photo next to it. Next, she zoomed past the Paramount Theatre, where all the fancy screenings and premieres took place on the lot. She’d read all about it.

Golf carts crisscrossed the narrow street, and stressed-out-looking people spoke into headsets as they passed. She’d nearly taken out an entire tour group because she’d been watching the numbers on the large warehouses that served as soundstages, looking for a glimpse of Stage 9. She hadn’t been able to spot it. Though she did locate a bookish-looking twentysomething waving from the entrance to a small parking lot. Isabel rolled down her window and stuck her head out.

“Isabel Chase?” the woman asked. She carried a file folder and sported those large, black intellectual glasses that were so popular lately. She should probably look into getting a pair for herself if she had any hope of looking intellectual, or popular, for that matter.

“Right. I’m Isabel. Chase.” The woman had already said that part. Fuck. She should work on her listening skills. And her language.

“Great. You can park here. I’ll wait.” Once she exited the car, she joined the woman who, while friendly, seemed in a hurry. “I’m Scarlett Mann, Taylor’s assistant. If you’ll follow me, we can head to the writers’ room and see if we can snatch her up for your chat.”

“Awesome. I’ll follow you.” Were her palms itching? Yes. She flexed them, hateful hands that they were. Deep breaths. Shoulder rolls. Anything to get her through this day without looking like she didn’t know what she was doing. Why was she so horrible at this kind of thing?

Isabel followed Scarlett past several soundstages, dodging equipment trucks and cables along the way. “Do you watch the show?” Scarlett asked.

Of course she did. Sometimes. The content was tame for a nighttime drama, but the characters were solid and had huge followings. She knew, however, what the correct answer to the question was. “I watch, yes. It’s a fantastic show.”

Scarlett smiled at her. “Well played.”

They entered a small, nondescript one-story building across from Stage 9. It was beige on the outside and the opposite of glamorous. She glanced up at the soundstage across the street briefly as they made their way inside and saw the plaque on the outside that read Thicker Than Water. On the other side of those walls was where it all came together. Surreal.

Down a short hallway, and past what looked to be several offices and an open space dotted with cubicles, Scarlett paused in front of a closed door and knocked. They waited in silence, the sounds of overlapping voices floating out until, impatiently, Scarlett finally opened the door herself.

And there it was, the writers’ room.

A long wooden table sat in the middle of the space, occupied by three men and two women. A box of donuts sat in the center of the table, close to empty, and the room smelled of strong, and maybe a little stale, coffee. A large flat-screen monitor took up almost an entire wall to their right. In front of them at a white board stood Taylor Andrews herself. She held a dry erase marker and used it to point at one of the men. Isabel tried not to stare but easily lost the battle. Taylor Andrews was standing just feet from her, and she had to cue herself to breathe.

“The problem is if we leave those two onscreen for too long, their lack of chemistry really starts to show and then the episode shrivels up and dies a slow death. Why did we cast that guy again? He has as much presence as a hibernating turtle.”

The man with a patchy brown beard shook his head. “Because that pushy casting agent swore by him.”

“Yeah, well, lesson learned,” Taylor said. “We need to be more aggressive at those auditions. Make a note.”

“Can we kill him off?” the young brunette woman asked. “Worked last season for what’s-his-name.”

“Not yet,” Taylor said. “We might need him to wrap up the whole embezzlement storyline, which definitely needs fleshing out. Kathleen, can you see what you can come up with on that front, and make it specific. Candace, maybe you can help her? We’re playing it way too broad in the planning stages and we’re going to screw ourselves later.”

The second woman, who looked to be in her fifties, was apparently Kathleen. She nodded and started tapping away on her laptop. “Already on it. I have an idea, but let me play around with it first. Candace, maybe we can chat this afternoon?”

Candace nodded. “Done.”

“Great,” Taylor said. “Let’s address it on Thursday. Is that doable?”

“Thursday is perfect,” Kathleen said.

Scarlett stepped into the room and raised one finger. “Taylor, don’t mean to interrupt, but I have Isabel Chase for you. She’s your ten a.m.”

Taylor turned to them, drew a breath, and smiled as if another giant boulder had just been strapped to her already heavy load.

Isabel winced internally and felt the self-doubt slither up her spine. She was not an imposter. She was not an imposter.

“Right. I’ll be right there.”

That smile sideswiped Isabel, and she faltered. She knew Taylor Andrews was attractive, but the photos she’d seen hadn’t done her justice. She now realized they’d been startlingly conservative because the woman looking back at her was stunning. Perfectly layered blond hair that fell just past her shoulders and perhaps the most piercing green eyes she’d encountered in her twenty-nine years of life. But then, eyes like those wouldn’t transfer to a photo in a magazine, the color too unique. Taylor wore designer-looking jeans, black heels, and a blue top underneath a slim white jacket. She held the room easily, and there was no question who the showrunner was. That, right there, was a woman with presence.

“I’ll get her set up in your office,” Scarlett said and led the way out.

“Thank you, Scar,” she heard Taylor say before jumping right back into the story meeting. Isabel wanted desperately to stay and listen, be a fly on the wall of the brainstorming session. She’d collaborated with other writers on more than one occasion, but never on such a high-profile project, or on a long-term narrative. Thicker Than Water was entering its fifth season, and though the ratings had slipped from the rare heights of seasons one and two, it was still the show people talked about around the water cooler each week.

