Wendy Mann cleared her throat to get the attention of the mega movie star strolling in from the theater’s back entrance. “You’re good,” she said, “but you’re not that good.” Then she relaxed against the wall of the musty stairwell, scrolled through her phone messages, and waited for the door onto the street to slam shut behind Zane Taylor.
BANG. Now Wendy looked up. Zane was gaping at her, a combination of outrage and disbelief showing on his chiseled face.
Just as she’d suspected when she’d first met with him and the producer of this Broadway play two weeks ago. Nobody had ever told Zane no: not his handlers, not his bodyguards, not his former public relations people. He’d paid them to say yes.
But he didn’t pay Wendy. The producer did. So she was going to tell Zane the truth.
That was her job.
“You’re fired,” he sneered, mounting the stairs.
“You can’t fire me as your PR specialist,” Wendy countered. “You didn’t hire me. And the play will fire you before they fire me.”
“They won’t fire me.” Reaching the top of the stairs, he looked down on her with his legendary green eyes. Wendy bet women wouldn’t have gone so wild over his movies in the past decade if he’d glared at them like this, as if they weren’t fit to polish his Golden Globes. “I’m Zane Taylor.”
“You were,” Wendy acknowledged. “You were a brand name that sold out movie theaters. You ruined all that with your divorce. Now you need to stop acting like a diva and get yourself to rehearsal on time every day, or your boss will find a replacement who will.”
“A diva!” Zane exclaimed, looming closer over her, murder in his eyes.
Right. He was an old-school ass for whom the supreme insult was calling him a name usually reserved for a woman. Her ex from West Virginia, Rick, had the same attitude. The closer Zane came to her, the more her body tensed with the memory of Rick’s hands on her, even as her brain registered that Zane was not Rick.
But she wouldn’t back down. She couldn’t show weakness by panicking and taking back her words. If Zane felt more offended than she’d expected, so be it.
She met his gaze. “Your agent went to a lot of trouble to arrange this gig for you. Now that the movie roles have dried up, you wanted to retool your career by going after the serious acting cred that’s eluded you. This play was your first role in high school, the one that got you hooked on acting. You have the chance to do a play you love on Broadway and prove your critics wrong. And you’re going to throw all that away for a few weeks of partying hard and forgetting to set your alarm?”
He took a deep breath, let his shoulders sag as he exhaled, and tilted his head to one side. “Look, I may not be your boss, but you’re not mine, either. You’re PR. You’re not supposed to change what I’m doing. You just make me look good doing it.”
Wendy still held his gaze, but she could feel his fingers stroking her hand.
He said silkily, with only a hint of menace underneath, “Maybe we could compromise.”
“Do not proposition me,” she said.
His fingers stopped moving on her hand.
She wasn’t going to jerk away from him. She would let him jerk away from her after what she said next. “If you want a relationship, ask women out on dates. Don’t come on to the women you work with just to manipulate them. That’s how you ended up with a lawsuit from your hairdresser, a divorce from your wife, and your current downward spiral.”
His hands were off her now. If he’d had any history of violence, though, she would have suspected he was about to throw her down the stairs. Her heart raced again as he pointed his finger in her face and started, “You—”
She interrupted him before he could say bitch. “Remember Brad McCain?”
“Yeah.” Zane put his hand down and stood up straighter with the shock of that unexpected memory.
“You started in the movie business at the same time, right?” she prompted him. “You were in that teen blockbuster together, surviving the apocalypse.”
Zane nodded, his handsome face twisted in pain. “I wanted to go to his funeral last month, but I was stuck here in court.”
“I was Brad’s PR consultant. And he called me too late. Part of my job is to change what you’re doing. I can’t dress up a pig and make it look like Marilyn Monroe. If you’re headed for a fall, sending you in a different direction is better PR than covering your tracks leading off the cliff. The producer of your play called me in time. Here’s what I can do to help you change your life.”
Wendy handed him the business card for one of her assistants. She explained that Stargazer Public Relations could get him whatever help he needed—post-divorce therapy, legal counsel to fight for increased visitation with his children, intervention if his substance abuse had escalated to that point—all without detection, so he could rest assured he wouldn’t read a sensationalized version of his private life in the tabloids the next day.
As she spoke, the worry lines in his forehead smoothed. He wouldn’t need to drown his troubles in a drink if he had assistance solving his problems discreetly. By the time she finished her lecture, he watched her with something like respect. “Thank you,” he whispered, squeezing her card between his fingers until it bowed.
“That’s what I’m here for,” she said. “But Zane, getting your life back in order will take time. Your number one priority right now is to make sure you come to rehearsal every day on time, sober, with a positive attitude.”
“I promise,” he said.
After a supportive hug good-bye and an attaboy pat on the back, she jogged down the stairs in her high heels and pushed open the door onto the street. She hopped into her waiting taxi and immediately texted the producer of the play. Zane had been late again today, but he wouldn’t be late tomorrow.
That was the plan, anyway. Wendy wasn’t convinced of Zane’s sincerity. She would be here at the same time tomorrow to make sure. If he still refused to cooperate, she had other ways of exerting pressure. She might pop in on one of the nightly after-hours parties that were making it so difficult for him to show up to work at one in the afternoon.
She looked up at the skyscrapers and bus-sized advertisements in Times Square spinning by outside the cab—the first time all day she’d had a chance to realize how much she’d missed New York, her adopted home. After a month in Seattle repairing PR for metal supergroup Darkness Fallz, which had been like herding cats, she’d arrived back in the city on the red-eye that morning, only to be thrust into meeting after meeting on a breakneck schedule. Usually her bosses didn’t meddle in her day-to-day business. They only wanted results. For some reason, today they’d required her to touch base with many of her important clients in the city. Zane hadn’t been on the list. She’d scheduled that ambush herself.
And she would pay for it now, because she was going to be late for her one thirty meeting with her bosses. She texted Sarah, her colleague and best friend since college.
R u in office? Could you tell bosses I’m in taxi & will be there in 10? They won’t mind too much if they have called meeting to promote me ha ha
Wendy tried to relax against the seat, scrolling through the thirty e-mail messages that had appeared on her phone in the ten minutes she’d spent on Zane’s dressing-down. But she willed the taxi to sprout wings and fly above the traffic to the Stargazer offices in Midtown. She would even pay extra. She hated being late. It was unprofessional, even though the time she’d stolen might have saved Zane’s career. And then she received an answering text from Sarah:
Done. Warning: bosses don’t seem happy.
As Wendy stared at the screen, her mind whirled with the possibilities. She’d been joking when she told Sarah she might get promoted, but she hadn’t thought it was out of the question. Could she be in trouble instead? Her methods might be unconventional sometimes, but she had a high success rate—despite Brad’s demise. In college she’d been second in her class among public relations majors, and the runner-up for the prestigious Clarkson Prize, awarded to the program’s most promising student. She did not get in trouble.
And she sounded just like Zane Taylor.
No, that was the jet lag talking. She desperately needed a fifth cup of coffee. Shaking her head to clear it, then pushing her hair behind her shoulders, she settled into her e-mail again, confident she could knock out half these messages before the taxi deposited her at Stargazer’s door. That would help free up her afternoon so she could deal with her other clients. They were counting on her to solve their problems, so she certainly didn’t have time to dwell on her own. Especially when they weren’t even real.
* * *
“I am very freaking likable!”
Wendy knew instantly she shouldn’t have said this to her three bosses across the conference room table. And she shouldn’t have said it so loudly.
Her direct supervisor, Katelyn, sat back in her leather chair and touched two manicured fingers to her perfect red lipstick, which had not smeared while she took dainty sips of coffee. Her supervisor, Jonathan, ducked his head and looked furtively over his shoulder at the Flatiron Building out the long bank of windows. But Archie, the head honcho of Stargazer PR, just put his chin in his big, hairy hand and scowled at Wendy, unflappable as ever.
