Today’s the day! Stepping Stone is releasing from Bella Books and is on its way to readers everywhere. I know some of you are on pins and needles, so here’s the first sixteen pages or so, opening with an online entry from BUZZTASTIC … a secondary “character” readers will know very well before it’s all over.
Stepping Stone is available at BellaBooks.com and other retailers. Exclusively in eBook from Bella. Until December 25, anyone who orders from Bella will also receive a PDF with two short stories, a gift celebrating my 20th anniversary of my first published book.
Copyrighted material, 2009.
# # # Buzztastic # # #
Looks like Hollywood’s most eligible bachelor is having the birthday of a lifetime. We’ve got pics of girls girls girls enjoying the festivities, and the party has hardly started! They’ve gone wild for Hyde Butler! What’s Selena Ryan doing here, you have to wonder. She plays for the other team. If H.B.’s the church, maybe S.R. is changing her religion? We’ll be posting pics all night and tomorrow a round-up of who was zooming who!
There are three kinds of Hollywood parties—brawls, benefits and bright lights. As a rule, when an evening had all three, Selena Ryan attended them in that order. After a polite appearance at a brawl, she could be gone before the police were necessary, still stay awake during the speeches lauding everyone’s favorite charity of the evening, and arrive at the strut-posture-and-pose after the A-list had sated the paparazzi.
She showed her invitation to the security guard at the foot of the long driveway, then shaded her eyes as she navigated her Prius between parked cars lining both shoulders of the private road. After she’d been sitting indoors all day, the burnt orange sunset made her eyes water. During her cautious negotiation she was passed by blue-vested valets hoofing it up the hill to the turnaround for the next sports car or Mercedes haphazardly abandoned by eager partygoers. Adding to the logjam were a number of limos disgorging A-listers, who immediately went inside, and D-listers, who gawked and lingered in the driveway.
She rolled to a halt behind the queue of cars, and a young man quickly tried to open her door. He tried again, obviously not used to finding the doors locked.
His cursory “Welcome, madam,” was spoken through the window as she lowered it.
“I park my own car,” she said firmly. When he didn’t withdraw his extended hand she added, “Would you point me toward the reserved area?”
She’d exceeded his English, but a familiar stocky figure wielding a clipboard waved him away. “Evening, Ms. Ryan. If you’ll wait just a minute, we’ll have you into the rear garage access.”
“Thank you, Mr. Garcia, sir, I appreciate it. How did that Perkins party end up last week?”
“I thought for sure there’d be paramedics, but the young man’s grandmother shut it down at midnight by cutting off the bar.”
“That’ll do it every time.” The car in front of her moved forward, and she turned into the narrow access once the helpful Garcia unhooked the chain and gestured her through. Anyone who went to enough A-list parties got to know the security detail. Garcia-Zimmer Security was at the top of her list when savvy, discreet services were needed. Kim hadn’t even needed to call ahead—Selena Ryan’s name on the guest list had cued him to allot her space in the rear.
As she got out of her Prius she was aware of the buzz of the night security lighting overhead. The shadows in the rear of the house were long, and by the time she had locked the car and made her way up the stairs to the garden level, moths had fluttered to the glowing glass. Moths had always mildly upset her, and she’d had more than enough English at UCLA to draw the obvious analogy between the moths and the starlets gathered in the bright lights poolside. Beyond them, the long curving line of beach to the south had not yet taken on its night colors, but within an hour there would be nothing but black velvet studded with jewels of light as far as the eye could see. Looking west from the pool level, the Pacific was deepening to indigo.
She opted for the long way around the pool, taking another flight of stairs to the main level of the house. She’d find her host, wish him a happy birthday, express her continued interest in adding his name to the cast of Barcelona, then mingle for exactly fifteen minutes before returning to her car.
From the vantage point above the pool she scanned the guests, not immediately sighting Hyde Butler. There was plenty of eye candy, though. More than one tanned and perfectly trim starlet had already decided that Hyde’s birthday gift was an unobstructed view of her body. If the swimsuits were off before the sun was down, a brawl it would be, no question about it. Around the naked starlets was a circle of muscle-flexing males. The nudity didn’t bother her, but the use of a supine woman’s flat stomach to snort lines of coke did.
