Turning It On

By Elizabeth Harmon

Romance

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368
36 mins

 

Chapter One

“Smile!”
The command cut through the rumble of the subway car and Hannah Levinson hunched her shoulders, knowing it was meant for her.
She glanced up from her tablet. Across the aisle sat a man in a New York Giants jacket and too-tight polyester pants. Balanced in his lap was a gray hard-shell briefcase, like the ones copier repair guys carried. Hannah stared, dismayed as always by the nerve of complete strangers. “I beg your pardon?”
Undeterred, he met her gaze. “I said, smile. You’d look a whole lot prettier.”
Though this sort of thing was just part of life in New York City, Hannah never knew how to respond. Just because she didn’t walk around grinning like an idiot did not give others the right to comment. Do I really look that dark and gloomy? Maybe I should be more engaging, rather than the girl with her nose always stuck in a book. Today, however, the normal doubts came and went, like a bad smell on a passing stranger. Life was too good. Being the girl with her nose always in a book seemed to be serving her quite well, thank you very much, and as for being more engaging? She had that base covered, too. As she felt the bulk of gold and gem through her glove, happiness tugged at the corner of her mouth. Instead of a scathing comeback, she would share a little bit of her sunshine. “It’s a good thing I’m on my way to the dentist,” she replied, flashing a bright grin.
Flummoxed, the Smile Cop turned back to his smartphone. Hannah returned to her tablet, happy thoughts turning in her mind. A few moments later, the conductor’s voice crackled over the broken speakers and she joined the commuters scurrying out of the station.
Late afternoon Park Slope, Brooklyn, was quiet, as most of the stroller moms were home from coffee dates and toddler enrichment classes, and most of the professionals who worked in Manhattan hadn’t returned yet. The windows of neighborhood restaurants cast an inviting glow onto the icy sidewalks, as inside workers bustled among rows of empty tables, preparing for the Thursday-night dinner crowd. The sight made Hannah long to be at one, surrounded by friends, laughter and celebration. Unfortunately, Jack wouldn’t be home until late.
Dr. Martinez’s office was at the end of the block. As Hannah stepped out of the cold into the warm waiting room, the receptionist looked up. “There you are! We called your cell, but you didn’t pick up.”
“I was on the train.” Hannah tugged off her gloves and stuffed them into her coat pocket. She glanced at the smiling molar clock above the reception desk, which read a few minutes before five. “But I’m early.”
“You’re late. The appointment was at four.”
“It was?” She never forgot appointments. Ever. Good thing it wasn’t something work- or Jack-related. “I’m so sorry. Can you still fit me in?”
The receptionist rolled her desk chair over to a computer and tapped the keyboard with her long pink fingernails. “Looks like Robynne is available to do a cleaning at five fifteen, and I’m sure Doc can stop in and have a look. Have a seat.”
Ouch, Robynne. She’d seen the blonde hygienist at her last appointment, and the experience hadn’t been pleasant, though Jack seemed to like her well enough. Such was the price for being disorganized.
She took a seat in the waiting room and dug out her tablet, returning to the manuscript she’d been reading on the train. The debut novel by a top 1970s movie director was a juicy Hollywood tell-all, full of thinly disguised famous faces. It was a plum project, with bestseller written all over it. She had received it this afternoon when she was invited to interview for a position in the prestigious literary fiction division. If Hannah impressed her prospective boss, it was sure to be the first of many bestsellers coming her way.
“Ready?”
A squeaky little-girl voice yanked Hannah out of decadent Hollywood. Robynne, the hygienist, stood at the door to the inner office, pearly whites gleaming.
“Yeah, sure.” Hannah rose, but found it difficult to tear her eyes away from a particularly skillful turn of phrase.
“Something good online?” Robynne asked, as Hannah crossed the waiting room. “I love the personality quizzes on Facebook. Have you seen the one that tells which Disney princess you are? I’m Snow White.”
Hannah switched off her tablet. “No, it’s a new book written by Curtis Monroe.”
“Who?”
“Curtis Monroe. He directed Platoon Six. Mafia Girl?” Robynne’s brow settled over blank eyes. “He was one of the biggest directors in the seventies.”
The hygienist shrugged. “I’m not really a fan of old black-and-white movies. How come you’re reading that?”
Excitement bubbled forth again. The hygienist was an unlikely person with whom to share her great news, but Hannah was bursting to tell someone. “It’s my job. I work at Bettendorf Publishing and this afternoon, I was invited to interview for an editor position in the literary fiction division.”
Robynne turned back, her face puckered. “Huh. Who’s got time to read?” She led Hannah into an exam room and gestured toward the vacant chair. “So? How’s Jack?”
It was an odd question, but it wasn’t the first time Hannah had sensed Robynne was a little too interested in her boyfriend. Make that fiancé. “He couldn’t be better. We just got engaged.”
Immediately, Robynne’s gaze fell on the third finger of Hannah’s left hand. “Wow, that’s some rock you’re wearing.”
Hannah held out her ink-dotted and nail-bitten fingers, admiring how the diamond sparkled in the fluorescent light. Rings like this belonged on the manicured hands of glamorous creatures like her sister Rachel, and even after two weeks, it still felt strange to own a piece of jewelry others found impressive. “Thank you. He surprised me New Year’s Eve.”
“He did?” Robynne seemed distracted by the instruments on the tray beside the chair, picking them up and setting them down. “I mean, that’s great. I didn’t realize you were so serious…” She gave a short laugh. “Have a seat, please.”
The exam began with a jab to Hannah’s upper gum and got worse from there. Robynne wasn’t particularly gentle on the best of days, but this afternoon, she seemed to attack her work with a measure of sadistic glee. Hannah fixed her gaze on the Norman Rockwell print hanging on the opposite wall, and prayed the ordeal would end quickly. Twenty long minutes later, Robynne handed her a cup of rinse. “Have you set a wedding date?”
Hannah swished and spat the mint-flavored rinse into the little basin beside her chair. “October 20. We have the hotel and banquet room booked. I’m shopping for a dress. The hard part is finding one that isn’t strapless.”
“What’s wrong with strapless?”
Hannah glanced down at her double Ds, concealed with a paper dental bib and layers of scarves. The one strapless gown she’d tried made her look like an inflatable sex doll, the Nice Jewish Girl edition. Perky little Robynne obviously never dealt with such problems. “Nothing in particular.”
“Is he taking you to Cozumel for your honeymoon? He loves it there.”
Hannah blinked, unnerved at Robynne’s familiarity with Jack’s vacation preferences. Then she relaxed. He’d gone down to Mexico in the fall with some of his fraternity brothers, and must have talked about the trip at his last appointment. “I don’t know. We haven’t made plans yet.”
“Probably smart. A lot can happen between now and October.” Robynne snapped off her blue rubber gloves. “You can schedule your six-month on the way out. Though before the wedding?” She offered a tight smile. “Take my advice and book a whitening treatment.”
Maybe it was best Hannah didn’t go around smiling.
Hannah walked home from her appointment, thinking. The hygienist obviously had a thing for Jack, but did she have to be so obvious? Not that Hannah blamed her. She’d had a thing for Jack Gordon since she was twelve years old.
They’d grown up in the same neighborhood and their families were longtime friends. In high school, his golden aura inspired every overwrought poem Hannah wrote for the school literary mag. They had gone to different colleges, and though she dated other guys, when she and Jack got together three years ago at her sister Rachel’s wedding, it was as if the stars were at last aligned.