Opposite the writers’ room on the other end of the hallway, they arrived at Taylor’s office. In between, the open space made up of a series of cubicles was likely for Scarlett and the writing staff.

“Have a seat,” Scarlett said. “Can I get you some coffee while you wait? It shouldn’t be long.”

“I would do hard labor for some. Thank you.”

Scarlett smiled. “Careful what you promise around here. Cream and sugar?”

“Just black.”

Scarlett nodded, and the sides of her mouth turned down. “You’re hard-core. Black coffee coming right up.”

Left alone in the quiet office, Isabel peered across the desk at the various documents. Scripts, notes, schedules, and red tape paperwork, no doubt requiring a signature. Taylor Andrews would have a busy life, but she was actually doing everything Isabel only dreamt about. She could learn a lot from this woman if only she was given the chance. She took a steadying breath and tried to relax, reminding herself that she was a real writer and not some phony hack. She’d written hundreds of decent scripts, some of them quite excellent, or she wouldn’t be sitting here. In Hollywood. On the Paramount lot. This was happening. It was real and she better just—

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” a rich voice said from behind. She turned to see Taylor breeze past her to her desk, leaving an aroma of something fruity and awesome. “It’s nice to meet you. Taylor Andrews.”

Isabel stood and accepted Taylor’s outstretched hand. Her grip was firm, her eye contact direct. Unfortunately, she was even more attractive up close. Man. She shook it off because don’t be stupid. “Isabel Chase.” She took a seat as her nerves clenched and the back of her neck prickled. She was a good writer. She was a good writer. She was a good writer. She just needed to be a good writer who projected an aura of confidence. “I hope I didn’t pull you from a valuable session. You guys seemed to be in the middle of a, uh, complicated story meeting.”

Taylor inclined her head to the side. “We always are, but I’m hoping in the end, the interruption will have been worth it. So, let’s get to it.” She leaned back in her chair, letting go of some of the formality she’d started with. “Celeste speaks highly of you, and her opinion goes a long way with me. Most of my writers have come from the recommendation of people I trust, and that formula has never failed me. Well, thus far.”

“Celeste is good people.”

“Tell me how you know each other.”

“We were classmates, and worked on a few projects together after graduation. We had a great synergy, which is hard to find.”

“Any of those projects include an ongoing narrative?”

“No.” Dammit. “I have to be honest, I’ve never worked on a series before, though I’ve written a million spec scripts. Just hard to get them in the right hands.” She nodded a few dozen times and hated herself for it. “As you just alluded to, it’s about who you know.”

“True.” Taylor met Isabel’s eyes and studied her. “Why don’t you tell me about them.”

“Them?” Isabel blinked in an attempt to clear her head. She had to chase away the extra energy and stop herself from staring. Taylor was striking in the rarest sense, which was an entirely insulting thought. This woman was accomplished and respected in the world of television and deserved more than an ogling from a nobody like Isabel. She thought instead about Fat Tony hacking up furballs. A handy distraction.

“The projects. What was one of your favorites?”

“Oh! Right.” She reached into her bag and located the DVD that contained her reel. “These are a few of the shorts I’m most proud of, interspersed with clips from some longer-form projects.” She lifted her bag. “I also have a thumb drive, if that’s easier. Or there’s my website.”

Taylor accepted the disc and set it on her desk. “This is fine. Right now, I’d rather hear about your work from you.”

“Okay.” Isabel clenched and unclenched her fists before diving in. She smiled because she really was passionate about her writing. “My last project was a twenty-seven-minute grunge piece about a bass guitarist in a metal band who fantasized about playing in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. It was a commentary on clean and dirty, of grit and gloss.”

Taylor leaned forward and pointed. “It was at South by Southwest last year.”

Isabel smiled, caught off guard by the fact that her work was known. “It was.”

“You wrote and directed and won your division.”

Hold the phone. Taylor Andrews had looked her up. “Yeah, well, the audience was really receptive. I was lucky.”

“Don’t sell yourself short. That festival comes with a discerning audience. I should know. I’m there every year and remember your short.”

“Wow. I didn’t realize you’d seen it. That’s—”

“It was brilliant, and I don’t mind saying so, one of the standouts of the festival. But there’s a big difference between that and this. Huge. Thicker Than Water is every bit as artistic. The distinction comes in the structure. Pacing.”

“Of course.” Isabel sat back. “Five acts and a teaser. I’ve studied the show a lot. I’m not just a writer, I’m a fan. I hope that doesn’t make me seem less focused.”

Taylor smiled. “I’m happy you’ve done your homework. I love my show and what I do. I want my staff to share my passion.”

“I do. I will.” Isabel didn’t know how to articulate how hungry she was for this opportunity, how very hard she was willing to work to prove herself. She decided to lay it all out there for Taylor. “My mom walked out on my dad and me when I was a baby. He raised me on his own, but he worked a lot. I used to watch Full House reruns, The Brady Bunch, even the older stuff like The Patty Duke Show, which my friends made fun of me for.” She brushed a strand of hair from her eye, feeling somehow vulnerable during this confession. “Those characters kept me company those nights on my own. They were, in a way, my family when my dad couldn’t be. I get how important television can be, an escape from the world and its awful complications. Television kept me from being lonely. It was my first love.”

“And that is something I can work with,” Taylor said quietly. She took a moment and studied Isabel, clearly processing. “Let’s talk about your spec script.” She reached behind her and found Isabel’s script, recognizable by the bright yellow cover.

