No, I can’t do this.”
“You have to do this. You promised you’d try.”
“I know what I said, but now that it’s time, I’m too nervous.”
“A promise is a promise.”
“You can’t make me do something I don’t want to, you know . . .”
“Okay, we’re going to try this again . . . We can go as slow as you need. Ready, love?”
“Jesus, I guess . . . I still can’t believe I agreed to this . . . This hurts so much.”
“You’ll feel better once we get going, I promise.”
I closed my eyes, took a breath, opened them once more, and nodded. His eyes met mine in the mirror, and he grinned that grin he knew always won me over.
I dug my hands into his hair, running my fingers through the silky curls and scratching at his scalp. I blinked back tears. I lifted a chunk straight up, picked up the scissors . . . and cut.
And cut some more.
He kept encouraging me because he wanted it short.
When he’d first asked me to cut his hair, I’d refused. I told him no way. He reminded me that if he got this done at a salon, it would be on Twitter within minutes, and the paparazzi would surround the place.
“But I love your curls. I need your curls! Please don’t make me cut it. I-I-I’ll do anything!” I begged, kneeling at his feet dramatically. We may have been in the shower at the time.
“Would you not make such a big deal about this? But as long as you’re down there . . .” He grinned, and I stood up immediately.
“Hell no. You cut that hair, and you can wave good-bye to any kind of oral action. Your Mr. Hamilton will not be very happy about that,” I threatened, picking up the shower gel. The scent of coconuts filled the air.
“Bollocks, I can play that game too. You want to go without? I can remove certain things from the menu as well.”
You can’t let him take that off the menu . . .
Dammit. He had me. A day without oral is simply a day not worth living.
So here we were, in the guest bathroom, inches and inches of glorious shaggy blond hair on the floor around us, as his grin got bigger and bigger.
And my frown got, well, frownier and frownier.
By the time he felt I had butchered it successfully, I was almost in a full-on meltdown.
“Jesus, George, I ruined it!”
It was sticking up in places, flat in others, and just generally a disaster area. It looked like a five-year-old had cut it.
“Hmm, it does have a sort of whacked look to it, doesn’t it, love?” He laughed, running his hands through it, throwing an errant curl to the floor.
“I may vomit,” I whined, setting down the scissors.
“Come on, Crazy, finish it.” He pressed the clippers into my hand.
Clippers? “Finish it?”
“How many grunts do you know without a buzz cut?” he asked, trying on his new southern accent. Alabama by way of London, interesting combo.
“When you said you needed to get ready for this movie, I had no idea I was going to have to bear the brunt of it.” I sighed and picked up the clippers after he adjusted the setting. He’d dialed it way down. This was gonna be short.
“How exactly are you bearing the brunt of this?” he asked, pulling me between his legs as I stood before him.
“I’m the one who has to look at you, Sweet Nuts.” I winked.
“Buzz me,” he commanded, eyes twinkling.
I buzzed away. As the hair continued to fall, we talked about our schedules, all the changes that were to come.
Jack’s name was on every woman’s lips across the world, in every woman’s dreams, and on every casting director’s hot list. Holly, my best friend and Jack’s agent as well as mine, had been flooded with offers. Directors, producers, talk-show hosts—everyone wanted a piece of him.
And I had a piece of him. Frequently.
Before the success of Time, a movie based on a series of popular erotic short stories that had been released this past fall, Jack Hamilton had been your average, ordinary British-guy-about-Hollywood. At only twenty-four, he had been in a few small, independent films and acted a bit in repertory theater, but once he was cast as Joshua, the Super Sexy Scientist Guy who traveled through time, seducing women across the centuries, his life changed. He was now one of the hottest young actors in Hollywood, and Holly was determined that he would not just be another flash in the pan.
Holly Newman was a great friend and a great agent. She had a killer instinct and was known for finding new talent. She had carefully crafted the careers of several of the most respected actors currently working, and she was poised to do the same for Jack. Declining several big-budget action films, she now guided Jack to a smaller film: a gritty, documentary-style picture about soldiers in Afghanistan. Jack could easily have headlined a huge summer blockbuster, but instead he chose to work in an ensemble cast, where the story was important.
And what was really important right now was shaving his head. He was a young soldier from Alabama, and he needed to look the part. Sigh.
“Did you just sigh, Grace?”
