Unrivaled, p.13

Unrivaled, page 13

 

Unrivaled
 


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She opened the door and started to head back to her car, when Paul called her by the name her parents had given her.

  “Be careful out there.”

  She frowned, shaken by the sound of that name on his lips. “Just do your job and I won’t have to,” she said, slipping behind the wheel and driving away.

  TWENTY-THREE

  SUICIDE BLONDE

  BEAUTIFUL IDOLS

  Heartbreaker

  So you know that beautiful, truly sensitive soul* we all fell for in last month’s ten-hankie weeper? Turns out, he’s an idiot. I know, I’m just as shocked as you. At this very moment I’m ripping his posters off my bedroom walls, and when I’m done burning the pillowcase with his face on it, I’m changing my Twitter icon back to a pic of my cat. Maybe after reading this, you’ll consider doing the same.

  In a recent interview with a splashy mag this blogger j’adores, this is how Prince Not-So-Charming described his idea of the perfect girl:

  “A girl who will watch you play video games for four hours, and then have incredible sex with you—that’s the girl you should date.”

  For those of you thrilled to just sit back and watch while your boy fiddles with his joystick for hours on end, I’ve got just the guy for you!

  For the rest of us with a brain, standards, and a desire to play our own game, let’s all take a vow to stop making dumb people famous, k?

  *The first ten peeps who correctly guess the name of this week’s horny but clueless celebutard win a place on the guest list at Jewel this coming weekend. Spill it in the comments!

  Layla frowned as she skimmed her post. The story was secondhand, gleaned from a fashion mag. Not the kind of writing she envisioned when she’d decided to strike out on her own. But how was she supposed to go after the celebrities who’d started frequenting Jewel? Now that she was writing for her own blog, she couldn’t exactly trash them when she needed them to help her stay in the game.

  As for the exposé she promised Mateo—the sordid nightclub scene he’d warned her about proved to be nothing more than a bunch of kids, some famous, some not, all trying to enjoy their weekends and have a good time. Not exactly a crime.

  Her phone chimed as Mateo’s gorgeous face appeared on the screen.

  “Y’almostdone?” He spoke so quickly the words ran together.

  “Still working.” She sipped her latte and scowled at her laptop.

  “We need to be at the restaurant in twenty.”

  Layla squinted, having no idea what he was talking about.

  “Valentina’s birthday,” he said, addressing her silence. “I guess you forgot.”

  She closed her eyes. Guilty as charged.

  When she failed to confirm either way, he said, “You’re still going, right?”

  She sighed, hating what she was about to say. “You know I have to be at Jewel.”

  “What I know is you promised Valentina you’d go to her party.”

  Had she really done that? Probably. From the moment she’d gotten drunk and kissed Tommy, she’d agreed to almost everything having to do with Mateo or his family.

  “That was back when I thought I was getting fired,” she admitted.

  “Well, you explain that to Valentina. She’s going to be crushed.”

  Layla rolled her eyes. She was getting tired of his guilt trips. “Laying it on a little thick, don’t you think? All her friends will be there—she won’t even notice I’m missing.”

  “I’ll notice. My mom will notice. And in case you haven’t noticed, my sister idolizes you.”

  “Well, maybe that’s her first mistake.” Layla angrily crushed the sides of her still-half-full cup. She should apologize. Take it all back. But part of her was daring Mateo to call her on her crap. She certainly deserved it for bailing on Valentina, never mind for the things he didn’t know about.

  “You know, you’re only a couple weeks into this job and it’s already happening—you’re changing and you can’t even see it.”

  She frowned. “Pretty sure the blog I just wrote proves I’m hardly the celebrity worshipper you accuse me of being.”

  “Maybe not, but you’re so focused on that world, you’re losing sight of the people who matter.”

  “That’s not true, I . . .”

  Her voice faded. Madison Brooks had just walked up to the counter and was placing her order.

  She’d heard Madison worked out at a nearby gym and often dropped in for a post-workout caffeine hit. Luckily, Layla’s decision to change her writing venue and hang around long enough to down three lattes had paid off. It was better than joining the gym and stalking her in a spin class.