The families were almost as ecstatic over Jack’s proposal as Hannah. Mom had lined up the rabbi and reception hall with startling speed. Jack’s mom promised an enormous bridal shower. Rachel offered to throw a bachelorette party. What Hannah had longed for half her life was now less than a year away.
A block from her apartment, she stopped at the corner sushi place and picked up dinner to go. Jack wouldn’t be home for hours yet, but she could finish the Monroe book and put together comprehensive and insightful notes for her potential new boss. Then when Jack did arrive home, they could celebrate her good news together.
She and Jack lived in an 1880s gray stone, set in a row of identical buildings. The gargoyles that flanked the front steps leered as she stepped around patches of frozen snow and fished out her keys. In the foyer, she unlocked the mailbox to find a few bills, coupons from the dry cleaner down the block and a glossy catalog. She tugged it free, and a hot flush rose in her winter-chilled face.
It was from a lingerie chain store where she never shopped. Not even online. One visit in college had been enough. A rail-thin salesgirl had looked at Hannah’s ginormous chest and loudly announced, “We don’t sell anything that would fit you.”
Had Jack ordered it? Her hands trembled as she pictured him admiring the beautiful, perfectly proportioned models. She flipped the catalog over, and breathed a relieved sigh. There was her full name, Hannah Leah Levinson, just as it appeared on her credit cards. This was nothing more than a poorly targeted mass mailing. She tossed the catalog in the trash.
Juggling bag, purse, mail and sushi, she climbed the stairs, and at their door, realized that the music and laughter she heard on the way up was coming from the apartment. Was Jack actually home before midnight? Her heart soared, as she entered and found him sprawled on the living room couch, feet up, tie loose, cocktail in hand.
“Hi, honey, you’re home.” His goofy grin suggested this martini was not his first.
Hannah set her bag down, thrilled she would be able to share her news after all. “So are you. What happened? Did Windsor and St. Clair close its doors?”
Jack laughed. “Don’t I fucking wish? No, the meat grinder is still in business. And though it looks like I’m just kicking back, I’m actually entertaining a very important client.” He shouted toward the kitchen. “Dude! Hannah’s home. Get your ass in here.”
A tall slender guy with a spiked hairstyle and a well-tailored Italian sport coat stepped into the living room and spread his arms wide. It took a second before she recognized him, then she gasped and rushed forward to embrace their childhood friend, Eric Conrad.
“Hannah Banana, so good to see you.”
She stepped back, taking in the sight of the once-scrawny, pimpled boy who had been her literary magazine coeditor, transformed into a geek-cool, Hollywood up-and-comer. “You look fantastic! LA treating you well?”
“Couldn’t be better.” Eric grinned. “How about you, Hannah? Keeping our boy in line?” He grabbed her left hand and admired the ring. “He must be doing all right for himself.”
“Only the best for my bride-to-be.”
Hannah laughed. “Isn’t he wonderful?” She smiled up at Eric, whom she hadn’t seen for more than a year. “What brings you back to the city? Family or business?”
Jack rose from the sofa. “Actually, Eric is the newest client of Windsor and St. Clair’s entertainment law division, thanks to yours truly.”
Eric bobbed his head, feigning modesty. “Grab a drink and join us. I’ve got lots to tell you guys.”
Hannah stashed her bags in the alcove she used as a home office, put her sushi in the fridge for tomorrow’s lunch and poured a glass of wine, happy to celebrate their old friend’s success, and hers.
They went for dinner at the new organic pizzeria down the street, and Hannah relaxed in the comfortable glow of a night out and good wine. Though there had been no chance to share her news yet, this was exactly what she had been in the mood for. Jack was unusually cheerful, as well. Out from under the oppressive thumbs of Windsors Junior, Senior, and the venerable Emil St. Clair, he was actually smiling. This was so worth the midnight oil she would have to burn to finish the Curtis Monroe manuscript.
They reminisced about the Monty Python routines Eric and Jack performed in high school talent shows, and about the dances Eric had asked Hannah to, only to be turned down. She smiled and took Jack’s hand. “Even then I was madly in love. You were just too cool to notice.”
“I noticed,” Jack answered. “I was just too much of an idiot to appreciate it.”
“It’s too bad you didn’t come to UMass with Jack and me,” said Eric. “You would have had some good, good times.”
“What makes you think I didn’t have good, good times at Cornell?”
Jack and Eric glanced at each other with perfect comedic timing and burst out laughing. “Okay, party-central it wasn’t, but it gave me what I needed to launch a career that I love. Speaking of which…” She paused and took a deep breath. “Today I was invited to interview for an editor job with Bettendorf’s literary fiction group.”
Jack’s cold stare made her regret opening her big mouth. “Yay, you,” he muttered under his breath.
Momentarily deflated, she should have guessed he would react this way. It happened whenever she mentioned anything positive about her career. Even Jack’s hefty paycheck didn’t make up for the fact that he was envious—not that she was an overworked and underpaid assistant editor, but that she was doing something she loved. Though she was annoyed he’d rained on tonight’s parade, he needed to understand this was good news for him, too.
“Hey,” she squeezed his hand. “The job comes with a raise. Not a huge one, but maybe enough to turn our five-year plan into a four-and-a-half-year plan. Meanwhile, you have a lot to be proud of.”
“Oh, yeah. Kissin’ ass with the best of them.” He knocked back the last of his beer, and sat for a moment, staring at nothing, as an awkward silence descended. Then he draped his arm across the back of her chair and smiled. She smiled, too, as the tense moment passed. “Hey, Eric, why don’t you tell Hannah about your new project.”
“Something you’re writing?” She took a sip of wine, always happy to hear about someone’s work in progress.
“Better. Eric is the creator and coproducer of this year’s hottest new reality show, Last Fling.”
“Interesting title,” she said.
“Incredible concept,” Jack added, in disconcerting Hollywood-speak. “Wait ’til you hear it.”
Eric grinned and turned to Hannah. “What if…there was a surefire way to know that the person you were about to marry was 100 percent ready to make that lifetime commitment, and forsake all others unto you. As a bride-to-be, would you want that?”
“Absolutely,” Hannah replied.
“Who wouldn’t?” Eric asked, spreading his hands. “Well, Last Fling can prove that.”
“Okay.” She glanced from Jack to Eric who seemed to be in on some secret she wasn’t.
“Picture this.” Eric framed a space in the air with his hands. “Two engaged couples at a luxurious private resort. Just him, her…and the gorgeous men and women they’ve chosen for a possible last fling before they walk down the aisle. They go on dates with each one, take part in exciting challenges and then in the final episode, eliminate all but one. Do they have that last fling, or…stay faithful and prove they’re ready to say I do?”
As it sunk in, Hannah gaped at Eric. “You’ve created a TV show where the idea is for the contestants to cheat on the person they’re about to marry?”
“No, no,” Eric said, shaking his head. “You’re missing the point. They affirm their love by not cheating.”
“And it’s just a fling. Not cheating, per se,” Jack offered.
“But the people, the flings, whatever you call them…the reason they’re there is to try and come between the engaged couple. And the couple has actually invited them? That’s awful! What kind of sick people would do that?”
