Jericho Beaumont used the pay phone outside the Aardvark Club to call Chaslyn. He automatically hunched his shoulders and turned his face away as a car pulled into the lot and parked, its headlights illuminating him like a follow-spot before being shut off.
As the phone rang, he turned up the collar of his jacket--added protection against being recognized by the college-age kids getting out of the car. But he needn't have bothered.
"Isn't that ...?"
"Doesn't he look like ...?"
The flurry of whispers were drowned out by a louder voice. "Nah, it's only Jericho Beaumont. Hey, Beaumont, where you been? I keep expecting you to do a guest spot on the new Loveboat. Haven't they called you yet?"
Anger flared, but Jed crushed it, stuffing it deep inside, locking it tightly down, ignoring it as completely as the laughter that echoed in the night. And when Chaslyn's roommate Lisa picked up the phone on the fifth ring, his voice was even and perfectly in control.
"Hey, Lisa. It's Jericho. Has Chas left for the wrap party yet?"
Silence. Then Lisa laughed nervously. "Um, Jericho ...Chaslyn left for London five days ago. She got cast in that Linda McCartney bio-pic, remember?" Her voice became tinged with pity. "Didn't she tell you she was leaving?"
"Yeah," Jed lied. "Yeah, she told me, and I, um ...I must've forgotten."
"You didn't know she was gone, did you?" Lisa saw right through him. "You know, she told me you wouldn't notice if she suddenly disappeared. And it took you five days just to wonder where she was, didn't it?"
What could he say? It was the truth. "Yeah."
"God," Lisa continued, "and I was about to be mad at her for dumping you that way. You're such a loser, Beaumont."
She cut the connection without even saying good-bye, and Jed slowly hung up the phone.
His girlfriend had been gone for five days.
And he hadn't even noticed.
It would've been funny--if it weren't so damn pathetic.
The music inside the club was blaring, and Jed worked his way through the sea of humanity to the bar at the back, where the cast and crew of Mean Time were having their farewell bash.
Rhino and T.S. were sitting at the bar, a bottle of Jack Daniel's positioned strategically between them.
"Where's Chaslyn?" Melanie, the makeup head asked as he moved past her table.
Jed didn't stop. "She's not coming. She's already flown to London for her next project."
"Poor Jericho--you're all alone. You must be so sad."
He took the stool next to Rhino, trying to feel sad, trying to care Chaslyn was gone. But the only emotion he could muster up was a vague sense of frustration. And maybe a little envy. Chas had a next project to go to. So far Jed had nothing lined up yet, and the truth was that that hurt worse than her leaving.
He dug deeper, staring into the shot glass filled with golden brown whiskey that Rhino had pushed in front of him, but he still felt nothing more profound than a sense of relief.
Chaslyn had left, which meant he no longer had to worry about hurting her. She had truly cared for him. And he ...He'd liked the sex.
Bernie O'Hara, the character he'd played in Mean Time, had loved Chaslyn's character, Lulu Jerome, with an obsessive passion. It hadn't taken long for the line between reality and make-believe to blur, and five days into the six-week shoot, Jed had wound up in Chaslyn's bed. It should've been no big deal. They were both adults, both unattached.
But Chas didn't realize the heat they generated belonged only to Bernie and Lulu. She didn't realize that underneath Bernie's volatile character, Jed felt damn close to nothing.
That he rarely felt anything at all.
He picked up the glass of whiskey and brought it up to his nose, breathing in the familiar aroma. He closed his eyes, anticipating its smoothness against his tongue, the bite as it hit the back of his throat, the warmth that would rush through him, down to his stomach and outward, all the way to the tips of his fingers and toes.
"You actually gonna drink that this time?"
Jed opened his eyes to see Austin Franz sliding onto the stool on his other side. Franz was a brilliant cinematographer, and one of the meanest sons of bitches in the industry. He'd gotten it into his head that he'd have stood a chance with Chaslyn, had Jericho Beaumont not pushed him out of the running.
Rhino and T.S. shifted in their seats, exchanging a glance.
"Are you?" Franz asked again.
Jed couldn't answer. He never knew for sure if he was going to drink the whiskey or not--not until he got up and walked out of the bar. So far he'd always walked away.
He sidestepped the question, giving Franz his movie star smile, open, friendly. "I just like to smell it."
"You've been sober...how long?" Franz asked.
"It'll be five years next week."
"Shit. That long? You must want to drink that pretty damn badly."
Jed gazed into the shot glass.
"Go away, Austin," Rhino said, his squeaky voice in direct contrast to his girth.
"So what's your next movie gonna be, Jer?" Franz asked.
"Jericho doesn't like nicknames," T.S. supplied helpfully.
Jed's smile was starting to feel decidedly tired. It was public knowledge that he didn't have a next movie yet. He called his agent, Ron Stapleton, twice a day, but apparently, even after being clean and sober for five years, even after showing up every day on time for Mean Time, no one wanted to touch him. The best he had was a potential meeting with the producer of another independent feature. He'd have to fly to Boston, even pay for the airline tickets himself, with no guarantee he'd get the part. And until Ron sent him the script, he wasn't even sure he wanted it. Frustration twisted inside of him. "Nothing's lined up yet," he said cheerfully--an Oscar-worthy performance.
"I'm taking a few months off myself," Franz told him, "and then I'm going into preproduction with Stan for this really hot 1930s gangster story. Stan liked you for the lead, but since I'm producing this time around, I talked him out of it."
He was lying. He was trying to piss Jed off--and it was working. Jed turned his smile up a few notches. "It's just as well. I try not to work with the same director twice in a row."
"Come on, Jericho," T.S. said. "I'll challenge you to a game of video downhill skiing."
"I'll challenge you to a different game. You ever play quarters?" Franz stopped Jed with a hand on his arm.
Franz was holding him so tightly, he would have had to really pull to get away. This was the way bar fights started. He knew--he'd been in enough of them in the past.
He briefly closed his eyes. "Austin, I'm sorry about Chaslyn. I honestly didn't know that you were--"
"Screw Chaslyn." Franz laughed harshly. "Well, shit, you already did that, didn't you? Just forget about it, Jerry. She obviously has. This is just a nice, friendly wager."
"I'm not into gambling."
"One game of quarters. That's all."
Quarters was a drinking game where the players took turns bouncing coins off the bar in an attempt to sink one in their opponent's drink. When a quarter was sunk, the opposing player had to drain the glass. Jed had played plenty in his late teens, but usually with beer, not whiskey.
Franz reached for the bottle of Jack, pouring himself a shot. "One game. If you win or tie, I'll let Stan cast you in the gangster project."
"And if I lose?"
