They couldn't be more opposite, the Hollywood actor and the hometown girl, but all they need is a little convention magic to become the perfect ship in Cathy Yardley's One True Pairing.
Jake Reese needs a decoy girlfriend. Fast. The lead actor of the popular TV show Mystics is tired of losing his shirt to overeager fans. Literally. Which is why a chance meeting with gothabilly bookworm-slash-barista Hailey Frost seems almost too perfect to be true. Hailey is not impressed with his TV fame and is desperate to save her family's bookstore. It's a match made in Hollywood, but as the two pretend to date, fan fiction becomes reality. Can this OTP become canon?
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Just hang in there, Jake. You can do this.
Jake Reese sat in a crowded restaurant in Issaquah, Washington, surrounded by women. Many men would consider this ideal — hell, some would consider it a dream come true. For Jake, it was the job.
"These women have paid hundreds of dollars to have a sit-down meal with one of the stars of Mystics," his agent, Susie, had said when explaining the gig. "So you'll glad hand, you'll answer questions, you'll take selfies, you'll eat something. No big deal."
"Why don't they just see us — me — at the convention?" Jake argued.
"Because they want one-on-one time, and they're willing to pay for it," Susie replied, in that maddeningly patient way of hers. "Your original contract, the one for the first two seasons, stipulated you'd do outside promotional support, and this VIP stuff really does help. Still, we're renegotiating your new contract for the seasons moving forward, and they want to film season three soon. So, if you want that stricken ..." She was using the tone of voice that screamed "this is a bad idea, but if you really want it, I'll push, even though I'm advising against it like any rational person would."
"I play ball."
Which was what he was doing now, sitting with fifteen or so "super fans" at a long table in a chic little bistro, trying to stay calm. Not that he minded hanging out with fans, generally speaking. He was actually looking forward to the Mystics convention where he'd be one of the star attractions, along with his two co-stars, Miles and Simon. And his secretly geeky heart was looking forward to it.
Once, a few years ago, Jake had gone in disguise to the San Diego Comic-Con, to see what the experience was like, and it'd been a blast: amazing costumes, throngs of people, video games, and the artist's alley and movie screenings, and he'd heard stories about the Supernatural's own fan events, which was much more in line with what Mystics was aiming for: something more intimate, aimed at the true super fans. As a new show with only two seasons under its belt, their fandom was still young, so it was still developing its audience. These VIPs were the cornerstone of that audience.
Still, he'd been around his dad when there were fans, face-to-face interaction, and liquor. They tended to get rowdy in their adulation, an energy his father fed on. He shuddered, remembering. He couldn't help but notice that this time, the wine had been flowing pretty freely to a few of the VIPs.
He had a sense of foreboding, and forced himself not to look at his watch.
"Rick ..." a woman sitting to his right said in a breathy voice.
"Jake," he corrected gently. "Rick's just, you know, my character."
She looked disappointed, but another woman, a redhead to her right, picked up the ball. The redhead had been one of the ones he'd noticed drinking steadily, ordering red wine after red wine as their meals were served. She was staring at him like he was dessert. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
"Jake," the redhead said, correctly, with just the slightest slur to her words. "You're even sexier than you are on TV, you know that?"
She was wearing a too-tight T-shirt that said ALL KNIGHT LONG on it — one of the memes from Mystics, referencing their Knights Templar heritage. The woman looked to be in her late forties, but well-maintained, passing easily for midthirties at least. She had an almost over-bright, predatory look in her eyes.
He'd admit it: it made him nervous.
"Mr. Reese," a serious girl, maybe in her late teens, interrupted. He wondered how she'd gotten the money to go to a VIP event, which wasn't cheap, then wondered if she was missing school for this. She had shoulder-length brown hair and was wearing a sweater, a nod to the brisk March weather. She studied him owlishly from behind smudged glasses. She had a binder of Mystics photos and paraphernalia.
Now here is my favorite kind of fan. He smiled kindly, relieved to shift focus.
"I was wondering," she asked, "what made you decide to go into acting?"
He stiffened, then went into his practiced spiel. "Some of you might know my father, Kurt Windlass."
There was an appreciative chuckle all around. Of course they knew his father, he thought. If you'd watched an action film sometime in the past twenty years, you knew his famous father.
"I'd always seen my father working from a young age. He always seemed to love what he was doing. I pursued acting when I was in my teens. He noticed, and encouraged me. I wound up following in his footsteps."
It was a glossy version — the PR version, he thought. Really, it was all they needed to hear.
"Are you planning on going into movies, as well?" Glasses Girl asked. She seemed earnest, intelligent, and kind. A nice kid. He could've probably talked to people like her all afternoon.
"I'm looking over scripts, but nothing's jumped out at me yet." He smiled gently. "My agent says I'm too picky."
She smiled back. "But you liked Mystics?"
"I loved it, right from the start. I'm a huge urban fantasy, epic fantasy, sci-fi fan. A total geek at heart."
