Unrivaled, page 25
“It means you live in a hotel. Which also means you’re not the only one with a key to your room.”
Aster shook her head, mumbled under her breath, so annoyed she wondered why she didn’t just leave. Why did she allow Layla to taunt her?
“Look, I know you and Ira share some kind of special bond. . . .”
“What the hell are you implying?” Aster’s eyes burned with anger, but what she really felt was fear. Did Layla know about the cash-stuffed envelopes Ira regularly slipped her? Just because she took them didn’t mean she wasn’t conflicted.
“Last I checked, you were the only one occupying one of his swanky penthouse apartments.”
Aster sighed. Who was she kidding? She wasn’t going anywhere. She sank back down beside Tommy.
“If we had to vote now, who would you finger as guilty?” Layla hunched her shoulders forward and tucked her blond hair behind her ears, revealing a pair of silver heart stud earrings that seemed wildly out of place. Aster would’ve expected skulls, daggers, or spikes. Must be some kind of ironic statement, she decided.
“The evidence is all pointing to Ryan, no?” Tommy looked between them. “He was probably really angry at Madison for making that scene.”
“Mad enough to kill her?” Aster screwed up her face, unsure if her reluctance to believe it was because she couldn’t bear to think she’d willingly gone home with a murderer. She had enough shame in her life. She didn’t need to add that to the list.
“I’m not convinced she’s dead.” Tommy was adamant, but he had nothing to back it other than a potent combination of stubbornness and hope.
“Well, the fact that he disappeared in the middle of the night is pretty disturbing.” Layla drove home the point.
“And it’s not like he’s not milking his role in the scandal.” Aster rolled her eyes. Annoyed by the way Ryan had continually confessed his remorse, his undying love for Madison, and how he’d made Aster look like a convenient ego fluffer.
“The same could be said of you guys.” Layla frowned, then looked at Tommy and said, “Is there anything she said, or did, that seemed unusual? Anything you saw that seemed out of place when you followed her?”
Tommy closed his eyes. When he opened them again, he said, “She spoke with an accent.”
“What kind of accent?”
“Country. Mountain. She’s definitely not East Coast, like she says.”
Layla nodded excitedly, her blond bob swishing around her face. “I ran into her one day getting coffee. She went by the name Della. At first I didn’t think much of it, since everyone uses aliases at Starbucks, but what if there’s more to Madison’s past than she admits? And what if Ryan discovered her secret and was blackmailing her or something?”
“Why would Ryan blackmail her?” Tommy asked.
“Because his show’s getting canceled, he has nothing lined up, he lives an expensive, flashy life, and he’s probably starting to panic. I’m just saying, it’s a very real possibility. . . .”
“Okay, so we’re all leaning toward Ryan, but what exactly do we do about it?” Aster said.
“Well, whatever we do, we can’t afford to let the LAPD divide us. I’m not saying we need to be BFFs—but we don’t have to depart as enemies either. Nothing good will come of that.”
Tommy was the first to stand, but Aster was quick to follow. She’d heard enough for one day. She needed time to digest, work it out in her head. And though she didn’t want to admit it, she was definitely second-guessing her hiding place for the video. She hoped Layla was wrong, but she was determined to get back to the W and confirm either way. Still, before she left, there was one last thing to get off her chest. Her words directed at Layla, she said, “If you so much as mention the sex tape or Ryan ditching me to Larsen or anyone else, so help me, I won’t hesitate to take you down with me.”
“Is that a threat?” Layla regarded her from under a quirked brow, as Tommy glanced anxiously between them.
“Most definitely.” Aster lifted her chin, clutched her bag to her side.
“Noted. I meant what I said about us sticking together.”
When Layla offered her hand, for a split second Aster nearly rejected it. But in a world where she no longer had any friends, she’d been touched to discover true compassion in the least likely place. She placed her hand on Layla’s, and Tommy placed his on top. The three of them were united, for better or worse.
RUNNIN’ DOWN A DREAM
We need to talk—preferably somewhere private.
Trena Moretti stared at her cell phone and frowned. In another hour it would be too dark to run, and she didn’t consider treadmills an option. She tossed the phone aside and returned to the business of lacing up her running shoes.
The phone chimed again.
I promise, you do not want to miss this. Text me.
Trena glanced out the window and jumped to her feet. Running was her religion. It was sacred, necessary, and often illuminating. Some of her very best work occurred when she was pushing beyond her physical limits, gasping for breath and dripping with sweat.
She could use a little illumination. Her story had served its purpose, effectively shaking the LAPD out of their inertia and getting a lot of eyes to take note of her byline. But lately, there’d been nothing juicy to report. Though all that could change with Layla’s text.
Still, forfeiting her run was unthinkable.
You a runner? she typed, putting herself through a series of stretches while she waited for a reply.
You’re joking, right?
Not a joke. Grab your sneakers and meet me at the Santa Monica Pier ASAP.
It wasn’t her favorite route, but it was easily accessible, and it would have to suffice.
While Trena hadn’t expected her to show—Layla struck her as the type who’d spent her high school years thinking deeply cynical thoughts and smoking menthol cigarettes—she definitely hadn’t expected her to wear a pair of old ratty gym shorts, a gray tank top cut at the midriff, and a pair of spanking-new trainers.
“You just run out and buy those?” Trena nodded toward Layla’s neon clad feet.
“A gift from my dad last summer when he envisioned us waking up early to share a daily father-daughter jog.”
“How’d that go?”
“First morning we jogged all the way to Intelligentsia on Abbot Kinney. The second morning we slept in. Haven’t worn ’em since.”
“Well, try to keep up. Run time is holy. I normally don’t allow anyone to join me. And I definitely don’t allow anyone to slow me down.”
“Then I’ll try to finish the story before I pass out,” Layla said, joining Trena on the paved jogging path.
“Just so you know, this is my starting pace.” Trena spared a look to the side. They’d only begun, and the girl looked like she was about to keel over. “Take it from someone who used to be an exercise avoider like you. All of this—” She jabbed a thumb toward Layla’s slim legs and flat abs. “It’s a gift. Enjoy it while you can, but know that from age twenty-five on, you gotta work to maintain it.”
Layla nodded. “Is that it for the lecture?”
“Oh, there’s more.” Trena laughed. “But I’ll spare you the ugly truth about the ravages of gravity, mostly because I’m eager to learn whatever it is you’re willing to share before you conk out.”
Layla narrowed her eyes and looked all around. “I’ve got a serious lead regarding Madison’s disappearance.”
Even though it went against the rules she’d already stated, Trena slowed her pace. “I’m listening. . . .”
“Okay, two things. One—” Layla paused. “I’m an anonymous source. You have to promise never to reveal where you got this.”
“Scout’s honor.” Trena’s voice betrayed a hint of sarcasm she instantly regretted. She was eager to get to the juice of the story but knew better than to show it. Especially now that she was about to hit pay dirt.
“Layla, seriously. Trust me, okay?” Trena shook her head, watching as Layla struggled to fill her lungs with air before she continued.
“There’s a very good chance Ryan Hawthorne knows more about Madison’s disappearance than he lets on. He might even be responsible.”
Trena nodded, fought to keep her face from appearing overly interested. “I’m listening. . . .”
“Apparently he has some unaccounted-for time during the early morning hours, probably around the same time Madison was last seen.”
“Last seen by Tommy.”
Layla was winded but had so far managed to keep pace. “From the time she left the Vesper to the time she was reported missing, no one’s come forward admitting they’ve seen her. But my source tells me Ryan wasn’t exactly where he said he was.”
“Ryan claims he was at home. His doorman confirms it.”
Layla frowned and stared straight ahead. “Doormen can be bought. Someone needs to check the security tapes, if there are any.”
Layla shook her head, was clearly losing steam. Was it the run that was getting to her, or was she shutting down, beginning to regret everything she’d confided thus far? It wasn’t the first time Trena had seen someone second-guess their decision to share. She’d have to take a step back, be careful not to push, maybe even slow down her speed, if only a little. She focused on the run, switching her gaze between the colorful box-shaped houses on the right and the wide swath of golden sand and navy-blue ocean on the left. Allowing Layla all the space she needed before she decided it was safe to continue.
“Let’s just say he’s proved himself to be the asshole I’ve always suspected him of being,” she finally admitted.
Bingo. Trena exhaled in relief.
She glanced at the girl. She was dripping wet, her cheeks were red, and yet, she refused to slow down. It was like she was punishing herself. Paying some kind of penance. But for what?
“The other thing the LAPD doesn’t know is that when Madison left the Vesper, she went to Night for Night.”
“Night for Night was closed for the night.” Trena remained unimpressed.
“Madison knew the code. Seems like something you might want to look into, no?”
Yes—most decidedly yes. Just as soon as I get my five miles in.
But what she said was, “Is that it?”
Layla nodded, completely out of breath, her expression one of absolute agony. “And this is where I leave you.” She spun on her heels and bolted the opposite way before Trena could thank her.
PICTURES OF YOU
For the entire drive from Hollywood Forever Cemetery to the W hotel (which took far longer than it should have, thanks to the notorious LA traffic), Aster chided herself for confiding in Layla and Tommy when they’d given her absolutely no reason to do so. The stuff they’d confessed was nothing compared to the total humiliation of a sex tape.
She turned left against the red (again, thanks to LA traffic, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d turned left on a green) and inched toward the hotel. Wanting more than anything to get up to her room and open her safe, if only to prove Layla wrong.
The tape was safe. No one would go through her belongings. She had nothing to fear.
But no matter how many times she repeated the mantra, her stomach continued to churn.
She pulled into the entrance at the same time her phone chimed with an incoming call. She glanced at the screen, half expecting it to be Layla, only to see it was Ira. Without even thinking, she pressed Decline.
He’d been good to her. Because of him she had much to be thankful for. But at the moment, she was too flustered to speak to anybody, much less Ira Redman.
Leaving her car with the valet, she raced for the elevator and repeatedly punched the Up button, until a voice behind her said, “Tell me, does that ever work?”
Aster turned. Tried to look happy to see him, but the smile she’d forced to her lips faded when she saw Javen standing beside him.
“What happened?” She glanced between them, unable to think of a single valid reason for Javen to be hanging out with Ira Redman. Unless something had happened to her parents . . .
Ira nodded toward Javen, as her brother looked at her and said, “I want to move in with you.”
The elevator rang. The doors slid open.
“I’ll leave you to sort out the details.” Ira started to turn. “Oh, and, Aster—”
She stepped inside the elevator, held the door with her hand.
“The next time I call you, don’t hit Decline.”
She blinked, released her grip on the door, and counted the seconds until it closed between them.
“Aster—” Javen started, but Aster lifted a hand and shook her head.
“Not here,” she whispered, realizing just how paranoid she probably sounded, but it wasn’t entirely unwarranted. “Whatever it is, it can wait until we get inside.” She willed the elevator to climb faster—why was it moving so slowly? Now more than ever she needed to get inside her apartment. She wouldn’t be able to relax and focus on her brother until she’d made sure the DVD was right where she’d left it.
Once inside, Javen raced for the floor-to-ceiling windows and took in the one-eighty view of the city as Aster made for the safe tucked away in the closet. Holding her breath, she punched in the code and swung the door open, only to exhale in relief to find that her jewelry, her MacBook Air, some cash Ira had given her, and the DVD were all there.
She sank to her knees. Dropped her head in her hands.
She wasn’t crazy.
