Hayley Carpenter adjusted the lanyard around her neck for the fifth time in the last twenty minutes. She hated these things. She hated wearing a name badge and she hated the large, obnoxious lettering identifying the Hollywood Sunas her place of employment. She knew it was a matter of safety and was required for backstage access, but it still felt like a target on her chest. There was a part of her that cringed at the bold PRESS letters under her name. Her dreams of becoming a screenwriter wilted a little more every time she got the inevitable side-eye associated with this tag. Deep down she knew that her beloved grandmother would roll over in her grave if she found out that Hayley was working some throwaway entertainment piece for one of the largest gossip sites in the country. She was better than this and she knew it.
“Ms. Carpenter? From the Hollywood Sun? Are you here?” a short, balding man in a headset called out into the press room.
“I’m here.” Hayley stepped forward and walked toward the door as he motioned her and a few other reporters toward the side entrance.
He blinked at her and made a note on the tablet in his hand before addressing her and the people around her. “Okay, you stand here, you over there, and you are the corner. Don’t touch anyone. You can call their name to get their attention, but otherwise remain behind the barrier at all times.”
“Yeah, yeah, Dennis. This isn’t our first rodeo,” a blond woman drawled out next to her.
Dennis turned toward her voice and narrowed his eyes. “Even if that is true, Ms. Teslan, I would like to remind you all of last week’s debacle at the Daytime Awards. Stay behind the barrier.”
Someone next to Ms. Teslan growled. “Jesus. One nut ball jumps a guardrail with a fake press pass and suddenly we’re all in time-out.”
“You’re new.” The woman looked at Hayley expectantly. “Where’s Sharon?”
“Sharon couldn’t make it. I’m just covering for her.” She didn’t bother mentioning that she was filling in for senior gossip writer Sharon Ferguson because she was in hot water with Sharon over an article she had written recently. Work was hard enough as it was right now. She didn’t need to make any more waves. She extended her hand. “Hayley Carpenter.”
“Anna Mae Teslan. LA Life. Nice to meet you.”
“She doesn’t care who you are, sugar tits.” The owner of a gruff voice from before emerged over Anna Mae’s shoulder. He scoffed, “She’s the one that wrote that op-ed piece on celebrity fragility in the current media market.”
Hayley glanced down at his name badge and swallowed hard. He was James Drake from the Hollywood Daily Mail. His work was infamous. He was known for causing drama with other reporters and going out of his way to ambush celebrities with his intense scrutiny and questioning. Drake had made a career of ruining other people’s.
“Drake, try and use your professional language.” Anna Mae blinked and gave Hayley a once-over. “So you’re the one rattling the cage over there. I was wondering what had Sharon all wound up.”
“Someone gunning for her job, obviously.” Drake rolled his eyes and adjusted his glasses.
“I’m not gunning for anyone’s job,” Hayley replied coolly. Drake was nothing more than a bully. And she didn’t deal kindly with bullies.
Anna Mae placed a hand on her shoulder. “Ignore him. He’s as irritable as they come.”
“Right. Listen to the Southern Belle and you are bound to get bowled over.” Drake added with a smirk, “She’s only sweet until you steal an interview from her, then the claws come out.”
“You’re one to talk. I don’t think I would count getting slapped with a restraining order stealing an interview, Drake,” Anna Mae quipped, her red nails glittering with her air quotes.
A gentle tap on Hayley’s shoulder distracted her from Drake’s reply.
“I see you met Sharon’s usual sparring partners.” Scotty McDoyle’s tall, fiery haired frame paired with the enormous video camera on his shoulder nearly blocked the bright California sun. He was so much taller than her that his Hollywood Sunpress pass was at her eye level. She made note of the broad grin on his photo ID. It was just soScotty of him.
“Hey, Scotty.” She’d expected to only be doing some audio work behind the scenes and maybe snag an interview with someone at the event, but when she’d arrived today, she’d been informed that she would be on the red carpet and possibly on camera. She was trying not to think about that.
Scotty leaned close and nodded toward the other reporters. “Anna Mae’s pretty cool, but she’s got an edge to her. And Drake, well, you’ve heard the rumors about Drake, I’m sure. Just FYI—they’re all true. He’s ruthless. He and Anna Mae get into it at every event and red carpet. Sharon butters them both up to keep the peace.”
“I’m not particularly interested in getting in the middle, if that’s what you mean.” Hayley looked over at the bickering reporters in front of her and stepped back a bit more. “Please tell me this will be painless.”
“No can do. This is going to be long and boring and frustrating as hell.”
Hayley pouted. “I figured.”
“Cheer up, buttercup. My friend is here tonight with the Entertainment TVcrew. I’ll tell him you’re a little green to this and see if he can get us a quick interview for your fluff piece.”
Hayley could tell Scotty was trying to be helpful, but she hated everything about this assignment. She had interviewed at the Hollywood Sunas a favor to a friend who’d taken a position as a temp agency job placement coordinator. She needed to set up a certain number of job interviews per week to meet her quota, and she’d called Hayley in desperation. What had started out as a favor had somehow ended up as a job at the Sunthat she didn’t particularly want to be doing in the research and receiving department.