“I did.” I took one last pass with the clippers and smoothed my hand over his shorn scalp.
“Is it really that bad?” he asked, nerves flitting over his face.
I smiled and scratched at his head. He leaned into it, just as he always had, and I looked carefully at him. The green eyes were the same, beginning to darken just the tiniest bit as my hand stroked the back of his neck. His hands tightened on my hips, drawing me close again. His hair was gone, but the heat was still there. In fact, his features seemed even stronger now. Cheekbones, jaw, everything even more chiseled, and his two days’ worth of scruff even sexier than usual. His tongue dipped out of his mouth just so, teeth then nibbling on that lower lip in the way he knew would evoke a response.
“I have to admit, now that I can truly appreciate it, it’s kind of . . . hmmm,” I ventured.
“Kind of . . .”
“Sexy. Really?” His thumbs traced a tiny pattern along the skin just above my drawstring. Which he was now tugging on.
“Yes, yes, it’s true. Even with my butchering your hair, you’re still the sexiest man in America.” I sighed again, this time in a different way, as his thumbs fumbled apart the buttons on my shirt.
“Only America?” He laughed, his newly cropped fuzzy head tickling at the skin below my jaw as he nuzzled into my neck.
“You’re pushing it, George,” I warned, my stern voice giving way to giggles that broke free as he pushed me up against the bathroom door.
“Only America?” he insisted, raising my hands and holding them over my head.
“Okay, the Americas. North and South combined.” I bumped my hips into his as he pressed into me.
“Speaking of south,” he breathed into my ear, one hand slipping slowly beneath my . . .
“Who the hell is that?” he muttered, keeping me pushed against the door, hand continuing its path toward my . . .
Ding dong. Ding dong.
“It might be Michael. He said he might stop by tonight.” I slid out from in between Jack’s body and the door and looked at myself in the mirror. Rumpled, flushed, happy.
“Bloody Michael,” he grumbled, grabbing for me as I made for the door.
“Bloody nothing. You two are friends now. Behave yourself.” I laughed, dancing away from his grab as I headed out into the hallway and toward the front door.
“Finishing this later!” he called after me, and my heart skipped a little.
“I’ll hold you to that,” I called back, thinking of all the ways he could and would finish this. And how I would most certainly let him. Since Jack and I had started seeing each other last year, the chemistry between us had been and remained off the charts. He’d finish it. He’d finish me right off a cliff.
I laughed as I heard him groan, knowing he was adjusting himself not so discreetly now. I straightened myself up a bit, then opened the door to see my friend Michael smiling back at me.
“Sure took you long enough,” he chided.
“I was detained.” I gestured for him to come in as he looked at my feet and laughed.
“You look like the missing link. Something you want to tell me?” He pointed down.
I looked and noticed I had clumps of Jack’s hair between my polished toes.
“Ah, well, haircut gone bad,” I explained, waving him inside as I went to the kitchen to get a broom. I had left a trail.
“Haircut gone great, you mean,” Jack corrected, coming into the kitchen and running his hand over his head.
“Wow, what happened to you?” Michael chuckled, brown eyes full of mischief.
Michael and I had gone to college with Holly and had been friends for years. Well, we had been friends, until a one-night stand clouded everything that had been good and made it ugly. We didn’t speak for years, and then through a series of coincidences, he ended up casting me in his new musical a few months ago. This time another near miss of a one-night stand had almost ruined everything, but we came to our senses and remained great friends.
And more. While the musical we had worked on together in New York didn’t go anywhere, there was enough interest in the project to keep it alive in a new way. Right after the holidays we found out that there was a production company interested in developing it into a TV show. In the vein of HBO and Showtime, Venue was the new cable channel everyone was watching. Edgy comedies, dark dramas—their TV lineup was making a lot of waves. We brought a few of the original cast in from New York, shot a quick pilot, and Venue bought it. And they were putting Michael’s new show right in the middle of their fall lineup.
Michael’s original concept was a traditional musical, with a modern twist. Staged workshop style, we had worked with a live band. Now the story of Mabel, an aging beauty queen going through a divorce and redefining her life on her own terms, was set against the backdrop of Los Angeles—a perfect town for reflecting back the warped way our culture views women and aging. The show was now a cross between Glee, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and Sex and the City. It was witty, it was sexy, and I was the star. Wait, I was the star?
Yes, Grace, you are the star.