"I find that hard to believe." The girl reddened.
"You were a model, too, right?" the redhead interrupted, licking her lips. Swear to God, licking her lips. She couldn't be more obvious if she'd written DO ME on her forehead in Sharpie. "I remember that underwear ad you did. So hot."
"Mom!" the teen said, burying her face in her palm. "Really?"
His eyes popped before he could stop them. The redhead was the teen's mother? Yikes.
"Yes, I did some modeling, but not so much anymore," Jake said, after clearing his throat. "I only did it because it helped pay the bills. The carpentry and construction jobs were a little light, and a friend of mine had gotten a campaign, so ..."
"And that was your big break, right?" the teen asked. He got the feeling she knew more than she was saying. Probably she knew more than he was willing to say.
He nodded. "Modeling is what got me my first acting gigs, guest starring on some sitcoms and a few teen shows. Now that I'm on Mystics, I like to focus on that, instead."
"It's such a great show," the teen said. "I love the writing. And I love the interaction between you and the other brothers — Simon, Miles."
He grinned. "They really are like brothers," he agreed. "They were working together on that show, when they were teens ..."
"Double Negative," the teen supplied, then blushed again.
"Right. So they've been best friends for a while. They even share a house in Vancouver."
"Is it hard, when they've known each other for a while, and you're kind of the odd man out?"
He paused, looking at her. This girl with her glasses was pretty perceptive.
"Yeah," he admitted. "Sometimes."
"They're so hot," the redhead purred, obviously bored with the line of questioning. For a change, Jake was okay with changing the topic back to hotness. "But you're totally the hottest. I'm so glad you're the one that got roped into this VIP!"
"I'm surprised it wasn't Simon," the teen noted. "I think he's from near here, originally, or something."
"So, you guys also going to the Mystics con, over at the hotel?" Jake asked, deciding to take the conversation into his own hands and start wrapping things up. "Looking forward to it?"
"Absolutely!" the mom said. "I wouldn't miss it."
There were quick cheers of assent from the women around him. He glanced at his watch, then looked for the handler, who seemed to be missing in action. He needed to get over to the hotel and decompress. He'd promised to do this extra pre-pre-VIP outing, but now he wanted nothing more than to get settled in to the hotel and get a good night's sleep. He wanted to be prepped for the first day of the Mystics convention.
"Well, it's been wonderful meeting all of you," he said, standing up. There was a chorus of disappointed "awwwwwwws," so he held up his hands. "I know, I know. But I do have to go. I hope to see most of you at the Mystics con!"
His smile felt pasted on. The thought of being surrounded by all these people, a crush of bodies, and the subsequent feeling of being a beefcake on display made him feel like running as far as he could. But no — his job depended on him putting himself out there, objectified or not. He'd just suck it up.
"Can I get one more autograph?" the redhead said.
"Um, sure." He pulled out his pen. "What do you want me to sign?"
She got a mischievous smile, and he could see the teen's aghast expression just seconds before the woman yanked her shirt up, producing a pair of plastic-perfect boobs in a blood red bra.
"Could you sign these?"
He blanched, as there were hoots and hollers. It felt like he was a stripper at a bachelorette party. He took a deep breath.
"Right or left?" he said, trying to stay game. Just a few more minutes, you got this ...
"You pick," she said, winking. "Surprise me."
He quickly scrawled "Jake" over her right boob, a hasty, illegible autograph.
"Sign me, too!"
Crap. He had to escape before this got any worse. "I really have to go, ladies," he apologized quickly. "I'll be signing at the hotel, during the —"
"Can I have a hug?" the redhead said, and before he could respond, she'd thrown her arms around him.
"Gack!" he protested.
"Hey, I want a hug!" another woman said, and he felt another set of arms wrapping around him.
He felt panic start to set in. "Now, ladies. ... Come on ... I need to ..."
He yelped as he felt hands cup his ass.
"Whoa! Excuse me!"
He glanced around. Where the hell was the handler? He saw a woman in the crowd, the one who had booked the restaurant for the VIP. The restaurant manager was yelling at her. Several waiters were trying to break up the now-frenzied women.
He felt a hand — Jesus, was the woman an octopus? — start to move around the front of his jeans, and he jolted away. Then there was yet another hand on his ass. He heard a rip.
"I got his pocket!" someone shouted.
He felt it — the back pocket of his jeans had just gotten torn the hell off.
What. The ever-loving. Fuck!
He felt cornered, angry — and unnerved, both by their audacity and what he might do to try to stop their advances. This was not okay, on so many levels. He hadn't felt this violated since his most persistent stalker had somehow sneaked onto his property and left him dozens of "love notes" in his bedroom.
He shoved a little, fear giving him energy. He moved his way to the door, ignoring the groping fingers that were tugging at him. Grabbing his leather jacket, he made a beeline for the door.
"Wait! Wait!" they protested. Several began following him.
