"An intriguing and glamorous conspiracy full of makeouts and fake outs." —SLJ
Praise for Five Flavors of Dumb:
Winner of the Schneider Book Award
“Raw, fresh, funny, and authentic.” —Lauren Myracle
Praise for Firebrand:
“A page-turner with a dose of mystery and adventure, this series will interest fans of fantasy, history, and romance.” —VOYA
Praise for Elemental:
"It's completely gripping and full of intrigue, revelation, mystery and suspense." —James Dashner
"Engaging characters and plenty of mystery, adventure, and action." —Publishers Weekly
“The novel’s captivating storyline, rapid pace, and cliffhanger ending are sure to leave fans of novels like Grant’s Gone series absorbed with the action and anxious for a sequel.” —Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
- Pages: 320 Pages
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: Dial Books
- ISBN: 9780698151345
An Excerpt From
“I WAS AFRAID YOU WERE NEVER going to drink the poison.” Ellen adjusts the straps of her sleeveless dress. The front curtain is still drawn, and she wants to look perfect for the audience. “Were you watching me the whole time?”
She sounds suspicious. Maybe even a little freaked out. The honest answer is Yes, I was watching you, because in character, that’s what felt right.
But I’m not Romeo anymore, and she’s not Juliet. I’m back to being Seth, who went out with Ellen once after rehearsal and thought it might mean something. I also thought I was a shoo-in for a new series of Chevy commercials, but I guess I was wrong about that too.
The curtain parts. We lock arms and step forward with the rest of the cast. The standing ovation is spontaneous, the camera flashes persistent. Energy hums through us like a current.
I ought to smile. It’s closing night of the first fully sold-out production in Valley Youth Theater Company history. We’ve had excellent write-ups in the local newspaper. The rest of the cast are practically cheering themselves, but I can’t join them. The spotlights feel too bright, too hot.
“Bow!” Ellen stage-whispers.
I follow her lead, and when she retreats, I do as well. As the curtain closes, she tilts her head and clicks her tongue like a mother chastening her child. “Focus, Mr. Crane,” she teases.
Our cast mates exchange celebratory hugs. Ellen hugs me too. “See you at the party,” she whispers.
As she saunters past the front row of props, her friends fall in line beside her. She doesn’t look back.
“Would’ve been nice if you could’ve smiled, Seth.” My brother’s voice drags me around. Gant Crane, future paparazzo, stands stage left, examining photos on a ridiculously expensive camera. “I mean, I’ve got some awesome shots of the play, but the curtain call . . .” He shakes his head to underline how bad I must appear on the camera’s small screen.
“You can just delete those ones, right?” I say.
“Uh-uh. Your director wants the full album.”
“I’ll give you ten bucks.”
“She’s giving me a hundred.”
“A hundred? For one evening?”
He raises an eyebrow. “It’s only the stars of the show who get paid nothing. I told you not to get into acting.”
It’s true—he told me that. He’s annoyingly smart for a sophomore.
“You going to the party?” he asks, flicking his head toward the back of the stage.
He knows the word later is significant. “Is this about the Chevy commercial?”
“No,” I say. But I can tell he sees right through that lie too.
I did two low-budget TV commercials back in middle school, but the Chevy gig would’ve been huge. National exposure. Good money. They’d pretty much told me the part was mine. Instead, this afternoon I got a one-line email saying they were moving in a new direction.
“I just want to stay out here a minute,” I tell him. “Try to feel normal again.”
This time he raises both eyebrows. “News flash, Seth. You’re wearing pointy shoes and five coats of makeup. Nothing normal about that.”
Gant snaps another photo and leaves. Brow furrowed, I probably look more like Hamlet than Romeo.
I slide around the front curtain and survey row after row of empty velvet seats. With the audience gone and the spotlights off, the place no longer seems magical at all. The wooden planks beneath my feet creak slightly. The air is tinged with the still-there smell of paint from the props that were only finished four days ago. I know because I helped to paint them.
“Little odd for the star of the show to be out here alone, isn’t it?” someone calls out.
A guy ambles toward me. He looks about thirty. Goatee. Untucked white shirt and dark blue jeans.
I look around, but I’m the only other person here. “Costar,” I say.
“Uh-uh. Not all Romeos and Juliets are created equal. You know it. I know it. Everyone in the audience knows it.” He flutters a program. “Says here that in addition to his work with the Valley Youth Theater Company, eighteen-year-old Seth Crane has appeared in the short movie Taken Out, as well as commercials.”
