Unrivaled, p.20

Unrivaled, page 20

 

Unrivaled
 


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  He was worried about her. Sure she came off as tough and capable, but Tommy had seen a vulnerability most people would never suspect. He needed to know she was okay. Needed to know that whatever had shocked her into running hadn’t gotten the best of her, or, God forbid, harmed her. If it turned out she’d decided she’d made a mistake by kissing him and that she never wanted to see him again, he’d deal. As long as she was all right, he’d handle it. It was the only thing that mattered.

  “So how’s Madison?” Ira asked, ignoring Tommy’s question.

  Tommy dropped his gaze to the envelope. Just how much of a thank-you was this? “How should I know?” He shrugged.

  Ira continued to examine him. That was exactly what it felt like, being examined under a high-powered lens. “Considering you were the last to see her, I thought you might have some insight the others are lacking?”

  Tommy watched Ira’s mouth twitch at the side. Was it amusement? Contempt? At the moment, he didn’t much care. He just sighed and squinted out the darkly tinted window to the sun-seared landscape beyond. Dead weeds, buckled sidewalks, sagging chain-link fences surrounding broken-down houses with peeling paint and bars covering the windows and doors. Other than a handful of manicured pockets they featured on the postcards, Tommy was surprised to discover the City of Angels mostly consisted of bleak urban sprawl.

  “She’s heartbroken,” Tommy finally said. He needed to say something if he had any hope of getting Ira to stop scrutinizing him, never mind that it wasn’t entirely true. Strange as it was, Madison hadn’t seemed the least bit heartbroken. If anything, she seemed almost reborn, released, like a person who was standing on the precipice of a bright, shiny future. Though he wasn’t about to share that with Ira.

  “Heartbroken, huh?” Ira’s voice betrayed a hint of amusement. “Who would’ve guessed?”

  It was Tommy’s turn to scrutinize Ira. He had no idea what he was getting at, but then Ira often spoke in riddles.

  “Who would’ve thought she was a good enough actress to fool even you?” Ira’s expression remained unreadable as Tommy sat speechless beside him. He hadn’t even noticed the SUV had pulled up to the curb outside his apartment, until Ira said, “This is you, right?”

  Tommy nodded, unsure what to do. Of course he needed to get out of the car and into his apartment before Ira could unnerve him even more. But suddenly the envelope felt too large and awkward in his hands. He needed the money more than ever, but nothing came from Ira without the expectation of some kind of repayment.

  “Ira, I can’t—” He started to return it, but Ira dismissed the gesture with a wave of his hand.

  “Let’s not play this game,” he said. “I’ll have your car towed and arrange for a loaner until it’s fixed.”

  Tommy started to protest, but Ira cut in.

  “This is LA, not . . . whatever small town you’re from. Access to a working set of wheels is a matter of survival.”

  Tommy sighed, palmed the envelope, and slid out of the car before he had a chance to reconsider.

  “And, Tommy,” Ira called to him as the car pulled away. “I’m sure you’ll find a way to repay me, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

  “That’s exactly what I’m worried about,” Tommy muttered, watching the SUV fade into the smog as he raced up the stairs to his shithole apartment before the paps could descend.

  FORTY-THREE

  ANOTHER WAY TO DIE

  “Mom . . . Dad . . . you’re home!” Her mouth was moving, words were spoken, but Aster’s body had otherwise completely shut down. Stunned, shell-shocked, stupefied—there was no single word to adequately describe the way she felt seeing her parents appear in her room. “I thought you were still in Dubai.”

  Her mother advanced, her mouth pinched with fury, eyes narrowed in scrutiny, as her father remained by the door, frozen with grief, and Nanny Mitra hovered in the background, fingering her locket and mumbling prayers of salvation under her breath.

  “Where have you been?” Her mother’s voice perfectly matched the stern expression she wore.