“Great. I’d love to.”

Taylor leafed through the pages. “It’s good, I’ll admit, and it’s why you’re sitting here. You have a knack for capturing individual dialogue, a hard skill to teach.”

“Thank you.”

“You’ve worked your way into the characters’ heads nicely. However, I am concerned about your lack of experience writing a series. This script shows what you can do on a one and done, but can you map out a season? Can you track characters over time through growth and change? There are big differences from the world of features, and shorts too, for that matter.”

Isabel nodded because Taylor was right. “No, I get it. But it’s actually the ongoing narrative that attracts me to the work, the chance to write a character for an extended amount of time. To really explore their internal lives in a way a two-hour film doesn’t allow for.”

Taylor nodded. “It’s not easy, though, to tell a story so rich that it has enough staying power to extend over several years. In some cases, over a decade.”

Isabel took a breath. “Ms. Andrews, if I could—”

“Taylor is fine. We drop most pretense around here.”

“Taylor, then.” She took a deep breath and ran her fingers across the gravelly surface of the coffee mug. “I feel more than ready for this challenge. No one works harder. I feel like everything I’ve done has led me to this moment, and I’m not about to let anyone down. Myself included.”

“As a staff writer, you won’t be writing your own scripts,” Taylor said, sitting forward. “You should know that up front.”

“I’ll do whatever you need.”

A long pause hit and circled the room. A chill moved across Isabel’s skin and she braced herself for whatever Taylor would say next.

“Fine then. Can you start next Monday?” Taylor asked. “We’re into August and you’ve missed weeks of season planning already. If you’re not there for this week’s meetings, you’ll have even more catch-up.”

And just like that, she was in. Wait. She was in? Tiny leprechauns danced a jig in her head in some random celebration both perplexing and enjoyable. She didn’t even like leprechauns.

Hired.

She refrained from leaping out of her chair and leading a parade across the Paramount lot, and took the more professional approach. “Sure. I just need to head home and pack. Figure out where I’m going to live.”

“If you want more time, we can hold off. I’m anxious for the help, though. Losing Celeste has been a blow that has us all pulling more hours.”

“No, no. I’ll be there on Monday. I’d like to jump in as soon as possible.”

Taylor stood. “I have to run to a production meeting, but I’m looking forward to having you on the team, Isabel.”

“Me too,” she said, smiling, like she could help it if she tried. “Not looking forward to having myself. To being on the team, I mean. That’s more what I was going for.”

Taylor had the decency to chuckle. “I understand. If you’ll wait here, Scarlett will get you set up with new-hire paperwork and you’ll need to check in with security for your studio credentials. See you on Monday.”

“Monday it is.” She leaned forward to set her mug on the desk only to overreach and send it tumbling onto its side, opening the floodgates of rushing coffee that covered Taylor’s desk, her papers, and splashed onto her crisp white jacket.

Oh no.

That did not just happen. Satan on a Triscuit. That did just happen. She glanced up at Taylor and winced, leaping into action, looking around the room for some way to rectify the situation, to save this awfulness from spiraling further. Taylor’s only reaction was a step back from the coffee and the rescue of a nearby file folder from the attack.

She held up a hand. “It’s fine. Scarlett will take care of it.” She shrugged out of her jacket and hung it on the hook behind the door. “See? Good as new.”

“I’m so sorry.” Isabel was shaking and doing anything in her power to roll back the last two minutes of her life. How quickly the pendulum had swung. Elation to mortification in the span of seconds. That could be the title of her jaded little memoir.

“No need. It was an accident.”

“Right, but still.” Isabel surveyed the brown, soggy mess, frustrated with herself. “I’ve ruined everything on your desk.”

Taylor tilted her head from side to side. “All replaceable.” She seemed to act on an impulse and took a seat in the chair across from her desk and next to Isabel’s. “I’m getting two things from you. Tell me if I’m right.”

Isabel met Taylor’s eyes. For the first time that day, they didn’t cause her pulse to race. In fact, staring into their depths, she found an unexpected calm, prompting her to release some of the shock and horror from the coffee catastrophe. “Okay.”

“You seem like a person who probably comes with some strong opinions. You know what you want and you go after it. I’m getting that from your work.”

“That’s true. Sometimes to a fault.” Why was she being so honest? Stop that.

“You also seem incredibly anxious.”

She smiled and nodded. “Also true.” She gestured around the room. “All of this. It’s what I’ve worked so hard for, and I guess it has me freaking out, which is the most unprofessional thing in the world to say to someone who just hired me.”

Taylor took both of Isabel’s hands in hers. She had nice hands, Isabel realized absently. Feminine and warm and strong. “Well, you can relax because the hard part is over. You’re in. You’re one of us now, and I look forward to the strong opinions.”

“Be careful what you wish for,” Isabel said, managing a smile. She gave Taylor’s hands a squeeze. “And thank you. For the pep talk. A slap across the face might have been quicker.”

“I’ll file that away,” Taylor said with a wink and stood to go. “Scarlett will be in about those credentials. Try not to destroy the rest of the place in the meantime.” And then she was gone, leaving Isabel alone with a myriad of warring thoughts. Two words floated to the top.

Studio credentials.

