This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
© 2015 by Elisabeth Grace
Cover design by: Regina Wamba of www.MaeIDesign.com
Photo credit: Sara Eirew Photographer
Developmental Edits: Angela Smith
Line Editor: Sheri Thomas
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
Hollywood It Girl, Francesca Leon, has just landed the biggest role of her career…one that could clinch an Oscar nomination and open doors. If she’s going to move her career to the next level and work with top directors, she has to nail this part — and keep her sexy, but unreliable leading man from screwing everything up.
Bad boy Calder Fox is the son of Hollywood royalty and fresh out of rehab after his best friend’s death sent him on a downward spiral of drugs and alcohol. While his fans still love him and the paparazzi stalk him, he’s never taken life, or anything about his career, seriously. He may be charming and drop-dead gorgeous, but if he doesn’t stay sober, he could ruin Frankie’s future and expose her long-hidden family secret to the voracious media.
Behind the scenes.
Things heat up during filming and have the potential to become hotter, deeper, and much more real. But can Frankie trust Calder with her secret? Or is he doomed to sabotage his own happiness yet again?
This is a MUST READ. Actually this whole series is. If you are looking for a book/series that will warm your heart, melt your panties, and just leave you with an overwhelming happy feeling then these are the books for you.– Jennifer H. from Book Bitches Blog
I don’t just like the author’s books, I LOVE THEM. “Collateral Damage” is no exception. This book is not just a love story. It’s a story about forgiveness, redemption and learning how to trust not only yourself, but other people. – Kimmy Loves To Read Blog
Elisabeth’s writing continues to grow as she perfects her craft, dragging me deeper and deeper into the world she creates with her words. Her voice is fresh, honest, emotive, and fun, always making my heart simultaneously break and burst. I adored the storyline, which gave us so much more than the usual young Hollywood vibe. This story had a weight and significance that shined throughout the story. – Becca from Prisoners Of Print
Whether she is writing a sexy erotic serial or a fun and emotional coming of age story Elisabeth Grace always delivers a story that is near impossible to put down. – Miranda from Red Cheek Reads
By Elisabeth Grace
More Than A Year Ago…
Gasoline and smoke burn my lungs as I inhale a sharp, painful breath. The pounding in my head is unrelenting and my ears ring with a dull buzz. I manage to pry open my eyes, only to find that darkness consumes my surroundings. Not that it matters since my lids are so heavy that I have to close them again.
When I’m able to open them, I realize there’s a small amount of light permeating the darkness from the flickering clock on the mangled dash.
I try to remember where I am. Bit by bit I become aware of the crushing pain in my arm—it feels as if it’s on fire. I draw a deep breath, singeing my throat, and look down to see my right arm bent at a funny angle. The constant ringing in my ears and the throbbing of my head have my thoughts moving like sand through an hourglass.
My thoughts are sluggish, but I’m cognizant enough to recognize the all-consuming ache throughout my body. I consider closing my eyes again—all I want to do is forget the pain I’m in, but somewhere in the back of my head it registers that the thick smoke has become suffocating. I cough and bring the arm that isn’t broken up to cover my face.
A strangled breath sounds from my right and I turn inside the crushed metal can I’m in, immediately wishing I hadn’t. Bile rises up in the back of my throat and my breathing becomes even more ragged and shallow than before.
My best friend, Akoni, lies unconscious in the driver’s seat, blood trailing down his face. The steering wheel presses further into his belly than nature should allow.
Guilt consumes me like a tidal wave and I’m flailing on the inside. This is all my fault.
I attempt looking out the front window, but it’s almost impossible to see through the shattered glass. I’m just able to make out the buckled hood of the car and the smoke pouring out from underneath.
I cough again, trying as best I can to get some clean air, but there is none to be had. I need to get out of here.
With my good arm, I release my seat belt and lean over with my left hand to open my door, ignoring the stabbing pain in both my arm and abdomen as I do. After a bit of fumbling, I’m finally able to pry it open enough to squeeze myself out, just in time to see flames rising up from under the car’s hood. I flop out onto the ground clumsily, landing with my broken arm underneath me, my feet still pinned between the dash and the seat.
I cry out from the pain of having my weight resting on my broken arm, and I’m unable to control my body’s reaction. I vomit as I lie there on the grass, a mixture of the evening’s earlier festivities spewing out onto the ground.
Recovering enough from the pain, I pull my legs out. Before I know what’s happening, there’s commotion around me. People are shouting but I can’t make out what they’re saying. Someone pries my legs out of the car and a pair of hands pulls me up, helping me to stand upright.
The image in front of me becomes hazy, black spots edging the corner of my vision. I drop my head down, trying not to puke again, while people on either side hold me steady and help me hobble away from the wreckage.
As they sit me on the curb a ways down from the carnage, my vision and thoughts come back to me more clearly.