That this particular event on an abnormally humid Malibu evening was going to devolve into a brawl bothered her even more. Hyde Butler was a rising star noted for rugged good looks that sold magazines and tickets. Two anomalies had caught Selena’s attention: Hyde was thirty-eight, a little old to be breaking into the movies; and surprise of surprises, he could act. He had the kind of face and ability that would bring him parts for the next forty years—but he had to survive the first three years in Hollywood. Everyone from old friends to his agent to whoever was producing his next action flick was backing the Hyde Butler horse, and anything Hyde wanted, Hyde would get. Younger heads had succumbed to the many temptations of newly initiated stardom, but she had hoped Hyde was old enough to have seen the tricks and treats for what they were.
She was aware of eyes watching her as her heels clicked across the still-warm Spanish tiles of the expansive covered patio. Some gazes slid past, not allotting any value to the plain black suit—even if it was Dior—or her simple tucked-behind-the-ears bob. Other gazes locked and followed, knowing who she was. She avoided eye contact, taking in the clusters of vivacious men and woman in her peripheral vision and using her ears to separate voices into simple categories of avoid and okay. She chose the path with least to avoid.
Looking at the partygoers she wasn’t so sure Hyde was as wise as she had hoped. She was here to encourage him to join Barcelona, but no star was big enough to be worth dealing with their addiction issues—not to her, at least. Other producers might roll with, or even encourage it, but she’d never found it easy, and after Jennifer it would be impossible. She hated to write Hyde off, though. They’d talked three or four times, and she hoped the rapport she’d felt hadn’t just been his magnetism.
Putting on her best party face, she turned to the voice, offered a cheek to Bertram Glassier—who was too smart and too old to stick around for a brawl—then to his wife, who was young, pretty and wore a rock the size of a golf ball on her third finger. She would want to stay, no doubt. “Bertie, we have to have lunch, seriously. The distribution contract expired and we have to update the terms.”
He winked, which was always disarming. “I’ll get us a table at Spago’s by the end of the week—”
“Cut the crap.” Selena smacked him playfully on the arm. “Chili dogs at The Pantry. How about Friday?”
He mimed a heart attack. “You always know how to seduce me, Lena.”
The fourth Mrs. Glassier wound her arm around her husband. Selena wanted to tell her she was no threat, at least not in the bedroom sense. Bertie loved smart women, he just didn’t marry them. “You need to remember your cholesterol, honey.”
He gave her an indulgent smile and Selena another wink. “Friday.”
“I’ll bring carrots,” Selena said over her shoulder. She smiled as she drifted away—two of her allotted fifteen minutes had already crossed something off her To Do list. If she found Hyde her time would be well spent.
Instead of Hyde, however, she was confronted by BeBe LaTour. “Selena, don’t tell me you were going to run out without saying hello!”
“Okay,” Selena answered. I won’t tell you, she added to herself. She saw agents as necessary participants in the industry, just as producers were. Agents and producers typically saw each other as evil incarnate. Most agents, to her, were in fact looking out for their clients, but BeBe’s track record of looking out for BeBe was the only successful thing about her. Selena was also willing to bet there was more than a mere personal stash of white powder in BeBe’s cute little evening bag.
“I know you really want Hyde for your little movie, but the whole world is clamoring for him to blow up their bad guys first.”
“There aren’t any gunfights in Barcelona.” She tucked a loose lock of hair behind her ear again.
“Yes, well, that’s one of our hesitations about him doing it.”
Selena gave it one last try. “He could be the next Henry Fonda, you know. An actor who can do a western, a love story, theater.”
“Theater!” BeBe threw back her head and laughed, displaying her smooth-as-silk throat and perfectly sculpted cleavage in the process. “There’s no money in theater, darling, you know that!”
“If you make Hyde enough money blowing up bad guys, maybe parts where he’s not typecast could make him…I don’t know…what’s the word?” She paused, not bothering to hide her sarcasm. “Happy?”
BeBe gave her a sparkling what-a-bitch-you-are smile. “You are such a dreamer.”