They were arranging for studio credentials. She closed her eyes and swallowed, taking a moment to commemorate the occasion, pushing aside the last ten minutes to fully focus on just how many years she’d slogged away on her laptop, script after script, character after character, one festival entry followed by another to get to this very moment. Finally. Her limbs numbed. Her mind slowed down. Her spirit soared. She hadn’t skipped since the fourth grade, but she was feeling a distinct pull in that direction.

Days like today didn’t happen to her. They just didn’t. She was a nobody who kept her head down and spent all her time putting words on the page. For the first time in years, she could breathe, and she welcomed the abundance of fresh air as it infiltrated her lungs, and what glorious air it was! Maybe she was turning into a somebody after all. Fennel oversights and server shoes might just be a thing of the past. Isabel basked in that thought before snapping into action.

So much to accomplish in a very short amount of time. Packing. Planning. Panicking.

Monday was right around the corner.


Chapter Three

Taylor checked her watch. Six minutes to the production meeting, which was cutting it closer than she’d like. She swung by Scarlett’s desk on her way, in need of some help.

“Coffee spill. Mayday. All over everything, including my jacket.”

Scarlett’s eyes went wide. “The white designer one? No.”

“That’s the one.”

“No, no, no. I love that jacket. You said I could borrow it.” Scarlett placed her hand over her heart. “This is awful. Are we going to have to have a funeral?”

“Probably, unless Bernard in wardrobe can save us. He’s the only one who could.”

Scarlett pointed at Taylor and pushed her glasses up on her face. “I’ll send him a bottle of the 2004 Cabernet he likes. He’s a sucker for it. He’ll save the jacket and life will return to normal.”

“This is why I never want you to leave me.”

“So, do we have a verdict on our new staff writer?” Scarlett pushed right on to business. She kept Taylor on track in that way.

“She’s in.” Taylor relaxed her hip against Scarlett’s desk. “A little on edge, but her work is killer if not, well, dark. Celeste was spot-on in her recommendation, though. Maybe we should send her a bottle of the Cabernet.” Scarlett began to scribble a note. “I was kidding.” Scarlett lifted her pen. “But can you get Ms. Chase set up with paperwork and credentials and everything you do so expertly and then take a look at what’s salvageable on my desk. I rescued what I could.”

Scarlett nodded. “You got it, boss. Production meeting in three.”

She squinted at her friend and assistant. “It never slows down, does it? My life is like a roller coaster without an off switch.”

“Good analogy.” Scarlett held up her hand, and Taylor smacked it in their high-five ritual. She headed off to the meeting, getting her agenda points in order as she walked the narrow streets of the property. All the while, she couldn’t help but ruminate on the meeting with the new hire. Isabel Chase showed a lot of promise, and if that hint of spunk in her work came to fruition on the show, she might just be a great addition to the staff. But there was something else about Isabel, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on, that had Taylor…circling.

The production meeting flew by in a hail storm of bargaining, planning, and budget workarounds. “What this essentially comes down to is that we can’t afford for it to rain in Ashbury Pass for the rest of the season?” she asked Emily Tanner, her line producer.

“Not if you want to bring in those two guest stars,” Emily said matter-of-factly. “We can’t afford both.”

She sighed. “And I do. No rain it is, then. I’ll let my staff know not to write any. Are we done for today?” She glanced around at the faces of everyone assembled. The team nodded, and no one seemed to have anything new.

“Great. I will see you at tomorrow’s table read. Email me with fires to put out, but maybe give me a fifteen-minute head start to my office.”

A typical Monday.

When Taylor arrived back at the writers’ headquarters, she ran into Isabel Chase exiting the building just as she was entering. “All set?” she asked. Isabel looked noticeably more at ease, which was nice to see. She even smiled.

“Almost,” Isabel said. She’d worn her hair in a slicked-back ponytail earlier. It was down now, medium length with the gentlest of waves. “I have to have my photo made in the admin building, which I’m told is…” She shielded what Taylor had come to realize were blue eyes with her hand to her forehead.

Taylor pointed. “Right over there. Fourth Street.”

“Fourth Street,” Isabel repeated. “Thanks! Have a great one, Ms. Andrews. Taylor.”

“Now you’re getting the hang of it.”

Taylor watched Isabel walk away, noticing the modest heels, the simple black pants and pink cuffed shirt. The dark hair swung ever so slightly across her shoulder blades as she walked. She was pretty, Isabel Chase. Not that it mattered. Nor did the flush that came over Taylor as she watched. What she needed more than anything was Isabel’s brain, her imagination, and her dedication.

Time would tell if she got them.

 

v

 

At 9:33 on what had been the best day of her life, Isabel huddled in the farthest corner of the closet in her hotel room. The light was off. She’d wrapped her arms around herself and clung tightly, unable to move. Her pulse skyrocketed and she had trouble taking normal breaths, wondering distantly if this was what it felt like to drown. Beads of sweat pooled above her eyebrows though it was cold in the room.

“You’re doing fine,” she managed to whisper to herself. It was the sentence that had seen her through panic attacks as a child. “You’re doing fine,” she repeated. She wanted badly to give her face a scrub, imagining that the sensation might help jar her to a feeling of control, but her muscles coiled tight and rigid and it felt like the world was crashing in on her. The impending dread only increased as the seconds ticked by.

It had been over a year since her last attack, and honestly, Isabel should have seen it coming. She was at her most vulnerable when there was something to lose, and today she’d just been handed an opportunity that she heavily valued. She could screw it up in her first week. Find herself on a plane back to Keene, devastated and embarrassed and right back where she started.

