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Star crossed, p.1
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       Star Crossed, p.1

           Jennifer Echols
 
Star Crossed


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  Contents

  Acknowledgments

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  About Jennifer Echols

  Acknowledgments

  Heartfelt thanks to my brilliant editors, Lauren McKenna and Emilia Pisani; my wise literary agent, Laura Bradford; my high school BFF and constant inspiration, Catherine Burns; and as always, my critique partners, Victoria Dahl and Catherine Chant.

  1

  Wendy Mann cleared her throat to get the attention of the mega movie star strolling in from the theater’s back entrance. “You’re good,” she said, “but you’re not that good.” Then she relaxed against the wall of the musty stairwell, scrolled through her phone messages, and waited for the door onto the street to slam shut behind Zane Taylor.

  BANG. Now Wendy looked up. Zane was gaping at her, a combination of outrage and disbelief showing on his chiseled face.

  Just as she’d suspected when she’d first met with him and the producer of this Broadway play two weeks ago. Nobody had ever told Zane no: not his handlers, not his bodyguards, not his former public relations people. He’d paid them to say yes.

  But he didn’t pay Wendy. The producer did. So she was going to tell Zane the truth.

  That was her job.

  “You’re fired,” he sneered, mounting the stairs.

  “You can’t fire me as your PR specialist,” Wendy countered. “You didn’t hire me. And the play will fire you before they fire me.”

  “They won’t fire me.” Reaching the top of the stairs, he looked down on her with his legendary green eyes. Wendy bet women wouldn’t have gone so wild over his movies in the past decade if he’d glared at them like this, as if they weren’t fit to polish his Golden Globes. “I’m Zane Taylor.”

  “You were,” Wendy acknowledged. “You were a brand name that sold out movie theaters. You ruined all that with your divorce. Now you need to stop acting like a diva and get yourself to rehearsal on time every day, or your boss will find a replacement who will.”

  “A diva!” Zane exclaimed, looming closer over her, murder in his eyes.

  Right. He was an old-school ass for whom the supreme insult was calling him a name usually reserved for a woman. Her ex from West Virginia, Rick, had the same attitude. The closer Zane came to her, the more her body tensed with the memory of Rick’s hands on her, even as her brain registered that Zane was not Rick.

  But she wouldn’t back down. She couldn’t show weakness by panicking and taking back her words. If Zane felt more offended than she’d expected, so be it.

  She met his gaze. “Your agent went to a lot of trouble to arrange this gig for you. Now that the movie roles have dried up, you wanted to retool your career by going after the serious acting cred that’s eluded you. This play was your first role in high school, the one that got you hooked on acting. You have the chance to do a play you love on Broadway and prove your critics wrong. And you’re going to throw all that away for a few weeks of partying hard and forgetting to set your alarm?”

  He took a deep breath, let his shoulders sag as he exhaled, and tilted his head to one side. “Look, I may not be your boss, but you’re not mine, either. You’re PR. You’re not supposed to change what I’m doing. You just make me look good doing it.”

  Wendy still held his gaze, but she could feel his fingers stroking her hand.

  He said silkily, with only a hint of menace underneath, “Maybe we could compromise.”

  “Do not proposition me,” she said.

  His fingers stopped moving on her hand.

  She wasn’t going to jerk away from him. She would let him jerk away from her after what she said next. “If you want a relationship, ask women out on dates. Don’t come on to the women you work with just to manipulate them. That’s how you ended up with a lawsuit from your hairdresser, a divorce from your wife, and your current downward spiral.”

  His hands were off her now. If he’d had any history of violence, though, she would have suspected he was about to throw her down the stairs. Her heart raced again as he pointed his finger in her face and started, “You—”

  She interrupted him before he could say bitch. “Remember Brad McCain?”

  “Yeah.” Zane put his hand down and stood up straighter with the shock of that unexpected memory.

  “You started in the movie business at the same time, right?” she prompted him. “You were in that teen blockbuster together, surviving the apocalypse.”

  Zane nodded, his handsome face twisted in pain. “I wanted to go to his funeral last month, but I was stuck here in court.”

  “I was Brad’s PR consultant. And he called me too late. Part of my job is to change what you’re doing. I can’t dress up a pig and make it look like Marilyn Monroe. If you’re headed for a fall, sending you in a different direction is better PR than covering your tracks leading off the cliff. The producer of your play called me in time. Here’s what I can do to help you change your life.”

  Wendy handed him the business card for one of her assistants. She explained that Stargazer Public Relations could get him whatever help he needed—post-divorce therapy, legal counsel to fight for increased visitation with his children, intervention if his substance abuse had escalated to that point—all without detection, so he could rest assured he wouldn’t read a sensationalized version of his private life in the tabloids the next day.

  As she spoke, the worry lines in his forehead smoothed. He wouldn’t need to drown his troubles in a drink if he had assistance solving his problems discreetly. By the time she finished her lecture, he watched her with something like respect. “Thank you,” he whispered, squeezing her card between his fingers until it bowed.

  “That’s what I’m here for,” she said. “But Zane, getting your life back in order will take time. Your number one priority right now is to make sure you come to rehearsal every day on time, sober, with a positive attitude.”

  “I promise,” he said.

  After a supportive hug good-bye and an attaboy pat on the back, she jogged down the stairs in her high heels and pushed open the door onto the street. She hopped into her waiting taxi and immediately texted the producer of the play. Zane had been late again today, but he wouldn’t be late tomorrow.

  That was the plan, anyway. Wendy wasn’t convinced of Zane’s sincerity. She would be here at the same time tomorrow to make sure. If he still refused to cooperate, she had other ways of exerting pressure. She might pop in on one of the nightly after-hours parties that were making it so difficult for him to show up to work at one in the afternoon.

  She looked up at the skyscrapers and bus-sized advertisements in Times Square spinning by outside the cab—the first time all day she’d had a chance to realize how much she’d missed New York, her adopted home. After a month in Seattle repairing PR for metal supergroup Darkness Fallz, which had been like herding cats, she’d arrived back in the city on the red-eye that morning, only to be thrust into meeting after meeting on a breakneck schedule. Usually her bosses didn’t meddle
in her day-to-day business. They only wanted results. For some reason, today they’d required her to touch base with many of her important clients in the city. Zane hadn’t been on the list. She’d scheduled that ambush herself.

  And she would pay for it now, because she was going to be late for her one thirty meeting with her bosses. She texted Sarah, her colleague and best friend since college.

  R u in office? Could you tell bosses I’m in taxi & will be there in 10? They won’t mind too much if they have called meeting to promote me ha ha

  Wendy tried to relax against the seat, scrolling through the thirty e-mail messages that had appeared on her phone in the ten minutes she’d spent on Zane’s dressing-down. But she willed the taxi to sprout wings and fly above the traffic to the Stargazer offices in Midtown. She would even pay extra. She hated being late. It was unprofessional, even though the time she’d stolen might have saved Zane’s career. And then she received an answering text from Sarah:

  Done. Warning: bosses don’t seem happy.

  As Wendy stared at the screen, her mind whirled with the possibilities. She’d been joking when she told Sarah she might get promoted, but she hadn’t thought it was out of the question. Could she be in trouble instead? Her methods might be unconventional sometimes, but she had a high success rate—despite Brad’s demise. In college she’d been second in her class among public relations majors, and the runner-up for the prestigious Clarkson Prize, awarded to the program’s most promising student. She did not get in trouble.

  And she sounded just like Zane Taylor.

  No, that was the jet lag talking. She desperately needed a fifth cup of coffee. Shaking her head to clear it, then pushing her hair behind her shoulders, she settled into her e-mail again, confident she could knock out half these messages before the taxi deposited her at Stargazer’s door. That would help free up her afternoon so she could deal with her other clients. They were counting on her to solve their problems, so she certainly didn’t have time to dwell on her own. Especially when they weren’t even real.

  * * *

  “I am very freaking likable!”

  Wendy knew instantly she shouldn’t have said this to her three bosses across the conference room table. And she shouldn’t have said it so loudly.

  Her direct supervisor, Katelyn, sat back in her leather chair and touched two manicured fingers to her perfect red lipstick, which had not smeared while she took dainty sips of coffee. Her supervisor, Jonathan, ducked his head and looked furtively over his shoulder at the Flatiron Building out the long bank of windows. But Archie, the head honcho of Stargazer PR, just put his chin in his big, hairy hand and scowled at Wendy, unflappable as ever.

  She pretended she hadn’t noticed their reactions. She sipped her own coffee, trying her best to remain calm, though her blood pounded in her ears with over-caffeinated dread. She understood now that her bosses hadn’t called this meeting to talk strategy for Stargazer. They hadn’t brought her here to promote her, as she’d hoped, or even to talk her into representing Lorelei Vogel, the latest self-destructive client on the roster, as she’d feared. They’d ganged up on her so she wouldn’t pitch a fit—at least, not as much of one—when they fired her.

  It had been ten years since Wendy had moved from West Virginia to Manhattan, coming for college and staying for her job with Stargazer. Now that she was losing her job, she didn’t have to move back to Morgantown. There was nothing left for her there. She wasn’t eighteen anymore, and she wasn’t vulnerable to Rick. But the way her panicked heart was racing, she might as well have been boarding the next bus back home.

  “I mean,” she said, and her backtracking petered out. She’d already said what she’d meant. She did too much of that, which was her whole problem.

  “Wendy,” Katelyn said, “you know we love you like a daughter.”

  Wendy squinted at her. “A daughter you’re firing?”

  “Yes!” Katelyn exclaimed. “If Arabella wasn’t up to snuff, I swear I’d hand her ass to her on a platter.” Her eyes shot sideways to Jonathan, who shook his head, warning of another outburst from Wendy. Taking the hint, Katelyn leaned forward across the table and patted Wendy’s hand soothingly. “Not that I’m trying to hand you your ass.”

