Unrivaled, p.23

Unrivaled, page 23

 

Unrivaled
 


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  “Last I checked, I didn’t work for the DEA, and neither did you.” She let go of his jacket, crossed her arms over her chest, and stared at him. “What’s really going on here?” she asked. Everything about him was grossly out of character.

  “What’s going on with you?” He rubbed his lips together, ran a hand through his hair.

  “Can you be more specific?” She frowned.

  “What happened to your blog and the inside story you were supposed to uncover?”

  Layla looked at him, sensing that what he really wanted to ask was: What happened to you?

  “Mateo, why did you come here?” she asked, ignoring the question. There was no good way to answer it that wouldn’t just make everything worse.

  When he met her gaze, the fight seemed to seep out of him. “To see you.” He shook his head.

  “Well, I’m here. Right in front of you. Asking you to dance. Question is: What are you going to do about it?”

  Without hesitation, he grasped her hand, led her into the crowd, and pressed his lips against hers. The move reminded her of the time she’d danced with Tommy—a time she preferred to forget.

  But maybe this kiss with Mateo could erase all of that. Or, at the very least, superimpose a better memory on top of the bad one.

  She pushed closer, slowly grinding her hips against his. Relieved when Mateo anchored his hands at her waist and closed whatever space existed between them.

  FIFTY

  HIPS DON’T LIE

  Spotlight

  Green-eyed teen heartthrob Ryan Hawthorne has been missing from the club circuit these days, and who could blame him? With a recent run of bad luck, including a canceled show; the embarrassing public breakup at Night for Night nightclub with his former A-lister girlfriend, Madison Brooks; and the rash of rumors in the wake of her disappearance, it’s understandable he’d take a break from his party-boy ways. If there was ever a time for some serious self-reflection, it’s now. As it turns out, that’s exactly what Ryan’s been up to, and we at Spotlight were thrilled when he took time out to answer our questions.

  Spotlight: We’re sure you’re aware of the frenzy following Madison’s disappearance, but considering your former relationship with her, we’re wondering—what are your theories?

  Ryan: I don’t have any theories. And I certainly don’t buy into the conspiracy theories floating around. Look—I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—I’m deeply sorry about the way things ended between me and Mad. I’d do anything to get her back. And I plan to do exactly that—if she’ll have me. But for now, I respect her right to lie low, and I ask everyone else to grant her that too. She’s had a rough go of it, mostly thanks to me. And while I can’t rewrite the past, I can work on becoming the kind of boyfriend Madison deserves.

  Spotlight: And what about Aster Amirpour?

  Ryan: What about her? Getting involved with Aster is something I deeply regret. There’s absolutely no excuse for my behavior and the way I betrayed Madison. Now I’m just eager to put that behind me as a lesson learned and do whatever it takes to try to redeem myself.

  Spotlight: Well, everyone loves a good redemption story, so we’re rooting for you, Ryan! But unlike certain news reports, you seem convinced that Madison Brooks is alive and well.

  Ryan: Because she is alive and well. It’s irresponsible to print things that suggest otherwise when there’s absolutely no evidence to back it. But hey, I get it, sensationalism sells.

  Spotlight: What would you like to say to Madison in case she’s reading this?

  Ryan: I want to tell her that I love her—that I’m sorry for my actions—and when she’s ready to resurface, I hope she’ll find it within herself to give me a second chance.

  Aster rolled her eyes and chucked the gossip mag to the other side of her room. He loves her. He’s sorry. It was nothing but lies. But then Ryan was an accomplished liar. Look at all the lies he’d told Aster that she’d been dumb enough to believe.

  Well, not anymore.

  She shook away the thought and headed inside her walk-in closet, toes sinking into the plush ivory carpet as she tried to decide which of the two new dresses she should wear to the club. Funny how she’d started the week sobbing in the police station parking lot, with an empty wallet and nowhere to go, only to end it ensconced in a swanky penthouse apartment in the W hotel (thanks to Ira Redman, who owned the luxury pad), and her place in the competition intact.