She shoved her back against the wall, hoping that the cool and steady surface would ground her. The stability should be comforting. It wasn’t. She still couldn’t get air, and no matter how small the space, the world felt too big. She sat in that closet for over two hours, clenched and miserable and praying for an end. She listened as the distant sound of the television slowly moved from garish and terrifying to everyday. She blinked and took a very slow inhale, pleased to find she could control her breathing.

She’d made it.

In that tiny, dark room, she’d survived one monster of a panic attack. Still not quite ready to move, Isabel sat there listening to the sounds of her breath slowing down, underscored by the local weather. Tomorrow, she would wake up and go back to life already in progress and push this whole thing behind her.

“You did fine.” She relaxed her hands until they rested in her lap and forced her fists to unclench. “You did just fine.”


Chapter Four

The sun seemed to shine all the time in Los Angeles. Well, at least in August it did. Isabel added this to the list of things she was learning about the Golden State, her new home for the foreseeable future. She reminded herself to invest in a decent pair of sunglasses as she squinted against the sunlight as it slanted through her windshield. She lowered her head to better see the passing street signs and aha, there it was. She turned onto Shores Drive in Venice, looking for #7. Celeste had been nice enough to sublet her apartment to Isabel, even going so far as to float her for the first couple of months until she was on her feet enough to pay her back. She would forever search out a way to return the favor to Celeste, who’d gone above and beyond. Saint Celeste was how she should henceforth be known and hailed. Some sort of statue seemed in order, but knowing Celeste, she would demur.

Shores Drive, it turned out, was palm tree lined and a tad too cheerful, probably named for its proximity to Venice Beach, just a few blocks south. Brightly colored storefronts whizzed past and folks in flip-flops dotted the street looking relaxed and at ease. She didn’t identify with them in the least, black being the most abundant color in her wardrobe. Did these people have jobs? Didn’t they have somewhere to be? The ambling indicated that no, they did not. She abandoned her curiosity, realizing that she’d arrived at her destination, #7 Shores Drive. The little complex had a white stucco exterior with black trim and shutters. A sign with the words “Seven Shores” written in script hung from a post in front. The complex was relatively compact, just as Celeste had described, but surprisingly quaint. Not your cookie cutter apartment building, which came as a welcome revelation.

“You ready for this?” she asked Tony, who blinked back at her in toleration from his carrying crate. Together, they’d driven forty-one hours over five days to get here, bringing only what they could fit in the car, though her dad would be mailing a few more boxes in the coming days. Tony stared hard back at her. He was over the car, and she felt for the guy. “You’re a California cat now, so you’re gonna have to mellow. Eat veggies. All of it. It’s the law here.” He closed his eyes, much preferring to take a nap.

Leaving her belongings in the car while she investigated, Isabel made her way with Fat Tony through the black iron gate that marked the entrance to the complex. The units, on two levels, faced inward to a central courtyard. A quick scan had her estimating twelve total apartments. The courtyard was attractive, outfitted with a handful of wrought iron circular tables and chairs. Across from them sat a comfortable-looking outdoor seating area. Two couches with green patio cushions faced each other, flanked by four matching club chairs. Did people actually congregate here? How unexpectedly social. Her apartment experience had been limited to an occasional nod to that older couple who lived next door and occasionally stole her parking space. Making friends with her neighbors was a foreign, though not unwelcome, concept. After all, she knew very few people in town. Maybe she’d actually make a friend.

“Hey,” a brunette said in greeting, as she crossed the courtyard. Speak of the devil, an actual neighbor. She looked to be close to Isabel’s age and had come out of a second-floor unit, carrying a surfboard—which explained the jeans and bikini top.

“Hi.” Isabel nodded as the woman passed.

The neighbor turned back. “You look lost. Need help?” Her thick dark hair was in a ponytail and she showed off an athletic physique and a remarkable tan. As in, a really good one. Beach people made her own northern skin glow white, a fact that she’d never been more aware of than in this moment.

“Oh. Yeah, actually. Looking for apartment 1F.”

“Over there.” The woman pointed to the black door of a first-story unit behind Isabel. “But I should tell you that Celeste is out of town. Not sure when she’ll be back.”

“Right. No. I’m subletting her—well, pretty much her whole life, now that I think about it. Apartment included. We’re friends.”

The woman brightened and leaned the surfboard against the staircase. “In that case, we’re neighbors, and I should introduce myself. Gia Malone.” She extended her hand. “I live up there in 2D and my best friend, Hadley, lives next door in 2E. I’m sure you’ll run into her soon enough.”

“I’ll look forward to that,” she said, trying not to be socially awkward.

“Welcome to Seven Shores. We’re a pretty casual group. Cups of sugar are never a problem.”

“Nice to meet you. I’m Isabel. Izzy. Either is fine.”

“Well, Izzy or Isabel, it’s a pleasure. I’m sure I’ll be seeing you around and whatnot. Gotta head to my office before I lose the waves. Let me know if you need anything. That cup of sugar or eats recommendations.” With that, she picked up her surfboard and was on her way to her “office.” Were these people real?

Isabel let herself into the apartment and was happy to find that it was decent-sized and fully furnished just as Celeste had promised. It was also decorated with a decidedly Southwestern flair. Celeste seemed to have embraced that part of the country in a big way. It wasn’t necessarily Isabel’s style, but she was too grateful to care. She could embrace the cow-skull-in-the-dirt photos in the turquoise frames. Well, she could try. The realistic-looking iguana sitting on top of the fridge might take up a life in the closet, however.