"You win anyway, since you really want to drink that shot. I'd just be giving you a good excuse." He pushed a quarter down the bar.
Jed stared into Franz's eyes, feeling ...what? Anger, yes. The son of a bitch was vindictive and mean-spirited. He wanted to hurt Jed simply for the sake of hurting him and that really pissed him off. But beneath his anger, he also felt ...interest. A glimmer of excitement, a shadow of possibility.
He could win. He used to be good at this. He picked up the quarter.
Rhino clutched at his head. "Jericho--"
"Shut up, Rizinski." Franz was holding another quarter, and he tossed it onto the bar so that it bounced up. It missed the rim of Jed's glass by a good two inches.
Jed hefted the other quarter in his hand. Last time he'd played, it had been with beer mugs--taller, but wider around. He took a deep breath, feeling the smoky air of the bar fill his lungs. The risk was high, but if he won ...
He threw. The quarter bounced, clinking as it hit the side of Franz's glass.
Franz threw and missed. Jed threw, the quarter hitting the glass again, but still not going in.
Twice more each, all misses, and Jed knew he could do it. One more shot was all he needed and ...
Franz's quarter landed dead in the center of Jed's glass with a splash. It settled there, magnified by both the glass and the liquid.
"You got one chance to tie." Franz slid the second quarter down the bar to him.
"I can do this, Rhino."
Rhino put his head down on the bar, his meaty arms blocking both his sight and hearing.
Jed picked up the quarter, tracing George Washington's head with his thumb. He knew exactly where to throw it, exactly how much force to use. He could do this. He tossed.
The quarter bounced.
"Yes!" Franz laughed, smacking the bar with the palm of his hand. "I win."
The reality of what he'd just done came crashing down around Jed. The glimmer of possibility turned to ash, to soul-numbing despair.
He stared at his shot glass, at the quarter at the bottom. He didn't have to lift it to his nose, he could smell the pungent odor from where he was. He knew how good it would taste, how easy it would go down.
And he knew if he drank it, he'd drink another. And another and probably another. Until he was loaded enough not to care. Until he was loaded enough to beat the crap out of Austin Franz.
"You don't have to drink," Franz said generously. "But if you don't, you better believe you'll never work for me, or anyone associated with me, ever again."
Jed lifted the glass.
Kate gazed at the man sitting across from her, nearly giddy with fatigue. "You think I should marry you ...?"
He was handsome in a bland, spongy, Wonder bread kind of way, with wavy blond hair and very pretty blue eyes. "No, it's not ..." He closed those eyes and shook his head. "It's not what you think," he said in a soft southern drawl. "I'm not doing this for me." He opened his eyes and gazed at her intently. "I'm doing this for you."
"I don't understand." After five hours, she couldn't put much emotion into it anymore.
He closed his eyes again. "I made a promise to Sarah ..." The eyes opened again. Another piercing look. Kate clenched her teeth so that she wouldn't laugh out loud and hurt the poor guy's feelings. ". . . that I'd look out for you. If you're married to me, then you won't have to--"
"Thank you," Victor interrupted. "Mister ..." He searched his clipboard for a name. "Franklin."
"John Franklin," Blue-eyes supplied helpfully. Hopefully. Just like that, the slightly overdone southern accent was replaced by nasal Long Island. "Was that what you wanted? Because I could do it again. Is Laramie supposed to be drunk in this scene, because I can do it more drunk if you want. Or less drunk or--"
"Thank you," Victor said again.
"We've got your head shot and résumé, John," Kate told the actor gently as she stood up and escorted him to the door. "Thank you so much for coming." She poked her head out into the crowded waiting room. "Give us five minutes, Annie."
As the door closed behind the man, Kate leaned against it.
"What the hell was he doing with his eyes?" Victor asked. "Where did that guy learn to act?"
"He wasn't that bad."
"I wouldn't cast him in a dog food commercial." Victor turned to the casting agent who was manning the video camera. "Erase that," he ordered.
Kate pushed herself up and off the door, resisting the urge to throw herself down on the floor to scream and kick her feet. It wasn't her job to have a hissy fit. It wasn't her job to go insane--at least not visibly so. She was the producer of this movie. She had to be the voice of reason and the oracle of calm even when her blood pressure was 800 over 400, the way it was right now.
She could hear a dull roar in her ears as her blood raced through her veins. Looking on the bright side, if her head actually did explode, it was likely that Victor would begin to take what she had to say much more seriously.
Over the past few years--over half a decade now--she'd been the president and CEO of the Supply Closet, an office supply store that she'd built into a multimillion-dollar regional chain. She'd found, in those years, that her normal, soft-spoken delivery didn't always get her the results she wanted, so she'd learned to square her shoulders, raise her voice, and get very, very tough. Most men thought they could steamroll over Kate O'Laughlin, and they probably could. But when she mentally slipped on her Valkyrie maiden breastplate, adjusted the twin horns on her helmet, and let Frau Steinbreaker loose, she could not only make a dent in the roller, but also stop the machine cold.
She hadn't yet felt the need to assume her alter ego with Victor. But she could feel her backbone starting to stiffen--the first sign that the Frau was dying to be unleashed.
"We need to cast this part," she said. That was a simple enough concept, wasn't it? So why didn't he just do it? "We're scheduled to start shooting this movie in less than a month and a half, and until we find our Virgil Laramie, we're not going to get a commitment from any of the other actors. Maybe it's time to take another look at the five hundred actors you've already rejected out of hand?"
Either that, or maybe it was time for her to start whacking herself on the head with a big stick.
Victor's cell phone trilled, and with an arrogance that still drove her mad, even now, after they'd been divorced for close to seven years, he held up one hand, signaling her to wait as he took the call.
To date, Victor had rejected every hungry young actor in Hollywood for this part. Some of them were rising movie stars. Some were hot and happening TV actors. And they all had been willing to take a significant cut in pay--even down to union scale--to do this picture. To take on the meaty role of Virgil Laramie.
Virgil Laramie was a broken, bitter man who returned to South Carolina after a harsh journey to California took the lives of his wife and baby son. He'd returned east and was ready and willing to spend the rest of his life hiding in a bottle of whiskey--until his 14-year-old sister-in law shocked him by asking him to help smuggle a wagon load of runaway slaves out of the county. The girl, Jane, was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and her fearless passion, along with her deep loyalty and friendship for a young black man, slowly brought Laramie back to the world of the living.
The Promise was going to be a chick flick--a love story, a relationship movie. It was also a period piece. The story took place in the South in the mid-1800s, several years before the American Civil War.
