Star Crossed

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About The Book

The first novel in a sizzling series about a public relations firm, the stars they represent, and everything they’d rather keep private.

He said . . . She said.

Publicist Wendy Mann has always competed hotly with her rival Daniel Blackstone, but this time they’re headed for a collision. Wendy’s job is on the line if she doesn’t save the image of a spoiled young starlet who’s posting provocative pictures of herself all over the Internet in a snarky attempt at revenge on her former boyfriend. Daniel is representing the ex, a onetime teen heartthrob who never grew up. With the feuding Hollywood pair scheduled to appear on the same Las Vegas awards show, Daniel and Wendy are determined to do whatever it takes to defend their own clients.

Unfortunately, the chemistry between Wendy and Daniel is even more explosive than that of their Hollywood stars. L-O-V-E was always a four-letter word for these two ultra-competitors; they never counted on the scorching heat that erupts between them. But Wendy’s high-gloss exterior hides a dark past—one that’s lurking behind the bright Vegas lights. Their careers are on the line, and so is Wendy’s life. . . .

Star Crossed 1

Wendy Mann cleared her throat to get the attention of the mega movie star strolling in from the theater’s back entrance. “You’re good,” she said, “but you’re not that good.” Then she relaxed against the wall of the musty stairwell, scrolled through her phone messages, and waited for the door onto the street to slam shut behind Zane Taylor.

BANG. Now Wendy looked up. Zane was gaping at her, a combination of outrage and disbelief showing on his chiseled face.

Just as she’d suspected when she’d first met with him and the producer of this Broadway play two weeks ago. Nobody had ever told Zane no: not his handlers, not his bodyguards, not his former public relations people. He’d paid them to say yes.

But he didn’t pay Wendy. The producer did. So she was going to tell Zane the truth.

That was her job.

“You’re fired,” he sneered, mounting the stairs.

“You can’t fire me as your PR specialist,” Wendy countered. “You didn’t hire me. And the play will fire you before they fire me.”

“They won’t fire me.” Reaching the top of the stairs, he looked down on her with his legendary green eyes. Wendy bet women wouldn’t have gone so wild over his movies in the past decade if he’d glared at them like this, as if they weren’t fit to polish his Golden Globes. “I’m Zane Taylor.”

“You were,” Wendy acknowledged. “You were a brand name that sold out movie theaters. You ruined all that with your divorce. Now you need to stop acting like a diva and get yourself to rehearsal on time every day, or your boss will find a replacement who will.”

“A diva!” Zane exclaimed, looming closer over her, murder in his eyes.

Right. He was an old-school ass for whom the supreme insult was calling him a name usually reserved for a woman. Her ex from West Virginia, Rick, had the same attitude. The closer Zane came to her, the more her body tensed with the memory of Rick’s hands on her, even as her brain registered that Zane was not Rick.

But she wouldn’t back down. She couldn’t show weakness by panicking and taking back her words. If Zane felt more offended than she’d expected, so be it.

She met his gaze. “Your agent went to a lot of trouble to arrange this gig for you. Now that the movie roles have dried up, you wanted to retool your career by going after the serious acting cred that’s eluded you. This play was your first role in high school, the one that got you hooked on acting. You have the chance to do a play you love on Broadway and prove your critics wrong. And you’re going to throw all that away for a few weeks of partying hard and forgetting to set your alarm?”

He took a deep breath, let his shoulders sag as he exhaled, and tilted his head to one side. “Look, I may not be your boss, but you’re not mine, either. You’re PR. You’re not supposed to change what I’m doing. You just make me look good doing it.”

Wendy still held his gaze, but she could feel his fingers stroking her hand.

He said silkily, with only a hint of menace underneath, “Maybe we could compromise.”

“Do not proposition me,” she said.

His fingers stopped moving on her hand.

She wasn’t going to jerk away from him. She would let him jerk away from her after what she said next. “If you want a relationship, ask women out on dates. Don’t come on to the women you work with just to manipulate them. That’s how you ended up with a lawsuit from your hairdresser, a divorce from your wife, and your current downward spiral.”

His hands were off her now. If he’d had any history of violence, though, she would have suspected he was about to throw her down the stairs. Her heart raced again as he pointed his finger in her face and started, “You—”

She interrupted him before he could say bitch. “Remember Brad McCain?”

“Yeah.” Zane put his hand down and stood up straighter with the shock of that unexpected memory.

