Chapter One

Somewhere over Nebraska, halfway through the second Diet Coke, Iris Fleming began to question all her life choices. Possibly it was the generally unpleasant experience of modern air travel in coach. Maybe it was simply that she’d expected to be somewhere else in her life at this point.

Her mother would love it if she moved back to New York, found a nice investment banker, and settled down to have kids. But Iris wasn’t quite ready to give up on her acting career, or Southern California. She hadn’t broken the news to her mother yet, but after her most recent failed relationship, she might be ready to give up on men. As for the kid thing, she was moments away from turning thirty, and her biological clock hadn’t started chiming yet. There was a possibility it never would. The idea of motherhood was a concept she might like to explore, someday.

Iris had always thought she’d stick with acting and try to make a successful go of it, until she turned thirty. Now that thirty had almost arrived, she was pushing that timeline back, at least another five years. This role she was about to test for might just be the game changer she’d been waiting for. This was the last stage before getting the role. She’d be on camera in front of the people who would have the final say, the producers, creator, and showrunner. This could be the part that finally elevated her career beyond spots on TV shows and the occasional national commercial.

Some people got into acting seeking fame. That wasn’t why Iris had originally gotten into the business, but she wouldn’t say no to a little fame. Especially if it had a side dish of fortune.

Fox and Friendsrudely and abruptly cut into her thoughts.

The elderly woman next to her kept accidentally hitting the video controls for Iris’s monitor with her elbow. The mildly amusing sitcom she wasn’t really watching switched to Fox News abruptly every twenty minutes whether Iris wanted it to or not.

Iris touched the woman’s arm to get her attention.

“Oh dear, I’ve done it again. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s all right,” Iris said for the tenth time.

Equally bothersome was the guy across the aisle who wouldn’t stop talking to his seatmate about his 5 Series BMW or his numerous ski trips to Europe. Iris had resorted to watching TV with headphones simply to drown him out. He’d insisted on talking to her while they queued up on the Jetway to board the plane, even though she’d been wearing earbuds. A clear indication that she didn’t really want to talk to anyone. It wasn’t that the guy was terrible looking. Although, a few hours a week at the gym wouldn’t hurt. But after her ex, Kent, she was done with men for a while. Not in the mood.

Yeah, air travel in coach pretty much sucked.

Iris wanted to make this cross-country flight as stress free as possible. She’d dressed for comfort in boyfriend jeans and an oversized T-shirt and tried her best not to stress over the reason for the trip.

They were only moments away from starting the descent into Atlanta.

“Are you flying home?” Her seatmate was searching through her purse.

“No, I live near LA.” Iris removed her headphones. She’d missed too many gaps in the sitcom to follow the story anyway.

“I was in Los Angeles visiting my daughter.” The woman’s eyes lost focus, as if she were visualizing something. “I love the weather, but everything is just too perfect there.”

The woman was right. The only problem was that perfection was an illusion. Iris had the perfect career, the perfect rental house, and the perfect boyfriend. In reality, none of it was perfect, especially the boyfriend part. She’d chosen to ignore all the red flags, all the weird uneasy stomach twinges that let you know something wasn’t quite right.

Denial was her only excuse.

Denial was a great place to visit. Denial could easily justify finishing a pint of ice cream all by yourself or that French fries were technically a vegetable. Yes, denial was a great place to visit, but you shouldn’t live there. Bad things happened when you stayed too long. But that was the problem wasn’t it? Denial was only obvious from the other side, after you passed through it. Denial’s talent was disguising itself as confirmation that everything was okay. Thus, the rethinking of life choices. Iris sank into the headrest and closed her eyes. She took a few deep breaths and tried to relax.

As if it wasn’t stressful enough to read for casting agents in LA, now Iris had agreed to fly to Atlanta to meet the creative team for a new series. This way she could be nervous and jet-lagged at the same time. Great plan. Normally, everything happened in LA, but they were filming this show in Atlanta, and the creative leads were big shots from some dystopian Netflix miniseries that had won every award possible. Iris and the other actor in consideration for the female leads were being flown to Atlanta to read for the producer and the director.

She’d considered spiking what was left of her Diet Coke with something stronger, but the drink cart never materialized, and now the tray tables were stowed. She craned her neck from the aisle seat, but it seemed no one was coming to claim her empty soda can.