With those two serious strikes against it--the fact that nothing exploded and the characters wore old-fashioned clothing and did a lot of talking--Kate knew that chances of the film being picked up by a major distributor would increase a significant amount if they had a name-brand actor attached to the project. Matthew McConaughey. Matt Damon. Ralph Fiennes.
Kate took a sip of her coffee and felt a jolt of caffeine race through her system, imagining the thrill she'd feel if they could somehow get Ralph Fiennes for the part of Virgil Laramie. At union scale. Yeah, right. Snowball's chance in hell. But Ralph's face was the one she imagined every time she thought of that broodingly dark character. And lately, she was thinking about Laramie far too often.
She'd created the character, and he'd come to life as she'd written the script. He was complex--a swirl of seemingly impenetrable darkness that becomes infused by the bright light of hope. He'd crumbled beneath all the pain that life had hit him with, but then he'd learned to stand and even walk again--carrying more than just his weight.
Kate was more than half in love with him.
As the screenwriter, it mattered that the actor chosen to play Laramie be right for the part. But her practical side knew both she and Victor most likely would have to compromise. If they wanted this movie to get made, they simply could not spend much more time on the casting process. They had their funding now, and those financial backers wouldn't wait forever.
As the producer of this movie, she had four million other things she should be thinking about besides casting. In an effort to cut costs, she was responsible for scouting locations herself. She should be down in South Carolina right now.
Victor ended his call and turned back to her. "Sorry, babe. What were we talking about?"
Kate wanted to scream. Instead she put down her coffee mug and gathered up her briefcase and jacket. "I'll be in South Carolina if you need me."
"Cast this part, Victor," she told her ex-husband. And then she straightened her shoulders, assuming Frau Steinbreaker's near-militaristic stance as she flexed her producer's muscles. "Or I'll find myself a director who can."
She almost ruined the effect by laughing at the look of complete shock on Victor's face as she marched out of the room. It was nearly as effective as having her head explode.
Jed pushed his way into the casting agent's waiting room and stood in line at the desk that held the sign-in sheet.
The crowded room smelled like raw nerves--cold sweat, indigestion, and bad breath. It was silent, too, despite the fact that over thirty men sat in chairs that lined the walls. There was a low table in the center that was covered with magazines, but no one was reading. Some of the men had their eyes closed, others were busy checking out the competition, quickly looking away if anyone else looked up. Eye contact was minimal.
Someone coughed, and Jed heard a sound that had to be teeth grinding. The anxiety level here was off the scale.
It made him feel completely calm in comparison.
Jed filled in the next empty line on the sign-in sheet, taking his time to write his stage name in clear block letters. There was no space on the sheet for him to list his Oscar nominations.
Jed glanced at his watch as he sat down, marking the time as he once again did a quick head count. Thirty-three people. If each man took only two minutes, he was going to be sitting here for an hour. If everyone took five, he'd be here for more than twice that.
He settled back in the folding chair, fighting the annoyance that rose in him, fighting his need for a cigarette, flatly ignoring his need for a drink.
The good news was that no one had seemed to recognize him yet.
"Mister ...Beaumont?" The mousy young woman who came out to check the many pages of the sign-in sheet was looking around the room.
Jed sat forward. "That's me."
"Did you bring a head shot?"
He stared at her. A head shot. When was the last time he'd needed a photo of himself? When was the last time he'd actually gone to this kind of audition? It had to have been at least ten years. More. "Uh," he said. "No. I, uh, didn't. I'm sorry, I ..."
The mouse frowned slightly. "Didn't your agent tell you that this was a serious audition? There's a movie director in that back room and--"
Jed reached for the week-old copy of TV Guide that was out on the table among the other magazines. One of the networks had run Kill Zone last week--was it Tuesday or Wednesday? He leafed through, finding the full-page ad for the movie--a beefcake shot of him, muscles gleaming for his role as a Navy SEAL--assault weapon held loosely in his arms. He tore it out and handed it to the mouse. "Maybe that'll do."
He knew he was being a smart-ass, but he was tired of this. After his agent had sent him the script for The Promise, after Jed had read it, and loved it, and realized that Virgil Laramie was the role of a lifetime, the movie's producer, Mary Kate O'Laughlin, had canceled their meeting.
Ron had pressed, and she'd told him flat out that she didn't want to waste Jericho's or her own time. In plain English, she couldn't risk taking a chance with him. She and Vic Strauss were looking for up-and-coming talent, not someone who'd peaked over five years ago. The production was already a high financial risk--their backers might get spooked at the thought of sinking all that cash into a project with an A-list "has been" in the lead role. Beaumont wasn't even C-list these days. He was barely on any list at all.
It was frustrating as hell, especially since Jed knew he could play Laramie better than anyone in the world. It was as if the part had been written with him in mind. It was as if the character had been modeled on his very soul.
Ron called again and again, but O'Laughlin was adamant. She wouldn't even give him a chance.
Over the past three months, Jed had found himself again at the absolute bottom of his personal barrel as he'd fought a bad case of the flu, and dealt with the fact that despite being cast in Mean Time, Ron's phone wasn't ringing off the hook. Jed had started going to parties, started schmoozing shamelessly in hopes that someone would take a chance and cast him in their movie.
But days turned into weeks, weeks into months, and the only call Ron received was from the producers of some bad TV sitcom. Apparently Jed didn't even rate a guest spot on Loveboat.
There was only one thing Jed had left to lose by coming to this audition in New York. And he wanted the role of Virgil Laramie more than he wanted to hang onto the remaining worthless shards of his pride.
The mouse's eyes widened as she matched the name on the sign-in sheet with the picture from TV Guide, and she looked up at him and swallowed loudly enough for him to hear.
"Oh," she said.
Jed gave her his best smile--the two thousand watt, five billion dollar, movie star version. "What's your name?"
"Do me a favor, Annie, and don't tell Mary Kate and Vic that I'm out here. I want to surprise 'em."
Annie stood staring at him, frozen in place.
"Is that okay?" he asked.
She snapped to. "Kate left about an hour ago. You'll only be reading for Victor Strauss today."
"Really?" Jed turned up his smile even brighter. "In that case, please feel free to let Vic know I'm here."
Ding, dong the witch was dead--or at least safely out of the room. He actually stood a chance.
Jed took a deep breath, careful not to let his hope get out of control. If he let himself get too elated, he'd have much farther to fall if he failed. It was better to feel nothing at all. It was true he'd never soar into the heights, but he'd also never sink into complete despair.
He took a deep breath, firing up the movie star smile again as Annie came out of the back room.
