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"You know I could lose my job for this."
"You say that, but I get the feeling you've done this before." Kat caught the gleam of mischief in her friend's eyes and smirked. She knew the risks, of course, but was relying on her friend's sense of adventure to get her through this.
"You got me there. I've been sneaking into movie theaters since I was twelve." Jamie flicked her hair out of her eyes. "A Hollywood movie premiere with press ID? Piece of cake. Besides, if either of us get caught, I'll tell them you put a gun to my head."
"Gee, thanks." Kat hadn't even brought her wallet or ID along, in case she was arrested. Despite the risk, she didn't have a choice. None of the usual methods of communication had workedphone calls, emails, letters, even faxes. Face-to-face was her only option, and Riley didn't exactly make his schedule public. Tonight might be her only chance to see him.
Jamie didn't know her true motive, though. She just thought Kat really wanted to see Infinite Destinies on opening night.
They hurried along the chain-link fence behind the bleachers where the VIP fans sat. Kat wiped sweat from her brow and flapped her skirt to get some air circulating. Cheese and crackers, had it always been this hot in California?
"Remember," Jamie said, tapping the lanyard dripping with pass cards and badges that hung around her neck, "the bar codes on these aren't real, so don't let anyone scan them."
"You couldn't have gotten the real thing?"
"My workplace is so tightfisted with media passes, only the senior reporters get to come to these things. You're lucky I've got mad Photoshop skills and access to a laminating machine." They passed a pair of uniformed security men, and Jamie nodded as if she belonged there. Technically, she didJamie was a member of the press, just not a reporter yet, as much as she wanted to be.
"I'm going to check in with my contacthe said he'd have tickets for me to get into the theater. Meantime, you can score a seat up here and I'll bring the tickets around. If you get caught and kicked out before I get back, I'll see you at home."
Kat grinned broadly in an effort to hide her tears. "This means a lot to me, Jamie."
Her friend gave her a funny look. "If I'd known you were such a huge Infinite Destinies fan, I could've arranged something less cloak-and-dagger."
"But where would the fun in that be?"
Jamie chuckled and left.
Kat took a deep breath and turned the corner. The air crackled with anticipation, the cheers and cries for attention rising and falling with every celebrity guest and cast member who arrived.
The high white tower of the Fox Theater stood sentry against a darkening sky. The bleachers lining the red carpet teemed with screaming fans, some of them dressed like Riley's character, the space pirate Captain Jaxon Killian in Infinite Destinies. They held up placards and posters, wore T-shirts with his face plastered on them. She smiled to herself, wondering what Riley would make of this spectacle.
She measured the distance from the foot of the bleachers. There were probably prisons not so well defended as that red carpet. Directly in front of the bleachers stood a row of cameras with reporters parked in front of them, ready to conduct interviews. They were separated from the carpet by sturdy metal barricades draped with banners for the film. Beefy security guards and police officers patrolled the perimeter of the red carpet, interspersed with media coordinators wielding clipboards and headsets. The stars might pause to wave to the crowd, but it was no guarantee Riley would spot her in that colorful, chaotic throng.
If only she'd thought to sneak in as a reporter but it would've raised too many questions from Jamie, and Kat had already tested their friendship by not explaining how she'd ended up on her doorstep, broke and homeless in LA among other things.
The crowd roared as Infinite Destinies' leading lady, Juliette Travis, swept onto the carpet. The gorgeous redhead blew kisses to the fans, then paused and slowly turned for the cameras, showing off her designer gown. Kat leaned over the railing to see if Riley was far behind.
"Miss, you're going to have to take your seat." A security man with shiny black shoes gestured toward the stands. "You're not allowed to stand here."
Her hands fluttered. "Oh I'm sorry I Ireally needed to use the bathroom and I can't quite find my way out."
His skeptical look traveled down the length of her lanyard. "Can I see your"
"Oh!" She waved to no one in particular. "I see my friend I was looking for." She ducked around him and quickly walked to the other end of the bleachers. He called after her. Her heart pumped hard. If she didn't lose the guard, she'd be hauled off for sure.