“I try,” Selena said, moving away. To herself she muttered, “A dreamer with two Oscar nominations, you parasite.”
She managed to make her way upstream from the bar, into the house proper. She kicked balloons out of her way as she crossed the vaulted foyer, picturing each of them as BeBe’s head. Hollywood wasn’t full of BeBe’s, thank goodness, and a few of the cheek kisses and brief conversations along her path weren’t difficult at all.
“I think he’s in the library, showing off some new gadget,” someone told her, and Selena decided a room called the library was likely on the second floor of this type of mansion. The stairs were draped with people holding drinks and crowd-watching. At the landing she navigated around a guitarist with milky skin and torture in his eyes, singing to a bevy of cute young women, most of whom, she guessed, believed he’d written Blowin’ in the Wind all by his soulful self.
You’re getting bitter about your age, sweetheart, she told herself in BeBe’s singsong delivery. She’d felt old all day, not a good thing with the big Four-O two months in her future. How would she feel then? She wasn’t an actress, but the cult of youth included all women in this town. Her usual avowal of striving to be as elegant as Lauren Bacall and as accomplished as Edith Head was interrupted by the puzzle of a hallway of closed doors.
She didn’t relish the idea of opening doors to look for her host—guaranteed she wouldn’t want to see whatever was behind some of them, not at this kind of party. Fortunately, a burst of laughter drew her to the second door on the right, and she found the library, complete with a fireplace and bookshelves that even contained books. The contents of the mansion had probably been bought along with the building, however, so the collected novels were no indication of Hyde’s personality or proclivities. Neither were the Cubist reproductions that adorned the paneled walls, though they underscored his masculinity.
There were a half-dozen beautiful women in the room, lounging on the sofas and side chairs, but Selena didn’t look at any of them. Her gaze went immediately to Hyde and stayed there.
Hyde Butler had a craggy, quintessentially American face, framed by sandy blond hair with a touch of world-weary grey. He was riveting on screen and unmistakable in any crowd. When the camera turned off, he didn’t, at least not that Selena had seen. He had been married when he was much younger, while still selling heating and air conditioning systems in West Virginia, and though he was constantly interviewed in the trades, she had no sense of really knowing him as a person. Did he even know how to turn off that stomach-tightening, pulse-raising magnetism? She thought of her own sanctum where she could curse if she stubbed her toe, leave her clothes on the floor and nobody ever knew, cry out a frustration, or, more recently, just cry over her stupid, broken heart.
From his lounging position in the corner of a leather sofa, he turned his head as she approached the cluster of seating and locked gazes with her. The brown eyes with green highlights that had graced dozens of magazine covers in the last two years glinted with pleasure, and that look sent an undeniable tingle through her stomach. “Selena! Sweetie! Just who I wanted to see.”
Taken aback, but amused by her own physical response to him, she answered, “Happy birthday, you adorable rascal.” Though the open-necked polo shirt and Bermuda shorts were picture perfect American male style, she wasn’t interested in anything under his clothes, as visceral as the sex appeal was. What was above his neck was vastly more intriguing.
He rose, saying, “Out with the lot of you, you sorry gits. I want to have it off with Selena.”
There was grumbling from the assorted starlets as they exited, giving Selena curious looks. They were no doubt running their database, and coming up with the right last name. The word “lesbian” on the MySpace page in their brains was at odds with Hyde’s playful, effusive hug. They wanted to dislike her for monopolizing Hyde, but on the other hand, Selena was an even more likely ticket to a part than he was. The lingering glances were for both of them.
She returned Hyde’s hug, and tried to gauge if he was high. The feigned British accent was decent, but not like him, as he was proud of his southern drawl and didn’t mask it except when required by a role. After he let go of her he kicked the library door closed and returned to sprawl elegantly on one of the sofas. “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re mah only hope.”
She chose a deeply cushioned chair opposite him, settling comfortably, legs crossed. In a skirt and heels she wasn’t about to sprawl. “What can I do for you?”
“Work a Jedi mind trick on BeBe. She is dead set against me doing Barcelona but I loved the script. Charming bad guy, dead at the end.”
“I think her issue is with your compensation. We’re not going to make millions in the worldwide DVD market.”