She pretended she hadn’t noticed their reactions. She sipped her own coffee, trying her best to remain calm, though her blood pounded in her ears with over-caffeinated dread. She understood now that her bosses hadn’t called this meeting to talk strategy for Stargazer. They hadn’t brought her here to promote her, as she’d hoped, or even to talk her into representing Lorelei Vogel, the latest self-destructive client on the roster, as she’d feared. They’d ganged up on her so she wouldn’t pitch a fit—at least, not as much of one—when they fired her.
It had been ten years since Wendy had moved from West Virginia to Manhattan, coming for college and staying for her job with Stargazer. Now that she was losing her job, she didn’t have to move back to Morgantown. There was nothing left for her there. She wasn’t eighteen anymore, and she wasn’t vulnerable to Rick. But the way her panicked heart was racing, she might as well have been boarding the next bus back home.
“I mean,” she said, and her backtracking petered out. She’d already said what she’d meant. She did too much of that, which was her whole problem.
“Wendy,” Katelyn said, “you know we love you like a daughter.”
Wendy squinted at her. “A daughter you’re firing?”
“Yes!” Katelyn exclaimed. “If Arabella wasn’t up to snuff, I swear I’d hand her ass to her on a platter.” Her eyes shot sideways to Jonathan, who shook his head, warning of another outburst from Wendy. Taking the hint, Katelyn leaned forward across the table and patted Wendy’s hand soothingly. “Not that I’m trying to hand you your ass.”
Archie slouched diagonally in his chair with one ankle propped casually on the opposite knee. He punctuated each syllable with a plastic coffee spoon as he told Wendy, “You’re not really family, but we did want to make this as painless as possible for you, and this is the thanks we get?”
Gripping the arms of her chair, Wendy took a deep breath and said, “My job is to salvage the public images of stars who are about to go off the deep end. I’m dragging them back from the brink of drug addiction, alcoholism, whoring, or just plain stupidity before they fall into the abyss. Sometimes I go into the abyss after them and drag them out. They emerge kicking and screaming. You can’t expect them to like me.”
“That may be true,” Katelyn acknowledged. “By nature, your relationship with them is adversarial. However, if they hate you so much that they don’t want to work with you at all, we can’t send you anymore. You’re no good to us.”
“Who doesn’t want to work with me at all?” Wendy protested. Unfortunately, lots of possible answers rushed to mind. Zane topped the list.
“Brad McCain,” Jonathan piped up.
“That guy is dead,” Wendy told Jonathan. She was losing interest in being especially polite. Brad McCain was a sore point with her, and she wanted to set the record straight. She said quietly but firmly, “He was hell-bent on being dead, too. He was halfway there when you sent me to him.”
In fact, that was why they had sent Wendy. If anyone could have prevented Brad from getting plastered in a West Hollywood club and driving his Porsche off a mountain, over a privacy fence, and into the swimming pool of an up-and-coming handbag designer, it was Wendy. As it turned out, nobody could. But what she had done, after his death, was publicize that he’d set up his mom in a florist business and bought her a beautiful oceanside home in Florida. Because the public saw him in a more positive light, a movie studio rushed to release special editions of his older gross-out comedies, sending even more money to his deserving family.
Wendy had counted the case a partial success. Being accused of failure made her feel like crying in frustration. She couldn’t allow herself to tear up with her bosses watching her, so she did what she always did when she felt like crying. She lashed out. “If you want to present this argument to me, fine, but you can’t use the opinion of a dead guy as evidence.” She sounded bitter and defensive, and she knew it. She wasn’t just on shaky ground now. The ground crumbled under her feet. As she flailed, she couldn’t find a handhold.
“We’ve got a long list,” Archie said. “Not all of the complainants are dead. But the reason we’ve decided to terminate you today, Wendy, is that Darkness Fallz doesn’t want to work with you anymore. They never want to see you again. They’ve gone to the length of writing that into their new contract with their record company.”
Now Wendy felt like she’d been slapped. Darkness Fallz had sunk so low by the time Wendy was sent to them that they were getting fired from pub gigs in Tacoma because their meth-addicted lead singer couldn’t drag his ass to work at nine o’clock at night. The rest of the group had been grateful to Wendy when the funny, self-deprecating video she arranged to be shot for them went viral. They were invited to tour the talk shows, then to sign a new recording contract. She’d thought the lead singer might have been grateful to her, too, in the end, despite some of the things she’d said to him about acting like an overgrown Halloween trick-or-treater.
As the sting of the slap faded into a deep ache, again she felt like crying at the betrayal. Instead, she laughed shortly. “Their contract actually says they don’t want to work with me again?”
“Show her the contract, Katie,” Archie said.
Katelyn peered into her designer tote, thumbed through a stapled sheaf of papers to a particular page, and handed the contract across the table. Wendy took it as if Katelyn were dressed in a red rubber Satan costume like the lead singer of Darkness Fallz himself. She peered at the underlined sentence: Manhattan Music agrees that it will not employ Stargazer Public Relations to work with Darkness Fallz for the period of this contract.
To be on her bosses’ desks this morning, the contract must have been on its way while Wendy was still in Seattle, helping Darkness Fallz through their issues. Which hurt even more.
“The contract doesn’t specify me,” she grumbled.
“They meant you,” Jonathan said.
Katelyn told Wendy, “You’ve lost their business for everybody at Stargazer. We hear Manhattan Music has already retained another firm for them. Can you guess what firm that might be?”
Wendy knew. Katelyn wouldn’t have posed the question otherwise. Manhattan Music must have hired Stargazer’s biggest enemy, whose heir apparent was Wendy’s own arch-rival from college. Daniel Blackstone was the undisputed expert among PR experts at getting stars out of trouble. He was also one of Wendy’s least favorite people, along with her ex, Rick. But she was trying to save her job, so she swallowed her medicine. She attempted to look contrite rather than ill as she ventured, “The Blackstone Firm?”
“The Blackstone Firm,” Jonathan repeated in a whisper, as if he dared not say the name of the dragon too loudly for fear of calling it down from the icy mountain to slay them all.
“We can’t keep you on staff if you’re losing us business,” Katelyn explained.
“What about my current business?” Wendy asked, realizing as she did so that her bosses had already finished up her current business. That’s why they’d sent her all over town this morning, touching base with her clients. Her stars would feel taken care of for a few days, until Stargazer was able to send in someone else. But there was one client she’d met with on her own. “What about Zane Taylor?”
“We’re giving him to Tom,” Jonathan said.
Which was why her bosses hadn’t put Zane on her visitation list. She wanted to say something cutting about Tom Ruffner’s chances of whipping Zane into shape, but she couldn’t. She was Tom’s mentor and friend. And despite his youth and inexperience, Tom was good at this.
Wendy was beginning to feel expendable.
“But I get you business,” she said weakly. “Maybe my sunshiny personality doesn’t, but my results do. I’m the best you have at pulling stars out of scrapes. Am I right?”
“You’re right,” Archie said, “but you’re not doing us a lot of good if the stars employ us for a month, you pull them out of their scrape, and then they fire us. We need long-term relationships.”
“One more chance,” Wendy insisted. She realized her voice had risen again when a flock of pigeons burst from the window ledge behind her bosses in a flurry of wings.
Startled, Katelyn and Jonathan turned toward the window. As they faced the table again, they looked at each other and, barely perceptibly, shook their heads no. Archie told Wendy, “It’s so much easier to fire you.”
Lowering her voice, Wendy said, “Most workplaces would counsel an employee and allow her the chance to improve before giving her the ax.” Wendy understood that most employees didn’t cost their workplaces hundreds of thousands of dollars overnight, but she left that part out. “I’ll prove to you that I can help some guy out of the gutter and make him love me, too.”
Katelyn and Jonathan shook their heads more vigorously. Archie said, “The only star we’d even think about letting you near—” Now Jonathan was wagging his head no in an exaggerated fashion so Archie could see him out of the corner of his eye. Archie put his meaty hand on Jonathan’s shoulder to stay him, then continued, “—is the star who asked for you specifically, Wendy.”
“Lorelei Vogel?” Wendy guessed. It was that kind of day.
Archie watched her grimly, which meant yes.
Often when a huge star like Lorelei approached the agency, Wendy, Tom, and six other operatives fought over the account like lions over a piece of meat while a laid-back and calculating Sarah watched them as if she weren’t even hungry—which often resulted in the bosses handing the job to her. But nobody was touching Lorelei. Stargazer never turned down a difficult case, and the tacit message to employees was Deliver or die. Wendy knew if she saved her job today, Lorelei would likely be the death of her career anyway.
And she had another, much more personal reason to stay as far away from that chick as possible.
But Wendy’s future lay on the metal table in front of her, with Jonathan pulling the IV out of its arm, Katelyn holding her finger on the button to turn off life support, and Archie waiting with the body bag open and ready. Lorelei Vogel was Wendy’s only sad, unlikely chance at resuscitating her job.
“I’ll take it!” She slapped her hand on the table. The wood reverberated, the coffee sloshed, and all three bosses jumped. “You said Lorelei asked for me specifically. What do you have to lose?”
“A lot, honey,” Katelyn said. “This girl is the head-lining act for the Hot Choice Awards on Friday. If she melts down, she’s doing it on national television and taking our good name with her.”
“Maybe that won’t happen,” Wendy said. “Send me. I’ll meet this pretty delinquent with a smile on my face and a song in my heart. Maybe I’ll even straighten her out, and in that case, I want a raise and a promotion.”
Katelyn glanced at Jonathan, who watched Wendy as if a lunatic stranger had sat down to this conference with him. Wendy got this look from him a lot.
“Come on, you guys!” she pleaded. “You’re concentrating on failure. What if I turned this girl around and made her a showbiz darling? Think of all the recs Stargazer would get from that! And aren’t the Hot Choice Awards in Vegas? That’s perfect. You can’t win big if you don’t take a gamble.”
Archie raised his eyebrows at Katelyn. Satisfied with what he saw in her face, he told Wendy, “Sure. You’re hired. But on a trial basis only, sweetheart. We’ve made clear how we feel about you.”
“Thanks! You won’t regret it.” Wendy jumped up and crossed the conference room before her bosses could change their minds. She took slow, deep breaths and tried to rid herself of the feeling that the dark mountains of West Virginia crouched over her. Then closed her into a narrower and narrower valley until she slipped into the only escape available, a mine shaft, and fell forever.
* * *
Daniel Blackstone was rolling his suitcase into his Las Vegas hotel room when he remembered he was supposed to call his father in New York first thing on arrival. Daniel rarely forgot to touch base with his father. He knew he wasn’t as good a PR rep as his brother would have been. He wouldn’t be as good a president of the company when he took over next month, either, which was why his father deemed it necessary to monitor him. Normally this thought made him feel sorry for his father and sad for his lost brother. But today he was jet-lagged and exhausted, and all he felt was angry.
He would not be calling his father until he was good and ready.
He surveyed the room. In a corner, the hotel staff had set up a bar for him with bottles of expensive liquor and a fresh bucket of ice, as he’d requested. He wasn’t much of a drinker, but the job required it. When he was forced to play host, the setup looked cool. He hoped he wouldn’t need it at eleven in the morning Vegas time. If he did, he was in trouble already.
Satisfied with this arrangement, he surveyed the rest of the place. It was smallish for a luxury suite, smaller than one in L.A. but a damn sight bigger than one in Tokyo. There was a sitting area, a desk where he would spend most of the next week or however long he was stuck here, and a king-size bed. Windows extended the length of the room, with a killer view of the Strip.
At midmorning, the casinos across the street didn’t seem like the wonderlands they were advertised to be. They only looked vast, mostly blocking the dun-colored mountains in the distance. But he knew from experience that in the older, mellow part of the night, after however many drinks his job had demanded of him, he could lie on this bed, look out at the lights glowing in the signs and reflecting against the glass faces of the buildings, and dream that he was on his last trip to London with his brother.
It had been the best week of his life. He’d visited his grandparents every year of his childhood, but this time he and his brother had gone alone to England, in advance of their parents and their little sister. They’d explored the countryside, nearly wrecked their rental car driving on the wrong side of the road, gotten drunk in countless pubs, and marveled at the punk girls in this strange part of the world. That shining vacation, all color, was the last time he’d seen his brother alive.
Since then, all his trips had been filled with black-and-white business for his father. Looming overhead was the inevitability of not doing everything as perfectly as his brother would have, and letting his father down. The women Daniel had dated had told him how jealous they were of him, flying to the world’s priciest and toniest resort destinations, hanging out with the stars, and enjoying fine dining and the best entertainment the world had to offer. He would have preferred some actual downtime and the chance to wander off the beaten path. He did love to travel, but not like this.
What he wouldn’t give to explore Vegas with his brother.
He wanted to ride the roller coaster around the faux skyline at the New York casino. He wanted to see every cheesy washed-up pop star in concert, and maybe a few magicians. He wanted to visit Hoover Dam, even fly over it in a helicopter like a tourist. He wanted to hike Red Rock Canyon. He wanted to win a thousand dollars at craps and feel the high, then lose two thousand and actually miss the money. He wanted to pawn something for cash to win his money back. He wanted a massage in a serene spa. He didn’t deal with call girls, but it would have been nice to share his nights with a beautiful, loose woman, lost like him and lonely.
The thick window was the only barrier between his business trip and the tourists far below who were just waking up and heading onto the Strip for lunch and more gambling.
The hotel room might not be spacious, but he would take it.
He placed his bag on the suitcase rack and zipped it open. He lined up his shoes in the bottom of the closet, then hung his shirts neatly on hangers with ties around the hooks and suit coats draped over the shoulders. He tried to make his job easier by dressing well and giving the most professional, least approachable impression possible. This helped immensely when lecturing stars on why they needed to stop fathering illegitimate children. Leaving his things crammed in his suitcase bothered him and would mean more ironing later. He didn’t have time to send things out for pressing. He was in crisis mode.
The drama with Colton Farr was still unfolding downstairs. Colton’s bodyguard had texted to say that Colton was in the casino, down almost a hundred thousand dollars at blackjack. Not something that would help with Colton’s image problem—as if urinating in the fountain at the Bellagio last night and getting evicted from the hotel hadn’t been bad enough. When witnesses had called police, Colton’s bodyguard had called Colton’s agent, who’d contacted the Blackstone Firm for crisis management.
This case was so high profile that Daniel’s father himself might have taken it last year. But he was retiring in a month. He was backing away from company duties he didn’t want. It had been Daniel who’d taken the 4 a.m. call and talked the Bellagio manager down from pressing charges—even though Daniel had just finished a monthlong stint in Hollywood, threatening four different people into working together or else. He’d gotten back to Manhattan two nights ago, exhausted and happy to see his cat. Now this.
Personally, he didn’t care whether Colton Farr crashed and burned. He had a handful of clients whose work he respected, like Victor Moore, who’d made some very good action movies. In contrast, Colton Farr went around insulting women and pissing in public places, and Daniel did not do either, so he really didn’t understand why this guy deserved saving, except that it would pay for Daniel’s father’s new Maserati.
Daniel ducked into the bathroom to glance at his hair, which he’d kept short and neat since he’d grown out of his teenage punk phase. Satisfied with his reflection, he turned for the door.
An afterthought stopped him, an image he’d glimpsed in the mirror but had been slower to process. He leaned back into the bathroom and took another look at himself.
That’s what he’d half noticed: the dark shadows under his eyes. He’d always loathed his own harsh face, all angles and planes that looked whiter against his black hair. By the same token, looking naturally mean gave him an edge when he needed to twist a star’s arm. But the shadows under his eyes were new as of a few weeks ago and had gotten progressively worse. There was looking harsh, and then there was looking haggard. Not good for business. He needed to appear as if he was about to run the company, not like it was running him.
He touched the dark skin under one eye, then released it and watched the color flow back into his white fingerprint. GQ was always recommending products for issues like this, products that would inevitably be declared useless by Consumer Reports. He wished for a miracle cream—tubs of it if the stress continued at this level when he took over the Blackstone Firm. Enough for all the years he stayed in charge.
Which would be until his father either died or didn’t know the difference anymore when his beloved business closed for good.
Thirty years from now, possibly.
When Daniel himself would be nearing retirement age.
He straightened and shot himself a disdainful look for being so vain. He had no time to worry about it, anyway. He had a spoiled actor to corral.
Shrugging on his suit coat, he walked to the elevator—a short walk rather than the mile-long trek some vacationers endured in these massive hotels, because he’d made friends with the staff many trips ago—pressed the button for the casino, rode down dozens of floors, and stepped into the cacophony. Slot machines beeped and sang cheerfully. Gamblers laughed and clapped each other on the back. Skirting them all, he headed for the high-roller gaming tables, where the employees still smiled but the clientele grew serious.
He spotted Colton right away, despite the disguise. Colton was average height but broad from working with a personal trainer for the past seven years, ever since he first became the fourteen-year-old heartthrob of a teen sitcom. His UCLA sweatshirt didn’t hide his shoulders any more than his trucker hat hid his highlighted blond hair. He wore designer shades in the dim and flickering light of the slot machines, which could only mean he was a professional gambler, a star, or a wannabe.
But even if he hadn’t looked the part, his entourage at the blackjack table would have given him away: his bodyguard standing behind him, arms crossed, with a conspicuous earpiece that probably wasn’t even turned on; his driver, who’d transported everyone from L.A. and deposited them safely in Vegas, and wouldn’t serve a purpose again, except as a drinking buddy, until the Hot Choice Awards were over five days from now, when he would drive them back home; and a call girl. The woman sat next to Colton at the table, placing her cleavage in his line of sight as he looked to the dealer and signaled for another card.
Daniel paused beside a sparkling bank of slot machines and surveyed the rest of the casino floor. He counted three security guards posted around the vast room, back near the walls, making themselves known in their cheap suits and speaking occasionally into real microphones attached to real earpieces. Two different groups of tourists seemed to have recognized Colton and discussed approaching him, which was why the security guards were there, and why, if Daniel had been consulted, he never would have let Colton out in public in Vegas. Not when the whole country knew he was here for the Hot Choice Awards. And not when he was insulting his ex-girlfriend on the Internet and pissing in fountains.
A couple of other men sat at the table with Colton, both tourists. One was dressed almost exactly like Colton in a sports cap and a sports T-shirt. He even looked a bit like an older Colton, all blond muscle, but without Colton’s soft and pampered features. This guy looked like he opened beer bottles with his teeth. The other man, skinnier and balding, wore a loud Hawaiian shirt.
There was nothing inherently suspicious about tourists sitting at a Vegas table with a celebrity. Stars liked to mix with real humans once in a while.
But as Daniel watched, Hawaiian shirt man, who was sitting on the other side of the call girl from Colton, touched her shoulder. This surprised Daniel. They definitely hadn’t seemed to be together. Daniel had a lot of experience browbeating pimps away from his clients. This guy didn’t give off a pimp vibe.
Sure enough, the touch that passed between Hawaiian shirt guy and the woman had been a signal. Without taking her eyes off Colton, the woman leaned back in her chair until her breasts were no longer blocking him. Hawaiian shirt man pulled something out of his back pocket.
Before Daniel realized what he was doing, he was moving across the floor toward the table. He didn’t shout because that would draw attention to himself rather than the paparazzo pulling out the camera and the woman backing away to give him a clear shot. Daniel hoped Colton’s bodyguard would see the man before he got his photograph and escaped through the casino. The guy might not make it outside, but all he needed to earn his pay from the tabloids was to upload his photo. The casino would ban him and perhaps have him arrested for taking a photo on their property. Too little, too late, if the photo was already out in the world by then.
A photo of Colton losing a hundred thousand dollars, with a prostitute.
Daniel rounded the table. The bodyguard would see the photographer any moment. The security guards would come to assist. Daniel only had to get a hand between the camera lens and Colton. He reached out.
Colton perceived Daniel’s reaching arm and the camera. He half stood and awkwardly swung up his fist from behind him. The photographer leaped sideways off his stool.
Daniel had enough time to cringe at what was coming but not enough time to duck out of the way as Colton’s meaty fist connected with his eye. The impact launched him backward. His body met something solid that grabbed his arms—probably the bodyguard, finally doing his job.
Daniel pressed down the almost overwhelming urge to fight, to jerk out of the bodyguard’s grasp and slug him, then go after Colton. Long years of practice hadn’t rid him of that instinct but had given him superhuman strength to suppress it. Before he could see or clear his head of the throbbing, he said in as commanding a voice as he could muster, “I’m Daniel Blackstone. I just arrived from New York to handle PR. Get this guy’s camera before he can upload.”
Released from the bodyguard’s grip, he stood blinking, half wishing the bodyguard still propped him up. He struggled to stay upright while bringing the suddenly too-bright casino lights back into focus. The security guards had come forward to help the bodyguard manhandle the photographer and the call girl. The gawkers stared from behind an imaginary velvet rope, unwilling to join the fray but eager to find out what trouble Colton Farr had gotten himself into now.
Daniel had to hustle Colton out of there before more cameras were produced. He stepped around the table to where Colton, fists on his hips, scowled over his driver’s shoulder at the photographer. Daniel said softly, “I’m your new PR specialist. Come with me.”
Colton looked Daniel up and down, assessing. His gaze lingered on Daniel’s eye, which was probably bruising by now. Colton’s lip curled. “I’m down a hundred thou. I was just getting my mojo back. I’m not going anywhere.”
Daniel felt his own fists clenching down by his sides. He’d thought his impulsiveness had been shamed out of him by his father many years before. But at the moment, it was all he could do to keep from slamming this smug asshole square on his nose job. He quashed the startling thought that he wasn’t going to leave Vegas without doing just that.
But not now. Now he had a public relations disaster to avert, whether or not Colton wanted to cooperate. He gave Colton his coldest stare as he said, “You called me, Farr. I have plenty of other business. Come with me, immediately, or I will take the next flight back to New York and bill you for my wasted time.”
Colton stared back at Daniel for several seconds while Daniel calculated what his own next move would be. He didn’t have a friend in the place, and his dizziness was progressing into vertigo. The only tool he had, really, was the illusion of control, which was somewhat difficult to sustain with a black eye developing.
Colton turned to his bodyguard, whose foot was resting on the photographer’s head. “We’ve got to talk shop. Can you take care of this?”
“Sure thing,” the bodyguard grunted.
Daniel spoke to security. “Even if you don’t see the picture, get the camera. And tell the casino to ban the photographer and the prostitute, or Mr. Farr is checking out.” The Bellagio had asked Colton to vacate after the fountain-pissing incident last night. But some casinos were pickier than others. This one was happy to be associated with any star, even a tasteless and mentally unstable one.
Impressed with Daniel’s confidence, but not sure whether they were supposed to be taking orders from him, the bodyguard and security guards nodded at him.
Daniel wasn’t satisfied. He would have preferred a “yes, sir.” He wasn’t satisfied with his own handling of the situation, either. The other tourist, the one who resembled a battle-hardened Colton, might have been involved in the conspiracy to snap Colton’s photo, too. But he’d disappeared. Daniel had lost track of him. And there was only so much Daniel could ask of himself under the circumstances, with his eye throbbing and threatening to fall out of his face. He turned to usher Colton toward the elevator.
Colton stayed planted to the spot. Daniel thought he knew why. Colton’s ex-girlfriend, Lorelei Vogel, was also a guest at this hotel. Colton had been furiously feuding with her online since their all-too-public breakup a few weeks ago, but that only gave away how invested he was in the failed relationship. As long as she was staying here, he wouldn’t want to leave.
Daniel put his hand on Colton’s shoulder—trying not to flare his nostrils in distaste as he did so—and assured him quietly, “The casino will take care of this, and you’ll still be here tomorrow.”
As if in answer, from behind them came the sounds of a scuffle, several chairs turning over, and a shrieking call girl.
“Don’t look,” Daniel advised Colton, afraid that his client’s image could still get snapped by a curious passerby, and the headline on the cover of the tabloid would be COLTON FARR INVOLVED IN CASINO BRAWL WITH PROSTITUTE. The article inside would explain that Colton was involved only tangentially, but nobody would read the article. They would only glance at the headline and photo in the grocery store checkout line and reach a verdict about Colton.
And turn the channel when the Hot Choice Awards aired Friday night.
Daniel managed to prevent that catastrophe, at least. He steered Colton all the way into the elevator, growling, “Don’t turn around,” as the doors slid shut behind them.
Feigning her usual confidence, Wendy strode out of the conference room and stopped to talk with one of her assistants. “I’m on the Lorelei Vogel case, so I need access to all those files on the server, please. And tell the travel office I’m flying to Vegas this afternoon. Have them text me the deets.”
“Vegas!” the young woman exclaimed. “You are so lucky!”
“I feel lucky.” Wendy walked through the wide room of cubicles, toward her own office. She consciously quieted her high-heeled footsteps as she approached the open door of Tom’s office. She loved Tom like a younger brother, but if he wrapped his arms around her and hugged her close in the hallway to comfort her, she would lose what little composure she had left. She hoped he wouldn’t call out to her as she sneaked past.
“Hey, Wendy.” He had senses like a Navy SEAL.
Reluctantly she peeked into his office. He sat with his elbows on his desk and his chin in his hands. As she appeared, he turned his head slightly to shift his mischievous blue eyes from his computer screen to her. Tom had been hired a couple of summers before, fresh out of college and four years younger than Wendy and Sarah. At the time, her overall opinion of him had been twofold: that his still-in-college girlfriend was very, very fortunate, and that he was a complete mess.
Fearing for his job safety, Wendy had tried to impress on him the importance of looking professional at work. He’d responded to her suggestion with as much alacrity as Sarah had, which was none. Today he wore a wrinkled blazer over a rock band T-shirt, and he hadn’t shaved. In fact, he never seemed to shave, which was impossible. He must have shaved sometime or he would have looked like a member of ZZ Top. Wendy called him Scruffy. Sarah argued that Scruffy sounded like a border collie, but Tom was more of a German shepherd. He looked friendly, he acted playful, but he had a dangerous air about him. When Wendy talked about him like he was a little brother, Sarah pointed out that he was like a little brother who had been to prison.
“What happened at your meeting with the bosses?” he asked Wendy. His eyes widened as he saw her expression. “Wendy, I—”
She shook her head. She shouldn’t need to be comforted by him, when she was supposed to be his mentor. She just needed to get to Vegas and perform a miracle. She fled past Sarah’s office to her own and quietly closed her door.
She stood in the small space beside her desk with her hands pressed to her eyes, trying to remember whether there was anything hidden in her office that would incriminate her or any of her clients if the bosses fired her while she was in Vegas. Looking around the office would do no good because on the surface it was clean and pristine, with her huge bulletin board sectioned into the clients she was responsible for and their current whereabouts—though she hadn’t yet updated Brad’s column to read six feet under. Disentangling the nightmarishly junky drawers of her desk and filing cabinet would take years. Even she didn’t know what was in there. But she didn’t think she was in possession of anything that would get anyone in trouble, now that Brad McCain was dead.
A knock sounded in the hall—on Sarah’s door, not Wendy’s. “Come in,” Sarah called. Then, through the thin wall, Wendy could make out only the murmur of Sarah’s and Tom’s hushed voices. But she knew Tom was telling Sarah that Wendy had had a bad meeting. Sarah would knock on Wendy’s door any second.
Wendy didn’t want to recount the meeting to Sarah. Then she really would cry. She sat down at her desk, hoping she could give Sarah the impression that she was busy with work. She opened the top drawer and quickly closed it again. The mess was depressing. She truly was a neat person, but the appearance of neatness was more important than neatness itself. And maintaining that appearance sometimes meant she raked everything on the desk into the drawer. Repeatedly. And then she got sent to Nashville or Paris and never got a day for spring cleaning. Usually the disorder didn’t bother her, but at the moment it seemed overwhelming.
The inevitable knock sounded at her door.
She covered her face with both hands, willing that despair away, that feeling of being forever lost down a mine shaft. “I didn’t cry until now,” she called softly.
“Of course you didn’t cry,” Sarah whispered, closing the door behind her. Wendy heard the swish of Sarah’s too-casual-for-work, thinly disguised gym pants against the guest chair as she sat down.
Wendy suppressed a sob. “Don’t hug me or I’ll lose it. I have to get out of here and go home and pack and catch a flight.”
“I won’t hug you,” Sarah said in the soothing Alabama drawl she hadn’t quite shaken after ten years in New York. “So you’re not fired? Tom thought you got fired.”
Wendy explained the clause in the Darkness Fallz contract. Then she burst out, “You and I should break off and form our own PR firm. Take Tom with us.” Even as she said this, her stomach knotted in dread. Going out on her own might mean failure, and she couldn’t fail. If she failed, she would lose her savings, her apartment . . . that was all she had.
“I’m not cut out for it,” Sarah said, waving the idea away with one hand. “I love my job, but I want to do it only so many hours a week, you know? I want to be off when I’m off. I want to train for marathons. I want to hang out with Harold on the weekends.”
Wendy tried not to grimace at the mention of Sarah’s husband, Harold. Wendy hated that guy. Sarah was beautiful—or she could be, with a little makeup and any hair care at all and a proper brassiere to replace her sports bra—but Harold treated her like he was in college and she was the high school girl back home that he’d grown tired of but didn’t have the guts to break up with.
“You still have a job, though?” Sarah asked. “How’d you pull that off?”
“Lorelei Vogel asked for me,” Wendy grumbled.
“But that’s great!” Sarah said. “I mean, that’s a deep hole to dig out of, but if you were going to have to represent Lorelei anyway, you’re not significantly worse off than you were earlier this morning. Yet.”
“If I hadn’t been fired,” Wendy said, “I would have done anything to avoid this case. Lorelei’s ex, Colton Farr, reminds me of Rick.” Wendy had thought she would feel better getting this off her chest. Instead the memories of Rick threatening her loomed over her.
No wonder she’d had a visceral reaction to Zane standing so close to her an hour ago. She’d heard around the office that Lorelei wanted representation. Wendy had subconsciously made the connection to Colton, then to Rick, and then she’d started seeing Rick in everybody. The way her day was going, it had been inevitable that she would land in the one assignment that would scare the hell out of her.
“Rick?” Sarah exclaimed. “No. I see the physical resemblance to Colton, but no. You can’t let yourself go there.”
Sarah had met Rick only once, when he’d appeared in their dorm before classes started freshman year and demanded that Wendy come with him to talk alone. Sarah had rushed to call campus security, but not before Rick had backed Wendy against the wall with his thick arm across her throat.
“They both say their girlfriends are beautiful angels until they misbehave,” Wendy grumbled, “at which point their girlfriends become stupid bitches.”
“Hey!” Sarah exclaimed. “Snap out of it.”
That’s when Wendy realized she’d huddled into a ball in her desk chair, hugging herself, just as she had whenever Rick called her names.
“Colton isn’t Rick,” Sarah pointed out.
“Right.” Wendy straightened in her chair and lifted her chin.
“And if they do have anything in common,” Sarah said, “you’ll be doing Lorelei a service by helping her distance herself from Colton.”
“I would have preferred running away.”
“Yeah,” Sarah agreed. “Do you want the rundown of what Lorelei and Colton have been up to?”
“I need to get home and pack. I don’t have time for the rundown. But . . . ” Wendy cringed. “I can tell from your face it’s bad.”
Sarah nodded. “And as of today, Colton is repped by—”
“The Blackstone Firm?” Wendy exclaimed. “I have to rep Lorelei Vogel, I have to make her like me while I do it, and I have to extricate her from an Internet brouhaha with my ex-boyfriend’s doppelganger, who’s now a Blackstone Firm client? The only way that could get any worse is if Daniel Blackstone is the rep.”
Sarah opened her hands. “I heard his dad is retiring and Daniel is taking over the firm soon. I doubt that’s happened yet or we would have heard. It’s feasible that Daniel is in Vegas right now, notching his belt with one last triumph.”
“Notching his belt,” Wendy muttered. “Better than his bedpost, I guess.” She dabbed her fingertips under her eyes, checking for smeared mascara, feeling completely dead.
“I know this sounds unlikely,” Sarah said, scooting to the edge of her chair, “but I actually came in here to make you feel better.”
“It’s okay,” Wendy croaked. “I’m glad you warned me.”
“Don’t sit here thinking about it,” Sarah said. “Thinking helps most people, but you tend to do better with no thought whatsoever.”
Sarah rose. Wendy did too, and they embraced after all, just as they had when Sarah got married, and when Wendy got Sarah the job at Stargazer, and when all Wendy’s college boyfriends broke up with her with final salvos of bitch!—every single one of them—and when Daniel Blackstone beat out Wendy for the Clarkson Prize.
Rubbing Wendy’s back, Sarah pulled away and looked her in the eye. “If you get in trouble, Tom and I will come help you on Stargazer’s tab. Now go. You can do it.” She turned and disappeared into the hallway.
Wendy went after her. “Sarah,” she called.
Sarah paused at her own door.
“If I do get fired while I’m gone,” Wendy said, “and you’re sent to clean out my office and you happen to come across some crack, just flush it down the toilet.”
Sarah arched one eyebrow. Tom must have been standing near the door of his office, listening, because he slowly leaned into the hall to peek at Wendy, and slowly disappeared again.
* * *
Half an hour later, as the doors of the elevator in Wendy’s apartment building slid shut in front of her, she grinned at her reflection in the polished brass. She couldn’t afford to dwell on the very real possibility that she was about to lose her job. She had to capitalize on her small chance to save the job she’d worked her ass off to snag in the first place. A positive attitude could do just that if she managed to couple it with whipping Lorelei Vogel into shape.
When she smiled like this, with her long blond hair cascading around her shoulders, a stranger might mistake her for a model, or even a starlet like the ones she shoveled out of trouble. She’d been told her features came from the mother she’d hardly known—though Wendy gave those natural looks a generous helping of maintenance and grooming and product. She took very good care of herself. She’d overheard boys in high school saying she was the most beautiful girl at the party until she opened her mouth. Ever since, she’d worked hard at staying the most beautiful girl, because her mouth was going to open sooner or later, and she couldn’t seem to control what came out of it. Facials were so much easier than staying silent.
That had to change. For the entirety of this trip to Vegas, she would need to pretend she was a benevolent, motherly person. As the second floor, the third floor, the fourth floor slid past, signaled by dark spaces through the crack between the doors, she winked at her reflection good-naturedly. Now she looked like a stranger. Which might be a good thing at this point.
At her own floor, she opened her apartment door carefully in case her turtle was behind it. He wasn’t there, but an unopened package was, piled with a scarf and a coat she hadn’t worn since March. When she wasn’t on a difficult case, she was very neat. When she was on a difficult case, which was most of the time, she lived at the office or on location with her client and used her apartment as a dump. Sarah said Wendy’s apartment looked like the inside of Wendy’s mind, which was probably true. She tried to straighten up between jobs, but this time she’d missed her chance. She had a plane to catch.
She could clean for the turtle, though. She scrubbed his terrarium and filled his reservoir with fresh water. Then she scanned her apartment for him. He wasn’t in the potted tree by the window, where he usually hung out. She looked around the ramp she’d propped there so he could get out of the pot if he wanted. After a cursory search of her living room, she realized she was going to need to conduct more than a cursory search, because there were too many sweaters, sheaves of paper, files, and packages of books on the floor. He could be behind or inside any of them.
Oh God, she was going to miss her flight because her turtle was lost. She’d nearly been fired today, and now her turtle was going to starve to death in her absence. She resisted the urge to call to him. She didn’t know whether he would come or not. She’d never had the patience to test this. Even if he did come when called, it would take him five years.
On a hunch, she opened the closet door wider and peered into the dark corner behind mounds of her shoes. There he was, exactly where she’d found him six years before when she moved in—the last owner’s cast-off pet and a kindred spirit for Wendy, who’d felt like her father’s afterthought.
She inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly, relieved her turtle was safe.
She picked him up, a small but solid mass, and gave him her usual stern warning: “Don’t pee on me.” She carefully placed him in the terrarium, secured the jar of turtle food under her arm, and picked up the tank with both hands. She negotiated the door of her apartment with some difficulty and gently kicked the next door, hoping she wasn’t waking Bob.
She heard him move toward her from across his apartment. The footsteps paused as he looked through the peephole at her. Opening the door, he was already holding out his arms for the tank. She tried not to stare, but it was always shocking to see him without his wig and makeup and corset.
“Thanks a million,” she said. “Sorry to do this to you again so soon. It’s almost like he’s your turtle instead of mine.”
“Hi, Wendy,” a voice called from the depths of the apartment.
She leaned around the doorframe and called back, “Hi, Marvin.” Bob’s boyfriend probably didn’t want to greet her in person because of what he was wearing. Or not.
“It’s no problem,” Bob told her. “Turtles don’t bark.” He slid the terrarium onto a table near the door and took the jar of food from her. “Plus banana?”
“Just a tiny bit of whatever fruit you’re eating, yeah.”
“How long this time?”
“Maybe a week. I’ll be in Vegas.” Wendy gave him her optimistic grin. The effort in front of a friend made her so tired that she sagged against his doorjamb. “Longer, I hope, because I’m probably going to get fired at the end of it.”
“Oh, honey!” He stuck out his bottom lip sympathetically. “I can get you a job if you need one.”
“Thanks.” Wendy kept grinning. The threat of working at a strip club was one of the many reasons she’d been so eager to escape Morgantown.
“Kidding!” Bob exclaimed. “You would never pass for a man dressed up as a woman, unless we strategically placed your hair, Lady Godiva.” The turtle food rattled as he switched the jar to his other hand so he could tug her blond locks. “Vegas, huh? Who are you bailing out of trouble? Colton Farr?”
“No, the Blackstone Firm handles him.” She thought again of her nemesis from college, Daniel Blackstone. He was gorgeous in an ultraconservative way, his dark hair cropped close and perfectly styled, his dark eyes haughty, a hint of his father’s British accent breaking through when he gave a formal presentation in class. She felt a wash of pleasure at the thought that if he was indeed the rep whom the Blackstone Firm had sent, he had worse problems than she did today.
“What’s the latest you’ve heard on Colton?” she asked Bob.
“He got arrested last night for pissing in the fountain at the Bellagio,” Bob said.
“You’re kidding!” Wendy squealed in delight. “There’s a wall around the fountain. How did he balance up there long enough to whip it out?”
“In addition to his storied acting career, he has his own line of exercise equipment, remember?” Bob wagged his eyebrows. “He’s in good shape.”
“That is revolting and fantastic. Maybe I can engineer other inappropriate places for him to pee, and that will draw people’s attention away from my client. I feel so much better.” Wendy leaned in and kissed Bob on one baby-smooth cheek.
“Who’s your client?” Bob asked.
Bob’s eyes widened. “Girl, she’s much worse than Colton Farr. Best of luck straightening out that little hellcat. You’re as good as fired.”
Wendy stuck her fingers in her ears. “La la la, I am not listening to you.” She backed through the door into her own apartment.
Glancing at the texts from the travel office on her phone, she saw her plane was leaving in two hours. She would have barely enough time to negotiate a taxi to the airport and the line through security, and she could not screw this up. She sprinted for her bedroom, snagged the suitcase she hadn’t yet unpacked from her trip to Seattle, slung it onto her bed, and dumped it out to start over for a new city. She’d spent enough time with debauched stars in Vegas that she had a good idea what she needed to pack.
No, string bikini.
Teddy with matching thong.
Headband with bunny ears and cottontail to clip onto the back of her thong. Some celebrity parties got a little weird.
She didn’t really want to take the ears and tail. She lifted them from her suitcase and put them back into her dresser drawer. But if she didn’t take them, she would certainly need them. She would waste money and, more importantly when she was working, waste an hour buying another set. Shaking her head, she set them in her suitcase again.
Scissors. Wendy’s hair was long, and Vegas was sticky.
As she packed, butterflies fluttered in her stomach. In the past, she’d loved going on salvage missions. She’d thought she was helping people. And she felt high whenever she grabbed the point of someone else’s rising star and held on for the ride. People all over America bought the tabloids and followed actresses’ every move online, fascinated with the lifestyle and the glamour. Wendy had grown up one of those starstruck girls. She still was one, even now that she’d seen divas at their worst.
But as she folded the complicated bra she wore with her lowest-cut shirt and tucked both garments into her suitcase, she realized this time would be different. She was desperate to save her job. And Daniel Blackstone might be there, stepping on her toes, getting in her way, looking down on her for making a ninety-seven on Dr. Abbott’s speech-writing midterm when he’d gotten a ninety-eight. If he actively tried to screw her up—which wasn’t out of the question, considering how strongly his father and her bosses hated each other—she would prove no match for him. Though she was in a terrible hurry now, the recurring thought of him drove her to her bathroom to touch up her makeup and brush her hair.
No, not just because of him, she assured herself. She never knew whom she’d run into on the flight from New York to Vegas. It was a common route for people in PR. Many of the biggest stars lived in New York and chose Vegas as the location for their nervous breakdowns.
As she wheeled her suitcase through her apartment, she slowed at the bulletin board beside the door. It was always the last thing she saw when she left her apartment, and she’d tacked things there that made her happy: A few photos of herself with Sarah. A few shots of herself with stars she’d saved and who hadn’t thrown her to the wolves afterward. Printouts of e-mail messages from those stars and from Katelyn, Jonathan, and Archie, praising her for jobs well done.
Squeezing her eyes shut against the tears, she kept rolling right out of the apartment. Her meeting with the bosses today was just a blip on the map of her career that nobody would remember this time next year, when she was enjoying her promotion and her raise. She would save Lorelei Vogel from herself. Lorelei would enjoy it and beg to retain Wendy’s services forever. Vegas would be welcoming. Wendy would not have occasion to use the rubbing alcohol after all. And maybe Daniel Blackstone wouldn’t even be there.
* * *
Daniel wanted to sag against the elevator wall and gingerly touch his mauled eye to assess the damage. But he wasn’t alone—Colton was with him—so he was still on display. He stood up straight in the elevator with his hands down by his sides. Breathing evenly through his nose, he tried not to think about thirty more years of keeping his cool in this job.
“I’m sorry I hit you, man,” Colton said quietly.
Bullshit. Daniel glared at Colton. But searching Colton’s face, he saw no malice. On a pained sigh he said, “It’s okay. All in a day’s work.”
Colton’s bleached blond brows shot up. “Really?”
“No,” Daniel said, losing his battle with showing his annoyance.
The doors parted. He stepped through them and led the way down the hall. As he slid his key card through the door lock and pushed open the door for Colton, he was glad he’d taken a few extra minutes to make sure he left the room neat. Shoulders sagging, Colton looked like a kid in the principal’s office in these professional quarters. Colton had been in his own suite only a few hours, but Daniel suspected it was already littered with beer cans.
Gesturing to the sofas overlooking the blinding day-lit Strip, Daniel muttered, “Have a seat. Excuse me just a moment.” He took a deep breath, then peeked through the bathroom door at the mirror.
His eye looked exactly as bad as it felt. At least his whole socket wasn’t bruised, but the knuckle mark underneath was turning from red to purple. For the life of him he couldn’t remember a single piece of advice that GQ had ever dispensed about this.
He hated this job.
He drew his phone from his pocket and checked his messages. He’d silenced it because it had been chiming all morning with new negative publicity for Colton. Now, among the many e-mail updates of how strongly the public hated Colton, Daniel’s office had flagged the message containing the worst news of all. Colton’s unhinged ex-girlfriend had hired Stargazer, a public relations firm second only to the Blackstone Firm for averting Hollywood career disasters. They were scrappy, resourceful, irreverent—the opposite of the Blackstone Firm in every way. And Wendy Mann was one of their top agents. She was a likely candidate to take on Lorelei, since some of her time would be freed up now that she’d lost representation of Darkness Fallz to the Blackstone Firm.
Daniel had thought of her only occasionally in the six years since graduation, whenever she came up in work-related conversation. But he’d thought about her a lot in college. Battled with her over an academic prize that he had to win or risk embarrassing his father. Wished that they weren’t enemies, because the very sight of her turned him on, not to mention the knowing tone in her husky laugh. She’d been the star of all his hormone-fueled college fantasies. He was sure if he saw her in person now, he would turn beet-red with embarrassment at what was going on in his head, as if she could see it herself.
He crossed the hotel room to the bar and dropped a few ice cubes into two glasses. Then he sloshed in a generous helping of Kentucky bourbon, in honor of Wendy, who was originally from down south somewhere. As he poured the amber liquid, he wasn’t sure whether he meant the drink as a bane to keep her away or a charm to bring her closer. One thing was certain: if she really was representing Lorelei, Wendy was about to make his job a whole lot harder.
He sipped his drink. The bourbon had a sharper kick than he’d expected from its refined look—like Wendy, he thought briefly, before snapping back to reality. He rounded the sofa to hand the other drink to Colton.
“Thanks.” Colton took a big gulp. “You might want to put yours on that eye.” He held his own cold glass near his eye to show Daniel what he meant.
Daniel sank onto the opposite sofa, careful to give the impression he was sitting rather than collapsing. He gave Colton a tight smile, though smiling was the last thing he felt like doing. “Tell me why your agent brought me out here.”
Colton let his head loll back against the sofa, suddenly weary, though he’d seemed chipper enough when blackjack and a call girl were available. “I’m supposed to emcee this stupid televised awards show Friday night, but they have a stupid morality clause. They’re threatening to replace me. They say nobody’s going to tune in because of what I’m saying online?”
Daniel cleared his throat. “It may have more to do with your peculiar choice of where to relieve yourself. What was that about last night?”
“I was so wasted, and my driver dared me. I never back out of a dare. Usually my bodyguard stops me from doing stupid shit. My driver and I snuck out. I’m ashamed.” Colton gave Daniel a lopsided grin that might have been charming if they hadn’t been talking about a grown man pissing in a fountain, and if Daniel hadn’t wanted to kill him.
“I don’t care about the awards show so much,” Colton admitted, “but my agent’s got me on the short list for some big flicks, okay? Action movies that would make my career. My agent thinks if the awards show replaces me, the movies won’t want me, either, because I’ll look like a liability.”
“Your agent is a smart man,” Daniel said.
Colton grimaced and gulped his bourbon. “I’m working with you to make my agent happy, but he’s overreacting. No way is the awards show going to replace me this late in the game.”
“Really?” Daniel asked. “How much rehearsal have you done so far?”
“None. Rehearsal starts tomorrow, but—”
“So,” Daniel broke in, “if you’re pissing in a fountain that’s somehow become one of America’s most beloved landmarks in the past decade and a half, and you’re posting tasteless insults online about your beautiful ex-girlfriend, why would anybody tune in to watch this unpleasant guy? Why can’t the show replace you at the last minute with another actor, one who’s on TV now, one who’s not struggling to make the transition from teen shows to the adult market and failing miserably?”
Colton swallowed. “I guess it could happen.”
“Which is why you promptly went down to an open section of the casino and nearly got photographed losing a hundred thousand dollars while sitting next to a prostitute.”
Colton frowned. “I didn’t know she was a prostitute.”
Daniel watched Colton levelly over the rim of his glass while taking a sip. “I might believe you if I were my father, or if I were twelve. What’s with the girl, Colton?”
Colton shrank several more inches. “Okay. I let her pull up a chair. I also noticed the photographer pretty quickly. I was hoping a picture of me with the prostitute might get picked up by the tabloids and make Lorelei go nuts. I wasn’t trying to lose the hundred grand, though.”
At that admission, Daniel took another, bigger sip of bourbon. He might not be much of a drinker, but for once he wanted to chug the contents of the glass and pour himself another. He couldn’t, though. He had too much work to do today. He asked Colton, “What’s the deal with Lorelei?”
Colton’s jaw tightened. “We were great for the past three years. Then, as soon as we left the TV show and she started her own band, the whore cheated on me with her drummer.”
Daniel winced internally at Colton’s brutal language for his ex-lover. “Maybe we’re having trouble with definitions here,” he said. “A whore is what was sitting next to you downstairs at the blackjack table, where everybody in America could take pictures of you together. Lorelei is your costar from a children’s TV show—”
“It wasn’t a children’s show,” Colton said testily. “It was for teenagers, and a lot of adults watched it, too.”
Daniel waited for Colton to hear how immature that statement sounded. After a few seconds of silence, he realized that was not going to happen. He cleared his throat and went on, “—and Lorelei is also your ex-girlfriend. You shared your life with her for three years. The public expects you to have sore feelings about your breakup. Anybody would. But they don’t expect you to call her names on the web. You can’t say things like that about a young lady. She’s twenty-one years old, Colton.”
“She’s plenty old enough to know exactly what she’s doing.”
“She’s not much older than my sister.” Daniel said this with more vehemence than he’d intended. He could tell, because Colton raised his eyebrows in surprise.
Daniel was surprised, too. He wasn’t sure where that outburst had come from. Since when was he human? He cleared his throat. “When you insult a young lady, you’re trying to make her look bad, but you’re the one who ends up looking bad. And things are about to get worse for you. I heard that Lorelei has hired Stargazer, which is one of the best PR firms she could have brought on board, besides my own.”
Colton frowned. “What does that mean?”
“Stargazer’s very good. If they send certain people, I won’t know quite what to expect. But if they send Sarah Seville, I’ll know we’re in trouble. Sarah is a smooth talker, very friendly, and she’ll become Lorelei’s new best friend and persuade her to use a soft touch with the press. If they send Wendy Mann, we’re in more trouble. Wendy is a drill sergeant. She has a reputation for whipping people into shape and getting them to do things they never dreamed they could do themselves. Before you know it, she’ll have Lorelei dressing in lace and pearls and hosting tea parties for charity.”
“If she’s so good, why don’t I fire you and hire her?” Colton asked in the tone of a petulant child. “Maybe she wouldn’t have dragged me away from the tables when my luck was turning.”
“Your luck wasn’t turning,” Daniel said. “There’s no such thing as luck. The probability that you’ll get a good hand is exactly the same every time you play.” He could tell by Colton’s wandering gaze that Colton was losing interest, so Daniel stepped back from the lecture on applied math and returned to the subject that Colton seemed most interested in: Wendy Mann. “And if you hired Wendy, you wouldn’t like her. I guarantee you wouldn’t lay eyes on a blackjack table the rest of the time you spent in Vegas.”
“But with you, I can? I don’t think it would be good for publicity if I stayed in my room until Friday. That would make it look like my handlers had shut me down because there was something seriously wrong with me. It would be an admission of guilt.”
“That’s very insightful, Colton. If you’d been that smart for the past month, you wouldn’t need me.”
“It’s Lorelei. I wouldn’t have gotten so plastered last night if my driver hadn’t gotten me talking about her. She makes me crazy, man.” Colton took off his trucker hat, rubbed his hair, and put his hat back on, a gesture Daniel had seen many times before. Other actors got this agitated about women. So did rock stars, celebrity chefs, and professional football players. Daniel himself did not, so he couldn’t empathize.
“You’ve got to help me get her back,” Colton pleaded.
“After she cheated on you and you called her names all over the Internet?”
People in love were foreign and strange. “I’m not a high-priced relationship counselor,” Daniel pointed out. “I can’t help you get her back. I’m a public relations specialist. The best I could do is make it look like you’ve gotten her back.”
“Then do that,” Colton said, “and maybe the rest will follow.”
He had a point, actually. Daniel didn’t care whether Colton fixed his relationship with Lorelei, or whether that was even a good idea. But the two of them getting back together right before the awards ceremony that they both were starring in would be terrific PR. He surveyed Colton coldly, like he was a penguin behind the glass in the Central Park Zoo, and began to plot how he could use the star’s heartbreak to repair his reputation.
“Let me think about it,” Daniel said vaguely, as if dismissing the idea. “In the meantime, we need a short-term game plan. I don’t want to institute martial law”—actually, he did, but instituting martial law only made stars more likely to go on a bender and land in jail—“but I do want to be notified of where you’re going and why.”
“Giuliana Jacobsen reserved the back room of the Big O club here in the hotel for tonight. I was planning to go to her party.”
Daniel kept himself from wincing or laughing out loud at the name of the club, so provocative it was ridiculous. He said only, “Giuliana Jacobsen, the reality star?”
“Yeah, I know. That’s kind of slumming. But it’s Monday night, so there aren’t a lot of parties to choose from.”
“You mean, Lorelei will be there.”
Colton grinned sheepishly. “I don’t know that for sure, but Lorelei’s staying here in the hotel. It would be easy for her to go. Lorelei likes stuff to be easy. And she doesn’t miss a party.” He gazed out on the Strip. His voice turned dreamy as he said, “I love that about her.”
The trucker hat cast a shadow across Colton’s eyes. Daniel studied him. He knew Colton was twenty-one, but in his hat and sweatshirt and mauled jeans, sitting on the tailored sofa, he looked like a fourteen-year-old after a growth spurt. “What are you planning to wear?” Daniel asked.
Colton looked at him in confusion and gestured to the attire he had on.
Daniel frowned at him.
“What?” Colton demanded. “I’m Colton Farr. I wear what I want.”
“You’re a young actor with public relations problems,” Daniel corrected him, “and you look it. If you want to keep your emcee job for the Hot Choice Awards and land an A-list movie role, you need to look like that. Never dress for the job you already have. Dress for the job you’re trying to get. At this point, it wouldn’t hurt for you to act like you’re trying.”
Colton nodded shortly. “I get it.”
Daniel picked up his glass, drained it, and set it back down with a bang carefully calculated to startle Colton while not quite denting the table or shattering the heavy tumbler. “If you’re going to this party, we need to agree on three things.” He counted them on his fingers. “You will not get too drunk.”
“You will not piss anywhere except a urinal.”
Colton laughed until he saw the serious expression on Daniel’s face. Colton’s smile fell away as he repeated, “Agreed.”
“You will not call Lorelei names.”
“Of course not,” Colton said. “I told you I wanted her back, didn’t I?”
Daniel almost felt relieved at Colton’s genuine reaction, and sorry he’d brought it up again or ever mistrusted the actor. But that was just it—Colton was an actor.
Daniel stopped himself just before he reached for his empty glass on the table. The bar was here in the room with him. It was tempting to drown this job in alcohol. But he’d always been able to resist. He wouldn’t make an exception for Colton, Lorelei, and Stargazer PR.
Unless they truly sent Wendy Mann. That woman might drive him to drink after all.
Publicist Wendy Mann has always competed hotly with her rival Daniel Blackstone, but this time they’re headed for a collision. Wendy’s job is on the line if she doesn’t save the image of a spoiled young starlet who’s posting provocative pictures of herself all over the Internet in a snarky attempt at revenge on her former boyfriend. Daniel is representing the ex, a onetime teen heartthrob who never grew up. With the feuding Hollywood pair scheduled to appear on the same Las Vegas awards show, Daniel and Wendy are determined to do whatever it takes to defend their own clients.
Unfortunately, the chemistry between Wendy and Daniel is even more explosive than that of their Hollywood stars. L-O-V-E was always a four-letter word for these two ultra-competitors; they never counted on the scorching heat that erupts between them. But Wendy’s high-gloss exterior hides a dark past—one that’s lurking behind the bright Vegas lights. Their careers are on the line, and so is Wendy’s life. . . .