PRIDE’S CHILDREN – Chapter 3
…if he shall gain the whole world…
~ ~ ~
…from the French/Spanish border where Norman Endleson is filming ROLAND due out by Christmas: he should have heeded warnings about headstrong ANDREW O’CONNELL, whose demands brought production to a near standstill more than once. O’Connell’s clumsiness with a sword nearly cost an extra’s life, and he seems equally adept at slicing himself up…
~ ~ ~
…rumors of ROLAND post-production holdups delaying the release ‘til after New Year’s, dashing hopes of Academy noms for the monstrously expensive epic…
~ ~ ~
Hollywood Hills, 9 p.m.
Bianca dragged the star sapphires from her earlobes as she strode towards her dressing suite with the uniformed maid in tow. Daddy’s dancing-ballerina jewelry box should have given her a lift, but instead it added to her sense of impotence. She stowed the earrings, slamming the lid and sending the dancer’s legs jittering.
The maid held out a sleek nightgown sheath in ice-blue satin like a tributary offering. She departed with an armload of lingerie, her skinny peasant braids knitted together with red yarn making a ‘U’ across her back.
Calm down—they’re all bastards. The gilt-and-marble bathroom designed by silent film star Noira Matthews reminded her of who she was. She reached for her electric toothbrush, polished each tooth with care. It left behind a hint of too-sweet wintergreen. Great—dessert.
She sat herself erect in front of the lit mirror. One by one she dug out the long hairpins, dropped them on the dressing table. Thick hair pooled about her shoulders. Time to work. She ran her fingers through it, massaged her scalp, reached for the brush. Gently, then harder, she pulled it through, long luxurious strokes. She shook her head, admired the silk-curtain effect; reluctantly, she braided the glossy hank loosely for the night. Jean-Pierre constantly proclaimed, ‘Always to bed beautiful’. Whatever it costs—I’m worth it.
She fondled her skin, inspecting up close the smooth brow, the delicate skin under the eyes; she could hear Jean-Pierre’s voice: ‘You make the crease so many times, then the skin it marks—save for the camera.’ She feathered in the final eye cream. And again, ‘Softly, chérie. No frottage.’ She leaned closer, switching the lights to the harsh ‘Daylight’ setting. That was not a tiny wrinkle.
Tonight the ritual reminded her she would be thirty in a year.
Fact: she could do, in front of the camera, anything a director wanted.
Fact: Grant Sykes chose her for Incident at Bunker Hill.
One last look in the full-length mirrors. They are not replacing me with sixteen-year-old starlets.
Michael was already propped up in bed, in silk PJ boxers which exposed the tanned abs he was so proud of. He stretched a palm out like an invitation on a silver platter. She ignored him, piled pillows on her side. Lousy timing. As usual. She scooped up the stack of papers from her nightstand, tucked a pillow behind her waist. More nitwit romantic comedies. She discarded each grommeted script after a few pages. “Crap!”
“Who’s your backup?”
“What are you talking about?”
“If you can’t get O’Connell? Face it, babe, even if you seduce him in New Hampshire, you gotta have a backup—”
“I don’t know, Michael. I wanted him for Dodgson the minute I saw Sun over Water. Before the Irish ‘Best Actor.’ If the damn studio—” Despair flicked her heart. So many of Them!
Michael yawned widely enough for her to hear his jaw pop. “You had no script. And they couldn’t be sure he’d break out.”
And I’m not bankable any more? ‘Easy, princess.’ Daddy’s voice. ‘Pick your own time.’ She clamped her teeth on the edges of her tongue, exhaled. She made it a joke: “Whose side are you on anyway?”
“Just don’t want you hurt, babe. Don’t get a rep for being difficult, not in this climate.”
And be like you? Without enough ambition or talent to move to the A-list? With a joke of a ‘production company’—the kept man’s out? She suppressed the barb from her voice with difficulty. “They respond to power, Michael. Nothing else.”
Michael patted the bed by his thigh, idly flicked the plasma-screen TV on. “C’mere.” He thumbed the remote, channel-surfing. “Speak of the devil—”
Andrew was in her bedroom on a tall black stool. Life-size. He plucked the guitar, spoke to her without sound.
