Dakota Rain took a good hard look in the bathroom mirror and inventoried the assets.
Piercing blue eyes? Check.
Sexy stubble? Check.
Sun-streaked blonde hair? Check.
In the doorway, his assistant rolled her eyes and hit speed dial. “Emily Fazzone here,” she said. “Mr. Rain needs to see Dr. Spade this morning. Another cap.” She listened a moment, then snorted a laugh. “You’re telling me. Might as well cap them all and be done with it.”
In the mirror Dakota gave her his hit man squint. “No extra caps.”
“Weenie,” she said, pocketing her phone. “You don’t have time today, anyway. Spade’s squeezing you in, as usual. Then you’re due at the studio at eleven for the voice-over. It’ll be tight, so step on it.”
Deliberately, Dakota turned to his reflection again. Tilted his head. Pulled at his cheeks like he was contemplating a shave.
Emily did another eye roll. Muttering something that might have been either “get to work” or “what a jerk,” she disappeared into his closet, emerging a minute later with jeans, T-shirt, and boxer briefs. She stacked them on the granite vanity, then pulled out her phone again and scrolled through the calendar.
“You’ve got a twelve o’clock with Peter at his office about the Levi’s endorsement, then a one-thirty fitting for your tux. Mercer’s coming here at two thirty to talk about security for the wedding …”
Dakota tuned her out. His schedule didn’t worry him. Emily would get him where he needed to be. If he ran a little late and a few people had to cool their heels, well, they were used to dealing with movie stars. Hell, they’d be disappointed if he behaved like regular folk.
Taking his sweet time, he shucked yesterday’s briefs and meandered naked to the shower without thinking twice. He knew Emily wouldn’t bat an eye. After ten years nursing him through injuries and illness, puking and pain, she’d seen all there was to see. Broad shoulders? Tight buns? She was immune.
And besides, she was gay.
Jacking the water temp to scalding, he stuck his head under the spray, wincing when it found the goose egg on the back of his skull. He measured it with his fingers, two inches around.
The same right hook that chipped his tooth had bounced his head off a concrete wall.
Emily rapped on the glass. He rubbed a clear spot in the steam, gave her the hard eye for pestering him in the shower.
She was immune to that too. “I asked you if we’re looking at a lawsuit.”
“Damn straight,” he said, all indignation. “We’re suing The Combat Zone. Tubby busted my tooth and gave me a concussion to boot.”
She sighed. “I meant, are we getting sued? If Tubby popped you, you gave him a reason.”
Dakota put a world of aggrievement into his western drawl. “Why do you always take everybody else’s side? You weren’t there. You don’t know what happened.”
“Sure I do. It’s October, isn’t it? The month you start howling at the moon and throwing punches at bystanders. It’s an annual event. The lawyers are on standby. I just want to know if I need to call them.”
He did the snarl that sent villains and virgins running for their mamas. Emily folded her arms.
He stuck his head out the door. “Feel that.” He pointed at the lump.
She jabbed it.
“Ow! Damn it, Em, you’re mean as a snake.” He shut off the water, dripped his way across the bathroom and twisted around in front of the mirror, trying to see the back of his head.
“Was Montana with you?”
“No.” Little brother’s clubbing days were over. Montana spent his evenings with his fiancé now.
“Are you kidding?” He was always tripping over those leeches. October usually ended with one of them on the ground, Dakota punching the snot out of him while the rest of the bloodsuckers streamed it live.
Emily dragged her phone out again. “Hi Peter. Yeah, Dakota got into it with Tubby last night. Just a broken tooth and a knot on his thick skull. But the press was there, so expect pictures. Okay, later.”
Dakota gave up on the lump. His hair was too thick.
And too damn long. An inch past his chin for the western he’d start filming next month. A lot of trouble for what amounted to another shoot-‘em-up just like the last one, and the one before that. This time there’d be horses instead of hot rods, and six guns instead of Uzis. But no real surprises, just lots of dead bodies.
Emily handed him a towel. “Car?”
He glanced out the window. No surprises there either. Another sunny day in L.A. “Porsche. The black one.”
She walked out of the bathroom, tapping her phone. “Tony, bring the black Porsche around, will you? And drop the top.”