Jack glared. “Jeez, Hannah. You don’t have to be so negative. It’s a TV show.”
Eric held up a hand. “It’s all right, Jack. I’ve heard it all before.” His voice had an oily quality she didn’t associate with the sweet guy she’d known in high school. “Hannah. Look at it this way. If a couple isn’t happy, isn’t it better that they find out before they spend thousands of dollars on a wedding, invite hundreds of people…only to be abandoned at the altar? Or worse…divorced a year later?”
Hannah stilled. Eric had just voiced her worst nightmare.
He smiled. “We’re actually doing our couples a favor by saving them from a huge mistake.”
“I guess,” she muttered, toying with piece of whole grain pizza crust on her plate.
“And the couples who resist the flings? They can move forward with rock-solid assurance that their marriage will last. Which is what we all want, right? That happily-ever-after, fairy-tale ending.”
Hannah nodded, though the whole idea left a bad taste in her mouth.
“Not to mention, both couples will receive designer wardrobes, including a wedding gown created especially for each bride, fabulous prizes and enjoy ten glorious weeks, all expenses paid, being pampered at the luxurious Resorte Siete Mares in Puerto Rico.”
“Ten weeks,” Jack echoed, grinning.
“Ever been to Puerto Rico, Hannah Banana?”
“No, but I hear it’s nice. So this show…”
“Last Fling,” Jack supplied.
Hannah nodded. “Last Fling. It’s really going to be on the air?”
“Yes, indeed,” Eric said. “Monday nights on the Xposé Network. We start filming in mid-February and the show debuts the first week of March. Couple number one, Chris and Tammy of Daytona Beach, are already on board. Couldn’t be more excited. I’m signing up their flings as we speak.”
“What about the other couple?”
“So glad you asked.” Eric winked and turned to Jack. “Do you want to tell her or should I?”
Jack looked over and tenderly touched Hannah’s hand. “Eric’s hoping it will be us, sweetheart.”
Hannah burst out laughing, and then realized she was laughing alone. Her gaze shifted from Jack to Eric and back. “Are you insane?”
Jack snorted and pulled his hand away. “I knew you’d react like this.”
“Then why did you even ask?”
“Because Eric’s our friend and he needs our help.”
“Help?”
Long-faced, Eric nodded. “The truth is, we had another couple lined up but—” He gave a hollow laugh. “The bride-to-be caught the groom in bed with the wedding planner, so believe it or not, they’ve called it off.”
“Then find another engaged couple. There are plenty around.”
“It’s not that easy, Hannah. There is a lot that goes into it, and our schedule has us on the ground, ready to shoot in just three weeks. That isn't enough time to locate a couple, run all the background checks and do all the preliminaries. I know you and Jack. You’re stable, sane people with no skeletons in the closet. Plus, you’re successful young professionals.”
“Not exactly the types for reality TV.”
Eric wagged a finger. “Not true, Hannah. Not true at all. The reality TV viewer is actually quite upscale. By going on the show, you’ll broaden our demographic appeal. Chris and Tammy are hardworking, salt-of-the-earth Southerners. You and Jack? Well-educated, affluent professionals from New York City. Everyone in America will have someone they can relate to.”
“How am I supposed to take ten weeks off work?” She turned to Jack. “How are you supposed to take ten weeks off work? Big and Little Windsor barely let you out for lunch.”
“Eric’s a client, so I’m sure they’ll see the advantage of having me there on-site. And you can work remotely. Doesn’t Bettendorf use freelance editors from all over the country?”
“What about my promotion?”
Jack groaned. Eric leaned forward. “We’ll arrange your shooting schedule around your workday, Hannah. You’ll have all the time you need.”
No one would be happy about her being gone for so long, but she might be able to make arrangements, provided she stayed on top of her work. And really, what better place to edit beach books than at the beach? But even with her employer’s blessing this felt wrong. “Jack…reality TV? Last flings? This all seems so…sleazy.”
“It doesn’t have to be. We get a free vacation in a gorgeous place. You get a wedding dress designed just for you. Weren’t you saying that you hate how every dress is strapless? Now you can have exactly what you want. We don’t have to take it seriously. Let’s just go have some fun for once, and help out an old friend.”
She drummed her fingers, and then turned to Eric. “You won’t make us eat spiders or anything, will you?”
Eric laughed. “No spiders, I swear.”
She swallowed and asked the real question weighing on her mind. “We don’t have to go through with the last flings, do we?”
He held up one hand. “Absolutely not. The choice is completely up to you.”
For her there was no choice, but the eager look on Jack’s face only fueled her doubt. “Can I sleep on it?”
Jack heaved an exasperated sigh. Eric patted her hand. “Sure, sure. Take all the time you need.” He took out a business card and slid it across the table. “Call my cell in the morning, and let me know your decision.”
They said good-night shortly afterward, and Eric caught a cab to his hotel. As they walked home, Jack was sullen. So much for her celebratory night out. “Why couldn’t you have just said yes?” he asked.
Because it might blow her chances at a job she wanted very badly? Not to mention a few other reasons. “Do you really want to do this, Jack? Frankly, it bothers me that you’re so eager to go on a show where other women are trying to seduce you.”
“Hannah, we’re engaged. This has nothing to do with other women.”
“Then why does it mean so much to you?”
He thrust his hands in the pockets of his coat. Short breaths puffed from his nostrils and formed clouds in the cold air. “Because Eric is living the life I wanted, that’s why.”
She paused, then drew in a breath, remembering. “Billy Bigelow,” she said, softly. He pressed his lips into a thin line and nodded.
Jack’s senior year star turn as the doomed lover in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel brought every female in Port Pleasant—Hannah included—to tears. He had sent a video to the UMass Theater Department and landed an audition, only to have his parents refuse to pay for college if he majored in theater. That had been the end of his dream.
“Since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to be in show business. Instead, I’m an entertainment lawyer watching a guy with half the talent I had succeed, while I…” He clenched his jaw, and then raked one hand through his wavy blond hair. “You’re lucky, Hannah. You work hard, but at something you love. Me? I spend ninety hours a week sucking up to assholes, and doing something I hate.”
“I know,” she said, gently. “But it’s not forever. Five years and then you’ll have enough experience to leave and open your own firm. By then, I’ll be making enough to support us while you’re getting it off the ground. It’s going to work out. I know it is.”
He rubbed the back of his neck, and stared down at the street, his breath forming a cloud in the air. “But sometimes I’m so miserable I don’t think I can stand it another day. It’s as if I’m living someone else’s life. Can you understand how that feels?”
Truthfully, she couldn’t. Her life was perfect just as it was. But for his sake, she nodded. “Of course I do.”
He grabbed her hand and squeezed. “Then let’s do something totally crazy. Something other people would kill to do. We get our fifteen minutes of fame.” Jack chuckled. “We’ll piss off our parents. You’ll even get a wedding gown designed just for you. How cool is that?”
“Kinda cool,” Hannah admitted. “But what about—”
“The promotion will be there. If not this time, then next time.”
“That wasn’t what I was going to ask. What about the flings?”
“What about them? No one said we have to take this seriously or go through with it. You heard Eric, it’s just for fun. Come on, honey. Say you’ll do it. Please?”
Hannah wanted nothing more than for Jack to be happy, and if going on Eric’s stupid reality show would accomplish that, she was willing. Even if there was a cost. She smiled up at him and gave a decisive nod. “I’ll talk with work tomorrow.”