  Ira was right. The very thing she thought would lead to her doom ended up being the best thing that had ever happened to her. Sure, her parents still weren’t speaking to her, but she talked to Javen nearly every day, so at least she had that. And while she couldn’t claim complete independence, seeing as she owed her current luxurious lifestyle to the generosity of Ira Redman, and while she wasn’t exactly proud of the events that had spawned her good fortune, there was no denying Madison’s disappearance and Aster’s notoriety were directly responsible for the surge in numbers at all of Ira’s clubs. Not to mention how she’d had her pick of interested agents, who’d already lined up a bunch of interviews and photo shoots.

  A far cry from the day she’d left the police station, only to have Ira whisk her into the amazing apartment, where he’d settled her onto the sleek dove-gray leather couch with a cup of green tea while one of his many assistants arranged her belongings in her new room.

  “You don’t have to do this,” she’d said, feeling small and overwhelmed in such a luxurious space. The floor-to-ceiling windows provided an amazing view of the city. The furnishings were modern, sleek, and of the highest quality. She could never repay him.

  “Of course I don’t.” Ira had claimed the couch just opposite. “But I didn’t get where I am by ignoring opportunities that have been handed to me, and you’re smart and ambitious enough to understand what I mean.”

  She’d taken a tentative sip of her tea and waited for him to continue.

  “Correct me if I’m wrong, but it was your ambition, first and foremost, that sent you into Ryan Hawthorne’s arms?”

  Aster had folded her knees to her chest, wrapped her arms around them, and hung her head in a way that encouraged her hair to fall over her face. More than anything, she wanted to cling to the belief that she’d truly cared about Ryan. She didn’t want to think she’d willingly wasted her virginity on someone who’d cared as little for her as she did for him. But if Ira wasn’t fooled, how much longer could she continue to fool herself?

  “He was on the list.” Ira’s voice had remained neutral, just stating the facts as he saw them. It was the first time since the whole mess began that she hadn’t felt the harsh sting of criticism. “And so you were determined to claim him as one of your gets, probably figuring where Ryan goes, Madison follows?”

  She’d lifted her shoulders, unfolded her legs. She felt raw, exposed, incapable of hiding the truth. For the first time in days, she was ready to talk. “In the beginning—” She’d snuck a peek at Ira, seeking the strength to continue. “I liked the attention. He liked the attention, or at least he seemed to. But then . . .” She’d reached for her tea, holding the cup between her chest and her chin, trying to summon whatever it was she’d convinced herself she’d felt about Ryan. “I thought he liked me. I truly believed the things that he said.”

  “Your first mistake,” Ira had snapped, his entire demeanor displaying a distinct lack of sympathy. “Never, ever believe an actor. They’re always acting. There’s no off switch. You of all people should know that.”

  She’d frowned into her cup. “Please, I’m a failed actor.”

  “Are you?”

  Her gaze met his.

  “Or are you just failing yourself?”

  Her shoulders had slumped. Her head felt too heavy for her neck to support. It was like whatever force had been holding her together had suddenly vacated, leaving her loose-limbed, limp, and desperately in need of guidance, and who better to direct her than Ira?

  “After you finish your tea and pull you
rself together, you’re going to that police station. Failing to make good on your word will only annoy them, and that’s something you don’t want to do. But you won’t go in as an emotional basket case with an overly sensitive tear trigger. You’ll go in with a carefully crafted script that you absolutely will not deviate from. Once that’s behind you, you will lose the victim mentality, stop hiding, and finally recognize your current predicament as the moment you’ve always dreamed of. And don’t even try to pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about, because we both know you’ve dreamed your whole life of having your picture in the tabloids and your name on everyone’s lips. Maybe it didn’t happen the way you’d envisioned, but now that it’s here, it’s your job to make the most of it. The very thing that makes you ashamed is the very thing that just might make you a star. Night for Night is still going strong, but it’s got less to do with your fellow team member and more to do with the notoriety of all that went down. People love a good scandal, Aster. And, as it happens, you have the starring role in this particular story. Better embrace it, before something else happens and you fade into obscurity.”

