Authors: Darcy Burke
For my brother, Rich
I wish everyone could have a sibling like youâevery time we share an inside joke and a high five, I realize how lucky I am. Now excuse me while I get the boat and fishing gear!
Beverly Hills, February
phone buzzed from a call and pinged from a text in rapid succession just as her landline rang.
, she thought. Either really great news or really bad news. Then she heard her name called from the entry hall.
“Alaina!” Crystal yelled, her voice increasing in volume as she came toward the gym.
Bad news, then.
Alaina punched the stop button on her treadmill and picked up her phone. There were actually multiple texts. Her publicist. Her agent. And some numbers she didn't recognize.
Shit, shit, shit.
What the hell was going on?
She snatched the towel from the bar on the wall and wiped her face as Crystal strode into the gym. Her typically smiling face had warped into a stormy scowl. Oh, this wasn't good at all.
Anxiety wound her muscles into little knots, but Alaina knew better than to full-on freak out. She'd been around long enough to know that whatever crisis this was, she could handle it. The question was: Did she want to? She was so damn tired of jumping through hoops and trying to balance celebrity with, you know, having a
Crystal waved her phone at Alaina. “Have you seen this?”
“No.” Alaina grabbed her water bottle from the tray on the treadmill and took a drink. “I was working out. I don't monitor social mediaâisn't that your job?” Crystal had been with Alaina since before social media had existed. She was Alaina's oldest friend and the person she trusted most in the world. She was also the person with whom Alaina could be absolutely and unapologetically herself, and that meant dishing each other as much sarcasm as necessary to function in Hollywood.
Crystal grimaced, which pitched her neatly plucked blonde brows low over her walnut-brown eyes. “Ha-ha, very funny. It isn't just social media. It's every news outlet from TMZ to Al Jazeera.”
Alaina's insides twisted viciously.
, she told herself. This was nothing new. She was one of the most famous actresses in the worldâevery day brought a news story. Well, almost every day.
She left the gym, and Crystal followed her to the living room. Once there, Alaina turned toward Crystal. “I highly doubt Al Jazeera gives a damn about me.” TMZ was another story. They practically lived outside her security gate.
“Whatev,” Crystal said, rolling her eyes. “Here.”
Alaina took the phone and instantly sucked in a breath as if she'd been punched in the gut. Staring back at her was a clear photograph of her leaving the ob-gyn clinic last week under the headline, “Who's the Daddy?”
“Shit.” Alaina stumbled to her favorite chair and sank into it like a stone.
“That's just the first one,” Crystal said. “Look at the other open pages.”
Alaina didn't want to. She wanted to go upstairs to her bed and bury her head under the pillow until the nonsense went away. But that was the problemâit
Reluctantly, she pulled up the next Internet page on the phone and nearly shot out of the chair. “What the hell is this?”
Same picture, but this headline read, “An Abortion for Alainaâbut Is It the First One?”
She stared at Crystal. “Why would they say this? I've never even been pregnant before!”
“Why do they say anything?” Crystal shook her head. “Assholes.”
“Is there more?”
Crystal nodded. “But nothing worse than that one. Sorry, I didn't want to lead with it.”
Alaina resisted the urge to flip through the rest. What good would it do? Absolutely none. She tossed the phone onto the coffee table, and Crystal sat on the big squishy sofa that had just been delivered last week.
“Did anyone get it right?” Alaina asked. If they had, that meant someone had spilled. And the only people who knew the truth about Alaina's plans were Crystal and the clinic staff. Alaina's own mother didn't even knowâand boy was she going to be pissed when she found out Alaina was trying to make her a grandmother.
Crystal shook her head as she leaned forward and retrieved her phone. “No. Isaac's already working on damage control. He's telling everyone it was a routine exam, nothing more.”
Alaina threw herself back against the chair, uncaring that she wasâor had beenâa sweaty mess. “Is there a chance someone from the clinic said anything about what I was really doing there? How'd this picture even get taken?”
