Act 1: The Song
“Quickly, bring me a beaker of wine, so that I may wet my mind and say something clever.”
Am I . . . drunk?
Returning my half-drained glass to the table without taking another sip, I removed my attention from the six-foot-four, two-sixty, brown-haired, brown-eyed white man at the bar (conceal carrying beneath his ill-cut black suit) and squinted at the bottle of wine sitting at my one o’clock.
The bottle drifted to the left without actually moving and the room gave a slight spin.
“Ugh.” Dropping my gaze and blinking rapidly, I tried again with the knife and spoon next to my empty dinner plate. They also drifted without moving. I winced. Light chatter and the delicate clinking of utensils connecting with dishes faded as I worked to correct my swimming vision.
No use. I’m drunk.
The bottle of wine was still two-thirds full. A waiter had uncorked it in front of me approximately twenty-five minutes ago while offering assurances that “my date” would be here within a half hour. The mystery man—known to me only as Mr. Black—had apparently called the restaurant and sent the bottle as an apology for his tardiness. I was told he hoped “his date” would consider staying until he arrived.
Just so y’all know, I wasn’t Mr. Black’s date. I was a decoy date, doing a favor for my good friend Ryaine O’Rourke and posing as her body double one last time. I didn’t mind. She’d wasted enough time and nursed too many broken hearts thanks to Hollywood stud duds. But given my sudden and surprising state of inebriation at present, it didn’t look like I’d be able to complete this evening’s mission.
I sighed, slurring to no one in particular, “Well, that’s just fine and dandy.” I’d washed and fixed my hair for this, and the dress had been steam pressed for the occasion. What a waste.
Originally, I hadn’t planned on drinking any of the apology wine, but sitting in this here restaurant, in this here booth, on this here numb backside of mine all by myself was just as exciting as a mashed potato sandwich with a saltine salad. Before I’d touched the wine, I’d spent ten minutes staring at the uncorked bottle. And that’s not to mention the hour I’d already waited for Ryaine’s blind date. After all that waiting, I could see no harm in having a glass.
To be clear, her date was not an hour and twenty-five minutes late. He was only twenty-five minutes late. I’d been an hour early. I’m that person who always arrives in advance everywhere and every time and for everything. The more anxious I felt about a situation, the earlier I arrived. I needed to scope out the exits, the layout of the furniture, the flow of foot traffic, proximity to hospitals and fire stations, how close to maximum occupancy the establishment operated, etc.
Consider it an occupational hazard, even though I wasn’t necessarily here tonight in a professional capacity. I no longer worked for Ryaine as of two weeks ago and she wasn’t paying me to do a background check or pull together a dossier on this guy. She’d asked—pleaded, actually—and I’d accepted because I loved and cared about her. Which, ultimately, was how I’d talked myself into drinking the free apology wine.
How was it possible to be more than tipsy but less than drunk on a mere one and a half glasses of wine? Maybe it’s the antihistamines?
Screwing up my face, I plucked my clutch from the booth at my side and dug around for the prescription paperwork provided by the pharmacist this afternoon. I unfolded it, trying to remember if I’d ever had alcohol and taken Benadryl before. Maybe that one time at that barbeque where I’d helped move that beehive? Yep. I’d had two beers, three stings, one oral tablet, and had felt perfectly fine.
Ignoring the man I’d been eavesdropping on sitting at the table to my right and his alarming overuse of the word groovy—chin-length gray hair, salt-and-pepper beard, white skin, five-foot-eight, one hundred fifteen pounds soaking wet, I reckoned—I used every ounce of my brainpower to focus on the printed information sheet.
“Possible serious, fatal interactions: MAO inhibitors . . .” Reading out loud but at a whisper, I went through the full list of interactions—potentially fatal to mildly problematic—squint-blinking at intervals. I ended up reading it six times before I found alcohol buried in there between opioid pain relievers and marijuana. “Well. There you go.”
Swallowing around the odd, heavy feel of my tongue, I took a deep breath, methodically refolded the info sheet, and tucked it back in my purse. Alcohol had been listed under what to avoid, so I didn’t think I needed to go to the hospital. Steadying myself, I reached for my water and drank half the glass. Maybe I could just go home and sleep it off.
“Mademoiselle, would you like the cocktail menu?” The waiter from before had suddenly reappeared and spoke from my left. This was a good thing since I’d need his help moving the table.
I’d had two options upon my arrival: claim the chair facing the booth, which would place my back to the room, or opt for the booth side, which necessitated that the table be pulled out before I could sit and then be pushed back in once I was settled. I’d chosen the booth, obviously. At five-foot-two, I had squeezed myself into and out of many tight spaces. But I wasn’t sitting with my back to a room. Ever.
“No, thank you.” Not trusting myself to roll a turnip let alone move a table covered in plates and glasses and an uncorked bottle of free wine, I gestured to myself and the booth. “Could you help me move the table, please? I’m afraid I must skedaddle—I mean, I must depart.”
“B—but mademoiselle.” The waiter seemed agitated, so I squinted at him. And what do you know, he looked just as agitated as he sounded. “You cannot leave. Your Mr. Black arrived a few minutes ago. He’s just there with Ana Ortega and Tom Low, as you see. But he finds himself entrenched, which I’m sure is understandable given . . .”
Tom Low? Ana Ortega? Those were some serious hard-hitters, the types of high-profile Hollywood A-listers I hoped the studio would assign to me as clients when I reported to my new job on Monday. I’d already received a packet on my first assignment detailing my cover story, travel expectations, and so forth. But the only identifying details on the client had been the person’s height, weight, and age: six-foot-one, one hundred eighty-five pounds, twenty-nine.
Shifting my squint to the front of the restaurant—a chic yet bottlenecky design that didn’t allow for proper traffic flow and was a blatant fire hazard—I spotted a few bodies making a fuss at the entrance, giving each other air-kisses. Sure enough, Tom Low, Ana Ortega, and a cluster of fancy-looking folks plugged the walkway by the maître d’ stand.
One man with his back to me seemed to be at the center of the fawning tsunami. Other than taking note of Tom Low and Ana Ortega, I skipped over the rest without categorizing them by physical attributes, as I always do.. My drunken vision wouldn’t allow it and it didn’t matter. I needed to leave.
Plus, really! If this Mr. Black guy Ryaine’s agent set her up with had arrived a few minutes ago, why was he over there giving air-kisses and not over here meeting the date he’d left waiting for almost a half hour? And didn’t that just tell me everything I needed to know. Ryaine didn’t need another attention-hungry sycophant for a boyfriend, she’d dated enough of those already.
“Is there a back door?” I asked, trying to gently shift the table forward, not waiting for him to help because chaotic, possibly nonsensical thoughts were now flitting through my head like, What if the studio assigned me to Ana Ortega or Tom Low or one of the other movie stars by the maître d’ stand or in this restaurant? I didn’t want to be seen drunk the night before my first official day at the studio. Nor did I want folks thinking I was Ryaine, she didn’t need any more party-girl press.