“You started in the movie business at the same time, right?” she prompted him. “You were in that teen blockbuster together, surviving the apocalypse.”

Zane nodded, his handsome face twisted in pain. “I wanted to go to his funeral last month, but I was stuck here in court.”

“I was Brad’s PR consultant. And he called me too late. Part of my job is to change what you’re doing. I can’t dress up a pig and make it look like Marilyn Monroe. If you’re headed for a fall, sending you in a different direction is better PR than covering your tracks leading off the cliff. The producer of your play called me in time. Here’s what I can do to help you change your life.”

Wendy handed him the business card for one of her assistants. She explained that Stargazer Public Relations could get him whatever help he needed—post-divorce therapy, legal counsel to fight for increased visitation with his children, intervention if his substance abuse had escalated to that point—all without detection, so he could rest assured he wouldn’t read a sensationalized version of his private life in the tabloids the next day.

As she spoke, the worry lines in his forehead smoothed. He wouldn’t need to drown his troubles in a drink if he had assistance solving his problems discreetly. By the time she finished her lecture, he watched her with something like respect. “Thank you,” he whispered, squeezing her card between his fingers until it bowed.

“That’s what I’m here for,” she said. “But Zane, getting your life back in order will take time. Your number one priority right now is to make sure you come to rehearsal every day on time, sober, with a positive attitude.”

“I promise,” he said.

After a supportive hug good-bye and an attaboy pat on the back, she jogged down the stairs in her high heels and pushed open the door onto the street. She hopped into her waiting taxi and immediately texted the producer of the play. Zane had been late again today, but he wouldn’t be late tomorrow.

That was the plan, anyway. Wendy wasn’t convinced of Zane’s sincerity. She would be here at the same time tomorrow to make sure. If he still refused to cooperate, she had other ways of exerting pressure. She might pop in on one of the nightly after-hours parties that were making it so difficult for him to show up to work at one in the afternoon.

She looked up at the skyscrapers and bus-sized advertisements in Times Square spinning by outside the cab—the first time all day she’d had a chance to realize how much she’d missed New York, her adopted home. After a month in Seattle repairing PR for metal supergroup Darkness Fallz, which had been like herding cats, she’d arrived back in the city on the red-eye that morning, only to be thrust into meeting after meeting on a breakneck schedule. Usually her bosses didn’t meddle in her day-to-day business. They only wanted results. For some reason, today they’d required her to touch base with many of her important clients in the city. Zane hadn’t been on the list. She’d scheduled that ambush herself.

And she would pay for it now, because she was going to be late for her one thirty meeting with her bosses. She texted Sarah, her colleague and best friend since college.

R u in office? Could you tell bosses I’m in taxi & will be there in 10? They won’t mind too much if they have called meeting to promote me ha ha

Wendy tried to relax against the seat, scrolling through the thirty e-mail messages that had appeared on her phone in the ten minutes she’d spent on Zane’s dressing-down. But she willed the taxi to sprout wings and fly above the traffic to the Stargazer offices in Midtown. She would even pay extra. She hated being late. It was unprofessional, even though the time she’d stolen might have saved Zane’s career. And then she received an answering text from Sarah:

Done. Warning: bosses don’t seem happy.

As Wendy stared at the screen, her mind whirled with the possibilities. She’d been joking when she told Sarah she might get promoted, but she hadn’t thought it was out of the question. Could she be in trouble instead? Her methods might be unconventional sometimes, but she had a high success rate—despite Brad’s demise. In college she’d been second in her class among public relations majors, and the runner-up for the prestigious Clarkson Prize, awarded to the program’s most promising student. She did not get in trouble.

And she sounded just like Zane Taylor.

No, that was the jet lag talking. She desperately needed a fifth cup of coffee. Shaking her head to clear it, then pushing her hair behind her shoulders, she settled into her e-mail again, confident she could knock out half these messages before the taxi deposited her at Stargazer’s door. That would help free up her afternoon so she could deal with her other clients. They were counting on her to solve their problems, so she certainly didn’t have time to dwell on her own. Especially when they weren’t even real.

*   *   *

“I am very freaking likable!”

Wendy knew instantly she shouldn’t have said this to her three bosses across the conference room table. And she shouldn’t have said it so loudly.

