Big badd wolf, p.24
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       Big Badd Wolf, p.24

         Part #7 of Badd Brothers series by Jasinda Wilder
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  So here I was, leaving a hotel after an exhausting six-hour press junket, being assaulted by the paparazzi, bombarded with the same stupid mindless questions. Denying that I was sex symbol just made it worse, it seemed. How did that make me feel? I wanted to be an actress. I wanted to be taken seriously, and I had no interest in being perceived as a sex symbol.

  I wanted to be seen for more than my body.

  Yet that's all they saw.

  Harlow Grace: five-nine, 32DD, 26-inch waist, and 35-inch hip line. Strawberry blonde hair that grew in perfect, natural spirals. Flawless skin and eyes so blue people often assume I wear contacts. Abs you could wash clothes on, an ass you could bounce a quarter off of, and legs a mile long.

  To most people, that's me--a bunch of statistics...a sexy body.

  Not the fact that I graduated high school at sixteen, made my professional stage debut at eighteen, received a degree in Fine Arts from NYU at nineteen, made my film debut at twenty, and had three major Hollywood acting credits to my name by twenty-one. No mention of my MENSA IQ, perfect SAT and ACT scores, or the fact that I was valedictorian in high school and at NYU.

  Trace and Van pushed through the crowd of paparazzi to the limo and Van opened the door for me while Trace blocked anyone from reaching for me while I climbed in; I was wearing a short skirt, which made climbing in and out of a limo without letting the paps get an up-skirt photo difficult, something else Trace's broad physique was useful for.

  Once I was in the limo and the door was closed, Trace rounded to climb in on the other side while Van took the front passenger seat next to Enrique, my driver. The interior of the limo was as I liked it--sixty-eight degrees, with a chilled Perrier on hand. Emily, my assistant, was already seated across from me, iPad out, stylus flying.

  She launched into her spiel the moment I sat down. "All right, Low--you have a sixty-minute hot stone massage back at the hotel in thirty minutes. You'll have a little over an hour to take a shower and get dressed before the glam squad arrives to prep you for your Vanity Fair interview. Then dinner with Martin--I think he has a few new scripts to discuss with you. After dinner, you're scheduled to make an appearance at a party downtown, hosted by...Damon and Yolanda, I think it is--yes. You've already RSVP'd so you really should show up for at least a few minutes, especially since it's going to be attended by quite a few important producers."

  I sighed, twisting off the top of my Perrier. "At what point do I get to stop and take a breath, Em?"

  Emily blinked at me, trying to formulate a response. "Well...now that the press tour is over with, we might be able to schedule you a few days vacation time, but remember you've already agreed to guest star in those episodes of Westworld next week. Ummm..." She consulted her iPad, where she kept my master schedule. "You have the Dior perfume commercial after that, followed immediately by a Vogue shoot in Prague, and you're hosting SNL after that. If you don't take any new scripts, I can get you two weeks off in...August."

  I stared at her. "Two weeks...in August? It's April, Em."

  She shrugged one thin shoulder, her neat blonde bob swinging as she tilted her head in an attempt at sympathy. "We really need to ride the wave of publicity this film is generating, Low. We talked about this, and you agreed. I have Prada in talks with Martin for a whole series of shoots--they want you to be their spokeswoman. If the Dior commercial goes over well, they want you for some fashion shoots. There's a team at Netflix developing a period drama mini-series set during the French Revolution, and Martin is hearing talk of you as the star--no script offers yet, but it's still early."

  I groaned, head thumping back against the leather headrest. "I'm tired, Em. I'm just...tired."

  "It's another fifteen minutes with good traffic back to the hotel, and you have that massage. You'll be relaxed and refreshed in no time." She tried a bright but fake smile of encouragement.

  Emily was a fantastic assistant--she was hard-charging, whip-smart, efficient, organized, had a sixth sense for what I needed and when I would need it...but she was cold as ice and brittle as porcelain, and absolutely terrible at anything like sympathy or empathy.

  I took another sip of Perrier, wishing it were something stronger. "I don't mean I'm sleepy, or under the weather, I mean I'm fucking tired. Like, bone-tired. I haven't slowed down or taken a single day off since...ever! It's been nonstop, every day, all day for years, and I'm just tired."