She rounded the bleachers and slipped beneath the panel of dark purple fabric hanging around the base of the platform. Boxes and wires littered the cramped space under the stepped seating. She held her breath against the reek of sweat and spilled beer. The security man walked past, his shiny black shoes easily identifiable below the edge of the curtain. Kat waited ten seconds before escaping back into the crowd.
On the red carpet, Juliette Travis was now signing autographs and taking selfies with enthusiastic fans on the far side of the aisle. Kat was so caught up watching the beautiful actress that she was startled when a high-pitched shrieking like the orgasmic throes of a banshee orgy pierced her ears. A storm of camera flashes nearly blinded her. "Riley!" a nearby girl screamed. "We love you, Riley!"
Kat gripped the railing as relief, dread and anxiety surged through her. There he was. Riley Lee Jackson. Finally.
Riley's face hurt from smiling.
It probably wouldn't have if he'd been wearing his natural smile, but Sam had said it was too "smarmy" for the cameras. She'd actually coached him on how to smile his "charming" smile.
Think about being buried in puppies, he reminded himself in his agent's cheerfully precise voice. Though that was hard to do when his ears rang and a headache pounded against the back of his skull.
"What's wrong, sweetheart?"
He glanced down at his date. Her radiant smile did a lot to soothe him. "Nothing, Mom." He grinned more naturally. "Just jealous that everyone's eyes will be on you rather than me."
"Oh, you." She slapped his arm. "You're being silly."
"I'm not! I bet everyone's wondering, 'Who's the schlup next to that gorgeous woman in the Alexander McQueen?'"
Winnie Jacobsenor The Senior Mrs. Jackson, as everyone on the red carpet was calling hergave a light laugh. "If you're that jealous, then don't buy me such fancy gowns. I could've worn one of the others I have from the other two premieres."
"Have my mother wear the same dress to three different red carpets?" He gasped melodramatically. "The tabloids would rake me over the coals."
In fact, Sam had insisted his mother couldn't be seen in the same outfit twice on any red carpet. The extravagant dresses went against Winnie's penchant for frugality, but Riley liked to think she was getting used to him spoiling her. After a lifetime of penny-pinching to support four kids on her own, she deserved it.
Her delighted laugh as the crowd's whoops and cheers rose reminded him why he did this. All around them, fans carried signs that read Marry Me, Riley! and in one case, Riley's #1 Fan with an arrow pointing down to the placard carrier. His mother pointed out a little boy, maybe five or six years old, dressed up as Captain Jaxon Killian, and he obligingly went to shake the boy's hand and take photos with the numerous fans crushed up against the barricade. The wall of sound and flesh was intimidating, but also kind of cool. This was by far the biggest premiere he'd ever been a part of.
"I remember when you used to dress up as Superman," his mother said in his ear as they strolled down the carpet. "Now you really are a superhero.
So much better than those other characters you played."
"They were good roles, Mom." The past three years had been great for his career, even if he had been working nonstop. He'd played a gritty exmilitary mercenary with a burgeoning conscience in an early Christmas release last year, then a desperado cowboy out for revenge in May. Captain Jaxon Killian was definitely a lighter character, but it'd been one of the most difficult parts he'd ever taken on for its sheer physicality as well as the humor. Comedy wasn't his forte.
"I'm glad to see you smiling more," Winnie said.
They began the gauntlet of media interviews beneath the covered backdrop plastered with the Infinite Destinies logoa corridor of carefully arranged reporters who asked the same questions again and again, questions he was obliged to answer in perfect sound bites with the same enthusiasm a hundred times over.
How did you prepare for the role?
How are you and Jaxon alike?
What was working with Juliette Travis like?
What's next for you?
Who are you wearing?
While he gave interviews, his mother hovered in the background, smiling and stepping forward whenever a reporter asked how she was doing and if she was proud of her son. She showed off her dress and succinctly praised her talented son. Riley always made a note of the reporters who were kind to his mom.
It took a good fifteen minutes to get through the interviews before they entered another area, where he posed for photos against a sponsor backdrop. Later he would do more photos with the rest of the cast in the larger red carpet section outside the theater entrance, as well as meet special groups of fansmost of them from charity foundationson a minor stage area. He didn't mind doing those things. He didn't even mind taking selfies or signing autographs. It was the autograph hounds and paparazzi he detestedthe leeches who felt they had a God-given right to exploit him and infringe on his privacy.
