“This book has so much suspense that I found myself glued to the book and sitting on the edge of my chair.” – ARC Reader

AN EXCERPT

COPYRIGHT, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
MM PRESS
A DIVISION OF TAYLOR MARSH, LLC

Trouble

Alex Gantry was in the office all day – which was still a foreign experience for her after working on her own for so long, but she liked it. Her partnership with her best friend Berkley Banks was clicking, and, for the first time in forever, they both had interesting men in their lives.
But there was one thing Alex couldn’t shake.
She had come home recently to find her front door locked from the inside. An intruder had invaded her Beltway abode.
The incident had mentally jettisoned her back to Hollywood and the day she learned that life coaching could be dangerous. A client’s ex-boyfriend had taken a restraining order personally and had decided to punish Alex for being an advisor to his woman. He broke into her Los Angeles home and beat her unconscious. She had often had security posted at her clients’ homes, but retaliation at her own front door had never occurred before this incident.
After this most recent break-in, Alex’s ex-boyfriend, Brian Marks, had shown up in the Beltway to comfort her and had arranged to have a security system installed in her new home. The familiarity of Brian’s presence had seduced her into feeling safe, because it was exactly what he’d done the first time, when Alex’s home in Los Angeles had been invaded.
Few knew who had broken into Alex’s Washington, D.C., home. She couldn’t figure it out, although her current boyfriend, T.J. Gale, seemed to have his suspicions about who had been behind the break-in. What T.J. knew, however, he wasn’t telling anyone, not even Alex. It was a well-kept secret that lingered like a thinly veiled threat.
Soon after the second break-in, Alex was emotionally destroyed when Berkley was nearly killed in an automobile accident. She’d taken her best friend’s BMW out for a test drive. T.J.’s ex-father-in-law, Davin Dalaney, had targeted Alex in his quest to send a threatening message to T.J. Davin’s plan had been to hit Alex as she drove her car, but he had mistakenly struck Berkley, who had been behind the wheel of the BMW that night. Berkley had recovered physically, but she still couldn’t drive past a truck on the freeway without flinching.
Despite the reappearance of Brian Marks in Alex’s life, nothing had changed her growing relationship with T.J. Gale. Each time she and T.J. saw each other, they got closer – the hold of their hearts going deeper as their connection strengthened. They talked daily, with weeknight sleepovers replacing the drought of workdays. The practicality of living without the target of their lust between weekends had worn out. They liked sleeping together. T.J. needed to lie next to her. He protected Alex. Being with him made her feel safe.
Alex was happier than she’d ever been.
She had never experienced anything like it. She had loved men before but none measured up to what she was feeling now. What she was receiving from T.J. was indescribable.
Everything was new.
When Alex turned her life-coaching tools on her own relationship, the result was fascinating. She erased “T.J.” and “Alex” on her whiteboard and used “he” and “she” instead. She asked herself the same questions she would ask any client. Does he make you happy? Is it worth the drama? Alex discovered that the love she had for T.J. was stronger than all of their issues. Their relationship gave her greater understanding and empathy when coaching her female clients.
T.J.’s ex-wife, Lisa, had begrudgingly accepted the divorce. An eerie calm had replaced the overwrought tension that had dominated the couple’s separation and subsequent legal wrangling to end the marriage. The divorce was finally over, so T.J. was free to move forward with Alex without interference. Alex wasn’t convinced, because Lisa wasn’t the type to take losing well. But she had no intention of giving the ex-Mrs. Gale the satisfaction of paying attention to anything she said or did.
There were dark forces swirling around Alex and T.J. – people who wanted to hurt them, something they could never forget.
Alex still didn’t know who had broken into her house, taken her confidential client files and completely vanished. It was something T.J. wouldn’t discuss at all, except to say it was the reason he insisted on a driver and bodyguard for her. Given the characters involved and the dramatic plotlines she’d seen so far, Alex had acquiesced, but only when she traveled long distances.
“Alex, you’ve got a call, line 3. Mrs. Gale.”
This was inevitable, Alex thought. At some point, Lisa had to reach out. She was a wounded woman with a vindictive streak and lots of funding for mischief. A call from her meant Alex was still at the center of her cauldron of crazy.
“Alex Gantry.” She was formal.
“It’s Lisa Gale. It’s time we talked.”
“I’m not sure what we have to talk about.”
“Your relationship with my ex-husband, for one.”
