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"Raise your glassesand shake your assesfor the hostess with the mostest, our birthday girlfriend Juliana Mayfield!"
Juliana stood straight, shoulders thrown back, tummy sucked in and her smile a billion megawatts as the spotlight shone and digital cameras flashed like fireworks around her. She raised her glass of champagne, toasting them in return. "Thank you! Thank you!" she called, hearing the cheers and congratulations. Then she nodded to Andre, the DJ, who started spinning one of his own mixes, a contagious, absolutely kicking mash-up of the Wallflowers and Mos Def.
The party was a big hit. The trick now was making sure it was a more tangible success. She ducked into the VIP sectioninto a quiet boothand took a deep breath, letting her cheek muscles relax before they cramped. She'd actually had that happen once, years ago, when she'd been working a convention, back when she had aspirations toward being a model. After all, her mother was once a famous model, her father a famous actor, so it seemed only natural that she do something with the fame that seemed her birthright.
What a fiasco that had been, she remembered with a smirk. The modeling world wanted skinny, wanted basically adolescent boys without the dangly bits. Unfortunately, she'd been given certain physical assets that meant she wasn't going to pass for a hipless, flat-chested kid anytime soon.
Fortunately, she seemed to have managed to stay famous simply by being well, famous. And having a trust fund from her parents' fortunes hadn't hurt. She glanced up at the tap on her shoulder. Then her eyes went wide.
"Bernie," she said, surprised enough to stammer. The gentleman sat across from her, his gleaming white hair styled perfectly, his navy blue suit as out-of-place at the nightclub as a penguin at a flamingo convention. "I, ah, wasn't expecting to see you."
"I imagine you weren't," Bernie responded, blinking owlishly at the strobe lights. It was midnight, and the frail older man looked as if he ought to be in bed. In fact, he looked as if there was nowhere he'd rather be. "But you did send the bills for this party through the office, so I thought I'd check up on you. seeing as you weren't answering any of your phones or emails."
She winced. She had been dodging him. And the hangdog expression he was wearing, right this second, was precisely why.
With a name like Bernie the Accountant, one would think he'd be a wiseguy, a number-cruncher to mobsters. Instead, Bernie was a quiet-voiced Southerner with an even worse weapon: the Disappointed Look.
He looked at her soulfully. "Juliana, we've discussed your spending before, on countless occasions. Looking at your profit-loss statement, I can't help but feel that you're ignoring my advice."
She squirmed against the dark leather banquette, like a butterfly on a pin. "This is a legitimate business expense."
The Look got more intense. If his eyes got any bigger and soulful, he'd be a bassett hound. "How do you figure a birthday party is a business expense?"
"It's all just for publicity, Bernie," she assured him in a low voice, hoping nobody was paying attention. "Do you remember how I told you I was talking to some television producers, trying to get a reality TV show?"
He nodded, still looking skeptical.
"Every time I get into print, or have my picture on the websites, I build my brand," she said. "That's all this is. By tomorrow morning, I'll be on every tabloid for dancing on the tabletops and swimming topless in champagnethat happens later, don't worry," she said, at his shocked expression. "You can leave before then. My point is, it's all calculated."
He pursed his lips, more disapproval than disappointment, which she could handle. She'd been bucking disapproval since she hit high school. "And when is this reality show deal supposed to go through?"
She bit her lip. "These things take time," she hedged. "I don't have anything in writing, but I've got some clear interest"
"Juliana," Bernie interrupted sadly. "I don't think you have that kind of time."
She laughed, and it sounded carefree and sincereeven as ice formed in the pit of her stomach. At least all those acting lessons weren't going to waste. "Oh, Bernie. Always the pessimist."
"If you'd only picked up your messages," he said. "You'd know. We didn't have enough money to cover the caterer for this thing. I don't even know how your utilities stay on."
"It's not that bad." She winced.
"Dear," he said, and the very gentleness of his tone told her exactly how dire the situation was. "You're going to lose the condo if you don't get some kind of income, and soon."
Her throat choked up, preventing her from speaking.
"We need to come up with a plan, Juliana." He patted her hand, awkwardly, as though he'd just told her someone had died. "You've been running with rich celebrities and high-society trust-fund kids, you've been blowing through what little you've had set asideand your parents have been borrowing off your trust fund, besides that."
Juliana scowled. They'd set up her trust fund because it was something rich people did. They were now pillaging it, because, as it turned out, modeling dried up no matter how beautiful you wereand her father's acting had never matched the drama he managed offstage.
"You've got a month, maybe two, tops," Bernie finished, his voice grim. "Come into the office, and we'll figure out a strategy to get you back on your feet. But things are going to have to change. We both know that."
He stood up, then patted her shoulder, too. She got the feeling if she'd been standing, her normally staid accountant would have hugged her. She probably would have let him, too. Right now, she was too shell-shocked to do much of anything.
How had it gone this wrong, this quickly? She'd seemed fine only a year ago. Even six months ago hadn't seemed that dire.
Maybe she just hadn't been paying attention.
"Hey, Jules," her friend Carolyn said, bouncing next to her in the booth, spilling some champagne in the process. Carolyn was a ditzy redhead, but she was also the police chief's daughterwhich meant that any trouble she got into usually got hushed up, quickly. Carolyn wasn't exactly her best friend, but she did come to all the parties Juliana threw, especially if the bar was open. "This party is off the chain! The music, the food. Hell, even the red carpet! Who has one of those at a birthday party, anyway?"
"Only the infamous Juliana Mayfield," a drunken voice said, as a red-haired man stumbled into the booth.
Juliana frowned, annoyed. "Who let you in, george?"
"Oh, you know, my good friends Benjamin, Benjamin and Benjamin," he said, waving a few bills at her. Carolyn laughed, delighted, her eyes lighting with avarice.
George Macalister was a world-class party-guy, rich and absolutely dissolute. They'd been party buddies, back in the day. But she'd seen a little too much of him in actionhe was good at spending money and good at making other people feel worthless because they weren't as rich or as well-connected as he was.
Also, he continually tried to make her, with plenty of lewd suggestions, not to mention the grabby hands.
How do men actually think that's attractive? Does that ever work?
Juliana smiled tightly, gauging whether it was worth getting the bouncer to toss him out or not. The thing was, George was a big guy on the young jet-setter sceneold money and, considering the Macalister family fortune, big money. As such he could make problems for her if he wanted to. Too wrapped up in her own stress, she shrugged, choosing to ignore him.
She made plenty of her own problems, thanks.
"Hear you're trying to get a reality show," he said, as if on cue. He reached out, stroking his fingers along her forearm. She cringed, tried to maneuver away without seeming too obvious. He didn't let her go. "I've been talking with a producer about one, too. Almost a go."
"Really?" She hated herself, but forced herself to listen. "What producer?"
George's eyes grew wary. "Oh, this guy I know. His studio's over in Pleasanton, but he's got an office downtown." George preened. "We're still in talks."
"What's the show about?" She couldn't possibly see how someone as lecherous yet frankly boring as George could get a show when she couldn't.
He leaned forward, and the Scotch wafting off his breath was noxious. "Do you know what the Player's
She blinked. Then she laughed. "No way you're in the Player's Club."
He pulled back, scowling. "Bet your ass I was. I started the damned thing."
"Really?" Carolyn said, leaning into him, her breasts pressing against his forearm. Juliana rolled her eyes.
"Well me and my cousin," he amended, smiling at Carolyn's attention. "Anyway, I had a great idea to recreate it for a show."
"So did you get a green light?" Juliana asked. She knew all about people having ideas for a show, or interest in a show. Most of the time, there was no showjust a lot of talk.
His scowl returned. "Not yet."
She smiled. Which meant never.
"Well, good luck with that, George," she said lightly, feeling a headache brewing. Why did all the cretins have all the money? His suit was obviously hand-tailored; he was rolling in dough, probably hadn't worried about cash a day in his life. How was that fair?
"So, when are you going to sleep with me, gorgeous?" He leaned over, and she saw how bloodshot his eyes werethe way his face, once borderline handsome, had started to get pudgier from age and overindulging. "Come on, Jules. Surely you've heard some good reviews about me from your friendshell, I've slept with most of them. Why not see what all the hype's about?" Then he burst into raucous laughter. Carolyn joined in, giggling like an idiot.
Juliana finally allowed herself to shift away from him, slowly. She smiled. "Ah, but then you'd just move on, and I'd be heartbroken," she fake teased, with a little tut-tut. "I've seen how you go through girls."
He smiled, obviously enjoying the picture. Dumb-ass. "But you'd be different," he said, his grin turning more predatory. "Nobody else has held me off this long. Maybe you're just what I need, the girl to turn me around. Why do you keep saying no?"
She stood up. "Because," she said, with a little more emphasis, "I'd rather drink turpentine and eat glass than have sex with you. Will you excuse me?"
She mingled with the crowd, her skin still crawling slightly from her encounter with George, her stomach still knotted from her brief exchange with Bernie. She scanned the well-dressed, intoxicated bunch, who were dancing and carousing. They'd set up the champagne pool. She wouldn't be truly toplessshe had pasties in place for just such a "wardrobe malfunction"but she'd still get plenty of press.
Now, more than ever, she needed something to give her an edge. Something to capture people's attention and land her the reality show. Otherwise, she had absolutely no idea how she was going to generate an "income." As her father always said: "Mayfields are only able to do two thingsbe famous and be irrepressible." So she'd done her damnedest to be both, all her life.
"Jules," a partygoer called out, with a sly smile, "are you really twenty-eight?"
She covered her mouth, sending the partygoer an exaggerated naughty smile and wink, before moving on.
"Jules!" This time it was the paparazzi, telling her to pose, snapping pictures. She did it willingly. Nobody at all guessed she was worried, or anything but what she appeared to be.
Her cell phone buzzed: a text message. She glanced at it, her forehead furrowing for a split second.