Hollywood in the ’20s...the glamour of the silent screen...a sultry filmmaking voyage to Tahiti...what could be more delicious?
How about a rugged war hero turned director who wants to make you a star? The only trouble is, he’s the same man who, years ago, broke your heart.
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September 19, 1920
Four years later
She heard their voices first--harsh, male, threatening. The raucous laughter of drunken men bent on forcing their attentions on a woman they knew to be alone. The pail dropped from her hands, into the stream where she'd been gathering water. She turned and ran for the safety of the cabin. But even as she bolted the door, she heard them coming closer: along the pathway, stumbling up the wooden planks of the stairs.
She thought of screaming, but who would hear her in this isolated cabin in the remotest part of the Sierra Nevada mining country? Her husband was miles away, buying supplies. And these men--the loathsome Bromfield brothers--knew it. Crude, illiterate, starved for the feel of a woman, they'd spied on her from a distance, awaiting their chance.
Please, she prayed, go away.
But she felt herself being watched. Hesitantly, she turned her gaze toward the left window and gasped at the horrid sight. Horace Bromfield, the youngest of the brood, was leering at her, his rotten teeth bared as tobacco streamed from the corner of his mouth. She reeled toward the second window where his brother Joshua stroked his matted beard as his lips formed a filthy kiss, his rancid breath fogging the window.
Just as suddenly, the faces disappeared. Silence. Her heart pounding, she prayed, Please, God, let this be enough!
Her prayer was answered by a tremendous thud against the door. Then another and another until it splintered. Feeling faint, she backed away, falling down on the threadbare bed. If they touch me, I'll kill myself!
Another thud broke the door completely. As it crashed open, the three dreaded brothers stood likelumbering bears, their huffing forms framed by the mountains in the distance, their features obscured and made more menacing by the rays of the setting sun.
Terror gripped her as they stood taking stock of their prey. I'm going to faint. . . .
An inner voice told her: Now . . . faint. . . .
But instinct took over. As Horace stepped forth to be the first to violate her, she found her right leg rising to kick the man squarely in the groin, sending him sprawling to the floor to roll up in a ball of pain.
The voice, boomed through a megaphone, brought things to a halt. The two standing Bromfield brothers turned in the direction from which the voice had come. A man who'd been hand-cranking a motion picture camera a few feet away stopped with a disgusted expletive. The mood music, coming from an accordion player, died on a sour note.
A short man wearing puttees and riding boots stormed onto the set. "Miss Dare," he shouted through the megaphone he still held, "what the devil do you think you're doing?"
Rising from the bed, Liana, acting under her most recent stage name of Veronica Dare, said, "I'm sorry, Mr. King. I just couldn't do it." Her voice was husky and low. She went to help the wounded actor rise from the floor. "I didn't hurt you too much, did I, Sam?"
"Like hell you didn't," he grumbled, wrenching his arm away.
"You were supposed to faint," the director continued his attack. "These brutes are going to ravish you. The only thing that can save you is your husband getting back before they do. How many times do I have to tell you?"
"I know what you told me. But that's not what a real woman would do."
"You're not a real woman, for crying out loud. You're an actress in a photoplay. And only the third-billed one at that!"
"But the whole thing is absurd," Liana argued, forgetting her resolve to obey without question. "Are you telling me this woman's husband would go off and leave her alone, knowing these marauders live close by, without even a rifle for protection? And even if he did, what sort of woman would faint and risk rape waiting for her husband to come rescue her? These Bromfield brothers are imbeciles! Even if I couldn't overpower them, I could outsmart them without lifting a finger."
"Miss Dare, this is beside the--"
"This is 1920, Mr. King. Queen Victoria's been dead for two decades. Look around you. The shop girls you hope will line up to see this picture are no shrinking violets. They're getting laid in the backs of Model T Fords. Not because they're being ravished, as you call it. Because they want to. Do you think any of them would lie down and take this? They'd fight like wildcats!"
As she'd spoken, the director's face had progressively hardened to stone. "That's it!" he exploded through his megaphone. "You're fired!"
In the aftermath of his eruption, Liana stood staring at him. Reality began to set in. She had a dollar and thirty-six cents in her purse. Not enough to pay her rent. Barely enough to eat. She couldn't afford to be fired.
Swallowing her pride, she said, "Very well, Mr. King, we'll do it your way."
"That's just the thing, Miss Dare," he raged. "You can't do it my way. We've been through this too many times. You just can't take direction."
She raised her chin in a rebellious gesture. "I can if the direction makes sense."