Jack’s face brightened. “Hannah Levinson, I love you!”
“I love you, too, Jack. I love you so much.”
He scooped her into his arms and whirled her in a circle, right in the middle of the sidewalk. People paused to stare, and then applaud, as snowflakes sparkled like diamonds in the moonlight. For a thrilling moment she would always remember life felt like a movie and she was the star.

Chapter Two

Vladimir Shustov crossed his arms over his bare, oiled chest and glared at the scrawny Hollywood producer straddling the locker room bench. Eric Conrad’s black clothes and pasty skin made him look woefully out of place in steamy, sweaty Miami. “And the $150,000? What do I have to do to get that?”
“Not what you think.” Conrad’s voice had a high-pitched, defensive edge. “Just be nice to her.”
“Just nice?” Vlad echoed, in disbelief.
“That’s right. Nice. Become her favorite. If she complains about something her fiancé does, do the opposite. Create some drama. You seem like a guy who understands how the world works. Help us make good TV and everyone benefits. Not only do you become rich, you’ll be famous, too.”
Famous as what? Vlad pushed the thought away. He had made compromises before and didn’t believe for a minute the bullshit line that he could go on a show called Last Fling and be rewarded for not having one.
“Tammy said she was here last summer. August, I think. For her sister’s bachelorette party. Do you remember her?” the producer asked.
“I don’t. There are so many.”
Conrad chuckled. “I’m sure there are. Well, she definitely remembered Vlad the Bad.” He tapped his tablet and held it out. “Does she look familiar?”
The photo showed four girls in matching blue dresses, all bleached blondes with dark roots and tanned, shiny faces. Three were attractive. The fourth had chubby, well-inked arms, coarse features and wore an overly wide smile that only emphasized how unhappy she was.
“Tammy’s the one on the end.”
Vlad had already guessed that. He’d probably given her some special attention that night. Usually that meant nothing more than a few extra dollars stuffed in his thong, but sometimes the girls misinterpreted. That seemed to be the case with Tammy Bradford, who had apparently chosen him as someone she’d like to have a last fling with. He handed the tablet back. “What does her husband think about this?”
“Not her husband, fiancé.” Conrad held up a hand and Vlad noticed the man’s oversize watch. Black face, crown insignia. Rolex. The guy was doing well, or wanted to give that impression. “He’s all in, too. In fact, I’m flying to Chicago straight from here to sign up one of his.” He grinned. “Remember the old Somerset High TV series?”
Vlad shook his head. “I didn’t grow up in America.”
“I think it was popular in Europe, too.”
“Where I lived we didn’t get much TV. I read mostly.”
Conrad raked Vlad up and down from behind his glasses. He didn’t need to say anything; it was obvious what he was thinking. The fact that a guy who took off his clothes for money had a brain seemed to surprise people.
“Well, then. Speaking of reading.” He slid a stapled packet of pages across the bench and clicked open a pen. “Look this over, sign at the bottom of page twenty-eight and we’ll have a deal.”
Vlad scanned the first page, which was dense with legalese. He’d been in this country more than five years and his English was very good, but even native speakers probably couldn’t make sense of this. Maybe he ought to show it to a lawyer. He didn’t have one, though a friend who used to dance at The Male Room attended law school for a while. Tony might be of some help. Vlad read on. Physical exam, psychological screening, drug test, credit checks. “Nondisclosure?” He glanced up from the page at the baby-faced producer.
“It means you can’t discuss the outcome of the show, or the terms of your contract with anyone. If you do, you won’t see a dime.”
Could they really do that? He’d have to ask Tony. Scanning the paragraphs, he spotted what interested him most—the $100,000 he would be paid for ten weeks’ work. If he was selected as a Final Fling and “… satisfactorily fulfilled the requirements, stipulations and contractual conditions outlined herein…blah, blah, blah…producers’ discretion, so on and so forth,” he could pocket another $150,000.
Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Money like that could change his life.
He flipped to the last page, and held the pen over the blank line with his name printed beneath.
Vladimir Ivanovich Shustov.
The sight of his full name made him blink. No one called him Vladimir anymore. Americans simply shortened it, incorrectly, to Vlad, and he had grown accustomed to it. It was the same with his patronymic, which he also no longer used, though it was something he’d once felt proud of. Ivan was actually his uncle, not his father, but he was the closest thing to one Vlad had ever known. He hadn’t thought of himself as Vladimir Ivanovich in a very long time; not since he’d left Arkhangelsk to live a life that made him feel unworthy of the name. Seeing it on the contract, knowing what Uncle Ivan would think, made Vlad pause.
“Is there a problem?” Conrad asked.
“No. Just surprised to see my full name. No one calls me that anymore.”
“We check all of the candidates before we approach them to be sure there are no outstanding legal issues. You came up clean.” The man’s thin mouth quirked in a condescending way. “Surprised?”
“No.” He held the producer’s gaze, refusing to be intimidated, even though the Hollywood guy had a Rolex and all the money, while Vlad wore no shirt and tear-off pants.
The producer looked down and rolled the pen between his fingers. “So. Do we have a deal?”
“I want to think it over before I sign.”
Conrad’s brows shot up, and Vlad held back a smile. The guy assumed he would jump at this. Wrong. No issue with the money, but how would it feel if the only man in the world Vlad respected found out?
“What’s the problem? I already said that you don’t have to fuck her. Unless you want to.” He hadn’t thought a TV network could legally force him to that, and it really wasn’t the issue. He was only twenty-five and had already done a lifetime’s worth of things he wasn’t proud of, and for far less in return. Still, did he really want to add one more to the list? Even if Uncle never knew about Last Fling, Vlad always would.
“The offer won’t last forever.” The producer took back the contract and stuffed it in his man-purse. He handed Vlad a business card. “When you make up your mind, call my cell. Tomorrow, before noon. Otherwise, we’ll go with someone else.”
Vlad looked at the card. It was slick and shiny, with raised black letters. Renegade Productions, Los Angeles. Conrad seemed legit, though younger than Vlad would have expected a Hollywood big shot to be. Nerdy, too, and definitely uneasy in the locker room where muscle-bound dudes were using pink lady razors to shave their groins. Though who was he to judge? The guy was doing something with his life. More than dancing around in a thong at least. He tucked the card in his wallet. “I’ll think about it.”
As the producer left, Jared came in, a garment bag slung over his shoulder. “Who was that?”
“Nobody important.”
Music thumped through the locker room’s walls, The Black Crowes, “Hard to Handle.” He had done a routine to it a while back, which Lamar was now using. Years of working with ice dance choreographers had paid off in ways Vlad never could have imagined. The door swung open again. This time it was Stella, the leathery old biker chick who owned The Male Room. She scowled. “Jesus, Vlad. Aren’t you ready yet?”
“I had company.”
Stella rolled her eyes. “So I saw. Look, you owe somebody money, keep it out of my club. Now move. You’re up next.” She gestured with her ever-present lit cigarette.
“Send out Xander.” Vlad glanced over his shoulder at the Brazilian rookie practicing his routine with headphones on. He remembered doing the same thing before skating competitions, only in more clothing. “I have to warm up first. It’ll be worth it, trust me.”