Her direct supervisor, Katelyn, sat back in her leather chair and touched two manicured fingers to her perfect red lipstick, which had not smeared while she took dainty sips of coffee. Her supervisor, Jonathan, ducked his head and looked furtively over his shoulder at the Flatiron Building out the long bank of windows. But Archie, the head honcho of Stargazer PR, just put his chin in his big, hairy hand and scowled at Wendy, unflappable as ever.

She pretended she hadn’t noticed their reactions. She sipped her own coffee, trying her best to remain calm, though her blood pounded in her ears with over-caffeinated dread. She understood now that her bosses hadn’t called this meeting to talk strategy for Stargazer. They hadn’t brought her here to promote her, as she’d hoped, or even to talk her into representing Lorelei Vogel, the latest self-destructive client on the roster, as she’d feared. They’d ganged up on her so she wouldn’t pitch a fit—at least, not as much of one—when they fired her.

It had been ten years since Wendy had moved from West Virginia to Manhattan, coming for college and staying for her job with Stargazer. Now that she was losing her job, she didn’t have to move back to Morgantown. There was nothing left for her there. She wasn’t eighteen anymore, and she wasn’t vulnerable to Rick. But the way her panicked heart was racing, she might as well have been boarding the next bus back home.

“I mean,” she said, and her backtracking petered out. She’d already said what she’d meant. She did too much of that, which was her whole problem.

“Wendy,” Katelyn said, “you know we love you like a daughter.”

Wendy squinted at her. “A daughter you’re firing?”

“Yes!” Katelyn exclaimed. “If Arabella wasn’t up to snuff, I swear I’d hand her ass to her on a platter.” Her eyes shot sideways to Jonathan, who shook his head, warning of another outburst from Wendy. Taking the hint, Katelyn leaned forward across the table and patted Wendy’s hand soothingly. “Not that I’m trying to hand you your ass.”

Archie slouched diagonally in his chair with one ankle propped casually on the opposite knee. He punctuated each syllable with a plastic coffee spoon as he told Wendy, “You’re not really family, but we did want to make this as painless as possible for you, and this is the thanks we get?”

Gripping the arms of her chair, Wendy took a deep breath and said, “My job is to salvage the public images of stars who are about to go off the deep end. I’m dragging them back from the brink of drug addiction, alcoholism, whoring, or just plain stupidity before they fall into the abyss. Sometimes I go into the abyss after them and drag them out. They emerge kicking and screaming. You can’t expect them to like me.”

“That may be true,” Katelyn acknowledged. “By nature, your relationship with them is adversarial. However, if they hate you so much that they don’t want to work with you at all, we can’t send you anymore. You’re no good to us.”

“Who doesn’t want to work with me at all?” Wendy protested. Unfortunately, lots of possible answers rushed to mind. Zane topped the list.

“Brad McCain,” Jonathan piped up.

“That guy is dead,” Wendy told Jonathan. She was losing interest in being especially polite. Brad McCain was a sore point with her, and she wanted to set the record straight. She said quietly but firmly, “He was hell-bent on being dead, too. He was halfway there when you sent me to him.”

In fact, that was why they had sent Wendy. If anyone could have prevented Brad from getting plastered in a West Hollywood club and driving his Porsche off a mountain, over a privacy fence, and into the swimming pool of an up-and-coming handbag designer, it was Wendy. As it turned out, nobody could. But what she had done, after his death, was publicize that he’d set up his mom in a florist business and bought her a beautiful oceanside home in Florida. Because the public saw him in a more positive light, a movie studio rushed to release special editions of his older gross-out comedies, sending even more money to his deserving family.

Wendy had counted the case a partial success. Being accused of failure made her feel like crying in frustration. She couldn’t allow herself to tear up with her bosses watching her, so she did what she always did when she felt like crying. She lashed out. “If you want to present this argument to me, fine, but you can’t use the opinion of a dead guy as evidence.” She sounded bitter and defensive, and she knew it. She wasn’t just on shaky ground now. The ground crumbled under her feet. As she flailed, she couldn’t find a handhold.

“We’ve got a long list,” Archie said. “Not all of the complainants are dead. But the reason we’ve decided to terminate you today, Wendy, is that Darkness Fallz doesn’t want to work with you anymore. They never want to see you again. They’ve gone to the length of writing that into their new contract with their record company.”