The director, accustomed to reading emotion, saw past the rebellion to the flash of vulnerability. It was that "I can do it myself" defiance that had made him want to help her in the first place. Despite the sensual beauty and provocative allure that had made him want her at first sight, she'd aroused his masculine instincts with her childlike naivete that she could make her way without any assistance. It had made him want to protect her from herself.
Now, boiling with frustration the equal of her own, he lowered his voice so only she could hear. "Veronica, I gave you this part against my better judgment. I knew your reputation for trouble. But you convinced me you could do what I said. You're talented. You're beautiful. The camera loves you. But you're your own worst enemy. Where do you think this kind of behavior is going to get you?"
"Don't you see, Mr. King?" Her voice lost its defiance and took on the urgency of persuasion. "You're asking me to play a complete ninny. A fool! What kind of woman would see herself as that character? And why is Gloria Swanson the biggest star in the world? Because she's sexy and clever. Let me play someone like that. Why can't this woman react like a human being instead of a helpless bump on a log?"
Her passion didn't move him. "That's fine if you're Swanson, but you're not. And wanting to be won't get it for you." He slumped when he saw her face. "I'm sorry, Veronica, I tried. But no movie company can function with players who don't do as they're told. You're fired and that's final. Turn in your costume, go to payroll, and get your two dollars for the day."
She was seized by a sudden impulse to beg. To do anything she had to in order to keep this, the only job she'd had in months. But in the quiet all around her, she could feel them watching her. Even the carpenters had ceased their building and were staring at her, hammers and saws in hand. Standing there, the focus of attention, she knew she couldn't give them the satisfaction.
Gathering together what was left of her dignity, she squared her shoulders and, head held high, walked off the set. But she couldn't resist pausing at the door and calling back so all could hear, "Tell me, Mr. King. Would things have been different if I'd said yes when you tried to get me into bed?"
When she entered the makeup department, a long bungalow on the southeast corner of the Universal lot, she found two young bit players putting the finishing touches on their makeup. Dressed for the French Revolution, they were an incongruous, if familiar, sight, sharing a cigarette and gossiping in Brooklyn accents. Their elaborate powdered wigs lay on the table before them. Their hair--red and blond respectively--was flattened against their heads beneath skull caps.
"They're shooting the whole thing in Tahiti," said the redhead, smacking her gum.
The redhead shrugged. "I dunno. Somewhere in the South Seas."
"The South Seas . . . say! Ain't that the place where naked women throw themselves at sailors? And where they spoon all day under palm trees?"
"Ain't it just!"
Liana passed them and went to the last of a long row of makeup chairs. Automatically, she reached for the cold cream, but found she couldn't summon the energy. Defeated, she sank back in the chair. What was she going to do? When word of this got around, no one would hire her. Already she was thought to be on her last legs. A playgirl who danced till dawn in local speakeasies, then showed up late to cause trouble on the set. She'd been offered fewer and smaller roles since her brief flush of success two years before. She was nearly twenty-five years old . . . well along for a woman in this still-new business of moving pictures, where ingenues of fifteen and sixteen weren't uncommon.
King hadn't said so, but she could see the writing on the wall. She was finished.
But she couldn't be finished. She'd allowed for nothing else in her life. She'd come to Hollywood four years ago filled with determination, burning with ambition to make it in pictures and create a new kind of woman star. Not the weak sisters of Victorian melodrama, but the newly emancipated woman she saw all around her: the kind of woman her mother had taught her to be. Independent. Resourceful. Daring. Unafraid to take pleasure in her own sexuality.
But what had gone wrong? Her affairs with men had been brief--she'd put an end to them before they had the chance to call it quits. Once or twice it had seemed to her that one of her lovers wanted more, that there was the possibility of some genuine emotion and deeper ties. But even as she entertained the possibility, she was jolted back to that fateful moment in Paris, when her heart had been ripped in two. And she'd sworn to never let that happen again.
As for her career, it was true that she'd been inconstant and self-destructive. When she thought back on the person she'd been during the war . . . how she'd been slapped to the ground, and how it had tarnished the legacy her mother had given her . . . even the thought of it made her burn with anger and shame. It hurt to think about it, and so she didn't.
Instead she sought escape in the frivolous pleasures that were rising up in postwar America to define the raucous new decade of the twenties. Four years of becoming increasingly notorious as a high-living party girl, no gathering complete without her, kicking up her heels with many of the town's biggest names, but never taken seriously. Laughed at behind her back. Acknowledged to have an exotic screen presence but not at all like sweet Mary Pickford. And everybody wanted Pickford. At first rejecting anything that smacked of the "damsel in distress," but finally giving in and playing them indifferently. Discovering that the offers dwindled and came from less distinguished studios. Until she'd finally been reduced to the ultimate humiliation: playing a Pickfordesque bit part in a ridiculous melodrama for a third-rate director at Universal. When everyone knew Universal was the lowest rung on the Hollywood ladder. Universal was where movie people went to die.