Glance at the Night Talk logo bottom right, then the clock. Damn! She’d missed half the show. She pinched Michael. “Unmute.”
“What was that for?”
Andrew looked so young, alone in the world. He began to sing soundlessly.
She wrested the TV remote from Michael, turned the volume high. She caught the last line of a verse. Andrew O’Connell gazed straight at her, blue eyes wide and innocent, and sang the refrain in a lilting Irish accent, ‘…The mother of my child.’
Her back arched as an icy hand grabbed the root of her spine, deep in her pelvis.
“Hey, not so loud.” Michael gave her a proprietary pat, reached toward the remote.
With an effort, she controlled the urge to claw him, lowered the volume the tiniest smidgen, leaned closer. She crouched there as Andrew sang to her all his hopes and yearnings for the woman who would fill his life, bear his child. Her hand crept up to cover her mouth. He repeated the refrain twice, so raw and vulnerable her throat ached for him.
The camera went for an extreme close-up as Andrew broke eye contact, turned introspectively to his guitar. Sandy hair flopped down over one eye, curled over the neck of his sweater.
What a dynasty we’d make.
On screen, Andrew leapt up suddenly, his face alive and mischievous, and flung the stool off camera. He propelled his band into something livelier. Bianca muted, sank into the pillows watching his body move, until the song ended and ‘A message from our sponsors’ hijacked the screen. She hated commercials.
Michael stirred, his gaze still on his reading, reaching for her to use the time to get started.
She propelled herself off the bed, escaped to the bathroom, locked the door.
She slid out of the negligee. Her body posed itself for her approval in the triple mirror, posture and attitude honed by coaching and practice, her right leg bent just so.
Her instrument. Taut and muscled, just the right hint of firmness under a thin softening layer: in repose, female. She worked hard for the perfect effect. She’d seen women body builders in person, once, and they disgusted her: unnatural women’s heads on men’s bodies, their breasts either flat from total absence of body fat—or fake.
She cradled her breasts like her best custom underwire bra. The nipples stiffened obediently, tightening the skin. Perfectly formed, perfectly proportioned B cups, heavy. The gift that convinced her God meant her to be on a pedestal. She remembered the terror of that pregnancy, when they swelled and all she could think of was sag, the relief when Nate was four weeks premature and she could get that idiot doctor to suppress the horrible dripping milk.
Andrew would know to support them, gentle them, never press them out of shape. She leaned her palms on the marble countertop and locked gazes with her mirror-image. He needs me. Endelson’s a fluke, but I know everybody. And with him by my side, no one will ever say No again. Her twin smiled back in complete understanding and accord: fair trade. A month! She had a whole month with him in some one-horse town. If that wasn’t Fate…
Sideways, she scrutinized her flank in the unforgiving center mirror. She imagined Andrew’s hands encircling her waist, his hand under hers, skimming her flat belly, sliding downwards…
Oh, bleep! Andrew. She yanked the silky sheath over her head, hurried back to the bedroom.
Michael was reading, hadn’t bothered to turn the sound on. Without looking up he said, “You’re missing the show.”
She nestled into her pillows, grabbed the remote, unmuted the TV to a close-up of an older woman. Hippie type—like Mother—no makeup. The woman was saying, “—with these huge backstories.”
The camera cut to Dana Lewiston’s response, and then to Andrew and his laugh that captured you and promised you’d have more fun with him than with anyone else in the world. He parried Dana’s movie questions masterfully in his honeyed Irish accent—so unlike Roland’s.
Stupid audience lapped it up. Bianca tuned them out. When the credits rolled, she blanked the screen before the sponsors began selling to the masses.
Predictable Michael perked up. “What? He get you with that hokey line? ‘Mother of my child?’” He turned on his side, walked his fingers down her torso, stroking like one of those spiders that has to coax the female into readiness. “You ready to turn that lovely body back into a baby-making machine?”
Bianca glanced at the frame on the nightstand with its ridiculous school-photo background of autumn leaves. ‘Bird in hand, princess,’ Daddy said. Thank God the house was hers, and an untouchable trust kept it that way forever. “We’ve had this discussion, Michael. I’d lose half my fans.”
“The offer stands.” He did his asinine evil chuckle, insinuated his hand between her legs, caressed her inner thigh from groin to knee.