Now Wendy felt like she’d been slapped. Darkness Fallz had sunk so low by the time Wendy was sent to them that they were getting fired from pub gigs in Tacoma because their meth-addicted lead singer couldn’t drag his ass to work at nine o’clock at night. The rest of the group had been grateful to Wendy when the funny, self-deprecating video she arranged to be shot for them went viral. They were invited to tour the talk shows, then to sign a new recording contract. She’d thought the lead singer might have been grateful to her, too, in the end, despite some of the things she’d said to him about acting like an overgrown Halloween trick-or-treater.

As the sting of the slap faded into a deep ache, again she felt like crying at the betrayal. Instead, she laughed shortly. “Their contract actually says they don’t want to work with me again?”

“Show her the contract, Katie,” Archie said.

Katelyn peered into her designer tote, thumbed through a stapled sheaf of papers to a particular page, and handed the contract across the table. Wendy took it as if Katelyn were dressed in a red rubber Satan costume like the lead singer of Darkness Fallz himself. She peered at the underlined sentence: Manhattan Music agrees that it will not employ Stargazer Public Relations to work with Darkness Fallz for the period of this contract.

To be on her bosses’ desks this morning, the contract must have been on its way while Wendy was still in Seattle, helping Darkness Fallz through their issues. Which hurt even more.

“The contract doesn’t specify me,” she grumbled.

“They meant you,” Jonathan said.

Katelyn told Wendy, “You’ve lost their business for everybody at Stargazer. We hear Manhattan Music has already retained another firm for them. Can you guess what firm that might be?”

Wendy knew. Katelyn wouldn’t have posed the question otherwise. Manhattan Music must have hired Stargazer’s biggest enemy, whose heir apparent was Wendy’s own arch-rival from college. Daniel Blackstone was the undisputed expert among PR experts at getting stars out of trouble. He was also one of Wendy’s least favorite people, along with her ex, Rick. But she was trying to save her job, so she swallowed her medicine. She attempted to look contrite rather than ill as she ventured, “The Blackstone Firm?”

“The Blackstone Firm,” Jonathan repeated in a whisper, as if he dared not say the name of the dragon too loudly for fear of calling it down from the icy mountain to slay them all.

“We can’t keep you on staff if you’re losing us business,” Katelyn explained.

“What about my current business?” Wendy asked, realizing as she did so that her bosses had already finished up her current business. That’s why they’d sent her all over town this morning, touching base with her clients. Her stars would feel taken care of for a few days, until Stargazer was able to send in someone else. But there was one client she’d met with on her own. “What about Zane Taylor?”

“We’re giving him to Tom,” Jonathan said.

Which was why her bosses hadn’t put Zane on her visitation list. She wanted to say something cutting about Tom Ruffner’s chances of whipping Zane into shape, but she couldn’t. She was Tom’s mentor and friend. And despite his youth and inexperience, Tom was good at this.

Wendy was beginning to feel expendable.

“But I get you business,” she said weakly. “Maybe my sunshiny personality doesn’t, but my results do. I’m the best you have at pulling stars out of scrapes. Am I right?”

“You’re right,” Archie said, “but you’re not doing us a lot of good if the stars employ us for a month, you pull them out of their scrape, and then they fire us. We need long-term relationships.”

“One more chance,” Wendy insisted. She realized her voice had risen again when a flock of pigeons burst from the window ledge behind her bosses in a flurry of wings.

Startled, Katelyn and Jonathan turned toward the window. As they faced the table again, they looked at each other and, barely perceptibly, shook their heads no. Archie told Wendy, “It’s so much easier to fire you.”

Lowering her voice, Wendy said, “Most workplaces would counsel an employee and allow her the chance to improve before giving her the ax.” Wendy understood that most employees didn’t cost their workplaces hundreds of thousands of dollars overnight, but she left that part out. “I’ll prove to you that I can help some guy out of the gutter and make him love me, too.”

Katelyn and Jonathan shook their heads more vigorously. Archie said, “The only star we’d even think about letting you near—” Now Jonathan was wagging his head no in an exaggerated fashion so Archie could see him out of the corner of his eye. Archie put his meaty hand on Jonathan’s shoulder to stay him, then continued, “—is the star who asked for you specifically, Wendy.”

“Lorelei Vogel?” Wendy guessed. It was that kind of day.

Archie watched her grimly, which meant yes.