"Mr. Strauss will see you now, Mr. Beaumont."Chapter Two
"I found our location." Kate sat on the bed in her Columbia, South Carolina hotel room, tucking the phone under her chin so she could reach down to unlace her boots. "A little town called Grady Falls. It's perfect, Victor. It's in the middle of nowhere. There's this little antebellum plantation museum, preserved by the Historical Society that no one ever goes to. They'd let us shoot both exteriors and interiors for next to nothing. The town has one motel, with about twenty trailor hookups alongside it. Across the street is this incredible little restaurant--the Morning Glory Grill. It's owned by these two ladies, Edna Rae and Sally, who can cook unlike anything you've ever tasted in your life. I've started preliminary negotiations to take over the Grill instead of setting up a dining tent for food service--we'd save money that way, too."
"I got some good news, too," Victor told her. "I found Laramie."
Kate froze, her boot in her hand. Laramie. She shook herself, tossing it onto the floor. This was good news. This odd feeling of premonition she was having was only due to complete fatigue.
"Did you get the videotape I couriered to you?" Victor asked. "I sent it last night--you should've received it by now."
Kate looked at the package she'd brought up with her from the front desk, the uneasy sensation getting even stronger. "You found our Laramie last night, but you're only calling to tell me about it today?"
"Yeah, well, I know you, and I know until you see this tape you're not going to believe that--"
"Wait." Kate's premonition was growing into a chillingly bad feeling. "Why are you playing games? Why aren't you just telling me the name of the actor you've found?"
"Did you or didn't you get the tape?"
"I got it."
"Play it, Katie. Then call me back." With a click, Victor--the rat--hung up on her.
"I'm hating this." Kate unwrapped the tape and carried it across the room to the VCR. "I'm really, truly hating this, Victor."
She'd spent the entire day either tromping through the South Carolina underbrush or driving to a new location, where she'd tromped through the underbrush some more. Her feet hurt from walking, and her butt hurt from sitting in the car. She was hungry and sweaty, and she wanted a shower and room service and a tall, cold drink--not necessarily in that order.
She was scared to death that the face she was going to see on this tape belonged to an actor who would be absolutely inappropriate for the role of Virgil Laramie. She was scared this face was going to belong to Rod Freeman, who was a fabulous actor but fifteen years too old, or Jamie Layne, who was fifteen years too young. Or, God help her, what if the Internet rumor that she'd heard in Grady Falls hadn't been a rumor after all, and Jericho Beaumont's was the face that would appear on the screen?
Kate turned on the TV and set it so the VCR would play. There was only blue for several long moments. And then the tape gave a visual burp, and a picture came on.
It was a man, and he was sitting in a chair. The lighting was bad, and he was blurry, but she recognized the background as the New York casting office she'd gone AWOL from just yesterday.
The focus improved, and the man in the chair was recognizable, too.
He had shoulder-length dark hair, a long, almost square face that angled suddenly at his jawline, narrowing into a strong, tapered chin, and an exquisite, elegantly shaped mouth. It was the kind of mouth any red-blooded woman would give a good long second glance--and then spend the next ten years dreaming about kissing.
But it was his eyes that truly set him apart. They were hazel--a gorgeous mix of green and light brown with a darker ring at the outer edge of the iris. His eyes were the focal point of his face. They seemed to glow with his intensity, even in the bad lighting of the casting office.
The man in the chair was indeed Jericho Beaumont.
Jericho Beaumont. Nominated for four different Oscars--two in the same year.
Jericho Beaumont. He'd dominated at the box office for close to two years, and then he'd fallen from grace, struck down by his addictions to drugs and alcohol. No one had known that he'd been playing the rehab game for years--or if they'd known, they'd ignored it. He'd dry out, clean up--until the temptation grew too great, and then he'd slip back to his old ways. Apparently, allegedly, he was completely clean now. But in Hollywood, as he attempted to make a come back, there were dozens of bets being made as to exactly how long it would be before he slipped again. Not if he slipped again, but when.
Jericho Beaumont. Six years ago, he'd been voted People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive." Those six years that had passed had only served to improve him. His face was fuller, with more lines and more character, his dark good looks more broodingly, dangerously intense. He still had that trademark scar just above his left eyebrow. It marred the perfection of his face, somehow making him even more good-looking. The camera still loved him. He was, undoubtedly, the most handsome man she'd ever seen in her life.
Kate pushed a button on the VCR, and the tape stopped.
She picked up the phone to call Victor back, but didn't finish dialing. She cut the connection, cursing Victor, cursing Jericho Beaumont, but mostly cursing herself.
As much as she wanted to, she couldn't use her veto power to exclude Beaumont without watching the tape.
She pushed play and turned up the volume.
Beaumont's voice was smoky and rich, thickened with an outrageously authentic-sounding southern accent. But of course it sounded authentic--Beaumont had been born and raised in some backwoods Alabama town.
"It's not what you think," he said quietly, both his voice and the movement as he very, very slightly shook his head carefully understated. "I'm not doing this for me. I'm doing this for you."
"I don't understand." Victor's voice read the line from offscreen.
Beaumont was silent for a moment, and even though he didn't move a muscle, he succeeded in letting her see everything that Laramie was thinking. Should he tell the truth? Should he say anything at all? Should he just give up and go get another drink?
Kate's heart was in her throat. He was Laramie, her Laramie, come to life before her very eyes. Three lines and one pause, and he was Laramie. She couldn't breathe.
"I promised Sarah I'd look out for you," he finally said. "If you're married to me, then you won't have to marry Reg Brooks. I won't touch you, Jane. I swear. This wouldn't be that kind of marriage." He paused, forcing a smile. "Unless you want it to be--I mean, someday, when you're old enough and you decide you want ...babies. If you want babies ..." He stared down at the floor for a moment, temporarily lost, momentarily slipping into another place or time. After several perfectly timed beats, he looked up. "God knows you're just a girl--you're not ready for anything like that now, and I don't know if I'll ever be, but ...that's a problem for the future. Right now I'm struggling to find solutions for here and now."
The videotape gave another visual burp, and Beaumont was sitting on the floor now, leaning back against the wall, long legs bent, knees up in front of him. His worn-out jeans were loose-fitting, but the way he sat made the denim hug the powerful muscles of his thighs. He held a coffee mug in his long, graceful fingers and took a sip.
"Tell me your name," Vic said from somewhere offscreen. Kate knew that they were doing an improvised scene.
"Laramie," Beaumont drawled. "Virgil Laramie."
"Isn't it a little early in the day to be drinking, Mr. Laramie?"
Beaumont barely looked up. "It's never too early. 'Sides, this way I'll be totally drunk by dusk. That's my goal in life, you know. Never to be sober when night falls."
"Didn't your wife's sister, Jane, just ask you for help?" Vic asked.
Beaumont's hands tightened slightly on the mug. "Jane. That girl is trying to get us all hung." He laughed, but there wasn't a bit of humor in it. "I don't care what promises I made her sister. There's no way in hell I'm risking my neck to smuggle a wagonload of Negroes past those pattyrollers."
"Pattyrollers. Patrollers," he said. "The sheriff thinks he's the law in these parts, but he's wrong. The patrollers run everything. They're judge and jury. Even with a signed pass, they're just as likely to kick the hell out of you as not. And that's riding alone, not with a wagonload of damned runaways."
He was silent for a moment, and again, Kate could see subtle emotion flickering across his face.
He looked up then, directly at where she imagined Vic was sitting. "If I don't help her, Jane is going to take the wagon herself, isn't she?"
"You tell me."
Kate hit the off button and sat down on the edge of the bed. Jericho Beaumont was good. He was beyond good.
He had become Laramie. Without the help of costumes or makeup or lighting, he had quietly slipped into Laramie's tormented soul. He'd done his research, too. Pattyrollers.
She lay back on the bed and stared up at the hotel room ceiling. One minute slid into two as she tried on the idea of letting this movie, her baby, this project of her heart and soul, ride completely on the shoulders of Jericho Beaumont.
Jericho too-drunk-to-remember-his-cue-lines Beaumont. The horror stories she'd heard from the producer of one of his last major studio movies were terrifying. Jericho had shown up late. He'd shown up without his lines learned. He'd shown up drunk. He hadn't shown up at all.
Yes, that had been over five years ago. But the things he'd done were hard to forget.
Her hunger was completely gone--she was nauseous now instead.
The phone rang.
She rolled over and picked it up, not even bothering to say hello. "I can't do it. I can't hire him."
"Come on, babe! Are you nuts?" It was Victor. "He's brilliant."
"He is brilliant," she told him. "He's a magnificent, utterly brilliant actor. I'm not disputing that."
"He's starving for this part, Katie. He actually came to an open call."
"So he swallowed his pride in order to--"
She cut him off. "No, we're not casting Jericho Beaumont, Victor. No. Absolutely not. Find someone else."
"Katie, watch the tape again."
"I don't need to watch the tape again." She worked to keep her voice from becoming too loud. "Because this isn't about talent. It's about whether or not we can afford to hold production for two days, or two weeks, while Beaumont goes off on some binge."
"Do you want Susie McCoy for the part of Jane, or not?"
Kate blinked at the sudden change of subject. "You told me there was no way we could get Susie. That her father wouldn't agree to less than one and a half million."
"Yeah, well, I just got off the phone with her agent, who told me she's in for union scale."
"What?" Susie McCoy was a fifteen-year-old with a huge amount of talent, who had been underutilized in every one of the ten movies she'd made since she got her first break at age six. Kate had written the part of Jane with the young actor in mind. "That's so amazingly great!"
Victor dropped his bomb. "On the condition that we cast Jericho as Laramie."
She could have Susie McCoy if she took on Jericho Beaumont. Oh, God.
"No," Kate said. "I'm sorry, Victor, but as much as I want Susie, I can't--"
"With two name actors providing box-office draw, we can start shopping for distributors today," Vic said. "We're almost guaranteed success. We could even afford to go over budget--in case Jericho needs drying out halfway through the shoot."
"We don't need to make any decisions now," Vic told her. "Think about this, watch the tape again, kick it around for a few days, and we'll talk when you get back to New York. Love you, babe. Later, okay?"
"No," Kate said. "Not okay. I'm not casting Jericho Beaumont in my movie."
But Victor had already cut the connection. Kate hung up the phone and lay back on the bed again. She stared at the ceiling for all of ninety seconds, and then she sat up, rewound the tape, and, cursing herself soundly, watched it again.
"She's watching it right now," Jed said, telephone tucked beneath his chin as he paced across the New York hotel room. "I know it. I can feel it."
"Why this movie, Jed?" David asked. David Stern's family had moved to Alabama when he was a sophomore in high school. After living in the Deep South for nearly twenty years, he still sounded as if he'd just stepped off of a New York City subway. And he still called Jed by his given name. "And, by the way, have you been to a meeting lately?"
Jed could hear water running in the sink and the clinking sound of dishes. He could picture David Stern in the kitchen of his modest suburban Montgomery house, loading up the dishwasher and helping Alison get dinner on the table. He felt a flash of something similar to envy. Similar, but not quite. The normality of David's life, with his pretty blond wife and his respectable job and his mortgage payments and family-sized car was something that Jed had never expected to achieve. He might have dreamed of it--more so back when he was a kid--but he'd never expected it.
Good thing, because it wasn't going to happen for him now.
"Yeah, I went to a meeting just last week," he told his friend. David had been on his back to keep up with Alcoholics Anonymous's twelve-step program.
"And stayed for only five minutes."
Jed sighed. He'd needed the meetings, two, three, four times a week during the first year or so he'd been out of rehab. But over the past few years, he'd drifted away. He could handle staying sober on his own. But David didn't think so.
David deftly changed the subject back to the movie. "Why is this particular role making you crazy? I can hear it in your voice. You're pacing, right? You sound stressed. Is it really worth putting yourself through this?"
"This character--Laramie--he's..." Jed shook his head, unable to explain. "I don't know. I just know that I can play him. I need to play him."
David made one of his shrink noises--a cross between hmmm and uh-uh. "So this is not about money. This isn't going to be a big financial windfall, is that what you're telling me?"
Money was something Jed had absolutely no trouble talking about. At least not with David. "Not at first. But I'm hoping to work some sort of percentage deal into my contract, so if it hits big, I'll benefit. And I'll get union scale, which at least will keep the creditors from lighting my house on fire. Oops. I forgot. I don't have a house."
Dave laughed at his pathetic attempt at a joke, but then brought the conversation right back to the place where it chaffed the most. As a psychologist, he was particularly good at doing that. "So if it's not the money, then the need for this part is about artistic fulfillment. Yes? No?"
Jed rubbed the back of his neck as he gazed out the window at the rapidly falling dusk. Lights were going on, and New York City was starting to sparkle. He closed the curtain, blocking out the view. "I guess you could call it that."
"What would you call it?"
Jed threw himself down into the room's one easy chair. "I didn't call you to get analyzed."
"This isn't analysis," David pointed out. "If it were, it would come with a bill for a hundred fifty dollars an hour. This movie is some kind of Civil War story, isn't that what you said?"
"No, it takes place in the early 1850s. Prewar. I play a guy who does the California gold rush thing, but his wife and kid die of some kind of fever during the trip west. I come back to South Carolina to find out that my family's plantation house has burned down and my brother was killed in the fire--"
"A comedy, huh?"