“Look, Tony. It’s our new place.” She set her cat on the floor and opened the door to his carrier, knowing it would take him a good fifteen minutes to get the courage to come out and explore.

She looked around. The front door opened to a moderate-sized living room combined with the kitchen and breakfast nook in one. A single bedroom branched off a small hallway to the left. She strolled through the space and nodded at the dark beige carpet, then winced at the giant photograph of a wolf peering over a cliff. It was a choice. Perhaps one she would tuck safely away with Mr. Iguana.

So, this was home for the foreseeable future. Yep. She could work with this. Relief hit, fast and wonderful, energizing her, because she’d made it. She was home.

Isabel grabbed another armful of her belongings from the car and smiled at a middle-aged gentleman with jet black hair crossing the courtyard. He wore a plaid tie, kidnapper glasses, and a permanent scowl. “Are you Isabel Chase?” he asked.

With luggage hanging off every part of her, she paused to readjust the strap hanging on her shoulder. “I am. Hi. What can I do for you?”

“Celeste told me you’d be moving in today, so I’ve been keeping an eye out. I’m Larry Herman. I own the complex. Just so we’re clear, no loud parties.” He seemed intense, too intense, which, for whatever reason, amused her.

“As in, I can’t attend any? That’s depressing news.” Her euphoria seemed to have enabled her sarcastic side. “That’s really gonna cut into my social world, Larry. I guess I’ll just stay home. Eat macaroni.” She smiled, which seemed to throw him completely.

“No hosting loud parties is the rule. No attending them on the property either. I’m not going to follow you once you leave the premises, though. Once you leave, you’re on your own.”

“I was just kidding about the attendance thing. We’re good. No loud parties on site. You have my word.”

“If there are loud parties, I’ll have to evict you. No exceptions. It’s a Larry Herman rule.”

“I will not be breaking any Larry Herman rules.” She squinted at him. “However, I’m sensing some history with loud parties on your part.” She was already percolating on fifteen different scripts starring this guy. She could talk to him all day.

He shook his head emphatically. “I don’t stand for them. That’s all. No loud parties.”

“Hmm. I’m getting from you that you don’t like loud parties.” She tapped her lips thoughtfully.

“That’s entirely true.”

“And why would you? They’re awful. You can barely speak to anyone for all the…loud.”

That seemed to make him happy, as if they’d stumbled onto some common ground. They were really bonding now. “They are awful,” he said, leaning in as if sharing a secret. He then eyed her curiously. “Oh, and you have a lot of luggage there.” She thought he was about to offer his assistance. Instead, he headed off in the direction of the parking lot. “Welcome to Seven Shores,” he called. “From the second-story apartments, you can glimpse the ocean.”

“I’m on the first floor,” she yelled after him.

“Oh, I know,” he said without looking back.

Curious fellow, Larry Herman. She was looking forward to interacting with him more in the future. It’s what she did when someone enthralled her, and c’mon, people who named rules after themselves simply didn’t come along every day. Once inside, she sought out her spiral notebook and jotted down a few details of their conversation for inspiration later.

Isabel spent the rest of the afternoon watching the screeners Scarlett had supplied her with of the episodes of Thicker Than Water that had yet to air. This way, she could catch herself up on the action leading up to where they’d pick up on Monday. She took notes as she watched, anything and everything that popped into her head. You never knew from where the next creative nugget would sprout.

Honestly, the storytelling on the show was solid, but after four seasons she couldn’t help wonder about shaking things up a little. Killing a few people off. Scandalizing others. Holding on to the character-driven storytelling that put the show on the map, but sprinkling in a few bigger plot twists that the regular viewership wasn’t used to. Most shows died off after a handful of seasons unless they pivoted and offered something fresh. No doubt Taylor Andrews was well aware of all of this already, and while Isabel had some ideas on possible new storylines, as the new girl, she should probably keep them to herself until called upon.

Four episodes later, the midafternoon had Isabel in desperate need of caffeine, and fast. Her brain swirled with the complex lives of Dr. Lisette James, her younger sister Karen, a prosecutor, and their older brother Dominic, who raced cars for a living. They got along too well, the three of them, and found their problems in the outside world. That needed to change. Now on a caffeine mission, she remembered spotting a coffee shop adjacent to the complex. Having instant access to a plethora of espresso drinks was the thing a writer’s dreams were made of. This was a lucky break.

There was a blond woman reading on one of the outdoor couches as she crossed the courtyard on her way to the nearby shop. Okay, so people really did use those things. This would take getting used to. All the people. And the talking to them. The woman glanced up and smiled warmly, offering a quick wave to Isabel as she passed. Isabel nodded back politely and the woman went back to her book. She looked like California personified. Sports Illustrated, live and in person, in her very own courtyard. Perky blond hair that didn’t quite make it to her shoulders and blue eyes. Isabel smothered the feelings of inadequacy that eased slowly up her spine. She refused to be intimidated by this new and glamorous world she’d stepped into.

As she walked next door to the coffee shop, she smiled at the realization that she could hear the ocean if she concentrated hard enough and filtered out the traffic noise from the street. A couple of seagulls sailed overhead and the afternoon glimmered bright. California was nothing like New Hampshire, but there seemed to be a lot of good to counteract the scary.