“Mademoiselle. Please.” The waiter made a huffing noise and gripped the table. The wine bottle rocked back and forth. He grabbed it at the neck. “Please. Just give Mr. Mal—Mr. Black a moment. I do not think you will regret it.”
I let my hands drop from the table and gazed up at the waiter. Even through the lens of my intoxication, the man’s anxiety seemed out of place, which made me suspicious.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but why do you care whether I stay or go?” I sat back and crossed my arms. “You have a line of people out the door wanting to eat here.” I’d passed the line on my way in. I’d never heard of this place before, but apparently it was very popular.
The waiter seemed to sigh through gritted teeth. “Listen. I want to meet him, okay?” His faux French accent suddenly dropped, becoming generic American.
“You want to meet my date?”
“Yeah. I have a script I want him to read.” His eyes flickered away and then back to me. He leaned forward. “This could be my big chance. Are you two . . .” The waiter’s gaze searched mine, seemed a little desperate. “He said it was a blind date on the phone when he called about the wine. You’ve never met him before? Do you think you could help me?”
I stared at the not-French waiter, having trouble keeping up with my thoughts, so sluggish, but maybe I got the gist of this guy’s intentions? He wanted to give a script to my blind date and couldn’t do that if I up and left, and he wanted me to help him.
I huffed. The audacity.
Speaking and thinking at the same time, I shook my head. “This town is absolutely crazy.”
The waiter flinched, blinking, and straightened away.
“No. Y’all are nuts. Seriously.” I let my elbow hit the table and leaned forward. “I’ve been here for three months and every time I go out with Ryaine, she can’t go anywhere without someone asking her for a favor.”
“Ryaine? Ryaine who? Ryaine O’Rourke?” He seemed to rock back on his heels. “Wait. Are you . . . are you her?”
“I am not her, and I wouldn’t want to be her. Folks she doesn’t even know approach that poor woman on the street asking for things. Like you and Mr. Black. You don’t know him, and look at you”—I gestured to my waiter with a sweep of my hand—“over here plotting to ask the unsuspecting guy a favor on a blind date.” Unthinkingly, I picked up my wineglass again. “Shame on you. Don’t you think he’s a little nervous?”
“Yeah. Nervous. It’s a blind date, isn’t it? Folks get nervous on blind dates where I’m from.”
The waiter squinted at me. “Where’s that? Alabama?”
“Texas. So, what? Y’all don’t get nervous here?” I curled my lip. “Actually, it wouldn’t surprise me any if y’all don’t get nervous on blind dates. This place is like Wonderland. Up is down, down is up, and the Walrus and the Carpenter are looking for oysters.”
His mouth opened and closed, but then he turned his attention from me, something or someone at the periphery of my table cast a shadow over my dinner plate and drew his notice.
I went to take a sip of the wine but then remembered myself just as a deep voice coming from the direction of the shadow said, “Ms. White?”
Feeling bleary-eyed and suddenly tired, I glanced up. Forced to do a double take, because I did not trust my vision, the double take yielded the same result as the first haphazard glance, and I sucked in a startled breath. I stared at the man, dumbfounded.
Cyrus Malcom. Well, I’ll be . . .
I hadn’t seen Cyrus since he’d briefly dated my stepsister during their senior year of high school. And now here he was, looking taller and broader and so ridiculously attractive to my bibulous gaze, the man looked fake.
Maybe it’s because I’m drunk? No one looks this good in person.
“Cyrus? What are you doing here?” I croaked, setting my wine down and gaping openly at his sudden presence.
Green eyes the color of emeralds flickered over me, the side of his alluring mouth shaped in his signature curvy smirk, which was framed by dark stubble, the hint of a beard that was too artful and maintained to be a mere five-o’clock shadow.
“Excellent. I see my reputation precedes me,” he drawled, his deep, velvety, haughty voice sending a shiver down my spine.
I blinked at him, my confusion persisting. What was Cyrus doing in Los Ang—He’s a movie star now, dummy.
Ooooooh. That’s right. I’d forgotten.
I wasn’t a big fan of comic book film adaptations, they all seemed the same to me—backstory, training montage, bad guy, someone dies, big fight, another montage, another big fight, an emotional reveal, a super big fight where you wonder briefly if the hero will win, hero wins, a happy ending—and so I generally skipped them. But I was aware that Cyrus Malcom had landed the titular role in one of the biggest comic book franchises a few years ago, jettisoning him from virtual nobody pretty boy to overnight movie star.
But that’s not how I thought of him. I thought of him as the second son to the hoity-toity old money society family in my hometown, ex-boyfriend of my stepsister, and dichotomously both a supercilious snob and a huge flirt.
He wouldn’t know or remember me unless I drew him a chart, I felt certain of that. I’d been twelve when he’d dated my eighteen-year-old stepsister, and I think we only met two or three times in that capacity. We’d attended the same church growing up, but he was too old for my youth group and I’d been too young to be on his radar at all.
But here he was, standing at the corner of my table, his gem-like eyes glittering from beneath thick, black, perfectly sculpted eyebrows; equally thick dark hair cut short on the sides, much longer on top, and coiffed to perfection; the sharp angles of his square jaw and the little cleft to his chin would’ve given him an air of old Hollywood if not for the stubble adorning both.
“Monsieur Black,” someone said in a French accent, tugging my attention to the left. The waiter was still there, greedy little eyes focused on Cyrus as he gestured to the chair facing me. “Please. Allow me to bring you the menu.”
Dumbly, though not quite as dizzily inebriated or tired as before, I watched Cyrus Malcom claim the seat across from me, his back to the room, his eyes never seeming to leave my face as he nodded politely in the direction of the waiter. “Yes, please. Thank you,” he said smoothly, something about his cadence striking me as elegant.
Unlike me and most folks in our hometown, Cyrus had never possessed a southern accent. He and his brother, Titus, had been sent off to a boarding school in some European country for several years during elementary school. They’d both returned with a blend of intonations that reminded me of tea and crumpets and cashmere sweaters and gold pocket watches on chains and other fancy shit.
“Thank you for staying.” His hand slid down the front of his suit jacket and tie. Making no attempt to hide his inspection of me, the smirky smile loitered around his full lips. “Was the wine to your liking?”
“I—It was good, yes.” I gave my head a little shake. This was so surreal. Cyrus Malcom is Ryaine’s blind date . . .
What a small world.
Thank goodness I’d volunteered to come in her stead. She would’ve been half in love already. Ryaine was infamous in our college friend group for falling hard and fast in love at first sight. Cyrus had been awkward in his early teen years, a late bloomer who’d looked younger than his peers until sixteen or so. He’d returned to town after the summer of his junior year having pole-vaulted over the hump of puberty.
Cyrus had been super handsome at seventeen. But now he’d grown so attractive, the man was borderline addictive to look at. Good thing I didn’t have an addictive personality.
Giving my head another shake, I closed my eyes to block out the radiance of his physical exterior and attempted to find the words I’d planned to say before mixing prescription antihistamines with alcohol.
“I’m, uh, I’m not who you think I am.” Blinking to focus as I opened my eyes, I was careful to keep my attention on the candle flickering in the center of the table.
“I know who you are. You’re Ryaine O’Rourke.”