He opened the door, taking a gulping lungful of air. Then, out of sheer self-preservation, he started running.
"Wait!" a woman shouted, and then he heard them tumbling out of the restaurant, calling his name.
He felt like a guy from The Walking Dead, being hunted by zombies. He had to get the hell out of here. He didn't have a car — his flight had been running late and he'd taken a taxi rather than wait for a rental — and he got the feeling waiting for an Uber or something was just going to make him a sitting duck for the eager, amorous, and vaguely buzzed women from the VIP lunch.
He needed to find a place to hide.
"There he is!" He heard a call, like a baying dog. "Over there!"
You can do this, Jake, he thought to himself, and started sprinting.
It had been an uneventful March day, but a long one. And for Hailey Frost, it wasn't even half over. "C'mon, Hailey! I just want to grab a Herfy burger. Please?"
Hailey looked at the ceiling, taking a deep breath. "I'm just about to go off shift here, Stan. You know that."
"Five minutes," Stan, her co-worker at the coffee shop, pleaded. "Six minutes, tops."
"Can't you just grab something here?"
He wrinkled his nose at the attractive offering of quiches, sandwiches, and pastries. "I eat here every day," he whined.
She huffed out a short sigh. She had almost an hour before she had to start her second job, but she hated feeling rushed. "Six minutes," she said. "The casino will have my ass if I'm late, so hustle, okay?"
"Thank you thank you thank you," he said, giving her a half hug and then bolting out the door. She smirked. Stan was a great guy, a good friend, especially in the last few months that she'd taken on the coffee shop as a second job. Helping him indulge in a burger seemed like the least she could do.
It was quiet, thankfully. There was a woman listening to an iPod and reading something, her head nodding gently. Two elderly women were having mochas and looking at pictures from a vacation on a tablet. And there was Mr. Temporary Office guy, who had set up his laptop and a mess of papers and was talking in an "aren't-I-important" tone of voice on his Bluetooth headset, even though she could tell he was middle management at best. She'd seen guys like him all the time when she lived down in L.A.: men who liked to act like they were more important than they were.
Their inflated sense of self-importance, and desperate need to be admired, tended to make them better marks than most, she remembered. The cocktail of insecurity and greed tended to make them ready suckers, just waiting for the right bait.
Not going to think about that, though. She was stressed enough. It was better if she stayed positive.
She liked living up here in the Northwest much better than Southern Cal, anyway, she thought as she cleaned off the counter and wiped down tables. More than that, she loved living with her sisters — the foster sister she'd bonded with through several years of hardship, and the half sister she hadn't met until she was in her teens. Through the years, they'd become her reason for staying on the straight and narrow. Helping them, supporting them, gave her purpose. She'd jump in front of a bus for either of them.
Which is why I'm going to jet out of here and catch that double shift at the casino, she thought as she straightened out the food display case. Their landlord had given them the Christmas present of raising the rent on their house-slash-bookstore for the New Year. Now it was March, and they were making rent so far ... barely. They would have to come up with some way to get the bookstore to be more successful, or they'd go under.
The door opened quickly, and she glanced up, ready to tease Stan for his burger habit. But it wasn't Stan. It was a gorgeous dark-haired guy, with a strong jaw and a leather jacket.
"Hide me," the guy said, in a breathless, raspy tone.
Before she could say anything else, he glanced behind him, then — unbelievably — he dashed behind the counter, hiding on the floor.
"Hey!" she yelped.
He held a finger to his lips, then pointed at the door.
A minute later, the door swung open with force, pushed by an onslaught of about ten to fifteen women, all a variety of ages, body types, and wardrobes. The one common trait they shared was a sort of giddy bloodlust.
"Where is he?"
Hailey's protective instinct kicked in. She didn't know what the guy's story was, but she'd run enough cons to know when one went south. He was on the run, and these women were out for blood. It had all the earmarks of a guy hiding out from a gig gone wrong.
She also felt the familiar solidarity — honor, as it were, among thieves. God knows she'd had to dodge some marks when things had gone sideways, and she'd appreciated any help she could get — what little there was. At the very least, she'd figure out what was going on before ratting him out, if need be.
"Where is who?"
"Jake Reese!" a tall, red-haired woman said, holding her side as if she had a stitch in it and wincing. "You know — Rick, from Mystics!"
Hailey froze internally, and she mentally replayed the man's face in her mind. She refused to look down, knowing it would tip off the women.
Oh, my God. It was Jake Reese.
"Mystics? The TV show?" Hailey echoed. "The one with all those hot guys?"
"Yes!" the woman said eagerly.
"Have you seen him?" Another woman, sort of matronly looking with a sweater over a striped shirt, was searching the place like a bloodhound. "He'll have ripped jeans." She held up a patch of denim and cackled. "I got his pocket!"
Oh, holy shit. These women were out for flesh, all right, and it had nothing to do with Jake running a con on them.
Excerpted from "One True Pairing"
Copyright © 2017 Cathy Wilson.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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