She didn’t push him away—he had his uses—but her mind flooded with images of a doomed IRA terrorist’s rough tenderness before going out in a spray of bullets, a battleworn knight triumphant a moment before the tide turned forever.
She wasn’t thinking of Michael Hendricks as they made love.
Why not me?
~ ~ ~
All along their inner margin, Kary’s arms ached. Breathing came shallow. How could he possibly know about watching Big Bird with your warm child enfolded in your lap?
“…the mother of my child.” Andrew’s voice trailed off with the last note. On the giant monitor, he looked up, out, as if he expected to see his true love on the other side of the camera’s window to the world. Longing battled desolation in his intelligent eyes. He blinked, woken from the dream; the camera focus zoomed out to show the band.
Kary shuddered, took her first deep breath in hours.
Applause shattered the audience’s idolatrous hush. Security personnel edged closer.
He jumped up, a different person. “And that’s all I’m saying about that!”
It has to be an act.
He tossed the stool to a stage-hand, traded the guitar for an electric one. Mike in hand, he challenged them, “Listen up—I’ll be wanting every last one of you on the chorus!”
The cheering continued.
He shook the guitar by its skinny neck. “This one’s for all ye dancers!” The band fed him power, lightning to a rod, broke into a foot-stomping Irish country ballad that set the audience clapping, and more than one girl dancing crazily in the aisles.
Invisible tendrils uncoiled themselves from Kary’s heart and vaporized as if cauterized. Her foot shared the beat. This she’d expect of a rock band.
After three frenzied verses he yelled, “I can’t hear you!” until the cheering fans encored the refrain, “You love ‘em, you leave ‘em/You never get to keep ‘em,” to his full satisfaction—it took three tries.
Lays it on with a backhoe! This territory she could visit safely; she blocked out the other. Good for him! Shaking her head at the profligate expenditure of energy, she couldn’t avoid grinning. Now, if she could only bottle the excess…
Andrew twanged a last discord, laughed out loud at the catcalls and whistling, signalled ‘Cut!’, waited for relative calm.
“My true-blue session mates.” His wide smile said he reveled in sharing the accolades.
“Casey Collins! We fought over the same girls in school. I won.” Andrew smirked. “But he got the drums. Damn!” Casey skimmed his sticks over drums and cymbals.
“Sean O’Neill! That bass is mine—Lord knows whose bed he left his under. Plays mean Uilleann pipes.” Sean beamed.
“Barry FitzGerald on keyboards and Ganley flute. He’s new—I don’t know anything bad about him—yet!”
“And last and worst, George Cosgrave! Half the songs are his fault.” He shook his fist at the increase in the pandemonium. “Our first guitars were rubber bands stretched ‘cross shoe boxes. We were lads of five.” George riffed the bass, returned the fist salute.
King of the hill, Andrew’s affection seemed genuine. And why not?
The monitor cut to commercial, Kary’s gaze shifted to the man on the soundstage. A stagehand brought him a towel, retrieved it when he finished wiping his face and neck. What was that verse, Jeremiah 13? Would that cloth ever be laundered again?
Andrew regained the dais at ‘Thirty seconds!’ He cocked his eyebrows at Kary, plunked down into the center seat she’d vacated. He drained a bottle of Evian. Faint odor of damp wool, man-sweat.
‘On air’ lit.
Dana went for the jugular. “Kary, what’s your biggest fear as a writer?”
Kary was caught off guard. Me first? She found a raspy version of her voice. “Appearing ridiculous. Farce instead of drama.” Clearing her throat—have to remove that annoying habit—steadied her. “My first drafts read like soap operas.”
“And you eliminate melodrama how?”
“When I’m successful, you mean?” Someone clapped; Kary glanced toward the audience, back to Dana. “By digging deeper into the characters, asking ‘why’ over and over. Characters are never as simple they first appear.”
“Do all your characters come from you?”
“If I had grown up them.” Why didn’t I pick an easier fear? She was aware of Andrew’s intent gaze. “I end up with these huge backstories.”
Andrew chuckled in sympathy.
Dana, piranha-ready, swung toward the sound. “You’re basically in the same business, right? Your reputation says you’re almost obsessive about your preparation.”
Dana gave him a sly look. “Tell us something new about Roland.”