That was five years ago. On the plus side, it was a paying position that left her lots of time to work on her personal writing projects and gave her endless resources for research and experience. But this was far from what she’d imagined herself doing when she was a naïve undergrad. This was not the glamorous screenwriting dream gig she’d hoped for when she moved to LA so many years ago.
Nonetheless, she was grateful for Scotty. He’d started at the paper a short time before her, and they had become fast friends. They both had dreams of doing something more, but money was money, and at the end of the day, it paid the bills. She didn’t get to work with him much since he was on the entertainment department staff, so she was happy to be in his company today.
As the rest of the media zone around them began to fill in, there was a sudden surge of excitement. It was palpable. Hayley checked her watch. The first round of celebrities would be arriving soon. Her attention was drawn back toward Anna Mae and Drake when their exchange increased in volume.
“Just watch yourself, Blondie. I’m getting that sound bite from Emerson Sterling tonight. You can bet your fake tan on that.” Drake adjusted his shoulder bag and blew Anna Mae a taunting kiss.
“Ha.” She cocked her head to the side. “You think she’ll walk the carpet tonight?” She let out a low whistle. “That’s a bold call.”
“She’s presenting. She’d be foolish to miss the opportunity for the positive press after this morning’s bombshell,” Drake said.
Hayley had been half listening to them up to that point, but something about Drake’s tone caught her attention. “What bombshell?”
They both looked at her like she had three heads.
“Amateur.” Drake’s wicked Cheshire cat grin gave her the chills.
“Oh, honey. You’re gonna need to prepare a little better if you ever hope to take over Sharon’s spot.” Anna Mae fluttered her eyelashes but the friendliness from before was missing. So this was what Scotty had been talking about.
“I’m not interested in taking anyone’s job—”
“That’s your second mistake.” Drake turned his back to her and cracked his neck.
Anna Mae shook her head and sighed. “Look. You seem nice and all, but I don’t think this is your calling. It was nice meeting you, though.”
And with that, she was dismissed. Not that she had been welcomed in the first place, but still. She was too flustered by the exchange to be angry. What had even just happened?
The hum around her from the arriving camera and sound crews for the other media outlets increased in volume as the number of bodies doubled and nearly tripled. People were moving around like a swarm of angry ants. Everywhere she looked, people were frantically running cords and doing sound checks. This was the biggest event she had ever been assigned to, and the hustle and bustle around her was making her head spin. She felt nauseous. “I can’t do this.”
She stepped back and bumped right into Scotty. She hadn’t realized how close he was. How close everyone was. Great. Now she felt claustrophobic, too.
“Yes, you can. This is how you get out from behind the desk doing Sharon’s bitch work. You wanna write the movie that gets nominated? You gotta get in there and get a little dirty. This is a tough town, but you can do this. Ask a couple of questions. What’ve you got to lose?” Scotty’s expression was encouraging.
“My job?” This pep talk was falling flat.
“Unlikely. You need a little sidebar puff piece, right? Not even a full page. We can do that. You can do that. I’ll help.” He gave her a broad smile and adjusted the camera on his shoulder. His confidence in her was reassuring. She felt a teensy bit better.
“Hey. What bombshell were they talking about?” She motioned to the backs of Anna Mae and Drake. They stood up against the rail, just millimeters apart. They were both hurriedly talking to their respective camera crews.
“Hmm?” Scotty was looking through the lens of his camera and fiddling with buttons and knobs that looked expensive.
“Emerson Sterling. They said there was a bombshell today.” Emersonwasa bombshell. Hayley knew that clear as she knew her own name. Everyone knew who Emerson was. She was gorgeous. And talented. And had a complex Hollywood history that was only further complicated when she was cast in the most anticipated movie of the year opposite Rachel Blanche and Johnny Pietro. Which in and of itself wasn’t complicated, but what happened next was: halfway through filming, Rachel left the project due to scheduling issues, quote-unquote, which Hayley had come to realize was code around here for Rachel was fired.
“Oh, yeah. You didn’t hear?” Scotty pulled out his phone and loaded Twitter. He pointed to the trending topics, and there in bold read the headline, “Blanche Blames Bust-up on Set to Bedroom Fallout with Sterling.”
Hayley grabbed his phone and scrolled through the feed in shock. “You’re kidding me.”
“Nope.” Scotty took his phone back and pocketed it. “It’s the biggest news story of the day. Probably the year. And so far, it’s just a teaser. Rachel released a snippet of an interview—some transcript or something—with a promise to fill in the details later. This is big news.”
Hayley wondered what bedroom fallout meant. Well, she assumed she knew what it meant—Rachel and Emerson had been in a relationship, that took place in a bedroom—but no. No. There was no way. Right?
She mulled this over a bit. Shit. This was huge. “When did that come out?”
Scotty shrugged. “A couple of hours ago, just over two, I’d guess.”
“Literally right in time for the red carpet.”