* * *
Goosing the gas, Dakota squirted between a glossy Lexus and a pimped-out Civic, then shot through a yellow light and squealed a hard right into the In-N-Out Burger, braking at the drive-thru.
“Gimme a three-by-three, fries and a chocolate shake, will ya, darlin’?” He glanced at Emily. “The usual?”
She nodded, phone to her ear.
“Throw in a grilled cheese for the meat-hater. And an extra straw.” He pulled forward behind a yellow Hummer.
Still talking, Emily opened her iPad, fiddled around, then held it up for him to see. Pictures of his go-round with Tubby.
He shrugged like it didn’t bother him, but it did. Oh, he didn’t care if people knew he’d had his ass handed to him. That was inevitable; nobody beat Tubby.
What pissed him off were the damn paparazzi.
Everyone—Peter, Emily, even Montana—told him the media was a fact of celebrity life. A necessary evil. And maybe that was true.
But he’d never forgive them for Charlie. For driving a good man to suicide, then tearing at his remains like the flesh-eating vultures they were.
And it wasn’t only the paparazzi who’d made money and careers off Charlie’s life and death. “Legitimate” journalists waded in too, exploiting his best friend’s disintegration, never letting humanity get in the way of a good story.
The day they spread Charlie’s corpse across the front page, Dakota swore off “news” forever. No papers, no magazines, no CNN. Never again in this life.
Pulling up to the window, he set aside his resentment and laid a practiced smile on the redhead inside. “Hey, Sandy-girl. What’s shakin’?”
“Hey, Kota.” Her Jersey accent was thick as molasses. “I like the hair.”
“You can have it when I cut it off.” He tipped her fifty bucks and she blew him a kiss.
Peeling out of the lot, he handed off the bag to Emily. She was still uh-huhing into her phone, so he plucked it from her hand.
“Hey! That was Peter.”
“We just saw him twenty minutes ago.” He rattled the bag.
“Honest to God.” She unwrapped his burger and spread a napkin on his lap. Then she stuck both straws in the shake, took a long pull and passed it over, half turning in her seat to eyeball him. “So what happened last night?”
He sucked down two inches of shake, tucked it between his thighs. “Some asshole was hassling this girl. Feeling her up.” Manhandling the poor kid. Pinning her to the wall and rubbing all over her.
“Tell me you didn’t hit him.”
“I was about to.” And wouldn’t it have felt great to lay that pretty boy out? “I pulled him off her. Then Tubby waded in and spoiled my fun.”
“And the October madness begins.” Emily tipped back her head and stared up at blue sky. “Why, oh why, couldn’t Montana get married in September? Or November?”
“Why does he have to get married at all?” It made no sense. Montana had the world by the balls. Women loved him. Hollywood loved him. The critics loved him. He was the indie darling, offered one challenging, nuanced role after another, while Dakota got stuck blowing up cities and machine-gunning armies single-handed.
Sure, Dakota made bigger box office. But Montana had the talent in the family.
“Sasha’s a great girl,” Emily pointed out.
“Yeah, she’s a peach. But peaches grow on trees in California. Why settle for one when you can have the orchard?”
Em punched his shoulder. “That’s for peaches everywhere, especially California.”
Dakota grinned and passed her the shake. “Call Mercer, will you, and tell him we’re running behind. I don’t want him getting pissed at us.”
“Pfft. You never worry about anybody else’s feelings.”
“Because they can’t kill us just by looking at us.”
“See? You’re scared of him too.” She crossed her arms. “I wish you hadn’t hired him.”
“So you’ve said about a million times. But Montana put me in charge of security, and Mercer’s the best.” His guys were ex-Rangers and Navy SEALs. “He says he’ll keep the press out, and I believe him.”
“Well good luck with that. They always manage to sneak somebody inside.”
“Not this time.”
A beach wedding might be a security nightmare—not to mention just plain pointless since everyone was zipped into tents and couldn’t see the water anyway—but Mercer had it covered. Airtight perimeter, no-fly zone. Saturday’s guests and employees would be bussed in from a remote parking lot and wanded before admittance. Anyone caught with a recording device would be summarily executed—er, ejected.
Dakota gave a grim smile. “Believe me, Em, Mercer’s got it locked down. Not a single, slimy, sleazy reporter is getting into that wedding.”
* * *
“You’re getting into that wedding.” Reed aimed a finger at Chris. “Don’t bother arguing. It’s that, or clean out your desk.”
“This is bullshit, Reed! Archie admitted it was his screwup.”
“And his desk is already empty. But your ass is still in a sling, Christine. Your name was on that story.”
“I told him not to go to print until I verified it! If he’d waited till I gave him the go ahead—”
“You’re missing the point. Senator Buckley saw your name—Christine Case—on the front page. You accused her of mishandling campaign contributions. It’s your blood she wants.” Reed’s chair scraped back. “You wanted to do hard news, now you’ve got to take the heat.”
Chris rubbed her temple. “I earned my byline, Reed.” With two years of writing fluff for the Living section. It finally seemed to pay off when one of Buckley’s PR flacks—a guy Chris knew from covering the senator’s thousand-dollar-a-plate fundraisers—handed her the story of lifetime. Her big break. Guaranteed to run front page above the fold.
Reed had no sympathy. “You should’ve held onto the story until you locked it up. You handed Archie a stick of dynamite.”
Oh yes she had. And it blew up in her face.
Reed was right. She bore a big chunk of the blame. She was lucky he hadn’t fired her outright.
“Listen, Chris.” Reed came around the desk, propped himself on the edge. “Emma Case is a hero to a whole generation of reporters. Your mother’s coverage of Vietnam changed history. That’s why you’re still sitting here, getting another chance. That, and the fact that your father’s the entertainment at Montana Rain’s wedding.”
“So now we’re competing with The Enquirer? Sneaking into celebrity weddings? For God’s sake, we’re The Los Angeles Sentinel. Is this what journalism has come to?”
Wrong question. Reed stiffened. “Don’t preach to me, young lady. I grew up in this business, and I can tell you the world’s changed. Newspapers all over the country are hanging by a thread.”
“The scoop on this wedding won’t make or break The Sentinel.”
“Maybe not. But it’ll make or break your future here. I went to the mat for you and now you’ll return the favor. I promised Owen an exclusive. Where The Stars Are rolls out in two weeks, and Montana Rain’s wedding will be the centerfold spread.”
“Come on, Reed. It’s no better than a tabloid—”
He cut her off, ruthlessly. “Your opinion’s irrelevant. Owen’s the publisher, and it’s his baby. He’s expecting it to boost Sunday circulation, and if it goes down in flames it won’t be because this office didn’t do its damnedest.”
Chris tried to stare him down, but Reed was master of the stare down. She crossed her arms. He crossed his.
Sand trickled through the hourglass.
Chris dropped her eyes. Thought about her mother, how proud she’d been when Chris graduated from Columbia with her master’s in journalism. How disappointed when she didn’t use her degree, choosing a troubadour’s life with her father instead.
Well, it was too late to redeem herself in her mother’s eyes. Alzheimer’s had dulled Emma Case’s razor-sharp mind. The woman Chris had admired and resented and loved with all her heart was, in so many of the ways that matter, already lost to her.
No, Emma would never know that Chris was finally following in her footsteps, or that her old friend Reed, managing editor of The Sentinel, had given Chris that chance.
But Chris knew. With no references but her family name, Reed had taken it on faith that she’d bring the same commitment to The Sentinel that Emma had brought to her Pulitzer Prize-winning career.
But sneaking into celebrity weddings, dishing on who wore what and who canoodled with who … well, nobody won awards for that.
Still, she owed Reed. And with the balance sheet so far out of whack, what choice did she have?
She’d have to suck it up, sing with her father’s band at Montana Rain’s stupid wedding, and bring back some useless gossip to hype Owen’s pet project. Then she’d ride out her time in the penalty box until she got another crack at hard news.
Next time, she’d use better judgment, double-check her sources.
Next time, she’d make her mother proud.
Refusing to meet Reed’s eyes, Chris punched in her famous father’s private number. He answered on the first ring.
“Hi, honey pie.”
“Hi Dad.” She cut to the chase. “Listen, is the offer still open? Can I do the wedding this weekend?”
“Abso-fucking-lutely.” Zach Gray didn’t miss a beat. “I’ll work up a new set list and shoot it to you. We hit at two. And honey, security’s tighter than a gnat’s asshole. No phones, no nothing. Expect to strip down to your skivvies.”
And the hits just kept on coming.