Horror twists my insides as I set my sights on the piece of twisted metal. The front of the car is bashed in, the driver’s side almost wrapped around a tree trunk. Flames shoot skyward and lick some low-hanging branches while black smoke illuminated by a nearby streetlight continues to pour out from under the hood.
“Akoni!” I scream, my voice hoarse, my throat raw and swollen from the smoke. I push away from the helping hands and turn to race back to the car as fast as my broken body will let me.
“You can’t go over there! You’re hurt!” a faceless person in front of me screams. With my good hand, I push them to the side, adrenaline and maybe the cocktail of other narcotics from earlier in the night surging through my veins, releasing me from most of the pain. I have to get Akoni out before the flames reach him.
“I’m not leaving my friend,” I shout at no one in particular.
Sirens sound in the distance, drawing nearer. Thank God. The fire department will be here any minute. They’ll put the flames out and get my friend—
The sound of an explosion rips through the night. It’s reminiscent of some of the on-set blasts I’ve heard, only this one is so much worse. So much more terrifying. Because it’s real.
An unseen force pummels me backward until I crash to the ground, hitting the pavement below. Complete and utter terror grips me as I watch the flames engulf the wreckage, the lifeless body of my friend lying motionless in the middle of it.
I scream … and scream … and scream—unable to stop until mercifully everything goes black.
“Remember, they’re not to ask anything about the accident,” my manager, Chelsea, said to the production assistant of The Diane Gayle Show.
“Diane is aware of the parameters of the interview,” he assured her.
“Yeah, well make sure it stays that way during filming,” Chelsea said, flicking her blond hair behind her shoulder. You’d never know looking at what I was sure was a heavily Botoxed face, but she’d been in the biz long enough to know that interviewers sometimes “forgot” which topics were off-limits when the cameras started rolling. They didn’t refer to her around town as ‘The Barracuda’ for nothing.
I sat in the make-up chair, sipping on water, while a bunch of other people primped me before I’d head out for my interview. In truth, I would’ve loved to have a beer, or hell, a whole bottle of Jack in my hand, but managing the cravings was what I was supposed to be able to deal with now.
My nerves were frayed at the edges. This was it. This was my one and only chance to redeem myself in the eyes of the public and filmmakers alike, to convince them I’d changed my ways. After all my fuck-ups, no one wanted to hire me for their movies anymore. If I wanted to change that, the world needed to believe that I was a different man. And make no mistake—the world was watching.
No pressure, right?
“And she can only discuss Calder’s life since being out of rehab. Let’s not dwell too long on why he was there in the first place,” Landon added from behind me. Landon Steele was the owner of my new PR firm I’d recently signed with, and they were the ones that had landed me the interview. Every penny I paid them was worth it for that reason alone, since The Diane Gayle Show was one of the most watched primetime interview programs. However, the way the press spun my appearance today would make all the difference.
I inhaled a deep breath, trying to steady myself. “You alright?” Landon asked, clamping a hand on my shoulder from behind.
“I’m good, man.” If we were defining ‘good’ as being scared shitless.
“Just remember how we talked about handling her questions. You’re going to do great,” Landon said.
“Five minutes until showtime,” someone yelled from the hallway.
The production assistant with the receding hairline turned to face me. “You’re the first guest up. If you want to follow me, I’ll take you to the set. Wait until Diane introduces you and then you can head out.”
I nodded, took another sip of water, and stood to follow behind, giving Chelsea and Landon a weak smile before I left.
Standing there in the darkness at the side of the stage, I felt every ounce of the weight on my shoulders. After everything I’d been through, all the ways I’d screwed myself and so many others over, this could very well be the defining moment in my life.
I was determined that all the pain I’d caused others wouldn’t be in vain. I’d do something good with my life, achieve something, give something back. Even if I didn’t know what that something might be, it was the least I could do.
Unbelievable. I stared at the screen in front of me displaying the taping going on at The Diane Gayle Show as Calder Fox sauntered onto the set. He was as attractive as ever—of course. He seemed to have lost some of his usual arrogance, but my guess was it was just a PR ploy. God, I couldn’t believe I’d ever fawned over that guy when we’d worked together as teens.
I turned to my manager, Brock. “Did we ever find out how Calder got top billing on this instead of me?”
“He offered an exclusive to Diane—won’t be taking any more interview requests after his appearance here.”
I leaned back against the green room couch and crossed my arms like a petulant child. “Figures. What Calder wants, Calder gets. It doesn’t hurt that he’s the son of Hollywood royalty.”
Brock shrugged. “Frankie, you know as well as I do that no one will turn down an exclusive, especially with someone like Calder Fox. Besides, if he doesn’t get his shit together, it’s not going to matter who his parents are—no one will work with him.”