“Yup. With Emerson and Johnny both presenting tonight, it’s—”
“Ballsy.” And fucked up, Hayley thought, but she kept that to herself. Rachel Blanche was America’s Sweetheart: blond, blue-eyed, and charming as hell. She was the kind of girl every guy wanted to be with and every girl wanted to be. She was the white picket fence, homecoming queen kind of beauty that you hoped would move in next door and fall madly in love with you. Hell, she’d been People’s Most Beautiful Person twice in the past six years. So when her role was recast, and filming had to be reshot with a new actress, Piper Sanderson, pretty much all of Hollywood and the planet had assumed it was because of actor feuding. And everyone wanted to blame it on a catfight. Emerson Sterling with her dark hair and sordid past was quickly labeled the problem in the court of public opinion even though the film studio had released a statement denying that assumption. There were rumors, but nothing was substantiated. Rachel had gone dark for a while. Clearly, that had ended.
“Okay. It’s showtime. Buckle up.” Scotty’s height gave him an advantage over most of the camera people around them. He must have seen something no one else did. Before she could ask him what he meant, he was pushing her forward and using his large frame to box out Drake’s and Anna Mae’s crews from blocking Hayley’s access to the railing. Next thing she knew, she was front and center and she had a bird’s eye view of the warm-up wave of B-list celebrities starting to walk down the carpet in their direction.
“You got this.” Scotty’s encouragement was accompanied by a wink. But she didn’t miss the glare Anna Mae was casting in her direction. Or the snarl on Drake’s face.
Emerson Sterling looked at the shattered remnants of the champagne flute just outside the balcony door and frowned. Her anger management coach would not approve. Nor would her PR rep, her manager, or her fans. Well, that last part was yet to be determined. If she was out of the limelight for too long, people talked. But if she was in it for too long or too often, people talked. Basically, as long as people were talking, things were okay. Or they weren’t. That seemed to be the rub as of late. Regardless, she was down a champagne flute and it was entirely her fault. Or Rachel Blanche’s fault. Maybe she could blame it on the media?
The two male voices arguing outside her bedroom door had become impossible to ignore. She could hear her manager, David Stilton, clucking and stuttering some point at her personal assistant, Tremont. She smiled as Tremont Winter’s soprano pierced the air in fiery retort. He was good to her, he always had been. Tremont had been with her through the good and the bad, and she trusted him implicitly. She’d be kidding herself if she didn’t admit that Tremont had been her savior all these years. He made sure she was always on her A game, he helped her with her looks and her lines, and he kept her humble. Without him, she’d be lost. Literally. She had a terrible sense of direction. It was almost comical. And David, well, David managed her. Or triedto. He had a hand in setting up her auditions and helping coordinate her appearances and press work, but her relationship with him had been rocky for a while now. She couldn’t quite make out what they were saying, but it sounded like David was mad and Tremont was—Yup. He definitely just called David a heartless bitch. Good. Things must be going swimmingly.
She twirled the empty mini champagne bottle on the table in front of her and wondered if David was stopping Tremont from bringing an adult-sized beverage through the door. He was like that, so damn limiting. It’s not like she had any vices anymore. She never drank, except for champagne, and she never did it before a public event. But this was different. This was war, and in times of war, anything goes.
She stood and strode toward the door. She was tired of waiting and even more tired of the angry hum of voices just outside of earshot.
“Boys,” she barked and yanked open the door. David jumped back with a startled expression. Tremont, on the other hand, had his arms crossed across his chest, with his eyebrow raised in challenge. Tremont never spooked. It was one of his best qualities.
Emerson could see the gold foil of the top of the champagne bottle under Tremont’s arm. She reached for it.
“Do you really think that’s a good idea, Emerson?” David barely got the question out before Tremont started in on him again.
Emerson held her hand up and silenced them both. She nodded toward the bottle, and Tremont opened it with a satisfying pop and handed it to her. She brought it to her lips and sipped before looking at Tremont and motioning toward David.
“Did you tell him that the hotel only stocks mini-bottles of champagne? Mini-bottles. What if there was a champagne emergency and I needed a full-sized bottle immediately? What if I couldn’t wait for them to bring one up? Someone should write a review of this place. The nerve.” Tremont laughed and took a sip from the offered bottle. She didn’t bother offering any to David. He was such a curmudgeon.
“Emerson. Please. No more destruction. We’re doing the best we can to do damage control already,” David whined. He was always whining.
“It was a glass, David. It…slipped.”
“It didn’t slip, and you know it.” David huffed and looked flushed.
“You look a little sweaty, David. Why don’t you sit down and have some water?” She took the bottle back from Tremont and turned, heading back into her room. She didn’t wait for him to answer. It was an empty pleasantry. They all knew she didn’t want him around. Not after this screwup.
“Emerson, I tried—”
She spun on her heel and pointed the bottle at him. “You tried? When did you try, David? When Rachel squeezed you like a pimple for information and you popped like an overly hormonal virgin on a first date?”
David looked scandalized. Emerson felt like someone had thrown gasoline on the simmering she was barely keeping contained.
“Was it her tits? Is that what convinced you to sell me out? Because I’ve seen them, David, and they’re awfully nice, but they aren’t worth the price of my soul. Maybe they’re worth the price of yours, though. I’d never given that much thought. Maybe that’s my fault. I had no idea I employed someone so soulless.”