He drew in breath, released it in a whoosh. “All right, then.” He paused in the far-off stare of one remembering. “Sometimes, when the scientists, they dig up old human bones,” his voice was an intimate rumble, “they find calluses, where the muscles stressed the bones, strengthened them—”
“Like an archer—” Kary froze, as in one well-oiled movement Andrew’s head swiveled until his vivid blue eyes were focused quizzically on hers. She hadn’t meant to voice the thought.
“Like a blacksmith?” Dana’s louder voice drew Andrew’s attention back to his host.
Kary dared a glance while Andrew’s gaze remained politely on Dana: thick biceps bulged his fisherman’s sweater. Earned, then, not a gym; he was proud of them.
“Aye. Josh practiced me on the crossbow ‘til I’d be hitting the target at two hundred yards, worked me with the broadsword, you know? If I died now, me bones’d pass for a warrior’s. Boggles the mind, eh?”
A burst of applause.
“It does—” Dana responded to a throat-cutting gesture from her producer. “And we’re out of time. Best wishes to both of you, at either end of the same war.”
Dana raised her chin, faced her audience, quieted them with open palms until she could finish. “For info on Andrew and the Deadly Nightshades in concert, and to keep track of where he’s filming, check out http://www.aocorner.ie.com. Great website.” She nodded toward Andrew.
He echoed the nod. “Couple of good fans back home—do a fantastic job.”
Dana thanked him, turned to Kary. “In stores and Amazon Friday.” Dana lifted her copy of Yorktown Harbor, cover forward. “And Thunder at Creek Station is coming out in paperback…?”
Kary relaxed in relief. “This month.” It’s over. A fizz of elation: she’d survived.
But Dana hadn’t finished. She addressed the audience again, linking her words to Kary by a wide sweep of her hand. “If you’re always exhausted, and your brain doesn’t work, and everything hurts—there are CFS links on our website, at http://www.wmrcnow.com/CFS, and operators standing by the 800 number hotline on your screens.”
Every eye seemed directed at Kary, immobilizing her, poster child for a disease. “Look at the freak lady, mommy!” Skewered, marginalized, classified—discounted. Forever marked down, not a woman but a symbol. “Poor dear—she writes such interesting books, considering…”
On camera, oblivious Dana got the last word. “Thanks to our guests, writer K. Beth Winter, and actor Andrew O’Connell and his band, the Deadly Nightshades.” Her royal wave released her viewers. “Good night, New York!” Behind her, the monitor rolled credits over panned images of the applauding audience.
Dana meant so well. Kary carved a smile out of ice.
For a few minutes I was almost normal.
~ ~ ~
Andrew stretched with a sense of satisfaction. Well, boyo, another one gone without making too big an ass of yourself. He knew the drill: Dana’d be furiously occupied for a couple minutes with tech stuff. Most of the studio audience were gathering their coats, heading for the exits; a number collected before the stage, as close as the watchful uniformed security let them, but expectant, well-mannered.
The producer darted over to take his mike and transmitter; she whispered in his ear. He said, “Good. Thanks.” His plan was coming together.
Next step. He turned to the writer.
She sat rigid, unseeing, gripping the Night Talk mug.
He said, “Kary?” as the producer reached for Kary’s clip-on.
Sharp inhale, polite smile. “Yes?” She put the mug on the table, let the producer unclip the mike as a child might wait for adults to care for her. She leaned back, gripped the chair arms. “Thank you, Melly.”
He examined Kary’s face. Confusion? This one became still when stressed, hard to read. Sheep in headlights? “It gets easier.”
“What? What does?”
That was better. The inward focus was replaced by an awareness of her surroundings. She was actually looking at him. “Interviews, shows…”
“I’m not planning any more.” She shook herself, shivered. Ghost of smile. “I’ve done my bit.”
Now that he was out from under pressure, he put pieces together: ‘first interview,’ ‘support group,’ the graciousness, nerves. She’d claimed illness—but she didn’t look ill. Fragile, yes; like the bone-china shepherdesses his mother so loved. “Satisfy a bit of curiosity?”
“If you can keep it to yourself—it’s been a tough night.” Her forearms lay quiet along the arms of the chair; her fingers stretched, calmed.