Often when a huge star like Lorelei approached the agency, Wendy, Tom, and six other operatives fought over the account like lions over a piece of meat while a laid-back and calculating Sarah watched them as if she weren’t even hungry—which often resulted in the bosses handing the job to her. But nobody was touching Lorelei. Stargazer never turned down a difficult case, and the tacit message to employees was Deliver or die. Wendy knew if she saved her job today, Lorelei would likely be the death of her career anyway.

And she had another, much more personal reason to stay as far away from that chick as possible.

But Wendy’s future lay on the metal table in front of her, with Jonathan pulling the IV out of its arm, Katelyn holding her finger on the button to turn off life support, and Archie waiting with the body bag open and ready. Lorelei Vogel was Wendy’s only sad, unlikely chance at resuscitating her job.

“I’ll take it!” She slapped her hand on the table. The wood reverberated, the coffee sloshed, and all three bosses jumped. “You said Lorelei asked for me specifically. What do you have to lose?”

“A lot, honey,” Katelyn said. “This girl is the head-lining act for the Hot Choice Awards on Friday. If she melts down, she’s doing it on national television and taking our good name with her.”

“Maybe that won’t happen,” Wendy said. “Send me. I’ll meet this pretty delinquent with a smile on my face and a song in my heart. Maybe I’ll even straighten her out, and in that case, I want a raise and a promotion.”

Katelyn glanced at Jonathan, who watched Wendy as if a lunatic stranger had sat down to this conference with him. Wendy got this look from him a lot.

“Come on, you guys!” she pleaded. “You’re concentrating on failure. What if I turned this girl around and made her a showbiz darling? Think of all the recs Stargazer would get from that! And aren’t the Hot Choice Awards in Vegas? That’s perfect. You can’t win big if you don’t take a gamble.”

Archie raised his eyebrows at Katelyn. Satisfied with what he saw in her face, he told Wendy, “Sure. You’re hired. But on a trial basis only, sweetheart. We’ve made clear how we feel about you.”

“Thanks! You won’t regret it.” Wendy jumped up and crossed the conference room before her bosses could change their minds. She took slow, deep breaths and tried to rid herself of the feeling that the dark mountains of West Virginia crouched over her. Then closed her into a narrower and narrower valley until she slipped into the only escape available, a mine shaft, and fell forever.

*   *   *

Daniel Blackstone was rolling his suitcase into his Las Vegas hotel room when he remembered he was supposed to call his father in New York first thing on arrival. Daniel rarely forgot to touch base with his father. He knew he wasn’t as good a PR rep as his brother would have been. He wouldn’t be as good a president of the company when he took over next month, either, which was why his father deemed it necessary to monitor him. Normally this thought made him feel sorry for his father and sad for his lost brother. But today he was jet-lagged and exhausted, and all he felt was angry.

He would not be calling his father until he was good and ready.

He surveyed the room. In a corner, the hotel staff had set up a bar for him with bottles of expensive liquor and a fresh bucket of ice, as he’d requested. He wasn’t much of a drinker, but the job required it. When he was forced to play host, the setup looked cool. He hoped he wouldn’t need it at eleven in the morning Vegas time. If he did, he was in trouble already.

Satisfied with this arrangement, he surveyed the rest of the place. It was smallish for a luxury suite, smaller than one in L.A. but a damn sight bigger than one in Tokyo. There was a sitting area, a desk where he would spend most of the next week or however long he was stuck here, and a king-size bed. Windows extended the length of the room, with a killer view of the Strip.

At midmorning, the casinos across the street didn’t seem like the wonderlands they were advertised to be. They only looked vast, mostly blocking the dun-colored mountains in the distance. But he knew from experience that in the older, mellow part of the night, after however many drinks his job had demanded of him, he could lie on this bed, look out at the lights glowing in the signs and reflecting against the glass faces of the buildings, and dream that he was on his last trip to London with his brother.

It had been the best week of his life. He’d visited his grandparents every year of his childhood, but this time he and his brother had gone alone to England, in advance of their parents and their little sister. They’d explored the countryside, nearly wrecked their rental car driving on the wrong side of the road, gotten drunk in countless pubs, and marveled at the punk girls in this strange part of the world. That shining vacation, all color, was the last time he’d seen his brother alive.