  “I gotta go,” she mumbled, ending the call as she stared at the back of Madison’s head, knowing she had to act fast.

  So far, no one had been able to secure her as a get, mostly because she was so hard to reach. But as Layla watched Madison wait for her order, minus the usual entourage, bodyguards, and overall fuss that usually surrounded her, there was a good chance Layla might change all of that.

  She shoved her laptop into her bag and pushed away from the table, watching as the barista called, “Iced skinny latte for Della!” and handed the drink to Madison as though she had no idea who her customer was.

  Clutching the drink in one hand, and her wallet and keys in the other, Madison struggled to shoulder the door open as Layla jumped in to help her.

  “Here, I got it,” she said, as Madison shot her a cautious look. Her eyes widened in recognition—surprise?—Layla couldn’t be sure. “Um—I couldn’t help but hear her call you Della.” Layla raced to catch up as Madison darted down the sidewalk. “But you’re Madison, right? Madison Brooks?”

  Madison shook her head, muttered something unintelligible under her breath.

  “I mean, it’s cool if you don’t want to be noticed. I totally get it. It’s just that—” Layla took a deep breath, struggled to keep pace. “I’m a huge fan,” she lied, surprised when Madison stopped and fixed those bright violet eyes right on hers.

  “Are you?” she asked, as though she knew better.

  Layla watched as a yellow Lab trotted past, pulling a kid with matching hair riding a skateboard with a surfboard tucked under his arm. “Well, yeah.” She cringed, knowing she didn’t sound one bit convincing. Desperate to cover the flub, she said, “And I wanted to invite you to a party.”

  Madison shook her head, spun on her heel, and stormed down the street.

  “Nothing creepy, I swear,” Layla said, which only made it sound even creepier. God, she was totally blowing this. Why was she so freaking inept? “It’s at Ira’s. Ira Redman’s.”

  Madison turned to face her. “If Ira wants to invite me to a party, he knows how to reach me.”

  Layla raised her hands in surrender. They’d gotten off to a bad start and she wanted, needed, to fix it before it got any worse. “Not at Ira’s—at Jewel. One of Ira’s clubs. I’m a promoter, and—”

  Madison whirled on her, looking extremely annoyed. “Trust me, I know who you are. You’re a small-time blogger who makes a living trashing celebrities.” Her voice was raised. People were starting to gather.

  “That’s not true!” Layla called as Madison started moving again, racing past a succession of parking meters and palm trees, the usual LA landscape. “Well, maybe it’s partly true, but—”

  “Look—you need to back off!” Madison swung around just as Layla tripped over an uneven slab of sidewalk, spilling what remained of her coffee down the front of Madison’s white tank top.

  “What the—” Madison stared down at the mess, then back at Layla, her violet eyes wide, her expression a mixture of disbelief and outrage.

  “I’m so sorry— I—” Layla came at her with a crumbled napkin, wanting to help sop up the stain, but someone had already alerted security to the poor A-list celebrity being harassed by the crazy girl who wouldn’t back off.

  “There a problem here?” A big brick of a cop stepped out of a storefront and inserted himself right between
them.

  “What? No!” Layla cried.

  At the same time, Madison claimed, “Yes. She’s been following me for blocks. Won’t leave me alone. And when I asked her to back off, she tossed her coffee on me.”

  The cop looked between the evidence dripping down the front of Madison’s top, to the empty coffee cup in Layla’s shaking hand.

  “This true?”

  “I wasn’t stalking her!”

  “Who said anything about stalking?” His eyes narrowed, as Layla shook her head and clamped her lips shut, refusing to say anything that might further incriminate her.

  “You want to file a report?” The cop looked at Madison.

  “Definitely.” She turned those widened eyes on his, as she clutched her hand to her heart like she somehow feared for her life. “You’ll be hearing from my lawyers.”

  The cop nodded, watched her walk to her car. Once she was safely inside, he turned to Layla and said, “I’m going to need to see some ID.”