“You were something else before you were a writer. Am I right?” Nosy, nosy. Make it mutual? “Me, a bartender—or anything ye might be wanting.”
“I trained as a neonatologist.” Precise. Uninflected. She was watching his eyes.
“‘Winter’ is a pseudonym.”
Ah! “You let Dana out you.” For a cause.
“Technically, Dana didn’t. But someone will.” She shrugged it off.
“It means that much?”
She cocked her head, self-deprecating but good-humored. “From those to whom much has been given—”
“Much is required?” His eyes narrowed reflexively. How could she say that? Years: med school, residence, internship, practice. All down the crapper. Start all over—reach the level where talk shows wanted you. She has guts.
Dana’s approach interrupted his prying. Her post-show wrap finished, she beamed down at them. He recogized the type, surrendered to Dana’s smile: Dana’s guests were again worth noticing. She ran long fingers through her hair, grabbing handfuls and tugging, hard. “Ready?”
“Trying to pull it out?” Kary sounded alarmed.
“Nope. Loosens the scalp.”
He watched, amused. Women! “Now what?”
Dana glanced at the small crowd. “Studio guests get a few minutes for autographs?”
“No problem.” George and the guys were headed over. Least he could do—these folks stood in line in the cold.
“Kary? You up to it?” Dana tipped her head toward the waiting fans.
“I’m positive I know whose autograph they want.” Kary smiled at him, but he had the sense the portcullis was dropped, the castle secured.
She’s making me awkward, like a schoolboy. Refreshing. “Wait a bit.” He met Kary’s gaze, glanced up at Dana. “My agent’s throwing a little party at Mallory’s. Just friends. I was hoping you’d both come.” He trotted out his ace. “Dana, Melly’s having Brian bring your sister.”
Dana blinked several times. “Chrissy’ll love that.”
He had achieved the right touch. Good. “If Kary comes, they could talk…” He appealed to Kary. “You’re probably tired—but…”
She considered so long he thought he’d lost her.
Prolonged exhalation, nod. “I think I can manage. My plane doesn’t leave until late tomorrow. It’s a short flight.”
“There’s a lass.”
“On the condition I don’t have to stay ‘til the wee hours.”
“Cross me heart—the minute you’ve had it, you’re out.” He made the child’s sign before he could catch himself. “Okay?” He’d make time to talk to her later. That settled, he popped to his feet. “Bring on the Christians.”
Kary remained rooted.
Aha! “You’ve never done autographs, have you?”
“Am I that obvious?”
He chuckled. “It won’t hurt. Much.” He bowed, offered his hand. “Come here to me.”
She laughed and shook her head as if to a wayward beau with wheedling ways, put her hand in his. But she didn’t need actual support. Her hand was as light as one of the baby birds he used to try to rescue, all feathers and no substance. She stood up as models did, in a single fluid motion, retrieved her hand with a nod of thanks.
They walked side by side toward his rowdy mates at the barricades where a table was set up for Kary. He wasn’t surprised to notice a substantial portion of the crowd wanting her autograph.
He welcomed his obligations: his fans awaited, young and old; he was there. As usual, some of the pretty ones hung back, hoping to leave a lasting impression. It was twenty minutes before the final fan was escorted to the studio door, squealing happily to her friends with Andrew’s pen in her hand.
He shook his head with regret as she left. What a bloody waste.
~ ~ ~
Mallory’s Bar and Grill, NYC
“Roland! Roland!” A ragged roar of applause from women in glitter, men in black tie, the shockwave hit Kary’s ears like a physical blow as Andrew swung open the door from Mallory’s kitchen into the upper East Side bar and grill, and held it for Dana and for her. ‘In the jungle, the mighty jungle…’ floated through her head.
His eyebrows arched, but he didn’t seem fazed; his smile encompassed everyone.
The king entering the Great Hall? She shook her head. This is a little party? She should have expected it. At the WMRC dock, George Cosgrave had shepherded them into the heated limo so quickly she hadn’t time to get cold in the brittle black New York night, but the chauffeur delivered them, not to the front entrance, but to the alley behind the restaurant. For safety?
