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Lara Whitfield paced her hotel room, uncertain what to do now that she was actually here in Las Vegas, possibly in the very same hotel as him. She'd never attended a celebrity fan festival before, and wasn't certain what to expect. Certainly not the throngs of women she'd encountered in the hotel lobby, who gushed and quivered with excitement over the fact that Graeme Hamilton would be here, in the flesh.
Even after following his meteoric career, Lara found herself stunned by the enormity of his appeal. For all intents and purposes, he hadn't existed as a public figure until he was cast as the sexy bad-boy character, Kip Corrigan, in the hit television series Galaxy's End. The pilot episode had aired two years earlier and, seemingly overnight, every woman in America wanted him. Based on the chaotic scene in the hotel lobby, Lara was convinced that every last one had traveled to the fan festival in the hopes of seeing him.
Her cell phone rang, startling her. Digging into her purse, she pulled it out and glanced at the display, smiling ruefully when she saw the number. She'd forgotten to call Val when she'd arrived at the hotel. Her college roommate and best friend, Valerie was worse than any mother. Now Lara flipped the phone open, knowing she was going to get an earful.
"Hi, Val," she said, squinting. "I, um, made it here safely."
"Uh-huh," came the exasperated voice on the other end. "I've only been worried half out of my head, wondering if you were okay."
Lara walked over to the window and pushed aside the curtain. Below her, the Las Vegas strip teemed with activity. "I'm fine. I don't know why you worry about me so much."
Val made a tsking sound. "Maybe because you have your head in the clouds most of the time. I wouldn't have been at all surprised if you'd gotten on the wrong flight and ended up in Europe somewhere."
"No, I'm definitely here in Las Vegas." Lara dropped the curtain. "I wish you had come with me. It feels… strange to be here by myself."
"Sorry, kiddo," Val said sympathetically. "But I think you were right—this is something you need to do on your own. Besides, who would help Christopher run the theater program if we were both in Las Vegas?"
Lara pushed down the pang of guilt she felt at the mention of the program, reminding herself that she would be gone for less than a week, hardly enough time for the children to miss her.
Since she'd been a small child, Lara had wanted to be involved in the theater. Her parents had divorced when she was just four, and her father had moved to Washington, D.C., to pursue a political career. Lara had grown up on her mother's estate on the outskirts of Chicago, while her mother had spent most of her time pursuing and capturing husbands number two, three and four.
Lara's childhood visits with her father had been filled with parties and soirées where she'd either been stuck in a corner and forgotten, or left in his cavernous apartment with the housekeeper.
Alone and lonely, she had imagined herself as a princess locked away in a forbidden castle with only fairy creatures to keep her company. Surrounded by a host of imaginary friends, she probably had seemed an odd and pitiable child, but her make-believe world had been very real to her.
Eventually, she'd put her imagination to good use, obtaining a degree in theater arts and writing. While she resisted using her family's influential connections, she hadn't been above tapping into the substantial trust fund her father had set up for her to open a small drama school for underprivileged children on Chicago's west side. If anyone needed to escape the harsh realities of life, even for a few hours each day, it was the children who attended the inner-city theater program.
The nonprofit program only operated in the afternoons and during weekends, so Lara also did some freelance writing for several different magazines. The money wasn't great, but it paid her bills. The theater program, however, was where she invested most of her time and energy.
Christopher had been her screenwriting professor in college and when he'd heard about her venture, had expressed an interest in getting involved. They had worked together for more than six months before he'd finally asked her for a date, and even then Lara's first reaction had been to refuse him. He'd persisted, however, and finally she had acknowledged that unless she made some drastic personal changes, she risked going through life alone, with only her imagination and her memories to keep her company. The fourth time that Christopher had asked her out, she'd accepted.
He was smart and sweet, and if he didn't make her blood heat and her body throb with need, she was mature enough to realize that he was still a good catch.
A great catch.
Lara knew that at the slightest indication from her, he'd take their relationship to the next level. But no matter how much she told herself she wanted that, as well, she still held a part of herself back. She'd finally acknowledged that she'd subconsciously been hanging on to her memories of Graeme, reliving the past through her erotic stories.
Until she put Graeme behind her and stopped writing fan fiction about him, under the guise of writing about Kip Corrigan, she would never truly be over him. And until she was over Graeme, she couldn't begin a meaningful relationship with Christopher.
"You didn't tell him I was here, did you?" She asked Valerie.
She didn't want to think about how Christopher might react if he knew she was spending the next few days in Las Vegas. Alone. At a sci-fi fan festival. He'd think she'd completely lost her mind.
"Relax, of course not," her friend replied. "I confirmed what you told him—that you needed some time by yourself after your father's death. He totally believes that you're at your mother's beach house on the Outer Banks, doing some deep meditation on the meaning of life."
"You said that?"
"Well, except for the deep meditation. But he knows how much your dad's death upset you, especially considering you hadn't really reconciled with him before he died. He understands that you need some time."
Lara blew out a hard breath, hating the deception, but feeling as if she hadn't had any other choice. "Okay, thanks. And thanks, too, for covering for me at the theater for the next couple of days. Make sure you give Alayna an extra hug from me, okay? And tell her I'll definitely be back in time to see her performance. I don't think she believed me when I said I'd only be gone for a few days."