I shook my head to clear it, still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“You got water in your ear, love?” Jack asked me, watching me shake my head.
“Shut it, you,” I warned as he gave my behind a pat on his way to the fridge. I settled on a bar stool and watched two of my favorite people in the world circle each other. It was true: they were friends now but tentatively. Jack knew Michael and I had almost, well, almost while I was in New York. And while Michael and I were friends and only friends, I knew it was tough for Jack. But true to form, he was more of a grown-up than I was, even nine years my junior. And they were now easing into this weird guy friendship.
“No seriously, man, what’s with the skin?” Michael asked again, catching the beer Jack threw at him. Without asking. Again, weird guy thing.
“Movie. I start shooting next week. Couldn’t put it off any longer,” Jack explained, taking a long pull on his beer.
“That’s right, the new Daniel Richards picture. Afghanistan? There’s some great buzz about that already. A writer friend of mine consulted on it. Looks like it’s gonna be intense. You’re shooting out in the Mojave, right?”
“Yeah, we’re doing some here, then out to the desert. Should be a good time.” Jack smiled, tipping back his bottle and draining it. Grabbing another from the fridge, he sat down on the bar stool across from me, still rubbing his head absently.
“What’s a good time?” I heard a new voice from the hall chime in, with heels clicking on the floor. My other favorite person in the world.
Holly came into the kitchen, appraised the crew assembled, and sighed dramatically. She nodded to me. “Asshead,”
“Dillweed.” I nodded back, pointing to the bottle of vodka I had removed from the freezer and raising an eyebrow in her direction.
“Yes. God, yes. You would not believe the day I had. I hate this town! Remind me never to work with anyone who used to be on the CW ever again,” she cried.
I busied myself making dirty martinis. Holly pulled herself onto the counter, kicked off her heels, and put her feet in Michael’s lap, pointing at them.
“Rub. And you, Buzzy, get behind me. Work on these shoulders,” she instructed, gesturing Jack over. With a grin he obliged, and Michael’s surprised face gave over to sheepish as he began working on Holly’s heels. Stacked like a porn star, Holly’s natural good looks tended to make all men a little gooey around her, present company included. I handed her the cocktail, grimacing as she sucked it back quickly, presenting me with an empty glass.
“Seriously, fruitcake, it was a dilly of a day. I’m gonna need a double. And harder, please, Michael.” She moaned as he hit a spot in the middle of her instep. I laughed as she began to tell us about her day, and I made her another cocktail. I caught Jack’s eye over Holly’s shoulder, and he winked at me.
Life was good.
An impromptu dinner party ensued, and after dinner was over, we all ended up on the cushiony chairs in the backyard. Winter in Los Angeles was chilly at nighttime, at least enough that the cashmere throws I brought out were necessary. Snuggled into a large love seat, Jack played with my hair as we laughed and chatted with our friends. Strings of white lights dotted the fig and plum trees out back, and the potted lemon trees that framed the patio threw off their fragrance into the night. I leaned into Jack’s warmth, his breath heady and thick with brandy as he and Holly went back and forth about his shooting schedule. He’d be leaving in a few weeks, but this was different from when we’d been apart in the past. This time I got to stay here, in my home that I’d worked so hard on and barely gotten to enjoy before heading off to New York. Now I was able to work where I lived, and I relished my surroundings.
I had created a space for myself exactly the way I wanted. Built into the hillsides of Los Angeles there were certainly bigger and grander homes, but my Laurel Canyon bungalow was exactly what I wanted. And having Jack move into it with me? Well, that made it all the more homey.
As Holly and Jack got louder and louder, trying to hammer down some interview she had planned for him, I leaned across to Michael.
“You still looking to rent a new place?”
“Yep, the corporate housing has been fine, but now that I’m setting down some roots I think I want something a bit more distinct. This agent I have, though, is showing me all these rentals on Wilshire—in the corridor, all those high-rises. They’re great, but I just left New York. I’d like something a little closer to the ground.”
“I can see that. Roots, hmm . . . Do you want to buy? Great time to buy,” I prodded.
“Not quite that rooty. I still want to rent. I want rental roots,” he answered, causing Holly to stop midstream in her conversation with Jack.
“I’ve got a great rental agent. I’ll have her send over some listings. You want a house? Pool? Standard L.A. bachelor pad?”
“House, yes. Pool, perhaps. Bachelor pad, no. No neon.” He grinned.
“I can totally find you that. I’ll go with you to look at houses next week if you want,” she offered, sipping at her brandy.
“That’d be great. You sure you have time?”
I snuggled closer to Jack.
“Of course. I can take an afternoon off. The business will still be there. And speaking of business, Jack, we need to talk about—”
“Holly, don’t you ever quit? Enough for tonight, okay?” Jack snapped, surprising us all. We turned to look at him as he ran his hands through his nonexistent hair. He sighed, then gulped the rest of his brandy. With heavy eyes, he looked at Holly.
“Sorry. I think I’m just tired,” he muttered, eyes falling back down to his glass.
“No worries, Jack. We can talk tomorrow. Call me in the morning?” she asked, pushing herself out of her chair with a quick glance at me.
I shrugged my shoulders and stood as well. “You’re leaving?”
“I should get going—early meeting tomorrow with some kid with three names. When did everyone decide to name their children with such long names? If I see one more Noah Jonathan Blahblah I will lose my mind. Truly,” she exclaimed, pulling Michael out of his chair. “Come on, you can walk me to my car.”
“Okay, sure, yeah, of course. Um . . . ’night, Grace! See you later, Jack,” Michael called back over his shoulder as they made their way into the house.
“’Night,” Jack said, wrapping the blanket more firmly around himself. I waved at the two of them, then turned to stand in front of him.
“You okay?” I asked, taking his empty glass and setting it down on the table. I was pulled quickly into his lap, his strong arms wrapping around me suddenly and completely. I was pressed against him, his body caging me in, close to him.
“Sometimes, I swear, she just doesn’t know when to quit!” he exclaimed, sighing into my neck as he clutched me closer.
“She’s just doing her job, Sweet Nuts. Don’t take it personally.” I snuggled further into his arms.
“How can I not take it personally? It’s my life she’s managing, not just my career. I just— Fucking hell, I don’t know.”
“Hey, hey. I know, shush,” I soothed, scratching his scalp and feeling him relax into me. His brandy breath was heavy around us, and I was reminded once again of how young he truly was. No one could possibly have prepared him for the life and all its trimmings that had been thrust upon him when he took his defining role. He held up remarkably well, all things considered.
We quietly rocked for a moment, the canyon still and quiet around us.
“Hey, did I tell you the good news?”
“What’s that, Crazy?” he asked, his lips tickling now at the edge of my shirt. Apparently he had rallied.
“I get my own trailer! Can you believe that?”
“Of course you get your own trailer. You’re the star of the show, love,” he reminded me.
That still did not seem real to me.
“Listen, it’s a pretty big deal. Not all of us are big film stars,” I reminded him, settling more firmly on his lap.
“Now when you say big, what exactly were you referring to?” he asked, gently but firmly thrusting up against me.
“Oh, please.” I laughed as he buried his face into my neck, blowing brandy-scented raspberries.
“I’m proud of you,” he whispered, his hands now roaming freely across my back, familiar yet still very much capable of making me shiver. “Are you cold?”
“No, George, I’m all kinds of warm,” I breathed into his ear, shivering once more as he literally swept me off my feet and inside to our bed.
The Redhead Plays Her Hand
Grace Sheridan is flying high. With scorching passion from her gorgeous Brit superstar Jack Hamilton plus the lead role in a new television dramedy, she could just pinch herself. Then a demand from her show’s directors to drop fifteen pounds brings her back down to earth with a thump. Forced to subsist on air, cucumbers, and boot camp, Grace wonders if the body that brings the newly crowned “Sexiest Man Alive” to his knees is just too booty-licious for Hollywood. Jack, meanwhile, seems overly enamored of the celebrity lifestyle. Forbidden by his publicity-conscious manager to reveal his relationship with Grace, he’s hitting the industry party scene way too hard.
As Grace’s bod incites fiery debate about the message of “thin is in,” Jack’s jealous fans are downing the hate-erade, viciously slamming her curves. Grace longs for Jack’s support, but he’s showing up late and disheveled to her most important moments. With tempers between them flaring, Hollywood’s most talked-about redhead might have more to lose than a few stubborn pounds. She and Jack were clearly made for each other—but will the day ever come when they can walk the red carpet together, hand in hand?
XOXO After Dark: Girl Talk
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