Always Dreaming Of You

 

Copyright, Nina Cordoba 2013

 

The year of the accident.

Chris Carson stood at the cemetery, staring blankly at two mahogany coffins. Kiki buried her face against him, crying heart-wrenching sobs into his chest.

Somewhere in his mind, he knew he should be crying too, but a strange numbness had enveloped him from the moment he’d heard the news.

The priest droned on in Latin, then said something in Spanish and motioned toward him. Although Chris had known Spanish as long as he’d known English, he couldn’t make out the words.

In fact, the last time anything made sense was several days ago, back in L.A., before the call.

He remembered the strange sound in Kiki’s voice when she told him she and her husband Mark were on their way over. Chris was surprised when she hung up right away. He’d never known his cousin to have such a short phone conversation with anyone.

Minutes later, she and Mark arrived. They sat Chris down at his small round dining table.

“Cristóval…” Kiki placed her hand on his cheek like his mother always did. He stared into her huge brown eyes and knew something unthinkable had happened.

Primito…” she began, again.

Chris’s heart pounded in his ears. “Who?”

Liquid filled her eyes. “Mi tía and—” She gave Mark a pleading look as the first tear rolled down her cheek.

Mark’s fists clenched on the table. “Chris, there’s been an accident.” His shoulders dropped and he exhaled a heavy breath. “Your parents are gone.”

Kiki collapsed into miserable sobs. Mark reached out and pulled her to him.

“Gone?” Chris was unable to make sense of the word.

“I’m sorry, man,” Mark said. “Really sorry.”

Strange, what went through a person’s mind at a time like this. Chris realized he’d practically never heard Mark use the word “sorry” before.

And none of it made sense in Chris’s optimistic mind. Not once had he considered the possibility of losing his parents, certainly not while still in his twenties.

So, as he watched Kiki, more heartbroken than he’d ever seen her, and Mark, completely stripped of his typical sarcastic attitude, Chris decided this was a dream. That was all it could be.

The priest stopped speaking and Chris came to, still in the same graveyard in Buenos Aires. People streamed by, grasping his hands. Touching their cheeks to his. Brushing light kisses against his skin and murmuring condolences in Spanish and English.

Even in a dream, losing your parents is a terrible thing. 

When would this nightmare end? He clung to Kiki. If this were real, his cousin would be the closest thing to his mother—Leticia De La Vega Carson—left in this world.

The cemetery grew quiet as the last of the guests drove away, leaving Kiki, Mark, and Kiki’s parents—Tía Lorena and Tío Rolando—standing at the graveside with Chris.

“I need to sit down.” Tía Lorena’s voice was so hoarse, Chris barely recognized it. His mother’s sister, she’d been a second mother to him, but he couldn’t turn and face her.

“I’ll tell the driver to bring the car around,” Mark said. Chris heard shoes tapping on the pavement behind him.

Tía Lorena’s soft lips brushed his cheek. “You take as long as you need, hijito,” she whispered.

This dream had gone on too long. His alarm should be blaring by now. He was late, and his students were sitting in his linguistics class at UCLA waiting for him.

He looked down at the framed picture clutched in Kiki’s hand, the one from the entry table at the church. A young man—tall and light-haired like Chris—his arms wrapped around a petite brunette with eyes that melted your soul.

His father. His mother.

Kiki sniffed and when she exhaled, Chris felt her shudder travel through him.

“Did I ever tell you, when I was little, I thought all four of them were really my parents?” she asked.

Chris stared at the caskets. “You’re just like her.”

They were quiet for several moments, until Kiki pulled away and he felt her peering up at him. “Primito…we have to go…Cristóval?”

His eyes met hers, and he became aware of how tightly his fingers were clutching her shoulder. She felt solid.

He glanced around once more, reluctant to be drawn back into her soulful gaze. She’d never lie to him about this, not even in a dream.

“Kiki?” At last, he could feel the liquid welling up in his eyes. “Is this for real?”

Fresh tears poured down her face as she pulled his head to her shoulder. The corner of the picture frame pierced his ribs and he no longer had any doubt.

 


Chapter One

 

Ten months later.

She enters the room and all the air is sucked out. It’s inside her, nourishing her greedy lungs. I gasp and flop like a dying fish. My chest aches, but no one notices. All eyes are on her.

Head pounding, I call out for help.

People are smiling. No one sees me. No one feels me. I’m nearly dead, but I must stay alive for some unknown future purpose.

She whirls out of the room and my lungs fill.

Another near death experience and no epiphany to show for it.

As Elle laid her journal on the passenger seat of the car, she checked for anything new happening in the parking lot. Although the top was up on her Mercedes, she’d lowered the window an inch in order to eavesdrop on any useful information.

A silver Camry drove in and parked next to her. Two little kids popped out of the back seat as the parents emerged from the front looking tired. The dashboard clock confirmed it was only eleven-thirty in the morning.

“Yea! McDonald’s!” the kids yelled. “Can we play in the balls?”

The mother sighed. “Yes, but when I say it’s time to go, I don’t want to hear any crying.”

Elle saw the glance the parents exchanged, as if they were bracing for the worst.

She grabbed her “Normal Information” notebook and wrote: Kids love McDonald’s, just like in the commercials. Parents appear more ambivalent. Kids cry when they leave. Most adults without little kids seem to be using the drive-through.

She had no idea how this information might be useful in the future she was attempting to create for herself. But she hated to leave anything out because, at the end of summer, she planned to start her new life.

And this time, no one was going to stop her.

Meanwhile, she’d been visiting every normal place she knew of, collecting intelligence. She meant to use it to masquerade as a normal person until she actually learned to be one.

She looked up again, surprised to see Bruce and Nicole Jenson—Hollywood royalty—climbing out of a Hummer with their two kids.

The children were about four and six. Like the “real” kids she’d seen, the Jenson children seemed ecstatic to be at McDonald’s.

Bringing them out into the real world so they won’t grow up feeling like freaks? Good luck with that.

As the family started across the parking lot, she noted more movement at the Hummer. Two large men with extra-shiny heads got out of the front, one of them following the Jenson’s into the restaurant while the other stood, scanning the parking lot.

So much for a normal family outing. Elle decided to leave before the bodyguard mistook her for a stalker. But when she tried to stick the key in the ignition, she missed the slot and dropped it onto the floorboard.

Damn. She pushed a button, and her seat glided back until she had room to stoop down under the steering wheel.

As she sat up, a shadow settled over her. She turned to the driver’s side window, expecting to see a large vehicle. Instead, a Humpty Dumpty face peeked in at her, mere inches from her window.

She startled and jumped several inches off her seat.

When he realized he’d scared her, he straightened and took a step back. As she yoga-breathed to regain her calm, she noted his Hulkish torso and unusual combination of black dress slacks with a white muscle shirt.

Recognizing the Jenson’s bodyguard she’d seen moments earlier, she rolled her window down.

“Are you all right, Miss Lorrence?”

Why would he recognize her? Was he mistaking her for her mother with a bleach job?

“You know who I am?”

“You’re Elle Lorrence, aren’t you?”

Better known as Rebecca Lorrence’s daughter.

Pretty surprising he knew her first name at all. No one had reason to recognize her on her own merits. She glanced back at where he’d been standing a moment before.

“Do you have cyborg vision?”

“No, I remembered the car and license plate from the ‘Hollywood Visits the Homeless’ thing a few months ago,” he said. “Then I saw the blonde hair.”

“You’re a regular Nancy Drew,” Elle murmured, instantly recalling how her car had ended up at the event that night.

Her mother’s manager thought they’d seem insensitive going to a face-to-face charity event in a limo. And Rebecca had decided Elle’s blue Mercedes complemented her dress better than any of her own vehicles.

At the time, Elle wondered whether the homeless saw much difference between a limo and a brand-new Mercedes convertible.

As the Hulk flexed his hand on his walky-talky, huge veins pulsed in his over-developed biceps. It looked painful.

“You can probably fix that by lightening your weights and doing more repetitions,” she said.

“Fix what?”

Uh-oh, she shouldn’t mess with this guy’s livelihood. Bruce and Nicole likely hired him because he resembled a mutant.

“Nothing. I was talking to myself.”

“Are you okay?” he asked. “Do you need help?”

Elle considered the truckload of people employed by her mother. Luckily, most of them had left town with Rebecca and would be leaving again soon for a location shoot. Nice to have the house almost empty.

“No,” she replied. “I have plenty of help.”

“Did you eat here already?”

“No.” Her eyes darted to her notebooks. Luckily, the one on top was facedown. She certainly didn’t want him to know about her intelligence gathering.

“We’re here now,” he said. “If you’re afraid of getting mobbed, or something, I’ll watch out for you.”

“Why would I get mobbed?” Elle gestured around her to illustrate the fact that she was alone. “My mother isn’t with me.”

“Well, I heard some celeb kids get paranoid. They always think they’ll get mobbed.”

He was right. She knew the feeling well. It bordered on a phobia. An unwelcome memory muscled its way in, threatening to send fight-or-flight messages to her body. She shoved it away.

“I’m an adult now.” She nodded toward the restaurant door. “Your employers are coming out.”

This job was new for him if he expected the McDonald’s outing to happen. Besides, he shouldn’t have allowed himself to be distracted by her while on duty.

Elle might not know any school rules, or soccer rules, or what you were supposed to bring to a pot-luck dinner, but she knew an awful lot about bodyguard protocol.

“Oh, yeah.” He checked behind him. “Thanks.”

He hustled away to open the car doors while his partner tried to hold off a group of enthusiastic fans. Elle recognized a couple of members of the paparazzi among them. They must have followed the Jenson’s and sneaked in from the other side.

Bruce and Nicole ran to the Hummer, each of them clutching a crying child.

Elle’s window was still down and she heard the little girl, who looked so much like beautiful Nicole, wailing. “You said we could go to McDonald’s!”

A sad sense of déjà vu washed over Elle, and a lump formed in her throat. “Good luck, kids,” she whispered. She started her car and pulled onto the street.

When she eased to a stop a few moments later, she saw a little boy in the car in front of her. As he peered through the back windshield, his thumbs were in his ears. He stuck his tongue out at her.

She laughed and mimicked him. She’d never gotten to engage in this kind of monkey business as a child.

She still remembered the first time she’d tried to wave to a little girl in another car and realized she was invisible. After a while, she figured out the limo windows were too deeply tinted for anyone to see her.

But Elle continued to be invisible, especially standing next to her mother, Academy Award Winner Rebecca Lorrence. Famous for her smoky “cat” eyes, Rebecca had the ability to assume absolutely any persona when the director yelled “action.” And she always knew exactly what to do to keep all attention focused on her.

In public, it wasn’t a problem. Elle didn’t need to be in the spotlight. In fact, her natural shyness made her want to flee when she walked into a room with Rebecca and all heads turned their way. Mass attention, her mother’s dearest friend, was Elle’s worst enemy.

Unfortunately, Rebecca’s need to have the world revolve around her didn’t stop when the bulbs quit flashing. That was the biggest obstacle in Elle’s path in moving forward with her own life.

Until recently, Rebecca insisted her daughter follow her on location shoots. Though Elle had managed to avoid the chore lately, her mother still expected her to be at home, waiting.

Waiting for the moments Rebecca needed someone to vent to. Waiting for Rebecca to come home and want the companionship of the one person in her life who wouldn’t stab her in the back for a movie role. Waiting until Rebecca decided to take her out of storage and make her Rebecca Lorrence two-dot-oh.

Uck! The idea of being “Rebecca Junior” sent a shiver down her spine.

She eased to a stop, apparently behind some sort of traffic incident. She didn’t want to go home anyway. The McDonald’s escapade hadn’t yielded much useful information, and the scene in the parking lot had dented her optimism.

Searching for a mood-booster, she thought of Sam, the day security guard at her mother’s house. He planned to fly to New York Saturday to marry his partner Jorge. She needed a wedding gift.

She decided, this time, she wasn’t going to some exclusive boutique. Just thinking of where she was about to go made her heart race and her palms sweat.

But it was time for Elle Lorrence to boldly go where every man, woman, and child had gone before.

~

Chris couldn’t believe he’d been talked into helping another guy shop for clothes. Marty, his old college friend and drummer in his band, believed Chris was a “chick magnet” who would magically transform him into one, too.

But Chris knew he was the worst possible choice for the job. He would never have set foot in a mall if Kiki and their two moms hadn’t convinced him years ago he had a duty to be their chauffeur and protector. And the women in his family always told him what to buy, not vice versa. He hated shopping.

Hmm... Was this truly Marty’s idea or had Kiki put him up to it to make sure Chris wasn’t home alone while she packed for Argentina? She’d felt responsible for keeping him busy since his parents died.

His whole life he’d been an easy-going, fun-loving person. His parents’ deaths had rocked his world. Since then, he didn’t see much point to anything, and he couldn’t hide his attitude change from Kiki, of all people.

A glimpse of a female form in his peripheral vision pinged at his nerve endings. He turned quickly to scan the walkway outside the store entrance.

Just a horde of shoppers. No one special. Maybe his mind had played a trick on him. How long had it been since he did more than kiss a woman on the cheek?

“How about this one?” Marty asked, holding up a psychedelic shirt.

Chris checked his face to see if he was serious. Of course he was. This was Marty.

“If Barney and Godzilla were thrown into a blender, then splattered onto a shirt, this would be the result.”

“Awesome!” Marty cried.

Chris exhaled loudly. Thirty minutes of fashion consulting had him ready to bolt. As he stared longingly at the exit, another movement caught his attention.

There she was. Nice.

Grabbing some shirts off the rack, he sent Marty to the dressing room, promising to go back and give him a thumbs up, or down, which still seemed a ridiculous job for him. But, then, anybody could improve Marty’s wardrobe. He always looked like a disco reject from the seventies.

Chris’s eyes shot back to the distraction. A long, silky blonde ponytail attached to a petite young woman. Her luxurious hair, which hung almost to her waist, caressed her back whenever she turned. Her movements were restrained, yet graceful, like a ballerina. He half expected her to curve her arms above her head and pirouette around the mall.

Marty called his name and he reluctantly walked back to the dressing room.

~

Elle was thrilled she’d found a store full of kitchen gadgets. Sam told her he’d met Jorge in a cooking class. What a perfect place to find their wedding gift.

When she’d first stepped inside the mall, the building teemed with people of all ages. She’d stood paralyzed while anxiety pulsed through her body, her eyes darting back and forth until it sank in these were regular people going about their business.

No fans trampling her to get to the celebrity. No entourage to make her throat close up. No paparazzi yelling until her ears hurt.

No one’s looking. No one’s coming. She turned to check behind her. No one’s following.

Her stomach calmed and the feeling quickly spread through her body to her fingertips. She relaxed and enjoyed a sense of freedom she’d never known.

But now, the kitchen store employees were ignoring her, an experience she’d never had in a boutique. Was she supposed to flag them down? After several minutes of courage-gathering, she approached one of the clerks.

Since the woman claimed to be an aspiring gourmet herself, Elle asked her to pick out a dream team of gadgets any cook would be thrilled to have.

As the clerk climbed the ladder and handed items down to her, Elle experienced a sense of accomplishment. She didn’t let herself dwell on the idea that regular people would think it a simple thing to come to the mall and pick out a gift.

For her, this was monumental. She’d managed to get out of her car, walk into a building full of people, and talk to a stranger. After taking inventory, she found her throat open, her lungs functioning normally, and no gray mist obscuring her vision.

She mentally high-fived herself. Maybe she’d be a real person, after all.

~

When Chris emerged from the clothing store, his eyes scanned the area, searching for his target.

Bingo. The blonde was still in sight, standing at the counter in the kitchen store.

Adrenaline charged through his body, compelling him to go after her. His feet reacted before he’d formulated a plan. Swerving between two kiosks, he weaved through the herd of shoppers, his eyes glued to the back of her.

“Chris?” Marty’s voice called.

In his determination to get the girl, Chris had completely forgotten about his friend and the reason they were at the mall in the first place. Glancing back, he saw Marty trailing behind him.

“Where are we going?”

“Here.”

“Where?” Marty asked. “The Comely Kitchen?”

Chris strode across the threshold. “Yeah, I need a new…” He scanned the area. “Vegetable peeler.”

“You peel vegetables?”

Chris ignored him, pretending to examine the fancy peeler display while surreptitiously checking out the blonde.

Her lithe body seemed even smaller up close. Not more than a couple of inches over five feet. Her packages were bigger than she was.

She wore a plain blue stretch t-shirt. He admired the delicate swell of her breasts barely visible at the base of the V-neck. In such simple attire, without a single piece of jewelry, she was the opposite of the women he’d spent his life around. Yet, so unmistakably feminine.

Why was he drawn to her? Something about the way she moved? He remembered a similar line in a James Taylor song, but he’d never really gotten it before.

He sneaked another peek. Maybe he just couldn’t resist the petite, but perfectly round ass filling out those white shorts so nicely.

Unfortunately, he still hadn’t gotten a clear view of her features, since he stood off to one side of her and her face was turned the other way.

The trim, girly version of a ball cap she wore wasn’t helping matters either. A fearsome image appeared in his mind in which she turned and revealed her “hatchet face” like in that Johnny Depp movie.

That would suck.

“Oh,” he heard her say as she signed the credit card receipt. “Can you have these delivered to my house?”

“Delivered?” the cashier repeated.

“Yes.”

“We don’t have a delivery service.”

“Oh.”

 She turned her head, exposing part of her face to him. Smooth skin. Small, straight nose. At least one side of her face hadn’t met the hatchet. That was good enough for him.

He stepped forward. “I’ll help you,” he said. Marty moved to stand next to him. Why didn’t he make him wait outside?

She turned toward Chris and tilted her head back. His pulse leapt as he stared into her face.

The bill of her cap had been hiding the loveliest face he’d ever seen. Soft, feminine features set off bright, innocent blue eyes. Slanting up at the outer corners, they formed an alluring feline shape, framed by long elegantly curved lashes.

An innocent temptress. Just what he’d always wanted. Actually, he hadn’t known it was what he wanted until he’d seen her face. But now he had to have her.

As he held his breath waiting for her answer, his line of sight traveled down to her bare pink lips. So kissable.

Raw carnal energy snaked over his skin, alerting every nerve ending to his need. His fingers twitched at his sides. He’d never been more tempted to reach out and touch someone.

And, damn, she smelled good. Like his Grandma Carson’s kitchen.

Or maybe that was coming from the cooking demonstration at the back of the store. Not that it mattered. She’d have to smell pretty bad to cancel out her physical perfection.

She stared at him, then Marty, for several seconds as if she were sizing up their potential as axe murderers.

“Do we look like we collect shrunken heads?” Marty asked.

“Not shrunken,” she replied.

Chris chuckled at what had to be a joke, but she didn’t crack a smile.

With the exception of Mark, everyone in his family laughed, or at least smiled, when making jokes. Come to think of it, the “shrunken” reply sounded like something Mark might say.

But she doesn’t look like Mark.

She lowered her head, allowing the cap to obscure the top half of her face. The instant she did, Chris had the urge to slide a finger under her chin and bring her captivating features into view again. He missed staring into those bewitching eyes.

“So, do you want some help?” he asked hopefully.

“Okay, thanks,” she said, her head still down.

The extra air he’d been holding in his lungs released so suddenly, it sounded like a gust of wind blew out of his mouth. She gave him an odd glance, then averted her gaze again.

Chris wasn’t used to feeling this awkward around women. Their attitudes toward him were typically more enthusiastic.

He grabbed the biggest box while Marty put his shopping bag on his wrist and picked up another package. She took the two bags.

“You must love to cook,” Chris said as they walked toward the mall exit. He knew he only had a few minutes to get from “love to cook” to “what’s your phone number?”

“I don’t know how.”

Silence stretched between them while he waited for more explanation, but none was forthcoming. He held the glass exit door open with his back as Marty and the blonde went through.

As they all headed for the parking lot, Marty got out in front, turning to face them, walking backwards. “Then why would you spend all this money in a cooking store?”

Chris wished he’d back off. Whenever Marty talked to women, they made like magicians’ assistants and disappeared.

“They’re gifts,” she said.

“Wow, you must like this person an awful lot!” Marty yelled. “You spent an arm and a leg in there!”

Be cool, Marty.

Chris tried to send him one of those psychic messages Kiki thought she could conjure up. In his family, talking about how much someone spent was tacky, especially if you hardly knew them.

“I do,” she answered. “They’re wedding gifts.”

He wasn’t used to women who answered questions in five words or less. She should have bored him. Instead, he found her mysterious and intriguing.

But she kept avoiding eye-contact. Not a good sign. His body tensed as he clutched the box harder. What was this unfamiliar sensation?

Desperation.

She stopped behind a car.

Damn. Too soon.

“Is this it?” he asked casually, nodding toward the blue Mercedes.

“Uh-huh.” She hit a button on the key chain and the trunk opened.

“Wowsa! “Marty cried. “This is a nice—”

Lowering his chin, Chris raised his eyebrows in a “back off, dude” expression. Apparently, that trumped a psychic message because Marty shut up mid-sentence.

Chris needed a one-on-one conversation with this girl and his friend was cramping his style, big time.

They loaded the car and he opened her door for her. Marty had been kind enough to step away.

“Well, I’m Chris,” he said as she sat down in the driver’s seat. “Nice meeting you…” He put his hand out toward her, expecting her to give him a little handshake and fill in her name.

“Oh, yes,” she said. “Just a second.” She reached into the center console, turned back toward him, and placed her hand on his. Her soft fingertips slid over his palm, sending blood racing to his crotch. He sucked in air and his chest shuddered.

Exerting every ounce of control he possessed, he stopped himself from curling his fingers around hers and pulling her toward him.

A moment later, her hand moved to the inside handle of her car door. She slammed it shut, backed out, and sped away without another word.

Chris’s shoulders sagged as the Mercedes disappeared around the corner. Why did he feel as if a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity just cruised out of his life?

As his friend approached, he felt something crackle in his fist.

“You dog!” Marty cried. “She gave you her phone number just like that?”

It didn’t feel like a phone number. Chris opened his hand to reveal a crisp twenty dollar bill. He stared down at Alexander Hamilton’s face.

“It’s money.” He frowned at his palm. “What the...?” He checked his clothing to see if he resembled a panhandler.

Jeans and a T-shirt. Nothing fancy, but they were clean and relatively new. Very casual, but so was she.

Marty burst out laughing. “I guess it’s not every day millionaire-professor Crystal-ball Carson gets tipped.”

“It’s Cristóval, and I’m not a millionaire.” Chris’s annoyance grew as the Mercedes disappeared from sight.

“I thought you inherited millions—”

“Yeah,” Chris turned his attention back to Marty, tempted to blame his friend’s ridiculous wardrobe and questionable social skills for his dream girl’s quick departure. “But I’m no Trump, and I wish you’d quit telling people.”

“Gee, it’s the first thing I’d tell the babes, right before the part about the house in Malibu.”

Chris counted to ten to quell the impulse to punch his friend in the nose.

“Marty?” he said. “Do you ever consider what had to happen for me to inherit that money?”

Marty quirked his head for a moment in thinking mode. His face fell. “Oh…damn… I’m sorry, Chris. No wonder women avoid me like a disease.” He sounded genuinely disgusted with himself. “I’m a real asshole.”

Chris felt bad for the guy. He did have a disease. Foot-in-Mouthitis, and he obviously had no control over it.

“Come on.” Chris glared one last time in the direction the blonde had gone, but saw no sign of her car.

He threw his arm around his friend and steered him toward the mall doors. “Let’s go finish making you God’s gift to womankind.”

“Awesome!” Marty Saturday-Night-Fever strutted toward the entrance.

 


Chapter Two

 

Elle pulled into a parking spot on the other side of the mall. She tried to kick herself, but the steering wheel got in the way.

Those guys were so nice to volunteer to carry her bags, and she’d acted like she had something wrong with her, which she did.

She’d spent the first moments with her mother’s voice in her head, wondering if they were thieves or kidnappers, or worse…paparazzi.

When she’d finally chased Rebecca out of her mind, her own shyness still controlled her.

Chris had asked her polite questions she’d barely answered. She’d kept her head down so he couldn’t see her blush.

So handsome. Tall and broad-shouldered, he exuded masculinity. Not manufactured like in the movies. Not primped and staged like on the red carpet. Natural. Real.

But there was something in his brown eyes that did her in. A warmth she wasn’t accustomed to. A pull she’d never experienced when viewing the faces of her mother’s co-stars, young or old—men the rest of womankind adored.

She wished she’d stared into his eyes longer so she could lock his warm, inviting orbs into her memory banks in high-def detail, forever.

But she was too damn shy.

Frustrated, Elle hit the middle of her steering wheel with her fist. The horn sounded, and several people in the parking lot turned her way. Her sight dropped automatically to her lap. Through slitted eyes, she searched side to side to see if they were still looking.

If the same thing happened to Rebecca, she would have calmly waved and smiled as if she’d seen someone she knew.

Her mother didn’t reveal an ounce of self-consciousness in public. Not once had Elle seen embarrassment or chagrin or uncertainty cross Rebecca’s face when the flashbulbs were popping.

Elle figured her shyness must have come from her dad’s side of the family, whoever they were.

She rested her forehead on the top of the steering wheel, as all the confidence she’d gained from her mall shopping drained away.

“I’m never going to make it in real life,” she said to the floorboard.

But some real people are shy too, aren’t they? And they make it through somehow.

Of course, they got to start out in normal life from birth, so she’d have to work extra hard to have the life she hoped for.

Mentally replaying the parking lot scene, she critiqued herself on how she should have handled it.

Eye contact. Be friendlier.

Then she remembered handing cute Chris the twenty dollar bill. Her mother always gave people money, and they seemed to expect it, but what if these guys were only being nice?

They weren’t valets or delivery men. She tried to imagine what Chris did for a living. All she came up with was “walking dream,” and she was pretty sure that job only existed in her mother’s circles, not in real life.

She started her car, but instead of exiting the parking lot, she made the circle around the mall, hoping to see Chris again.

Just before he re-entered the building, she caught a glimpse of him. His arm hung loosely around the other guy’s shoulders.

She considered the smaller guy’s shiny shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest and the gold chain. He reminded her of Jeremy, their housekeeper.

Contrary to most TV portrayals, Elle knew not all gay men had impeccable taste in clothing. Jeremy was the poster boy for that fact.

Hmmm… Did straight guys go shopping together? She didn’t know any straight guys well, so she wasn’t sure of their habits.

These two were probably gay. Gay people had always been nice to her, which explained the box carrying. Although, most of the gay people she’d known had been on her mother’s payroll and were expected to treat her well.

As Elle stared at the entrance—the last place she’d seen Chris before he disappeared into the mall—heaviness settled over her.

What difference did it make if he wasn’t into girls? She’d never see him again. And why did that depress her? She’d only met him for a few minutes.

Pushing the mental snapshot of him out of her head, she decided to stop by UCLA for a little more reconnaissance before heading home.

That always made her feel better.

~

As soon as Elle walked through her front door, Jeremy pounced.

“Thank God you’re here!” he said. “She’s on her way from the airport. What took you so long?” As usual, his hands flew around while he spoke like he was interpreting for the deaf.

“I stopped for gas.” She paused to check out his new look.

He now sported black hair, cut in a Beatles-style mop-top. Had he gotten a weave after she left today? And she could have sworn she’d seen his shirt in an Austin Powers movie.

“You got gas?” Jeremy shrieked. “Alfred checks your tank every night to make sure you never have to get gas!”

“I wanted to do it myself.” Elle laid her notebooks on a tall glass table which had no purpose other than to sit under one of the weird paintings the decorator had hung on the living room wall. “And you know his name isn’t Alfred, don’t you? That’s just what Mother calls him.”

“Whatever.” Jeremy didn’t like being confronted with reality any more than Rebecca did. “If you’d gotten kidnapped at the gas station, she’d slit my throat.” He pretended to slice his neck with his finger.

“You’re buying into her paranoia. Lots of famous actors live in this town, and their kids don’t get kidnapped.”

“But they’re not the daughter of—”

The front door burst open and her mother blew in right on cue. Dressed in a purple-gray silk blouse and charcoal slacks, her thick auburn hair cascaded to exactly three inches below her shoulders.

“Rebecca Lorrence,” Jeremy finished in a worshipful whisper.

As usual, “Ms. Lorrence” was flanked by half a dozen of her most “crucial” entourage members. Elle’s throat tightened, but when none of them ogled her, she relaxed a little.

Of all the things she hated about her mother’s life, the entourage was the most reviled. Typically, it consisted of a half-dozen or more bodies. Rebecca’s personal image stylist, her hair stylist, and her makeup artist were often in attendance. Two to four of the group were personal assistants—the fourth wasn’t necessary as anything other than an A-List status symbol when Rebecca mingled with competing celebrities.

Others were added according to the day’s activities. A decorator, a magazine writer trailing her for a story, an aroma therapist if she felt stressed...

It took a village.

And, of course, Rebecca’s business manager, Benton, enjoyed a free pass to go with her whenever and wherever he wished.

Oddly shaped, he reminded Elle of a sign pole in a suit, topped with a giant cue ball. His appearance might have been funny if his face wasn’t grim one hundred percent of the time.

But for the most part, in Elle’s mind, the entourage was a single, many-headed beast. The heads changed often, but she’d learned years ago not to interact with them in a personal way.

Some attempted to interfere in her relationship with her mother. Perhaps they believed they’d take her place in Rebecca’s affections or usurp her in the will.

It had never worked, but Elle’s anxiety around them gradually grew to the point where she would hide out in her room for hours at a time when they were in the house.

And when they neared her and their collective eyes turned and focused on her, frightening sensations overtook her body. Air refused to enter her lungs.

She didn’t want to believe her physical reaction to be as extreme as it felt in those moments. She didn’t want to think they had that much control over her. But they did.

When Rebecca spotted Elle near the kitchen, she blew her a kiss from across the room. Then she returned to a conversation on her cell phone.

“Yes, I’m walking in this minute… Oh my God! Tile!” She glanced around, then up the sweeping staircase to the second floor. “The Italian tile was for upstairs! Marble for down! They put the tile downstairs!”

She turned in her daughter’s direction, clearly horrified. “Elle, don’t you remember I told the decorator ‘tile up, marble down’?”

“One is just as hard and cold as the other,” Elle whispered. She’d stayed out of the house as much as possible when the installers were around, having no interest in her mother’s decorating preferences.

Rebecca raised her eyebrows. “What, darling?” Then, she said into the phone, “Yes, he swore to me they’d get it right.”

“I said, ‘You told him wall-to-wall beige carpeting,’” Elle murmured.

Jeremy chuckled, then straightened his expression before Rebecca noticed. Elle knew her mother wasn’t listening anyway.

Rebecca put up a finger, which supposedly meant she’d be with her in a moment. She breezed from the room, the entourage trailing behind her. Elle breathed a sigh of relief.

“Are you still planning to tell her today?” Jeremy asked.

“Yes.”

“She’s going to have a conniption.”

Elle exhaled loudly. “I’m turning twenty-one this month. I can’t live my life for her anymore. I have to do something.”

She tried not to resent the fact that if her mother hadn’t talked her out of registering for college at seventeen, she’d have already graduated. Maybe with the fiancée she’d dreamed of meeting there. A guy who came from a normal family and planned to have a normal job.

With all her heart, she hoped being normal was within the realm of possibility for her. She certainly didn’t fit in with the party-animal trust fund types she’d met through her mother.

In her life, she’d already experienced most of the things women her age were supposed to dream of—designer gowns, glamorous parties, meeting the most famous people in the world. Yet she’d never set foot in a school, public or private. Instead, she’d spent most of her life imprisoned with tutors, housekeeper-slash-“mannies”—Jeremy was the latest—and her mother.

After the entourage left the house for the day, Elle went searching for Rebecca. She found her upstairs in her giant tub, submerged to her neck in bubbles. She hung up the tub phone as Elle walked in.

“Darling, I’m so glad you’re here.” Rebecca held out her hand, seemingly unaware it was dripping wet and covered in suds. “You’re the only one who loves me.”

After a statement like that, what kind of daughter wouldn’t hold her mother’s soggy hand? Elle reached out and clasped it.

“The rest of them would gouge out my eyes if it would get their sorry names above the title. You’re my greatest accomplishment, darling, the light of my life. If it weren’t for you, they’d find me here with my wrists slit like Marilyn Monroe.”

Elle sat down on the edge of the tub. “I thought she O.D.’ed.”

“That’s not the point.” Rebecca paused her standard three seconds for dramatic effect. “She was alone.”

Elle should have been immune to the drama by now, except she knew her mother truly was lonely. And whenever Rebecca turned morose, Elle felt responsible for cheering her up.

She shrugged. “Dying like that would be so cliché.” She gave her mother the sly grin she’d learned from her.

Rebecca tilted her head and flashed her twenty-million dollar a film, pose-perfect smile.

“Darling, you know how I love being a cliché.”

They laughed together, and Elle decided the ideal moment had arrived to discuss her plans. Rebecca was as relaxed as she ever got and no entourage was hanging around to render Elle mute.

“Mother, I need to talk to you about something.” As she stood, she released Rebecca’s fingers, wiping her wet hand on her shorts.

“Nothing stressful, I hope.”

“No. Well, maybe…” She rushed on before she chickened out. “It’s just, I can’t sit around here anymore and do nothing…be nothing.”

“Nothing?” Her mother’s hand flew dramatically to her chest. “You’re Rebecca Lorrence’s daughter!”

“But that’s all about you.”

From the expression on her mother’s face, Elle knew Rebecca didn’t understand the problem.

I’m not your shadow mother. Why can’t you see me? I’m standing right here.

“I want to go to college,” Elle said. “I want to get a part-time job.”

“You don’t need to work.”

The frustration of talking to her mother about anything important made her want to scream, but she’d learned it was never a good idea to enter a drama battle with Rebecca. She wouldn’t win.

“I do need it,” she said calmly. “I need it for me. I need to know I can do something.”

Her mother sighed and shook her head. Elle knew Rebecca had been forced to start work at the age of twelve, cleaning houses to help make ends meet. No wonder she didn’t relate to her daughter’s desire to venture out when she had a “dream life” right here. Elle was sure she sounded like the biggest ingrate, ever, to Rebecca.

“I’ve enrolled at UCLA,” she blurted out.

“Oh, that.” Rebecca flicked her wrist as though a minor detail had slipped her mind. “I un-enrolled you.”

Elle’s stomach clenched. “What? How did you find out?”

“It came through on your credit card and Benton showed it to me.”

“Why would you cancel my enrollment?” Tears burned behind her eyes, but she refused to release them. “You spend more in one shopping trip!”

“It’s not about the money, darling. Security at a public university would be a nightmare. And UCLA is so common.” She waved her hand dismissively. “I can get you into any university in the country.”

Common? Elle had thought of it as real. A place where real people did normal things. She’d hoped to learn what she needed to do to be like them.

All her college reconnaissance missions had been to UCLA. She had a notebook filled with information on how the students dressed, what they carried their books in, how they wore their hair…

By the time she started in September, she planned to blend right in. She’d even come up with a reply in case someone recognized her by her last name or her Rebecca-like appearance and asked if they were related.

She’d chuckle and say, “Wouldn’t that be nice?” and change the subject.

The only aspect of college she hadn’t figured out was how she would participate in class discussions or give a speech. That sort of thing made her freeze like a deer in headlights and caused her mind to go completely blank.

She’d gotten through all the head-turning at events with her mother because Rebecca had her arm in a death grip while Elle reminded herself people weren’t looking at her. They only saw her mother. The designer handbag her mother carried interested them more than she did.

After considering Rebecca’s position, Elle decided any college education would be better than none at all. If UCLA wasn’t acceptable—she swallowed her disappointment—there were probably some real people at private universities, too. Besides, unlike her mother, she was capable of reasonable compromise.

“Okay, which university would you approve of?”

“That’s not the point, darling,” Rebecca said. “People go to college so they can earn a living. Look around you. All this will be yours.”

Elle peeked through the doorway into her mother’s bedroom. The frigid marble floor. The gold-leaf frame around a painting of Rebecca, posed alluringly on a four-poster bed.

If she auctioned the painting online, she might get enough for her entire college education. She shook off the idea and turned back to her mother.

“I need to do something,” she said. “I can’t just exist for the rest of my life.”

“You are going to do something. You’re going to follow in my footsteps. I didn’t know you were ready to venture out into the cold, cruel world, but if you insist, I’ll get you a role—”

“But I don’t want—”

The bathtub phone rang and Rebecca answered it.

Elle huffed out a breath, walked over to her mother’s bed and sat down, feeling defeated.

How could she explain to Rebecca that she hated everything about the life she led, from the phony air-kisses to the creepy, brown-nosing entourage? And that she hated everything about this house, from the soulless furnishings to the paparazzi camped outside the gates?

By all indications, her mother expected them to live here together, forever.

“Elle! Elle!”

She hurried back into the bathroom. “What’s wrong?”

Rebecca held the back of her hand to her head like someone from Gone with the Wind.

“I didn’t get the part!” Rebecca wailed. “They went younger. Oh, my God! It’s happening!”

“You’re only forty-two,” Elle replied. “And you pass for thirty-two.”

Her mother moaned and clutched at her chest. “Thirty-two is old in Hollywood! I’m getting one of my headaches. Can you call my new acupuncturist, Lee Chin?”

“It’s Larry Chow.” Elle walked to the bedroom phone, wishing Larry was licensed to practice brain surgery.

She imagined her mother coming out of the lobotomy saying things like, “Education is the cornerstone of our society,” and “Elle, I only want you to be happy.”

Right. It would take a total brain transplant to make that happen.

 


Chapter Three

 

As Chris strolled up to Kiki’s front door, he wondered if she’d be ready to go to the airport. He’d told her they needed to leave thirty minutes earlier than necessary, since even Mark wasn’t able get her out the door on time.

She was high maintenance. Not that she needed to be. She’d turned into a swan at fifteen. But that was Kiki. Everything had to be perfect before she left the house.

Their mothers were very close and Kiki had always been more like a sister to Chris than a cousin. He and Kristina were both only children and had spent much of their childhoods together.

Mark answered the door. His dark hair had been freshly cut in preparation for the visit with his in-laws. The Villanuevas were nothing if not well-groomed.

“Hey, man! Come on in!” Mark’s deep blue eyes beamed a sincere welcome.

Chris stifled a chuckle. Mark’s enthusiastic tone had come from spending so much time around Kiki.

The dogs were already jumping and twirling against Chris’s shins. He bent down to greet Jack, a half-sized version of his wolf cousins, and little Boby, with his mushed-up face and Yorkie hair. They were both adopted mutts and were openly appreciative of every iota of attention they received.

After rubbing Boby’s chest and scratching Jack’s ears, Chris straightened, noting the luggage lined up by the door.

“I see you haven’t made any progress in teaching your wife to pack lighter.”

“Nope.” Mark tapped a suitcase with the toe of his shoe. “In fact, it’s worked in reverse. She’s taught me to pack lighter so she can have the extra space.”

Chris laughed. “You are so whipped.”

Mark shook his head in mock sadness. “I didn’t even put up a fight. I keep waiting for you to go down for the count, too.”

“I wouldn’t mind. Dating’s getting old.”

 A new framed picture sat on the end table—a shot of Mark gazing lovingly at Kiki’s smiling face.

“Sometimes I just want somebody to watch TV with,” Chris said, his eyes still on the picture. What he meant was, he wanted what Mark and Kiki had.

His mind strayed to the blonde he’d met at the mall exactly six weeks before. He remembered every detail of their encounter. But he had no desire to describe the incident to Mark. It would sound like nothing at all. “Met a girl. Didn’t get her phone number.” Big deal.

But Chris couldn’t shake the feeling he’d missed out on something special when he let her drive away.

Mark frowned. “I know what you mean, but don’t say it out loud. You sound like a wuss.” He walked over to the refrigerator in the adjoining kitchen and waved a Coke. Chris shook his head and Mark put it back. “But you are coming up on the big three-oh. That’s when Kiki trapped me.”

Trapped you?” Kiki appeared in the living room, everything matching, as usual, from her purse to her fingernails, to her high-heeled sandals. “I remember some desperate begging, but not on my part.”

Mark put his hands out and shrugged in a “what can I say?” gesture. They all knew how nuts he’d gotten when he thought Kiki wasn’t coming back to him.

At first, it had been hard to imagine the sarcastic political journalist as part of their family, but Chris had taken pity on him and helped him out in the end.

Kiki stared at Chris with her head tilted and that sentimental expression on her face, like she still saw him as a toddler.

Mi primito!” She rushed over to him and managed to pinch him on both cheeks while he reached for the giant bag on her shoulder.

Mark sucked in a fake-annoyed breath. “We just saw him day before yesterday.”

Kiki ignored him. “I can’t believe you’re not going to Argentina with us!” She threw her arms around Chris’s neck and squeezed. “I don’t want to leave you here alone.”

“Alone?” Mark said. “He knows everybody. The first time I took him golfing, he ran into three people he knew.”

Kiki pulled away and scrutinized Chris with her huge brown globes. She was already trying to blink back the waterworks.

“But it’s not the same as having family here. Is it Cristóval?”

A slight eye-burn warned Chris he, too, was in danger of tearing up. All his life, he’d emulated his unflappable American dad, who came from stoic German-British stock. But since his parents died, tears had threatened many times, often when he least expected them.

Before the accident, he’d been a dyed-in-the-wool optimist, but now, whenever Kiki left, he feared he might be seeing her for the last time.

He’d been spending a lot of time at Mark and Kiki’s house, mostly at Kiki’s insistence. And, for the first several months after his parent’s died, she’d showed up at his place on the days he didn’t have to work.

She’d cook him breakfast and insist he drive her to the mall or take her to the movies. But she was just giving him a reason to get out of bed. She looked and acted so much like his mother, some days it had been an mixed blessing.

Even now, Chris often picked up his phone to call his mom. Each time, he had to convince himself all over again his parents were truly gone. Their sudden deaths had made him painfully aware of how precarious life was.

Now, he spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about how Tía Lorena and Tío Rolando, Kiki’s parents, weren’t getting any younger. And if something happened to Kiki, he’d be completely lost.

Since his parents died, Chris had developed a yearning to find the woman meant to be the center of his life. The one who would make more family with him. More family for Kiki, too. She still hadn’t been able to have the baby she yearned for.

Besides, he’d seen what his cousin had done for Mark. As cynical as Mark could be, he was the first to admit how much his wife had improved his existence.

Kiki was still gazing at him with concern in her eyes. “We can change the tickets, if you want to go with us.”

Chris didn’t want her to worry about him. He smiled. “I don’t understand why you keep asking me to come with you. You’ve been saying you’re going there to concentrate on making a baby.”

“Yes, I have a feeling it’s going to happen this time,” Kiki said confidentially.

She was talking about one of her “psychic” feelings. They usually creeped Chris out because it seemed like they were right about ninety percent of the time. But this time, he hoped with all his heart her feeling came true.

She and Mark had been trying for years, and his mother and hers had both experienced a great deal of trouble conceiving.

“But we won’t be doing it twenty-four hours a day,” she added.

Chris heard a low chuckle from Mark. He glanced over just in time to see him flip his eyebrows, as if to say they might be doing it twenty-four hours a day. Chris rolled his eyes and tried not to think about it.

“Anyway,” he said. “I’m starting a new job on a film.”

“More dialect coaching?” Kiki asked disapprovingly. “Why do you want to work so much? At least at the university, you had summers off. And you don’t even need the money.”

“Kiki, he’s twenty-nine years old,” Mark said. “He doesn’t need you to tell him what to do.”

“Ha!” Kiki’s long brown hair whirled as she turned toward Mark. “When he’s sixty, I’ll still be giving him advice because he’s—”

“Your pree-mee-toh,” Mark said. “I know. Let’s get going.”

“Chris, help Mark get these bags to the car,” Kiki commanded, as she hurried back to her bedroom.

He picked up two of her matching red suitcases.

Mark smiled. “I guess I’m not the only one who’s whipped.”

~

Once they’d loaded the Mustang’s trunk and half the back seat, they climbed in. Kiki sat in the front next to Chris, Mark in the back with the luggage.

“I still don’t see why you make Chris take us to the airport every time we go out of town. We can take a cab.”

Kiki looked at Mark as if he were from another planet. “Why would a stranger drive us when we have family to see us off?”

Even after three years of marriage to Kiki, there were some things Mark didn’t understand about their Latin family. And though Chris didn’t seem Latin to most people, it was definitely the side of his family he related to the most.

“Anyway, thanks for letting us use your parents’ house—well, your house—Chris,” Mark said.

“It’s Kiki’s house, too.”

“No, legally—” Mark began.

“I guess you don’t understand the idea of communal property.”

“The Bennetts don’t believe in the concept.” Mark pursed his lips and frowned, mimicking his father’s favorite expression. “Smacks of socialism.”

Chris laughed and Kiki nodded. They knew Mark’s family pretty well.

As he stopped at a red light, Kiki punched buttons, reprogramming all his radio stations to Latin music.

He reached out, threatening to slap her hand. She pretended to back off, but went right back to it as soon as he was busy driving again. They’d played the silly sibling game since they were teenagers.

Chris never admitted it to Kiki, but he often left her stations in tact when she went away because they reminded him of her.

When she’d finished, her mischievous smile faded. She sighed. “I still can’t believe you’re staying here to work this summer.”

I can’t believe you’re staying to work with actors,” Mark added. “I don’t know how you can stand them.”

Chris shrugged. “I like the dialect coaching because it’s challenging and every job is a little different. And it’s fun as long as you don’t get involved in the actors’ personal lives.” He put his blinker on and merged onto the freeway. “They’re pretty out there. The more famous they get, the more screwed up they are. And it’s almost impossible for them to keep a relationship together.”

“Of course they can’t,” Kiki said. “They’re pretending to make love to other people all the time. They always claim it’s not sexy with the cameras and crew, but touching is touching and kissing is kissing.”

Mark reached up and tugged her hair from behind. “Watch it, sweetheart. If you get me too excited before we leave, you might become a member of the mile high club.”

Chris groaned. “Do you have to put that picture in my head? You know she’s—”

“Like a sister to you,” Mark droned. “I know.”

~

 

Elle stood in a ballroom, filled with music and chattering people.

She sighed. Dragged to yet another award party. The cold air chilled her bare skin.

She looked down to see what she was wearing. Not her usual style. A red satin dress that clung to her, revealing every curve and nuance, with nothing underneath.

No, not an evening dress at all, but a nightgown.

Her eyes darted around the room, but as usual, no one spared her a glance. They were too enthralled by the smoky-eyed cat sitting on a marble table near the door.

Elle scanned the room for a subtle means of escape, appalled she’d appeared in public in this near-naked state.

The double doors burst open. A gust of warm air envelope her chilled body…

And he was there.

She stood still as a rock, afraid any movement might cause the cat’s admirers to turn her way. But all eyes turned to him as he scanned the room, searching.

The cat pawed at the air, eager for the man’s attention. Her movements caused the tiny bells on her diamond-studded collar to jingle, but he didn’t seem to notice.

As he walked purposefully toward Elle, their eyes met. Her heart stopped and her breath caught in her throat.

He drew near, pausing a mere arm’s length away.

As he studied her, a warm finger caressed her everywhere his eyes lingered. The heat scorched her jaw, her neck, the tips of her breasts, and, still, it traveled downward.

She gasped and her eyelids fell closed, but she couldn’t bear not to see him.

When her gaze met his again, his lips slowly opened into a smile, warm and familiar.

He knew her. He came for her.

As he reached out, she placed her hand in his. He pulled her against him, their mouths and bodies melding together as if they’d been created for one another.

Finally… alive.

Her fingers threaded through his hair, as his arms held her firmly against him. Breaking off the kiss, his eyes captured hers.

“Thank God I found you,” he whispered.

“How did you know I was here?”

“I could feel you.”

 

Bummer. She was awake. She preferred sleeping. The dreams were so much more vibrant than her real life.

She was still breathing hard, her skin heated from his imaginary touch. Her mind and body ached for someone to “feel” her like the man in her dreams.

Keeping her eyes closed, she attempted to reconstruct his face. As usual, the image had faded with the light of day.

Rolling over, she checked the clock on the nightstand. After nine. She decided she should get out of bed, even though there was no particular reason for it.

Her appointment book sat on her dresser, mocking her. No classes to go to. No meetings. No reason to exist in the universe.

The two silver linings were that, with Rebecca away again, Elle had no creepy entourage peering at her and no premiere parties to attend.

She would have gladly gone the rest of her life without setting foot in another Hollywood gathering, bursting with silicone breasts, cheekbone implants, and her mother’s faux friends.

If Rebecca’s fame and fortune were ever lost, those people would disappear faster than a wrinkle at a Botox party. Actually, Botox took a few days to kick in, and she didn’t think her mother’s friends would last that long.

God, she hated her mother’s life, which had become her life by default. She hated understanding more about plastic surgery than grocery shopping.

But this was the world she’d grown up in. Why did it still feel so abnormal? How was it possible for someone be so out of place in her own life?

Elle needed an endorphin rush to chase the negativity away. She missed Susan, the “extreme” personal trainer she and her mother shared, who’d gone on vacation with Carol, her significant other.

But with Rebecca away again on a location shoot, this was the ideal time to go. Everyone scheduled themselves around Rebecca, and Elle seemed to be the only person in the world who thought something was wrong with that.

After slipping into a bathing suit, she walked downstairs to the main living area. The modern, three-story space, filled with the most impressive furniture and original artwork money could buy, stood as a symbol to her mother. A daily reminder that she’d left her old life behind and achieved every iota of the success she’d sought.

For Elle, this room just emphasized the emptiness of their existence, the mammoth hole in her mother’s soul—or maybe her own? She was never sure.

She found a note and a bowl of strawberries sitting next to the laptop computer she’d left on the counter.

 

Elle,

I’m going to the health food store. We’re out of organic turkey and lettuce.

Your mother called. She says she has big news for you.

                                   Kisses,

                                   Jeremy

 

Rebecca’s “big news” usually involved yet another award she’d been nominated for. Or another juicy role she’d been approached about. Or some gossip about how a rival actress’s plastic surgery had been botched, but the publicist was telling the press she’d entered rehab while they figured out if it could be repaired.

Yes, better to be labeled an addict than admit to cosmetic surgery in her mother’s world.

Maybe I’ll wait and call back after breakfast. She wasn’t up for pretending to be enthusiastic, incredulous, or snide at the moment.

Picking up the bowl and laptop, she moved outdoors to her favorite lounge chair by the Roman-style pool.

After popping the ripest strawberry into her mouth, she laid her laptop on her thighs.

Maybe today would be the day she found the ideal job. Her intelligence expeditions didn’t seem to be getting her anywhere. In all her excursions, she’d never found a way to step out of her car into a real life.

This time, she started by scrolling the General Employment section of a job website. She never found much in the other columns fitting her qualifications—or lack thereof.

Still, she hoped to run across that elusive job—the one she qualified for but, most importantly, wouldn’t get her and her mother splashed all over the front pages of the tabloids.

According to one ad, a diner needed waitresses. Elle had seen the commercials for it on TV.

What would the tabloids say?

Diva’s Destitute Daughter Serves Diners at Denny’s. Next to the headline would be a large photo of her mother lounging on a beach in Bora Bora and a small inset photo of Elle in her waitress uniform.

Her mother would be humiliated.

Next, she spotted an ad for a job at a dry cleaner that didn’t require any experience. Likely tabloid headline: Lorrence Lives Lavishly as Elle Languishes in Laundromat.

Rebecca might require hospitalization.

Elle’s eyes locked on an ad for a veterinarian’s assistant. She leaned her head back and imagined the dogs coming and going in a vet’s office every day.

She’d always wanted a dog. Not the tiny ones some of the movie stars carried around, although she was the first to offer to dog-sit for them at events.

She yearned for a dog like the ones families on TV had. A yellow lab or golden retriever or a big old mutt.

Star’s Kid Cleans Kennels and Dines on Kibble.

Who was she kidding? None of these jobs would take her discreetly into real life and enable her to support herself.

And she certainly couldn’t work with the public. Even if she overcame her shyness, she’d be fired as soon as the reporters swarmed in and ran off the customers.

Rebecca was too big a fish for the publicity waves not to spill over onto her daughter. And even though they had no interest in her now, the press would gladly exploit Elle to take her mother down.

It was how the media worked. They built you a giant pedestal, put you on it, then started smashing at it with sledgehammers.

Regardless, she needed a quiet profession to move into without incident. But for that she needed college.

I need a job to pay for college. I need college to get a job.

She got up and dove into the pool. After twenty-two laps—in honor of her Catch Twenty-two situation—she took a break and heard Jeremy calling her. Oh well, she could always come back and do the rest later.

“Elle, telephone!” she heard clearly, once the water had drained from her ears.

She sighed. The only person who ever called her was Rebecca. She toweled off quickly and picked up the poolside phone.

“Hello.”

“Elle, darling! I have fabulous news for you! Are you sitting?”

A lump formed in Elle’s stomach. She got every bit as nervous when her mother announced “fabulous” news as when she deemed it “dreadful,” since they didn’t always agree on which was which.

She dropped onto the lounge chair. “Yes, I’m sitting.”

“Do you know the part you were up for?” Rebecca asked. “The friend of the main character in the little film Art Buchner’s directing?”

“How am I up for anything? I haven’t auditioned.”

“Well, I talked to Art about you, and he remembered you from the last little charity thingy we went to. What was it for?”

Little thingy?

Elle flipped the phone up and emitted a frustrated sigh. Sometimes she felt like banging the receiver on the wall to jar her mother out of her dream world.

“The L.A. Battered Women’s Shelter.”

“Yes, and he also met that old acting coach of yours, what’s his name?”

“You mean the ‘World Renowned William Knowles’, who you paid a fortune to give me private acting lessons?” Her mother never noted the annoyance or irony in her voice. One of the benefits of being completely self-absorbed.

“Yes. Well, anyway, he raved about you to Art, and another actress had to have emergency surgery, so he needs you immediately,” Rebecca said. “It’s not the lead, but you’ll get good experience. He directs those low-budget films because he wants to. He could be making blockbusters with his reputation. Oh, did I tell you? You’ll be doing an accent.”

“What kind of accent?” Elle’s head reeled. This was happening too fast.

“One of those places no one ever goes…Missouri maybe? Anyway, you need to start tomorrow.”

Elle scrambled to her feet. “We start rehearsing tomorrow?” she asked, stunned at the short notice.

“No. He wants the accent authentic,” Rebecca said. “You’ll be working with a dialect coach. Oh, I’m running out of battery. I gave Jeremy the information. Kiss, kiss.”

As the line went dead, Elle’s stomach did a flip. She lay back on the lounger, trying to decide how she felt.

The idea of getting out of the house and doing something was wonderful. She’d grown up on movie sets. They were like second homes to her.

But, despite Mr. Knowles’ praise, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to act in front of a cast and crew.

On the other hand, she’d met Art many times. Surely, he’d clear the set of any extraneous people if she asked. And a movie was drastically different than performing in front of an audience.

Most of the crew would be concerned about getting their own jobs done, like operating the boom and setting the lights. Besides, she’d be in costume playing someone else. She wouldn’t be Elle Lorrence.

She didn’t want her life to be like Rebecca’s. But bottom line, the paycheck would be made out to her, not her mother.

The money for one of Art’s films wouldn’t be great by Hollywood standards, but it should be enough to enroll in some classes at UCLA. Maybe even enough to rent an apartment.

And Art Buchner’s films didn’t make huge media splashes, so only an occasional small film buff would likely recognize her from this one little movie.

This might be her best chance to escape.

Now, if she could only make herself walk into the director’s office tomorrow and pretend to be an actress.

 

 


Chapter Four

 

After nixing Jeremy’s plan to drive her, Elle arrived promptly at eleven o’clock for her appointment. Art’s office sat over a coffee shop in an elderly brown two-story in Hollywood. Elle thought it perfect for him. She’d never gotten the idea Art needed to impress anyone. A rarity in this town.

She took the stairs to the second floor and found the office. Scribbling intently at his desk, Art didn’t see her standing in the doorway at first.

Although small, his office was home to about a thousand dead trees, between the piles of scripts on the floor and the stuffed bookcases reaching to the ceiling.

Art appeared geeky as always with his wire-framed, round glasses and bird nose. But in a cute, rumpled, lovable way.

Elle had always pictured her father looking like Art, which made no sense at all. Her mother wouldn’t give a man like him a second glance.

But since Rebecca refused to speak of her real father, Elle had decided she could imagine him any way she chose.

“Elle, I didn’t know you were here,” Art said. “It’s great to see you again.” He stood and came around to greet her. “How’s that mother of yours?”

The first question people asked. Never, “How are you, Elle?” Art motioned her into one of his leather guest chairs.

“Well, she sounded fine on the phone yesterday.”

“Great. Here’s a copy of the script. You’re playing Shannon Cooper, the best friend of the lead character. It’s a pretty juicy role.” He beamed as he spoke about his film. How lucky he was to have a job he felt so passionate about. “You’re the misguided one who causes her to follow you to the big city in the first place…and you get to die!”

Elle smiled inwardly at his enthusiasm regarding her death. “Let’s just hope I die in the right places.”

“What?” It took Art a moment to get the joke and give a chuckle. “No, you’ll be fine. William Knowles is like the Simon Cowell of acting coaches. If he says you’re good—besides, it’s in your blood.”

He lifted his eyes, smiling at the doorway behind her. “Oh, there he is! Come on in. Elle, this is Chris Carson.”

Chris Carson? Does he ride in the Wild West Show at Universal?

The tall leather chair she was occupying faced away from the door and she twisted around, trying to get a better view.

“He’s here to coach you on your accent,” Art said enthusiastically. “He’s actually a linguistics guru who speaks several languages as well as coaches some American regional dialects, and he teaches classes at UCLA. Do I have it right, Chris?”

“Perfect. I’ve always wanted to be a guru.”

From her seat, Elle had only been able to view the newcomer from the side, but as he came around to greet her face-to-face, she nearly fell out of her chair.

The hot guy from the mall?

She blinked hard a couple of times to make sure she hadn’t conjured him up from her memory.

Definitely him.

As he took a step toward her, she stood to greet him, trying to keep her expression nonchalant.

She had no choice but to look him in the eyes this time. His gold-flecked brown gaze connected with hers and a warm sensation oozed over her skin.

He was every bit as gorgeous as she remembered, his hair a few shades lighter than his eyes with highlights she knew hadn’t come from a stylist. Tanned skin, but without the orange spray-on tint.

His shoulders were wide and so thick she didn’t think her hands could stretch over them. He towered above her. Awareness of his size compared to hers made her breathing escalate.

She’d only gotten fleeting looks at him at the mall and convinced herself she’d exaggerated his appeal. She hadn’t. He stood in front of her, perfect from head to toe, but not in a contrived movie star way. Her eyes riveted to his, she took in three staccato breaths.

“Chris, this is Elle Lorrence.” Art threw his hands out toward her, like he was unveiling a work of art for the guru’s approval. “Rebecca Lorrence’s daughter.”

Did people always have to add that part? This once, with this guy, couldn’t she be Elle Nobody?

Then she remembered the stupid twenty dollar bill at the mall. The tip she’d handed a multilingual college professor-slash-linguistics guru.

Damn. Maybe he wouldn’t recognize her.

 Her hand quivered as she thrust it forward toward him. “Hi, Chris. It’s nice to meet you,” she croaked.

Chris hadn’t expected to come to work and find his dream girl from the mall.

Now the resemblance to her famous mother was obvious with those eyes. But Elle’s were a light, sparkly blue instead of the blue-gray of her mother’s. Her face held an angelic quality, rather than the “come hither” look which had made Rebecca Lorrence famous.

Even in jeans and simple white T-shirt, she lit up Art’s drab office. Fresh and glowing and hot—all adorable five-foot-two of her.

As he took her hand, Chris fought off the urge to kiss it. Her palm was magnetic, sending a charge up his arm, jarring his internal organs and a particular external one. He didn’t want to let go of her, but had no excuse to hang on any longer.

He caught a glimmer of recognition in her eyes, but if she wanted to pretend they were strangers, he’d go along.

“It’s nice to meet you, too.” Lame. He wished he’d come up with something appropriately spectacular to greet her with.

Then he remembered how she’d left him standing in the mall parking lot with a twenty in his hand, like some panhandler. Which was more insulting? The tip? Or that she hadn’t cared to give him even her first name?

“I thought you two would go to lunch today and get acquainted,” Art said. “Tomorrow, we start setting up on the sound stage, and we have a room where you can work. I’m sorry you got into this so late, Elle, but we’ll shoot your scenes last to give you time to prepare. It’ll be about three weeks before we need you in front of the camera.”

“I’ll do my best to be ready,” she said, not sounding as confident as Chris would have expected. She stood and moved to the door.

He couldn’t imagine her mother appearing so humble. He allowed himself to hope Elle wasn’t a miniature Rebecca, a woman with a reputation for firing people when they emphasized the first syllable of her name instead of the last.

“Oh, I almost forgot.” Art grabbed a large manila envelope from his desk and handed it to Elle. “You’ll need to sign it and get it back to me tomorrow.”

“The contract?”

“Yeah.” Art chuckled. “Your mother’s lawyer checked it. It’s got most of her usual stipulations.”

A strange expression passed over her face. Her eyes flicked toward Chris.

All of them?”

“Well, we couldn’t afford the personal masseuse, acupuncturist, or aroma therapist, but your mother said she’d provide those.”

Great. Another diva. But what did he expect from Rebecca Lorrence’s daughter?

Chris had the heart of a romantic. This wasn’t the first time he’d been momentarily taken in by a sweet face.

“Thanks,” she said absently. She walked out of the office, envelope in hand, appearing none too happy. Probably pissed Art didn’t give her a personal assistant.

But when her eyes met his, she bewitched him all over again. His mouth went dry. His muscles tensed. His lungs were working like he’d just come up for air after wiping out on his surfboard.

Why did this feel like a seduction? Her clothes weren’t even revealing. She was just standing there in the hallway, but she might as well have been giving him a lap dance.

“My car or yours?” he asked, way too eagerly.

Calm down, Carson.

She wasn’t what he needed in any way. He had no interest in getting mixed up romantically with an actress. Certainly not one raised by a haughty diva.

This was supposed to be a professional relationship, nothing else. He needed to snap out of this infatuation before he got in too deep.

Her eyes narrowed as she peered at him. He could almost see the wheels turning in her head.

“Let’s take both cars.”

She did think he was an axe murderer. Weird. Chris had always been the guy people asked to hold money for them.

“Are you afraid to go with me?” His bluntness surprised even himself.

“It’ll be more convenient afterward.”

She hadn’t answered his question. Was she actually scared to get in the car with him?

Take the hint, buddy. She hardly spoke to you when you carried her box at the mall. She tipped you like you were the hired help. She doesn’t even want to share car space with you.

Anger tried to take hold, but he squelched it. Maybe it was impossible to be Rebecca Lorrence’s daughter and not be dubious of people in general.

“All right,” he said. “Pick a restaurant.”

“I picked the transportation method,” she said. “You pick the restaurant.”

If they were to follow each other, Chris decided they should keep the restaurant close by. And it would give her less time to change her mind and ditch him.

“I have a favorite place near here. It’s called ‘Mac’s.’ Why don’t you follow me?” Crazy, how badly he wanted to have lunch with her, even though he’d been riding an emotional roller coaster since he’d met her.

“Okay,” she said unenthusiastically.

But, this time, he was undaunted. He would have an hour or so alone with her to win her over, and how many women didn’t enjoy his company?

~

Elle was miserably disappointed. She’d been to the most exclusive parties where she’d met the most famous actors of all ages.

The beautiful people.

Yet she’d never experienced the physical reaction she’d felt when Chris Carson took her hand, his eyes glowing into hers. When his warm palm pressed into hers, a jolt of electricity bolted up her arm, ricocheted in her stomach, and landed in her chest. She’d stopped breathing for a moment.

But now…

She kept glancing at the contract in the passenger seat, afraid of what it would say.

Please, just this once, don’t let Rebecca have her way.

As she pulled into the restaurant parking space, she ripped the envelope open, yanked the pages out and skimmed through, knowing exactly what to look for. When she’d been bored on set, she’d read her mother’s contracts to pass the time.

Her heart sank. There it was in black and white.

 

-End of excerpt-

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