I didn’t respond. I’d been taught by my mom and my PR camp that if I didn’t have anything nice to say, to say nothing at all. Calder and I had only worked together once before—both having bit parts in a TV sitcom where we played brother and sister. We’d only been seventeen at the time, but he’d consistently shown up late to the set and always hungover—hell, he had probably still been drunk most of that time. He’d acted like the pompous ass that he was, ordering people around and treating them like shit, like he was better than everyone there because his daddy happened to be a big-time director and his mother, a famous actress. I’d been like most of the other idiot girls in this town at the time, thinking his attitude was cool and wishing he’d pay attention to me. Now I was able to see him for what he really was—extremely entitled.
Today I was appearing on The Diane Gayle Show at the tail end of a press junket for my latest indie film. I supposed that wasn’t as interesting as confessions of the rich and famous. Poor little Calder had issues. Boo-freaking-hoo…what else was new?
I let out a huff as I settled back in my seat to watch his interview until I had to head to the set.
Diane had on her sympathetic face—she must be getting ready to try and pull some heartstrings. “So Calder, you recently left rehab for substance and alcohol abuse. What was your experience there like?”
“It was eye opening, that’s for sure,” he responded with a nervous laugh. Diane gave him an encouraging nod and he continued. “I needed to be there. My life had spun out of control. It was difficult, but…it was healing at the same time.”
I rolled my eyes as I watched Diane take his hand, fully buying into his apologetic act.
“I know this is difficult to talk about, Calder, but I have to ask…the public will want to know. What specifically were you addicted to?”
Calder ran his free hand through his shoulder-length, sun-bleached locks. I ignored the way the dark roots peeked out here and there and just how hot it made him look. Hot guys in Hollywood were usually douchebags and Calder was no exception.
He sucked in a big breath before answering. “I’ve been drinking since I was about thirteen years old. When you grow up in show biz, there isn’t much that isn’t available to you. Looking back now, I can see that I’d been an alcoholic since the time I was sixteen or seventeen. Back in the day, I used to just drink when I was chillin’ with my friends, but it developed into an everyday thing I needed to feel normal.” Calder used air quotes around the word normal, while Diane nodded her head like she knew exactly what he was going through. “At some point in my early twenties, the booze wasn’t enough and I started dabbling in cocaine and other recreational drugs. I’ve probably tried everything under the sun, but coke was my drug of choice.”
Calder’s neck flushed a bit and he played with the collar of his shirt, seemingly embarrassed by his confession. I hated to admit it, but I understood. The limelight was not an easy place to be, even when you were an up-and-coming media darling like myself. I couldn’t imagine what it would feel like to have all your darkest secrets laid bare in front of the world, up for discussion and dissection for anyone with a Wi-Fi connection. I shivered, my hair standing on end as I considered for a moment what the press would say if they ever got hold of my secret.
“You cold? I can ask if there’s a blanket or something you can use.” Brock’s voice brought me back from my reverie.
“No, I’m fine. Thanks.” I gave him a weak smile and focused my attention back on the monitor.
“What’s been the most difficult part about all of this for you?” Diane asked Calder.
He answered without hesitation. “Losing my friend in the accident. Being sober allowed me to see all the mistakes I’d made over the past several years with complete clarity…to recognize all the people I’ve hurt along the way.” He swiped at the tears building in his eyes. “That’s hard for me to accept and work through.” Calder looked up to the ceiling and blinked back tears, blowing air from his mouth in a rough exhale.
He seemed sincere, I’d give him that. But with actors, you never really knew what was genuine and what was not. Diane gave his hand a squeeze and turned her attention to the camera. “We’re going to take a break. We’ll be back in a minute to talk some more to Calder Fox and find out where it all went wrong.”
Calder immediately sprang up from his seat and shoved a hand through his long hair, then paced around the set taking deep breaths with his hands on his hips. It genuinely appeared as if his conversation with Diane was affecting him. Could I have been wrong about him? Maybe he had grown up since the last time we worked together. It had been years, after all.
Brock rose from the couch and turned to face me. “I’ll be right back. I’m gonna see when you’re up.”
I nodded absentmindedly, watching as everyone on set scattered to get out of the camera shot except for Diane and Calder, who had now taken his seat again.
Diane flashed her veneers at the camera and began. “We’re back and still talking with Calder Fox, the reigning prince in Hollywood’s royal family and everyone’s favorite bad boy.” She turned to face Calder once again. “Before the break, we were discussing what it was like for you in rehab. What are your plans moving forward now?”
He drew in a breath. “Well, I plan to make amends with all the people I’ve wronged in the past and I’m going to continue living the healthy lifestyle I am now. More than anything though, I want to get back to work.” I’ll bet he did. “I know I’ve burned a lot of bridges with my on-set behavior in the past, but I’m determined to show that I can act like the professional I am and get the job done.”
“Anything in the works right now?” Diane looked like a pit bull, salivating to get the inside scoop and dig her teeth into him.