“How was I supposed to know she’d turn on you, Emerson? How?” David dug the hole deeper and Emerson saw red.
“It’s your job to have my best interests in mind, David. Why do I have to be the one to tell you that this work requires a backbone? I had no idea you were so incredibly useless”—she growled—“but lesson learned.”
“She warned you,” David spat back at her. “She warned you when you cast her aside like some jilted lover—”
“Leave.” She couldn’t stand the sight of him. If David hadn’t planted the seed, Rachel might never have figured it all out. But that fucking moron wasn’t thinking with his head. Or maybe he was, just the wrong one. Rachel could be very convincing when she wanted something. He was just too stupid to realize he was being played.
“You knew this was coming. It was only a matter of time.” David’s flush had spread into his neck. His nostrils flared, and Emerson raged.
“Are you serious right now?” Her blood boiled as she stepped toward him. “Did you just fucking say that?”
Tremont stepped between them and held up his hands. “We’ll be downstairs in a bit. You should go, David.”
“Fifteen minutes. She has fifteen minutes to throw her tantrum. Make sure she gets in that car and smiles like she’s supposed to. We all knew that article was coming—we’ve already prepared a statement.” David avoided eye contact with her and spoke only to Tremont. That was probably a wise idea since the bottle felt heavy in her hands.
Tremont scoffed. “This is why you’re single, David. Because you’re heartless.”
“And I hear you’re also a bitch.” Emerson couldn’t help herself. Tremont snickered next to her.
“Fifteen minutes,” David called over his shoulder as he slammed the door to her hotel suite.
She headed to the balcony and lowered herself onto the lounge chair facing the million-dollar view of the mountains off in the horizon. She sipped the bottle in her hands and willed them to stop trembling. This was everything she had feared would happen, except it was a thousand times worse than she had ever anticipated.
“He just doesn’t get it, Em. He doesn’t have the whole story, so he can’t understand.” Tremont sank into the seat beside her with a sigh. “Not that he should have said anything to Rachel, but still.”
She nodded and handed him the bottle. No one had the whole story. Well, except for her and Tremont. He knew just about everything. That helped ease some of the isolation she was feeling. But even that wasn’t entirely true. He knew most of what she was feeling, but not all of it. She didn’t think anyone would really understand.
“I just…I never thought she’d actually do it.” She took the bottle back from him and ran her thumb over the slightly curled edge of the label. “And I’m mad at myself for being so naïve about it.”
Tremont didn’t say anything for a long time. She’d almost forgotten he was there. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you more scared or more hurt than I did this morning when we got that call. I think it’s best we just accept this for what it is: a betrayal. She betrayed you, and whatever you had with her—whatever friendship or professional courtesy you might have shared—it’s gone. Rachel is seeking her revenge in the most public way possible, and you are the object in her crosshairs.”
“That sounds a little dirty.”
Tremont shrugged. “I heard that on NCISlast week. You know how I love me some DiNozzo.”
“You can do better.” She winked at him.
“So can you.” Ouch.
“Just give me a few minutes, okay? Let me wallow in my self-pity and armor myself for what is going to be the worst night of my life.” She hoped he didn’t notice the pleading in her voice.
His face told her he did. “That’s a little dramatic. I’m sure you’ll have much worse nights.”
She deadpanned, “You’re too good to me.”
“Someone has to look out for your overly emotional and hormonal ass. And you don’t pay me enough to deal with David’s bad breath on top of his usual condemnation. I want a raise.” Tremont pretended to flip his nonexistent hair and left her on the balcony to collect her thoughts. She loved that man. She wasn’t sure where she’d be without him.
She let his words wash over her and her chest felt heavy. Behind the rage and blind panic that came with the call from her PR agency letting her know about Rachel’s big reveal, there was a level of disappointment and pain that had floored her. But as much as Tremont was right, so was David. Rachel had warned her this was coming. She just didn’t want to believe it.
She placed the bottle down on the table next to her and sighed. She’d need her wits about her for tonight’s red carpet. It was not a coincidence that Rachel’s statement came out today of all days. Tonight’s presenter gig with Johnny was part of the studio’s marketing campaign to generate buzz on the upcoming movie’s release. This was the first big push of what would be many exhausting weeks and months of interviews, press, attending events, and smiling for the camera. In just a few months, The Willow Path Convergencewould be shown to critics and then to audiences across America. She sighed. This role was supposed to change her life. It was supposed to change her career. And it had. But it also brought Rachel into her life. And at the release, her name would be in the credits and Rachel’s wouldn’t. So, no, she shouldn’t be surprised that Rachel’s teaser tell-all came today. Or any day, for that matter. But that fact didn’t make it hurt any less.
She stretched in the chair and thought about the whirlwind that had been the last year. Getting this role was the kind of stuff that dreams were made of. It was a chance for her to catapult her acting career into the kind of legacy status that she’d always hoped for. This was the chance of a lifetime. But it was a risk. And the studio was taking a risk on her. It was a dark and complex film, and the emotional depth required had been grueling, but it had taught her a lot about herself during the filming as well. And it had brought Hurricane Rachel with it. Everything had changed with this role. Everything.