My eyes cut to his. “John told you who you were meeting?” John was Ryaine’s agent.
Cyrus’s lips curved further, revealing a dimple in his scruff, and I stared at it, startled. A dimple? When had he developed a dimple? Had he surgically added it?
“But I must say”—his forehead furrowed a little, a quizzical look—“you look different in person. And your accent . . . I thought you were raised in Massachusetts?”
The room gave a slight spin and I breathed in and out. “John didn’t tell Ryaine your name.” I needed to go.
“What did he tell you?”
“He told Ryaine you’d be called Mr. Black, but s-said it was a psydo—a pyso—you know.” I closed my eyes and gripped my forehead. I couldn’t think when I was looking at his ridiculously perfect face. Focus.
“Why are you referring to yourself in the third person?” His question sounded hesitantly amused.
I snapped my fingers belatedly. “Whatever it’s called. Move the table. I’m stuck back here.”
Cyrus made no move to help with the table and so I glanced at him again.
Wide eyes stared back at me, rapidly filling with incredulity. “Wait. Are you . . . are you drunk?”
“What heart, what soul, what bollocks could long endure this plight, having no one to shag in the middle of the night?”
― Aristophanes, Lysistrata
I harbored no ill will toward drunk people. Drunks could be fun on occasion, depending on the situation, the music playing, and my attire. But as I’d just endured hours of LA traffic after visiting a colleague at his posh rehab facility down in Palm Springs, I wasn’t necessarily impressed by Ryaine O’Rourke’s spifflicated state.
At the very least, she could’ve waited for me.
“I am. I am drunk,” she admitted, nibbling on her full bottom lip. “But to be fair, even though you sent me this here unsolicited bottle of wine, it’s totally my fault.”
“Your fault?” I asked, abruptly distracted, unable to decide which was more worthy of my attention: her easy, shame-free acquiescence of responsibility, the disorienting and unmistakable Texan accent, or how both seemed to enhance her level of intrigue by a factor of ten.
I thought she was from somewhere up north. Huh.
I’d spotted Ryaine upon my arrival but had been unpleasantly waylaid. My fault. I’d been preoccupied and frustrated with myself for being late—once again—and hadn’t adopted appropriate evasive maneuvers with Tom Low and Ana Ortega as they approached.
They’d appeared overjoyed to see me. I seriously doubted this was the case. I’d recently landed a role Tom had been in contention for, and Ana still wasn’t happy I’d recommended Vera Rodrigo over her for the Demon Redeemed franchise.
“Yes. It is my fault I’m drunk,” Ryaine said, her palm hitting the top of the table, the suddenness of the sound making me blink reflexively.
“I’m sure you had a good reason.” My attention lowered to the flawless skin of her neck and shoulders, bared in an absolutely delectable and reckless green strapless dress. Whoever her stylist was deserved an A+ gold star.
Perhaps the evening can be salvaged.
In my vague recollection, Ryaine both did and did not look like the movie and magazine version of herself, but this disconnect was to be expected given the nature of her breakout role. Based on the healthy fullness of her cheeks and figure, she seemed fully recovered now, but she’d played a woman dealing with a severe eating disorder in the film. Reportedly, she’d shed thirty-five pounds for the part, and was now on the award season short list.
The Academy loved physical transformations, one of the many reasons I’d never be nominated. Losing weight or rapidly gaining it was such an effort.
Though I’d initially felt put out by her boozy condition, I was an open-minded sort. I could withhold judgment for now and encourage her to switch from wine to water.
But then she said, “Exactly. I have a rash.”
My gaze lifted from the neckline of her dress and I choked on my surprise. “Pardon me?” What were we talking about? Had I missed part of the conversation?
She cupped her hands around her mouth and repeated louder, “I HAVE A RASH.”
Chagrined, I glanced at the patrons to our left and right, offering a pacifying smile to the startled woman gaping between me and Ryaine O’Rourke. The woman’s eyes hadn’t sparked with recognition, so I lied, “Please forgive my sister. She’s a performance artist. We’re all so proud.”
Hammering a smile in place, I moved my chair directly next to the booth where Ryaine sat and leaned close, searching her eyes, studying her pupils. “Are you on drugs?” I whispered.
“I am,” she whispered in return, nodding. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. I have a r—”
“Yes.” My artificial smile faltered, amusement and alarm fully yielding to intense irritation. I craved real connections, but not of this sort. “You have a rash. Please, share no further details. I am not a medical professional and shan’t be held accountable should your protected health information be used inappropriately.”
I’m going to disembowel John.
The only reason I’d reluctantly agreed to this tête-a-tête was because of my agent’s badgering. He’d recommended utilizing his rising-star client list for a mutually beneficial arrangement, a reliable plus one, as it were. After my last disastrous, fizzled affair, he’d offered to vet the candidates for me, to find a compatible colleague with temperament and goals similar to mine. He’d promised someone real, someone I could trust. My taste in romantic partners usually sent me careening into trouble. Of note, fun trouble is still trouble.
“Well.” Ryaine grinned, turning her wobbly head away and seeming to search the seat of the booth. “Glad we got that all cleared up.”
“Is it cleared up?” My eyebrows pulled together with concern, again surveying her exposed clavicle, upper chest, shoulders, and arms. I’d need to help her out of the restaurant and I didn’t wish to touch anything contagious. “Do you need me to take you to a walk-in clinic?”
She attempted to tuck her purse beneath her arm, trying and failing at least three times before she finally managed. “No, no. I’m good. I’ll call a taxi and be on my way. Be sure to tell John how awful of a time you had and, furthermore, that you do not wish to see Ryaine again in the future.”
I flinched back, squinting at her anew. “Wait . . . are you actually on drugs? Or is this an act?” She’d been rather superlative in her breakout role. Could she be having one over on me?
“I am actually on drugs,” she slurred, yanking the purse from under her arm, opening it, and pushing a piece of folded paper at me. “Read for yourself. Prescription strength Benadryl and wine do not mix. The doctor warned me to read the info sheet, but I should’ve taken her warnings more seriously. Like I said, my accidental inebriation was totally my fault, but it all worked out, so no harm, no foul.”
Nonplussed, I stared at her. “Benadryl?”
“Yep. I never got hay fever this bad back home. But for some reason”—she shrugged, it was adorable—“California makes my immune system go haywire and I get a rash. Oh! Hay fever, haywire—hah!”
“You—your rash is hay fever?”
“And the drugs are—”
“Prescription ana-ana-histamines. Whew. Did I get that right?”
“You did beautifully.” For the first time in what felt like eons, an unpracticed smile claimed my mouth.
I glanced at the bottle of wine I’d sent to the table. She’d imbibed one glass, perhaps a little more. Prescription antihistamines. Hay fever. A drug interaction.
A finger waving in front of my face brought my attention swiftly back to hers. “No more dimple, please.” Her gaze had fastened to my cheek. “I’ve learned my lesson, and now I need to go.”
“What lesson?” I asked softly, unused to being completely enchanted so quickly.