“Come on, you know the paparazzi are cockroachesâthey pop up everywhere, especially places they aren't supposed to. And no, I doubt anyone from the clinic said a wordâthey all signed confidentiality agreements when you selected the facility for the treatments. No one's stupid enough to risk litigation, particularly when it'd be a guaranteed loss and they'd never work in this town again.”
Alaina leaned her head back and stared at the ceiling, her eyes fixating on the rough wood timbers she'd installed when she'd bought the house five years ago. The great room was simultaneously rustic and elegant, the perfect mix of her Southern roots and the elite A-list life she led now.
She looked over at Crystal, who was turning her phone over and over in her hand, a nervous tic she did often, particularly since her phone was pretty much an extra appendage. “What does it look like outside?”
“It's still small, but it's gathering. Everyone out thereâmaybe a half dozen guysâis on the phone and yakking up a storm. Could be a full frenzy by noon.”
Alaina glanced at the huge wall clock made from a wood palletâit was barely ten. “I have a call with my producing partner in a half hour.”
Crystal stopped rotating her phone. “Yeah, so?”
“So, I need to think about that and not the freakfest gathering outside.”
“You plan to hide in here all day?”
It wouldn't be the first time. Alaina set her hands on the arms of the chair and sighed. “So it seems.” She'd had to do worse things to lay low over the years.
Crystal's phone pinged, and she looked down at the screen. “Fuuuuuck.”
Alaina tensed. “What?”
Crystal didn't take her eyes from her phone as she typed in a response to whoever had texted her and also spoke to Alainaâshe was the ultimate multitasker. “The abortion thing is gaining traction. Some gal over at Fox News is already blabbing about it.”
Alaina jumped from the chair and began to pace. “How can people be such callous jerks? Don't they realize I'm a human being with feelings?”
“No. To them, you're a commodity, a product they can review and discuss like ketchup.”
Alaina stopped short and swung around to stare at Crystal. “Ketchup?”
Crystal looked up at her and shrugged. “First thing that popped into my head.”
Figured. Crystal's love affair with ketchup was lifelong and unparalleled. Most women craved chocolate or wine. But Crystal was a ketchup connoisseur.
“You should get out of town for a bit,” Crystal said. “Maybe head to your place in Vail?”
“Like they won't find me there?” Alaina scoffed. “This is going to get ugly, isn't it?”
Crystal winced. “It could.”
Alaina groaned as she moved into the kitchen and beelined for the fridge. She pulled out a bottle of water and took a long drink, but it did nothing to ease the ache that had started at the back of her skull. “I need to take a shower. Send Monroe out to survey things in a few minutes.”
Crystal stood up from the couch. “ 'K. You want him to be friendly or employ the Glare of Death?”
The head of Alaina's security detail had a patent pending on his icy stareâit was almost as lethal as his fists. Not that he'd actually killed anyone with his bare hands. But he could, and that was the important thing. He also didn't really have a patent pending on his ability to eye-slaughter, but damn, that would be awesome.
“Death stare. Definitely.”
The throb in her head began to subside.
Yeah, think absurd thoughts, laugh it all off, be cool. This is just another day like all the rest. In which the world at large speculates about your life, is catastrophically wrong, and judges you for it anyway.
After an obscenely hot shower, Alaina closed herself in her pitch-dark closet and did yoga. She could only afford five minutes, but sometimes that was enough. Today it took the edge off, but five minutes wasn't going to cut it. This was all too personal. It was one thing to slam the outfit she'd worn to the SAG Awards and another entirely to say she'd had an abortion.
Not that she had any problem with women deciding what to do with their bodiesâit was their choice. A private choice. Too bad she didn't have any privacy.
And that just pissed her off. She'd rail at someone, but even Crystal, her best friend, would tell her she'd made her bed . . . and that there were plenty of pros to go with the cons.
She flicked on the lights and threw on a worn pair of jeans and a black T-shirt. Crystal met her in the upstairs hallway. Her deep frown meant more bad news. Or at least no good news. “What's the story now?” Alaina asked resignedly.
“The abortion thing is starting to trend. Sorry.”