Sam marched up, all five feet of her, in unassuming black, perched on deadly four-inch heels. Her dark hair was in its usual efficient French twist. The only adornment she allowed herself was the excitement brightening her eyes. She handed them each a bottle of water. "You two look stunning. How are things going? Did the interviews go all right?"
"They were fine. Mom?"
"An hour of strolling and smiling?" She rolled her eyes. "Please. I raised four children, you among them."
"You'll be out here maybe ten minutes more before you have to go inside. I've got to check in with Juliette, but we'll be sure to take some pictures together."
"How's her agent doing?" Riley asked.
"Well, the surgery went all right, but it'll be a slow recovery, so I'll be doing a lot of his legwork over the next few months." She blew out a breath. "Sorry I couldn't wiggle out of babysitting her, but Juliette wouldn't take anyone else. The agency caved to her demands."
"They usually do." Riley supposed it was easier than fighting one of their most demanding, top-earning clients, but it seemed unfair to split Sam's attention, even if she was one of the best talent agents and managers in LA. "It's nice to be recognized, right?"
Sam's brittle laugh sounded slightly hysterical. "I've got to go. Winnie, you'll make sure he behaves?" Sam often talked about her clients as though they were small children.
Sam zoomed off. She might as well have been wearing the jet pack Captain Jaxon Killian used in the movie.
"I don't see why you two can't make your arrangement more personal," his mother murmured.
Riley laughed. "She's married to her job, Mom. Besides, we're not compatible that way."
She shrugged. "Well, you can't say I didn't try. Not that I'm a matchmakermy record isn't exactly stellar on my own account " The light in her eyes dimmed.
"Hey." He cupped her cheeks tenderly. "Men would be breaking down the doors to date you if it weren't for the fact that you intimidate them with your beauty and superior intellect."
She gave a watery smile. He pecked her on the forehead and hugged her. The heat of a hundred flashbulbs seared his back as the media captured what should have been a private, tender moment between him and his mom.
"C'mon, let's show you off" He slung an arm around her shoulders and hustled her toward the wider common red carpet area.
Riley burst onto the floor, waving and blowing kisses, tugging his mom along and demanding his fans cheer for her, too. She brightened up significantly as the fans yelled thank-yous for raising him. Hamming it up was half fun and half work for Riley. He ran along the barrier, high-fiving fans. He was sweating beneath his tux by the time he joined the other cast members for photos.
Several times he turned to wave at the VIPs. Some of them were lucky folks who'd called in to radio contests, but he knew the bulk of them had paid someone under the table for the privilege of sitting on a hot, hard aluminum bench. This town made him crazy sometimes.
A flash of pink caught his eye, and his heart stopped. He squinted, seeking out that unique shade No no, he'd only imagined it. He turned back to face the cameras. It was the heat and all those flashes playing tricks with his eyes. He'd left Hawaii months ago, including all his best memories. Mom's talk about settling down with someone must've just pinged some old, unwanted feelings.
Sam ushered him toward Juliette for photos. Combined with her dark red hair and creamy complexion, the pale sequined dress she wore reminded Riley of an albino boa constrictor.
"Congratulations," he said, putting on his biggest grin. "You look nice."
"And you," she replied. Her smile didn't quite reach her eyes.
He wound one arm around her slender waist and they turned to face the cameras. The sleeve of his jacket chafed against the scalelike sequins of her gown.
Working with Juliette had been excruciatingshe'd been closed to him, barely interacting, but the director, Harlan Jones, had thought she was brilliant as the ice-cold military commander Captain Killian fell for in the film. Maybe Harlan had made the choice deliberatelythe friction between them was palpable, and yet everyone said they simply "sizzled" on screen. Many believed the chemistry was real, and the tabloids touted that they were secretly dating. He supposed he should be proud of his acting skills.
"How about a kiss?" one of the photographers yelled. They were looking for a reenactment of the steamy zero-gravity kiss in Infinite Destinies that had played over all the previews and commercials.
"I'm game if you are." Juliette's tone was ambivalent, as if someone had asked her if she'd like an appetizer to start.