  “Nowhere!” Aster closed her eyes. Damn, why had she said that? It was the mantra of the guilty: Nowhere—no one—nothing! Still, her parents were the absolute last people she’d expected to see. They weren’t due home for several more weeks. And yet, there they were, ambushing her in her very own room. “I mean, I was with a friend. I was with Safi—at Safi’s.” She cringed when she said it. She’d become so obsessed with her new job and her flirtation with Ryan she’d mostly blown off her friends, and yet, here she was, still using them as her go-to excuse.

  “We’ve spoken to Safi.” Her mother crossed her arms over the classic Chanel bouclé jacket Aster had once hoped to inherit. “Would you like to try again?”

  Aster gulped, dropped her gaze to the floor. There was nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. She looked like crap, smelled like boy, and her mother was totally onto her.

  “And what is that you’re wearing?”

  Aster rubbed her lips together, squinted at her clothes—or rather, Ryan Hawthorne’s clothes. “It’s just, you know, the ‘borrowed from your boyfriend’ look, that’s all.”

  Her father let out a small cry of despair and rushed down the hall as though his daughter had just died and he couldn’t bear to look at the corpse. But of course Nanny Mitra stayed put. She had absolutely no qualms about hanging around the crime scene.

  “And who is this boyfriend you borrowed these from?” Her mother inched closer. Close enough to catch the scent of shame and despair surrounding her daughter.

  “Mine.” Javen pushed his way into her room and stood before their mom. “I mean, clearly I’m not her boyfriend, because—gross! But the clothes belong to me.”

  Their mother waved a hand in dismissal. “Javen, go to your room. You have nothing to do with this,” she said, but Javen stayed put.

  “You’re wrong. I have everything to do with this. My sister raided my closet without my permission! I’d like to see her punished for that.” He crossed his arms in defiance and arranged his face into the kind of angry expression he was unused to wearing.

  It was a good attempt, and Aster loved him more in that moment than she probably ever had, but she wouldn’t let him take the fall. Not like their mother was buying it. With a nod to Nanny Mitra, Javen was hauled out of the room by his arm, shouting in protest the whole way.

  Too ashamed to face her mother, Aster stared down at her feet and studied her pedicure, sickened by the sight of the dark-red polish she’d chosen with the sole hope of gaining Ryan’s approval. If she confided the truth that she didn’t exactly have a boyfriend, but that for a few false moments she’d allowed herself to believe that she had, only to discover she’d been deflowered and discarded without a second glance—well, it was everything her mother had ever warned her about come true, in the most awful, most dramatic, most public way possible.

  “There’s no boyfriend,” she whispered, eyes burning with tears.

  “Then where did you get these clothes if there is no boyfriend to borrow them from?”

  “Doesn’t matter.” She shook her head, wondering how it was possible for the night that had started so perfectly to end in such a nightmare.

  “On the contrary.” Her mother’s voice rang as sharp as the verdict she would surely deliver. “You snuck out of the house, only to arrive home early in the morning wearing the clothes of a boy who isn’t your boyfriend. I say it matters a great deal.”

  Aster forced herself to keep standing, keep breathing, but did nothing to stop the flow of tears that streamed down her face. She’d shamed herself, shamed her family. The only thing left was to wait for whatever punishment her mother deemed appropriate for the offense.

  “All of which begs the question: If you’re wearing his clothes, what happened to yours?”

  Aster thought about the dress and undergarments she’d left in the trash. Stuff her mother had never seen and luckily never would—her one smart move in a long lis
t of regrets.

  “Does it matter?” She lifted her chin, her vision blurred by tears, as her mother stood stiff-backed before her. “Do you really give a shit about the current state of my clothes?”

  Her mother’s gaze hardened, as Aster awaited final judgment. Among her many crimes, she’d used foul language and spent the night with a boy who wasn’t her boyfriend—a boy she would never marry—the ruling would undoubtedly be harsh.

  “You’re grounded until further notice.”

  Aster exhaled. She’d honestly thought she might be packed off to a brutal reform school for wayward girls, or excommunicated from the family. In the scheme of things, grounded wasn’t so bad.

