Unrivaled, page 1
For Jackie and Michelle,
my BFFs for too many decades to count!
All that glitters is not gold.
Prologue: Lost Stars
One: Hypocritical Kiss
Two: While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Three: Reasons to Be Beautiful
Four: Celebrity Skin
Five: Mental Hopscotch
Six: Long Cool Woman (in a Black Dress)
Seven: I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction)
Eight: Teenage Dream
Nine: Summertime Sadness
Ten: Mr. Brightside
Twelve: I Wanna Be Sedated
Thirteen: Everybody Wants to Rule the World
Fourteen: Sex and Candy
Fifteen: Young and Beautiful
Sixteen: Blurred Lines
Seventeen: Go Hard or Go Home
Eighteen: The Politics of Dancing
Nineteen: Wicked Game
Twenty: Lips Like Sugar
Twenty-One: Sunday Bloody Sunday
Twenty-Two: Ghost in the Machine
Twenty-Three: Suicide Blonde
Twenty-Four: Know Your Enemy
Twenty-Five: Shades of Cool
Twenty-Six: Show Me What I’m Looking For
Twenty-Seven: Back Door Man
Twenty-Eight: Work B**ch
Twenty-Nine: Gold on the Ceiling
Thirty: Nothing Else Matters
Thirty-One: Destination Unknown
Thirty-Two: This Is How a Heart Breaks
Thirty-Three: How to Save a Life
Thirty-Four: Like a Virgin
Thirty-Five: Just a Girl
Thirty-Six: Breaking the Girl
Thirty-Seven: Bigmouth Strikes Again
Thirty-Eight: Are You Happy Now?
Thirty-Nine: Bullet with Butterfly Wings
Forty: Wake Me Up When September Ends
Forty-One: Blow Me (One Last Kiss)
Forty-Two: The Hand that Feeds
Forty-Three: Another Way to Die
Forty-Four: The Sweet Escape
Forty-Five: Nowhere Girl
Forty-Six: Glory and Gore
Forty-Eight: Shake It Off
Forty-Nine: Shut Up and Dance
Fifty: Hips Don’t Lie
Fifty-One: Don’t Save Me
Fifty-Three: Missing Pieces
Fifty-Four: Runnin’ Down a Dream
Fifty-Five: Pictures of You
Fifty-Six: Goodbye to You
Fifty-Seven: Bang Bang
About the Author
Books by Alyson Noël
About the Publisher
Despite the crush of tourists storming the sidewalks year after year, Hollywood Boulevard is a place best viewed behind a pair of polarized lenses and lowered expectations.
From the string of sagging buildings in various stages of decay, the tacky souvenir shops hawking plastic statues of Marilyn in her windblown white dress, and the seemingly endless parade of addicts, runaways, and glamour-deprived transients, it doesn’t take long before the sunburned, white-sneaker-wearing masses realize the LA they’re searching for does not exist there.
In a city that feeds off youth and beauty, Hollywood Boulevard more closely resembles a former screen siren who’s seen better days. The incessant sunshine is a harsh and brutal companion, intent on magnifying every wrinkle, every age spot.
Yet for those who know where to look (and those fortunate enough to boast a spot on the guest list), it also serves as an oasis of the city’s hottest nightclubs—a sort of hedonistic haven for the young, fabulous, and rich.
For Madison Brooks, the boulevard was everything she’d dreamed it would be. Maybe it didn’t look anything like the snow globe she’d had as a kid, the one that showered small squares of golden glitter over a miniature version of the Hollywood sign, but she never expected it would. Unlike those clueless tourists expecting to see their favorite celebrities hanging by their Walk of Fame stars, handing out autographs and hugs to all who passed by, Madison knew exactly what she’d find.
She did her due diligence.
Left nothing to chance.
After all, when planning an invasion, it’s best to familiarize yourself with the lay of the land.
And now, only a few short years after exiting that grimy bus station in downtown LA, her face was on the cover of nearly every magazine, every billboard. The town was officially hers.
While the journey was far more arduous than she’d ever let on, Madison managed to surpass everyone’s expectations but her own. Most merely hoped she’d survive. Not a single person from her former life expected her to rocket straight to the top. Ultimately becoming so known, so lauded, so connected, she’d command full, no-questions-asked access to one of LA’s hottest nightclubs long after it had closed for the night.
In a rare moment of privacy, Madison strode toward the edge of the vacant Night for Night terrace. The heels of her Gucci stilettos sliding gracefully against the smooth stone floor, she pressed a hand to her heart and bowed toward the skyline, imagining those flickering lights as an audience of millions—cell phones and lighters raised in her honor.
The moment reminded her of a similar game she’d played as a kid. Back when she staged elaborate performances for a crowd of grubby stuffed animals with matted hair and missing limbs. Their dull, unblinking button eyes fixed on the sight of Madison dancing and singing before them. Those tireless rehearsals prepping her for the day those secondhand toys would be replaced by real, live screaming fans. She never once doubted her dream would become a reality.