She knew that tonight’s presenter gig was an attempt to amplify her public persona. Even though the film was still in editing, it was already getting hyped as one of the best films of the year. She had thought this would be her chance to change her image. She’d hoped that the days of her Hollywood Bad Girl status were long gone. It looked as though this role was going to do just that, until Rachel was let go from the film under a cloud of suspicion. And now she was the villain to Rachel’s one-sided sob story.
“It’s time.” Tremont held out her clutch and lipstick. “You need to reapply. Thank Gucci the makeup artist left this behind. That champagne bottle is wearing all your lipstick.”
She glanced down and laughed. “So it is.”
They both knew she wasn’t.
“No.” She sighed. “Let’s go.”
“So remember, smile and let Chandra field all the questions. Don’t go off script. We released the statement on the ride over here. All you have to do is say no comment. Got it?” David said. Emerson knew that wasn’t really a question.
“Don’t worry, David. I’ll be on my best behavior.” Emerson turned back toward the commotion outside the limo’s window. “All the vultures are circling. Must be foulness afoot.”
David dared to take her hand and gave it a squeeze. “It’s going to be fine, Emerson.”
She had to will herself not to snatch her hand away. “Let’s not kid ourselves, David. It’s going to be a veritable shit show. And I’m the main attraction.”
“Good thing we packed an umbrella.” Tremont held up his designer messenger bag and tapped it confidently. “Shit shield in tow.”
Chandra Patel, her PR rep, knocked on the window and opened the door. “All right, Emerson. We’re ready for you.”
The cameras flashed, and Emerson’s name rang out from every media outlet imaginable. Tremont stepped out and took her hand, guiding her and her designer gown onto the red carpet. He held his hand up to deflect some of the glaring lights as Chandra stepped forward and addressed the group.
“Ms. Sterling will pose for some pictures, but she is not giving any statements at this time. If you ask, she will move on without a shot.” Chandra’s announcement was met with disgruntled groans.
“Emerson, Emerson! Over here! To the left!”
Emerson raised her head as she stepped onto the marked Xon the carpet in front of her and flashed that perfect Hollywood smile she’d paid a fortune for.
The lights were always more blinding than she expected. She’d been on plenty of red carpets and press junkets before, and yet every time, it felt a little overwhelming. There was no getting out of the center of attention at these things. That was the point, right? To be there and generate buzz, to make people want you. To make people want to be you. To make them want to see what you were up to. It was all part of the game. It was a part of the big, scary Hollywood machine: Show face. Smile. Look pretty. Sell the illusion. That’s what this all was, just an illusion.
“Emerson! Here! Up here. Smile!”
She turned toward the voice and obliged. It was difficult for her to see any specific person during these walks. The lighting was complimentary but made it impossible for the actors to see any of the media’s faces until the flashes faded. If it wasn’t for Tremont following closely behind and guiding her over the occasional rogue cord or bump in the carpet, she’d face-plant. That would be almost as interesting as Rachel’s attempt at a distraction. She considered it.
“I know that look. You’re up to something,” Tremont said when the flashing lights stopped. He stood by her side and offered her a bottle of water with a straw.
She turned her back to the media line and waited for her signal to move on to the next photo stop on the carpet. “Mm. Is that so?”
“Oh, yeah. Girl, I can practically smell your mischief.” He took back the bottle and capped it. “What’re you thinking?”
“I was wondering if I accidentally intentionally fell if that would get me off this carpet before our little smile-but-don’t-talk charade fell apart.”
“Don’t you dare.” Tremont’s face was far too serious. She’d only been joking. Sort of.
“I can totally do it. I did all my own stunts in that car movie last year. They told me I looked like a seasoned stunt double.” She took the compact he held out for her and touched up her lipstick.
“Oh, I have no doubt that you can gracefully fall. What I doubt is that it will do anything but amplify the attention on you. Plus, I know you aren’t wearing any underwear under that dress, so with the way things are going for you, you’d probably end up showing everyone your hoo-ha.”
“Hoo-ha? What are you, twelve?” She used her finger to blend the color across her bottom lip.
“Would you prefer I call it your lady bits? How about your pink—”
“You could call it a vagina. Because that’s what it is.”
Tremont grimaced and put his hand up. “That sounds so dirty. Ew. The whole thing is gross and wet and ew. I’m going to puke. I don’t understand you people.”
“You people? And what peoplewould that be?” Emerson was so glad he was here with her. She felt safe.
Tremont looked left and right before he leaned in and whispered, “You lesbians.”
“You and your labels.” Emerson didn’t bother trying to contain the deep, throaty laugh that bubbled up. She felt no need to align herself with a label or to follow anyone else’s rules about who she could be attracted to. She’d had male and female partners in her life. She was drawn to the person, and it just so happened that most of those people were female. “You know, I could say a whole lot about your extracurricular activities, but I’m too much of a lady for that.”
Tremont’s skeptical look was so comical she laughed harder. “Girl, please. I can’t get any man to go on more than one date with me because you are needy as fuck and require all my attention, all the time. No man wants to date someone who is at the beck and call of some prima donna.”