  “You will not leave this house for any reason whatsoever outside of an emergency.”

  She nodded. That would certainly keep her out of the contest, but Ira Redman’s competition no longer made the list of things she cared about. Besides, she didn’t want to leave the house, possibly ever again.

  “Okay.” Her shoulders slumped in defeat as she headed for the shower, only to hear her mom call out from behind.

  “You’ve disrespected yourself and brought great shame on this family. This is not something your father will recover from anytime soon.”

  Aster stopped, knowing she shouldn’t say it, but she’d already fallen so far she figured she had nothing to lose. “And what about you?” She turned to face her mother. “How soon will you recover?”

  She held her mother’s gaze, the seconds seeming to multiply before her mother shook her regal head, lifted a finger toward the bathroom, and said, “Go clean yourself up, Aster. Your father and I have had a very long trip. We are tired and in need of rest.”

  Without another word, she turned on her Ferragamo heels and closed the door behind her. Leaving Aster to stare after them, knowing she’d disappointed her family in a way she might never recover from.

  FORTY-FOUR

  THE SWEET ESCAPE

  Layla wandered around the hotel meeting room. With its beige-and-white-patterned carpet, beige movable walls, and the lineup of beige chairs along the stage where Madison and her fellow actors would sit, the room elevated the neutral look to a ridiculous level. Still, the blandness of her surroundings did nothing to dampen her excitement at having fudged her way into her first press conference. She just hoped no one questioned her credentials. It would be embarrassing to get kicked out in front of a crowd she admired.

  She moved among the other journalists, not sure whether to be relieved or annoyed when no one took much notice of her. Well, at least there was a coffee setup in the corner. She never turned down a chance at caffeine, no matter how bad the coffee might be.

  “Late as always.”

  She gazed up at the woman who’d said it, about to defend herself, point out that she was actually early, when she realized the woman was referring to the event.

  “Typical celebrity bullshit.” She looked at Layla as though expecting her to agree.

  “I know, right?” Layla said, immediately regretting it. It made her sound as young and inexperienced as she was. But the woman didn’t seem to mind.

  “Trena. Trena Moretti.” She offered a hand, and Layla juggled her coffee in order to take it. “LA Times digital division.” She shook her head, setting her wild bronze curls shimmering in a way that reminded Layla of fire season. “Still can’t get used to saying that. I came over from the Washington Post.”

  Layla nodded. “Layla Harrison.” She purposely omitted the name of her rag, mostly because it didn’t exist. But when Trena leaned closer, eyes narrowed, trying to make out the name on her badge, she reluctantly said, “The Independent. Probably haven’t heard of it, since we’re new and . . . independent.” Oh yeah, that was super convincing.

  Trena shot her a knowing look. “First time at one of these?”

  Layla was about to deny it, claim she’d been to many, but Trena was onto her. “That obvious?”

  “You’re drinking the coffee.” Trena grinned. “Though it’s good to see an excited new face. Reminds me why I was once drawn to this field.”

  “Why’d you leave the Post?” Layla asked, wondering if it was too invasive of a question for someone she’d just met, but weren’t journalists supposed to dig deep? And besides, Trena could always plead the Fifth.

  “A major career shift brought on by a cheating fiancé. Guess Madison and I have more in common than I thought.” She laughed, prompting Layla to laugh too. With her smooth caramel complexion, and intense blue-green eyes, she was incredibly striking. “So, what’s your interest in Madison?” Trena asked.

  Layla shrugged. She didn’t have a ready answer for that. “I guess I don’t trust her,” she said, deciding to answer honestly. “And I’m waiting for her to slip up, show us who she really is.”

  Trena tapped her water bottle against Layla’s Styrofoam cup. “That makes two of us. You see that breakup video?”

  Layla nodded vaguely. If there was ever a time to brag about her accomplishments, it was now. But her badge claimed she worked for a nonexistent rag.

  Trena looked toward the stage. “Oh, finally,” she said. “Shall we?”