“Always read the drug info sheet. I wasn’t planning on drinking. Truth be told, I’ve never been drunk before.” Her accent thickened, bringing to mind the country roads and big-sky sunsets of my youth. “But you sent that bottle of wine and I had a glass and now here I am, acting like my Uncle Spit at a Sunday dinner.”
She pointed at my cheek. “No more dimple.”
Disregarding her order, I captured her hand. Her skin felt exquisitely soft, except the pads of her fingers were calloused. How odd.
“You have an uncle named Spit?”
“That’s what we call him on account of the way he sprays his words. My daddy says he wasn’t born, he was squeezed out of a bartender’s rag. And he’s so country, he thinks a seven-course meal is a opossum and a six-pack.”
A laugh burst out of me, taking me by surprise. She was amazing. This had to be a character.
“Are you in character right now? Or what is with the accent and southern colloquialisms?”
“I’m from Texas. This is just me. I’m too drunk to be anyone else.”
I could’ve sworn she was originally from New England. This had to be a character. And yet . . .
“The wine.” Studying her, the bleary, unfocused quality to her eyes, my grin diminished. I glanced at the bottle. The wine I’d sent. Ryaine was truly experiencing a drug interaction, I felt certain of that.
Her hand in mine twisted, clutched my fingers. “I assure you, despite what y’all’s agent thinks, Ryaine and you would not be a good fit.”
I lifted an eyebrow. “Are we referring to ourselves in the third person? In that case, Cyrus thinks we should try our fit later, when Ryaine hasn’t mixed antihistamines with a glass of wine and doesn’t insist on taking her method acting to levels even Jared Leto would find alarming.”
Her grip tightened. “No, I—I mean, Ryaine is wonderful, but her judgment is impaired. She’d fall for you like an anvil dropped off a skyscraper.”
To stem my smile, I pressed my lips together. This woman was so wonderfully weird. I’d gone from completely enchanted to hovering on the precipice of swiftly smitten. Eccentric women were, admittedly, a weakness. In my opinion, beautiful women were not uncommon, but a beautiful woman who danced to the melody of her own harpsichord—the more peculiar and idiosyncratic, the better—the deeper in trouble I typically found myself.
Case in point: all my arrests were due to my insatiability for an eccentric woman. Most involved nudity.
“Ryaine would fall for me like an anvil dropped from a skyscraper?” I heard my voice drop as I worked to entrap her lovely, expressive, warm brown eyes, bleary as they were. “Why?”
“Come on.” Her tone turned flat. “You’ve seen yourself. Plus you’re smooth as gelato. And that dimple? How is that thing even legal?”
I laughed again, likely flashing the aforementioned dimple.
But she wasn’t finished. “I think John had it wrong when he set the two of you up because Ryaine is the falling-in-love type and you’re the breaking-hearts type. She doesn’t need another guy in her life who says pretty words but lacks substance.”
“Ouch. What makes you think I lack substance? Is it the dimple?” I placed my free hand over my heart, anxious to see what she would say next.
She squinted, showing me just how much she believed her words made any impact at all, and said, “I know you,” as though knowing me were an accusation.
“You really don’t,” I whispered, my gaze distracted by her mouth. She had the most bitable lips.
“Yes, I do.” Ryaine gave her head several sharp nods, but then abruptly stopped to squeeze her eyelids shut. “And now I need to go because I really am drunk.”
Ah. Yes. Drunk. Pity.
“Should I call a doctor? I know someone who makes house calls. I could—” I stopped myself, clamping down on the impulse and clearing my throat for good measure.
This was how it always started, me wanting to be of service, tripping over clumsy attempts at chivalry. As utterly magnetic as this woman was, I wouldn’t be making the same mistakes. Again.
Disentangling our fingers, I slid my palm from her wrist to her elbow. “You shouldn’t drive. Let me call you a car.”
“Like I said, I’ll call a taxi.”
“One of the agency’s cars makes more sense.”
Pulling out the table so she could stand, I helped Ryaine to her feet, steadying her by placing my hands on her shoulders. My eyebrows jumped once I caught sight of her shoes and I made the executive decision to tuck her under my arm and firmly against my side. They were three and a half inches, at least, and yet the top of her head barely came to my nose. No wonder she was in this state. I wondered at her alcohol tolerance even without the prescription drug interaction.
“It’s fine. A taxi is fine.”
“I must insist.”
She huffed and grunted, puffed and grumbled, sounds that hearkened to mind the bull back home my father had named Rodeo. I grinned at the thought.
“Come. Allow me to call a car from the agency. Just to be safe. It would make me feel better.”
Ryaine swayed heavily against me, then finally growled, “Fine.”
“Mr. Black, are you leaving so soon?” The server from earlier appeared at my side, his hands curled around a thick bundle of papers.
“I’m afraid so. Put the wine on my tab. And if you clear a path for us, you can reach out to my agent at ARC—greedy fusspot by the name of John Williams, like the composer but without the talent—he’ll get that script to me.” I lifted my chin toward the papers in his grip, then turned my shoulder to him and reached for Ryaine’s hand to offer added support.
Immediately, our server rushed to part the sea of bodies.
She snuggled closer, her eyelids drooping tiredly. “Thank you, Cyrus. You’re nicer than I thought you would be.”
I gave her a squeeze and whispered so that only she could hear, “You’re welcome, mon petit taureau.”
I didn’t personally know or recognize the driver the agency had sent over to collect Ryaine. He looked new. Thus, I insisted on accompanying her home to ensure she remain unmolested and unphotographed. Ryaine sat behind the empty passenger seat while I straddled the middle with my arm around her shoulders. Encouraging her head to rest against my chest rather than press her forehead against the window, her hand braced over my heart.
However, when she fell asleep in short order and her body grew lax, the hand over my heart slid down the front of my torso and landed heavily in my lap. I tensed, glancing up at the driver and finding his eyes on me.
Carefully plucking the appendage by the wrist and moving it to her lap, I gave the driver a tight smile. He returned it, his gaze flicking back to the road. In reaction to the quickly approaching yellow light he almost hadn’t noticed, the man slammed on the brakes, necessitating that I hold Ryaine’s head to keep it from whipping forward.
“Sorry,” the driver said. “Sorry about that.”
“No worries,” I said, pushing soft strands of hair away from Ryaine’s lips, the locks having fallen in her face due to our driver’s inattentiveness.
When I glanced up, I found him watching us again in the rearview mirror, the car unmoving, the light now green.
“You’re Cyrus Malcom, aren’t you?” His voice held a hint of awe.
“I am.” I pointed toward the windshield.
He didn’t take the hint. “Who is that? She looks familiar.”
“This is my cousin, visiting me from Texas,” I lied smoothly since I did not know this person and couldn’t be sure he’d keep Ryaine’s inebriation to himself. “And the light is green.”
He flinched, shifting his focus back to the road. “Oh. Sorry.”
“Think nothing of it.” Irritated with him, I cupped her cheek to keep her head in place as the driver followed the curve leading onto I-5, his speed well over the limit.
But just as he merged with traffic, Ryaine stretched her arm and—with absolutely no warning—fully palmed me over my pants, giving my cock a firm, single rub. I sucked in a breath, drawing the driver’s attention.
