Smile Number Seven, page 1
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Table of Contents
Other Books by Melissa Price
About the Author
Age is just a number—right?
That’s not her first thought when four-time Oscar winning actress Katarina Verralta meets the younger Julia Dearling. Caught in a monsoon, the movie star exits the dark desolate interstate in search of someplace to eat and stay for the night.
Julia Dearling, owner of the Starlight Diner, is stranded in her desert parking lot with a bygone battery and the memory of her newly dead relationship. When Katarina pulls in, neither of them guess that their life is about to turn upside-down and inside-out.
In a town as big as a noodle, Desert Bluff has no motels. So Julia serves dinner to Katarina at the diner and then offers up her sculpting studio as a place for Katarina to stay.
Drawn together in the night, their intoxicating romance begins. But when age is front and center and fame is at stake, the closeted movie star must face her reckoning.
Copyright © 2019 by Melissa Price
Bella Books, Inc.
P.O. Box 10543
Tallahassee, FL 32302
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, without permission in writing from the publisher.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
First Bella Books Edition 2019
eBook released 2019
Editor: Medora MacDougall
Cover Designer: Judith Fellows
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Other Bella Books by Melissa Price
Skin in the Game
Thanks to Bella Books, the keeper of our stories. Thank you, Editor Medora MacDougall for guiding Smile Number Seven into the world.
To my fiercest and most trusted critics who inspired me throughout this work: Oana Niculae, John Daleiden, Jacob Shaver.
And to my readers, I am grateful for daydreamers everywhere.
About the Author
Melissa Price is a novelist who credits her former profession as a chiropractic sports physician for creating characters who make skillful leaps and bounds. While Smile Number Seven is pure romance, she describes her first two novels, Steel Eyes, and Skin in the Game, as “Lesbianage”—the word that characterizes her lesbian romantic intrigue. Melissa’s current work-in-progress is a sociopolitical farce titled The Right Closet. She also co-wrote the screenplay Toma-The Man, The Mission, The Message. She is passionate about animal rescue.
A lifelong guitarist and avid swimmer, Melissa hopes to be reincarnated as a mermaid. Her motto is: Write. Swim. Read. Repeat. While Melissa’s happy place is Jamaica, you can always find her at www.melissa-price.com.
Dedicated to the memories of Nancy and Chick Price, who taught me to strive for excellence and originality. And for Andrea Price Goldsmith, to whose effervescent artistry I remain beholden.
For that singular moment, Katarina Verralta held her breath—ignored her racing heartbeat that rippled across the space-time continuum. I’d trade two of my Oscars for this one! she thought.
From the list of names the presenter read, all she heard was, “Katarina Verralta for Allies of Night.” On the edge of her seat, she watched the actor pull the card from the envelope in slow motion. The name he repeated belonged to someone else.
The next instant would turn out to be her least appreciated performance of the year—the one for which no gold statue was at stake. Katarina convincingly cheered for her rival’s Best Actress win.
If I’d been this good on-screen, I’d be walking up there right now! she thought.
Katarina smiled and applauded vigorously. She wondered how many cocktails it would take to erase the words from her brain: “And the Oscar goes to Britney Cavell.” Like the incessant ding of an unanswered phone, the name echoed in her head. Cavell.
From her front-row seat, Katarina watched Cavell cradle the Oscar, then produce an on-demand tear that segued brilliantly into her rehearsed visage: feigned humility.
Katarina grunted. Jesus, I taught her that expression! Just keep smiling.
Cavell ended her acceptance speech with a nod to her competitors, singling out Katarina, “who I grew up watching and emulating. I share this with you, old friend.”
The camera that broadcasted that moment around the world captured a cutaway star-shot of Katarina’s ebullience—as Oscar-winning as Cavell’s.
The bitch just had to throw the age shots at me. “Old friend!” Grew up watching me? You’re 39, for god’s sake, not 19!
Katarina responded with Award Ceremony Smile Number Four: plasticine encased in polyurethane, it beamed delight with a dash of nostalgia.
From the seat to her right, her assistant Gigi patted her leg and applauded her
Katarina scanned her costars from Allies of Night who had won Oscars for their work and smiled her seal of approval—the dethroned queen lauding her subjects with a nod. Suddenly, her Spanx felt very tight, the Versace gown strangled her ample breasts, and the theater temperature baked her two layers of makeup. She tossed back her long chestnut-brown waves and used Award Ceremony Smile Number Two to hide her broken heart.
Katarina toughed-out the Best Picture category, counting down the moments until she could leave. Upon her exit from the Dolby Theater, she signed some autographs and posed for the paparazzi.
“Katarina, Star Cable News. How about an interview?”
Katarina pivoted and smiled for the camera. “Sure, call my publicist,” she said in a throaty alto Italian accent.
“Katarina, look this way!” another photographer called out.
Then, “Miss Verralta, over here.”
One after the next, a hundred stuttering clicks delivered the message that the world still loved her. She knew how to dazzle in the lights—she’d grown up studying photos of every movie icon, and their class and style in Hollywood’s golden age.
“Look! It’s Britney Cavell!” a fan blurted out.
In a swarm, the colony of worshipers followed the clique of photographers; admirers surrounded Cavell, leaving Katarina Verralta a red carpet orphan.
Gigi had her limo timed perfectly; the door was open and waiting. Katarina paused before getting in. She filled her lungs with Hollywood night air and observed the parade of camera-ready faces vying for their moment in the press. The crowd swelled outward toward Cavell, with fans reaching, calling out to the Oscar winner from behind the barricades.
Britney posed, signed a few autographs, and searched into the near distance until her eyes met Katarina’s.
“Get me out of this quicksand,” said Katarina, turning away quickly for the refuge of her limo.
“Here.” Gigi offered the actress a glass of champagne.
Katarina waved it away. “Pour me the hard stuff,” she said as the limo pulled onto Hollywood Boulevard.
Gigi had the vodka waiting. “You were the one who deserved that award, Rina. Britney Cavell is nowhere near your caliber.”
“Thank you, Gigi, but I pay you to say that.”
Gigi took a swig of the champagne Katarina had declined. “Fine. But this time I mean it. As far as I’m concerned, they’ve snubbed you two years in a row. Everyone knows you’re the biggest draw at the box office, and the world loves you.”
Katarina downed the vodka. “A lot of good that did me tonight.”
“Shake it off. We’re going to have some fun at the studio after-party.”
“I think I’d like to skip that. I don’t want to see Britney Cavell again. Ever.”
“Honey, you’re the star of your movie. You can’t bail.”
“Okay, one hour. That’s it. Then I’m out of there.”
They rode in silence most of the way until Katarina’s cell phone rang. Gigi pulled it from her purse. “Right on cue. It’s Cavell.”
Katarina took the phone, turned it off, and handed it back to Gigi. “There. One problem solved.”
The following morning, Clay Hart drifted into Katarina’s kitchen bright and early at noon. As usual, he entered through the sliding doors from the lush garden that led to the pool house he occupied. “Morning, Gigi.” He smiled and reached for the coffee pot.
“You’re a ray of sunshine this morning,” Gigi answered from her seat at the table.
“You jealous that I met Harry Orlon last night?”
Gigi chuckled. “Met the man named by People magazine as the sexiest man alive? I’d say you two did more than meet.”
Clay winked at her. “He just left the pool house.” Clay poured coffee into his mug, added a tablespoon of heavy cream, a heaping teaspoon of brown sugar, and two shakes of organic cocoa powder.
“Really?” Gigi said, amused.
“Really,” he replied matter-of-factly.
“So…was this but an Oscar-night dalliance, or are we seeing Harry again?”
Clay laughed. “I don’t know about you, but I am.” He planted his slight five-foot-nine frame opposite her and took a long sip of coffee. “Nectar of the Gods.”
“Not the South American gods. Where is she and how is she doing this morning?” he asked.
“How would I know?”
“You’re her personal assistant.”
“Well, you’re her personal manager. Since it’s noon and we haven’t seen her yet, maybe she needs to be managed. Again—your domain.”
“Managed and perhaps ‘assisted,’” Clay smiled. “This is going to take a combined effort. She was so bummed last night. Poor baby. Rina poured her heart into that role. And I believe it was her best performance since Spinning the Light.”
“I agree. I’ve never seen her that despondent. What if something’s really wrong? She’s upstairs in her suite and we would never even know.”
“Maybe I’d better go check on her,” said Clay.
“I’ll go. You look like you could use a little more time to rejoin the living.”
“You’re a kind soul.”
“We’re just a good team, Clay.”
“I’ll get up in a minute and make the queen a remedy.”
The assistant climbed the two levels above the kitchen in the five-story Malibu mansion. The entire top floor was a home within a house—the sprawling private suite fit for a movie star of Verralta’s stature.
Gigi entered the suite and crossed the marble foyer. She stopped and surveyed a sitting room so tidy that it was lifeless, sterile—even if adorned with expensive trinkets from her boss’s travels. The tiled terrace bowed outward around the hillside, and on a clear day, a seat on the Roche Bobois ultra-modern couches afforded a view that reached across the expanse of sapphire Pacific to Catalina Island.
She tapped lightly on the bedroom door but heard no response. After rapping harder a second time, Gigi drew open the door one inch at a time.
“Rina?” she whispered into the blacked-out room. “Rina.” She stepped across the threshold, pressed the button on the wall, raising the electric shades enough to be able to take in the disarray of debauchery.
Unforgiving daylight highlighted the woman, who, sprawled across her bed, lay surrounded by evidence of the excesses of the night before. Strands of her luxurious chestnut waves were plastered across her face, stuck to her cheeks with makeup she hadn’t removed.
“Rina, wake up.”
The actress didn’t stir.
Rina shot straight up to a sitting position. “Huh? What?” She lifted her sleep mask and peered at Gigi with startling green eyes that nested above her prominent cheekbones. “Go away.”
“Not an option. What the hell happened up here last night?”
“My head. My stomach.” Rina groaned, falling back onto her pillow, leaving the mask resting on her forehead.
“You’re hungover.” Gigi picked up the trash can and surveyed the debris on the floor. She flourished the first of several candy wrappers. “So then, this was the appetizer? Dark chocolate, 55 percent cacao. Really? Domestic?” She shook her head in disapproval.
“I was slumming,” Rina moaned.
Gigi dropped it into the can and reached for the next one two steps away. “Imported Belgian dark, 75 percent cacao. Now we’re getting somewhere.” Another toss into the trash. “Here’s a nice change of pace.” She read from the empty box. “Chocolate swirl ice cream dipped in a hard chocolate shell.” She sighed. “Rough night.”
“I know, I know. Don’t remind me.” Rina hugged her pillow, holding it tightly against her abdomen. “Alcohol would
Gigi hovered, advancing her position until she stopped at the night table. “Chocolate chip cookies. Nice, there are two left out of the entire bag.”
“Move away from the cookies!”
Gigi dropped the remains into the can.
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Okay, give it up, Rina.”
“Give what up?”
The assistant held out her hand. “What’s under your pillow?”
Gigi stared down at the actress until the silence forced Rina to look at her.
“Fine!” Rina groped underneath the pillow and tossed over the box of chocolate-covered cherries.
“And that pillow?”
Rina sneered at her before tossing her the package of unopened mini-chocolate cakes.
Gigi swept it all off the bed into the can and sat. “Jesus! Are you finished wallowing?”
“Don’t make it worse. I already feel like shit.”
“Honey, you know that chocolate is a cruel mistress. We’ve been down this road before and it never turns out well. What happened to throw you off this cliff?”
“I had to leave the after-party. The more Cavell drank, the meaner she became—even threatened to out me in the press. I wanted to smack her. But then I imagined all of the online photos, headlines, and TMZ profiles. So I left and came home.”
“You mean you punished yourself instead of the person who deserved it. Do you think you might come back to the land of the living anytime soon?”
“Why, what did you have in mind?” Rina dusted the cookie crumbs from her blue silk pajamas.
The assistant softened and smiled. “How about we start out slow? Come down to the kitchen.”
“I don’t know what I’d do without you, Gigi.”
“Of course you don’t. Clay’s downstairs whipping up one of his magic potions. Now, up with you. Go wash your face—and peel off those false eyelashes already. See you downstairs.”