He places his hands on the stage and pulls himself up. Sits on the edge, feet dangling. “I’m Ryder. Ryder Whatley.” He extends his hand. I step forward and shake it. “So what’s the issue, Seth?”
“Show’s over. You ought to be celebrating. But you’re still here.”
“Yeah, well . . . I lost out on a commercial today.”
“That’s too bad. Did your agent say why?”
“I don’t have an agent.”
“Hmm.” He pulls out a card. Below his name is written: WRITER—PRODUCER—DIRECTOR. He has a Los Angeles address.
My heartbeat quickens. “What are you doing in the Valley?”
“Glad you asked.” He takes out his cell phone and touches the screen. Pulls up a movie website that shows production status on a film called Whirlwind. “You heard of this?”
I sit beside him. My legs dangle farther than his. “Yeah. Sabrina Layton’s in it.”
“Was in it. Kris Ellis too. But then they split up in real life and everything went into limbo. Now we have a script and shooting schedule, but no leads.”
“Didn’t anyone else audition?”
“Sure. Hundreds. But once the biggest teen actors in Hollywood signed on, I had better things to do than wade through hours of audition tape.” He chuckles. “Which is ironic, ’cause now I’m doing it anyway. Well, except for this evening.”
Ryder pinches the bridge of his nose. “Look, Seth, community theater isn’t my thing. But someone I trust told me to check you out. After I read that write-up in the newspaper, I figured, why not? And you know what? Watching you onstage, it was like I was seeing the character in my movie: the face, the movements, the voice. . . . What I’m saying is, I want you to audition.”
My feet bounce lightly against the side of the stage like I have no control over them. “When?”
“Tomorrow morning.” He turns his business card over and points to an address handwritten on the back. “There’s a conference room at this place. Ten o’ clock work for you?”
Before I can answer, a cheer erupts from backstage. When it’s quiet again, the whole situation feels surreal—losing out on a commercial one moment, and auditioning for a movie role the next.
“I don’t get it,” I say. “There must be hundreds of guys who want this part.”
“Sure there are. But sometimes we’re looking for exactly the kind of person who’s not looking for us.”
He watches me, waiting for yes. He must know how much I want this. Need it. It’s written all over me.
With the audience gone, the noise from the lobby has all but died away. Nearby, the party is in full swing, but I won’t go. I have other, bigger goals.
“Ten o’ clock,” I say. “I’ll be there.”
BY THE TIME I GET UP, Dad’s already in the kitchen in his creased pants and white T-shirt, fighting a losing battle with the steam iron.
“Do you have another interview?” I ask.
“Can I help?”
He grips the iron tighter, his right hand so reliable. But his left still won’t cooperate and the shirt shifts on the tiny ironing board. Now there’s a sharp crease diagonally across the front. His stroke isn’t just evident in every word and gesture, but even in the clothes he wears.
Three years ago, Dad suffered a transient ischemic attack—a kind of mini stroke. Thankfully it was minor, and at fifty-two, he was relatively young. Unfortunately, Mom was sick too, and he played it down so no one would panic. He should’ve gone to the ER. Should’ve had a CT scan or an MRI of the brain, and an echocardiogram of the heart. He should’ve taken blood thinners. But he wanted us to focus on Mom. So we did. Right up to the day, five weeks later, that he suffered a major stroke. Now only the right side of his face works—same for the rest of his body—and he has trouble speaking. He gets angry easily. He wants everything to go back to the way it was three years ago.
He’s not the only one.
“Seriously, Dad,” I say. “I can do it.”
He sets the iron on the board and backs away. Five minutes later, I’ve pressed his shirt and even worked out the crease.
“Th-thanks,” he says.
“No problem.” Then I realize that’s not true—it’s a major problem for him. “I mean, anytime.”
As Dad slopes off to his bedroom to dress, I join Gant in the cramped living room. He’s sprawled across the sofa, admiring his latest crop of downloaded photographs on my laptop computer. At least, that’s what I figure he’s doing, but this picture is grainy and out of focus.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
He taps the screen. “Trying to find out who downloaded footage of last night’s performance. There was an announcement before the play: no photography. But someone filmed it anyway, and now your cast mates will be checking themselves out on YouTube instead of waiting for the official photos.”
“I care. It’s bad for business. What’s the chance that director uses me again if no one orders photos, huh? This is my job.”
“You’re sixteen, Gant. Not sixty.”
“So? I’m making as much as Dad, aren’t I?”
Right on cue, our father emerges from his bedroom. I hope he didn’t hear what Gant said.