“Cocky asshole. Warm-ups, Jesus Christ. It’s The Male Room, not the fucking Ice Capades.” She dragged on her cigarette and waved her arms to get the rook’s attention. “Yo, Xander! You’re up, muchacho. Vámonos!”
Xander followed Stella out, and Vlad went into his warm-up stretches. His figure skating days might be long ago and far away, but old habits died hard. It worked, too. He danced four nights a week without so much as a pulled muscle.
Jared took a cop uniform from the garment bag and hung it in the open locker next to Vlad’s. “Full house tonight. Eight private parties.”
Vlad counted out knee bends. “How private can they be if there are eight of them?”
“It’s business, that’s what I care about.” Jared pulled off his tight green surfer T-shirt and took a bottle of baby oil from his locker. He squirted some in his palm and rubbed it over his chest. “Plenty of regulars, too. Money should be good tonight.”
That was welcome news. It was the end of the week, and the first of the month. Rent and the payment on the Hummer were both due.
“You’re going to Lamar’s after-party?”
Vlad shrugged. “Probably.”
“That chick I told you about who dances over at Sunset Strip? She’s going to be there and wants to meet you.” Jared grinned. “You’re not still seeing that college girl, are you? Kelsey? Candy?”
“Katie.” The name brought a melancholy twinge. “Not anymore.”
“Whatever. You’ll forget all about her once you see Electra. And she likes three-ways, so you don’t have to limit yourself.” Jared wiggled his eyebrows, still new enough at the life to be awestruck. “Gonna be fuckin’ wall-to-wall pussy at Lamar’s, bro.”
“Like always.”
Jared finished with the oil, and held out the bottle. “Need any?”
“I’m good, thanks.” He preferred cocoa butter, which looked just as shiny, but made him sweat less.
Jared shrugged on the cop shirt and smoothed the Velcro fasteners to close the front. “Still writing your book?”
“When I can.” Truth was, he had hardly written a page in weeks. The characters were no longer a constant presence in his mind. Not a good sign. He needed time away, a break from the routine. Like maybe ten weeks in Puerto Rico?
Jared shook his head. “Never knew anyone who did that once, let alone twice. I get to read it when you get it done, right?”
“Sure thing, man.”
Jared had loved the first book, which wasn’t half as good as The Flesh Zone promised to be. He wasn’t the most sophisticated critic, but that wasn’t the type of reader Vlad wanted to impress. Vlad fastened the fake pearl snaps on his white dress shirt, and then tore it open to check that it parted easily. In the mirror, his bare chest gleamed, his gold crucifix resting comfortably against his skin. He resnapped the shirt and tied his black bow tie. A loud thump sounded on the door, followed by Stella’s raspy voice. “Vlad! Now!”
He grabbed his tuxedo jacket and shades and then stepped out of the locker room, into the noisy hallway that led to the upper part of the stage. The Male Room had been a disco back in the day, with an elevated platform and steps leading down to the main dance floor. Xander’s act wasn’t quite over, and Vlad moved to the salsa music, hidden from view, waiting for the beat to carry him away. Usually it didn’t take long but tonight it did.
Jared’s question about the book weighed on him, as did the baby-faced producer’s offer of two hundred and fifty grand. Real money. He could finish writing The Flesh Zone and sell it to a publisher. It was good, easily as good some of the crap he had read lately. He could walk away from The Male Room. He could be what he always longed to be. A man like Uncle Ivan. Someone good and honorable.
Dating Katie had offered a taste of that. A respite from partying until dawn, then waking up midafternoon broke and hungover. He liked living in the daylight again. He liked being with a woman who had interests beyond the next party. He’d done some of his best writing and, though Katie was studying for her MBA, she enjoyed hearing him talk about it. The relationship had ended three months ago, when her internship was over and she’d returned to Chicago. Neither of them considered making a go at anything long-distance, which had bothered Vlad much more than he expected. It reinforced that he was not the type of man a young woman with a bright future would want in her life…even as a part of him longed to be.
Xander’s dance ended to a cacophony of applause and cheering. The Male Room’s newest dancer came offstage, sweaty and smiling, with cash poking from his red sequined trunks. He nodded as he passed, and Vlad pulled his dark shades from his pocket.
“Give it up for Prince Xander, ladies!” The DJ’s voice boomed through the club. “All the way from Rio, and way too hot to handle! Though wouldn’t we all love a chance?” The crowd cheered wildly. “Next up…The Male Room proves that smokin’ hot doesn’t only come from south of the equator. Presenting the most intoxicating Russian import since vodka…Vlad the Bad!”
As his music began, Vlad strutted onto the stage and struck a pose, the ultimate Hollywood bad boy with gel-spiked hair and Ray-Ban shades. Spotlights flickered, like paparazzi camera flashes on the red carpet. Through the synth intro to Lady Gaga’s “Applause,” he swiveled his hips in slow, sinuous movements intended to make every woman in the place think he was doing it just for her.
At the start of the first verse, he took off his shades and tossed them to the prop guy backstage, making eye contact with the women seated closest to the main floor. He glanced up at the VIP seats in the balcony, which were empty at the moment, then down at the audience that surrounded the main floor on three sides. At the foot of the stairs he paused and then thrust his hips forward in one hard motion. The room erupted with shrill screams.
Though it was hard to hear the music, he relied on muscle memory and innate rhythm to keep him on the beat and let attitude do the rest. He moved to the center and executed a perfect spin, then tossed his jacket aside. More screams. The women were primed and ready as he moved to the left side of the parquet square.
Seated closest was a bachelorette party of girls in their early twenties. The bride wore a sparkly pink veil, and he danced before her, thrusting toward her smiling face. She grabbed his hips as he tugged loose his tie. When it was off he looped it around her slender wrist and brought her hand up to cup his bulging crotch. The girls shrieked and cameras flashed. There was a pile of cash on the table, and a few girls, obviously first-timers, held out money. It wasn’t time yet, but he grinned and winked, letting them know he’d be back.
After stopping to straddle a fortysomething birthday girl and rip open the snaps on his shirt, he noticed a younger woman at the opposite end of the table. Straight brown hair parted in the center, round acne-dotted cheeks, heavy-framed glasses. He danced over and looked her in the eye.
She shrank back a little and her lips parted in surprise. Anything too outrageous would probably embarrass her, but in a single, quick motion, he pulled off his shirt and flung it behind him. Her friends squealed and crowded around, vying for his attention, but he kept his gaze on Glasses Girl. She blushed, unused to being noticed, but her shy smile suggested she liked it. With a wink, he moved on to the next group, on the lookout for the guest of honor and the guest forgotten.
He shed the rest of his clothes during the second rotation and by the third, he was down to his black satin thong. The audience held out cash and he moved close to accept his tips. Glasses Girl held out a dollar. Her shoulders were hunched, as though she feared he would refuse.
Vlad danced over and let her stuff the money beneath the waistband of his thong. Her shaking fingers lightly brushed his skin. In the real world, did she ever touch a man? On impulse, he bent down and planted a quick kiss on her cheek. The audience squealed their approval. Glasses Girl’s ear-to-ear smile said she could now die happy. He danced away, happy, as well.
The older women were usually less touchy, but they tipped extremely well. One held out a twenty, and Vlad made sure he was within easy reach. Most were married, and simply wanted to admire his cut, greased form, while the younger girls wanted him to be flirtatious, sexy and sweet at the same time.
Vlad had become very good at giving all of them what they came for.