There was a truth in that statement that sobered her momentary joyfulness. Tremont didn’t date anyone seriously. He hadn’t in a long time. But it wasn’t that he couldn’t find the right guy. It was his job that got in the way. And not in the way he teased her about now, she wasn’t overly demanding—at least she didn’t think she was, anyway. It was more than that. She was a target for attention and exploitation, and Rachel was making that clear with her statement today. Tremont had stopped dating when people started recognizing him as her best friend and personal assistant. Too many dates had shown more interest in her fame and celebrity than in him. And though he joked about it, she knew it bothered him. It bothered her, too. She’d found that her celebrity ruined people’s lives, one way or another. And that was the same reason why she was single. She’d broken her vow to remain unattached when she got involved with Rachel. She thought that maybe it could work since they were both in the public eye. But clearly that had backfired in the most gloriously devastating way. Rachel was just like everyone else—the only exception being she had a bigger audience to air Emerson’s dirty laundry to. No, this proved it—she could never trust anyone. Ever. Except for Tremont. And her sister. Shit. She had to call her sister.
“What? I was joking. Don’t look so serious,” Tremont replied.
“Did you call Deidre?” Emerson started to panic. How could she have forgotten to call her sister? “Tremont, I need to call her. I need to—”
He stepped close and reached out to take her elbow. His touch was gentle and his tone was soft as he said, “Em. It’s okay. I called her. She knows. She said she’d be free tomorrow to talk. Don’t worry.”
She was still holding the mirrored compact, but her hand was frozen in midair. A part of her was afraid she might drop it. Tremont must have noticed because he reached out and took it from her, but not before she got a glimpse of the people standing in front of the next marked spot on the carpet.
“Fuck. James Drake is here.”
Tremont looked over her shoulder and scowled. “I hate that asshole. Hold on.”
He waved back toward Chandra and motioned for her to join them. She had been hovering off in the distance, looking down at her tablet and talking quickly into her headset as usual. She was always conducting some sort of complicated PR dance at these things. Emerson had asked about it once. She wanted to know why it looked so stressful. Chandra had laughed and told her that there were seating changes and set updates that happened up until the very moment of each event. Sometimes that meant Emerson had to be someplace entirely different than was previously planned. And depending on where that was, a little negotiating might be needed. She was grateful to be ignorant of most of it.
Chandra jogged over. Her expression was bleak. “You heard, huh?”
“Heard what?” Emerson didn’t like it when Chandra looked worried.
“Yeah, what are you talking about?” Tremont was annoyed.
“Well, that depends”—she was stalling—“on why you waved me over.”
Emerson and Tremont shared a look. Chandra’s headset squawked, and she grabbed her ear. She spoke quietly into the mouthpiece and frowned.
“Spit it out, Chandra. You’re freaking us out,” Tremont said.
“Rachel’s here. Five marks back,” Chandra replied.
“She’s here?” Emerson felt herself start to unravel.
Tremont shushed her. “Don’t lose your shit now. Not in front of that Drake fool and his camera crew.” He looked at Chandra and shook his head. “We’re skipping the next mark. All the marks. No more carpet.”
Chandra looked as stressed as Emerson felt. “Do you think that’s wise?”
“I’m not doing it.” Emerson was careful to keep a false smile on her face as she spoke. The last thing she needed was to give anyone any reason to think she was freaking out as badly as she was freaking out. “Get me out of here.”
Chandra nodded and spoke into her headset. The person stationed at the next mark was calling out to them and waving them forward, but Emerson had no intention of stopping. Rachel was closing in on them, and she knew she couldn’t face her without falling to pieces in the process.
“Emerson! Here! Look here!” She ignored the calls and looked for a way out. Chandra had to figure something out fast, or she was going to tear a hole in that award show banner backdrop and book it.
“Emerson!” A sharp, piercing whistle caught her off guard and she turned without thinking.
The sound came from a pretty auburn-haired woman who was hanging over the railing at the next mark. She didn’t recognize her, but that wasn’t anything unusual. She didn’t know a lot of media at these things. But she did recognize the man standing directly next to the mystery woman, and he was staring right at her.
“Emerson, is it true that your sexual relationship with Rachel Blanche got her fired?” Drake’s voice was deafening in the silence that followed the shrill whistle. The cameras flashed. Emerson was too stunned to answer.
“Go.” Tremont grabbed her elbow and hurried her into an opening in the backdrop that Chandra held back for her.
She had no idea how things had gotten so out of hand so fast.
“It’s okay, just breathe.”
Tremont pushed the water bottle into her hand, but she couldn’t drink it. All she could think about was what her expression had been when Drake got his question out. Had she reacted? She’d been so stunned by the whistle she didn’t have a chance to stifle her emotions.
“Find out who that woman was.” Her voice sounded far away.
“What woman?” Tremont continued to pull her along the back of the red carpet toward the amphitheater.
“The banshee whistler that works for Drake. Find out who she is and make sure we never cross paths again.” She tugged her elbow from Tremont’s grasp and increased her pace toward the building. She needed to get inside before anything else happened. She needed to get inside before everyone saw just how badly she was shaking.