Escaping the maelström was her first thought. Too early for people to know who she was—they’d either been getting ready for the party or already here drinking when Night Talk had blown her cover. If she could dissociate herself from the man of the hour, she could still avoid detection. She touched Andrew’s arm. “Dana and I have to find her sister.” She caught Dana’s attention. Great—trading one celebrity for another. “Okay with you, Dana?”
Dana locked arms. “We’ll raid the buffet. I’m starved.”
“Keep a chair for me,” he said. “There’s a pile o’ people I have to make nice with. I’m the ram on the auction block.” His petitioners bore him away, but not before he had grabbed the maitre d’ and handed Dana and Kary over.
The restaurant matched Kary’s mental image of an old gentlemen’s club: heavy dark furniture, hunter-green wallpaper over the wainscoting, photos of celebrities and politicians in massive gilded frames. To one side, five servers presided over a display worthy of Versailles. Elaborate. And expensive.
From a booth toward the front, she followed Andrew’s progress: the fisherman’s sweater stood out easily from the crowd. He poached a beer from a passing waiter, grazed from group to group without letting any claim him.
“Pours it on rather thick, doesn’t he?” Dana said. Her gaze alternated between the knot with Andrew at its center, and the entrance. “There’s Chrissy!”
Dana took charge. Mother-hen-like, with Brian as footman, she snagged a waiter and supervised delivery of ‘two of everything.’ She pampered Chrissy and Kary impartially. “If I don’t, Chrissy won’t eat enough to keep a mouse alive.”
Kary had to raise her voice to be heard. “Do you know all these people?”
“Producers, agents, gossip columnists.” Dana returned a wave from a tall brunette in a chartreuse cocktail dress. “Hangers-on. Yeah, most of them. But they’re here to talk to Andrew, so enjoy your dinner.”
“Fine with me.”
Dana’s head snapped up as Brian looked horrified. “Oh, God. I can’t believe I said that!”
Brian, who had seated Dana by the wall ‘to hide her from view,’ hung his head.
Chrissy laughed. “Foot in mouth?”
“Sorry, Kary. They’re all used to me being outrageous.”
“I meant it,” Kary said. The food restored her—she hadn’t realized how long it had been since dinner—but she didn’t belong here. The familiar ache starting between her shoulder blades warned her she was on time borrowed at exorbitant interest.
He invited me for one thing. She turned to Chrissy. How old was the girl? Twenty-three? Twenty-four? There was something wan about the face, a stillness about the body, as if someone had taken a Dana and smoothed away not only a few years but all of the verve. “Tired?”
“I’ll pay for it tomorrow.” Chrissy disavowed the cost with a shrug.
“It gets better.”
“For most people.” An exaggeration? “How long…?”
“Since my third year of college. Thought I’d caught mono.”
“Kissing someone, I presume?”
Chrissy laughed. “Yeah. But it never went away. I had to drop out—thought it would just be for the semester, but it was four years before I could go back. I’m only taking two courses a term, and I’ll finally be finished next year. But I’m positive I’ll never get a job—who’d want someone who can’t work?”
“You don’t have to work to be valuable.” It had been so hard to believe that.
“And most people who’ve even heard of CFS think it’s contagious, like AIDS.”
“There’ll be things you can do… Eventually…” I’m not offering much relief, am I? Helplessness fought with anger. She used to love nights like this in the city.
“And now that I’m old enough to drink legally, alcohol makes me sick!” Chrissy said.
You’ve got fight, kid. “I know. I miss Tequila Sunrises.” She held up the crisp chilled Sauvignon Blanc. “That gets better too—I’m up to an occasional half-glass of wine—”
Chrissy looked up past Kary’s head, and her eyes lit up. Kary turned.
“Everyone wants a piece of me!” growled Andrew. “Are ye okay?” Guinness in hand, he grabbed a chair, turned it around and sat on it backward. “George, bring it over. You know George?”
“We came together?” Kary said.
“Ah. Right ye are.” He got them all squeezed together, with one arm around Chrissy’s shoulder. “Got it? George’s documenting the whole thing.”
“All here.” George patted an elaborate digital camera.
Kary said, “Shouldn’t you be in the picture?”
“Aye, George. Here. Take us a few more.”
A tiny remote control and a table-top tripod emerged from the camera bag. George insisted they say ‘Guinness’—“So there won’t be any silly smiles”—fitted himself into an imaginary space between Chrissy and Kary, snapped a quick bunch.