As the song ended, he mounted the stairs once more, playing to the main floor audience, then out of habit, glanced up at the VIP box. His stomach lurched as he met the gaze of the balcony’s sole occupant. Rosalie DiMarco, twice-divorced, twice-widowed sister of a badass local land developer rumored to have mob ties. Her surgically altered face creased in a grotesque smile as she lifted her martini glass. Vlad spun away.
In the locker room between shows, he counted out his take. Three hundred bucks and that was just for the first set. God, he loved Friday nights. He’d go home tonight with at least six hundred, even after tipping out the DJ and the set up guy. More than what he and his mom used to live on for a week, back in Arkhangelsk. But here, it was expensive to live. He drove a nice car. Lived in a nice place. Went out with women who cared about such things. Some weeks, he barely made enough to get by.
He stuffed the cash in his wallet, next to Eric Conrad’s card. If he reached the last episode, he could walk away with two hundred and fifty grand. Easy money, luxurious travel and a new life.
But hadn’t he thought the same thing at eighteen, when he joined the International Review? He’d traveled on a luxurious private jet…as a virtual prisoner. He’d earned lots of money doing things that sickened him. If the experience taught him anything, it was that if something sounded too good to be true, it probably was. Though he’d physically escaped that life, the invisible bonds still held him fast.
Beside the producer’s card was another, this one buff-colored, with a date and time handwritten on the back. The appointment had come and gone weeks ago. He’d sought the counselor’s help, knowing on some level that changing his future meant reconciling his past. But he’d not been prepared for how painful that would be. After a month, he’d had enough. Though the counselor had finally quit leaving messages on Vlad’s phone, the last one still haunted him. “I know it’s difficult, but if you stay silent, you’ll never break free from your past. When you’re ready to talk, give me a call.”
Hard to imagine that he would ever be ready.
From behind, the music got louder as the door opened and Stella came in, carrying a generous shot of something clear. She eyed the card as he put it away. Vlad tossed his wallet in his locker and took the glass she offered. He caught the astringent odor of cheap vodka. “Drink up,” she said. “You’ve been summoned.”
He didn’t have to ask where, or by whom. He set the glass down. “Tell her I’m busy. Tell her I don’t work VIP.”
“I told her. But what Rosalie DiMarco wants, Rosalie DiMarco gets, and right now she wants you.” Stella offered a sympathetic smile and sat down on the bench. “The longer you avoid her, the more determined she gets. Go dance for her, and she’ll move on to someone else.”
As badly as he wanted to refuse, Stella was right. That had been Rosalie’s pattern with Lamar, Jared and Pedro. A dance or two and Rosalie was satisfied; the dancers a few hundred richer. He would give her what she wanted, and then it would be Xander’s turn. “One dance.” He knocked back the vodka and reached for his costume.
“Don’t bother with that. She wants you as you are.”
“Chyort.” Vlad swore and glanced down at his black satin thong.
“Go!” Stella picked up the glass and followed him out. “Oh, and Vlad? Fucking smile for God’s sake!”
Smile? Was Stella out her mind? He bared his teeth in a grimace and then took the back steps up to the balcony where $100 bought a private dance and $200 bought the privilege of doing whatever one liked to the dancer. Some of the guys didn’t care. All that mattered was the money. But the upstairs scene was too reminiscent of Vlad’s days with the International Review. He only worked the VIP when he had no choice.
Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” was playing in the background and the lounge was still empty except for Rosalie, who sat sipping a bright pink cocktail, watching with unnaturally lifted eyes. Her too-short pink skirt matched her pink-and-black leopard-print shoes. Appropriate footwear for a woman some plastic surgeon had sculpted into a large cat.
She beckoned, holding two folded bills between her fingers. “You’ve been avoiding me, Vlad.”
“Not avoid,” he said. “I don’t work VIP.”
She narrowed her eyes. “That’s what Lamar said, too. But he came around. So will you.” She pointed with her toe at a spot before her round captain’s chair. “Closer.”
He took another step forward. She lifted her foot, running the sole of her shoe along his inner thigh, and rubbed the pointed tip against his dick. At the same time, she ground the spiked heel into his thigh, marking him. Then she leaned forward and slipped a red-tipped finger beneath his waistband, pulling him closer. When she had him within reach, she stood and circled slowly. Wrapping her hand around his left biceps, she squeezed. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, you are grade-A prime, that’s for damn sure.”
Meat. That’s all he was. And as long as he remained at The Male Room, it was all he would ever be.
From behind, she palmed his bare ass and then wrapped her overly tanned arms around his waist. Her hands splayed across his lower abdomen, kneading his flesh and muscles. Moving lower. Fondling him through his G-string. It took every ounce of self-control to remain still and fight the intense revulsion that pounded through him. Rosalie pressed her mouth to his bare shoulder and nipped with sharp teeth. “So just how bad are you?”
He had no answer, but behind his closed eyes were faces. The fresh-faced girls who came to the International Review as ex-ballerinas and left as junkies. The senator’s wife who helped him gain freedom, for a price. The sad, lonely women who frequented The Male Room. The bride-to-be willing to risk her fiancé’s love for a night in a stranger’s bed.
He wanted to be away from all of it. He wanted to be a man who was good and honorable. Going on Last Fling might not do that in the short run, but it would earn him enough to start a new life.
“Don’t you like me?” she purred.
Again, no answer.
“I don’t care. I’ve bought you for twenty minutes, and you have to do whatever I want.” She came to the front and jabbed his stomach with a sharp fingernail. “Dance.”
He went through the motions, his sights on the money clutched between her fingers. The offer for the show was still on the table. All he had to do was call the producer before noon tomorrow. Hell, he would do it tonight. Even if he lasted only a few episodes, he’d come away with more than he had now. And once he had money, the Rosalie DiMarcos of the world would have no power over him.
“Stop.” She reached between his legs and his cock shriveled at her touch. “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you like women?”
He looked into amber eyes that seemed more animal than human. “I like women. But of cats, I’m not so fond.”
Her slap stung his cheek and she pulled the cash out of reach.

Chapter Three

The concrete floor of the convention hall was cold beneath Eric’s slush-damp shoes as he stood in line to meet the Midwestern Mondo Motor Extravaganza’s star attraction.
Moments earlier, ex-TV starlet Alison Michaels had stepped out of the curtained cubicle that served as her dressing room wearing her signature red bikini and matching high heels. Though she carried a few more pounds than she had in her heyday as the scheming Missy Goldsmith, at twenty-nine, she still looked damned good.
The fans lined up seemed to agree. Most were men, but there were a smattering of women and even a few preteens who must have discovered the old Somerset High series in reruns. Alison Michaels still had an audience, and a demographically diverse one at that. The suits at the Xposé Network would be pleased, and above all, Eric wanted the suits to be pleased.
To the left of the platform was a table with a stack of plastic-wrapped posters rolled into tubes. Eric once had a copy of that very poster on his bedroom wall. Alison in a red bikini, lying on her back on a surfboard. She was still trading on her decade-old image as a teenage temptress, but how much longer could she keep it up?
Last Fling could change her life.
He had traveled from Miami to Chicago, his last stop before jetting back to LA. Now that Jack and Hannah were on board, the show was coming together nicely. The Russian stripper’s signed contract was in his briefcase, as were those from the rest of Chris and Tammy’s invitees. His co-executive producer was working on Jack and Hannah’s list of last flings, and Alison was the final piece of the puzzle.