“We’ve begun our initial descent into the Atlanta airport. Please remain in your seats for the—” The captain’s announcement cut off abruptly as the aircraft jolted sharply.

The almost empty Diet Coke slipped from her loose grip. It rolled past her seat toward the back of the aircraft. Iris grabbed for the seat’s armrest as the plane lurched violently downward. At the edge of her peripheral vision, she saw the Diet Coke can whoosh across the carpet toward the front of the plane. Several other free-range beverages joined the fray, toppling along the carpeted aisle.

The plane was falling from the sky!

Not in a nosedive, but rather, belly first, it dropped like a cement block. Iris sensed the heaviness of the Boeing 737 in every fiber of her being as gravity yanked the aircraft toward the ground in a free fall.

Had the plane encountered a wind shear?

Had the engines stalled?

No, she could feel the vibration of the turbo jet engines through her fingertips as she white-knuckled the armrest. Her stomach lunged upward and lodged in her throat, threatening to eject everything she’d eaten earlier.

They’d been close to the Atlanta airport. Seatbacks were in their upright and locked positions. Touchdown was so near. Five minutes out, the runway was a dark asphalt line cut through a sea of broccoli topped hardwoods.

The deafening whine of the engines invaded her senses. She squeezed her eyes shut and held her breath as the torque of the descent caused the seat belt to cut sharply into her lower abdomen. They were going to crash. Surely, they were going to crash. The plane was falling too fast, too close to the ground. Iris’s twenty-nine years of life flashed like heat lightning through her mind, silent and searing. Had she done anything important? Lasting? Obit-worthy? Probably not.

Then suddenly, the landing gear made contact. With bone-jarring finality and air brakes screaming, they hit the tarmac. A duffel bag ejected from the overhead bin, narrowly missing her head. Mr. Chatty across from her wasn’t as lucky. A rolling bag struck the side of his face wheels first, and blood ran down his cheek, soaking into the collar of his white dress shirt.

They were alive; the plane was on the runway.

The deafening wind noise across the braking flaps seemed louder than usual. A moment of stunned silence filled the aircraft cabin as the plane slowed, then the joyful sounds of relieved passengers. Some wept, some cheered, somewhere at the rear of the compartment an infant cried. Lots of luggage had haphazardly tumbled from the overhead bins upon impact. The pilot was saying something now, but Iris couldn’t hear the words above the white noise of panic that still swirled inside her head.

The drop toward the runway had probably lasted less than a minute, but Iris was sure she’d lost a year of her life. She closed her eyes and took several deep, slow breaths.

As she waited for her heartbeat to slow to a normal rate, Iris silently considered all the reasons why she shouldn’t have made the trip. The most recent near-death experience now taking the top spot on that list. An endless loop of second-guesses and what-ifs had been cycling through her head during the entire flight from Los Angeles to Atlanta. There was nothing quite as potent as a cheating boyfriend to tank your self-esteem. The breakup with Kent had definitely notbeen a confidence boost. But ambition had overruled uncertainty, so here she was. She wanted to do something more lasting, something that would negate the need to be cast for commercials simply to pay the bills.

“Thank you, Jesus.”

Iris blinked several times, suddenly aware again of the elderly woman in the seat next to her.

“Thank yew, Jeezus,” her seat mate said it again, her southern accent more noticeable the more times she repeated the phrase.

“Are you all right, ma’am?”

“Ask me again when we’re off this airplane.” There was good-natured humor and relief in her words. She turned to Iris. “What about you, honey, are you all right?”

“Yes, shaken, but okay.” Iris swept her fingers through her hair, a habit that usually helped ground her when she was nervous.

The woman riffled through her large handbag as the plane taxied across the tarmac. She produced two red striped peppermint candies and offered one to Iris.

“Peppermint. It settles the stomach.” She crinkled the plastic wrapped candies between her fingers.

The small gesture of kindness reminded Iris of her grandmother and how she’d kept peppermints in her purse to quiet Iris during evening mass. The sight of the candy swept Iris back to childhood and the itch to break free.

“Thank you.” Iris unwrapped the candy and popped it in her mouth. She was fairly sure it was going to take more than one small mint to settle her tattered nerves, but she was grateful for anything that would kill the taste of fear lingering in her mouth.

She sucked the candy gratefully, rolling it over with her tongue as she watched the flight attendants methodically move through the cabin. Fallen luggage was gathered up and stowed overhead as the aircraft lumbered toward the terminal.

