Read an Excerpt
"I told you Kristie Kringle sounded like a stripper."
"So you thought you'd send me out as one?" Kristen Kringle, née Zaleski, stood on a Los Angeles sidewalk outside the Samurai Salsa Burlesque club as she spoke to her agent. A chili pepper in a kimono posed seductively on the sign.
"Not a stripper, Kristen. Burlesque. It's hot right now. Very family oriented."
"Hot! Raw! Girls! doesn't quite have that Disney ring."
"The hot and the raw means the salsa and the sushi!"
"I know what it means." Kristen checked the time on her call. She was low on prepaid cell phone minutes and didn't want to recharge before the end of the month. Couldn't afford to recharge before the end of the month.
Maybe not even then. "You said 'Leonard, send me out on anything you've got." This is what I've got," her agent complained.
"It's a slow time of year. The holidays are coming up, you know."
Kristen knew that, though nobody was dreaming of a white Christmas in Los Angeles. Tofu turkey, maybe.
She eyed the blinking chili pepper. "This isn't exactly an acting job, Len."
"For you it would be," he retorted.
"I beg your pardon!"
"Now that's what I'm talking about. You've got that classy thing going. It comes with the smaller boobs. To be honest, when I saw your head shot and that you were the Sugar Queen—"
"Miss Sweetest of Sugar Land."
"Whatever. The thing is, most Texas beauty queens... well, I was expecting more artificial sweetener, if you get my drift."
"You're mistaking me for Miss Silicon Valley." Still, with judicious use of tape Kristen could fake it. Had faked it. And had suffered with a red rashy tape mark, too.
No. This wasn't what she'd envisioned when she'd headed out to Los Angeles with her bright and shiny Miss Sweetest crown over six years ago.
"Now if you could find a Sugar Daddy..." Len interrupted himself laughing at his own joke, such as it was.
Kristen rolled her eyes. She'd heard them all before. Several times. "No, Len."
"I knew that. Now hon, here's what I'm thinking. You take this gig and pick up some moves from the other gals and you'll prove that your lumps are as good as anybody's. Lumps—get it?"
"Yeah. I get it."
"It's all about perception."
Kristen studied her cleavage. It was there. Somewhere. "I thought it was all about boobs."
"See, that's what I like about you. You still have your sense of humor."
But not her car, which was currently transmissionless. "What about commercials? The orange juice people seemed happy with my work." Her legs were good, if she could just get people to look down. "Maybe I can be a tomato or something."
Kristen didn't understand what was so funny. "Or how about the department stores? Don't they need demonstrators this time of year? You know, Len, nobody sprays perfume like I do." That sounded too desperate. Well, she was desperate.
To her surprise, Len abandoned his attempt to talk her into the ethnically confused burlesque show. "Hon, I know you've got talent. You know you've got talent. It's the casting people we've got trouble with. I still think the smart Texas beauty queen hook works, but in Los Angeles, not so much. You're more stage. Think east. Think New York."
Kristen flashed back to drama classes. Stage acting was all very well and good, but for real fame, it was TV or movies. Youth wasn't so important on the stage. But with high-definition television exposing every little imperfection, youth definitely ruled. Kristen had thought she was being practical going for film work now, if maxing out her credit cards and taking survival temp jobs could be considered being practical.
But after six years, it had come to this: Spraying perfume at people, sweating inside gigantic fruit costumes and Hot! Raw! Girls!
And, frankly, the first blush of youth had faded. Leonard was still talking. "I have an agreement with a New York agency—a buddy of mine. We send each other talent. I could give him a call."
Honestly, Leonard was being far nicer than she'd expected when she'd refused this job. He was dumping her, she'd figured that out, but he was dumping her in a face-saving way she appreciated. She didn't blame him. She'd been picky lately, and he'd never made much money off her.
Truthfully, she was discouraged. Ever since she'd dropped out of the University of Texas at twenty and headed for Los Angeles, she'd supported herself doing office temp work. She told people she was an actress, and it was true that she was always acting. She acted enthusiastic, she acted as though she loved auditions and she acted as though she hadn't maxed out her credit cards. But now she was having a moment of truth. And truthfully, she was an office temp. An office temp with not-so-great typing skills who hadn't kept up with the latest software, but that's how she made her living, such as it was. It had taken a red-and-green blinking, kimono-dressed chili pepper to make her see it.
"Tell you what, Len. I do appreciate the offer. And New York is...well, New York. But I haven't seen my parents for a long time. I think I'm just going to head home for the holidays and decide what to do."
"You do that, sweetie. Sweetie, get it?" He gave a bark of laughter. "Listen, I got another call. Keep in touch."
He ended the call and that was that.
Well, not quite that. There was her car to deal with. A car was a basic necessity in Los Angeles. As it was in Texas, for that matter. Currently, fourteen-hundred dollars stood between Kristen and a running automobile.
Okay. Time to regroup.
Though she'd just blurted out the bit about going home, now that she thought about it, that was her best option.
She walked down the cracked sidewalk around to the back of the strip of buildings where she'd been told to park. She had a rental car and was relieved to discover that it was still there and apparently still possessed all its parts and tires.
She unlocked the car, got inside and locked the door again. And then she sat.
This car was bottom of the line and the cheapest rental available. It only had eight thousand miles on it and had been liberally sprayed with new car smell. She'd enjoyed driving it the past three days. Enjoyed knowing that when she turned the key, it would start, and once started, it would continue to run until she decided it should stop. And the working radio was nice, too. Little luxuries she'd done without for a long time.
Kristen leaned her head back against the neck rest and inhaled.
She'd become a cliché and she'd promised herself that she'd never become a cliché, but if a small-town beauty queen getting chewed up and spit out by Hollywood wasn't a cliché, then what was it?
She hadn't even wanted to enter the stupid pageant. It had been a joke to prove that only blondes became Miss Sweetest and she was definitely a brunette. Only, she'd been accepted. And then she'd made the semi-finals and then her competitive spirit had kicked in and then there were the finals and the questions and, well, Kristen had been on the debate team.
She'd blown the blondes out of the water. She'd looked mighty good in that crown. It had been a great year. She'd been given a newspaper column in which she'd written about her experiences, and had logged more personal appearances than any other Miss Sweetest. By the time her reign ended, she'd become poised and polished. Opportunity knocked. Doors opened. Acting invitations arrived and she'd accepted them and now here she was...sitting in the parking lot of a burlesque house.
Yeah, way to go Kristen.
She'd never failed at anything in her life. No, she'd failed at life.
Ooo, wasn't she having a lovely pity party?
Okay, enough of that. She wasn't a failure; she just wasn't a success yet. Still, home was looking pretty good right now. She hadn't been home since her little sister's wedding and that had hardly been the home she remembered. It had been Wedding Central.
Kristen smiled to herself. Her parents must be bored out of their minds now that Kristen and Nicole weren't living there. They probably spent all their time eating frozen dinners and flipping back and forth between the weather channel and the home shopping channel. Oh, and the old black-and-white movies they watched together. Just how many black-and-white film noirs had been made, anyway?
She should have come home more often. They would be thrilled to see her. She had a responsibility to check up on them. She shouldn't have left their well-being all to Nicole. Nicole didn't even live in Sugar Land anymore.
Her poor parents were just sitting in front of the TV waiting for the grandchildren to appear.
Kristen had to go rescue them from a life of drudgery.
While she was rescuing them, she'd live at home and save rent money. She could borrow a car, too, because she'd just made up her mind to sell her old car for scrap. She'd settle up with the rent, repay everybody she'd borrowed from, make a token payment on her credit card and head for home. She happened to know that a one-way bus ticket from Los Angeles to her home was less than a hundred and twenty-five dollars.
Before she could change her mind, Kristen punched the speed dial on her phone.
"Kristen? Kristen? What's wrong?"
Why did her mother always assume something was wrong? "Everything's fine. I—"
"Can you hold? I'm on the other line."
What other line? "I don't really have enough minutes to hold. I just wanted—"
"Then I'll call you right back. I need to deal with this other call, and then I want to hear your news."
Oh, great. Her mother probably thought she'd finally gotten her big break. Or little break. Or any break.
Kristen used the time she waited for her mother to call her back to loosen her mouth and practice injecting enthusiasm into her voice.
The phone rang. "Now tell me everything," her mother said.
Kristen pasted a wide smile on her face. People could hear smiles. "I'm coming home for the holidays!"
A beat went by. "You are?"
"Yes!" Kristen felt herself relax as she envisioned her mother's expression of delighted surprise.
"What do you mean, why?" She laughed. "It's the holidays. Going home for the holidays is what people do." Kristen couldn't remember the last Thanksgiving she'd spent at home, but never mind. She was going to make up for it now.
"Which holidays?" her mother asked.
"Why...all of them!" There was silence. Her mother was obviously stunned with happiness. "Oh, Mom, it'll be great. I know I haven't been home much lately—"
"Not since your sister's wedding two years ago." Had it been two years? "That long?"
Okay, so her mother was understandably cautious about giving free rein to her happiness. "Well, that changes now. You can start decking the halls and killing the fatted calf because I promise that Kristen Kringle is coming home."
Her mother snorted. "I'm sorry! It's just...it sounds like a stripper's name!"
"So I've been told." Kristen watched the reflection of the blinking chili pepper in the windows of the building across the street. "Anyway, I'll see you in a couple of days, Mom. It'll be good to come home."