Piece of cake. Eric glanced at his watch. It was just a little before seven o’clock, and he might even be finished here in time to catch the red-eye.
His phone buzzed in his pocket. The incoming text was from Jack. Should I get an agent now?
An agent? Eric frowned. It was great that Jack was so eager, but signing with a talent agent might be jumping the gun a bit. He and his old friend needed to have a talk, but right now, there was more pressing business at hand.
Alison smiled an invitation at the next two fans in line who climbed the three steps to the elevated platform where she stood. One of the men was at least six feet tall, and wore a Hooters T-shirt. “Why you’re just a lil’ bitty thing, ain’t you? Now smile pretty, while my buddy takes a pit’cher.”
His booming voice had a noticeable slur. He moved behind Alison, grabbed her and jerked her back against his hips. Her lovely face registered shock. “Sir, I’m sorry but you’re not allowed to—”
“Like hell I’m not. I paid five bucks to stand in this line,” the man said, as his friend, who wore a carelessly buttoned shirt and had a comb-over, fiddled with a digital camera. “Now shut up and hold still.”
Eric glanced toward the security guard’s post. Damn. The guy must be in the john. The bony old woman selling posters would be no help. Neither would the two twelve-year-old boys and their mom in line in front of him.
“Please let go of me. Now.” Alison tried to pry the man’s big hands loose, but he must have outweighed her by a hundred pounds.
The man laughed and his hands moved higher on her body, closer to her breasts. “I think she likes me, don’t you, Ray?”
The guy with the camera chuckled.
Eric’s heart pounded. Should he do something? The guy was big, and had a friend with him. Even though the friend didn’t look like much, it was two against one. Eric was no good in a fight. If he intervened, these two would beat the crap out of him, he would end up in the ER and this whole damn trip would be wasted. The suits would be pissed, his coproducer would be pissed and Eric would—
“Goddamn it! You hurt me, you little bitch!”
The big guy had let go of Alison and held his cupped hand to his chest, as if wounded. Red-faced and outraged, he towered over her, shouting into her face. “What’d you do to me? Swear to God, if it’s broken, I’ll see to it you get worse!”
She stood her ground and appeared unafraid, as people in line murmured uneasily. The cameraman tugged at his friend’s sleeve and the pair left. Once they were gone, Alison let out a breath. She smoothed her hair and tugged her bikini top back in place. When she turned to face the line again, she flashed a dazzling smile.
The boys in front of Eric clambered up the steps to the platform. “Whoa, what’d you do to that guy? Can you show me?”
Alison laughed and took the posters they held out for her to sign. “It’s a self-defense move a friend taught me, and it hurts bad, so no funny stuff.” She stabbed the air with her Sharpie for emphasis.
Eric broke out in a giddy grin. Not only was Alison Michaels beautiful, she was kick-ass. He watched in admiration as she finished with the boys, and then took the steps two at a time, his right hand extended. He imagined that her handshake would be warm and strong. He would try to make it last as long as possible. He flashed his whitened smile. “Man, that was impressive. The way you handled that guy from start to finish. Very good, very nice.”
Alison’s smile faded quickly. “You saw what was happening and just stood there?
It was if she had caught him with his fly open. “Um, uh…you look like a woman who can take care of herself.”
“That’s not the point. When someone’s in trouble, you speak up.” She shook her head, looking sad and bewildered. “It’s the right thing to do.”
“Oh, uh, yeah. Sure.” She had a point, even if she was no damsel in distress.
“Okay, Sir Galahad. Do you have something for me to sign? I’m not in the mood for pictures right now.”
Caught off guard, he stared blankly, patting his pockets for his business cards. He pulled out a creased car-show map, then moved to the other side where his cards were. Fumbling with the card and map, he handed her both. “Here, sign this.”
Alison shrugged and turned the items in her hand. She scribbled her name on the brochure and handed it back. “Is that really all, or is there a pair of lacy panties stashed away somewhere you want me to sign?”
“Oh, God. No.” Eric’s cheeks burned, as he transformed back into the awkward kid who’d whiled away lonely nights with her poster and his right hand. “Uh…listen, could we maybe talk sometime? Like soon? Tonight?”
“Tonight?” She glanced toward the line of waiting fans. “I’m a little busy at the moment.”
“Right. Sure. I didn’t mean right now. Just…soon. What I have to offer might interest you. I mean, it would definitely interest you. My number’s on my card. Call me?”
He took a step off the platform, his left foot nearly missing the top stair. The only thing that could have made this worse would be a face-plant onto the concrete. A sexy laugh came from behind. He turned, as she wiggled her fingers in a little wave. “Not likely, but watch your step. Have a nice night, Galahad.”
Eric made his way to the convention hall bar, in serious need of a drink. He ordered scotch, tossed a twenty on the bar and pulled out his phone. His bad evening got a little worse. In addition to Jack’s messages, there was also one from Cody deWylde, the head of Renegade Productions and the main reason Last Fling was going to be on the air.
His pulse quickened as he scanned Cody’s bizarre question about whether Hannah’s fling list was a joke. What did the hell could that mean? He tapped Cody’s number and put the phone to his ear. Cody answered on the first ring.
“Dude! Where are you?” Cody sounded jovial, but Eric had no illusions. The guy was a shark with a spray tan who would pimp his grandma for the sake of good TV. Eric had taken his sleaziest reality idea to deWylde’s production company, which had a track record for selling the most unsavory programming on the air. Cody had jumped in with gusto, not to mention substantial funding and with just a few phone calls, got a green light from the Xposé Network. Just like that, Eric was launched into the big leagues. A Faustian bargain, to be sure.
“Still in Chicago. Coming back tonight. What’s up? You left a message about Hannah’s list.”
DeWylde laughed. “Your friend’s crazy, but casting is on it. No worries. I forgot you still had to go to Chicago. So. Alison Michaels. Is she on board?”
Eric sipped his drink, stalling to collect his thoughts. “We talked, but it wasn’t a good time to pitch.” He didn’t mention that hearing his teenage crush talk about lacy panties left him too flummoxed to get the job done. “I gave her my card.”
Cody snorted. “Your card? We’re running out of time, my man. Look, I had no problem with you going to Chicago to recruit your dream girl, but we need results. If you can’t do it, say the word and I’ll take over.”
It was tempting. Eric had felt in over his head since the day the network green-lit Last Fling. He was the idea guy, happiest when he was alone at his computer, creating. People intimidated him. Women who looked like Alison Michaels definitely intimidated him. Cody deWylde was better suited for wheeling and dealing. He wouldn’t have gotten tongue-tied and made an ass of himself.
But Eric couldn’t back out now. This was his big break, and making Last Fling a success would mean he could get his real ideas—the ones he was actually proud of—to the screen. He’d used a precious weekend of preproduction time to come here, and Alison Michaels was on the other side of the convention hall…waiting to say yes.
“No, dude. I’m good,” Eric said. “I’m going back to talk with her, and once she hears the pitch, she’ll jump at it. No doubt in my mind.”
“Sweet. So what’s she look like? As hot as her poster?”
At last, a question he could answer truthfully. Eric smiled. She was gorgeous as her poster, but a photo didn’t capture the warmth, humor and intelligence of the real-life woman. “Better.”