“Are we almost done?” Hayley looked over her notes and confirmed that all her interviews had loaded to the cloud at work. She was particular about rechecking that, after one assignment ended with her phone in a toilet and all the recordings flushed down the drain with it.
Scotty adjusted the strap on his camera bag and patted it. “Yup, all packed up and ready to go. I’ll call over for the car. Meet you out back?”
Hayley nodded and pulled off her lanyard, shoving it into her pocket as she waited in the corner of the backstage press area. Most of the other reporters had filtered out, and it appeared that only staff came back toward this section, if the rolls of cable coiled and thrown about, discarded folding chairs, and empty coffee cups littering the floor were any indication. It was hardly the place for anyone of importance—that was one of the reasons she’d come back here. She wanted to be hidden from view for a chance to catch her breath.
She leaned against the corner as she took off one of her shoes and massaged her foot. She was not used to standing around in heels, and she was eager to get home and banish these back to her closet where they belonged. She was happy with the work she’d gotten done with Scotty today. They’d talked to a few celebrities and their PR people, and it hadn’t been nearly as bad as she’d anticipated it being. She had plenty of fodder for her two-hundred-word border piece. Sharon would be pleased, and hopefully she could get back to her own work without any more controversy.
But she knew the real story was the one that nearly got away: Emerson Sterling. And the only reason it was nearlyat all was because of Grandma Ginny’s notorious dinner whistle. Had she not resorted to the secret, sonic boom signal that had been passed down to her and honed through a lifetime of summers in Maine trying to wrangle her cousins from the woods behind the family cabin, she never would have gotten Emerson to stop long enough for her to see that there was definitely something going on with the troubled starlet. She had looked more than shocked. She looked almost scared. And Hayley had instantly regretted her actions.
Her assumptions had been all but confirmed when Rachel showed up just moments after Emerson’s Houdini impersonation. They’d missed each other by less than three minutes. It was almost as if Emerson had gotten some intel to flee.
In contrast to Emerson’s team stating that she would not be giving any statements, Rachel had been more than candid and willing to talk to Drake and anyone that would listen. She managed to keep it mostly vague, but she encouraged everyone to wait for the rest of her statement and played to the affections of the camera. It was almost sickening after having seen Emerson’s reaction immediately before. Rachel seemed to be flourishing in the attention and adoration.
Hayley couldn’t shake the feeling that she had set something in motion with that whistle. She’d practically set Drake up for a home run with his question—she’d literally silenced the crowd for him to be heard. He’d thanked her for it afterward. The guilt she felt rivaled her dislike for him in that moment.
The sound of approaching voices jarred her out of her daze.
“Don’t talk to me.” An angry female hiss came from around the corner as the footsteps got louder. It was so fast and sharp Hayley couldn’t recognize the voice’s owner.
“Oh, please, don’t kid yourself, Em. I’m just trying to get out of here in one piece.” Rachel Blanche’s voice, on the other hand, was unmistakable.
A male voice chimed in, “I’ll believe thatwhen you can prove to me more than ten percent of what is on your head isn’t weave.”
“Oh, joy. Tremont is here to add commentary.” Rachel turned the corner and stepped into Hayley’s sight line, where she turned and faced the male voice. “Call off your gay dog, Emerson, before I neuter him.”
“Fuck off, Rachel.” Emerson Sterling stepped forward with a threatening glare. “You’ve done enough damage for one day.”
Rachel laughed and crossed her arms. “What’s the matter, Em baby? You didn’t like my headline? I thought it was rather creative.”
“You mean that starved-for-attention ploy to steal some of my celebrity since you got canned? I’ve been warned to stay away from falling stars and burning bridges—and you, Rachel, are white hot,” Emerson spit back.
Drake materialized next to Hayley and reached for his phone just as a furious looking Rachel lunged forward and grabbed Emerson by the arm, spinning her on the spot. The sound of Drake dropping his bag must have caught Rachel’s attention, because in a single motion she leaned close to whisper something into Emerson’s ear and flashed Drake a quick smile as he aimed to take the shot. Something in Hayley snapped. Before she realized what she was doing she’d reached out and smacked the phone out of his hand. The phone hit the ground with a thud and someone near the starlets called out for security.
Drake swore and shoved Hayley as he reached for his phone, almost knocking her to the floor in the process. She grabbed the back of one of the folding chairs nearby to steady herself and watched the rest of the action unfold in front of her. Rachel’s distraction and pose for Drake had given Emerson’s assistant enough time to step between the women. Rachel had lowered her voice but whatever she was saying was being heard loud and clear by Emerson, who looked somewhere between furious and mortified. Someone she assumed was from Rachel’s team emerged and dragged Rachel off in the other direction. It had happened in a blink, and it was over just as fast as it had begun.
“What’s your fucking problem?” Drake growled at Hayley and took a menacing step toward her.
“The show’s over.” Hayley squared her shoulders and narrowed her gaze. She’d made one mistake tonight already. She wasn’t about to let him capitalize on her naïveté again. “Go home.”
“Sharon was right about you. You’re as underhanded as they come.” He leaned back and gave her a once-over. “I underestimated you. That won’t happen again. I’m going to make sure you pay for this.”