“Not too bored?” Andrew asked Kary. “Want me to introduce you around?”
“Don’t you dare. This is far better.”
“Where else can I still observe these people in their natural habitat?”
“Collecting specimens?” His brogue thickened. “You’ll be pinning us up on the wall like wasps?”
“’Fess up. You like the idea.”
He waved his free hand, including with the gesture everything in sight. “This is my territory.”
Chrissy’s gaze never left the actor’s face, adoration plain. Kary kicked herself, steered the conversation in the right direction, and got out of it.
Andrew exerted himself, shared faintly naughty anecdotes, got Chrissy laughing and blushing at the same time. He focused on Chrissy as if she were the only person in the known universe.
A lovely trait. It must make him quite irresistible.
“Hey, there you are! Come on, you gotta meet—” A pudgy hand descended onto Andrew’s shoulder. Andrew whirled, captured a plump wrist. “Watch it! Ouch!”
“Sorry, Maury. Act first, think later.” He didn’t sound sorry.
Some instinct made Kary glance at George; she caught the tail end of a suppressed grin. George mimed using the edge of his hand as an imaginary saw. She got it: last man who tried that lost his arm up past the elbow.
“Hey, Maury,” Andrew said. “Meet my new friends.”
Kary imagined the agent calculating their present value to him—zero—adding to it just the right dollop of worth as ‘friends of Andrew’.
Maury cranked up the smile. “I know Dana. From the TV show, right?”
“Do you need a new agent, Kary?” Andrew said. “I’m sure Maury’d be thrilled to take you on.”
The agent all but danced with impatience. “Sure thing.” Out came the ever-ready card.
“Elise Carter’s my agent.” Kary stowed the card in her purse. “Do you know her?”
Maury shook his head. “Sorry. No.”
“I’ll be sure to call you if Elise and I come to a parting of the ways.” She gave Andrew what she hoped was a stern glance.
Andrew’s eyes opened very wide. Blameless. Right.
Dana whispered with Chrissy. Kary knew the signs: Chrissy was running on fumes. Dana chose the moment to make their escape.
“Must you?” Andrew rose. He shook Brian’s hand.
“I’m afraid so.” Dana smoothed Chrissy’s hair. “My fault. Early call.”
“But thank you so very much,” Chrissy said. “It was wonderful meeting Kary.”
Kary hugged her. “Keep your spirits up.”
“I’ll try. I promise.”
Andrew kissed Chrissy’s cheek, Dana’s hand. “Be seeing you.”
“Ditto.” Dana let George help with her coat, while Maury, chastened, held Chrissy’s.
Kary’s gaze followed Chrissy as Dana and Brian plowed a path for her to the entrance. A tap on her arm. Andrew.
“Gotta go. Maury’s leading me to the slaughter.” He appealed to George. “Stay with Kary, won’t you?”
“I’ve been trying to get rid of you for hours,” George said. “Unlike you, I can read, and I want to talk about her books. Begone.”
“Hey, a fan.” Andrew stood. “Aye, then. Back in half a mo… I’m coming, Maury.” A quick wave, and he’d plunged into the sea of supplicants.
“God, the din!” Kary covered her ears. “Is it always this chaotic?”
“Since Roland,” George said. “I mean, people used to recognize him on the street, but we never needed armed guards.”
“Is your band on tour?”
“Later this year. He flew us in for the show. Likes to share the wealth.” George wagged his head. “The lads are catching the Dublin express tomorrow night. First class. They pamper you so, it’s embarrassing.”
“You’re not going to Ireland?”
George hesitated. “Well, ah; Andy’s asked me to stay on a bit, be a sort of manager…”
She examined him critically. “Let me see… You’ve always done it for the band, and he needs you to keep things straight.” And he’s put you on salary, which makes you horribly uncomfortable. “You’re the solid friend who knew him when.”
George smiled wryly. “Aye. He thinks I can help with the vultures.”
Kary glanced at Andrew, coralled against the far end of the bar by the birds of prey: men in suits, young women in dresses skimpy as camisoles. His stance had ‘alpha lion’ written all over.
George followed her gaze, made a hrumphing sound.