Madison hadn’t become Hollywood’s hottest young celebrity by hoping, wishing, or depending on others. Discipline, control, and steely determination steered her ascent. Although the media loved to portray her as a frivolous party girl (albeit one with serious acting chops), beneath the salacious headlines was a young and powerful girl who’d seized control of her destiny and made it her bitch.
Not that she’d ever admit to such a thing. Better to let them think she was a princess whose life flowed effortlessly. The lie provided a shield that kept them from learning the truth. Those who dared scratch beneath the surface never got very far. The road to Madison’s past was jammed with so many roadblocks even the most determined journalist eventually yielded defeat by writing about her unparalleled beauty—her hair the color of warming chestnuts on a crisp fall day (according to the guy who’d recently interviewed her for Vanity Fair). He also described her violet eyes as shadowed by a lushly dark nimbus of lashes used to alternately reveal and conceal. And wasn’t there a mention of her skin being pearlescent or incandescent or some other descriptor that translates to radiant?
Funny how he began the interview as just another jaded journalist sure he could break her. Convinced that their vast age difference—she being eighteen, he hovering way past forty (ancient in comparison)—along with his superior IQ (his assumption, not hers)—meant he could trick her into revealing something regrettable that would send her career into a tailspin, only to walk away from their meeting entirely frustrated, if not a little infatuated. Same as all the others who’d gone before—each of them grudgingly admitting there was something different about Madison Brooks. She wasn’t your average starlet.
She leaned deeper into the night, swept her fingers across her lips, and arced her arm wide, releasing a string of kisses
It felt good to let go.
To allow herself, for one brief instant, to be as wild and untamed as she’d been as a kid.
“I did it!” she whispered to herself, the imaginary fans glimmering in the distance, but mostly to those who’d doubted her, even tried to thwart her.
The second time, she allowed the startling twang she’d long since abandoned to slip to the surface, amazed at how easy it was to summon that voice—another remnant of a past she could never fully escape. Considering the reckless way she’d behaved earlier, she wondered if she really wanted to.
The memory of the boy she’d kissed was still fresh on her lips. For the first time in a long time, she’d allowed herself to relax enough to let down her guard and be seen for the girl she really was.
Still, she couldn’t help wondering if she’d made a mistake.
The thought alone was sobering enough, but a quick glance at her diamond-encrusted Piaget gave her real reason to worry.
The person she was meeting should’ve been there already, and his lateness, along with the silence of the closed and empty club, was starting to feel far more eerie than liberating. Despite the warmth of the California summer night, she pulled her cashmere scarf tighter around her. If there was one thing that made Madison shiver, it was uncertainty. Maintaining control was as necessary as breathing. And yet there she was, second-guessing the message he’d sent.
If the news was good like he’d claimed, she’d put the nuisance behind her and never look back.
If not . . . well, she had a plan for that too.
She just hoped it wouldn’t come to that. She hated when things got messy.
Curling her delicate fingers around the slim glass partition, the only thing separating her from a forty-foot fall, she lifted her gaze to the sky, trying to locate a single star that wasn’t actually an airplane, but there’s only one kind of star in LA.
While she usually fought to avoid all thoughts of the past, on that night, for that one brief moment, Madison allowed herself to drift back to a place where real stars were abundant.
Back to a place that had better stay buried.
A breeze curled past her cheek, delivering the sound of light footsteps and a strangely familiar scent she couldn’t quite place. Still, she waited a beat before turning, stealing the moment to wish on a shooting star she’d mistaken for a jet, crossing her fingers as it blazed a wide and glittery arc across a black velvet sky.
It would all be okay.
There was no need to worry.
She turned, ready to face it, whatever it was. She was telling herself she could handle it either way—when a cool, sure hand slipped over her mouth and Madison Brooks disappeared.
ONE MONTH EARLIER
Layla Harrison could not stop fidgeting. First she sank down low in her beach chair, burying her feet deep into the sand, then she wiggled upright again until the canvas bit into her shoulders, before finally giving up and squinting toward the ocean where her boyfriend, Mateo, waited for the next decent wave. A tedious pursuit that never failed to supply him with an endless stream of happiness she could not understand.
As much as she loved him, and she did (hell, he was so cute and sexy and sweet, she’d be crazy not to), after spending the last three hours dodging the sun under her giant umbrella while struggling to write a decent piece that contained the right dose of humor and snark, she wished Mateo would call it a day and start the long paddle in.
Clearly he had no clue how crazy uncomfortable it was to sit for hours on end in the rickety, ancient beach chair he’d loaned her, and how could he? It wasn’t like he ever used it. He was always out on his board, looking Zen and gorgeous and completely at peace, while Layla did all that she could to blot out the splendors of Malibu. The giant umbrella she hid under was just the beginning.
Beneath the bulky hoodie and the extra towel she’d placed over her knees, she wore a thick layer of sunblock, and of course she’d never venture outside without her oversize sunglasses and the crumpled straw fedora Mateo had brought back from a recent surf trip to Costa Rica.
