Midas Touch, Brandon's imposing 191-foot yacht, floated serenely in spite of the churn of afternoon waves that lapped seductively at Saint-Tropez's sandy coastline. He'd recently taken possession of the decadent--even by yachting standards--vessel after spending over a year and tens of millions of dollars working with the best craftsmen in the world on every detail, from the design of the heliport and assortment of smaller boats beneath, to the eighteen-carat gold fixtures that accented the Italian marble in the exquisitely appointed master spa. These extravagant touches were after parting with a cool two hundred million for the custom-designed luxury craft itself. Nonetheless, the sight of his equally exquisite wife, Gillian, as she sunned topless on the upper deck made this pricey investment well worth every single euro.
The boat and the beauty, Brandon's two prized possessions, validated that he had successfully outrun the squalor of Mississippi's projects. He'd recently sold his money-minting boutique record label, Sound Entertainment, to one of the major labels for over half a billion dollars; more than enough money to scrub away any lingering stench from the gangster rap game and replace it with the sweet smell of success. He was untouchable. The "S" on Brandon's chest was accented with two vertical slashes right down its middle.
"You are more beautiful every day," he whispered in awe. At the moment, he was speaking of Gillian, rather than the magnificent boat.
"Thanks, darling," Gillian murmured. Her four-carat, flawless diamond stud earrings radiated beneath the Mediterranean sun, which even mid-December was grade-E brilliant.
Brandon could hardly believe that this stunning, exotic creature was all his. The ghetto bumpkin who hadn't known a salad fork from a pair of nose clippers had managed to snag the most beautiful and desired woman in Hollywood, if not the world. Brandon may have been born into dire poverty, without a glint of sophistication, but he applied tenacity and street smarts to build a vast music empire, and then smoothly leveraged that success to pry his way into the film industry. He then used his access to lure Gillian into his grasp, making her a superstar actress and his wife in the process. By far, the latter was her most demanding role to date.
When they met she was a former runway model/struggling actress, but he'd astutely appraised the dazzling diamond that shone unseen beneath the rough. Brandon recognized a star in the making when he saw one, and the woman he met that day sat at the center of her own constellation.
Gillian was simply the most elegant woman he'd ever met. Her poise, beauty, and stature stubbornly defied the fact that she had no money, no career prospects, and no man. And unlike most women, the latter of the list was the least of her concerns.
"Why don't you come in, we wouldn't want any sunburn on that beautiful skin of yours."
"I'll be fine," she said.
"What time is it?" she mumbled, turning away from him. Though there was a slight autumn chill in the air, in the middle of the Mediterranean the still-intense sun felt good against her skin. This was their last outing on the floating palace until next summer, and she wanted to soak up every second of it.
"I'm sure what you really want to know is what time is it in L.A.?" He grinned. "It's four forty-five a.m.," he answered, not needing to consult the hundred-thousand-dollar Chopard timepiece that sat depreciating on his wrist. Today was monumental for both of them.
"That's not what I meant," Gillian insisted. Her posture was relaxed, even languid, though she had every reason to be excited and anxious at the prospect of what the day could bring. Regardless, she felt a chill that had less to do with autumn on the Mediterranean Sea than it did with the fact that she couldn't shake the mist of foreboding that haunted her.
Brandon assumed that her edginess was a case of game-day jitters. These next nine hundred seconds could change her life forever, not to mention his, which was something he'd strived to do since his first car trip across the Mississippi state line.
"I've asked Henri to serve lunch in the media room. Why don't you meet me there in fifteen minutes?" he asked.
"I'm not hungry," she replied. Gillian simply couldn't stomach the thought of sitting anxiously in front of a TV screen passively awaiting news of her fate. She'd much rather lie still, preparing herself for the drama that was sure to unfold in her life, one way or the other. She had no idea how accurate her premonition was.
Brandon smiled and ran his fingers affectionately through her tangle of golden brown hair. "See you shortly, baby," he said, possessively patting her bottom before taking the outer stairs down a level to a state-of-the-art media room, which rivaled any on land or sea.
"Champagne, sir?" the uniformed waiter asked, greeting Brandon the minute he slid his feet into a waiting pair of Hermes slippers. Henri, Brandon's butler, who supervised the impressive collection in the ship's wine cellar, chose a Paul Goerg Rose Champagne to accompany their lunch of Mediterranean sea bass, which was delivered aboard within an hour of being reeled from the azure blue waters. A sumptuous salade nicoise and freshly baked croissants accompanied it.
Brandon accepted a perfectly chilled glass of the effervescent bubbles and felt similarly buoyed. Though the official announcement had yet to be made, every instinct told him that a big celebration would soon be in order.
High on life, he ordered, "Henri, go down to the wine cellar and bring up our best bottle of Champagne. The most expensive."
"Sir, we have a bottle of Clos du Mesnil Krug 1995 onboard, as well," Henri offered. Though many bottles were more well known, this was an amazing bottle.
"I've never heard of it," Brandon said, dismissively, as if name recognition mattered at all when it came to quality. For him it did, particularly since Brandon's uncultivated palate couldn't distinguish the difference between a sparkling white wine from Napa, and a single-vintage Champagne from the noted region in France.
He settled into one of the butter-soft leather chaises in his state-of-the-art screening room. A custom-designed surround sound system was embedded in each chair's headrest allowing the viewer to tailor his audio experience. Snug as a bug in a cashmere rug, he turned to ABC's U.S. West Coast feed. It wasn't long before Demi Moore, Forest Whitaker, and Salma Hayek were announcing the 2009 Oscar nominees. Brandon sat patiently through the names of actors and films, waiting to hear the names of the nominees for Best Actress.
"And the nominees for Best Actress are . . ." began Forest. Brandon leaned forward, literally sitting on the edge of his seat.
"Kate Winslet for The Long Road, Angelina Jolie for Never Kiss and Tell, Gillian Tillman-Russell for Gold Diggers . . ."
Brandon didn't hear another word, only the deafening sound of success, mixed with a rush of pure adrenaline that together was sweeter than any orgasm known to man. His wife, muse, and client had just been nominated for an Oscar! He inhaled deeply, his burly chest expanding with pride, as he savored the moment.
On cue, Henri appeared with two chilled Champagne flutes and a serving of beluga caviar and toast points. "Shall I pour for two?" he asked.
"Absolutely," Brandon replied, as he watched the finesse with which Henri held the silver tray of glasses atop outstretched fingers, while deftly pouring the bottle with his thumb in its conclave bottom. Brandon briefly thought of trying it later, but just as quickly reasoned not to bother, after all, that was what he paid Henri handsomely for.
With both glasses in hand, Brandon headed to the top deck, careful to leave his slippers inside, per the protocol of yachting. He marveled at how cool Gillian remained under gut-wrenching pressure. He presumed that such composure was the result of never having to question ones station in life. Gillian wasn't born with a silver spoon in her mouth, but Imelda, her globetrotting mother, taught her to be at home anywhere in the world, and with anyone in it. He loved and admired that unconditional confidence. While Brandon wore a tailor-made armor of confidence to cover his barely buried insecurities, her confidence was weightless, and worn without effort.
Brandon wanted to jump, scream, and shout the news of Gillian's Oscar nomination to the whole world, but he managed to contain his enthusiasm, regained his couth, and said, "Honey, I think a toast is in order." The cheesy smile on his face said everything else.
This time Gillian did turn to face him. While the thought of winning an Academy Award was intoxicating, it was also fraught with fear, like that terrifying moment after reaching the top of a dizzying roller coaster ride, when you're temporarily weightless, and frightfully anticipating the sheer drop that lay unavoidably ahead. With visible effort, she pushed all thoughts and fears aside and accepted the Champagne from her husband who stood beaming as though he'd just been nominated for an Oscar.
"Here's to my wife, the next Best Actress Academy Award winner." He raised his glass triumphantly, bursting with pride. If only his crew from Mississippi could see him now. He was on top of the world.
"One step at a time," Gillian warned. "A nomination doesn't mean a win." She was petrified by the manic sense of glee that lit up his face. He looked like a fat kid who'd been given a lifetime supply of Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
"Trust me," he insisted. "In this case, it does."
Since the day they met to exchange suitcases after a baggage mix-up at LAX, Brandon had been ready and willing to give Gillian the world. After watching her gold-digging mother barter her body and soul for money and power, Gillian had been adamant about not following in those well-heeled footsteps. Before they were married, Gillian got a peak behind the curtains of Brandon's magical kingdom and knew the high price to be paid for the realization of her dreams. Though initially she'd valiantly fought the temptation to accept it all, Brandon had been patient, and had slowly walked her down that slippery slope.
Now that she was perhaps a red carpet away from the culmination of her dreams, Gillian still felt as if she had yet to get her bearings. Things that once seemed so black and white were now varying shades of gray. Aside from being considered, by some, a gold digger, what bothered her more was wondering how complicit she was in her husband's criminal activities? A lost zip drive containing a double set of accounting books recovered from Paulette's belongings told her that at best Brandon was a money launderer. Instead of turning it over to the investigating authorities, she accepted his marriage proposal, right along with the career that she'd so desperately wanted.
But a little money laundering wasn't what caused Gillian sleepless nights; it was the real possibility that Brandon might have been the one who'd cut Paulette's brake line. Her car was parked in his garage, and worst of all, she also had proof that Paulette had been blackmailing Brandon, since she, too, had seen the double set of accounting books. Had Paulette gone to the authorities, Brandon would have lost it all; the stately mansion, the sexy yacht, the collection of cars, Gillian, the butler and the driver, and most importantly, the veneer of respect that he'd craved since he'd scraped the Mississippi mud from the bottom of his boots. Blinded by the lights, cameras, and action of the film career that beckoned just beyond her fingertips, Gillian chose to ignore this possibility. She only prayed that she'd never have to pull the trigger on the smoking gun that now sat locked and loaded.
"Madam, there's a phone call for you from a Baroness von Glich," one of the yacht's stewards said, offering her a portable phone.
Gillian took another sip, bracing for the conversation to follow. "Hello?"
"For an Academy Award-nominated actress, that's certainly a boring greeting."
"I'll leave the off-camera drama to you," Gillian rebutted. Only a hint of humor colored her response.
In spite of that, her mother laughed her throaty, Betty Davis laugh. "Casting issues aside, congratulations, my dear. I couldn't be more proud of you." Before Gillian could say "Thank you," Imelda plowed ahead. "After all of the sacrifices I've made, our hard work has finally paid off."
Somehow, Gillian wasn't the least bit surprised that her moment had so quickly become all about her mother. The woman had an uncanny ability to suck the air out of a room, even via long distance and on the open seas. "I haven't won anything yet, so let's not get carried away."
"That's just the point, my dear. This is only the beginning. The real work lies ahead of us."
Gillian noted the "us." "I'm sure things will work out just fine," Gillian ad libbed, trying desperately to redirect the course of the conversation.
"Just to be on the safe side, I'll be going back to the States with you and Brandon."
"In fact I'm in Nice now and will meet you on the boat in Saint-Tropez this time tomorrow."
By now, Gillian was sitting up straight. After wrapping a grueling publicity tour for Gold Diggers, she was physically exhausted and mentally drained. "Brandon and I were planning to be alone," she said, hoping that her mother might get the drift. But, of course, it sailed right by her.
"That's nice, honey. But I'm sure that handsome and charming husband of yours won't mind your mother being onboard. After all, that floating mansion of his has six suites, a gym, a gourmet kitchen, living room, formal dining room, a den, and a staff of seventeen." Imelda ticked off the amenities as though she were reading from a sales brochure, so completely did they impress her. "So you'll hardly know I'm there."
That was highly unlikely, Gillian thought, as she prepared to brace herself for the seismic shift her life was sure to take; all because of a little gold statue called Oscar.