“Nothing I can talk about at this point.” He flashed her a panty-melting smile that lit up his blue eyes and caused a shiver of need to run through me. I refused to even examine what the hell that was about. Sure, it was no mystery why A-list celebrities dropped their drawers for the ‘Hollywood Fox’, but it pissed me off to know I could be affected by his charm. I didn’t like the guy. Not even a little.
He’d basically been blacklisted for the past year so whichever director and studio took him on next deserved whatever they got.
“You’re up in six, Frankie.” Brock strolled back into the room with a sheet of paper in his hand. “I’ve cleared the list of questions they’re going to ask you. Take a look for yourself though.”
I leaned forward and reached for the paper, giving it a quick once-over. Same shit, different day. That was the thing about doing a press junket. You were asked the same questions a hundred different times but only in ten different ways. By now I’d perfected all of my answers and could do these interviews as drunk and high as Calder on a Saturday night.
I mentally scolded myself…that was mean. I didn’t know what it was, but something about Calder brought out my bitchy side.
Handing the paper back to Brock, I said, “Got it,” and rose from the couch, smoothing my skirt over my thighs when I was upright.
He led me down the hallway until we stood at the side of the stage to wait for my turn. We didn’t have long to wait. Calder came sauntering off stage, appearing completely relaxed and not at all like he’d just been forced to discuss what was supposedly one of the hardest times of his life.
His gaze inched slowly up the length of my body before he met my eyes, a small smirk forming on his lips. My traitorous nipples pebbled underneath my silk shirt, and I was sure he could tell given the fact that I wasn’t wearing a bra. Note to self—avoid backless shirts around attractive men. I pressed my teeth together, more irritated than ever that I found him so physically appealing.
“Have we met?” Calder asked me with that stupid grin still on his face.
I’m sure I looked like I was trying to catch flies with my mouth. Was he shitting me? I schooled my reaction as best I could and responded through clenched teeth. “Francesca Leon.”
“Oh, right. You’re that chick that does all the indie films.”
Seriously? He was going to act like we’d never met before—like we’d never worked together? Why did that grate on me so much? It’s not like I should care one way or the other what he thought. I gave him a quick nod, not saying anything.
He put his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. “Well, good luck out there,” he said before walking past me. His cologne wafted by as he passed, a mix of the outdoors and the ocean. I resisted the urge to close my eyes and breathe in deeply. I would not let that idiot’s charm affect me like it did so many other women. I was smarter than that.
A production assistant walked up, a frantic expression on his face. “You’re due on set.”
“Coming,” I said. I swept all thoughts of Calder from my mind, remembering why I was here. This was the final push for my film that would be releasing next week, after which I’d be starting production on my first mainstream, big-budget studio film. This was is it…the one I was determined would launch my career and make Francesca Leon a household name.
I looked out toward the angry ocean, more than happy to be staring at the grey sky and the wind-tossed waves with their whitecaps standing out against the darkness of the water. The sea today matched my mood. Admitting to the world what a complete and utter fuck-up I was wasn’t an easy thing. It was even harder to do sober. Add that to the fact that I was still holding something back, something that had the guilt eating away at me piece by piece, day after day, and it became almost too much to bear.
I’d wanted nothing more than to leave that studio this morning and go on a bender. After spilling my guts to the world and then not recognizing Francesca right away—as if I needed any more proof of what an asshole I could be—I’d reached my limit. I wasn’t sure if I was to blame for the latter though, because she sure as hell hadn’t looked like that when I’d worked with her all those years ago. Was it my fault it took a minute for her name to click?
For a bit I’d imagined heading over to my favorite liquor store and buying out the place, calling up a few of my so-called ‘friends’ and telling them to round up the troops for a party at my place. I’d get shit-faced, maybe snort a line or two, and then bang whatever stupid female with zero respect for herself was available.
But I couldn’t do it. They’d warned me in rehab that emotional turmoil would make me want to fall back into old habits. I was told to find something to clear my mind, a healthy way to deal with all the self-loathing.
And so I found myself standing in front of the turbulent ocean, surfboard in hand, fine crystals of sand whipping me in the face from the wind. It was a nasty day and the whitecaps were out in full force. I wasn’t worried. I was a California boy, born and bred. I’d practically been surfing since I could walk. There was nowhere I was more at home or comfortable in my own skin than riding a wave.
“Thought I’d see you here.” I diverted my attention from the waves crashing against the shore and looked to my left. Hendrix had just come from the ocean, water dripping from his wetsuit, dark hair slicked back, surfboard in hand.
“Hey, man,” I called out as he jogged toward me.
“Couldn’t resist these waves either?” Hendrix asked.
I nodded. “Needed to clear my head.”
“No better place to do it than inside the green room.” So true. I sure as hell preferred this kind of green room over the one I was in earlier today.
Hendrix was a cool guy I’d met through Akoni back in high school. A bit of an adrenaline junkie, not unlike myself, only he directed his efforts in a more positive way. The reigning X Games motocross champion, Hendrix was as badass as they come.