“Hey, back up there, fella.” Scotty’s voice came from over Drake’s shoulder as he pulled him away from Hayley.
Drake shrugged off Scotty’s hand and stormed past Emerson’s assistant just as security arrived. Emerson’s expression was blank and unreadable. Hayley wondered what she was thinking.
“Let’s go, Hayley.” Scotty nudged her toward the exit.
Hayley nodded and glanced back once more, briefly making eye contact with Emerson. Though they were a distance apart in the backstage area, Hayley could still see the vividness of Emerson’s eyes. They were a perfect storm of blue and green. Her eyes were one of her signature attributes and Hayley could now attest to them being more incredible in person. The magazines and paparazzi shots did them no justice at all. Hayley could have sworn there was something brewing behind those eyes just now.
As Scotty ushered her toward the back door and into the night, a nagging sensation settled in the pit of her stomach. Something told her that the events of tonight were far from over. And the uncertainty of that made her feel sick.
“Hayley, my office, now.” The voice of her boss, Jonathan Ula, boomed over the intercom on her desk phone.
“What now?” Hayley whined and shoved her chair back. She’d not had the best week. In fact, since that press event she covered for Sharon, her life had been miserable. The fluff piece she did was well received, but rumors swirled about a heated backstage confrontation between Hollywood’s two most dynamic and explosive stars. And though it had been far from a catfight in Hayley’s humble opinion, there was definitely something happening between Emerson and Rachel. It was undeniable. But what it was, she doubted she’d ever know.
One of those rumors was started by Drake and placed Hayley right in the thick of it. It turned out Drake had teased, Someone close to the wounded star Rachel Blanche reported a heated quarrel with her speculated ex-lover Emerson Sterling backstage. He went on to further accuse Emerson of having spies that infiltrated opposing media sources to keep the fight a secret. It didn’t take long for his insinuations and carefully worded articles to lead to the conclusion that said spy worked for the Hollywood Sunand her name rhymed with Bailey. When Sharon got in the next day, she’d made it clear that not only was their debt not settled, but that Hayley was not to be trusted. A point she made known to all the other writers and staff at the Sun. God, she disliked that woman.
Hayley trudged to Jonathan’s office, trying to ignore the side-eye half the staff was shooting her way. Sharon had forged a lot of loyalty over her years working in entertainment, and Hayley was feeling like the odd woman out, again.
She knocked and waited. She’d missed a deadline earlier in the week, and when she did submit the piece—late—it was disorganized at best. She’d been expecting to be disciplined, but that didn’t make her any less nervous in this moment.
“Come in,” Jonathan called from behind the frosted glass.
“You wanted to see me, Jonathan?”
“Close the door, have a seat,” Jonathan grumbled in reply.
He walked around to the front of his desk and sat down. Even though he was barely in his fifties, his face looked tired and worn. Something that long nights, lots of coffee, and dozens of cigarettes between deadlines did little to improve upon. “Tell me about Emerson Sterling.”
“Listen, I heard the murmurs around the office. I know that Sharon and her little minions are irate. I also know that James Drake has made three blatant jabs at you in his daily column over the last week and speculation is flying that you have something going on with Ms. Sterling. I had seven calls today alone asking for your employment records to see if you are on her payroll. The higher-ups are considering actually investigating this to make sure we have not been compromised as a media source. So tell me, what’s up?”
Hayley’s jaw went slack. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Jonathan rubbed his forehead and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Why don’t I believe you, Hayley? I know this isn’t what you want to do forever, but you make more waves than anyone else here, and you still seem to end up ahead. How is that?”
Hayley shrugged, expecting to be fired. “Wait, ahead of what?”
Jonathan reached behind him and picked up a piece of paper. “Emerson’s PR rep just called, looking to set up a meeting with you tomorrow about a prospective project Emerson is at the helm of that needs media coverage. They refused any senior reporters and demanded that only you represent the Sun. No further details were given. None.” He cleared his throat. “How does someone who has never covered a major entertainment event before end up with the most coveted interview in all of Hollywood?”
“I have no idea.” Hayley was at a loss for words, which was unusual for her. Usually she had lotsof words, and most of those words got her in all sorts of trouble. But right now, she was speechless.
“Are you working for Emerson Sterling?”
Hayley gaped. “What? No. I’ve never even spoken to the woman.”
Hayley racked her brain but came up with nothing. If she’d ever spoken to Emerson, she would surely remember it. That woman was unforgettable. Hayley hadn’t been able to stop thinking about the look Emerson had given her after she’d blocked Drake’s attempt to film her. She’d felt like an energy had passed between them in that moment, which she realized sounded ridiculous. But still, she’d thought of it often over this past week all the same.
Jonathan seemed to mull over her response before he stood and extended the paper toward Hayley, pulling it back briefly before finally handing it over to her. “Hayley, if I find out that you are on her payroll and have been twisting the facts of this story to meet her needs, I will not protect you from the wolves. Do you understand?”
“Yes.” Hayley nodded and looked down at the paper in her hand like it was combustible.
“I expect a full report following your meeting. They want you at the Parisian tomorrow at noon. Don’t be late.” He walked back to his chair and waved her out before she could say anything else.