Her secret was safe.
It could only get better from here.
“You okay?” Javen stood in the doorway with a look of concern on his face.
“Yeah.” She wiped a hand across each cheek and hurried to her feet. “Now tell me, what’s going on? Why are you here? Not that I’m not happy to see you, because I am.”
“Mom and Dad are crazy,” he groaned, as she led him out of the closet and into the den.
“We already knew that.” She ruffled his hair, deposited him on the couch, and made for the kitchen. She searched the fridge for something to serve him, but who was she kidding? She hadn’t gone grocery shopping the entire time that she’d lived there.
“How do you feel about room service?” she asked.
“I say it’s just another reason I want to live with you. You get to live in this sweet place and do whatever you want.”
“Yeah, well, I’m three years ahead of you. I’ve earned the right. But don’t be too impressed; none of this is mine, and the situation is temporary at best. No telling how long Ira will allow me to stay.”
Javen’s beautiful brown eyes glinted on hers, his thick dark lashes practically sweeping his cheeks each time he blinked. “What does he care? He practically owns this town. He’ll let you stay as long as you want.”
“It doesn’t exactly work that way.” Aster frowned, taking a moment to study her brother. Her heart surging with empathy for all the trials he’d yet to face but undoubtedly would. She’d been so focused on her own struggle with her parents’ unrealistic expectations she hadn’t stopped to consider his. He was an artist at heart—but they were actively pushing him toward a more rigid profession. He liked boys, but they were already on the lookout for a suitable wife. In their highly structured world, there was no room to wander. And despite his youth and good looks, Javen was already exhibiting the strain of the expectations they placed upon him. “I’ll make you a deal,” she said, wanting more than anything to help him but recognizing her own limitations. “If you promise to call Mom and Dad and tell them you’re with me, then I’ll let you stay. We’ll order room service, watch movies, and stay up all night if you want. But tomorrow, you have to go home—sound good?”
Javen shot her a wary look. “Is this negotiable?”
“No.” She tossed him the room service menu. “Order whatever you want. I’m taking a bath. After that, I’m yours.”
Javen sank into the cushions, propped his feet on the coffee table, and immersed himself in the menu, while Aster made for the bathroom, where she went about filling the tub with heaping scoops of bath salts, before lowering herself in the water and resting her head against the tub pillow she’d bought her second day there. There was nothing like a nice hot bath to ease all her worries. For the first time in a long time she began to relax. She inched deeper, allowing the water to lap at her chin, soak the strands of hair all the way to her ears. It might not be the dream Jacuzzi she’d grown used to from her parents’ house, but it served as a pretty good stand-in.
She had just closed her eyes, about to drift to a faraway place, when Javen knocked at the door and said, “This was just delivered.” He tucked a plain manila envelope under the sill.
Same kind of envelope the DVD had arrived in.
The sight of it was enough to send a wave of panic coursing through her; she heaved herself from the tub. Water sloshing, feet skidding against the slick marble tile, she raced for the envelope, slid her index finger under the flap, wincing in pain when the edge sliced deeply into her flesh. She thrust the wound between her lips, her mouth filling with blood, as she dumped the contents onto the floor, gasping in shock when her gaze settled on a grainy picture of her naked, writhing self—a still from the video.
She yanked a towel from a hook, clutched it tightly against her, and stumbled toward her closet, needing to check the safe once again. Needing to verify the DVD was really still there. But that didn’t mean it hadn’t been removed at some point or that it had been the original DVD to begin with.
Had someone taken it, made a copy, and then returned it?
Or was there a duplicate already making the rounds?
At first glance it seemed just like she’d left it. But Aster was far more meticulous than most when it came to her belongings, and she distinctly remembered leaving the cash-filled envelope on the left side of the safe instead of the right, where it was currently placed. She’d been so relieved to confirm the presence of the DVD, she’d completely overlooked the fact that her things were rearranged.
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