  She’d hid her face in her hands, massaging her temples with her thumbs and taking a moment to process his words. “Ira, do you have kids?” She’d lifted her gaze to meet his.

  He looked amused, but otherwise shook his head.

  “That’s too bad. I think you’d make a great dad.”

  Before she could finish, he was roaring with laughter. When he’d finally calmed down, he said, “I’m pretty sure that’s the first time anyone has ever said that to me. I’m also sure it’ll be the last. So—” He was back to business again. “You on board? Ready to take control of your life?”

  Aster had glanced around the apartment. She could get used to living like that. “Yes,” she said, voice filled with conviction. “I’m all in.”

  Ira nodded, seemingly satisfied. “Good, so here’s what you’re going to do. . . .” He’d leaned toward her and laid out the plan.

  Still, nothing could’ve prepared her for the humiliation of sitting across from that creepy Detective Larsen, struggling not to focus on his leering face, as he’d asked her a series of demeaning questions that, thankfully, the attorney Ira assigned would not let her answer. She’d basically pleaded the Fifth, until Larsen gave up and told her to leave. She shuddered to think what might’ve happened if Ira hadn’t saved her from going alone.

  She shook off the memory and shimmied into the black lace minidress. She was just slipping into her shoes when she heard someone knock. Teetering on one Manolo, she opened the door to find one of the hotel staff delivering a small packet.

  “Sorry to bother, it’s marked ‘urgent.’”

  Aster stared at the envelope. There was no return address, which struck her as strange. Though she was already running late, she was intrigued enough to slip her index finger under the flap and dump the contents into her hand.

  It was a homemade DVD in a clear plastic case with her name written in black.

  Her belly churned, a wave of apprehension coursed through her, as her mind reeled with a thousand possibilities, none of them good. She stumbled toward the TV, unable to so much as breathe as the large flat-screen flickered to life and she collapsed on the couch.

  Her worst fear had come true.

  FIFTY-ONE

  DON’T SAVE ME

  Layla pushed free of the interrogation room and headed down the bleak hallway, which reeked of panic, dread, and burnt coffee. She was unsure if she’d just successfully cleared herself of suspicion or sealed her own disastrous fate. The fact that she wasn’t wearing handcuffs and leg shackles was probably a good sign. Still, despite what seemed like hours spent protesting her innocence, between the restraining order and the Madison slams on her blog, Larsen seemed convinced that Layla had all the motive she needed to get rid of Madison Brooks. The only thing missing was evidence.

  Desperate to put some distance between her and Detective Larsen, she made for her bike, thinking a nice long ride might clear her head. But considering the way her life was seriously spiraling out of control, she could circle the earth a handful of times and it probably wouldn’t do any good.

  Besides, now more than ever, she, Aster, and Tommy needed to talk. The fact that they’d been hauled into separate interrogation rooms around the same time was no accident. Clearly the detectives wanted them to see one another, probably hoping it would cause them to panic, confess to the kinds of things they’d previously chosen to omit.

  Were Tommy or Aster guilty of harming Madison? Her first thought was to doubt it—doubt it in the way she’d doubt that anyone she knew was capable of something like that. But wasn’t that really more of a naive, almost hopeful way of seeing the world? Wasn’t it more likely that, given the right situation, the right circumstance, anyone was capable of just about anything?

  Clearly Tommy viewed her as capable—or at least that was what he’d told Larsen. Or maybe he’d never even said that. Maybe Larsen was just maneuvering them to all turn on one another. All she knew for sure was she was growing increasingly uneasy with each passing day.

  She kicked a rock with the toe of her boot, glanced between the time on her phone and the door to the station. Had he left before her? Short of marching back inside and asking, she had no way of knowing. She decided to wait a bit longer. Between the black wristbands he’d freely supplied to the under-twenty-one crowd and hooking up with Madison, she’d already seen the lengths he’d go to to win a contest—who knew how far he’d go now that his life was at stake?