"It's not as awful as it sounds. The script is actually a really sweet story about hope. This guy Laramie kind of camps out in his in-laws' barn, does what chores he can manage during the day, and drinks himself into oblivion each night. But he's got this sister-in-law, Jane. She's only fourteen, and the writer, I swear, he caught the perfect mix of woman and child in this character. She works for the Underground Railroad--her family doesn't know it--and she's just so full of life, she manages to breathe some back into Laramie and"--he shook his head-- "and Vic Strauss wants Susie McCoy to play her."
"You say that as if that's bad."
Jed exhaled a burst of air. "I don't know what Vic's thinking, but I find it hard to believe Susie McCoy can handle a part with this kind of depth. She's been doing television for the past two years."
"Uptown Girl is one of Ken's favorite shows," David pointed out.
"Kenny is six."
"Have you watched it?" he asked.
"I gave up bad sitcoms when I quit drinking."
"This one's pretty good."
Jed wasn't buying that. "There's a hell of a huge difference between playing a spunky sitcom kid and playing a character like Jane Willet," he said. "It was bad enough when she was making movies like Little Mary Sunshine and Slumberparty. They weren't Shakespeare, but they were better than TV."
"I read somewhere that Susie McCoy took the sitcom part to try to keep her parents from splitting up. All that travel for the movies was taking its toll on their family life."
"That worked really well." Jed stood up and started pacing again. The McCoys most recent divorce settlement battle was making headlines in the tabloids.
"So here's a question for you, Jeddo," David asked. "Suppose they do cast Susie McCoy as Jane. Would you walk away from Laramie? I guess what I'm wondering is, how badly do you want this role?"
"Badly," Jed admitted. He wanted it so badly, his teeth hurt. "I'd do damn near anything to get this--even work with little Susie McCoy."
Her father's face had turned a very dark shade of red. It was so dark, it could almost be described as purple.
But this time he wasn't mad at her--he was mad at her mother.
"Union scale!" Russell McCoy had been shouting those two words as if they were going to starve if she accepted the Screen Actors Guild's minimum wages--wages that were significantly higher than what other fifteen-year-olds earned by working at Taco Bell. "Jesus Christ, Riva! How could you let her do this?"
Her mother was nearly in tears. "Don't shout at me! We're divorced now! You have no right to shout at me!"
"I can shout at you all I want, goddamn it! How long have you known about this?"
Susie sat at the kitchen table, hands tightly clasped in front of her, waiting for this portion of World War III to end. Her agent had made a major mistake by leaving a message on her father's answering machine. She'd been waiting for the perfect time to break the news to her father about her decision to take a role in this low-budget, low-paying, high-quality independent feature film, but the perfect time had never appeared. She'd put it off, and put it off, and now she was paying the price.
She'd told her mother about the movie weeks ago, but all that had done was make her father even angrier today when he found out Riva knew and he didn't.
Susie's stomach hurt, and her head ached. She tried to block out the hateful words that were being fired over her.
Her father looked like an angry bulldog, his jowls nearly shaking. A purple bulldog. The purple-red flush extended up past the receding hairline of his forehead, making him look more than angry. He looked vicious and mean, and Susie could not imagine what her timid, pretty little mother had ever seen in him.
He finally looked at Susie. "Union scale," he said again. "I told them one and a half million--no less--and you turn around and say union scale."
"What does it matter how much she gets paid?" Riva asked in an unprecedented show of backbone. "She's got over six million dollars in her bank account, Russell. I think she's going to be able to pay for her own college education. That's how this all started, remember?"
He ignored Riva. "They want you for the next Slumberparty movie. You'll get far more than one and a half for that."
"She doesn't want to do Slumberparty Three. She wants to do this movie. We've already told the director Susie's in if he wants her, provided they fulfill the terms of our agreement."
"What terms?" her father exploded. "You've agreed to let her work for slave wages! What kind of mother are you?"
Riva's face turned nearly gray.
Susie took a deep breath and stepped in. "Daddy, I asked Mom to stay with me on location this summer because it's going to be a low-budget shoot, and I know how much you hate that."
Her soft words managed to completely shut him up. She'd done ten movies, and Russell had been on set with her every single day of every single picture.
"Susie and I thought it would be nice if I could spend the summer with her," Riva added weakly.
Unfortunately, Russell found his tongue again. "You thought it would be nice, huh? You're the one who moved out. You should've thought in advance how that would impact the time you spent with your daughter."
"Stop," Susie said, and her father turned to look at her in surprise. When was the last time she'd stood up to him? She couldn't remember. But she was doing it now, and even though her knees were shaking, it felt good. "It's already settled. I want this part, and I want Mommy to spend the summer with me."
Her father looked from Riva to Susie and then back. As he walked out of the room, he got in a final dig at his ex-wife. "Better make sure they reserve an extra trailer for you and Jose, the Latin lover. I'd prefer it if you didn't screw his brains out in the same trailer that my daughter is living in."
"His name is Enrico," her mother whispered in the sudden stillness. She turned to Susie. "Are you really sure you want this part?"
Susie nodded. She was in--with a vengeance--provided Jericho Beaumont was cast as Laramie. She'd wanted a chance to work with him for as long as she could remember. She wanted it badly enough to be willing to stand up to her imperious father.
She wanted it more than she'd ever wanted anything.
And after years of doing exactly what her father told her, it was high time she did what she wanted.
Kate was in the back room of Victor's New York City office when he returned from lunch.
There was so muc
And, of course, there was Jericho Beaumont.
She'd thought long and hard about casting the actor, and she still felt completely uncomfortable about the idea.
But, God, she wanted Susie McCoy to play Jane.
She finished the letter she was writing and was starting a second one when she heard the door buzzer ring.
"Hey," she heard Victor say. "How are ya? Nice to see ya. Thanks for coming over to meet with me."
"I've only got a half an hour."
Whoever had come into the office had a deep, commanding voice--and an attitude that was pure royalty. An actor, Kate decided without even cracking open the door and peeking out at him. Had to be.
"Let's not dick around, Victor. You want me in your movie. My agent wants me in your movie--even though the money you're offering is a joke. Put on your tap shoes and go all out, my man. Give it your best shot. Convince me that spending my entire summer in Crackerville, South Carolina, playing the part of a slave is something I want to do."
Kate gave in to the urge to peek out into the other room, to see who possibly could have read her script and not understood instantly that the part of Moses, the slave, was a part to die for.
The man with attitude was none other than Jamaal Hawkes, one of Hollywood's spiciest flavors of the month. Except Jamaal was more than a tall, young, dark-skinned black man with well-defined muscles and a harshly handsome, impossibly photogenic face. He had true talent. It was yet to be discovered, though, if he had the discipline and drive necessary to shape himself into a major player.