  Archie slouched diagonally in his chair with one ankle propped casually on the opposite knee. He punctuated each syllable with a plastic coffee spoon as he told Wendy, “You’re not really family, but we did want to make this as painless as possible for you, and this is the thanks we get?”

  Gripping the arms of her chair, Wendy took a deep breath and said, “My job is to salvage the public images of stars who are about to go off the deep end. I’m dragging them back from the brink of drug addiction, alcoholism, whoring, or just plain stupidity before they fall into the abyss. Sometimes I go into the abyss after them and drag them out. They emerge kicking and screaming. You can’t expect them to like me.”

  “That may be true,” Katelyn acknowledged. “By nature, your relationship with them is adversarial. However, if they hate you so much that they don’t want to work with you at all, we can’t send you anymore. You’re no good to us.”

  “Who doesn’t want to work with me at all?” Wendy protested. Unfortunately, lots of possible answers rushed to mind. Zane topped the list.

  “Brad McCain,” Jonathan piped up.

  “That guy is dead,” Wendy told Jonathan. She was losing interest in being especially polite. Brad McCain was a sore point with her, and she wanted to set the record straight. She said quietly but firmly, “He was hell-bent on being dead, too. He was halfway there when you sent me to him.”

  In fact, that was why they had sent Wendy. If anyone could have prevented Brad from getting plastered in a West Hollywood club and driving his Porsche off a mountain, over a privacy fence, and into the swimming pool of an up-and-coming handbag designer, it was Wendy. As it turned out, nobody could. But what she had done, after his death, was publicize that he’d set up his mom in a florist business and bought her a beautiful oceanside home in Florida. Because the public saw him in a more positive light, a movie studio rushed to release special editions of his older gross-out comedies, sending even more money to his deserving family.

  Wendy had counted the case a partial success. Being accused of failure made her feel like crying in frustration. She couldn’t allow herself to tear up with her bosses watching her, so she did what she always did when she felt like crying. She lashed out. “If you want to present this argument to me, fine, but you can’t use the opinion of a dead guy as evidence.” She sounded bitter and defensive, and she knew it. She wasn’t just on shaky ground now. The ground crumbled under her feet. As she flailed, she couldn’t find a handhold.

  “We’ve got a long list,” Archie said. “Not all of the complainants are dead. But the reason we’ve decided to terminate you today, Wendy, is that Darkness Fallz doesn’t want to work with you anymore. They never want to see you again. They’ve gone to the length of writing that into their new contract with their record company.”

  Now Wendy felt like she’d been slapped. Darkness Fallz had sunk so low by the time Wendy was sent to them that they were getting fired from pub gigs in Tacoma because their meth-addicted lead singer couldn’t drag his ass to work at nine o’clock at night. The rest of the group had been grateful to Wendy when the funny, self-deprecating video she arranged to be shot for them went viral. They were invited to tour the talk shows, then to sign a new recording contract. She’d thought the lead singer might have been grateful to her, too, in the end, despite some of the things she’d said to him about acting like an overgrown Halloween trick-or-treater.

  As the sting of the slap faded into a deep ache, again she felt like crying at the betrayal. Instead, she laughed shortly. “Their contract actually says they don’t want to work with me again?”

  “Show her the contract, Katie,” Archie said.

  Katelyn peered into her designer tote, thumbed through a stapled sheaf of papers to a particular page, and
handed the contract across the table. Wendy took it as if Katelyn were dressed in a red rubber Satan costume like the lead singer of Darkness Fallz himself. She peered at the underlined sentence: Manhattan Music agrees that it will not employ Stargazer Public Relations to work with Darkness Fallz for the period of this contract.

  To be on her bosses’ desks this morning, the contract must have been on its way while Wendy was still in Seattle, helping Darkness Fallz through their issues. Which hurt even more.

  “The contract doesn’t specify me,” she grumbled.

  “They meant you,” Jonathan said.

  Katelyn told Wendy, “You’ve lost their business for everybody at Stargazer. We hear Manhattan Music has already retained another firm for them. Can you guess what firm that might be?”

  Wendy knew. Katelyn wouldn’t have posed the question otherwise. Manhattan Music must have hired Stargazer’s biggest enemy, whose heir apparent was Wendy’s own arch-rival from college. Daniel Blackstone was the undisputed expert among PR experts at getting stars out of trouble. He was also one of Wendy’s least favorite people, along with her ex, Rick. But she was trying to save her job, so she swallowed her medicine. She attempted to look contrite rather than ill as she ventured, “The Blackstone Firm?”

  “The Blackstone Firm,” Jonathan repeated in a whisper, as if he dared not say the name of the dragon too loudly for fear of calling it down from the icy mountain to slay them all.

  “We can’t keep you on staff if you’re losing us business,” Katelyn explained.

  “What about my current business?” Wendy asked, realizing as she did so that her bosses had already finished up her current business. That’s why they’d sent her all over town this morning, touching base with her clients. Her stars would feel taken care of for a few days, until Stargazer was able to send in someone else. But there was one client she’d met with on her own. “What about Zane Taylor?”

  “We’re giving him to Tom,” Jonathan said.

 
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