  An engine rumbled to life, prompting Layla to look up in time to see Tommy backing out of the lot. She darted toward him, shouting his name as he switched into drive, foot heavy on the accelerator, unsure if he failed to acknowledge her because his windows were closed and his music was loud, or if he was purposely ignoring her. It wasn’t until she leaped right in front of him that she knew she’d finally been seen.

  The brakes screeched, the car lurched forward, then back, missing her by a matter of inches, as Tommy leaned out the window and yelled, “Are you fuckin’ crazy?”

  She leaned on the hood and fought to catch her breath. At least she wasn’t wrong about him not being a killer. He’d clearly chosen not to run her over when he very well could have and called it an accident.

  “What the hell are you doing?” he shouted, his blue eyes narrowed in anger.

  “We need to talk.” Layla veered around the hood and stood beside his door. “You, me, and Aster. Can you convince her?”

  “Do you think you’ve convinced me?” He shook his head, looked at her like she was insane.

  She brushed her hair from her face. “I’m not spending my life in prison for something I didn’t do, and neither should you. Meet me at Hollywood Forever in an hour.” She went for her bike.

  “The cemetery?” he called out from behind her.

  She looked over her shoulder, centered her gaze on his. “Johnny Ramone’s grave. I’m sure you know where it is. But don’t worry—I have no plans to bury you. But if we don’t find a way to get together and talk, they will.” She hooked a thumb toward the precinct and pulled her helmet onto her head. She watched as Tommy shrugged and drove away, leaving Layla to hope he’d be smart enough to do what was needed.

  FIFTY-TWO

  PARANOID

  Tommy Phillips pulled out of the precinct parking lot and drove a few random blocks, before stopping on a quiet residential street with Old Hollywood–style homes—the kind with red-tiled roofs, arched doorways, and spare, sloping lawns. Homes that harkened back to a different Hollywood, a less complicated time. Or maybe it hadn’t been any less complicated then than it was now. Maybe things only seemed easier when viewed in reverse.

  He stared out the windshield, needing a moment to process what had gone down, and, more important, what it might mean. First he got called into the station to go over the same shit he’d already been over, only to have Layla leapfrog onto the hood of his car,
practically daring him to mow her down.

  Who does that?

  What the hell was she up to?

  He rubbed his eyes with his knuckles, remembering the way Layla looked when she’d jumped out of nowhere. Serious. Determined. Convinced he wouldn’t harm her. It was instinct that had forced his foot to the brake. Any decent person would’ve done the same. Still, it wasn’t just an innate sense of morality that had kept him from hitting her. Truth was, he’d wanted to save her. Protect her. Probably because he felt guilty for pointing the finger at her.

  Though that wasn’t to say he trusted her. If nothing else, Madison’s disappearance had permanently erased any hint of country boy naïveté that had managed to survive the trip from OK to LA. People were much more complex than they ever let on, making him wonder if it was ever really possible to truly know anyone—if he could ever truly know himself. When he’d first arrived in LA, he’d carried all kinds of bogus beliefs about who he was, where he was going, and exactly how he’d go about getting there. Only to find himself buffeted by the whims of circumstance, reacting in ways he never could’ve foreseen.

  The ping of an incoming call interrupted his thoughts, as a picture of his mother bloomed on the screen. Thanks to her tabloid-reading neighbors, she called all the time. Claimed she didn’t want him working for Ira, but whenever Tommy pressed for a reason, she changed the subject, begged him to come home, but that was no longer an option.

  He let the call go to voice mail, promising himself he’d return it later, and scrolled for Aster’s number. It was probably a mistake. But they could always leave if Layla proved to be as crazy as he suspected her of being. He turned the key in the ignition, once, twice. The engine sprang to life, and he squinted out the side-view mirror and merged onto the street.

  “Layla wants to meet at Hollywood Forever, at Johnny Ramone’s grave,” he said, before Aster could speak.

 
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