He was wearing what had to be a thousand-dollar designer suit that was tailored to fit. His shirt was crisp and white, and he had on gold cuff links and a matching tie clip. His only other jewelry was a small gold hoop earring in his left ear.
"I'm not going to dance for you, Jamaal," Victor said quietly. "I want you for this movie, because I think you can do justice to this part."
As Kate watched, Victor gestured for Jamaal to sit. The young man hesitated until Victor sat down first. He wasn't as confident as he sounded. But why should he be? Even though he looked and dressed like a grown man, he was only a teenager. Less than three years ago, he'd been living on the bottom edge of the middle class with his social worker mother and two sisters. Now he had a penthouse on Central Park West. He was still new at this game, and learning the rules as he played.
"Moses is the third biggest part in the movie," Victor told him. "Your agent wants you to do it because it's Best Supporting Actor material. And it's different from the roles you've played up to now. That's good for your career."
Jamaal sat down on the very edge of the sofa.
"I want you to do it," Victor continued, "because I can't think of another actor who can do justice to this part."
"I'm just not sure I want anything to do with playing a slave."
Victor nodded. "Have you read the script?"
Kate went back to the computer, but she left the door partly open so she could hear the two men talking. It wasn't eavesdropping. If Victor knew she were here, he'd invite her to join the meeting. But this way she could listen in and still get her work done.
"I've read some of it," Jamaal admitted.
"It's a good script."
"It's a story about a white man."
Victor chuckled. "That's right. Laramie. Your character, the slave, Moses, was friends with Laramie's sister-in-law Jane when they were little. And this girl, Jane, she was really into Moses. Even though he was a slave, he was like her hero, you know? And she had this crazy dream that when she was old enough, she would buy Moses and they'd go out west and she'd set him free."
"Jane's a white girl." It wasn't quite a question.
"Yeah. When the story takes place, she's still very young--only fourteen. And Moses, he's about your age. Eighteen or nineteen."
"And they have a thing going? This little white girl and this slave?"
"It's more complicated than that," Victor told him. "But yeah, there's definitely an attraction between them, along with this long-standing childhood friendship. Anyway, what happens is, at the beginning of the movie, the plantation owner dies and his son inherits--and this son, Reginald Brooks, he's a real bastard. He sells off a whole bunch of the slaves--he doesn't care that he's separating families, he only cares about money. Moses is sold and taken farther south, and Jane doesn't see him for about four years. When she does see him after all that time, he's on the block, being sold again, and he's wearing chains because he's a runaway, right? He's tried to escape to the north, and now they've got to keep him locked up because they know if they don't, he'll run again. And his old owner--the real son of a bitch, Reg Brooks--he buys Moses back and basically kicks the shit out of him for running away. In his warped way he feels responsible--he sold Moses and Moses ran, so now he's going to break him. Brooks h
as this need to make Moses submit. But Moses would rather die, right? He's got all this pride, see, and he's never going to bow his head and say, 'Yes, master' to any man. And Jane, she still cares very deeply for Moses, and she figures she's got to help him get to freedom before Brooks kills him. She's willing to make all kinds of sacrifices--even sacrificing her own freedom by agreeing to marry Brooks--for Moses. It's a really powerful story."
Jamaal sat for a moment in silence.
Victor just waited for him to speak.
Kate took a sip of her coffee, also waiting. This was it. If Jamaal didn't want in now, after Victor's vivid telling of the part of the movie that dealt with Jane and Moses' complex relationship, there was nothing they could do to convince him.
The young man finally cleared his throat. "Who's, uh, who's playing Jane?"
Victor didn't hesitate. "Susie McCoy." Kate nearly dropped her coffee mug.
"No shit? That cute little kid from Slumberparty and The Thing in the Basement," Jamaal paused. "She old enough?"
"She's fifteen now. She's got her own sitcom. Uptown Girl?"
"Yeah, I've seen promos for that show. That's Susie McCoy? The blonde?"
"Whoa. She's still real cute."
"How about Laramie?" Jamaal asked. "Who you got lined up to play him?"
Kate felt her fingers tighten around the handle of the mug. Again, Victor spoke as if the contract were already on his desk. "Jericho Beaumont."
"Oh, man, he's great. But he's been off the map for what? Five years? Is he gonna draw? Or will he give this picture a B-list feel?"
"He'll draw. The curiosity factor alone will bring people in. He's a brilliant actor, despite all his personal problems."
"I know," Jamaal said. "I've always wanted to work with him. I never thought I'd have a chance."
"Sign on, and you will."
Kate opened the door and stood there, gazing at Victor. How could he make promises to Jamaal like this? He glanced up at her, and he didn't even have the grace to blush.
"So what do you think?" Victor asked Jamaal.
The young actor wasn't quite convinced. "I'm not sure about being out of the City for the entire summer ..."
"I know the amount we've offered seems low to you, but both Jericho and Susie have agreed to work for union scale. You'd be the highest-paid actor on the set."
"Yeah?" It was obvious that that idea appealed to Jamaal.
"What d'ya say? You wanna win an Oscar next year? Are you in?"
Jamaal laughed and nodded. "Yeah, sure. Why not? Send whatever you need signed to my agent."
Kate cleared her throat pointedly, and Victor glanced up at her again. "Hey, look, let me introduce you to our producer--Mary Kate O'Laughlin. I'm sorry, Katie, I would've called you to join us when Jamaal first came in, but I didn't realize you were back there."
"No kidding." Kate shot him a look that was meant to burn a hole through him.
Jamaal stood, and Kate met him halfway across the room, reaching out to shake his hand. She forced herself to smile. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Jamaal. But before you--"
"Jamaal's in a hurry." Victor herded the young man toward the door. "I'll send the papers this afternoon."
As the door closed behind Jamaal, Kate glared at Victor. "You lied to him. You sat there, and you lied to him."
"Katie, Katie, Katie. It doesn't have to be a lie." Victor's blue eyes danced behind the lenses of his glasses as he came toward her, smiling his most engaging smile.
Her ex-husband was mercurial and ageless, even with the gray in both his hair and his neatly trimmed beard. He was a charming, mischievous boy-man--as innocently, blamelessly egocentric as a two-year-old.
"All I need to do is make two phone calls, and everything I said to Jamaal will be the absolute truth," he told her.
That stopped her. "You're telling me Susie McCoy is ready to sign?"
"Provided Jericho is cast as Virgil Laramie."
There was a sudden sharp pain directly behind her right eye. "We need to talk about this, Victor. I'm not sure you understand exactly--"
He pulled her close. "Great," he murmured, kissing her neck. "Let's talk about Beaumont." He kissed her again, this time expertly catching her mouth with his. His lips were soft and warm, and he tasted faintly of cigarettes and the single glass of wine he must have had at lunch.
And for one one hundredth of a second, Kate let herself enjoy the sensation. God, how long had it been since she'd last had a lover? Three years? Or was it four?
Four. It had been nearly four years since she'd ended her relationship with John Bittler. And what she'd had with John had been so polite and reserved. It had been nothing like the madly passionate wildness she'd shared with Victor seven long years ago.
But Kate knew that her ex-husband, as exciting as he was, couldn't give her anything more than great sex. And if there was one thing she'd learned by being married to him, it was that she wanted more than that. She wanted a whole lot more.
And she wanted to keep Victor as a friend. She liked having him as a friend.
She shook herself free from his arms. "No," she said. "No, no, no. I'm not going to sleep with you. Consider that a given. An unchangeable, indisputable fact. Two plus two equals four, E equals MC squared, you and I are not going to get it on. Don't you dare try to confuse things."
"Actually, I thought it would bring clarity to the situation." He was grinning at her. "I figured if I could get you to start saying 'oh, baby, yes, baby,' some of that general agreement might carry over into our discussion about Jericho."
Kate couldn't keep from laughing. "Spoken like the absolute, low-down toad you truly are."
"Hey, relax. I was only kidding."
"And I wasn't."
He sat down on the couch and put his feet up on the coffee table. "So. Jericho Beaumont. I want him. You don't. How are we going to deal with this?"
She sat down across from him. "Pistols at dawn?"
"Name your second, babe."
Kate stared at him. He was going with her joke, but there was a certain unnerving seriousness in his eyes. Was it really possible that he wanted Jericho badly enough to walk away from this project?
Victor shifted in his seat. "Not to intentionally change the subject, but as long as I'm airing my grievances, I'm still waiting for you to set up a time for me to meet with the writer--what's-his-name. Nick Chadler."
Kate studied her nails. "He's still out of the country."
He propped his hands up behind his head. "It's been months, and I still haven't met this guy. I need to discuss some revisions. The ending's not right."
She looked up at him in shock. "Excuse me? You're planning to change the ending?"
The irony was incredible. The studio that had hired Victor to direct his last project, Teardrop Twenty, hadn't liked the way that film had ended. They'd ordered Victor to change it, and when he'd refused, they'd hired someone else to do it for them. And the movie he'd worked on, bled for, slaved over for nearly two years had been completely changed, and he'd had no legal right even to protest.
Teardrop Twenty was the reason Victor had been so eager to move into the realm of independent productions. It was the reason he'd jumped at the chance of directing The Promise. Because when an independent film was made, funding came from outside of the Hollywood studio system. The studios were only involved at the very end, after the movie was in the can. At that point, if a studio liked a particular film, they could offer to buy it and distribute it.
But they couldn't change it. Not without permission.
"How could you want to change the ending?" she asked. "I love the ending."
"The bad guy--you know, the plantation owner, Reginald Brooks--comes out ahead in the end. Laramie ends up trading him the land he promised his father he'd never sell. What kind of ending is that? Laramie loses. Where's the justice?"
Kate was practically sputtering. "Laramie doesn't lose--he wins! Jane was ready to give up her future and marry Brooks in return for Moses' freedom. Instead Laramie trades Brooks his family land and saves both Jane and Moses. Laramie wins because his act of humanity helps restore his own life--it helps him come alive again, and you're not listening to a single thing I'm saying, are you?"
"Jericho Beaumont, Susie McCoy, and Jamaal Hawkes." Victor sat up, unable to contain his energy and excite-ment. "With those names, we could have our pick of distributors, Katie. We could negotiate some control over the promotion--demand a substantial advertising budget. This movie could be huge."
"Provided the movie gets made."
Victor made a face. "What does that mean? Of course the movie will get made."
Kate leaned forward, too. "If you cast Jericho Beaumont, you might be dooming this picture. At the very least, you'd be dooming me to nearly three months of intense anxiety."
Victor was unmoved. "You're the producer. Get used to it. Anxiety comes with the territory."
"Somewhere between doom and fear of doom is everything this man could do wrong." She ticked each item
off on her fingers. "Late arrivals, slurred speech, inability to remember lines and blocking, erratic behavior, no shows ...And God help us if your precious Jericho should do something really irresponsible like die. He could start drinking again, Victor. Or using drugs. What substance abuser can ever guarantee that he won't? He could start again, overdose, and die. If it happened any later than the first few weeks of the shoot, this movie will die with him."
"Look, I've talked to some of the directors Jericho has worked with in the past. The key is to control what he uses. Apparently he never used street drugs, only prescription medications--you know, pick-me-ups during the day, sleeping pills at night. We could provide him with small amounts of--"
"Oh!" Kate wanted to close her eyes and plug her ears. "Oh, oh! I can't believe even you would have the indecency to stoop that low. Not only is that despicably illegal, but God, Victor! What if Jericho is clean? Think about what that might do to him!"
Victor wasn't fazed. He shrugged. "If Jericho's clean, then we don't have a problem."
"But the stress of having to carry a movie might be too much for him to handle. A starring role like Laramie would put pressure on someone who's completely healthy, let alone--" Kate took a deep breath. It was important to keep breathing. Without air, she would just keel over. "Victor, I know you see only the possibility of greatness. You see Jericho's talent. He shines, I'm not arguing about that. It's all over that audition tape. But I'm not convinced that he's going to be able to carry this movie--both physically and mentally. I don't want to gamble all the millions of dollars I've busted my ass finding for this project. I'm not willing to bet all that on someone like Jericho. I can't take that risk--and I can guarantee that the other financial backers won't want to take that risk, either. There's got to be someone else who can play this part."
Victor stood up. "Katie. I hear everything you're saying. And I know what I should do is agree with you and find someone else." He shook his head. "But I can't do it. I can't make this movie knowing that I could have had my number one, absolute, perfect cast. I can't do it knowing that I've got to settle across the board. Because if I don't get Jericho, I don't have Susie. And without the two of them, I won't have Jamaal."
He held up his hand. "I love you, you know that, and this is the best script I've seen in about ten years, but I will walk away from both you and this script if you don't let me cast Jericho. I'm sorry, babe, but it's ultimatum time. I want Jericho. Susie and Jamaal want Jericho. If you want me to stay connected, it's up to you to figure out a way to make the backers want Jericho, too."
Excerpted from Heartthrob by Suzanne Brockmann. . Excerpted by permission of Ivy Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.