“What?” Kary said. Andrew leaned a slip of paper on a suit’s back, scribbled while laughing with a tiny frosted blonde in red sequins. “He looks happy enough.”
“The lasses have taken him on.”
“Are you jealous?”
“Me? Lord above, no. Fiona’d have me head.”
“Fiona?” She coaxed his story out: running the farm for his ailing father, band member when ‘the lads’ got together around Andrew’s increasingly demanding schedule. He retrieved a photo from his wallet: an Irish beauty with fiery ringlets, dimples, and a very determined mouth. “She’s beautiful, George.”
“Is this how you get your material? Getting the other person to spill his secrets?”
“I wish.” She stretched her neck and shoulders discreetly, exhaled. She should have left when Dana left. But is one party too much to ask?
The top of Andrew’s head was all that remained visible. The schmoozing was as much required in his career as acting. He’d made no promises; she’d been foolish to look forward to a chance for intelligent conversation. What was I thinking—he isn’t coming back any time soon.
“Tough break—getting sick, I mean,” George said.
The sympathy in his voice, too close to pity, stiffened her resolve. Time to go. “You learn to live with it.” She shrugged. “Which reminds me—it’s been lovely speaking with you.” She gathered the shreds of energy, rose, offered her hand. “You said you liked the books.”
George got to his feet. “Very much.”
“They wouldn’t exist.”
~ ~ ~
“…They edited it out, but he never wore that shirt again.” Andrew was finishing a story when George tapped his shoulder.
Kary stood quietly to one side. “I’ve come to say good night. It was very kind of you to make it possible for me to meet Chrissy—she’s had a tough break.”
“You’re leaving?” Damn, I didn’t get a chance to talk to her.
“George said you’re all going barhopping; you won’t even miss me.”
“Hang a bit.” He had a quick word with George. George headed for the kitchen. “The limo’ll take you back to your hotel.”
“I’ll get a taxi, Mr. O’Connell. Don’t worry about me. I’m a grown woman.”
“Worst kind,” he said—it made her laugh. The ‘Mr. O’Connell’ widened some undeniable chasm between them. “The driver bloke is sitting around doing nothing until we leave. It’ll take him two shakes. Come, George already went to get him.”
He guided her through the kitchen with its strong scent of pine cleaner, quiet clatter of cleaning crew. He waited outside with her in the frigid air. Their breath made tiny clouds.
“Thank you for a wonderful time.”
“Nothing to it. Maury arranged everything.”
“The food was excellent, but I meant the conversations.”
“Good, eh?” What the hell was it about her? He didn’t want her to leave yet.
“You guys are outrageous.”
“Do you have to pull a Cinderella?”
Something flashed across her eyes, disappeared. “Don’t you have to get back to your guests? You’ll freeze solid.”
Serenity. She exuded calm. Everyone else was so frantic, everyone else wanted something. He held out both hands to her. “They can wait.”
He expected her to place her hands in his. Instead, she received his hands as she might a gift, scrutinized his palms, gently turned his hands over, felt his calluses with her thumbs. The ruby in his uncle’s ring gleamed in the glow of the street lamp. She examined the backs of his hands. He resisted the urge to move.
“My worst feature.” His large square hands—stubby fingers, nails chewed—lay captive in her slender ones. Her left ring finger had a faint indentation at the base. “What are you doing?”
“Memorizing you.” Her tone was light. “I don’t want to forget anything—I probably won’t see you again.” She released him. “Good hands.” She crossed her arms over her coat, tucked her hands under against a sudden gust.
Tire crunch. The limousine rounded the corner, purred to a stop. George climbed out, held the door.
Andrew handed her into the carriage like a princess of the blood. “The film I’m doing next, about the Revolutionary War?”
She looked up, expectant.
“We’re filming in New England. That’s close to you, isn’t it? Can I visit you sometime?”
“That would be lovely.” She turned to George. “Good night, George. You’re a lucky man.”
George grinned, closed the door with a solid clunk.
As the car floated away, she looked back and waved.
Andrew felt watched. Three fans waited in the icy night. He signed what they thrust at him, told them to go home and get warm. He let George hustle him back inside.
He had the distinctly unsettled sensation of having made a mistake.
[Table of contents]
By Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt