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"Are you out of your goddamn mind?" Nick Damone threw the script down on his agent's desk. To his credit, Garrett Chandler didn't flinch, most likely because he'd dealt with more than his fair share of temperamental clients. Not that Nick was temperamental. He had every right to be pissed. "Even if I wanted to play an adulterous, wife-beating scumbagwhich I don'tthere's absolutely no way the studio's going to go for it."
"Leave Eclipse to me. You've made them a midsize mint playing Trent Savage." Garrett sank into his butter-leather chair. "Besides, you said you wanted to get out of L.A. for a few months. So do it. Get back to your theater roots. Break free from your on-screen persona and try something edgy."
"Yeah." Nick was tired of the backstabbers and bootlickers who were the bedrock of Hollywood society. Spent from the acrobatics of embracing fame but avoiding scandal. And at thirty-three, his days as action hero Trent Savage were numbered, and with it his livelihood unless he expanded. Denzel starred in action, drama, comedy. Won an Oscar in his thirties, another in his forties, and kept getting nominated every year or two. Robert Downey Jr. was buried in awards and prime projects, with first refusal on scripts that would make Nick weep on cue. If he wanted his career to have legs like that, he needed to be more than Trent Savage.
But there was edgy and there was diving off cliffs. Onto jagged rocks, at low tide, in front of a live audience. Eight times a week.
"Trust me, Nick. I didn't get you this far by pulling advice out of my ass. This role is gold. I'm talking Tony-worthy." Garrett motioned for Nick to sit in one of the webbed chairs opposite the wide mahogany desk and pushed the script toward him. "Dig into this again. I think you'll see it's everything you're looking for."
Nick sat, stretching his long legs and crossing them at the ankles. The flight from Hong Kong, where his latest picture just wrapped, had been long and damn uncomfortable. Even first class was no place for a guy of six foot four. All he wanted now was a thick steak, a hot shower and a good night's sleep. All of which he'd get after he won this argument with his worthless agent, who, unfortunately, also happened to be the closest he had to a best friend. He tended to keep people at arm's length, where they couldn't mess with his head. Or his heart.
"What do we know about this playwright?" He traced the words on the script cover, his brain taking a moment to decipher the jumbled letters. The Lesser Vessel by H. N. Ryan.
"Not much," Garrett admitted. "She's new. Her bio's pretty sketchywent to Wesleyan, a few plays off-off-Broadway that closed early. But Ted and Judith say her talent is once a generation. They optioned this play before it was even finished. Coming from two of the hottest producers on Broadway, that's a pretty big endorsement."
"She?" Nick leaned forward in his chair. Spousal abuse was a hot-button topic after a spate of recent celebrity arrests, but the writing hadn't felt like an "issue" play, whichshoot him for saying somade him assume it was written by a man.
He wouldn't admit it to Garrett, but he'd read the whole gut-wrenching story on the planeinstead of sleeping. The author had gotten into his head, and to find out the guy who spoke to him was a woman was
What Garrett didn't knowwhat almost no one knewwas that domestic violence had been a part of Nick's daily existence for years. It still reared its ugly head every time his mom visited him, or when he talked to her on the phone. Affected him most on those rare occasions when he contemplated going home to confront his father.
He'd kept his distance, though, because he didn't trust either of them to control their rage. His mother suffered enough already. She didn't need the two of them beating each other to a pulp.
"A woman," he said again.
"Down, boy. She's not your type."
Nick didn't bother correcting Garrett's perception of him as a skirt-chasing man whore. He'd given up fighting that image. In reality, he was more of a serial monogamist, but he'd learned the hard way that it wasn't worth bucking the Hollywood machine. The press, the studiohell, even Garrettwere happy to exploit his image as a ladies' man, truth be damned. Nothing he could do or say was going to change that. "How do you know she's not my type?"
"According to Ted, she's short, smart and sweet. That's three strikes against her in your book."
"Hey," Nick protested with a wry smile. "The women I date are sweet." Tall, leggy and vapid, sure. But sweet. He wasn't looking for a lifetime commitment. If watching his parents hadn't been enough to sour him on marriage, then dealing with the liars and cheaters in Hollywood for the past ten years had put the nail in that coffin.
Love would have to wait a very long time to catch Nick.
"I'm not kidding." Unlike Nick, Garrett wasn't smiling. "This one's off-limits. She's a serious author, not one of your blonde bimbos."
"Whatever." Garrett's threat was meaningless for one simple reason: Nick wasn't doing this play. Final answer. Game over.
Exhaustion invading like crystalline Ambien, he closed his eyes and rested his head against the back of the chair. He needed to come up with a new plan of attack or he'd find himself in a rehearsal room in Chelsea. "So the writer's legit and the play's the real deal. But why the bastard ex-husband? What about the cop?"