“How are you doing?” Hendrix asked.
I shrugged. “Some good days. Some bad.”
He nodded in understanding. “What’s today?”
I moved my gaze from the unsettled ocean to look him in the eyes. “Bad.”
About the time I’d decided to get my fix partying and doing equally reckless—though undoubtedly more illegal—things, Hendrix and Akoni had grown closer. At the time I’d resented him, thinking he was taking my lifelong friend away. Now I knew it was me who’d been pushing Akoni away with my wild behavior.
We stood there for a few minutes, neither of us speaking, though it was obvious Hendrix had something on his mind.
“Just say it, man. Whatever it is you want to say,” I finally said.
He chuckled to himself. “That obvious, eh?” Did I mention Hendrix was Canadian by birth? “I wanted to let you know that if you ever need to talk, or if you want to just hang or something…I’m game.” He shrugged, playing it off like it wasn’t a big deal—like he wasn’t throwing me a lifeline. “I know we weren’t that close when Akoni was alive, but maybe we can change that.”
That was surprising. “I would’ve thought you’d hate me.” Hendrix and I hadn’t discussed the accident much after it happened.
“It’s not your fault, Calder. You didn’t force him to get behind that wheel.”
Pain lanced through my chest as if he’d ripped my skin open with a blade. If he only knew. “Akoni didn’t deserve to die in that car crash.” It should have been me.
Hendrix stayed quiet for a moment. “You’re right. He didn’t. But we can’t change what’s already happened. All we can do is move forward and not take our own lives for granted.”
My substance abuse counselor had told me I needed to start surrounding myself with healthy people and Hendrix fit the bill. I decided to push away the guilt and force it to the back of my mind. For now.
“Well then…I guess I’ll take you up on your offer. Let’s hang sometime.”
“You been here long?” I asked him, going with my natural inclination to get past all this deep shit and move on to lighter topics.
“Nah, probably about twenty minutes or so. You headin’ in?”
“Yeah. Give me a minute and I’ll be there.”
Hendrix jogged off toward the raging sea. “Try not to eat it when you get in there, bro.”
“You might own the track, but I’m still better than you in a barrel.” The wind carried the sound of Hendrix’s laugh back to me.
I pushed my surfboard down into the sand until it stood on its own. Now that I had two free hands, I pulled my wetsuit up my abdomen and grabbed the zipper at the back, yanking it all the way to the top before depositing my sandals in the wet sand. Then I took the elastic from around my wrist and used it to tie my hair back.
I drew a deep breath through my nose, held it for seven seconds and then slowly exhaled through my mouth. It was a relaxation technique I’d learned in rehab—one I hoped would help bring me back to a place where the guilt and shame seemed somehow bearable.
Picking up the surfboard, I made my way to the ocean just as Hendrix caught a wave. That right there was exactly what I needed—to be on top of the water, in the moment, all my fuck-ups far from my mind.
By the time I tossed my surfboard into the back of my Jeep, I was feeling much more centered—like I could actually deal with all the shit that was about to come my way. Namely the backlash I was going to get when The Diane Gayle Show aired in a couple of days.
I decided to head out to Malibu since I didn’t have any business in L.A. this week. My dad had rented me a beach house, figuring I could use time outside of the celebrity cesspool to ease myself back into society. In reality, I don’t think he believed I could handle being around temptation and all the enablers my life there held. He’d never said so, but I had no doubt I was a disappointment and an embarrassment to him.
I was an only child whose parents divorced when I was ten. My mom ended up moving to Europe a couple years after the divorce and only came back to town when she was filming. I’d begged to stay in L.A. so I could pursue my acting dream.
I shook my head. Look how that had turned out.
As I drove down the Pacific Coast Highway, Sublime blasted through the speakers, taking my mind away from everything for a few precious minutes. Hunger pangs pierced my stomach so I decided to stop for some chow at my favorite Mexican restaurant, not too far from the beach house.
I hadn’t been paying much attention to whether I was being followed or not, so when I got out of my Jeep and walked across the parking lot to the restaurant, I startled when some stalkarazzi surrounded me and started snapping off shots. I wasn’t sure if they’d been tailing me the entire time or were camped out here expecting a big name to come out and got lucky that Hollywood’s notorious bad boy had made an appearance.
“Calder, we heard you were taping with Diane Gayle today. Did you guys discuss the accident?” one of them yelled.
“Think you’ll be able to stay sober?” another piece of shit photographer threw out.
I ignored them and walked into the joint to order my food, knowing full well they had to stay out of the place if they didn’t want to be arrested. After placing my order, I stood at the takeout counter to wait and checked my phone. My sponsor, Alisha, had called. I knew she was worried about how things went today and whether it’d sent me straight for the bottom of a bottle, so I made a mental note to call her back later.
“Hey, you’re Calder Fox, right?”
I turned to see a teenage busboy standing behind me, wide-eyed, as if he almost couldn’t believe I was real.