  TWENTY-FOUR

  KNOW YOUR ENEMY

  Madison grabbed her purse, slipped out of her car, and made for Night for Night, where she greeted the bouncer, James, and leaned in for a rare, sincere hug she reserved for a small list of people. She truly liked James. Sure, he was a little rough around the edges, but heck, there’d been a time when the same could be said of her. James was street-smart, a striver, not afraid to work hard by taking on a few extra assignments, and he was fiercely loyal to those who were fiercely loyal to him—all qualities Madison admired.

  She tipped onto her toes and whispered into his ear. “Is she here?”

  He nodded. “But so far, Ryan’s a no-show.”

  “Oh, he’ll show.” Madison peered over his shoulder, squinting to get a better look inside the club. “You’ll alert me when he does?”

  “You know it.”

  “Also, don’t give her the credit for getting me here.”

  “Any preference?”

  “Anyone but Aster.” She kissed him on the cheek, discreetly slipped a wad of bills into his pocket, and made her way in. It was rare for her to go out alone, but her usual crowd would only distract her, and besides, she didn’t plan to stay long.

  She moved through the club. It was one of her favorites based on decor alone. She’d visited Marrakech once, and though the trip had been brief, she thought Ira had done a good job of capturing that exotic, luxe feel with all the copper lanterns, curved archways, and abundance of hand-painted tiles. Even the music they played was more languorous and mellow than most clubs, the slow, sexy beat just low enough so you didn’t have to scream to have a conversation.

  She looked all around, hoping Ira wasn’t there. He’d waste no time trying to impress her with buckets of champagne and a spot at the best VIP table. He was always really gracious, bordering on ingratiating, and while she usually didn’t mind, tonight she preferred to keep it low-key. She would’ve told James not to tell Ira she’d arrived, but she doubted he’d go along. She wasn’t the only one he was fiercely loyal to.

  Even though the club was crowded, Aster was easy to find. She was right there in the Riad, as Madison had figured. In spite of all the pictures she’d seen, she was still surprised to find the girl was exceedingly pretty. While there was no shortage of beautiful actresses in LA, Madison was convinced the intangible thing that made some more compelling than others had nothing to do with the tilt of a nose, or the sweep of cheekbones. It was the ability to inhabit a role so fully the flesh seemed to dissolve into the character’s being.

  For Madison, the ability to disappear was what drew her to the craft. And, ironically enough, the time had come for her to vanish for real. Paul would do what he could, but she no longer trusted him to keep her safe on his own, and she had no intention of sitting around, waiting for the threat to find her. Luckily, she’d delayed her breakup with Ryan. Turned out she needed him now more than ever.

  Madison prided herself on possessing a level of insight that was rare for someone her age. Her ability to read beyond the lines in a script and get to the absolute motivation behind every word, every action, was her greatest gift. And at that moment, watching Aster flirt with a producer who really should’ve been home with his wife and new baby, Madison sensed Aster’s desperation, the insatiable need to be the star of every scene. Not exactly rare for an actor; they were known to be a needy, neurotic, insecure bunch, but unlike Aster, Madison had learned to rid herself of her baser emotions (or at least appear to), and desperation was the first to go.

  A wisp of a grin caught Madison’s face. If it was attention the girl wanted, then Madison would gladly provide. Though it would come at a price Aster wouldn’t expect.

  Madison watched in amusement as Aster’s face transitioned from her charming, flirty, party-hostess expression to one of the absolute shock of finding Madison Brooks standing before her.

  “Madison—hi!” Her tone was friendly, bubbly. And with her flawless olive complexion, glossy dark hair, enormous brown eyes with lashes so thick they didn’t seem real though they most likely were, and the lithe, sinuous body of someone who was no stranger to dance class, she was even prettier up close and in person.

  “I like your Sophia Websters.” Madison motioned to Aster’s embellished stilettos. There was no better friendship starter than a mutual love of overpriced shoes. And though they’d never be actual friends, their fates were now tied together in ways Aster could never foresee.

  “Can I get you a table?” Aster beamed as though she could barely contain her excitement.