Since then, all his trips had been filled with black-and-white business for his father. Looming overhead was the inevitability of not doing everything as perfectly as his brother would have, and letting his father down. The women Daniel had dated had told him how jealous they were of him, flying to the world’s priciest and toniest resort destinations, hanging out with the stars, and enjoying fine dining and the best entertainment the world had to offer. He would have preferred some actual downtime and the chance to wander off the beaten path. He did love to travel, but not like this.

What he wouldn’t give to explore Vegas with his brother.

He wanted to ride the roller coaster around the faux skyline at the New York casino. He wanted to see every cheesy washed-up pop star in concert, and maybe a few magicians. He wanted to visit Hoover Dam, even fly over it in a helicopter like a tourist. He wanted to hike Red Rock Canyon. He wanted to win a thousand dollars at craps and feel the high, then lose two thousand and actually miss the money. He wanted to pawn something for cash to win his money back. He wanted a massage in a serene spa. He didn’t deal with call girls, but it would have been nice to share his nights with a beautiful, loose woman, lost like him and lonely.

The thick window was the only barrier between his business trip and the tourists far below who were just waking up and heading onto the Strip for lunch and more gambling.

The hotel room might not be spacious, but he would take it.

He placed his bag on the suitcase rack and zipped it open. He lined up his shoes in the bottom of the closet, then hung his shirts neatly on hangers with ties around the hooks and suit coats draped over the shoulders. He tried to make his job easier by dressing well and giving the most professional, least approachable impression possible. This helped immensely when lecturing stars on why they needed to stop fathering illegitimate children. Leaving his things crammed in his suitcase bothered him and would mean more ironing later. He didn’t have time to send things out for pressing. He was in crisis mode.

The drama with Colton Farr was still unfolding downstairs. Colton’s bodyguard had texted to say that Colton was in the casino, down almost a hundred thousand dollars at blackjack. Not something that would help with Colton’s image problem—as if urinating in the fountain at the Bellagio last night and getting evicted from the hotel hadn’t been bad enough. When witnesses had called police, Colton’s bodyguard had called Colton’s agent, who’d contacted the Blackstone Firm for crisis management.

This case was so high profile that Daniel’s father himself might have taken it last year. But he was retiring in a month. He was backing away from company duties he didn’t want. It had been Daniel who’d taken the 4 a.m. call and talked the Bellagio manager down from pressing charges—even though Daniel had just finished a monthlong stint in Hollywood, threatening four different people into working together or else. He’d gotten back to Manhattan two nights ago, exhausted and happy to see his cat. Now this.

Personally, he didn’t care whether Colton Farr crashed and burned. He had a handful of clients whose work he respected, like Victor Moore, who’d made some very good action movies. In contrast, Colton Farr went around insulting women and pissing in public places, and Daniel did not do either, so he really didn’t understand why this guy deserved saving, except that it would pay for Daniel’s father’s new Maserati.

Daniel ducked into the bathroom to glance at his hair, which he’d kept short and neat since he’d grown out of his teenage punk phase. Satisfied with his reflection, he turned for the door.

An afterthought stopped him, an image he’d glimpsed in the mirror but had been slower to process. He leaned back into the bathroom and took another look at himself.

That’s what he’d half noticed: the dark shadows under his eyes. He’d always loathed his own harsh face, all angles and planes that looked whiter against his black hair. By the same token, looking naturally mean gave him an edge when he needed to twist a star’s arm. But the shadows under his eyes were new as of a few weeks ago and had gotten progressively worse. There was looking harsh, and then there was looking haggard. Not good for business. He needed to appear as if he was about to run the company, not like it was running him.

He touched the dark skin under one eye, then released it and watched the color flow back into his white fingerprint. GQ was always recommending products for issues like this, products that would inevitably be declared useless by Consumer Reports. He wished for a miracle cream—tubs of it if the stress continued at this level when he took over the Blackstone Firm. Enough for all the years he stayed in charge.

Which would be until his father either died or didn’t know the difference anymore when his beloved business closed for good.

Thirty years from now, possibly.

When Daniel himself would be nearing retirement age.

He straightened and shot himself a disdainful look for being so vain. He had no time to worry about it, anyway. He had a spoiled actor to corral.

Shrugging on his suit coat, he walked to the elevator—a short walk rather than the mile-long trek some vacationers endured in these massive hotels, because he’d made friends with the staff many trips ago—pressed the button for the casino, rode down dozens of floors, and stepped into the cacophony. Slot machines beeped and sang cheerfully. Gamblers laughed and clapped each other on the back. Skirting them all, he headed for the high-roller gaming tables, where the employees still smiled but the clientele grew serious.

He spotted Colton right away, despite the disguise. Colton was average height but broad from working with a personal trainer for the past seven years, ever since he first became the fourteen-year-old heartthrob of a teen sitcom. His UCLA sweatshirt didn’t hide his shoulders any more than his trucker hat hid his highlighted blond hair. He wore designer shades in the dim and flickering light of the slot machines, which could only mean he was a professional gambler, a star, or a wannabe.

But even if he hadn’t looked the part, his entourage at the blackjack table would have given him away: his bodyguard standing behind him, arms crossed, with a conspicuous earpiece that probably wasn’t even turned on; his driver, who’d transported everyone from L.A. and deposited them safely in Vegas, and wouldn’t serve a purpose again, except as a drinking buddy, until the Hot Choice Awards were over five days from now, when he would drive them back home; and a call girl. The woman sat next to Colton at the table, placing her cleavage in his line of sight as he looked to the dealer and signaled for another card.

Daniel paused beside a sparkling bank of slot machines and surveyed the rest of the casino floor. He counted three security guards posted around the vast room, back near the walls, making themselves known in their cheap suits and speaking occasionally into real microphones attached to real earpieces. Two different groups of tourists seemed to have recognized Colton and discussed approaching him, which was why the security guards were there, and why, if Daniel had been consulted, he never would have let Colton out in public in Vegas. Not when the whole country knew he was here for the Hot Choice Awards. And not when he was insulting his ex-girlfriend on the Internet and pissing in fountains.

A couple of other men sat at the table with Colton, both tourists. One was dressed almost exactly like Colton in a sports cap and a sports T-shirt. He even looked a bit like an older Colton, all blond muscle, but without Colton’s soft and pampered features. This guy looked like he opened beer bottles with his teeth. The other man, skinnier and balding, wore a loud Hawaiian shirt.

There was nothing inherently suspicious about tourists sitting at a Vegas table with a celebrity. Stars liked to mix with real humans once in a while.

But as Daniel watched, Hawaiian shirt man, who was sitting on the other side of the call girl from Colton, touched her shoulder. This surprised Daniel. They definitely hadn’t seemed to be together. Daniel had a lot of experience browbeating pimps away from his clients. This guy didn’t give off a pimp vibe.

Sure enough, the touch that passed between Hawaiian shirt guy and the woman had been a signal. Without taking her eyes off Colton, the woman leaned back in her chair until her breasts were no longer blocking him. Hawaiian shirt man pulled something out of his back pocket.

Before Daniel realized what he was doing, he was moving across the floor toward the table. He didn’t shout because that would draw attention to himself rather than the paparazzo pulling out the camera and the woman backing away to give him a clear shot. Daniel hoped Colton’s bodyguard would see the man before he got his photograph and escaped through the casino. The guy might not make it outside, but all he needed to earn his pay from the tabloids was to upload his photo. The casino would ban him and perhaps have him arrested for taking a photo on their property. Too little, too late, if the photo was already out in the world by then.

A photo of Colton losing a hundred thousand dollars, with a prostitute.

Daniel rounded the table. The bodyguard would see the photographer any moment. The security guards would come to assist. Daniel only had to get a hand between the camera lens and Colton. He reached out.

Colton perceived Daniel’s reaching arm and the camera. He half stood and awkwardly swung up his fist from behind him. The photographer leaped sideways off his stool.

Daniel had enough time to cringe at what was coming but not enough time to duck out of the way as Colton’s meaty fist connected with his eye. The impact launched him backward. His body met something solid that grabbed his arms—probably the bodyguard, finally doing his job.

Daniel pressed down the almost overwhelming urge to fight, to jerk out of the bodyguard’s grasp and slug him, then go after Colton. Long years of practice hadn’t rid him of that instinct but had given him superhuman strength to suppress it. Before he could see or clear his head of the throbbing, he said in as commanding a voice as he could muster, “I’m Daniel Blackstone. I just arrived from New York to handle PR. Get this guy’s camera before he can upload.”

Released from the bodyguard’s grip, he stood blinking, half wishing the bodyguard still propped him up. He struggled to stay upright while bringing the suddenly too-bright casino lights back into focus. The security guards had come forward to help the bodyguard manhandle the photographer and the call girl. The gawkers stared from behind an imaginary velvet rope, unwilling to join the fray but eager to find out what trouble Colton Farr had gotten himself into now.

