Newspapers slam down in front of me, one after the other, sending loud thumping sounds throughout the silent conference room.
My elbows rest on the boardroom table, fingers threaded through my dark hair, eyes squeezed shut so I don’t have to read what’s printed. A quick internet search of my name this morning told me all I need to know.
“HOLLYWOOD’S GOLDEN BOY IN BAR BRAWL!”
“THE REGULATOR DOES BAD!”
“THIS IS OUR NEXT SUPERHERO BOX OFFICE STAR?”
“What the fuck were you thinking?” Bernie glares at me from the end of the long mahogany table, leaving the papers in front of me like a grenade with the pin pulled.
I blow out a sigh and glance at him. His white polo shirt stretches over his protruding belly and his slacks are creased at his groin. It’s obvious my actor-behaving-badly stunt pulled him away from his early morning tee time.
He’s the head of the movie studio. People probably call him for permission to take a shit. So when one of his up-and-coming stars has a run-in that makes the press, he’s the first to get the call.
His beet-red face and the slightly crazy, enraged look in his eye makes me wonder if I’ll recover from this fuck-up. Maybe the grenade with the pin out is my career, not the papers.
“The other guy swung first. What the hell was I supposed to do?” I argue.
My agent, Keane, clears his throat next to me. It’s a warning not to poke the bear, but it’s too late for that.
They couldn’t squeeze any more bodies in this room if they tried. My agent, my publicist, the studio’s PR reps, the director of my next film, and Bernie. The only one missing is my manager, and that’s only because she’s fixing someone else’s screw-up. Time is crucial. We have to figure out our plan of attack about the mess I created.
“What’s the media’s take on what happened?” Bernie directs his question to his PR goons.
The middle-aged woman with a few streaks of grey in her hair speaks first. “Most aren’t sure what to think. A couple of the blogs have picked up on the fact that Lilah Robbie was there and are speculating that the fight probably had something to do with her.”
Everyone in the room looks at me for confirmation. I sit silently, not wanting the reaction that’ll come if I agree with the woman across from me.
“Why don’t you tell us exactly what happened, and we can figure out a way to spin it in your favor?” Kyra says in a reassuring tone. At least my own PR rep is on my side.
“It’s pretty simple. A group of us went out last night and some guy was bothering Lilah.”
Groans and sighs commence around the table, but I continue anyway.
“He didn’t much care for when I asked him to leave her alone and threw a punch at me.” I lean back in my seat with my arms folded over my chest.
Everyone waits for Bernie’s response. Of course they do. His word is like a messiah’s in Tinsel Town.
“Let me guess,” he says, leaning in, palms flat on the table and spearing me with his gaze. “What you mean is that Lilah was high as a kite or shit-faced drunk, shaking that tight ass of hers on the dance floor, and some guy came on to her. You decided to act like her daddy and intervene.”
God, I hate this guy. He’s such a dick. But he’s a dick who holds the power to end my career with one phone call.
“Should I have just watched while some douchebag took advantage of her?” I ask, trying unsuccessfully to keep the bite from my tone.
“What you should do is stay the fuck away from her! She’s going to drag you down with her.” Bernie loses the last of his composure, and all eyes fall to the table.
I chew the inside of my cheek and fist my hands to control my temper. I can’t help my impulse to protect Lilah. It’s an automatic response whenever someone tries to take advantage of her. The need is practically ingrained in my DNA.
“Look, I’ll issue an apology, and by tomorrow, the press will be on to someone else’s mistake,” I say.
“I have a better idea,” the other PR person for the studio says. We’ve met before. I think his name is Jake or something. “Why don’t we issue a statement saying that James saw someone taking advantage of a drunk patron in the bar and intervened on her behalf? That way we’re painting him as the hero rather than an instigator.”
There’re a few rumblings around the table while they confer.
“What if the press asks if the patron in question was Lilah?” Keane asks.
“We redirect. Say we want to maintain the individual’s privacy, that it doesn’t matter what the woman’s name was because she represents all the women in this country who have to put up with unwanted attention from the other sex.” Jake’s an intelligent guy. Why does he work for Bernie?
“That might work,” the female PR rep for the studio says.
We all turn our heads in Bernie’s direction. His chest is heaving, and he looks as if he’s trying to rein in his temper.
“Fine,” he says. “Let James’s PR people release the statement.”
I hate when they talk about me as though I’m not in the room, but I realized a long time ago that all I am to them is a fucking means to an end, the end being profit in their pockets.
“Any more shit like this and I don’t care whether you’ve known her since you were sucking on your mom’s tit. You’re gonna cut all ties if you want to stay on this movie.” Bernie points at me as if I’m a child.
Staying silent goes against everything in me, because I will never cut her out, but I have no choice, so I nod. Lilah will always be in my life. She’s my best friend and I love her, but it’s more than that. We’re… well, we’re complicated.
“I’m serious, James,” Bernie drones on. “This reboot is a big deal. I can’t have The Regulator in the headlines for being on the wrong side of the law.”
I push back from the table and stand. “It won’t happen again.”
Without another word, I leave the room. I’m pissed off and I don’t even know at whom. Myself for getting in the fight in the first place? Lilah for once again putting herself into a situation I needed to get her out of? Bernie for trying to dictate how I live my life? Who knows. But right now, I’m pissed off at the world and need to get the hell out of here before I say something and spur one of Bernie’s legendary tantrums.
I exit the building and the Los Angeles sunshine beats down on my head. I squint until my eyes adjust.
As soon as I’m in my car, I dial Lilah’s number. She doesn’t pick up, so I dial it again then fire off a text, asking where she’s at. When I don’t get an answer, I toss my phone on the leather passenger seat, trying my best to ignore the steady and constant worry that pricks at the back of my neck like a tattoo needle.
The responsible thing to do would be to go home and sleep. I was up late last night, and tomorrow is my first costume fitting for the movie that starts shooting next month. I shouldn’t chance the paps clicking a photo with Lilah and me.
Leaving the parking lot, instead of turning left to head to my place, I turn right.
Screw Bernie. Screw his reps. Screw my people.
Lilah comes first.