She glanced up at the sign above the coffee shop that read The Cat’s Pajamas, complete with a cat clad in loud pajamas and playing the guitar. One had to smile. Cats playing guitars demanded it. Inside, the place was just as fun. The entire perimeter of the square room was outfitted with guitars, some new, some vintage. About ten chocolate brown tables dotted the main floor and off to the right, nestled among two tall shelves containing books and board games, stood a pair of worn-in sofas, all overstuffed and soft looking. She dug the vibe and could see herself spending tons of time in this space when she needed a new spot to write.

“What can I get for you?” the barista asked. She had gorgeous hair, dark red, curly and thick as it fell around her shoulders. Isabel would kill for that hair. She would wage wars. Sell insurance policies. Anything. “Did you need another minute?” the woman asked when she didn’t immediately answer.

“Sorry. I was just admiring your hair, and thus wondering why I even got up in the morning.” With her finger, she flicked a strand of her own, boring, brown, straight hair.

The woman laughed. “You’re sweet, but it’s more trouble than it’s worth. The monthly budget takes a huge hit in the name of hair product.”

“Totally worth it. Trust me.” They smiled at each other. She liked this woman. She had fun energy and a cool, mellow voice. Plus, there was something laid back and friendly about her. “This is a great place. Great name, too.”

“I’m glad you like it. Named after my childhood cat, Pajamas. We called him PJ.” She grabbed a towel and wiped down the counter.

“Oh. So, you’re the owner?”

“Yep. That’s me. We’ve been here six years now and going strong. People like a good cup of coffee before hitting the beach. Luckily, you won’t find any better than mine. And that’s a legit challenge.”

“Sold. I’ll take one. Black.”

“Excellent choice.” She grabbed a cardboard cup with the guitar-playing cat on the side. “So, are you on vacation?”

“Nope. New to the area, actually. Just moved in next door, so you might see more of me.”

The woman turned back, her interest clearly piqued. “You’re at Seven Shores?”

“We just moved in today. Haven’t even unpacked.”

“Get out. Why didn’t you say so? I’m Autumn. It just so happens that Seven Shores folks are some of my best customers. Friends, too.”

“Isabel Chase. Nice to meet you. So, does that mean you live next door as well?”

“No, I live in West Hollywood, but a handful of us meet up in the courtyard to unwind, shoot the breeze, that kind of thing. Strong LGBT presence in Venice, so I linger.”

Well, well, well. Her people. “This place just gets better and better.”

Autumn grinned and studied her as if trying to work a puzzle. Isabel knew exactly the variety. She wasn’t an easy read in the sexuality department and didn’t mind that. It could go either way based on her appearance and what she wore on a given day. She liked the versatility. She could go for clear lesbian one day and confuse the world the next.

Autumn inclined her head. “You said we just moved in.”

“Right. Me and Fat Tony. He’s got an attitude. You’ve been forewarned. We’re working on it, but honestly there hasn’t been a lot of progress.”

She laughed. “You call your boyfriend Fat Tony?” Clearly Isabel was pinging in the wrong direction today.

“I don’t. But I call my cat Fat Tony.”

A pause. “I knew I liked you.” Autumn handed over her cup, steam billowing. “You’ll have to tell me what you think of the coffee. Those beans were roasted this morning.” She inclined her head to the left, indicating a giant silver roaster that stood impressive and imposing in the corner. This woman was serious about her coffee. She didn’t just serve it, she fucking roasted it.

“I will get back to you with my review, though I have to say, my expectations are relegated to Starbucks.”

“I forgive you for what you do not know, but this is your lucky day.”

Isabel nodded. She was starting to feel like it was. She popped a to-go lid on her cup and held it up to Autumn. “Thanks for the nice welcome. I’m sure I’ll be seeing you around.”

“Take care. Oh, and say hi to that Fat Tony for me. Sounds like my kind of guy.”

“If you’re into judgmental assholes.”

“In cat form? There’s no other way.”

Isabel made her way back across the courtyard to begin the process of unpacking what would be her work clothes, making sure everything essential was accessible. “Holy shit,” she said after taking a sip of the coffee.

“Everything all right?” the blonde on the couch asked.

She glanced over. “Oh. Sorry. I didn’t mean to—this is just really good coffee.” She raised the cup in the air. “A choir of angels has taken residence on my shoulder, so I was…expressing myself. With profanity.”

The blonde smiled. “Pajama coffee tends to have that effect on people.”

“Right? That woman over there knows what she’s doing.”

“Autumn? She’s the best around. A keeper.” She cocked her head. “Are you new? Not that this is second grade, but are you? New.” There was the friendly smile again.

Isabel nodded. “Yeah. Just minted from New Hampshire.” She gestured to her door. “I’m subletting from my friend Celeste.”

“Who I already miss more than Barack Obama. Well, a close second. I’m so glad she sent a replacement.” She hesitated. “I don’t suppose you like Barry Manilow and guacamole, by chance?”

“That’s a question I’ve never been asked before. Huh.” Isabel considered the odd combination and took a few steps toward the seating area. “I mean, I don’t have anything against either, though I have questions about the decision to pair them. That’s not judgment. Just a quandary.”

The woman hugged herself briefly. “I could write a dissertation on the sheer perfection of that combo. If I were the type to write dissertations. It’s okay, though. I’m sure you come with many fantastic qualities of your own.” She gestured to Isabel’s hand. “You already appreciate good coffee. Hadley, by the way. I’m so sorry. I should have started with that. I live upstairs.” She indicated the apartment in the corner.