  Madison glanced at her usual cabana. “I see my favorite is taken. . . .”

  Aster blinked, once, twice, probably calculating the amount of fallout she’d face by evicting the current occupants to make room for Madison. Wisely deciding against it, she said, “I’m so sorry. Had I known you were stopping by . . .”

  Madison waved a hand in dismissal, favoring Aster with a grin like they were long-lost friends. “How could you have known?” The grin faded as she allowed the question to linger between them.

  For a few startled moments Aster truly did resemble the cliché of a deer caught in headlights. Then just as quickly, the panic eased from her face and she said, “I have another great table I think you’ll really like. And I can have your favorite champagne sent right over. Dom Pérignon rosé, right?”

  Madison nodded. The girl had done her homework. Though if anyone had ever bothered to observe a little closer, they would’ve noticed Madison rarely drank from the bottomless glasses of champagne the clubs continuously foisted on her. That was where her entourage came in. They provided the perfect distraction to the sober truth that Madison wasn’t quite the partier she pretended to be.

  She followed Aster to a table along the terrace’s perimeter, all the while studying her like Aster was a character she might someday portray. She’d already seen all of Aster’s vitals on paper—home address, family net worth, the private schools and country club memberships—but to truly understand Aster, Madison needed to observe her in person. It was imperative to know exactly who she was dealing with if she was going to allow Aster to play such a big role in her life.

  Hollywood breakups were tricky. They came second only to the breathless vigil the tabloids kept over baby bumps and celebrity weddings. A split between actors had the power to boost or destroy a career—it all depended on how the story was spun.

  Usually, a cheating scandal looked very bad for the cheater. But there were definitely cases where the tabloids turned on the victim, painting him or her to be so awful the cheater was automatically forgiven the discretion. However it played, one thing was sure: if the other person worked outside the industry, then they usually wasted no time trying to elevate themselves by selling their side of the story, attempting to make the leap from a virtual nobody to a permanent place in the spotlight. Of course, once a new scandal came along, they were quickly forgotten—but that didn’t stop them from trying.

  When news of Ryan and Madison broke, t
here would be no shortage of magazines willing to cough up some cash to anyone with info on the split. And after seeing her in person, Madison was convinced Aster wouldn’t hesitate to make a grab for whatever fleeting shot at fame she could get.

  From everything she’d gleaned so far, Aster was raised to be a good girl, and a scandal like that would rock her whole family.

  Then again, Aster’s dream of fame and fortune was apparently so strong she was willing to take a job her parents most likely did not approve of.

  Who knew what else she was capable of?

  Or just how far she’d go to get what she wanted?

  It was that bottomless hunger that Madison was counting on.

  She watched as Aster expertly popped the cork and filled a glass she then placed before Madison. “Can I get you anything else?” She smiled expectantly.

  Madison was about to reply, figuring it might be fun to send the girl on an impossible errand, when her phone buzzed with a text from James, alerting her that Ryan had just walked through the door.

  Madison waved her hand distractedly. She waited for Aster to leave before she texted James a quick thanks and slipped out without being seen.

  TWENTY-FIVE

  SHADES OF COOL

  When Madison Brooks walked into the Vesper, not a single person noticed. The lights were dim, the band was in the middle of a raucous set, and the crowd was so focused on the music, no one bothered to check out the high-profile celebrity who seemed perfectly content to lean against the back wall, completely unseen.

  When the band left the stage for a break, Tommy edged through the crowd, taking a mental inventory of all the faces he recognized as his gets when he spotted an image so inexplicable his first thought was that it was some kind of joke. Maybe even a look-alike. But when Madison centered her gaze right on his, and her beautiful face curved into a slow, flirtatious grin, well, he’d seen enough magazine covers and billboards to recognize the real thing when it was standing before him.

  He glanced around the room, searching for the other promoters, wanting to be sure they hadn’t seen her, since it didn’t even occur to him she might’ve been there because of them. Determining they hadn’t, he closed the few steps between them, all the while wondering how to address her—Madison? Ms. Brooks?—before finally settling for a casual, “Hey.”

 
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