Garrett shook his head. "Pussy part. Besides, it's already been offered and accepted."
Nick snapped to attention. "Who?"
Garrett shuffled through some papers, doing a shit job of stalling. They both spoke fluent body language, and Nick could tell he wasn't going to like Garrett's answer. "Malcolm Justice."
"You can't be serious." It was Nick's turn to push the script back across the desk. "I wouldn't play opposite that goddamn lightweight to save my career. Even if he was the asshole ex-husband and I got to beat on his pretty-boy face every night."
"Get over it, Nick. You're Trent Savage. He's not, even if he claims he'd have been the better choice. His fans' bitching and moaning on those stupid message boards is just sour grapes."
"What about the fact that people will see me as a wife beater? Stop me in Starbucks to berate me
" The most important of those people being his mom. If she managed to sneak away from his father long enough to catch the show, she'd probably watch the whole thing from between her fingers, experiencing every blow. Stage an intervention to curb his violent tendencies. Definitely cry. A lot.
"That's the price of being an artist." Garrett poured another drink, handed it to Nick and stared out at his fortieth-floor glass-plated view.
"Some artist." Nick took a sip. He'd wondered when Garrett would get around to sharing the Maker's Mark. "I've spent the past six years playing a globe-trotting, womanizing fortune hunter. Not exactly Shakespeare."
Hell, he wasn't even sure if what he did could be considered acting anymore. And now his own agent wanted to serve him up as fodder for critics like that jerk at the Times, the one who made no secret of his disgust for what he called Broadway's "star worship."
As much as Nick hated to admit it, this whole thing scared him. It had been years since he'd been onstage. He figured he'd pick up where he left off before heading west, at some obscure way-off-Broadway theater where he could flop without risking career suicide.
Nick took another sip of bourbon. It scorched a warm trail down his throat, but not even that familiar, normally reassuring sensation could help him shake the feeling that he was in way over his head. Broadway? Who the fuck was he kidding?
"What's that motto you're always repeating?" Garrett's tone was mocking. "'Be beautiful, be brilliant'?"
"Be bold. Be brave." The words jolted him back almost fifteen years to a lakeside dock and the girl who'd first said them and changed his life.
Holly Nelson. He wondered if she remembered that night at the cast party as vividly as he did. The breeze ruffling her wavy brown hair. Her hand, warm and insistent on his arm, urging him to dream big. Her wide, bottle-green eyes seeing him completely, as weird as that sounded. Not just who he was but who he could become.
No, she probably didn't remember any of that. Probably didn't remember their kiss, either, although it was imprinted in his brain. He'd known she was inexperienced, and he'd meant it to be innocent, a thank-you for telling him what he needed to hear. But the second his lips met hers, all thoughts of innocence had disintegrated. She'd melted in his arms like butter, soft and pliant. He'd closed his eyes against the rush of pleasure as her mouth opened to him and her hands fluttered up to stroke his chest through his T-shirt. He'd been so far gone he hadn't seen Jessie Pagano sauntering across the lawn to interrupt them until it was too late. Lost camera, his ass.
While he'd thought about Holly over the years more than he cared to admit, Nick hadn't kept track of her. He owed her for kick-starting his acting career, but it would be presumptuous to track her down. He imagined her back home in suburban Stockton, married to a high school gym teacher, with kids she kissed and praised all day. What would she think of this whole Broadway thing?
"You okay, buddy?"
Garrett's voice brought Nick back to the present. He downed the rest of his bourbon and wiped his mouth, nodding. "Fine."
"So you'll meet with the production team?"
Shit. "Where and when?"
"New York." Garrett paused to finish off his drink, and once again Nick knew what followed was going to be bad news. "Tomorrow afternoon."
"No way. I just got off a goddamn plane. Can't it wait a few days?"
"No can do. Casting was supposed to be finished last week but they held off, waiting for you to return stateside. Seems someone over there's got a real hard-on for you in this part."
"You said it, brother. That's why I booked both of us on the red-eye."
"Pretty sure of yourself, aren't you?"
"Sure this part will catapult you to the next level, if that's what you mean. Rumor has it Spielberg's shopping a Joe DiMaggio biopic. You'd be a great fit for the title role, and this play is just the thing to put you on his radar."
Damn. Nick would give his left nut to work with Spielberg. And Joltin' Joe was a national hero.
He slumped over and ran a hand through his hair. It was a foregone conclusion Garrett would win this battle, but he felt compelled to take one last stand. "I'm starving, exhausted and in serious need of a shower."