“Hey, man. Yeah, I’m Calder.” I held my hand out to shake his and he took it, practically pulling my arm from the socket in his excitement. My arm had recovered fully from the accident, but on days like today when I’d done a lot of physical activity, it still ached afterward.
“Holy shit. I can hardly believe you’re in here.”
Though it was the last thing I felt like doing, I smiled at him, hoping I didn’t seem too impatient for him to leave me alone. I knew better than anyone that it went with the job description. “What can I say, I got hungry.”
The kid with acne-prone skin laughed like I’d just told the funniest joke in the history of the world. “I saw you in the news a while back with that chick from that singing group. What’s her name…the blond one? Shit.” He scratched his head.
I knew exactly who he was talking about, but I wasn’t gonna give him what he was looking for. “Anyway, you know the one I mean. She’s one fine piece of ass. What was it like hitting that?”
This was the thing about meeting fans when you’re a celebrity. People were one of two ways. They’re either overwhelmed and barely able to utter a word, or they think they know you and they’re your best friend, telling you way more than you ever wanted to know about them and asking you way more than you’d ever tell them.
“Listen, man. I’m just here—”
“Calder,” the guy behind the takeout counter yelled. Saved by the overweight, hairy guy with a goatee that hung down to his collarbone.
“Well, I gotta run. Good to meet you.”
“Same here,” he said, smiling, and I turned around to collect my food.
As predicted, the maggots with cameras attached to their faces were still outside when I left, barking more of their idiotic and intrusive questions at me. I ignored them again, though it was all I could do to keep it together when one of them asked what porn star I planned on spending the night with. It was one fucking party, douchebags. One party—get over it.
I put my Styrofoam box containing the world’s best enchiladas down on the passenger side floor, started the engine, and backed out. Since all the paps were busy getting into their cars to tail me, I didn’t have to worry about hitting them.
I sped down the P.C.H. as the sun was setting, painting everything with an orange glow. The wind whipped my hair all around and Zeppelin now blared from the speakers. I almost felt…normal. I laughed to myself at how foreign normal actually felt.
When I reached the gates to the beach house, I punched in the code to open the gates and then glanced behind me. The jerk-offs had actually followed me. A picture of me fucking up in some way must be paying a hefty price.
They were going to be disappointed, I thought, as the gates shut behind me. I had no plans to offer them anything newsworthy.
The hair and make-up people deserved an award. I stood in front of the floor-length mirror taking in the image of myself. My long, dark hair was pinned on top of my head in a loose bun, stray hairs strategically falling down to give the impression I hadn’t spent too much time on it when, in fact, the hairdresser had taken more than an hour to get it perfect.
The smoky eye make-up she’d applied made my green and hazel eyes pop, accenting the hints of hazel flecks inside them. The bright red lipstick perfectly matched my long sleeve red lace evening gown. I wasn’t well endowed in the front so the lace went all the way up to my neck. The surprise was when I turned around. The fabric dropped below the thin silver belt wrapped around my tiny waste, showing off my slender back. I’d wanted to look my age—I was only twenty-three and didn’t want to dress like I was forty—but I also wanted to keep it classy. This dress perfectly straddled the line between chic and sexy.
“You look amazing.”
I turned to see that my assistant, Angela, had come into the room.
“I completely agree.” My mom, Gianna, dressed in a floor-length, strapless black gown, came in behind her. She’d been getting ready in another room of the suite.
“Mom, you look so beautiful.” She walked toward me, spinning on the way so I got the entire effect of her gown.
“Thanks, sweetie. But I have to say…if one of us is going to be in the best-dressed spread, it’s going to be you. You look wonderful.” She placed a hand on my cheek and smiled. I treasured these rare moments when she was truly happy.
Tonight I was walking the red carpet for my latest release. It was an indie project but had garnered a lot of buzz, so the event felt more like a big-budget film premiere than those I usually attended. If I didn’t have a date, which was almost always the case, my mom normally accompanied me if she felt up to it.
“I think you both look great. And good thing…you need to be leaving. The limo is downstairs waiting,” Angela said.
“Thanks. Will you be sure that all our personal items make it back to my place?” I asked. “Leave it all in the foyer, just inside the door.”
“Of course.” She smiled and chuckled a bit. “I still don’t understand why you don’t just have the hair and make-up crew do all this at your place. I’ve told you I can make them sign an ironclad non-disclosure agreement.”
When she first started working for me, I’d told Angela that I preferred getting ready in hotel rooms because I was concerned about my privacy. Lame, but she’d accepted it.
I put on my best fake smile, which was pretty damn good at this point. “I know, but that’s just a piece of paper. Besides, it’s fun to get ready in these nice suites. It feels so much more…Hollywood.” It sounded stupid even to my own ears, but Angela seemed to buy it. She shrugged and grabbed my evening bag off a nearby dresser and brought it over to me.
“Everything you need is in here. Brock said he’ll see you on the red carpet.”
I took the black satin purse from her. “Perfect. Thanks so much. When you get to my place, leave my mom’s stuff with mine please.”
Angela gave me a quizzical look but didn’t question me. My mom lived with me, albeit in a completely separate area of the house. It worked for the two of us given the circumstances. I could keep an eye on her and alleviate some of my worries, and she was left to her own devices to…well, to do what she did.
We made our way from the hotel room and as the elevator doors closed in front of us, my mom took my hand and squeezed it. I took in her reflection on the back of the polished elevator door and smiled. I wish it could always be like this between us.
“Are you nervous?” she asked.
“I’ll never get used to these things. Hundreds of camera flashes blinding you, everyone yelling your name and wanting a piece of you. It’s overwhelming.” I got a tingling feeling in my stomach just talking about it.
“You’re a pro by now. You can handle it.”
That much was true. I could. I always worried about my mom, though.
The elevator dinged and the doors opened in front of us, giving a clear view through the lobby to the outside world. The limo sat waiting for us and a few paparazzi were hanging around. Most of them were probably already perched somewhere along the red carpet, but no doubt some had hoped to get lucky and catch me leaving my hotel with someone on my arm so they could be the first to break the news. I was only too happy to disappoint them.
Pushing my chin up, I sucked in my stomach and flashed a smile as we drew closer to the doors. Time to push Frankie into the shadows and become Francesca Leon—movie star.
I stepped out onto the red carpet and it didn’t take a second before every camera within a hundred feet was flashing in my face. If you ever wondered why there’s always a hulking security guard with dark sunglasses standing in the background on the red carpet, I could tell you—because you couldn’t see shit.
Despite the fact that the blinding lights and my name being yelled over and over again were an assault on the senses, I smiled and struck a pose so the photographers on this end could get a shot. The fashion critics all needed a good picture if they were going to work you over the next night on an entertainment show. I was pretty sure my stylist had struck gold with this dress, so I wasn’t too concerned about ending up on the worst-dressed list. When I turned and smiled over my shoulder to give the crowd a view of the back of my dress, they went crazy, yelling my name even louder. There were even some catcalls and whistles to be heard over all the commotion. I was sure I came off more confident than I really was.
My mom stood off to the side, knowing the drill. The press would want pictures of me on my own before getting some of us together. When I was sure they’d gotten what they needed, I turned back around to motion to my mom to come stand beside me and noticed Brock making his way over from the theater. He stood to the side until my mom and I were finished, then came up and gave us both kisses on the cheek.
“You two look fabulous,” he said.
“Thank you,” my mom responded with a big smile.
Brock leaned into me and spoke directly in my ear. “We need to talk.”
He had a smile plastered on his face when he pulled away, but there was worry in his eyes. Which, in turn, made me concerned. Very concerned. Brock had an even temperament, regardless if the situation was ideal or not. It was clear to me that whatever he wanted to talk about wasn’t going to make me happy.
I darted my gaze to my mom. Had someone found out? “What’s going on?” I asked, my heart rate kicking up a bit.
He shook his head. “Not now. Later. After the screening.”
Terrific. Not only did I have to sit through a screening of my film anxious about what everyone would think of it, but I had to wonder what the hell he needed to talk to me about.
I pursed my lips and nodded before sticking the smile back on my face. The last thing I needed was for someone in the media to pick up on the fact that there was something wrong.
We made our way down the red carpet, my mom and Brock hanging back again so this end of the press line could get their pictures of me. Meanwhile, the press continued yelling questions at me—as if I could decipher what they were saying. Even so, I was sure I heard Calder Fox’s name a few times. What was that about? Maybe they wanted a sound bite from me after Calder’s big exposé with Diane the week prior? Screw that, he’d gotten more than his fair share of attention in the press this week.
One of the red carpet handlers approached me and asked me to head over to the press line so I could give some interviews. I walked up to Missy, one of the entertainment reporters I’d enjoyed speaking with in the past, figuring I’d start off on an easy note.
“Francesca, you look amazing tonight. Who are you wearing?” she asked, smiling wide to showcase her perfectly white teeth.
“This is Valentino.” I kept my focus on her so I wouldn’t find myself squinting at all the flash bulbs or blinking rapidly like I had something in my eye.
“Thank you.” I smiled at her.
“So before I ask you any questions about the film we’re all here for tonight, I need to know how you feel about Calder Fox taking over Jake Radley’s role in your next project, Collateral Damage?”
My smile faltered for a second. I know it did. I recovered quickly but seriously though—what the hell? Collateral Damage was supposed to be my big break into the mainstream and solidify my position as a serious actress. And I was starring in it with Jake—a reliable, likable, seasoned co-star. Not an unreliable screw-up like Calder.
“P-pardon?” was all I could manage.