Alaina fought against a wave of stress-induced nausea. “And outside?”
“Keeping their distance. Monroe scares the shit out of them.”
He should. He was a former Navy SEAL, six-five, and built like a brick shithouse, as her mother would say. In fact, her mother had hit on him the last time she'd visited.
Alaina noted that Crystal said nothing about whether the crowd of paparazzi had increased. Which meant they had. Trying to leave would be a nightmare. Maybe she could “accidentally” run over one of their feet.
Wait, where was she going? She had a call with her friend and now producing partner, Sean Hennessy, to discuss their new project. In preparation to semi-retire from acting and start the family she so desperately wanted, Alaina had formed Rainy Day Studios with Sean, who was about the most grounded producer she'd ever met and just an all-around great guy. The name came from the fact that both of them, because of their economic upbringingâhim in lower-middle-class England and her in depressed Bluevilleâtended to save for a rainy day.
Their fledgling production company had precisely one project under its beltâa documentary-type limited reality series about the opening of a five-star restaurant in Oregon's wine country. The star of the show was actually Sean's brother-in-law. Alaina had seen footage, and Kyle Archer was born to be on camera. He was charming, attractive, and completely at ease commanding an audience. She had high hopes for the show and even higher hopes for what she and Sean were going to do next.
She could call Sean from the car . . . But still, where was she going? Vail was out. As was her apartment in New York. And her London flat wasn't exactly nearby. Why had she sold that retreat in Ojai last year? Because she was stupid. “Remind me to buy a new house somewhere on the West Coast that's completely and utterly removed from everything. Maybe in the middle of the Mojave.”
Crystal tapped something onto her phone.
“You didn't really just write that down, did you?”
Crystal gave her a look that clearly said,
Are you mental?
Right now, yes. Yes, she was.
The phone in her office rang. Alaina strode down the hallway to the large room that overlooked the pool and backyard. She lunged for the desk and hit the speaker button. “Hey, Sean.” Damn, what if it wasn't Sean? She hadn't even looked at the caller ID. “This better be Sean,” she practically growled.
“Uh, yeah. What's up? You sound stressed.” His familiar British accent relaxed one of the myriad knots of tension bunching her shoulders. From the moment she'd met Sean four or five years ago, she'd liked him, as he'd put her totally at ease. Probably because he'd been new to Hollywood and hadn't learned the attitude. In fact, he still didn't have the attitude, and that was probably why they were such good friends and now business partners.
“Pull up any entertainment website and you'll see. Or Fox News, apparently.”
She heard him tapping keys.
“Bollocks, what's going on?”
“Stupid paparazzi and gossip leaches.”
He was quiet for a minute, as if he were reading.
“Don't read it,” Alaina said. “It's all crap.”
“Of course it is. But damn. These people are vultures.”
She flopped down in the chair behind her desk while Crystal sat on a leather sofa, her face glued to her phone. Alaina massaged her temple. “Can we postpone our meeting?”
“Of course, but I need to get back to Tom in a couple of days. What are you going to do about this rubbish?”
She closed her eyes and dropped her forehead onto the desk. “I don't know that there's anything I can do except leave town. I'm just trying to decide where I can go without the vultures circling.”
“Do you want to come here? Ribbon Ridge is tiny.”
“So tiny that they've never heard of me?” She wasn't trying to be sarcastic, she just knew that there weren't many civilized places she could go without at least
person recognizing her.
“My in-laws live outside of town on about two hundred acres. They have a very comfortable, well-stocked apartment above their garage. You could stay there and be practically invisible. The only people living there right now are Tori's folks and her brother, Evan, who keeps to himself. You won't see a soul, unless you want to.”
“Not a soul?”
“Total isolation. I'll even volunteer to bring you supplies when you need them.”
“This would also give us a chance to work out some details on this project.” A writer friend of theirs had pitched a fantastic idea for a comedy series. The pilot script was sharp and witty. It had immediately won both Alaina and Sean over, and they hadn't even been looking for a scripted series, comedy or otherwise.