“All right. So let’s make ol’ Chris’s wet dreams come true. And yours. Call me when the contract is signed.”
“Will do.” Eric shut off his phone and stuffed it in his pocket.
When truck driver Chris Tucker had put Alison on his fling list, they hadn’t thought about how they might persuade her. Her career had crashed and burned a decade ago, and now she was working the convention hall circuit. She’d jump at the money. Eric was an up-and-coming Hollywood wunderkind, and a washed-up starlet turned car-show attraction should have been putty in his hands.
He took out the brochure she’d signed and something fell out of the bottom. His business card, which she’d returned without him realizing.
Putty in his hands, all right.
He took another sip of scotch and let thoughts of another woman push aside his failure with Alison Michaels. Her name was Dr. Pamela Chandler, and Eric had created her.
She was the central character in a new series he was developing; working title St. Nowhere. The concept was a hospital drama set in an eerie netherworld. As beautiful Dr. Chandler and her colleagues worked desperately to save lives, an endless, catastrophic storm raged outside the hospital. Would the storm ever stop? Where were they anyway? Another dimension? Hell?
He began making notes on cocktail napkins and before he knew it, the bar was emptying out. He’d been here too long and needed to talk with Alison before some hunky boyfriend showed up to whisk her away. He was about to leave when raucous laughter rang out on the other side of the room.
It was the men who’d harassed Alison. The camera guy was telling the story to another loser, while Hooters T-shirt protested loudly. “I didn’t do anything. I shoulda smacked that little bitch! Make her show me some respect.”
Eric hurried from the bar and went straight to Alison’s booth, where only a few autograph-seekers remained. Alison greeted him with the sexy, knowing expression he’d once associated with Missy Goldsmith. “So, Galahad? Did you change your mind about having me sign those panties?”
He blushed again, but there was warmth, not malice, in her voice. “You gave this back accidently.” He held out his business card.
“Who said it was an accident?” She glanced at the card, squinting slightly. “Eric Conrad, Renegade Productions.” Her smile was gone and her blue eyes were cold. “You’re a producer,” she said flatly. “Of what?”
“Television shows. In particular, a groundbreaking new reality series for the Xposé Network called Last Fling. And I’d like for you to be on it.”
“Not interested.” Her voice was polite, but firm.
“But this could put you back on top. You could be a star again.”
She pressed the card into his hand. “That part of my life is over. Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt.”
“You could take home two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”
For a second, she hesitated. Then she shook her head. “Sorry, but I’m not interested in being on TV and definitely not on a reality show. Oh look, my ride is here.” An off-road monster truck the same color as Alison’s bikini had pulled up beside them. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go be eye candy in this lovely vehicle. So long, Eric. I hope you enjoyed your trip to Chicago.”
His desperation rose and he reached to grab her arm, then thought better of it. “Wait! Please, Alison. There’s one more thing.” She stopped and turned back. “I just wanted to say, you’re as beautiful as you were when you played Missy Goldsmith. More so, even. If that’s possible. I also wanted to say…” He took a deep breath. “Jeez, this is hard.”
She smiled a little. “Try anyway.”
“I’m sorry I just stood by while that brute pawed you. And please be careful when you leave here tonight. The guy’s still lurking around. Is someone picking you up? Besides that?” He motioned toward the waiting truck. “I could take you home. I mean…see you home. Just so you’re safe.”
“That’s very kind. But not necessary.” Gently she touched his sleeve. “Please don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”
Even when she took her hand away, Eric felt her touch. She walked to the truck, which had open sides and tires nearly as tall as she was. The driver rolled down a metal stepladder and Alison climbed aboard. Eric followed the truck as it made its way through the convention hall, Alison perched in the passenger seat, waving and smiling. Just like that, his dream girl was gone.
He dropped onto a bench nearby. He’d blown the deal, and the fact that he would never speak to her again hurt just as much.
He sat for a while, watching people pass through a door beside the big one Alison’s truck had disappeared through. He should call Cody. Best to get it over with, while there was time to find someone else for Chris. Eric fished out his phone.
Just then, a small figure came through the door—a young woman dressed in jeans, boots and a navy-blue sailor coat with a leather backpack slung over one shoulder. She wore glasses and a Chicago Cubs ball cap pulled low over her eyes. She looked like a college student just off her waitressing shift, but Eric’s pulse quickened as he noticed the blond ponytail sticking out the back of her cap. She passed by and blended into the crowd exiting the convention hall.
In a split second, Eric was on the move.
He wasn’t going to follow her. That would be weird. Stalkerish. He only wanted to make sure she got to her car safely. Once she drove away, he would call Cody. But she passed the entrance to the parking garage, heading instead to a wall of sliding glass doors and turnstiles. Above the doors was a sign. Welcome to the CTA Blue Line.
The subway? Alone? At night? Good God, didn’t the woman watch police shows? He couldn’t possibly turn back now.
She swiped a plastic card through the top of a turnstile and got on the escalator going down. Behind her, Eric fumbled with his wallet and fidgeted as a surly worker counted back change from his hundred. He shoved the cash in his pocket and dashed down to the platform.
Alison was at the far end, her back turned.
He ducked back into the tiled corridor that led to the platform and bought a newspaper from a vending rack. A train roared past the platform and squealed to a stop. He waited until she boarded, then got on just as the doors were closing. She was at the opposite end, reading a book. He took a seat near the door and opened the paper to shield his face.
The train wound and jerked through the dark tunnel. After about fifteen minutes, the conductor called out a stop and Alison rose from her seat. Eric waited until she was off the train, then followed her out of the station, staying a safe distance behind.
Montrose Avenue was brightly lit and bitterly cold. Icy wind knifed through his sport coat. Why would anyone in their right mind chose to live in this frozen hellhole? Even late at night there were people around, but there were also a couple of bums lounging on the sidewalk. Alison stopped and spoke to one. She took something from her coat pocket, gave it to him and continued on her way.
Eric passed the man, who was huddled under a ragged blanket. “Hey, man, can ya help me get somethin’ to eat?” He held up a grimy coffee cup, and Eric fished a bill from his coat pocket and dropped it in, without taking his eyes off Alison. “Thank you, sir! Thank you! God bless you!” the bum called out, as half a block up, Alison unlocked a door and disappeared inside.
Eric stopped in front of the door where she’d gone in. It was a restaurant that appeared to be closed for the night. He peered into the deserted dining room, which held about a dozen tables draped with red-and-white-checked tablecloths, and booths along one wall. There was a light on in a room behind the dining room, which was probably the kitchen.
What the hell? Did she work here or just live upstairs? He found the whole thing baffling, but jotted down the Homestretch Café’s address and hours on the car show map with her autograph.
Back in his hotel room, Eric fired up his laptop. He typed her name into the Internet Movie Database, and worked from there. By midnight, he knew all about the Homestretch Café and how Alison had spent her years since leaving Hollywood. He also had an idea that just might persuade her to go on Last Fling.
He settled into bed with renewed confidence that he still might be able to salvage this after all. His eyes grew heavy and he drifted off, lulled by the storm raging outside. A storm that never stopped. Somewhere, a door opened and a beautiful doctor entered. She came to his bedside and began to stroke his chest and lower body. Then she climbed onto the bed for a more thorough examination and unbuttoned her white lab coat. Beneath it, she wore a red bikini.

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