“Oh! You’re Gia’s friend.”

Hadley beamed. “Yes, and you’re one step ahead.”

Isabel reflected on the LGBT vibe Autumn had assigned the place and couldn’t help but wonder rudely. “So, are you two…”

“Both right-handed? Yes.” She seemed pleased with herself. “But we’re also just friends, if that was your larger question. No euphemism attached.”

Guilt struck Isabel for leaping there, and she felt her cheeks warm. She should really keep her thoughts in her head more. She would work on this. Implement a schedule. “I hope I didn’t overstep.”

“You didn’t.” She offered a warm smile. Isabel pegged Hadley as a kind person, the sort you just knew you could relax around. “Seven Shores is a colorful place. Your gaydar is not off, so rest assured.” Aha, so she wasn’t entirely off base. “And neither is mine, for that matter. Welcome to the neighborhood. And the community.”

Isabel grinned. “Thank you.”

“I head to work in an hour, but if there’s anything I can do to help you move in, I’m willing. I’m great at carrying stuff and wouldn’t mind pitching in if you need it.”

See? Now that was a thoughtful offer. Now she felt guilty about the Sports Illustrated categorization. “I might take you up on that next week when a few more boxes arrive. For now, just me, a handful of suitcases, and a sleepy cat. What do you do for work?”

“I’m the assistant manager of a boutique in Hollywood.”

“Impressive. Boutique sounds high end. Don’t tell me it’s on Rodeo Drive or I might get all Pretty Woman fangirl on you.” Isabel laughed.

“No, it is,” Hadley said quite seriously, “on Rodeo Drive. Silhouette is the name of the store. You should stop by. I’d be happy to show you the place.”

Isabel’s mouth fell open. “You are one of the women from the movie! I was kidding, but here you are in person. You don’t kick people out of the store with their little hearts in their hand, do you?”

“I promise we’re much nicer. We would let Vivian shop. I’d personally see to it.”

“Thank God.” Because those women in the film were vicious vipers. Isabel used to fantasize about all the ways she would get back at them. Stick up for Vivian and then get to spend time with her. Lots and lots of time. Okay, to be fair, Pretty Woman had been pivotal to her journey of self-discovery.

Hadley studied her. “Let me guess your job. I’m good at this.”

Isabel made a sweeping gesture with her arm. “Have at it.”

“Okay, so you’re understated but very pretty, so I’m going to guess you’re moving here to audition. You’re also wearing a lot of black.” She pointed at Isabel. “You’re a budding actress. The serious kind, though, who cares a great deal about craft and not just the potent lure of Hollywood.” She looked nervous and sincere, as if her success or failure carried true consequence. “Am I close?”

Okay, maybe she was nicer than the woman in the movie. “Thank you, but no. I write.”

“Books?” She held up the novel she’d been reading and beamed. “Reading is my escape. There’s nothing like it.”

“No, for TV. I’m a new staff writer for Thicker Than Water.” Hadley didn’t say anything and Isabel wondered if she hated television or maybe even the show itself. “Did I lose you with that little revelation?”

Hadley shook her head slowly. “I’m just happy. You took Celeste’s spot!” She held out a hand as her energy grew. “You should know that Thicker Than Water is only the reason I get up in the morning. Celeste was my inroad to all the good clues about what might happen next, which I thought were gone forever. But here you are.”

Isabel laughed. “So, you’re a fan? Me too. It’s good TV, one of the more thoughtful serial dramas out there.”

Hadley sat forward. “It’s my favorite show. I have a cardboard cutout of Aspen Wakefield on the back of my closet door.” She covered her face in embarrassment and sat back against the couch.

Isabel couldn’t help but laugh along with her. Hadley seemed adorable, big hearted, and kind. “You will get nothing but commiseration from me in the TV fandom department. I get it. I’m a junkie myself. Jan Brady is everything.”

“Have you met her yet? Aspen? Not Jan. Though I’m sure Jan is great.” Hadley’s blue eyes were wide and full of hope and wonder, like one of those people life had yet to step on in any true way. Her question had been about Aspen Wakefield, who played Dr. Lisette James on the show and was by far the most popular character among viewers. Lisette, the character, was hardworking and benevolent, and served as the show’s moral compass. It didn’t hurt matters that Aspen Wakefield, the actress, was an incredibly hot, voluptuous brunette. She had throngs of fans who obsessed about her every move. Tabloids couldn’t snap enough photos to satisfy their readerships. Hollywood A-list all the way.

“Not yet, but I’m sure we’ll cross paths. I should be in on the weekly table reads.”

Hadley shook her head in wonder. “You have to report back when that happens. Celeste tended to downplay. I hope you’ll dish the details.”

Isabel walked to the couch and held out her hand for a fist bump. “I won’t let you down.”

Like a pro, Hadley bumped her fist and pulled back an explosion. Good people, this one. “Don’t get me wrong, I love Celeste’s guacamole and will miss it dearly, but I’m very happy you’ve moved in, Isabel.”

“Likewise. I’ll let you get back to your book, Hadley…?”

“Cooper,” she supplied.

“Happy reading, Hadley Cooper.” Isabel took a sip of coffee on her way to her door. “Holy hell, this stuff is good. Fuck. Me.” She turned to Hadley. “Sorry again for the swearing.”

Hadley chuckled quietly from the couch.