Daniel had to hustle Colton out of there before more cameras were produced. He stepped around the table to where Colton, fists on his hips, scowled over his driver’s shoulder at the photographer. Daniel said softly, “I’m your new PR specialist. Come with me.”

Colton looked Daniel up and down, assessing. His gaze lingered on Daniel’s eye, which was probably bruising by now. Colton’s lip curled. “I’m down a hundred thou. I was just getting my mojo back. I’m not going anywhere.”

Daniel felt his own fists clenching down by his sides. He’d thought his impulsiveness had been shamed out of him by his father many years before. But at the moment, it was all he could do to keep from slamming this smug asshole square on his nose job. He quashed the startling thought that he wasn’t going to leave Vegas without doing just that.

But not now. Now he had a public relations disaster to avert, whether or not Colton wanted to cooperate. He gave Colton his coldest stare as he said, “You called me, Farr. I have plenty of other business. Come with me, immediately, or I will take the next flight back to New York and bill you for my wasted time.”

Colton stared back at Daniel for several seconds while Daniel calculated what his own next move would be. He didn’t have a friend in the place, and his dizziness was progressing into vertigo. The only tool he had, really, was the illusion of control, which was somewhat difficult to sustain with a black eye developing.

Colton turned to his bodyguard, whose foot was resting on the photographer’s head. “We’ve got to talk shop. Can you take care of this?”

“Sure thing,” the bodyguard grunted.

Daniel spoke to security. “Even if you don’t see the picture, get the camera. And tell the casino to ban the photographer and the prostitute, or Mr. Farr is checking out.” The Bellagio had asked Colton to vacate after the fountain-pissing incident last night. But some casinos were pickier than others. This one was happy to be associated with any star, even a tasteless and mentally unstable one.

Impressed with Daniel’s confidence, but not sure whether they were supposed to be taking orders from him, the bodyguard and security guards nodded at him.

Daniel wasn’t satisfied. He would have preferred a “yes, sir.” He wasn’t satisfied with his own handling of the situation, either. The other tourist, the one who resembled a battle-hardened Colton, might have been involved in the conspiracy to snap Colton’s photo, too. But he’d disappeared. Daniel had lost track of him. And there was only so much Daniel could ask of himself under the circumstances, with his eye throbbing and threatening to fall out of his face. He turned to usher Colton toward the elevator.

Colton stayed planted to the spot. Daniel thought he knew why. Colton’s ex-girlfriend, Lorelei Vogel, was also a guest at this hotel. Colton had been furiously feuding with her online since their all-too-public breakup a few weeks ago, but that only gave away how invested he was in the failed relationship. As long as she was staying here, he wouldn’t want to leave.

Daniel put his hand on Colton’s shoulder—trying not to flare his nostrils in distaste as he did so—and assured him quietly, “The casino will take care of this, and you’ll still be here tomorrow.”

As if in answer, from behind them came the sounds of a scuffle, several chairs turning over, and a shrieking call girl.

“Don’t look,” Daniel advised Colton, afraid that his client’s image could still get snapped by a curious passerby, and the headline on the cover of the tabloid would be COLTON FARR INVOLVED IN CASINO BRAWL WITH PROSTITUTE. The article inside would explain that Colton was involved only tangentially, but nobody would read the article. They would only glance at the headline and photo in the grocery store checkout line and reach a verdict about Colton.

And turn the channel when the Hot Choice Awards aired Friday night.

Daniel managed to prevent that catastrophe, at least. He steered Colton all the way into the elevator, growling, “Don’t turn around,” as the doors slid shut behind them.
About The Author
Photo by Mark Oxley/Studio 16

Jennifer Echols was born in Atlanta and grew up in a small town on a beautiful lake in Alabama—a setting that has inspired many of her books. Her nine romantic novels for young adults have been published in seven languages and have won the National Readers’ Choice Award, the Aspen Gold Readers’ Choice Award, the Write Touch Readers’ Award, the Beacon, and the Booksellers’ Best Award. Her novel Going Too Far was a finalist in the RITA and was nominated by the American Library Association as a Best Book for Young Adults. She lives in Birmingham with her husband and her son. Visit her at

Product Details
  • Publisher: Gallery Books (July 2015)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501130168

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