He sat up slightly, not the least bit high that she could see. “BeBe has done well for me so far.”
“Look, Hyde.” Selena chose her words carefully. “BeBe and I are natural enemies in this process, but I’m not going to be an effective sub-agent against her. That’s not going to get you what you want, and it won’t get me what I want.”
“What do you want?” He was back to lolling, but there was nothing casual about the question.
“To make a good picture, and show the world that Hyde Butler is not a pretty face capable of only one kind of role. That makes me look like an insightful genius. I believe—and the director believes—you can play Elgin to perfection. Instead of six months out of your life, I’m asking for six weeks, tops. It films here in L.A. at the Carlisle, and two weeks on location in Spain. This is a little picture, as they say.”
His drawl peeked out in his voice, and Selena hoped it meant he was relaxing. “But could be a good one, the kind that gets me the blockbuster parts that are more than dawg-run-pointshoot.”
“I want you to have a long career,” Selena added, surprising herself.
“What you’re really asking is that I trust you over my agent.”
“I guess so, yes.”
“Why should I?”
“I’m not in it for the money.” It was an answer she often gave to the same question during negotiations. Once again, to her surprise, she added, “And I’m not in it for your body, for something to stick up my nose or blowing my own horn in the trades at the expense of yours.”
“In other words, you really don’t belong in Hollahwood.” He sat up again, and turned to look at her directly.
God in heaven, that face, she thought. A dozen other male stars flitted through her head and she couldn’t think of one who had those chiseled features combined with eyes that glowed with emotion. Right now it was uncertainty, and a touch of suspicion. He’s an actor, she reminded herself, and it’s possible none of what’s in his eyes is real.
She said, “I’ve been told that more than once. But Hollywood is where I can find actors idle for a month or two out of their schedules and squeeze my little pictures into their lives.” She leaned back on the sofa, loosening her jacket.
“Why don’t you take that thing off and have a drink?”
His lifted eyebrow and the flirtatious angle to his denim-clad leg brought a low chuckle from her before saying, “Mr. Butler, are you trying to seduce me?”
“Clever woman.” He rolled to his sandaled feet. “I was serious about the drink if you want one.”
She slid out of her jacket as she watched him open a cabinet to reveal a small bar. The room was getting stuffy and the rose silk blouse was going to go limp before she made it to the next party. “I’m serious about the movie—just a club soda.”
She noticed that he only poured a club soda for himself as well. “No, but it’s going to be a long night. What about you?”
“Solidarity. I’ve got a little brother who got all the vices. I promised him I’d make it every day he did. I like a whiskey as much as he does, it just doesn’t affect me the same way.”
“If he got the vices, did you get the virtues?”
He gave her the highball glass full of ice and sparkling soda before resuming his former half-supine position on the sofa opposite that allowed him to gracefully balance his own glass on his chest. “Depends on what you consider virtues.”
“Justice, prudence, hope, charity, restraint, courage, faith…”
“Then, no, I didn’t get all the virtues. There are a few things I have no restraint whatsoever about. Selena, honey, can we just cut to the chase?”
It was her preference, most of the time. “It is going to be a long night, so just tell me what’s on your mind.”
“I want to trust you. I want to trust that if I take a chance on this little film, you’re not going to let me look like a fool who overreached in a character role.”
She nodded her understanding. “I’ve hired the best director I can, Eddie Lynch.”
Hyde nodded. “He won an Indie Spirit Award, right? For Royal Candide.”
Selena nodded. “Eddie and I—no one affiliated with Ryan Productions—has any interest in doing a project that the talent later finds an embarrassment. I make you look bad, I don’t get chances with the next Hyde Butler to cross my path. I make sure my stars and crew are proud of our work.”
She paused to take a cooling sip from the glass and to break the intensity in her voice. “I don’t suffer prima donnas, but I promise you access to me, direct access, if you have concerns. For what anyone’s word is worth in this town, I give you my word.”
“Just like you gave your word to Jennifer Lamont?”