For Mateo, Layla’s ritual of blocking and shielding was futile at best. You can’t master the environment, he’d say. You have to respect it, honor it, play by its rules. It’s madness to think you’re in charge—nature always gets the last word.
Easy to say when your skin is immune to sunburns and you were practically raised on a surfboard.
She returned to her laptop and frowned. Writing a cheesy celebrity gossip blog was a long way from the New York Times byline she dreamed of, but she had to start somewhere.
No, I’m not referring to the too-smart-for-network-what-were-they-thinking cult comedy (insert I’m-surrounded-by-idiots sigh), I’m talking about actual arrested development, people. The kind you can read about in your Psych 101 books (for those of you who actually read anything other than gossip blogs and Twitter feeds). The kind yours truly witnessed last night at Le Château, when three of Hollywood’s youngest and hottest, but certainly not brightest, decided olives were for more than just aimlessly lolling at the bottom of a martini glass—
“You still at it?” Mateo stood before her, board tucked under his shoulder, feet sinking into the sand.
“Just doing some last-minute edits,” she mumbled, watching as he dropped his board on the towel, swiped a hand through his sun- and salt-water-streaked hair, and unzipped his wet suit. He peeled it so far down his torso Layla couldn’t help but gulp at the absolute speech-defying wonder of seeing her beautiful boyfriend bared and glistening before her.
In a town teeming with oversize egos, a surplus of vanity, and a cult of body-obsessed green juice devotees, Mateo’s obliviousness to his natural good looks was so rare, most of the time Layla couldn’t imagine what he saw in such a pale and cynical slip of a girl like herself.
“Can I help?” He reached for her water bottle, looking as though he’d like nothing more than to read her take on three martini-fueled A-list celebrities reenacting their former high school cafeteria hijinks by chucking olives at everyone around them.
Typical Mateo. He’d been like that from the first night she’d met him, just a little over two years ago, on her sixteenth birthday. Both of them had been amazed to discover they were born just a year and ten days apart, and yet their birthdays still managed to make them different (and mostly opposing) astrological signs.
Mateo was a Sagittarius, which made him a free-spirited dreamer.
Layla was a Capricorn, which made her ambitious and a wee bit controlling—if you believed in those things, which of course Layla didn’t. It was just some weird coincidence that in their case was true.
She handed over the laptop and sank deeper into her seat. Hearing Mateo read her work aloud was her own personal version of crack.
It was good for her process. Helped her edit and hone. But Layla had enough self-awareness to know that when it came to her writing, she was the world’s biggest praise slut, and Mateo usually found something nice to say, no matter how lame the content.
Water bottle dangling from one hand and Layla’s MacBook Air perched on the other, Mateo started to read. When he reached the end, he looked at her and said, “Is this for real?”
“I kept an olive as a souvenir.”
He narrowed his gaze as though trying to picture the celebrity food fight. “You get a picture?” He returned the laptop.
Layla shook her head, paused to make one small adjustment, then hit Save instead of the usual Send. “The Château is serious about their photo ban.”
Mateo shook his head and drained the water bottle in one steady stream as Layla continued to ogle him, feeling more than a little
She sank the laptop into her bag. “You know how I’ve been talking about starting my own blog, Beautiful Idols?” Her tentative gaze met his. “I’m thinking this might be the perfect launch piece.”
He shifted his stance, played with the bottle cap. “Layla, it’s a good bit.” He spoke as though he was handpicking each word. “It’s funny, and on point, but . . .” He shrugged, letting the silence say what he wouldn’t: it was hardly the caliber of work she was capable of.
“I know what you’re thinking.” She rushed to her own defense. “But none of the crap I write about qualifies as world-changing news, and I’m sick of working for crumbs. If I want to go it alone, I’ll have to start somewhere. And while the blog might take a while to really catch on, once it does, I can make a ton of money on the ad revenue alone. Besides, I’ve saved more than enough to hold me between now and then.”
That last part was a hasty addition that might or might not be true. But it sounded good, and it seemed to convince Mateo, since his first response was to pull her out of her chair and into his arms.
“And what exactly will you do with all that ad revenue?”
She ran a finger over his chest, stalling for time. Her dream of going to journalism school in New York was something she hadn’t yet shared, and to do so now would bring an awkward moment she’d rather avoid.
“Well, I figured the bulk of it would go toward the burrito fund.”
He grinned, circled his arms at her waist. “The recipe for a happy life—you, decent surf, and a healthy burrito fund.” He touched his lips to the tip of her nose. “Speaking of—when are you gonna let me teach you to surf?”
“Probably never.” She allowed her body to melt against his, burying her face in the crook of his neck, where she inhaled a heady base scent of ocean, sun, and deeply rooted contentment—complemented by a top note of honor, sincerity, and a life lived in balance. It was everything Layla wished she could be, but knew she would never achieve, encompassed in one single breath.
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