"I will. I know you have a soft spot for her, and she's going to miss you like crazy, poor little thing." There was a brief silence while they both thought of the tiny girl with the enormous eyes, whose mother had been killed in a random shooting, an innocent victim who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Since the incident, Alayna had become very attached to Lara, unwilling to leave her side at the theater.
The kids were rehearsing a stage performance of The Wizard of Oz, and nine-year old Alayna had the role of one of the Munchkins. Lara knew how nervous the little girl was, and had promised to be at the performance, just three weeks away, to cheer her on.
"So, have you seen him yet?"
Lara knew she referred to Graeme. "No. I haven't even left my room yet." She shuddered. "You should see how many people are here, Val. I swear, there must be thousands. I'm not sure if I can do this."
"Lara, you have to." Val's voice was firm. "He deserves to know the truth."
"I know. It's just…" Lara's voice grew small. "All these years, I've imagined him a certain way. What if he's changed?"
"We all change. Trust me, you've changed, too, Lara. In fact, he might not even recognize you, that's how much you've changed in the past five years."
Lara laughed. "I'm not sure about that."
"Oh, I am," Val said, and Lara could hear the smile in her voice. "When I first met you, you were withdrawn to the point of being backward."
"I was reserved," Lara said primly. "And heartbroken."
"Uh-huh. My point exactly. And look at you now— teaching drama to a bunch of underprivileged kids, writing erotic fan fiction on the Internet, and dating your former professor who just happens to be the hottest faculty member on campus. I'd say you've come a long way, baby."
Lara gave a helpless laugh. Christopher was hot? Sure, he was good-looking in an artsy, academic way, with his shaggy hair and easy smile, but in the months that they'd been dating, Lara had never once thought of him as hot.
"He is cute," she acknowledged. "But as far as the erotic fiction goes… I've actually decided to give it up."
There was a stunned silence. "What?"
Lara sat on the edge of the desk and her hand drifted to the stack of conference brochures that she'd brought with her from Chicago. Sifting through the pile, Lara withdrew a recent issue of People magazine. Staring back at her from the glossy front cover was a full-page photo of Graeme Hamilton. His blue-green eyes gazed warmly at her, and his lips curved in the vaguest suggestion of a smile, providing just a hint of the deep dimples that had endeared him to millions of female fans.
"I can't keep doing it, Val. To my readers, the stories are just steamy tales about the Galaxy's End characters, but I know they're more than that." She stared at the cover of the magazine. "I know they're really my own fantasies about Graeme, and they're not healthy. If I really want to put him in my past and move on with my future, then I need to stop writing about him. About Kip."
The photograph of him was so clear that Lara could see the individual stubble of whiskers on his jaw. Tiny laugh lines splayed out from the corners of his eyes and for a moment, Lara's heart contracted painfully. She ran her fingers over the image. Beneath her hand, she could almost feel the rough velvet of his cropped hair.
"I understand how you feel, Lara, I do," Val said, her voice sympathetic. "But your stories have such a huge following. I checked your stats this morning and the story that you posted last night has already received more than ten thousand hits. Ten thousand hits in just one day, Lara! That's completely crazy, you know that, right? I don't think you have any idea how popular your stories on these Web sites are."
"Well, maybe I'll find another character to focus on, then. But I can't keep writing about Kip Corrigan. He's too real to me, and it brings back too many memories. I need to find something else to write about." Lara glanced at her watch. "Listen, Val, I have to go. The masquerade ball is starting soon. If I'm really going to do this, then I should probably go scope out the situation first."
"Okay. Call me. Anytime, for any reason. Promise?"
"I promise. I'll call you as soon as I get back to the room."
She hung up and placed the phone on the table. She and Valerie had been roommates since their first year of college and they were closer than most sisters. After they'd graduated, they'd continued to share an apartment. Valerie knew all Lara's secrets, including her reasons for attending the fan festival.
Lara looked again at the magazine she held in her hand. The caption beneath the photo read, "Graeme Hamilton—Sexy and Single!" Lara groaned. Sexy? Most definitely. Single? Most definitely not.
Should she venture down to the convention and join the hordes of other women all clamoring to get a glimpse of the hot Hollywood stud, or bide her time until she could get him alone? Lara glanced at her watch. If she wanted to join the festivities, she'd need first to slip into the Galaxy's End costume that she'd brought with her. She'd specifically ordered a costume that would conceal her identity and allow her to blend in with the crowd. There was no way she wanted Graeme to recognize her before she was ready. She had a plan for how their encounter would unfold, and it didn't include crowds of partygoers.
Even now, after two weeks, she still couldn't quite accept the chain of events that had brought her to the second annual Galaxy's End fan festival. Her gaze slid reluctantly to the sheath of legal documents that she had carried with her from Chicago to Las Vegas. They lay on the polished surface of the desk looking harmless enough, but Lara knew better. Those seemingly innocent papers had turned her safe, orderly world upside down.
"Damn, damn, damn," she muttered under her breath, and, giving into temptation, snatched up the letter that lay folded on top of the documents.
Most people came to Las Vegas for a quick wedding. She'd come for a quick divorce, or at least a quick signature on the divorce papers that she'd brought with her. The kicker was, the guy in question didn't even realize he was still married. Each time Lara tried to envision how he might react to that little tidbit, she had a full-blown panic attack.
She could have let her lawyer handle the nasty job of breaking the news to him, but she felt strongly that this was something she should do. She was a true glutton for punishment.
Sinking into the upholstered chair near the bed, Lara unfolded the letter and reread it, although she knew the contents by heart.