  Layla glanced in that direction. She’d planned to stay put, stick to the fifty-foot radius she’d been warned about. But just as quickly she decided against it. She was a member of the press, and the press wouldn’t be silenced.

  She followed Trena, thrilled to have met someone who could possibly become a mentor. The two of them watched as Madison’s costars took the stage one by one, leaving the chair in the middle, the one reserved for the star, empty, as the moderator took the mike and said, “We apologize for the delay.”

  “I’ll bet.” Trena rolled her eyes and shook her head.

  “We’re now ready to begin, but there’s one caveat.” He paused as though waiting for the situation to change within the next twenty seconds. When it didn’t, he said, “It looks like Madison Brooks will not be joining us today.”

  That simple announcement was enough to set off an explosion of shouting as the reporters jockeyed for attention, yelling their questions.

  Where’s Madison?

  What explanation did she give?

  Does this have something to do with the events at Night for Night?

  The moderator held up his hands. “I don’t have answers to any of your questions, but if you’ll all quiet down, we can proceed.”

  Trena glanced at Layla with an annoyed look on her face. “I don’t know about you, but without Madison, I have no good reason to be here.” She made for the door as Layla followed. “I’m not much for clubbing,” she said, glancing over her shoulder. “But I’d love to talk with someone who was there. Something about that breakup feels wrong.”

  “I was there.” Layla stopped short of the door, reluctant to leave her first press conference. With or without Madison, it was still worth attending.

  “You don’t strike me as the nightclub type.” Trena studied her with renewed interest.

  “I’m not.” Layla shrugged. “Which is why I suck at my job as a promoter.”

  Trena fought to maintain a neutral face, but Layla caught the fleeting glimmer in her eye all the same.

  “What do you say I buy you lunch, and in exchange, you tell me about your job as a promoter at Night for Night?”

  “I promote Jewel. Another of Ira Redman’s clubs.”

  “That works too.” Trena pushed her way outside, assuming Layla would follow.

  She gazed back at the stage, a bunch of blah-blah about how much fun they all had working together, when the truth was, they probably all hated one another. More Hollywood bullshit. The PR wheel never stopped spinning.

  “Wait up!” she called, pausing long enough to toss her coffee in the trash before following Trena into the sun.

  FORTY-FIVE

  NOWHERE GIRL

  Was It Murder?

  Following a very public breakup from former boyfriend Ryan Hawthorne after discovering his indiscretion with Aster Amirp
our (a promoter for Ira Redman’s Night for Night nightclub), America’s Darling and tabloid staple Madison Brooks has seemingly fallen off the face of the earth.

  Ms. Brooks is one of the world’s most photographed celebrities, so the lack of sightings, along with the failure of the star to show up for scheduled appearances on Ellen, Conan, the Today show, and the press conference where she was first discovered missing, is troubling those closest to her, though the LAPD doesn’t seem to share their concern.

  “There are a variety of reasons why a person voluntarily disappears,” claims Detective Sean Larsen. “Not all missing persons are victims of foul play. And being a voluntary missing person is not a crime in itself. We ask the press to keep that in mind. All of this wild speculation is probably only serving to drive her farther away. After all she’s been through, the poor girl is probably just looking for some privacy.”

  Maybe so. But according to Madison’s longtime assistant, Emily Shields, there’s one thing Madison Brooks would never abandon. “Was Madison upset about what happened between her and Ryan? Of course, who wouldn’t be? But even if she did decide to hide out for a while, she never would’ve left without Blue. That dog is her best friend in the world. He cries all day without her, like he senses something’s wrong, and it’s breaking my heart. If anyone out there knows what happened to Madison, please, please speak up. We need your help, since the police don’t seem to care.”

  At what point will the LAPD wake up and realize what the dog knows?

  Something’s gone terribly wrong with Madison Brooks.

  Trena Moretti skimmed the article she’d written, then adjusted the font until the screaming headline filled up the screen.

  Was It Murder?

  Inflammatory? No doubt.

 
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