"No problem." Garrett crossed the room and grabbed his jacket off a coatrack. "We've got just enough time to get to your place for you to clean up and pack. You can sleep and eat on the plane."
"What about you?"
Garrett picked up an overnight bag from behind the coatrack. "All set."
"Cocky son of a bitch." Nick grinned in spite of himself.
"That's why I make the big bucks." Garrett swung open his office door and strode out.
Nick grabbed the script and followed him. There was no way he'd be sleeping on the plane. If he was auditioning for the powers that be, he intended to be prepared. He needed to reread the play at least twice, break down specific scenes, write a character bio
Not easy tasks given his dyslexia.
"This better be worth it." He slipped on a pair of Oakley sunglasses. "Or I'll be in the market for a new agent. And a new best friend."
Holly Ryan turned her head, trying to catch a glimpse of her backside in the black linen dress pants, and scowled. "They're too tight. I don't know what was wrong with what I had on."
"These old things?" Her sister Noelle nudged the pale pink button-down and khakis lying in a heap on the floor with her foot. "Please. They made you look like a hausfrau. Now you've got a waist. And an ass. And how about those boobs? I feel like I've just unearthed Atlantis."
"Which brings us to our next problem." Holly toyed with the plunging neckline of the silk blouse, another loaner from her baby sister, who, at twenty-six, was a fullblown fashionista. "Isn't this a little."
"Flattering? Attractive? Eye-catching?"
"I was thinking more like revealing. Inappropriate.
Noelle put a hand to her heart and staggered as if she'd been shot. "You wound me, sis. That's my lucky Marc Jacobs chemise. I wore it to my first opening night party.
Holly trudged to her bed and collapsed. All this primping was exhausting. First, Noelle had insisted on styling Holly's notoriously stick-straight hair. Then she'd spent an hour applying just the right amount of makeup. And now she was forcing Holly to play dress-up. It was like senior prom all over again, when twelve-year-old Noelle had schooled Holly on all the "girlie girl" things that were still so foreign to her.
"It's not that I'm not grateful for all your effort, Noe." Holly flopped onto her back, bouncing a bit on the too-firm mattress. "I just don't understand why it's necessary."
"First of all," Noelle began, sitting on the bed next to her and holding up one finger in a gesture that said a list of reasons was forthcoming, "you deserve a little pampering after the past couple of years you've had. Consider it your reward for dumping that bottom-feeder, Clark."
"Can't argue with that." Holly pushed up onto her elbows. Her sister didn't know the half of it. No one did except the police and a handful of medical professionals.
"And second" Noelle held up another finger "you're a big-time playwright now. You've got to look the part."
Holly rolled her eyes. "I'm nowhere near big-time."
Noelle gave her a playful smack upside the head. "Wake up and smell the success, girl! Your play's headed for Broadway. With at least one, maybe even two major movie stars. I'd call that big-time."
She had a point. But Holly had a hard time thinking of herself as anything other than the perennial screw-up in a family of overachievers. Her three younger siblings had each climbed their career mountains and planted their flags on top, wisely ignoring the example of their hopeless older sister. Holly had had more jobs than hairstyles, from substitute teaching to bartending to dog walking. It had become something of a family joke, guessing what she'd "explore" next. "Holly's follies," they called them.
The "follies" stopped a couple of years into her five-year marriage, when Clark had decided he wanted her at home, happy to greet him at the door each evening with a gin and tonic in her hand and dinner on the table. Always game, Holly had tried the new role. Massive mistake.
Domestic goddesshood evaded her, at least in Clark's estimation. Dinner was always overdone or underdone, the toilets never sufficiently shiny, his shirts never starched enough. Her saving gracewhat made the debacle bearablewas an article in a women's magazine about the benefits of journaling.
And thus H. N. Ryan, author, was born.
"I'll believe it when I see the marquee go up." A healthy chunk of her still doubted that would ever happen. There were too many ways things could crash and burn in high def. "Until then
"Honestly, Holls." Noelle pushed a strand of long blond hair, so different from Holly's, behind one ear. "You worry too much. You said the producers signed Malcolm Justice to play the cop, right?"
Holly nodded and sat up fully.
"And this new guy? The one who's reading for you today?" Noelle turned away from Holly to the selection of shoes she had lined up at the foot of the bed. Holly groaned inwardly. Not one of them had a heel less than four inches.
"No clue. All Ethan would say is that he's a grade-A film star and major heartthrob."
Which was strange, Holly thought. They never kept secrets. Ethan Phelps had been her best friend since their freshman year at Wesleyan when she'd helped him conquer Chaucer and Dickens. He'd rewarded her with the irritating nickname "Hollypop," a name he unfortunately still insisted on using.