  Emily stared at me, her mouth working. "I...um. I can see if Dior is willing to reschedule--if they can, I could get you a week."

  I shook my head. "I need more than a week or two, Em. I need a real break."

  She flipped the stylus around her index finger repeatedly; it was a nervous tic that showed up when I messed with her carefully choreographed scheduling of my time. "I'm...I don't know what to say, honestly, Low. If we canceled everything, you could take the summer off, but your visibility and relevance would suffer immensely."

  "My visibility? Let's worry about my sanity!" I resisted the urge to scream at her for not understanding my stress level. "Between the latest round of rumors about Dawson and me, and the fake nude scandal, and the million, billion questions about whether or not I'm topless in this movie, I'm just done with everything, Em. I can't handle any more bullshit right now. Okay? I just can't. I'm at the point where yeah, I'm about to cancel everything and just vanish."

  "You--you can't cancel Westworld, Harlow," Emily stammered. "You've signed the contract. You've gotten half the money. You have to do Westworld, at the very least."

  God, I knew Emily was panicking if she called by my full first name--she only ever called me by my nickname, Low.

  I groaned. "Fine! Okay. I'll do the stupid show."

  "You love that show, Low."

  I threw the Perrier bottle cap at her. "I KNOW I love that show, goddammit! But I don't want to do it!"

  Emily was silent, toying with the cap that had beaned her in the Botoxed forehead. "I'm sorry, Low. I'm just trying to--"

  I cut in over her. "No, I'm sorry. It's not your fault. You're just doing your job, and you're amazing at it." I smiled at her. "Let's get through today, and we'll figure the rest out tomorrow, okay? What do I have tomorrow?"

  Back on more familiar ground, Emily perked back up. "Tomorrow is light. Brunch with the publicity team, a blowout and manicure, that tour at the children's hospital...and that's it." She shrugged. "Oh, and you have a training session with Marcus at six."

  "In the morning?"

  "Um, yes? It's your first session with him, and he's the personal trainer everyone is talking about. You wanted to make a good impression on him, remember?"

  I groaned again. "Next time I have a genius idea like that, smack me."

  "Um, yes ma'am."

  I laughed. "Don't actually smack me, though. You're a twig, I'd break you in half."

  Emily smirked at me. "I have a brown belt in Aikido, actually."

  My eyebrows shot up. "You do?"

  She nodded. "My brother is an instructor at a dojo in San Bernardino. I take lessons once a week."

  "Wow. I had no idea."

  Even during the massage, I couldn't quite relax. I was too stressed, my mind flitting from one thing to another like a manic housefly. Interviews, photo shoots, commercials, hosting SNL, guest starring in Westworld--it was all evidence that I'd made it. I was an A-list celebrity, almost a household name, and the press tour for December's Last Light was pushing me into a whole new stratosphere. I was certain my agent, Martin, would be giddy with excitement at dinner, and would bombard me with his ideas as to which scripts I should look at.

  I loved the work. I honestly did. Being on set, creating characters, working with my idols...it was a dream come true, it's what I'd been fantasizing about since the first time Dad took me to a movie theater. I'd watched Julia Roberts on the huge movie theater screen, and I'd just known that would be me someday...and my first role had been in a film with Julia, which had been surreal. Everything was golden.

  So why was I s
o...

  Unhappy?

  It wasn't unhappiness, though. It was something else.

  Loneliness?

  I was surrounded by people: Emily, Trace--who was sitting beside me in the limo, burly arms crossed--Martin, Lindsey my publicist, the glam squad that went pretty much everywhere with me.

  But they weren't friends.

  I'd had plenty of offers for dates, of course, and from some pretty eye-wateringly famous and gorgeous men. But I was too busy, and I didn't trust anyone. Especially not anyone in the industry--I'd watched too many costars go through breakup after breakup, and I'd only been in the Hollywood a few years. You just never knew if the notion of a celebrity hunk wanting to date me was genuine, or if it was a publicity move. No thanks.

  So yeah, I was lonely.

  I was up the next morning by five and at the gym by six, and Marco ran me through a grueling, brutal workout. Back to the hotel to clean up, carefully coordinate my outfit, get made up by the team, brunch with Lindsey and her crew, during which she ran a million different ideas past me for how to leverage various pieces of press and which to squash and which to ignore.