Iris wondered how long it would take to drive back to California after the audition, because there was no way she wanted to get back on an airplane again anytime soon. Maybe a cross-country road trip was the perfect way to celebrate her impending thirtieth birthday.

 

Chapter Two

A name and an address flashed across the screen of the cell phone at the edge of the dresser, followed by a pickup time. Taylor Finn leaned closer so she could read the details. She returned to her reflection in the mirror as she finished buttoning the tailored pale blue shirt. The light starch made the collar stand up nicely. She reached for the charcoal jacket that matched her dress pants, slim through the hips and tapered at the cuff. She couldn’t bring herself to wear a black suit and drive a limo, such a cliché. Dark gray was close enough. It was warm tonight so she opted for black wingtips with no socks to finish the ensemble. She slipped her wallet into her back pocket, then reached for her phone along with the car keys.

Finn trotted down the steps of the one-room cabin and followed the gravel path to the main house. Her family had owned the Hideaway Haven since the forties. Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Hideaway Haven was a collection of small, rustic cabins peppered among old growth poplars and maples, with a few conifers thrown in. The vintage roadside getaway was about an hour outside Metro Atlanta. Finn had taken over one of the cabins for herself. If all the units filled up, she moved into the main house, which also doubled as restaurant and registration. Her parents occupied the entire second floor. But lately there’d been a drop in reservations. It seemed everyone did VRBO these days, which was taking a toll on small roadside motels.

Her mother rarely left the main house in case someone unexpectedly needed a cabin for the night. She glanced up at Finn when the bell over the door chimed.

“You need a haircut.” Her mother only looked up briefly. Her salt-and-pepper hair curled around her face, the curls more textured due to the summer humidity. She was wearing a well-worn apron over a floral blouse and dark Capri pants, with old-school women’s Keds tennis shoes. A television in the dining area near the kitchen blared CNN. Her mother had taken a seat nearby. She sipped iced tea and shook her head at the news. “That man. How did she ever agree to marry that man?”

“Maybe she knew he’d be president one day.” Finn pulled a Coke from the cooler next to the wall and used the opener mounted on the side of the classic icebox to pop the cap.

“Even still, she should’ve known better.”

“You’ve gotta quit watching the news, Mama. Nothin’ good ever comes of it.” Finn took a long swig of the icy cola. The carbonation burned her throat a little, but it was refreshing.

“Don’t quote your father to me. Lord knows he tells me his own self plenty often enough.” Her mother shook her head and sipped her tea, never taking her eyes off the newscaster. “Now there’s a good-looking man.”

“He’s gay, Mama.” Finn leaned against the registration counter. She ran her fingers through her hair, pushing it off her forehead. She’d put product in it to give it a casually tousled shape, but the front was getting a little long. Her mother didn’t like it when it fell into her eyes.

“I know he’s gay. Most of the handsome ones are. Except for George Clooney. Now there’s a man I’d like to meet some day.” A commercial came on, and her mother hit the mute button and rotated in her direction. “Where are you off to?”

“I’m working tonight. Driving to Atlanta. I’ll probably be back really late.”

“How much longer are you going to do that job? You are wasting your time. You could make something of yourself.”

They had this conversation at least once a month. Finn could set her calendar by this discussion. When was Finn going to quit driving rich people around and get a real job, a job with a future?

“We’ve been over this, Mama. As long as it takes.” Finn pushed the door open, not waiting for her mother’s reply.

The screen door banged loudly. She stood for a moment and finished off the last bit of cola. She tossed the bottle into the recycle bin and strode to the garage behind the main house. The extra-long black company car lurked in the shadowy interior of the carport, which was walled on three sides but open at the front. There were three bays in the carport—one for the limo, one for her mother’s ancient Volvo sedan, and one for her most prized possession, a 1958 MG MGA Roadster. She tugged at the gray canvas cover to make sure it was snug as if she were tucking in an infant for the night. In truth, this car washer baby, just not the sort of baby her mother preferred. Her mother wanted Finn to have an actual infant, a toddler who’d call her Grandma, not an overly pampered vintage sports car. 

One night at dinner, Finn actually got the nerve to remind her mother that she was gay and she wasn’t going to sleep with a guy. So a baby happening was highly unlikely. They never talked about sex so this was a radical breach of southern protocol. To which her mother responded by suggesting Finn didn’t have to keep a man, just sleep with him so she could have a baby. Finn was speechless, and she was pretty sure the conversation had ruined her father’s appetite. He sat back in his chair with wide eyes. He pushed away the plate of his Wednesday favorite, meatloaf, and scowled at them both.

Regardless, it didn’t seem that a baby was in her future.

Cars were the only true love Finn had ever committed to. If asked, she’d have had a hard time pinning down the origin of her love affair with automobiles. Even her first memory of Christmas was asking her mother for a toy truck. Her mother had given her a dollhouse instead. She’d promptly traded it to her cousin Jeffrey for a case of Matchbox cars. Jeffrey preferred dolls and clothes. This wouldn’t be the last Christmas she and her cousin swapped gifts. He’d grown up to be a very stylish man, currently living in Midtown Atlanta with his boyfriend.

Given the choice, Finn had pretty much always set her sights on anything with wheels. The first bicycle she ever owned was an intoxicating taste of freedom. She rode the wheels off that thing. It wasn’t long before she began customizing the bike. Changing out the handlebars, removing the fenders, almost as if she were customizing a stock car for racing. Then she and her brother, Trey, built ramps for jumping over things in the backyard. Until one day when she’d failed to tighten the handlebars properly. They came off mid jump. Trey broke his arm, and Finn was grounded for a month. She was twelve and Trey was ten. Good times.

Finn stood next to the town car’s driver’s side door as she removed her jacket, folded it, and placed it on the passenger seat. She reached for her aviator style sunglasses in the console and put them on as she settled in behind the wheel. She might as well be comfortable for the drive to the city. Besides, she didn’t want to have to run the AC. In the early evening she preferred to drive with all the windows open. The smell of fresh cut grass wafted through the car, and the soothing rhythm of cicadas sang their roadside summer melody as she drove along the tree-lined scenic byway.

A dog had his head out the window of an approaching car. Finn couldn’t help smiling. He was a big collie, his long hair fluffed in the wind. His mouth was open and his tongue was out. He looked like he was smiling. Dogs couldn’t drive, but they definitely understood the joy of cars. Yeah, dogs got it.

The sleek black limo looked completely out of place in rural north Georgia. Almost as out of place as her roadster. Almost as out of place as she did sometimes. Unincorporated Watts Mountain wasn’t exactly an ideal community for a butch lesbian. Her mother preferred the word tomboy. Finn wasn’t crazy about either label. She simply was who she was. She was who she’d always been. And whether she fit in or not, this was home.

Watts Mountain was founded in 1834, and it was really more of a hill than a mountain. But from here you could see the beginnings of the Blue Ridge Mountains a half hour’s drive away. The community’s only claim to fame was a post office that closed in 1967. Oh, and Watts Lake, conveniently located only a few miles from Hideaway Haven.

Watts Mountain had a small grocery at Turner’s Corner. That intersection had the only three-way stop sign. The grocery had a single gas pump that occasionally ran dry because the Turners, who owned the store, weren’t the best at managing their inventory. They had the necessities, beer, chips, and deli sandwiches. And there was a little mail center and gift shop across the highway, housed in the original train depot. From back when a train actually ran along this neglected section of track.

The necessary items for a picnic at the lake were readily available, including recycled inner tubes for flotation enjoyment. But for any other needs, like a date or a movie, well, that required a drive to the metro area. The suburbs of Atlanta now stretched miles and miles past the Perimeter, which was an eight-lane motor speedway populated by rednecks with shotguns in the gun racks of their pickups and yuppies in BMWs and Audis. Atlanta was booming and the city had the traffic to prove it.

Her mother was annoying at times, as most mothers could be, but she was right, and Finn knew it. Driving a limo was never supposed to be a long-term plan and yet, somehow, three years after taking the position she hadn’t made any real progress toward her goal. She needed to get serious about doing the career she really wanted to be doing.

Working for the limo service was like a velvet coffin. She was comfortable, and shuttling high-end passengers paid the bills. The tips were good; other perks were sometimes good too. Especially the kind that didn’t involve money. It seemed that Atlanta had more than its share of bored divorcees in need of a ride. Remembering one recent afternoon made Finn smile. Elaine Caufield was in her forties, bi-curious, and gorgeous. And she never made Finn feel like a dumb kid, even though at twenty-six, she probably was. Finn knew enough to know there was a lot she didn’t know.

The last three weeks, Elaine had asked for Finn by name, special request, for her shopping excursions in Buckhead. Then when they returned to Elaine’s place they always ended up getting food delivered. Elaine was fun. Sometimes she’d pull up to Elaine’s large brick home and help carry shopping bags into the house. She’d head toward the door and Elaine would touch her arm and simply say, stay.

Stay, the word some people longed to hear only made Finn want to leave, to move, to go. She feared being stuck, hindered in some way from moving on, tethered by responsibility for another’s happiness.

Even still, when Elaine had asked, she’d stayed. But she never spent the night.

Yeah, this gig was a velvet coffin all right. And if she wasn’t careful she’d wake up in a few years and find that she was in the exact same spot. She hated to admit it, but her mother might actually be right this time.

 

Chapter Three

The casting director, Katherine, was an elegant woman probably in her early fifties. Her hair was pulled up into a knot, and she wore glasses with dark, thick rims, like some New York fashion designer.

“Hi, we’re set up on the soundstage.” She shifted the clipboard she was holding and extended her hand to Iris.

“Hi.” Iris took Katherine’s hand.

“You can wait in here until we call for you.” Katherine motioned toward the door of a small waiting room.

No one else was in the waiting area. There was a water dispenser and cups and two love seats facing each other. Iris sat on the edge of the nearest sofa, her hands folded in her lap. She tried to relax. She’d changed into something more professional. Ditched the T-shirt for a silk blouse, but kept the jeans. She didn’t want to look like she was trying too hard, or was too desperate, but she also didn’t want to look as if she’d just rolled out of bed either.

Iris was oddly unsettled. Was it just residual ragged nerves from her near-death experience? Or was it reading for the part? No, she’d done readings a hundred times. The director either thought you were right for the role or you weren’t. And she knew the material well. She’d already read through the sides numerous times. It was almost as if her uneasiness was from some other source. It was the sort of tingly sensation you got when something big was about to happen.

She rolled her shoulders and exhaled slowly.

Iris tried not to get down on herself when directors passed her over for someone with longer legs or poutier lips or larger breasts or whatever they were looking for that she didn’t have.

She placed her palm over her stomach hoping it would settle. If this weird tingly feeling wasn’t nerves, then what was it? Her agent, Judith, had mentioned this part almost as a joke because Iris had never done science fiction. Iris didn’t watch Star Trek—none of the generations. She wasn’t even sure she could describe the difference between Star Warsand Star Trek, although she knew enough to know they weren’t the same. One of them had something to do with feeling a force and the other one didn’t. 

Zombies also did not appeal to Iris, despite their undead success with ratings and fans. Zombies had invaded Hollywood in a way that Iris couldn’t quite wrap her head around.

The idea, no, the compulsion to read for the lead role in this new science fiction series had been too strong to ignore. It was like she’d received some message from the ether compelling her to do it.

For starters, this character was the bad girl of the show. A bad girl fighting for a noble cause. Robin Hood in outer space.

Iris had only ever played good girls—the sister, the best friend, the cheerleader, the popular girl, the girlfriend who died young of cancer. She had the sort of look that meant she normally didn’t get cast as anything but the boring good girl. She wasn’t edgy or extreme or extravagant. She felt typecast and desperately wanted to prove to the studios that she could do more. In this bad girlrole, she’d use weapons and fight alien creatures. There’d be actual stunts and hand-to-hand combat scenes. Also, this particular character was bisexual. Judith had concerns about Iris’s comfort level with an on-screen sex scene with a woman, but that would be the least taxing element. Iris had dated women before, but Judith didn’t know that. Iris tried to keep her personal life personal, as much as possible in Hollywood anyway. Judith didn’t need to know everything and certainly neither did her fans. Social media was invasive enough without feeding the frenzy. The social media posts following her breakup with Kent had been bad enough. This might be the one instance when she was happy that he was more famous than she was. Fame had its drawbacks. Women loved his reckless, exciting persona, and he was a shameless flirt. He’d always explained it away as simply part of the stunt driver mystique. That, of course, was true, but also complete bullshit. And on some level, she’d known that about Kent long before the relationship ended.

Whenever possible, Iris liked to control the optics and any news about her life. She was not particularly a risk taker and that path had served her well until Kent. He was the one time she’d veered outside her comfort zone, and their relationship had ended badly.

“Are you ready?” Katherine stood in the half open door.

“Yes.” Iris tried to reroute her thoughts. Away from Kent and back to the part she was about to play.

“Thanks for traveling to do the reading.” Katherine glanced over her shoulder as she opened the door to the soundstage.

“No problem. I was happy to get the call back.” Her first two readings had been in LA. She wasn’t going to make the trip unless there was a fair chance she’d get the part. Initially, Judith had cautioned Iris that it was a long shot. She wanted to prove to Judith that she could land a leading role. The past eighteen months, she’d been getting mostly supporting roles so she was beginning to feel the pressure from the agency to bring in more money. Getting cast for this part would raise her game in their eyes.

The soundstage was basically a room with a camera. There was a six-foot table in the center of the room, and everyone was already seated. She recognized one of the men at the table as the director. She’d seen photos of him online. The other guy must be the producer or the writer, she wasn’t sure. There was also another woman at the table besides Katherine, who she assumed might be reading opposite her for this scene.

Everyone looked up as Katherine introduced Iris.

She knew the drill. People could be rude right to your face. If you weren’t the person they wanted or your reading sucked, they’d start checking their phones right in front of you. But for the most part they wanted you to be perfect to make their job easier.

The cameraman, Brian, was a skinny guy with a cropped beard and ball cap. He stepped past Iris and adjusted the camera stand. Katherine handed her a few sheets of paper with the sides she’d be reading. She had a copy of the script and had already read through it numerous times. She’d been practicing in preparation for today.

Another woman took a seat at the table. She was introduced as Sarah, the showrunner. So far, the creative team seemed balanced between men and women, which felt right, since the two lead roles were for women. Eric Gilet, the director, sat next to Iris. He looked to be in his mid forties. He wore horn-rimmed glasses, probably more for looks than need. He was handsome, more because of his self-confidence than his looks, which weren’t bad, but Iris would have described them as only a little above average. She’d gotten used to sizing people up quickly in LA. It was a habit that had saved her more than once, but she feared she was quickly becoming jaded. Looks really couldn’t tell you everything about a person, but they gave good clues.

“This is Camille Greggory. She’ll be reading Cleo’s part for this scene.” Katherine motioned toward Camille.

“Hello.” Iris and Camille shook hands.

If she got the part, Camille would be one of her character’s love interests. She’d be testing with Iris to gauge chemistry between the two actors. Camille had flawless brown skin and dark hair that curled up just where it touched her shoulders. Her eyes were beautiful, large, honest. Iris thought Camille was pretty, but not in the sort of way that she’d feel overshadowed by her or attracted to her. Camille wasn’t her type. She definitely liked to be the only femme in a relationship.

She smiled and made eye contact for a moment with her audience around the table.

“Can you state your name and then read the first scene?” Katherine shuffled papers and jotted something down.

“Iris Fleming, reading for the part of Jade in Athena.”

Eric leaned back in his chair with his arms crossed as if he were already judging her. The other guy, who looked like a rumpled frat boy in an untucked pink oxford shirt and a Red Sox cap, was the producer. Eric stood up and circled the table, pausing for a moment by Brian and the camera stand. After a few seconds, he walked over and whispered something to Katherine. Katherine nodded and then returned her attention to Iris.

“We’d like to start with page two. In this scene, you’ve just discovered that Cleo, one of your crewmates you thought you could trust, has betrayed you.”

Iris nodded.

“Begin whenever you’re ready. You have the first line.” Katherine nodded. As the casting director, Katherine had done her part. Eric, the director, would take things from here.

In a conversation scene it really helped for someone to read with you. She was happy that an actor would read opposite her, rather than the casting director flatly reading lines.

Iris took a moment to settle. She looked down at her hands in her lap. She and Camille had rotated their chairs so that they were facing each other, their knees almost touching. She closed her eyes and let the room drop away, focusing her energy on conjuring a sense of hurt and anger, which wasn’t that hard. All she had to do was picture Kent, and the night she’d found him in bed with someone else.

She took a deep breath, opened her eyes, and nodded, signaling to Katherine that she was ready.

“Maybe you can explain it to me.” Iris glared at Camille.

“Look, I never meant for you to get caught up in this.” Camille averted her eyes as if she were hiding something.

“That’s the problem, Cleo, you never think. Or if you do, it’s only about yourself.” Iris exhaled and focused on Camille, as if she were the least trustworthy person on Earth. “And now there’s no way to undo what you’ve done.” Iris stood and paced. It helped to imagine the scene in her head. Jade and Cleo were in the bowels of a space ship named Athena, stolen from a military installation, making their escape from Earth. They were supposed to be on a rescue mission, stealing the ship for a higher purpose, saving the galaxy and all that, but now Jade knew she’d been played.

“Look, you’ll get a share. I’ll see to it personally.”

“You’ll see to it personally? And I’m supposed to trust you? When everything you’ve told me about this mission has been a big fucking lie.” Iris altered her voice. She wanted the pitch to be lower, stern, and commanding, the voice of someone not intimidated by the situation. “Has everything else been a lie too?” She softened her words and allowed a slight tremble for the last line, as if she were afraid of what the answer would be.

“You mean us?”

“If you have to ask, then I assume the answer is yes.” Iris was strong again, solid, sure.

“I never meant to hurt you, Jade.”

“Too late.”

Iris let the scene slip away and waited for further instructions. The showrunner swiveled in her chair. It was impossible to read her body language.

“Thank you, Iris, that was great. I think you had good emotional range in that scene.” Eric shuffled script pages. “Can you read from scene three?”

“Sure.” He wanted her to read other scenes. That was a good sign. She opened the bottle of water in front of where she’d been sitting and took a few sips.

Camille and Iris read through scripted scenes for another forty-five minutes. The more she knew about Jade, the more she liked the character, and the premise of the show. A rogue crew of mostly women, attempting to effect positive change in a future where Earth was no longer habitable and humans had scattered across galaxies in order to simply survive. She wanted to be part of this show for sure.

 

Chapter Four

The Sovereign Building’s gleaming, curved profile was one of Atlanta’s more architecturally unique high-rises. It was one of the most exclusive luxury condo complexes in the city. It always reminded Finn of the sort of building a stuntman might jump from with a hang glider.

Finn eased the town car next to the valet stand. She gave the valet her name so that he could ring Geoff Botha, her client for the evening.

Like his father, Geoff had a South African accent, he was in his late twenties, and based on her limited interaction with him, Finn had already determined he was sort of an entitled dick. Geoff’s father was one of Finn’s regular clients. He was older, distinguished, and much more pleasant to chauffeur than his son who she’d only met on one other occasion en route to a family wedding.

She walked around the car to open the door for him when Geoff appeared. He was about Finn’s height, close to six feet, and was dressed in a dark suit similar to hers. Like Finn’s, his was also Italian cut, to accentuate his trim physique. She knew already he’d had a few pre-dinner drinks. No wonder he didn’t want to drive himself.

He looked back toward the revolving glass door, and a few seconds later, his date stepped through. He obviously hadn’t been polite enough to wait for her. His date was very attractive. She was wearing an ivory blouse and a black pencil skirt, her long legs accented by impossible heels. Her brown hair framed her slender face with soft waves dropping past her shoulders. He winked at Finn after he watched his tight-skirted date slide into the back seat.

This is going to be a long night.

Finn closed the door and rounded the car to the driver’s side.

“Where to?” She had an itinerary for the evening, but it was always a good idea to check with passengers in case plans had changed.

“Bones. We’ve got an early dinner reservation, and I don’t want to be late.” Geoff spoke to her from the back seat.

“No problem.” She glanced in the rearview mirror. He slouched back with his arm around the woman, who rested a manicured hand on his thigh.

Bones was a pricey steak house with a clubby vibe. She’d been there once with Elaine. It was probably the most expensive steak Finn had ever eaten.

Traffic was moderate for a Friday night. But Buckhead was busy. Bars and restaurants would be packed based on the traffic winding along Piedmont Road from downtown. She deposited Geoff and his date a few minutes before seven and then drove around the block to look for a good spot to wait. She ended up finding a place in the parking lot of a nearby Men’s Wearhouse, conveniently located next to a Caribou Coffee. She walked back to the car with her coffee and a scone. Sugar and caffeine would help get her through the next couple of hours, depending on how long dinner lasted. Geoff would text her when he was ready to be picked up. In the meantime, she had a little time to kill.

Her phone lit up with a text from her mom with a list of groceries to pick up on the way home later. She replied and then scrolled through the news feed on the screen while she sipped her Americano.

 

v

 

The audition lasted past six o’clock, which surprised Iris a little. She was on her way to the elevator when Eric Gilet, the director, stopped her.

“Iris, do you have a minute?”

“Sure.” The elevator door swished closed behind her as she followed Eric back down the hallway.

She thought they were going back into the soundstage, but instead he opened a door on the other side of the hall and smiled as he waited for her to enter. The space looked like some sort of lounge similar to the waiting room she’d been in earlier. There was a mid century modern, stylishly uncomfortable looking sofa along one wall and a coffee table strewn with well-read magazines. Why did he want to speak to her alone?

“Your reading was good. I wanted a chance to talk to you a little about the part.”

“Sure. Was there something I missed?”

Eric stood a little too close, and she took a step back.

“You and Camille have very good chemistry. That’s part of what will make the show work.”

“Yes, I really like the interplay between Jade and Cloe.”

But it seemed like she and Eric were talking about different things.

“This character, Jade, she’s very…sexual.”

“If you’re talking about the fact that she’s bisexual I already spoke with the casting director about that element of the character. It won’t be a problem.”

“Great, well, I guess what I mean is that I was hoping to see even more sexual energy in the reading between you and Camille. I’m wondering if you could show me a little more of that now.”

“I don’t really understand what you’re asking.” Something about this entire encounter was beginning to make Iris uncomfortable. She glanced at the door.

“Before you leave, I thought you could show me a little more…talk through a few more lines with specific emphasis…letting your skills of seduction come through the part.” He nonchalantly sidestepped so that he was standing between Iris and the door.

It was a highly unusual request, a ridiculous request. Was he making a pass? Iris was equally angered and unnerved.

“I’d prefer to do any additional acting on the soundstage.” Iris reached for the doorknob, but Eric leaned against it, resting his weight against the door.

“If you work with me, I could make sure you own this role.”

Her arm was still outstretched, her hand resting on the doorknob. He placed his hand at the small of her back and drew her closer. She immediately pressed both hands against his chest in an attempt to push away from him. Now he had his other arm around her and tried to kiss her.

“Eric, stop.”

“You’re an incredibly beautiful woman, Iris. I know when a woman is attracted to me.”

Delusional much?

“I said stop.” She managed to wedge her elbow against his chest, which kept her face just out of reach as he once again tried to kiss her.

“I love the way your body feels so firm, so tight.”

She kept shifting in his arms in an attempt to break his grip. She pushed at his face, inadvertently scratching his cheek with her fingernail.

“Fuck.” He covered the scratch with his hand and glared at her.

He lost his focus for a moment and she broke free. The sudden shift in position caused him to take his weight away from Iris’s escape route. In that instant, Camille opened the door.

“Oh—” Camille stopped in the doorway. “I’m sorry. Katherine told me this room was free. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“You didn’t interrupt.” Iris’s cheeks flamed, and she glared at Eric as she reached for her purse that she’d dropped as she attempted to deflect his advances. She swept past Camille into the hallway. Her heart was pounding. She was completely embarrassed. She was sure Camille would assume the worst of her.

She pushed the button for the elevator several times, impatient for its arrival. She smoothed her hair and glanced over her shoulder to make sure Eric wasn’t going to try to intercept her again. Tears of frustration and rage gathered along her lashes as she stepped onto the elevator. She pivoted to touch the button for the lobby just in time to see Eric standing in the hallway. His expression was dark as the doors closed.

Iris covered her face with her hands and tried to calm down.

Once in the lobby, she fumbled with the keys to the rental car. Her hands were shaking. She needed to get the hell out of this building and away from Eric Gilet. A wave of humid air swept past as she exited the air-conditioned lobby.

Now what?

Eric Gilet had turned out to be a complete dick. He’d been so smugly sure of his physical charms. If Camille hadn’t opened the door how far would he have tried to take things? Had she done something to give him the impression she was interested? No, she was sure she hadn’t. She’d been completely focused on Camille during the reading. Maybe that was what had gotten him so worked up. That thought made her angrier.

She hurried to her rental car and halted at the garage exit ramp to survey the street. She turned right to head downtown. She almost ran a red light a block from the garage. She slammed on the brakes just as a pedestrian stepped into the crosswalk.

“What the fuck?” he yelled and gestured with his hands.

Clearly, she was too rattled to drive. She scanned the street for somewhere to pull over.

The Peachtree Diner looked well lit and warmly inviting so she turned in.