The glass almost slipped out of her hand. She caught herself, knew she couldn’t help the angry flush that rose from her shoulders and swept up her neck. She made her jaw unclench by sheer force of will. “Surely you’ve been in this town long enough to know that gossip has its own life. It rarely represents the truth.”
“I have. But the papers agree you locked her out of a picture, and broke the contract. The union protest was mysteriously silenced.”
It had cost her a bundle and been worth every penny. Hyde— and the gossip machine—had no idea what else she’d paid. “Do the papers agree that I have never commented on the matter?”
“That fact is not changing today. I have no comment to make. If that’s a deal breaker, so be it.” Relax your posture, she told herself. Take a deep breath. Shake it off or you’ll get a headache.
“The papers agree that you and Lamont were a couple.”
She shrugged and reached for her jacket. “If that’s a deal breaker, too, so be it.”
“Why should it be? Not like you and I are ever going to end up in the sack and be bitter about it by morning. I’ve never met her, either.”
“Then what’s your concern, Hyde? What aspect of my ability to honor a contract I make with you, and honor my word, troubles you?” She took a long draught of the cold soda before folding her jacket over her arm.
“The gossip blogs say that she signed on to a multi-picture agreement with the understanding she had project approval, and your lawyer told her it was play when you said, like it or not. After she balked and dumped you, you had the film editor excise half her performance from the last picture.”
Unable to keep the sharp edge from her tone, she said, “You left out bribe all zillion members of the Academy to boycott her at the Oscars.”
His shrug was almost lazy but Selena abruptly focused on the muscles along his neck—he was as tense as she was. Bucking his agent to take on a project was one thing, but to take on something that was risky to his public persona, something that could either be brilliant or make him look like a fool and a hack, was another.
He wants to be a Henry Fonda, she realized. If I screw this up for him, I ruin that dream. Her voice softened. “One thing I have learned is that you can’t say or do anything when nobody else has any vested interest in the truth. So I choose silence whenever I can.” She smiled and rose to her feet. “The older I get the more time I need for make-up, so I don’t need reasons to avoid looking at myself in the mirror.”
His lopsided smile was a heart-melter. “Do what celebrities do—hire someone for the make-up and you never have to see what you’ve become.”
He followed her to the door and they paused. She didn’t need to warn him that a dozen camera phones were likely pointed at it, waiting for them to emerge.
“Well, thank you, Selena. Thank you for talking to me instead of telling me not to worry my pretty little head about such things, of course nothing I could do could possibly turn out bad, I’m just too talented for that.”
He had BeBe’s nuance down pat. With a steady look, she said, “To that idea I have only one word to say: Ishtar. I promise you, Hyde, I will not let you make the worst film of your life in the prime of your career.”
He nodded. Drawl back in full force, he said, “I’m pretty sure which dog hunts here, Selena honey.”
She could listen to him say her name all day. “You are such a charming southern boy.”
He laughed politely, and opened the door. The insta-gossipuploads would have pics of them sharing a laugh, unmussed, unremarkable except that any picture of Hyde smiling was hot property in the blogosphere.
She walked away, head up and doggedly keeping her lips from showing a bitter twist. She was so invested in tamping down her rage at the mention of Jennifer Lamont, that she was backing her car toward the gate before she fully realized she was actually in it. Calm down, she warned herself. Don’t let her win anymore, just let it—
She yelped and slammed on the brakes at a loud thud and cry at the passenger door. She saw a flash of a pale face, masses of golden hair, the torn neckline of a little black dress. The woman began pounding on the window.
“Please, please, I need help. I just want a lift. I need to get out of here. Please, please…”
Selena paused with her hand on the door lock. Her safety instructors had drilled her over and over on this scenario. Deets would slap her silly if she opened the door. She had enough money and her own company insured her plenty, and that made her a kidnapping risk.
She lowered the passenger window just a little. “What’s wrong?”
The woman pressed her face to the opening. “Please, just a lift. He…he—I have to get away. I don’t want any trouble, but I have to get away. I didn’t know he was like that. Please, just help me.”
“Who?” Again, her hand hesitated on the button to unlock the door. Then she came to her senses. If she honked three times, short, Garcia would come running. “I’ll get help.”
“No! Just get me out of here. I don’t want anyone to see me like this.”
She raised her cell phone. “I’ll call the police.”
“No! You can’t—I, he, he gave me something. I don’t want to get tested by the cops.”
All plausible reasons, which was why the scenario was a favorite with kidnappers. But who would do something that audacious behind the lines of the security people? A kidnapping would have been better launched in the road just outside the gate. Trusting her judgment, but still prepared to honk the horn for help, she shifted the car into park, checked the mirrors for anyone else lurking, then opened her door and put one foot out so she could stand up and talk to the woman over the hood. “Who are you talking about?”
“Him. Mr. Big Star. Look what he did to my dress! And what he did to me was…I would have said yes. But he didn’t want yes.”
“Are you taking about Hyde?” She flushed with anger for the second time that night. Her voice cold, she said, “What exactly did Hyde do?”
“He was—I should have known better than to come to a party like this! My mother warned me, but I thought I could protect myself. He caught me off-guard.” She pushed back her hair making her face finally fully visible.
“Who are you?” The woman looked familiar now, but not live—Selena had probably seen that face on an audition feed of photographs, scanning through actors sent over for a recent casting call that read, “Female, age twenty to twenty-five, crowd shot, speaks.”
“Well, I go by Vivienne Weston. Can we just go? I don’t want to make trouble for him.”
Weston had taken the time to clearly enunciate her name before resuming her quavering, uncertain delivery. The leg supporting Selena’s weight trembled as a bolt of pure rage swept through her. Her own voice was shaky as she asked, “When did this happen?”
“Just now. He…I got away and I just need your help for a few minutes. A ride to a bus stop or hotel where I can get a cab.”
Slowly, jaw clenched, she said, “But Vivienne, in solidarity, we should confront him. Just tell me what he did.”
The penny still hadn’t dropped for Weston. Tears standing in her eyes, she assumed an ashamed, grieved, shy look that almost worked. “Do I have to spell it out?”
“As a matter of fact, you do. I want to know exactly what lies you are going to spread about Hyde so I can give him the grounds to sue you for malicious slander.”
She had the pleasure of watching Vivienne nearly jump out of her skin when she hit the horn three times. The little bitch didn’t care whose reputation she ruined. She was just like Jennifer, just another—
Garcia’s voice rang out. “Is there a problem, Ms. Ryan?”
“Yes, there is. Ms. Weston here is alleging sexual assault against Mr. Butler. She claims it just happened, and I know, with my own eyes, that Mr. Butler has been surrounded by guests or in my company for quite some time. What I don’t know is if she was just hoping to get into the gossip mill or hoping to make me feel so sorry for her that I gave her a part.”
Weston’s bravado failed her. “I didn’t say he’d raped me.”
“No, actually, you didn’t, you just said drugs and sex against your will. Playing innocent and I-didn’t-really-mean-anythingby- it won’t work with me because I’m not a court of law. I don’t have to give you a chance to explain your side and consider being merciful.” Her inner warning bells were telling her to shut up, but she rushed on. “I get to squash you like the termite you are. You’ve ruined your party dress for nothing.”
Weston was clearly astonished that her ploy hadn’t worked. She also clearly didn’t think it could have any downside. “But— oh come on. I know lots of girls who did the same thing, and they all got jobs out of it, so why are you being difficult? It was just a joke.”
“I don’t have a sense of humor. People like you have ruined it. By nine a.m. you won’t have an agent. If you’re still living anywhere in the area by noon, you won’t have a SAG card.”
“You can’t do that, you bitch!”
“Yes, I can.” Selena actually had no idea if she had that kind of pull with the actors’ union. Probably not, but Weston was a stupid, dangerous little girl. “What you tried to do to Hyde Butler I can, and will, do to you.”
Garcia had moved around to Weston’s side of the car. Two more members of his detail were standing at the rear of the car, blocking the most likely paths of escape. “You’re leaving, and with an escort, miss. If you don’t come willingly, I will call the police and you’ll leave with them.”
Can’t anyone in this town buy a vocabulary? Selena abruptly felt weak, so she settled back into the driver’s seat. When she put the car into reverse everyone cleared out of her way.
Copyrighted material, 2009
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