“Oh, that. But you’re still using his name? How embarrassing for you.”
“He’s not the man you think he is.”
“No man is. But that physique of his, I mean, what’s a girl to do?” Taunting her was fun. Lisa always took the bait.
“T.J. is a complicated man.”
“And stamina? I mean, it’s better than two hours at the gym. He just keeps coming. At me, that is. He can’t get enough.”
“You’re very smug.”
Gotcha. She was easy to play.
“I’m happy. T.J. is a wonderful man.” Alex stopped. “You’re a fool.”
“It won’t last.”
“Nothing ever does, but it will be exciting while we’re together, which has no end in sight as far as I can see.” She wanted Lisa to feel the loss, twist her regrets, and make it sting. “As for trust, he’s told me all about your whoring around, so trusting you is obviously a worthless endeavor. You’re never getting him back.”
“You should have stayed out of it. We could have worked it out.”
Alex burst out laughing.
“You shouldn’t be laughing.”
“And you shouldn’t be calling me, but here we are, so let’s cut to the part where I hang up.”
And so she did.
Alex felt that burn again – that intense feeling of wanting to be in the same room with Lisa Gale, but glad that she wasn’t, so she could envision throttling her without the penalties. Alex fantasized about sending Lisa pictures of T.J. that would rip her up. She’d kept his last name to piss him off. It revealed Lisa’s weaknesses, something that, on the flip side, made her dangerous.
“All righty then, what’s next?” She asked aloud as she gazed out the window, ruminating about everything that had transpired since she’d first arrived in the center of the world.
Her L.A. clients had adjusted to her move. She was due for a West Coast trip in the New Year. Her role at Banks & Associates had solidified. Her filmmaker ex-boyfriend, Brian Marks, called occasionally, but had been forced to accept where her life was going.
Alex decided to have lunch out. It was a gorgeous fall day – perfect for sitting outside at a café. She took the elevator down to Level B. She didn’t see anything out of the ordinary as she walked through the parking lot.
Then she heard it. A whimper.
“Hello?” Alex called out.
Moments later, she heard the faint voice again.
“Help me.”
“Where are you?”
“Help me, please.”
“Keep talking and I’ll find you.”
“Over here.”
The voice was coming from the corner, near the elevators on the opposite side from where Alex had entered the garage. She walked in that direction, listening again.
“Hello, are you here?” Alex asked, her eyes searching the garage.
She heard crying, and headed in the direction of the sound. Closing in on the source, Alex saw her.
“Oh, my God.”
Crumpled in the corner was a woman in her mid-thirties. Alex lifted her head and the woman started to focus. Her eyes rolled back and she passed out seconds later. She was beautiful, expensively dressed, with dramatic makeup and lashes, high-end jewelry and Christian Louboutin heels. The shoes alone, Alex knew, would set someone back about two thousand bucks.
“Oh, no, don’t pass out… Can you hear me? Wake up.” She slapped the woman’s cheek. Her eyes fluttered opened.
“What’s your name?”
“Kit.” She passed out again.
Alex stared at the woman’s face. Her nose had to be broken; blood was running down her chin. She’d been hit more than once. The bone above her right eye was distended a bit. Her right arm dangled and was possibly broken, but she couldn’t be sure.
Her dress was pushed up, revealing bruises on both thighs. Had it been rough sex or rape?
Alex tried to stir her. All she got was a groan.
“Kit. Kit.”
“Who the hell are you?” The woman moved away from her.
“I want to help you. My name is Alex. Can you tell me what happened?”
Kit was frantic, becoming aware of her surroundings. Shock might have set in, but her survival instincts were still intact.
“I’ve got to get out of here.”
“The only place you’re going is to the emergency room.”
Kit was trying to stand, and, as she did, Alex could tell the woman was in a lot of pain. As she straightened up, Kit grabbed her stomach and began to stumble. Alex caught her, stabilizing her.
“I’m not going to a fucking hospital. It’s the first place they’ll look. They’re not going to stop until they find me.”
“Who did this?”
“You don’t want to know.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“They’re stronger, bigger, and don’t play by any rules I know, so, unless you’ve got a gun, I’ve got to find a way out of here.”
“I can help. My car’s right over there.”
It was her only option.
Alex put her arm underneath the woman, who leaned hard on her. Alex could tell she was in worse shape than she would admit. She leaned Kit up against the car while she opened the back door.
“Get in and lay down.”