  The brunch was winding down, but I could tell Lindsey had something else on her mind. On the far side of forty and looking barely twenty-five, Lindsey was the type to talk a mile a minute and say whatever was on her mind, so for her to shift and squirm in her chair, glancing uncomfortably at me...

  Whatever she was sitting on wasn't good.

  Picking at the last of my salmon Caesar, I fixed her with a hard stare. "Out with it, Linz."

  Brushing a lock of artfully dyed black hair away with a long, French-manicured fingernail, she smiled at me and sighed. "You can tell, huh?"

  "You don't wear bad news well, babe," I said. "Just hit me with it."

  "Remember that girl's night you had with Grey and Jen last month?" she asked.

  I eyed her warily. "Yes?"

  "There are...pictures."

  I chewed on my lip, trying to remember. "Pictures of what? We had dinner, drank some wine, and sat in private booth in a nightclub."

  "You also danced."

  I sighed. "Yeah, well, it was a nightclub. And it was dark, and I danced with Grey."

  Lindsey brought out her iPad, and flipped it around to show me the photo. It was of me, wearing a little silver dress, hair in my face and sticking to my forehead. I looked drunk--because I had been. Grey was behind me but her head was turned so it wasn't immediately obvious it was her. In front of me was a guy--big, thick arms and a five o'clock shadow, a bit of a belly, too much product in his hair. The photo made it look like we were dancing together. In reality, he'd been dancing with his boyfriend, and hadn't even looked at me, but the angle, and the fact that I looked visibly intoxicated...

  "Several blogs have it."

  "It's just a stupid photo. I don't know him, I wasn't dancing with him, and he's fucking gay! I watched him make out with his boyfriend on the dance floor! Did they get shots of that?"

  "No, and it wouldn't be any better if they had. The articles are all saying you and Grey had a threesome with him. You and this guy and Grey were also photographed getting on an elevator together."

  I groaned. "Coincidence, Linz. Jesus."

  "I know. It's just one more stupid story." She fixed a concerned look on her face, but I knew this was the kind of thing she lived for. "But combined with the fake nudes and the rumors about Dawson that won't go away, your image is taking a hit."

  I groaned out a sigh. "Linz--I really don't care. I just don't. Let them think I had a threesome. Grey and I know the truth, and so does Dawson--he picked us up from the club himself that night. I'm just past caring."

  "You want the serious roles? You want to be taken seriously as an actress? You have to manage this stuff. You have to care."

  "Yeah, well...I don't."

  Lindsey sighed, tapping a nail on the counter. "You should do that charity gala next week. I'm sure Emily could fit it in while you do Westworld. They have plates available still, and it would be a great photo op."

  Emily, beside me, was already working. "Yeah, absolutely. They have you shooting all day Monday and Tuesday and then on Thursday, and the gala is on Wednesday. It would totally work."

  I sank low in my chair, biting hard on my lip. "No, no, no." I sat back up, hands flat on the tabletop. "Em, I told you yesterday I wanted to cut back commitments, not add to them!"

  "But your image, Low," Lindsey said. "Managing your image has been a priority since day one."

  "There's one day between tapings," Emily said. "We can get you a private flight from the Utah shooting location back to LA for the gala, keep the jet on standby, and fly back that night."

  I shook my head. "Fine. Whatever. But nothing else."

  It was the last day of filming. I was sweaty, exhausted, and ready to go home. Makeup dabbed the sweat off my forehead, cheeks, and upper lip, touched up my makeup while a stylist fixed my hair and tugged the bodice of my western-era gown--complete with hoops--back into place.

  The director called for places, and I took my mark. On the snap of the clapperboard and the call of "action," I started my walk down the boardwalk, across the dusty street, and to the opposite boardwalk. I was supposed to flaunt the walk, twirling a parasol, making the hoops of my skirt jostle and bounce. Don't cover up my cleavage with my arms, keep my chin up--glance provocatively at the other guest star...move my eyes away just so. My fingers had to be in just the right positions on the handle of the parasol. Don't trip as I stepped down from the boardwalk. Ignore the dust crunching in my molars and coating the inside my nostrils. Ignore the droplet of sweat trickling down my spine. Ignore the fact that I've done this walk eighteen times already, and it's never quite right--my hands aren't right; my arm covers my decolletage, ruining the allure of the shot; my hair gets blown out of place by an errant gust of wind; I turn my ankle when my heel catches on a stone the crew missed when they raked the street. It's always something.

  This is meant to be my introduction, this scene, even though it's the last one I'm filming. Finally, after the twentieth take, I got the walk across the street perfect, and the director called cut, and a wrap for the day. Once I was out of costume and makeup, I sat for a moment in my trailer, just breathing. I had a car waiting to take me to the airfield where the private jet would take me back to LA. A masseuse was waiting at home, along with a bottle of cabernet.

  None of it sounded appealing.

  I'd done the gala yesterday, but it had been a disaster. My date--a former costar--got drunk, embarrassing me and himself, and there'd been pictures of us. Of me, awkwardly trying to help him stay on his feet as he fell into the limo. Of me, a forced smile in place as he leaned against me during a photo op. He'd whispered filthy insinuations the whole time, lewd suggestions of what he'd like to do to me if I went back to his hotel with him...

  Lindsey had apologized for my date's behavior at the gala, but the damage had been done. What had been intended to massage my image had only done worse damage, adding fuel to the roaring inferno that was the Hollywood gossip machine--Harlow Grace enabling former costar's downward spiral; Harlow checks Tom into rehab; Exclusive photos: Harlow and Tom's drug and alcohol-fueled sexcapades revealed!

  And then I'd twisted my ankle on the sixteenth take of that stupid walk--I'd said it was fine and had acted as if it didn't hurt, when in reality it was throbbing like a bitch, and I wanted to cry.

  I reached down, massaging the ankle, wincing and whimpering as the touch sent jolts of pain through me.

  And, at that moment, my phone rang. I answered it on the fourth ring. "Hello?"

  I should have checked the ID--the last person I wanted to talk to right then was Lindsey. "Low, thank god you answered."

  I held back a sigh of irritation. "What's going on, Linz?"

  "How'd filming go?"

  "I twisted my ankle and had to do the same dumbass scene twenty times before it was good enough. I'm tired, my ankle hurts, and I'm cranky. What
do you want?"

  Lindsey sighed. "You're going to hate me."

  "Fucking what, Lindsey? Just say it!"

  "A video surfaced."

  I groaned. "A video of what? If it's another fake porn, just pay whatever you have to and make it go away."

  "No, this one...is definitely you."

  "There aren't any videos of me."

  Lindsey's pause was revealing. "It's a cell phone video of you from a few years ago. From your NYU graduation party."

  I sat up, my blood running cold. "That was a private party. I knew literally everyone there."

  "Someone took a video of you wearing nothing but a mini skirt and a bra...um...doing a keg stand, and then doing a lewd dance with a young gentleman."

  I let out a string of curses. "He was my boyfriend. Everyone else was gone. It was just my roommate, Carla, my boyfriend, Harrison, our best friends Frida and Rain, and me."

  "Well, someone took a video and sold it."

  "Who?"

  Another heavy pause. "Carla."

  "Can we bury it?"

  "No. It's viral already. It's a pretty high-quality video, and the dance you do at the end is...well..."

  "It was a lap dance for my fucking boyfriend."

  "Low, I know. Okay? I know. I'm doing what I can to suppress it, but--"

  "It's already viral." I swallowed tears. "I can't believe Carla would do that. We were roommates for three years."

  "Some people will do just about anything for a payout."

  "If she'd asked me for money, I would have given it to her."

  Lindsey sighed. "I'm sorry. I really am. I thought you should know."

  "Thanks."

  I hung up and sent Emily a text asking her to have the car ready. I put on a ball cap, donned my biggest pair of sunglasses, gathered my bags, and exited the trailer. Van and Trace were outside my trailer, waiting, and they took my bags from me. They were impassive as they escorted me away from the set and to my car. Emily was in the back seat of the SUV when I got in, and she handed me a Perrier as soon as I was buckled in.

  "Did Lindsey get hold of you?" Emily asked.

  "Yeah."

  "My contacts at the airport are saying the paparazzi are already waiting."

 
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