For years, Dad worked in university finance, doing accounts and audits and payroll. He could do the job just as well now as he used to, but he doesn’t come across the same in interviews anymore. Today’s meeting isn’t for a finance job anyway—those are always Monday through Friday. He promised us he’d cast the net wider, but realistically, that means settling for a job he doesn’t really want and for which he’s overqualified.
He stands in the doorway, awaiting my appraisal. The shirt is fine, but the tie knot is a mess. I want to fix that too.
“Looking good,” Gant says.
Dad produces a defiant smile and heads out.
Gant waits for the door to close. “It won’t be his tie that stops him from getting a job. So don’t pretend like it matters.”
I want to tell him he’s wrong. That sooner or later Dad’ll get a job and things will change for us. But Dad hasn’t had steady work in almost a year.
Then again, what if he didn’t need to work?
Last night, I could hardly sleep for thinking about the audition. At three a.m., I was just about ready to forget the whole idea, rather than risk another disappointment. But the world looks different at eight a.m.
If my father can walk through that door, so can I.
RYDER OPENS THE DOOR WIDE LIKE a deferential servant and, with a sweep of his arm, invites me to enter the airy, uniformly beige conference room.
“I was afraid you might not come,” he says.
I try to stay calm. “I think, maybe I’m meant to do this.”
“So you’re a fatalist.”
“More like an aspiring optimist.”
He gives an abrupt laugh, like a dog barking. “Nice.”
Across the room, a woman in a black business suit stands beside a video camera mounted on a tripod. “I’m Tracie,” she says. “I’m an attorney for the production company. I’m here to make sure everyone plays nicely together.”
Ryder tsks. “I always play nicely. It’s our producer, Brian, you need to worry about.”
She raises an eyebrow. “Speak of the devil, he’s on standby on a video conference link, if you want.” She adjusts the camera so that it points straight at me. “So Seth, I hear you missed out on a commercial. Why’d you want to do commercials anyway?”
I wish Ryder hadn’t told her about our conversation. Who misses out on a commercial one day and lands a movie role the next?
“I want to be an actor,” I say. “Do real work.”
“Earn real money, you mean.”
“That too. My dad’s not doing so well.”
Tracie gives a sympathetic nod, but her expression doesn’t change. Even her bobbed brown hair remains perfectly in place.
Ryder pulls out two chairs and we sit side by side. A laptop computer rests on the table beside a small stack of pages.
“The top sheet is a nondisclosure agreement,” announces Tracie. “I need you to sign that before you read for us.”
“What’s said in this room, stays in this room,” Ryder explains. “You’ll understand why, soon enough.”
It’s just one page. Barely fifty words. A promise that I won’t repeat anything that’s said today. I sign it with Ryder’s pen, my hand shaking so hard the signature looks fake. Tracie walks the length of the table and takes it from me.
“Okay, then,” says Ryder, tapping what looks like pages of a script. “This movie is about star-crossed lovers—a boy and a girl pushed to the limit by circumstances they can’t control. They’re a team, but when everything around them is collapsing, even a perfect couple can be collateral damage. For this scene, you take the part of Andrew. I’ll be Lana.”
I scan the lines of text: the words of a boy and a girl nearing the end of the road together. I nod once and begin to read, though my voice hardly rises above a whisper: “So what happens now?”
Ryder doesn’t try to speak in a girl’s voice, thank goodness. In fact, he doesn’t act at all. “We spend some time apart.”
“And what is that supposed to mean? If we’re breaking up, then call it what it is.”
“Would that make you happier?”
I pause. “Happier? No. But I gave up on that a long time ago. Now I’d settle for honesty. Just a sign that any of it was real.”
“That would be nice, wouldn’t it?”
An ambivalent end—under different circumstances, I might appreciate that. But right now I’m fixated on the camera at the end of the table, and the realization that the screenwriter is sitting beside me.
We turn to the next scene—Ext. A park. I’m still Andrew, but Ryder is playing my father now. We argue, and finally he asks me why I’ve changed. Why I’m not the boy I used to be. The scene ends without an answer, but in my mind, I’m thinking that change isn’t necessarily bad. How much easier would things be for my real father and me if I got this job?
As we work through page after page, I begin to realize why Ryder might’ve seen me in this role. I am Andrew. The biggest difference between us is that I don’t have a girlfriend, let alone one as committed as Lana.
Finally Ryder opens up the laptop. He cocks his head to the side. “Well?”
A voice comes through the computer, deep and brusque: “Good. Real good. Let me talk to him.”
Ryder turns the laptop around. The guy on-screen is older, maybe late thirties, square-jawed and serious. “Seth, I’m Brian Halsey. I’m out of town at the moment, running auditions for the part of Lana. Now, you’re probably wondering why we made you sign a nondisclosure agreement.”
“Kind of. Yeah.”
“Until recently, this was a Sabrina Layton and Kris Ellis movie. They came as a package deal, and that suited us just fine. Well, until they stopped being a package. No one’s saying what happened, but it was pretty clear they wouldn’t be able to work together. Not on a movie as intimate as this.”
“It’s easy for a smaller movie to get lost in the shuffle,” says Ryder, taking over, “but with Sabrina and Kris involved, everyone was talking about Whirlwind. People started posting spoilers before I’d finished the script. It’s crazy, but that’s the way it is these days. You with me?”
“Sure.” I glance at the nondisclosure agreement. I can see why they don’t want me discussing any of this stuff outside the room.
Ryder follows my eyes. “Our job is to keep everyone talking about Whirlwind, even without Sabrina and Kris. The only way to do that is to keep up this veil of secrecy about the whole production—script, casting, locations . . . everything. Once we’ve recast the lead roles, we can be open again.”
He sounds apologetic, as though I’ll be appalled at the trickery. But actually, I respect him more for telling me straight up what’s going on. Why shouldn’t he use Sabrina and Kris’s notoriety to keep everyone interested in the picture?
Brian’s been watching me the whole time. “Be honest, Seth. You just did a reading. What do you think of Ryder’s script?”
“It’s good,” I say.
“Glad you think so. But I don’t think it’s the script that hooked Sabrina and Kris.”
Ryder is practically bouncing beside me. “We sold them on the vision of a new kind of movie. Instead of sets and a film crew, they were going to film each other.”
“Film each other how?” I ask.
“However they wanted. Prearranged camera setups. Headcams.” Ryder clasps his hands together. “Look, you’ve been onstage, so you know how real it feels. The way I see it, the only way to make a new kind of star-crossed lovers movie is to put viewers in the heart of the action. Forget lavish sets and pretty cinematography . . . we want it raw and cramped and sweaty and messy. We want you to dig deep, live this role until you can’t tell where Seth ends and Andrew begins. Once all the actors are ready, we wind you up and set you free. See what the hell comes out of it. Understand?”
I understand that he just switched from they to you, and even though it might have been a mistake, I feel like I’m closing in on something. “So, it’s like a movie version of reality TV?”
“No. This is more like Method acting. Scripted reality, we call it. As director, I’ll make the final cut, but I’m more like an editor really, shaping raw material. You control the camera. You can tweak dialogue, add material, establish relationships your way. Hell, even film scenes without me knowing, or when your costars beg you not to. Sometimes you’ll be so stressed out, you’ll say stuff you shouldn’t and so will they, and it’s all good, because it’ll be real. It’ll redefine what a movie can be.”
“It’s also going to require a new approach to publicity,” says Brian. “Sabrina and Kris could sell this project by themselves, but we need you in the public eye. Forget doing press junkets after filming wraps, we want everyone to know who you are now. We need them to see how gutsy you are for tackling something like this. We want people talking, Seth. Can you make people talk?”
I can’t tell if they’re still auditioning me, or if I’m auditioning them. There’s so much energy in every word, like they’re anxious for me to climb aboard. “Yeah,” I say. “I can do that.”
“I think so too,” agrees Brian. “So I’m going to ask you just once: How much do you want this role?”
“I’d do anything for a chance like this,” I say without hesitation.
He gives a sharp nod. “Good. I think you’ll be perfect.”
I can’t believe I’ve heard him right. I knew this was no ordinary audition—I saw it in Ryder’s eyes from the moment I entered the room—but still . . . no matter how well you perform, there’s always that moment of eerie silence at the end of the play when you wonder: Will the audience clap? Will they stand? Will they just walk out?
“This wasn’t just a reading, Seth,” Brian explains, filling the silence. “It was a screen test. Tracie and I have been watching you ever since you entered the room. How you carry yourself. Your professionalism, focus, engagement. We’re looking for someone who’s smart enough to recognize that these are uncharted seas, and who’s willing to dive in anyway.”
Ryder rests his elbows on the table. “You’ve probably got questions.”
My mind is spinning, but I have to ask something. “Who’s playing Lana?”
“I’m casting right now,” says Brian. “We’ve got three excellent options. None of them are Sabrina Layton, but maybe that’s a good thing.”
I nod, like I actually care who they cast. Truth is, they could put me opposite an animated Martian and I’d still sign on.
Tracie sidles up to me. “Welcome aboard, Seth. You’ll be wanting this.” She places a document on the table. My name is typed on the front of the contract, like they knew all along how this would go. “I’ll fax a copy to your agent.”
“I don’t have one,” I say.
“But you’ve done commercials.”
“My mom used to handle everything.” Tracie looks like she’s expecting a fuller explanation, so I add, “Before we moved to California.”
She taps the pages. “Hmm. Well, we need to be moving forward, so you’ve got a couple options: You can hold off signing and try to find an agent ASAP, or you can sign now and parlay this role into representation down the line.”
The way she says it makes it seem like a simple decision. But what if I can’t find the right agent in one week? What if Ryder or Brian changes his mind?
“I could read it right now, yeah?”
“Sure.” Tracie points to a box at the bottom of the page. “I’ll need you to initial each page here, and sign the last. Take your time. If you have questions, just ask. My job is to protect the interests of the film, and as of now, that includes you.”
It’s got to be fifty pages, at least. I read and initial each one. I’m feeling impatient and elated, but also cautious. I’m eighteen, old enough to know that putting a signature to a page, any page, carries weight.
“Can I get a copy of this?” I ask.
“Absolutely. I’ll run one off when you’re done.”
I keep reading. Tracie bustles around me, and though my heartbeat is racing, I feel sluggish, like a million tiny needles are pricking my skin but the signals are reaching my brain on tape delay. I need to show them that I’m a professional, but really I just want to run home and celebrate.
Once I’ve signed the final page, Tracie gathers the sheets together. For a few moments, I just sit there, trying to make sense of what has happened. Then I start chuckling to myself like a crazy person.
“How did you know?” I ask Ryder. “That you wanted me, I mean.”
Ryder leans back in his chair. He’s smiling, but doesn’t laugh. “When I saw you onstage yesterday, I knew right away you’re the one we’ve been looking for.”
Brian, still present on the laptop screen, nods emphatically. “You’ll be perfect, Seth. Trust me. This role was practically made for you.”
SAME CRACKED CONCRETE PATH. SAME ALUMINUM porch with drooping gutter. Same off-white door, unlocked. Gant and I have picked up a lot of skills trying to keep the house livable—carpentry, plasterwork, even a little painting. Dad has the knowledge but not the strength and coordination.
We don’t even own the place, but the landlord gives us a break on the rent in return for repairs. For months I’ve wondered how Dad will manage once we both leave home.
Now I have my answer.
“Dad?” I shout.
Gant emerges from the bathroom. “He’s still out.”
“But the car’s gone.”
“He can drive fine.”
“The doctor said—”
“Seth!” Gant stifles a laugh. “Come on. Dad’s going to do stuff like this. That’s the whole trouble with parents. They grow up so damn fast.”
For once, I feel like I can laugh about it too.
I slip into the kitchen and pour a glass of water. There are smudges along the rim.
Gant follows me and takes a seat beside my open laptop. I bought it with money from my last commercial, almost four years ago, but Gant uses it more than I do. He’s downloaded so many photos, it doesn’t run as fast as it used to.
“You were badass,” he says, pointing at the screen.
It’s a photo from last night’s performance. Tybalt and me, swords crossed, moments before I slay him. My features are twisted into a furious scowl.
The front door opens and Dad appears in the kitchen doorway, car keys clenched tightly in his hand.
“How did the interview go?” I ask.
“They . . . they . . .” He clamps his mouth shut and shakes his head.
He doesn’t need to explain. They could’ve used any one of a hundred reasons to reject him. Potential employers know how to discriminate without getting into trouble.
We fall into an all-too-familiar silence. Five minutes ago, I wanted to shout my good news like the hero of a Broadway musical, but now I’m not so sure. Does my good fortune make up for Dad’s disappointment, or just rub salt in the wounds?
Then again, what choice do I have? Preproduction starts next week.
“I’ve been offered a role,” I say.
All smiles, Gant raises his hand so that we can bump fists. “The Chevy people came to their senses, then?”
“Not a commercial. A movie.”
“It’s called Whirlwind. I auditioned this morning.” Everything comes out sounding like a question. “The director was at the play last night. He’s offered me the lead role.”
Dad’s left eye blinks rapidly.
“We’ll rehearse for a week or two and be filming by New Year. They’re putting me up in the Beverly Wilshire.”
“Seriously?” Gant whistles. “You could drive to Beverly Hills in forty-five minutes.”
“They want me close. There’s going to be a lot of promotional stuff. In January, I’ll have a tutor too, so we don’t have to worry about me missing school.”
Dad grunts. I can’t tell if it’s deliberate or if it just slipped out.
“I know it sounds incredible, but it’s how a lot of actors get discovered. I’ve got a contract and everything.” I pull it from my backpack and place it on the kitchen table.
“You signed a contract without checking with Dad?” Gant sounds incredulous.
“I’m eighteen. They’re paying me a hundred thousand dollars.”
It’s my trump card, and it has the desired effect. They stare at me, waiting for the punch line, not daring to believe it’s true.
“Two installments. First installment on January first.” I don’t want to sound so excited about the money, but they have to realize how this changes everything.
Gant pretends to read the contract. “How many other people auditioned?”
“Hundreds. But after they finished casting, the leads pulled out. Now they’re kind of scrambling.”
Gant begins to type. Research is his answer to everything. It doesn’t seem to occur to him what that means—how he’s lost the ability to trust good news.
For once, I’m happy to let him do it. I know what he’ll find.
He scrolls down the page. “It’s true. Whirlwind. Preproduc— Whoa!” He leans back suddenly. “You’re not seriously replacing Kris Ellis.”
“Someone has to.”
He and Dad exchange glances. Even Dad has heard of Kris Ellis.
“Come on,” I groan. “I’m going to be in a freaking movie. It’s—” I’m about to say a hundred thousand dollars, but stop myself. “It’s two months.” I turn to Dad. “The director’s going to call you. Wants you to be okay with everything.”
Dad leans against the counter. He looks tired and confused. I think he has a million questions, but doesn’t know where to begin.
“Mom would’ve liked it,” I say.
We mull the words over together. After my first play in elementary school, Mom started taking Gant and me to Sunday afternoon children’s shows. Then matinees, as we got older: Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and a bunch of other playwrights whose work I didn’t really understand. Summers were for Shakespeare in the Park, which I liked more because we always took a picnic. Dad used to stay behind, though; theater wasn’t part of his world.
From the way Dad’s looking right through me, I get the feeling he’s thinking of Mom now. How she booked my first paid acting gigs. Of course she’d be happy for me.
Dad’s cell phone rings, startling us.
“That’s probably Ryder,” I say. “I gave him your number.”
He tugs at his shirt collar and leaves.
Gant pushes his chair back. Paces around the room and finally settles, leaning against the door frame. Arms folded, he looks like one of those moody, rebellious guys from 1950s movies. James Dean, or someone like that.
“This is really sudden,” he says.
“Has to be. Filming starts soon.”
“Sure, but . . .” He glances at the laptop, and his frown shifts to a grin. “Are you seriously starring with Sabrina Layton?”
“No. She dropped out too, same as Kris Ellis.”
“Bummer. Probably not worth taking the role, then.”
Dad’s pacing along the hallway, his uneven footsteps loud on the laminate floor. He’s hardly speaking.
Gant returns to the table. “I’m going to miss you,” he says.
“It’s less than an hour away.”
“Yeah, but . . . you’re probably taking the laptop too, right?”
I roll my eyes. “Nice, Gant. Real nice.”
“Well, Dad’s computer is even older and crappier than yours, and I can’t run my photo editing software. Actually, it’s kind of selfish of you to take this role.”
I pretend to punch him on the arm.
“Y-yes,” says Dad, breaking his silence. “Hmm-hmm.”
I wait for the questions to commence—How long is the shooting schedule? How many hours of tutoring per day? Will Seth be home for Christmas?—but Dad hangs up.
I join him in the hallway. “Y-you can d-d-do it,” he says.
Even with the contract signed, I was bracing for an inquisition. Instead Dad is smiling. We hug, and he laughs, and in this instant, our whole world seems to shift.
Two-thirds of it, anyway. I wait for the remaining third.
Gant is two years younger than me, but has the jaded attitude of an older brother. Perhaps that’s why things don’t feel completely right until he joins us—almost like he’s the one giving me permission to go.
MY ROOM AT THE BEVERLY WILSHIRE Hotel is spectacular. Gant opens the patio doors and stands on the balcony. Dad runs a hand across the designer jackets and pants and shirts in my closet. When I emailed Ryder my sizes, I figured it was for movie costumes, not a new wardrobe.
Dad removes a dark blue suit and white shirt and hangs it from the top of the closet door. Ryder has left a note on the jacket: WEAR THIS.
Ten minutes later, I emerge from the en suite bathroom in my new outfit. Gant and Dad exchange critical glances, like judges grading a contestant. “N-nice,” says Dad.
“If you’re into suits,” adds Gant.
“Which I’m not,” I remind them.
Dad points to the closet and laughs. “Th-th-think again.”
We drive to a house in the Hills, where a large guy with a shaved head and a Bluetooth earpiece stands by the door, eyes scanning the horizon suspiciously. I say good-bye to Dad and Gant in the car, but they continue to watch as I approach the guy. He seems to look right through me.
I raise a hand—the kind of lame greeting that ought to get me kicked off the grounds. “Hi.”
He flicks his head in response.
“Can I come in?”
The corner of his mouth twists into a smile. “Hell, yeah. You’re the star of the show now, Mr. Crane.” He nods to himself. “The star.”
I can’t tell if he’s serious.
He pulls open the door and ushers me inside the largest home I’ve ever seen. Everything but the bedrooms and bathrooms is open-plan. The kitchen, dining room, living room, media room, and library all flow together. Recessed spotlights in the ceiling cast rings of light around the cavernous room like daubs of color on a monochrome painting. People avoid them, preferring the view from the shadows.
There must be a hundred guests here. A few of them languish on leather furniture, while more spill onto the outdoor patio, where women in stylish dresses sip cocktails in the glow from the swimming pool’s underwater light. Guys laugh too loudly, wanting to be heard having fun.
I’m a half-hour car ride from the Valley, but I’ve landed in a different galaxy.
Eyes turn at my arrival. I hug the perimeter and head for an unpopulated corner. There’s a bathroom, so I slip inside and lock the door.
Marble countertops and sinks. A mirror that covers an entire wall. Soothing music piped in through hidden speakers. A row of scented candles on a shelf. The only thing missing is a personal masseur.
I take in my reflection. Hair, artfully disheveled. Dark blue slim-fit suit, courtesy of Ryder. I look less like me than ever before, but hey—it might be fun to impersonate a movie star.
When I unlock the bathroom door, Ryder’s waiting for me.
“Constipated?” He pauses a moment and erupts in laughter. “I’m just messing with you, Seth. You need a moment to calm the nerves. I get it. Everyone’ll get it. It’s natural.”
He wraps an arm around me and leads me to the center of the room. “How’s the hotel?”
“Good. Brian complained that there’s a perfectly good, cheap motel on the interstate, but at the Beverly Wilshire they appreciate their guests’ privacy. You’re going to be grateful for that, soon enough. Talking of money”—he taps the shoulder of an older guy with wild hair and horn-rimmed glasses—“Seth, this is Curt Barrett. He’s our financier.”
“Our leading man!” Curt takes my hand and pumps it up and down mechanically. “Talk about culture shock, eh?”
“You could say that.”
He gives an understanding nod. “Well, between you and me, I think you’re going to fit right in. Just be yourself. Have fun. If you can’t let your hair down, then what’s the point, you know?”
I can’t tell if he expects an answer. “Is this your house?”
“Yes. Funny things, these houses. All this glass for maximum transparency. But then we hire security teams, and put up ten-foot fences and trees so no one can see us. I think that’s Hollywood in a nutshell. Appear to show everything, but always control the view.” Ryder clears his throat, and Curt laughs. “Listen to me! One cocktail and I think I can nail an entire city with a single sentence. If I were you, I wouldn’t stick around to hear what I say after my second drink.”
Curt takes a handful of nuts from a bowl on the table beside him—cashews and pistachios, by the look of them; no cheap peanuts here, thank you—but pauses before eating. “No,” he continues in a lower voice. “If I were you, I’d go talk to the redhead on the patio. The one who’s been eyeing you ever since you arrived.”
I fight the urge to look straightaway. Channeling the new me, I shake his hand and give a casual salute as he raises his empty glass and moves on to the bar.
I see her as soon as I turn around. She’s taller than the women around her. Her green dress shimmers in the light from the pool. Her dark red hair is pulled high in a sleek ponytail.
As our eyes meet I freeze. She’s too beautiful to approach, like a painting secured behind several panes of glass. But what will she think of me if I don’t talk to her?
In all my years of acting, I’ve never been so conscious of how I look when I move. My arms and legs feel awkward and stiff. She watches me the whole time, waiting, a faint smile teasing the corner of her mouth.
“I’m Sabrina.” She offers her hand. In heels, she’s only a few inches shorter than me.
We shake. “I’ve seen your movies,” I tell her.
“All of them?”
“Some. Saw Swan Song last week.”
“Ugh.” She rolls her dark eyes. Manages to make even that look sexy.
“You don’t like it? You won an award.”
“That movie was only made to win awards. I thought it was self-indulgent and melodramatic.”
“No sequel, then, huh?”
She smiles fully at last. “Well, as my agent reminded me: Never say never.” She narrows her eyes and leans a little closer. “But seeing as how my character died at the end, it’d be kind of difficult, don’t you think?”
My face flushes red. I wonder how bad it would look for me to run straight out of the party.
“Hmm,” she murmurs, running her thumb across her lips. “You didn’t watch all of it, huh?”
“No. I-I kind of thought it was, well . . . self-indulgent and melodramatic, I guess.” She seems surprised that I actually say this out loud. She’s not the only one. “Sorry.”
“No,” she says quickly. “This is good. I like honesty. Which means we’re compatible, doesn’t it, Seth?”
Sabrina Layton knows my name!
“I didn’t think you’d know who I am,” I say.
“Oh, I know you, all right.” Her voice is silky smooth, every word delivered with teasing certainty. It’s impossible not to be nervous beside her. Impossible not to want to impress her.
“So tell me something about me,” I say with a confidence I don’t feel.
“Okay. Let’s see . . . you’re out of your element here, and you wish it felt better than it does. You hate not knowing who most of these people are. You haven’t got a drink even though everyone else has one. And my guess is, you won’t take a cocktail because you’re worried what people will think of you for it.” She tilts her head to the side. Her ponytail swings languidly in amber silhouette.
“Yeah. You didn’t choose those clothes.”
Somehow, my heart beats even faster. “How do you know that?”
“You’re too buttoned up.”
She places her glass on the wall and draws closer to me. I hold my breath as she reaches up and undoes a second shirt button. As she adjusts the cloth, her finger slides underneath and brushes against my bare skin. Such a fleeting movement, but it’s electrifying.
“Better?” I croak.
“Better,” she agrees. “Sends a different message.”
“Yeah. Two buttons undone says that although I get the lead role in local stage productions, I’m still just your normal laid-back high school senior.”
“Undoing one extra button says all that?”
“All depends which button.” She picks up her glass and downs most of the contents. “Tell me something, Seth Crane. Do you always go red so easily?”
“Yes.” I take the glass from her and finish it off. “Now you tell me something, Sabrina Layton. Do you always drink water from a martini glass?”
She cocks an eyebrow. “Yes.”
“Aren’t I? Why don’t you get us two more?”
Fighting the urge to run, I head back inside. One of the servers pours springwater into two clean martini glasses for me. He watches me closely, but doesn’t say a word. I think he might be jealous.
And why wouldn’t he be? Sabrina Layton is talking to me, and wants to talk more. Everyone nearby seems to be watching me, as if breathing the same air as her makes me a celebrity too.
I keep the glasses high as I weave through the guests. Air runs across my chest where Sabrina has unbuttoned my shirt. Suddenly it’s as though no one else at the party exists. Deep down I know it’s all an act, but it’s my fiction as much as hers. We’re writing this scene together.
I stop before the patio doors.
There’s another guy standing beside her. Tall, with muscular arms and shoulder-length hair that drapes across part of his face. It’s Kris Ellis, one-half of Hollywood’s favorite former teen couple. As Sabrina looks up and catches my eye, he wraps his arm around her.
“Is that one spare?” A girl points at the glass in my left hand. She looks about sixteen. Black hair styled short in a pixie cut. Cute instead of beautiful.
“I guess so,” I say, handing it to her.
She clinks our glasses and we stare at the patio together. “Well, it looks like their separation didn’t last long.”
She turns to face me. “I’m Annaleigh, by the way. Your star-crossed lover.”
That gets my attention. I don’t know who I thought she was, but costar didn’t occur to me. Or maybe I’m not thinking at all. One conversation with Sabrina Layton and I’m starstruck.
“I’m Seth,” I say.
“Yeah, I know.”
“Last time I checked, I didn’t have a lover.” I frown, realizing how weird that sounds. “In the movie,” I add, backpedaling. “Because, you know, she hadn’t been cast.”
Annaleigh’s fighting a grin. “I’m a late addition.”
I look at her properly. Notice her large blue eyes accented with a thin band of black eyeliner. The blush on her cheeks. Her small hands. I wonder if Ryder picked out her yellow dress the way he selected my clothes, and if she’s as freaked out about being here as I am.
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