“Now that Jake’s father is sick and he’s removed himself from the project…how do you feel about working with Calder given his recent troubles?” Missy pushed the microphone in front of me, waiting for her sound bite.
I opened my mouth to answer—to say what, I wasn’t sure, because my mind was still reeling with the news. But before I could say anything, a warm hand wrapped around my waist, pulling me back into a hard body.
“Oh, come on, Missy. You know you can’t believe everything you read in the press.” Calder’s warm laugh reverberated through me, sending tingles cascading throughout my body.
I looked up at him in confusion and he answered me with a smile, that practiced Hollywood grin that made all the ladies swoon. All the ladies but me.
No, I wasn’t swooning. At all. I was pissed. Pissed that I’d been blindsided by this question while on a press line. Pissed that Calder was going to undoubtedly ruin the project that was supposed to be huge for me. And pissed that on some basic level, I was enjoying being pressed up against this man, even though I didn’t even like him.
Missy’s giggle cut through my inner turmoil. She was looking at Calder like he was the most charming man in the world before she responded. Somehow I was able to suppress an eye roll. “True, Calder. Though after seeing your interview on The Diane Gayle Show last week, I’m sure you’d be the first to admit that you’ve had your share of struggles.”
Calder’s jovial tone from a moment ago turned serious. “I won’t deny that. But I’m ready to put that part of my life behind me and move forward in a more positive direction. This project with Francesca is the first step. One I’m excited to take with this beautiful woman.” He squeezed me into his side a bit and the smell of him almost made my knees go weak.
Missy moved her microphone into my face, which was now frozen in that same fake smile that had formed when she’d first mentioned Calder’s name. “What about you, Francesca? Do you feel the same?”
I inhaled a deep breath and took a lesson straight out of PR 101: the non-committal answer. “I’m so excited about this project and I’m sure Calder is going to do everything in his power to make it a great experience for us both.”
“Now you two have worked together before, haven’t you?” Missy’s toothy grin and her annoying questions were beginning to grate on me.
I smiled anyway and responded, “We have. It was a long time ago though.”
“When we were both teenagers. You could tell even then that this girl had special talent,” Calder interjected.
I was going to chop his nuts off and feed them to him. He was so full of shit. Last week he couldn’t even remember working with me and now he recalls how talented I was? I wanted to scream, but I refused to let my own reputation suffer at the hands of Calder fucking Fox. So instead, I turned to him with as genuine a smile as I could muster. “Thank you for the compliment. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t recall too much of our time working together, but I’m sure that if I could I’d feel same.”
Calder’s gaze flicked down to me and he smirked. Judging by his expression he knew I was full of shit, but I didn’t care.
Before Missy could interrogate us any further, the handler came over and told us it was time to move on. I thanked Missy for the interview and wished her well, then turned toward Calder so I could speak to him without the whole world knowing what was said. He wore his shoulder-length hair down tonight and I had no choice but to lean into it to reach his ear. I didn’t know if it was his cologne or his shampoo, but I pretended to ignore how good he smelled.
“Get your hands off of me,” I hissed. He dropped his hands immediately and pulled back, giving me a searching look.
“Relax.” The self-proclaimed ‘Prince of Hollywood’ did not just tell me to relax. I inhaled a deep breath again, desperate to maintain my composure.
“This is my red carpet tonight. Stay out of my way.” I smiled while I said it so any pictures taken wouldn’t give away the rage I felt burning a hole in my stomach. However, there was no mistaking the venom in my voice that a snake like Calder would undoubtedly recognize.
I walked around him, giving a sidelong look to Brock to let him know that I was not happy and we would most definitely be having a not-so-pleasant conversation later.
“What the hell, Brock?” I ground out through clenched teeth. I wasn’t able to get a moment alone with my manager until we’d arrived at the after-party.
He held his hands up in front of him in defense. “I didn’t know anything about it until right before you hit the carpet.”
“I cannot work with Calder fucking Fox. He’s going to tank this production—you and I both know it.”
Now his hands were in front of him in a placating gesture. “Come on now, Frankie, calm down a bit. He needs this film to be a success just as much as you do.”
“That might be the case, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to be able to stay clean long enough to make that happen.”
“Look, production is all set to start next week. The studio needed someone to fill in that had heartthrob potential and was available on short notice so they wouldn’t lose all the money they’ve already put in.”
I clenched my fists until my nails were digging into my palms. “I hate that my future is riding on this guy.”
Brock pressed his lips together. “I know it’s less than ideal. But what choice do we have but to make it work?”
He was right and that’s what really pissed me off. I was going to have to do whatever was necessary to make sure Calder got through this shoot, clean and sober. I closed my eyes and let out a long exhale, then grabbed my drink off a nearby table, slamming the remainder back in one big gulp. “I need another one. I’ll be back.” I didn’t wait for a response, instead stomping off toward the bar, hoping to lose myself in the blissful oblivion of an alcohol-induced buzz.
The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on me.