Reaching into her purse, she withdrew a flask and tossed back a swallow of bootleg gin, feeling the fire slide down her throat and the warmth begin to spread. Soon forgetfulness would follow, if only for a time. She tipped her head back and took another gulp. But as she did, she opened her eyes and saw herself in the mirror. The foolish makeup they'd made her wear gave her the appearance of a down-and-out clown.
And as she stared at herself, her mother's words from long ago came back to her. "Women like us don't just lie down and die. When confronted with a challenge we don't wallow in self-pity. We get what we want by making it happen."
But what could she do?
"That's why everyone's talking about it. The way I heard it, they're spending a million dollars on just this one picture. Can you beat that?"
The chatter of the young actresses penetrated Liana's thoughts.
"But what's it about?"
"Some Polynesian babe. They're calling it Tehani of the South Seas. They say it's gonna be the raciest picture ever made. Nude scenes and everything. That's why the director's filming it so far away, and that's why he won't say nothing about it! He don't want no studio censors within a thousand miles."
All at once, Liana's mind was sharp and clear.
Beside her she spied a stack of magazines. She brushed through them quickly until she located that day's edition of Variety. Its front page headline pronounced:
MILLION-DOLLAR PRODUCTION TO TAHITI
Hastily, she glanced through the story. Spencer Sloane, famed director of Devils In The Air, was embarking on Hollywood's most ambitious production to date. Lavish expedition to the South Seas. Antimissionary. Sex in the Sand. A bold departure from the kind of saccharine pictures Hollywood had been turning out by the hundreds. A vanguard film for the new decade. A heroine with so much courage that she'd stand up to the most sacrosanct of all villains: the church. Hobart Farnsworth, last year's top box office star, to play the male lead. Massive talent search for an actress to play the Polynesian beauty.
The blonde was saying, "I'm gonna go for it."
"And why not? I just happen to have an in with the casting director at Paramount."
"Yeah, that's why you're here. Listen, honey, the biggest stars in town are lining up to try out, including Pickford herself."
"Pickford," the blonde scoffed. "Imagine the prissy dame rising naked from the sea. And Polynesian, at that." She let loose a squeal of laughter.
"You can laugh and I can laugh. All I know is this Sloane fella's already turned his nose up at the biggest actresses in town. Including Pickford. And Mae Marsh. And Bessie Love . . ."
"Great cats! What's he looking for?"
"All I hear is something . . . different, he says."
Liana dropped the trade paper and peered into the mirror once again. But this time she ignored the ridiculous makeup to study herself with fresh perspective. The luxuriant black hair, unfashionably straight, so different from little-girl Pickford's blond ringlets. The hooded green eyes that lent her an air of exotic mystery. The lush mouth that seemed--so she'd been told--perpetually swollen from kisses. A face that was a unique blend of wholesome innocence and raw sexuality. A face that no director could figure out what to do with. But with the proper makeup . . . a face just made for rising naked from a Polynesian sea!
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I love, love, LOVE Katherine O'Neal's books! If you haven't read one, try them. You'll be so glad you did!
In 1916 Paris, budding actress Liana Wycliffe falls in love with World War I fighter pilot Ace after only meeting him ten days ago when they both attended two showings of Birth of a Nation. However, when they make love, he drops her claiming she is just another whore. Heartbroken because she loves him, Liana returns to the States to pursue a career in the budding new movie industry. Four years later, director Spencer Sloane has had two successful movies, which has led to his receiving carte blanche control to film 'Tehani of the South Seas' on location. To play the heroine of this controversial movie, he wants Liana, who he has not seen since Paris. When he finds her, she refuses to act in his movie until he forces her hand. When a scandal breaks out centering on her parents, Spencer insists she remain as the star. However, this is one location that could prove dangerous to the key cast and filmmakers, as powerful interests do not want this story told. This is an engaging historical romance with a deep reminder that focuses on the mistreatment (some call it rape) of the South Sea island paradises by missionaries. The story line is loaded with action and deep characterizations. The audience will adore Liana, but Spencer carries too much baggage on top of what Liana contends with so that the audience sympathizes with him when he discusses the plight of the people, but not in his dysfunctional reactions to his beloved. Fans of deep early twentieth century tales will appreciate this strong powerhouse. Harriet Klausner