I nodded, praying he couldn’t see the location of her hand. “Fine and dandy.”
He gave me a narrowed, confused-looking squint and then returned his attention to the road. As soon as he did, I abandoned her cheek in favor of saving the dignity of her fingers. Unfortunately, her head now unsupported, fell forward while I inhaled a steadying breath, commanding my blood flow to alter course. Alas, to no avail. The beast had awoken by the errant stroke of its head and now I’d be left to deal with its demands, just as soon as I made it home.
Ryaine made a soft sort of snort as I threaded our fingers together and once more removed her hand from my groin. Then her head lifted sharply, her eyes flying open, and—I don’t know why, so don’t ask—I froze.
She blinked several times, her intelligent eyes narrowing. “What are you doing?” she mumbled, her gaze scrutinizing.
“I’ve never dreamt of you,” she said, tugging against my hold. I immediately released her hand. She brought it to my face and her thumb stroked over my bottom lip. “You’re so handsome.”
I smiled. Of course I smiled. An eccentric, gorgeous woman calls you handsome, you smile. That’s what you do.
But then I remembered we were not alone, and I glanced at the rearview mirror again. Unsurprisingly, the world’s nosiest driver watched us instead of LA freeway traffic.
Clearing my throat, I arranged my features into something I hoped looked familial and said, “Thank you.”
A puff of air left her lips. “Oh. This is nice.” Her words were dreamy and her hand smoothed down my shirtfront. “Kiss me.”
I grimaced, refusing to look at the man in the mirror again. He was watching, and listening, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. “Uh, I’m afraid that’s impossible, my dearest.”
“Anything is possible.” She pressed herself more insistently forward. “This is my dream.”
“Oh, no. I assure you, this is very much r—real!” The end of my sentence burst forth a full octave higher than my usual voice as that lovely hand of hers had returned to its favorite place.
I grabbed it and whispered directly in her ear, “None of that, naughty girl. I like my women sober and capable of consent. Behave.”
As I leaned away, I saw she was smiling. It looked a little sad. “I’d never do anything like this outside of a dream. I’m boring.”
“You are the opposite of boring.” I kept my voice just above a whisper. “I can’t wait to know you.” My heart quickened unaccountably at the thought, I didn’t understand it, but I didn’t fight it either.
Ryaine bit her luscious lower lip, pulling me from my morose musings, and I watched helplessly as she pulled it through her teeth before saying in a seductress’s voice, “You are so sexy.”
“Why, thank you. You’re exceptionally—ah ah ah!”
Her chin jutted forward, chasing my mouth, and her wayward hand tugged against my hold. Before I could firm my grip, she did some quick magic and had captured both of my hands in one of hers. This time my breath was sharp as she gave my cock a wonderfully demanding stroke over my pants, sending an equally sharp spear of white, hot pleasure to the base of my spine. A garbled mess of jumbled protestations mixed with an appreciative growl rushed from my lungs and throat. Her movements stilled. In the very next second, her touch felt more exploring than sexy.
“You’re huge, Cyrus. Fuck,” she said on a breath that morphed into a moan. “I want it.”
Involuntarily, my eyes cut once more to the mirror and I almost laughed at the horrified stare that met mine. “I was joking earlier,” I said to him, smiling through a grimace. “This isn’t my cousin.”
“Sure.” He clearly didn’t believe me. But this man’s disgust was the least of my concerns. I could no longer salvage the situation or save face while drunk Ryaine seemed intent on unfastening my pants.
Ah well. The man would likely forever think that Cyrus Malcom preferred to keep it in the family. C’est la vie.
Abandoning any effort to convince him otherwise, I managed to twist my wrists and almost entwined Ryaine’s fingers with mine. But then her hand found the buckle of my belt. Never let it be said she wasn’t persistent. I grit my teeth.
Shoving her away wasn’t an option. I didn’t want to hurt her. I wanted to protect her. She clearly didn’t understand what was happening, where she was, or what she was doing.
“I’m very impressed by your agility and determination, dear Ryaine. But now it’s time to stop.” Damn. I hadn’t meant to use her name. I hoped the driver hadn’t heard me.
“I’m not Ryaine,” she panted against my mouth, attempting to repeat her earlier trick—the one where she’d magically trapped my wrists. I was wise to her now and kept my longer fingers diligently locked around her much smaller ones.
“Of course you’re not. You’re, uh, my cousin.” Also panting, I rolled my eyes at myself. Her octopus-like maneuvers and craftiness were giving me a frazzled workout. It felt like she had no less than eight arms.
“Call me Beth.” Her lips bumped against mine despite my best efforts. The woman was much stronger than she looked. Strong and skillful at wrestling even while drunk.
“Then, Beth, please stop.” I tipped my head back, evading her mouth. “Because you are not asleep, and this is not a dream, and I’d really like to see you again, and I do not wish for you to be embarrassed or avoid my calls because of one and a half glasses of wine mixed with Benadryl.”
Finally, finally, her frenetic movements slowed, then stilled. Breathing heavy, she leaned away until her back connected with the door. “You want to see me again?”
“Yes.” I nodded once to emphasize the word. “So, please, let me hold you until we make it to your place.”
Her hair was wild around her face. She looked magnificent. “What happens when we get to my place?”
“You go to sleep, I leave, and then you call me as soon as you’re rested and more yourself. And no apologies allowed.” I reached forward to gently tuck her hair behind her ears.
Her hesitation was palpable.
I opened my arms. “Come on. You can sleep now, if you wish. I’ll wake you when we arrive.”
Her eyes drifted, and she blinked as though to focus them, but did move forward. “Okay. I doubt I’ll remember any of this anyway.”
I pulled her close again, pressing her cheek to my chest as the car swerved suddenly to the right, and then straightened.
I glanced up at the rearview mirror once more. Our driver’s eyes were on us and he looked absolutely appalled.
Don’t do it. Don’t do it . . . I was going to do it.
Why not? The man already believed the worst. At least I could find some amusement for myself in the situation.
Ensuring each of my words were carefully enunciated, I said, “That’s right, come to your cuz. I got what you like. Such a good girl.” Then I winked at him.
He flinched, his stare cutting back to the road as he seemed to sink down in his seat. It was a struggle to hold in the laughter. Perhaps tomorrow TMY will have a headline about me being an incest aficionado. My publicist would just love that.
“I don’t want to forget. I need to—to always know and be aware,” Ryaine slurred, and I gave her back all my attention. “Stop all threats, no matter what.” She cut a hand through the air, and I caught it before it could fall—once more—in my lap.
Setting it deliberately on her own lap, I patted the back of it once before twining my arm around her body. Hopefully, if I held her tight enough, that errant hand wouldn’t wander.
“It’s why I do what I do,” she continued, her voice scarcely audible.
I didn’t follow her meaning, so I asked, “Threats are why you’re an actress?”
“I’m not. I keep people safe.” A hint of vulnerability—or something close to it—snuck into her tone. “I keep people safe now.”
The sound of the words, how she’d said them with such passion, ignited something in my chest. “You like keeping people safe?” I murmured against the top of her head.
Ryaine yawned, and in the next moment I felt her body go limp in my arms. This time, thankfully for my sanity, her talented fingers were curled in her own lap, nowhere near mine.
I breathed out relief and pulled the scent of her perfume into my lungs. And then I felt myself smile. Again.
“Let each man exercise the art he knows.”
“You’re late.” Lenore Wood, Halina Wraithington’s capable administrative assistant, eyed me over the stack of papers she currently held perpendicular to her massive desk.
I paused just beyond the hallway to the elevator, halting at the edge of the large waiting area. An antique handwoven carpet of deep, rich reds, blues, and golds covered the floor, several whiskey-colored leather club chairs were scattered about, a beautiful, tufted velvet green sofa sat primly against the far wall. Each of the white walls featured an original Ed Mell painting of the desert and sky—his favorite subjects and perhaps also his muses—which I coveted but would never attempt to buy. The colors would clash with my décor.
This room was stunning, but my favorite thing about it, by far, was the giant leaded glass window, fifteen feet tall and at least that wide, which sat directly behind Lenore. One of the only preserved parts of the studio’s art deco past.
“Am I late?” I glanced at my watch, feigning surprise. “I should get a new watch.” An empty suggestion. I would never get a new watch. This one had belonged to my father, passed to me upon his death, and reminded me of him every time I looked at it.
“There’s nothing wrong with your watch except that you should set it a half hour early. You’re always late.” Lenore’s sharp gaze swept over me. “You’re in a good mood. What’s happened? Valentino having a sale?”
Despite not hearing from Ryaine yet this morning—or Ryaine through John, since neither of us had each other’s number and I’d neglected to leave her a note when I took her home—I was in a good mood. Last night I’d been smitten. In the light of day, I was more than that. I was curious. I was interested. And not just because the woman was eccentric and stunning with a keen fashion sense and wonderful comedic timing.
The main part of our unconventional date on repeat in my brain was her statement, “I keep people safe.”
What had she meant by it? Or had the words been part of her bizarre commitment to method acting while drunk and on prescription drugs? I found I desperately wanted to know.
I removed my sunglasses from where they perched on my nose and tucked them in the inside breast pocket of my suit. “Why wouldn’t I be in a good mood? The sun is shining, it’s a beautiful day.”
“It’s LA. The sun is always shining.”
“Scarcity or surplus of quantity does not diminish or improve quality.”
Lenore gave me an eternally patient look and cocked her head toward her boss’s door, Halina Wraithington, VP in charge of talent relations at World Wide Studios (WWS if you’re into acronyms). This entire floor was dedicated to talent relations, and Halina oversaw it all. “She’s ready for you.”
“Is she? Is she ready, Lenore? Can anyone truly be ready for me?” I paired an eyebrow raise with the jest.
Lenore chuckled, a sound which never ceased to delight. As far as I could tell, I was the only one who could make her laugh. Mostly, she scowled.
“No one else lingers out here with me when they could be in there”—she tilted her head toward Halina’s office again—“making demands and having their ego stroked, especially when they’re already late.”
“Maybe I want to butter you up.” In no hurry, I sat on the edge of her desk and picked up a framed photo. “How are the kids? Did your oldest hear from NYU?”
“I’m not a biscuit to be buttered, and—yes—he got his acceptance letter last week. Thank you again for writing that letter.”
“You’re welcome,” I said, placing the photo of her youngest son back on the desk’s surface and winking at her. “Biscuit or no, you look like a snack today. I love red on you.”
She laughed again, shaking her head like I was a naughty boy.
“You’re so odd. Garrison says hi, by the way. Wants to know when you can manage another spa day.” Garrison being her husband and spa day being exactly what it sounded like. In my opinion, more men needed to take a spa day, see to their atrocious cuticles and neglected feet.
“Tell him to call Craig, he’ll get it on the calendar. And you love my oddness, don’t pretend otherwise.”
“Obviously. We all do. You are the most lovable and our favorite, is that what you want to hear?” Lenore, leaving her papers behind, stood and walked around her massive desk. “If I don’t use a code name for you when scheduling meetings, this whole area is packed with people milling about, wanting to bask in your charisma.”
“Can I help it that I am beloved by all?”
“I’m not sure you can help it. But please go in before someone wanders out here and I have a mob on my hands. You were supposed to have a full half hour before the others showed up, but it’s looking like all you’ll get is ten because you were late.”
“What others?” I asked.
I’d been late because I was always late; no matter how good my intentions, an accurate sense of the passage of time evaded me; barriers erected themselves between me and my scheduled meetings; emergencies always popped up at the last minute. Admittedly, I was also easily distracted, thrown off course by anything novel and interesting or unexpected or beautiful. In this way, and several other ways, I wished I were different.
This morning I’d overslept, unable to settle after taking Ryaine to her apartment. The place hadn’t been anything like I’d expected— exceedingly small, not in the best part of Hollywood yet obviously professionally decorated in an interesting blend of art nouveau and minimalism —but I didn’t stay to snoop after I saw her safely tucked inside her bed. I wanted her to invite me over so I could snoop with her blessing. I wished I’d left a note with my number.
That said, I couldn’t help but notice she didn’t appear to own a coffee table.
When Craig woke me this morning for our run, I’d almost begged off. And I certainly hadn’t remembered to ask Craig about today’s meeting upon completion of our six miles.
“The others are why you’re here,” Lenore grumbled.
“Remind me what this meeting is about again. I can’t seem to recall. Craig entitled it as ‘regarding an entourage’ on my calendar.”
Circling behind me, Lenore placed a hand on my back, pushed me off her desk and forward. “All will be revealed if you go in and see Halina. Go.”
“Couldn’t you just—”
“Go.” With one last gentle shove, Lenore sent me on my way.
I glanced at her over my shoulder and found her standing with her arms crossed, feet braced apart. Her determined expression only slightly ruined by her small smile. Holding my hands up in surrender, I faced Halina’s office door and strolled forward.
Knocking once, I waited for her to say “Come in” before opening the door.
Halina glanced up from her computer. “You’re late.” Today she wore her pink silk shirt which meant she’d likely paired it with a dove gray pencil skirt.
“Am I late?” I shut the door behind me and meandered the perimeter of her office. “I had no idea. Is this a new painting?” I searched the canvas on the wall next to the door for a signature but couldn’t find one.
“Cyrus, I need you to focus. This is important.” Halina stood and walked toward me in her dove gray skirt. “I told Craig to have you here on time today. That personal assistant of yours is useless.”
“Craig does his best. Don’t be upset with him. I’m a terrible burden.” I turned from the painting and watched her walk to the sitting area by the immense window dominating her large office.
“I’d offer you something to drink, but we don’t have time for that.” Halina claimed a spot on the white leather sofa. Like all type A personalities with razor-sharp intelligence and a mountain of ambition, she perched on the edge of the seat rather than lean back against the soft cushions. Someone had made those cushions, it was a shame she didn’t use them.
Gesturing that I should take the chair across from her, she said, “I’ll have to get straight to the point.”
“Are you sure we couldn’t be fussy for a minute?” I pouted, shoving my hands in my pockets. “You know how I hate getting straight to the point. How’s Lawrence? The kids?”
I respected Halina, and I liked her. We had a strong business relationship based on mutual trust, flirting, and inappropriate jokes. If she didn’t work for the studio, we’d likely be friends.
“Fine.” She pressed her lips together, not smiling. “You look well.”
I rocked back on my heels. Her terseness was not a good sign. Typically, she didn’t care if I was late. Typically, she loved my visits. Typically.
“Thank you,” I said carefully. “I am well.”
A bit of the tension in her forehead cleared and she studied me for a beat. “Wait. You’re in a good mood. Why are you in a good mood?”
“Why does everyone keep saying that to me? I’m always in a good mood. I bring joy and light to all I meet.”
“I wasn’t aware joy and light was another phrase for indiscriminate philandering.”
Whatever was on the tip of my tongue fled my brain and I snapped my mouth shut. And then I grinned. She also smiled.
This was more like it.
Back on familiar ground, I lifted a single eyebrow. “Vicious lies. You know my philandering is anything but indiscriminate.”
She looked like she was trying not to laugh at my response. “But you’re smiling.”
“Don’t I usually smile?”
“No. You smirk—not in a bad way. You always look like you’re thinking of or remembering a joke, but it’s definitely not usually a smile.” Her forehead wrinkled again and her amusement waned. “And I’m glad you’re in a good mood because I don’t necessarily have the best news.”
“Ah. So now we’re getting straight to the point.” Dutifully, I strolled to the chair across from her and sat, undoing the button of my suit jacket and leaning fully against the back cushions. God gave us cushions for a reason.
“Yes. I’m afraid we don’t have much time since someone was late.”
Refusing to be cowed by the reminder of my consistent tardiness, I picked a piece of nonexistent lint from my pants at the knee. “What is it, then? Did Fergus drop out as director on the Brutal Desert project?”
“No, no, it’s nothing like that. It’s nothing related to any of your contracts or projects. Brutal Desert is still full steam ahead, preliminary shooting begins next week. They’re expecting you after the press tour for Asmodeus Falls concludes in November.”
Asmodeus Falls was the second film in the Demon Redeemed franchise, wherein I played the titular character based on the comic books of the same name, published by DarkLens. The role had launched my middling career from B-list to A+. The premise of the comic had been interesting on its own: one of the seven princes of hell is lured away from darkness by an angel when they make a bargain for his soul. He loses and must serve her for an age.
But when I’d researched the actual origin story of the demon Asmodeus—the Persian, Jewish, and eventually Christian derivations —its ninth century BCE origins had been most fascinating, and ultimately why I’d taken the role.
“How are the junkets going, by the way?” Halina asked, her gaze assessing. “Everyone behaving themselves?”
“Splendidly.” I faked a grin. Not everyone had behaved themselves. “Harry Lorher asked me if I shave my balls.”
“Oh God.” Halina’s eyes drifted closed and she seemed to be gritting her teeth. “Why is he allowed to participate?”
“He’s allowed to participate because his website is a haven for DarkLens comic book fans.” I shrugged. “He’s a necessary evil.”
“What did you say to him? When he asked?” She seemed to be bracing herself.
“I told Harry I don’t shave, I wax.” I studied my cuticles. “I then offered to wax his balls should he ever grow a pair.”
A strangled laugh burst out of her, though she didn’t look amused. “You didn’t.”
I cut her off with a sigh. “It’s Vera I’m worried about.” Vera was my leading lady in the Demon Redeemed franchise. “He asked her about her shaving habits as well, and that’s when I ended the interview.”
“What? Why didn’t anyone tell me about this? Should I talk to Monty?” Halina reached for her phone.
Monty was the WWS director in charge of scheduling the press junkets and ensuring the actors’ comfort with the process.
“First talk to Vera,” I suggested. “Ask what she wants to do. We should follow her lead.”
“I will.” Halina nodded, typing something on her phone.
“I’m fine doing the Lohrer interview on my own for the third film, if she wishes to be spared.”
“He shouldn’t be asking you those questions either, Cyrus. He—”
I waved a hand through the air, suddenly impatient. “Why am I here?” I didn’t want to discuss Harry Lorher or his balls.
“Fine. Let’s move on.” Her gaze grew examining, but eventually she said, “The higher-ups have decided your current security team isn’t a good look.”
“My current security team? What are you talking about? What’s wrong with my team?” I liked my team. I’d grown comfortable with my guys. We weren’t exactly friends, but we watched football together on Mondays and had started a wine tasting club on Thursdays. I’d hoped, with more time and prodding, they’d talk to me about real things instead of just sports and red wine tannins.
“Nothing is wrong with them. It’s just, you being photographed surrounded by men who are taller than you and twice your size isn’t a good look when we’ve all been hustling to paint you as the machoest of men.”
“Macho men can’t have tall guards?”
“Macho men don’t have any guards because they don’t need guards. Asmodeus certainly doesn’t.”
“Asmodeus isn’t a man. He’s the fictional demon prince of lust who manifests fire and brimstone at the snap of his fingers, can bring anyone to orgasm with a single look, and uses pleasure via touch to melt brains. His wingspan is sixty feet.” I’d enjoyed playing the part of a tragic, morally dark-gray superhero more than I’d anticipated. A demon pulled from hell by angels after losing a bargain for his soul to heavenly forces, forced to do good and rescue damsels in distress—what’s not to like?
“Exactly, and that’s the image we’re going for. Big. Powerful. A little terrifying. Tough and fierce. And having you photographed with men who are bigger and burlier—”
“Hey now.” I pointed at her. “Size doesn’t matter.”
Halina rolled her eyes. “You’re incorrigible.”
I smiled, enjoying her predictable reaction, but let me be clear about something: I was never not going to make that joke. Judge me all you like, you puritans, but I’ve read the Bible. And so it says in the book of Michael, Third Letter to Dwight, Let ye who has never replied with “That’s what she said” cast the first stone.
“You like it,” I said with a shrug.
Her expression flattened. “You wouldn’t get away with saying those kinds of things if you weren’t so cute.”
I gave her my cutest smile.
Pressing her twitching lips together, she sallied forth. “Anyway. You must see, being photographed with your current team makes you look small in comparison. It gives off the wrong vibe, sends the wrong message.”
“Yes, I do see.” Leaning my elbow on the arm of the chair, I set my index finger along my cheek and propped my chin on my thumb. “You want to replace my very competent guards with shorter versions? Thus, when I’m photographed during press tours or events with my security team, I’m the tallest.”
This would be a blow to my social calendar. Thursday wine club was my favorite night of the week.
“Not precisely. Your new guards won’t just be shorter, they’ll be female, and shorter, and not obviously bodyguards.”
I blew out a confused breath. “I don’t think I follow.”
She glanced at the wall clock to my left. “Your new team will be working undercover, each of them posing as part of your entourage. As far as the media and everyone else is concerned, you’ll have two secondary stylists in addition to your current team, two more personal trainers, and two additional personal assistants.”
“You’re giving me six female guards? All pretending to be part of my nonexistent entourage?” I had a team of professionals who already filled these roles, but they weren’t my entourage. “And you want them to be with me at all times?”
Other than my two bodyguards during press tours and fan events, no one had ever followed me around town or anywhere else.
She cleared her throat. “You’ve got the gist of it. Your new team will be here in a moment and will start immediately.”
I stiffened. “They . . . what?” I would be meeting my new security team now?
And why did this news make me feel like I’d just stepped inside a cage? And why did my brain also wonder how Ryaine O’Rourke might react to me being surrounded by an entourage of six women?
Halina had the decency to look guilty. “I’m sorry I couldn’t give you more notice, but you arrived late. They’ve all been painstakingly vetted, and I believe you’ll be impressed. If you agree, you’ll meet your new team, and then you will all—as a group—circle back at your house for orientation.”
“Yes. We’ve given them each a project packet, don’t worry”—she lifted a hand as though she expected me to protest—“your name is not attached to the materials, just in case you opt out. Obviously, I hope you won’t. But they’ll need to see where you live, where they’ll be staying for overnights, become familiar with your security system, sort out the schedule, and so forth.”
I couldn’t keep up, I was still preoccupied by whether and why these changes were necessary at all. “But this—this makes no sense. Why six instead of two? And why will they follow me everywhere?”
“You need, uh, to have more and tighter security,” she said, and I didn’t miss how her lashes fluttered and she glanced at her knees. “So instead of two guards working in day shifts, and only during press tours and the like, we’ll need at least two with you at all times.”
I watched her with growing suspicion, she still hadn’t answered my main question. “Okay, but why? Why do I suddenly need round-the-clock security?”
“This is what I wanted to talk to you about, why I asked you to come so early before the others arrived.” Her gaze found mine again. “After you meet your new team, you should stay so we can discuss this.”
“Discuss what?” Her lack of forthright answers concerned me more than anything she’d said so far.
“Cyrus . . .” Her shoulders rose and fell with a deep breath. “Ever since the press tour for Asmodeus Falls kicked off, the number of concerning fan mail messages sent to the studio has increased. As well, our tracking of social media and fan message boards leads us to believe that twenty-four-hour security is warranted.”
Parsing through her words for a hidden meaning, I thought and said in tandem, “Are you saying I have a new stalker?”
Prior to this meeting, I was aware of seven stalkers. Four were in prison for crimes unrelated to me. The other three hadn’t done anything dangerous to me and didn’t have a history of violence, per se. But they did send creepy notes and photos. One woman worked as a florist in a grocery store and liked to send me flowers daily, always to the studio since my home address was a closely guarded secret. Sometimes, she’d put dead rodents in the arrangements, but there was no evidence she’d killed them herself.
Regardless, I had restraining orders against all seven of these individuals.
“No, Cyrus. It’s not one person that’s moved the needle on this, it’s an alarming uptick in fervor from all your fans. The excitement for this film is exactly what the studio wants to see, but it’s also focused on you specifically.” Her words sounded rushed as she checked the clock again. “In many peoples’ minds, based on their social media posts, you and Asmodeus are one in the same, and they have a para-social relationship with you both. And not like we’ve seen in the past. This feels extreme, and we’d rather be safe than sorry, especially given how the film ends.”
I frowned, absorbing this news.
The film ended with me betraying Vera’s angelic character, a shocking departure from the original comic book source material. Our director and I had discussed potential fan backlash for the story decision, but it was the right move for the franchise. It allowed the studio to introduce more characters and therefore spin-off movies and tv shows. It also set up the third film for Asmodeus, a new redemption arc, and tons of opportunities for studio merchandising partners.
It wouldn’t make fans happy in the short term, but I believed the payoff for them in the end was worth it. After all, filmmaking was called the business for a reason.
Restless, I stood and paced the length of her office. The addition of an undercover bodyguard entourage to my current publicized existence felt like a huge intrusion. Yes, I was used to being photographed while going about my day, followed by photographers, but this was different.
The ability to move about freely in public while in LA, grabbing an impromptu bite to eat near my house, running along the beach if I so chose, going to the convenience store on my own—these minor freedoms felt essential.
And assuming she agreed, what happened when Ryaine and I had our second date?
“What about my current team? Will they be reassigned?” I didn’t want my guys to be out of a job. “And do they know this change had nothing to do with me?”
“Yes. Both Mike and Kamar will be reassigned by the studio. And if it’s important to you, I’ll make sure they know this was a studio decision and you had no idea.”
“Please do. Thank you.” Tugging on my bottom lip, I stared out the window, deciding that I would also call them, reiterate that I wasn’t to blame for the reassignment. Hopefully they won’t be too upset . . .
Without turning, I waved Halina’s apology away. “It’s not your fault.”
“Yes. But I could’ve given you more of a heads-up.”
I glanced at her sharply. “Why didn’t you?”
“Because I worried if you were given time to think about it before meeting the team, you’d turn down our offer of round-the-clock security.”
“Is that what this is? An offer?” A dry laugh tumbled out of me. But she was correct. I didn’t enjoy letting people down, disappointing them, or delivering bad news. Once I came face-to-face with these new people, the chances of me opting out were negligible.
“It is an offer. You can say no. But I would strongly urge you to—”
A knock at the door cut her off mid-urging, and Lenore poked her head in a second later. “Sorry. I tried to give you as much time as possible, but they’re all here and I didn’t like making them wait.”
“It’s fine.” Halina stood, her eyes on me. “Please, bring the team in.”
Inhaling a deep breath, I worked to wipe my expression of all agitation, arranging for an unruffled, polite smile of welcome instead. If I would be in close proximity with these people for the next few months, I wanted to make a good first impression. Perhaps they could join the Thursday night wine club.
The women filed in one at a time, each dressed in some variation of office-professional attire, nothing noteworthy or exciting. If one or more of them were going to pose as my stylist, then we’d have to—
Tensing, I blinked once, then twice at the last woman to enter the room, and not because she was the only one attired in something more thoughtful than whatever had been on sale at Kohl’s two seasons ago. But of course she wore what appeared to be an Oscar de la Renta floral print, cotton summer dress paired with brown strappy stilettos, because the last woman who’d entered the room was Ryaine O’Rourke.
I smiled at her in question, pushing my hands in the pockets of my suit pants, and mouthed, “What are you doing here?”
She stared at me, eyes wide, her lips parted slightly, all the color draining from her face. I hoped she wasn’t embarrassed about what had happened in the car. I’d have to soothe her fears.
But . . . why was she here?
“Cyrus, I’d like you to meet your team.” Halina, not seeming to notice Ryaine’s presence, strolled over to the first woman who’d entered and gestured to her. “This is your team lead, Wren St. James. Wren has served as team lead for—”
“Wait a minute.” Smiling uncertainly, I glanced between Ryaine’s sheet-white face and Halina’s confused one. “Is this a joke?”
“Is what a joke?” Halina seemed honestly perplexed by my question.
Fine. I’d spell it out.
I pointed at Ryaine, but I addressed Halina. “You’re telling me that Ryaine O’Rourke is one of my undercover bodyguards?”