She didn’t have to be told twice. She started to crawl into Alex’s BMW X6 when she spotted the car coming toward them.
“Shit.” Kit ducked behind Alex’s car and out of sight.
The black Chrysler 300 drove slowly toward them, the passenger window rolled down. A man leaned out of the window and looked around. The car came even with Alex, and she saw him for a split second. She’d never seen eyes so dead. There were two of them and these guys weren’t looking for a parking space.
As Alex got into her car, she reached over to her bag and pulled out her phone. Alex didn’t dial, but pretended to be texting. She wanted to wait until the car disappeared. She couldn’t hear Kit anymore. Where was she hiding?
The back door opened. Alex heard a thud. She got out and ran around to the other side of the car. Kit was in a lump on the ground. She’d been able to open the back door, but her injuries had won the battle. Alex couldn’t budge her. She had no choice but to wait until she could wake Kit back up. There was no way she could get her into the car without her help. She was dead weight.
Minutes passed like hours. The car that had rolled through hadn’t circled back yet. Alex had to try again to revive her up.
“Come on, wake up. We have to get the hell out of here before they come back.”
A few minutes later, Kit stirred.
“Ouch, oh, God, I hurt all over.”
“I know, but you’ve got to try to stand. Think you can do that?”
“Who are you?”
“I’m Alex. I’m trying to get you out of here. You’ve got two men looking for you.”
Alex hoped that fright would stir Kit as a reminder she was still in danger. Alex hadn’t a clue who was after her, but the clothes, the look of the men… She didn’t like what she was thinking.
“Those fuckers…”
She was moving enough so Alex could get her arm around her and pull her up and into the car.
Alex threw Kit’s shoes inside and then drove as quickly as she could out of the garage. She didn’t see any sign of the Chrysler 300, but she knew it was possible the car was still in the area.
Two men meant there was drama involved in how Kit had ended up beaten up and hiding in the corner of a parking garage. Alex wouldn’t be able to get the story until she was responsive.
“You need a doctor.”
“Drop me at the nearest shopping center. I’ll figure it out.” Moments later she doubled over and vomited.
“Jesus.”
Alex sped off. As she drove, she called Banks and Associates. After two rings she was connected to a receptionist at her office. “Hey, it’s Alex. Something’s come up and I’m going to be out the rest of the day. Tell Berkley she can reach me on my cell.”
“Yes, Ms. Gantry.”
“Thanks.” Now what?
Kit’s fears of being exposed and having to explain her injuries seemed to be greater than her concern for the damage to her own body, so what would it look like if Alex took her to the emergency room? What made her so frightened that a hospital would be a dangerous place?
“Who did this to you?”
“If I talk, things will get worse for me – and for you, too.”
“Nonsense. Look, you don’t know me. I work with battered women and I know there are ways to protect you. If I take you to a shelter…”
“No.”
“Where do you live? Maybe I could take you home?”
“I can’t go home.”
“Alright. I’ve got an idea.”
Alex placed a call to T.J.
“Hey, babe, what’s up?”
“I’ve got a situation…”
“What’s wrong? What do you need?” He was alarmed, because a “situation” in their world could signify all manner of mayhem.
“I’m fine. But I’ve got someone with me who isn’t, and I need a doctor, someone discreet.”
“What’s going on?”
“Actually, I’m not sure. I found a woman in our parking garage who has been beat up and sexually assaulted.”
“What?”
“She won’t go to the hospital. When I suggested it, she freaked out. It’s bad. And there’s something else.”
“There always is.”
“When I was trying to help her, a black Chrysler 300 passed by and it panicked her. There was a driver who I think was Hispanic and the guy in the passenger seat was white, but they were clearly looking for something. It had to be her.”
“You couldn’t call the police?”
She ignored the question.
“I’ve stepped in the middle of something. The guys didn’t pay any attention to me, and all I did was look at them and get in the car. They don’t suspect me of anything. She hid when they rolled by.”
“Goddamn it. You have no business – ”
“Do you want to help me or not?”
“Yes. I’ll call one of my sports-med guys. He owes me a favor, but he’s in Annapolis.”
“Text me the address.”
“Okay – I’ve just sent it to you. If you see those men again, you call me immediately. Understand?”
“Absolutely.”
“Stay safe.”
Alex drove for a few more miles and pulled into a gas station to get something to drink and think for a minute. Kit was out cold in the back seat, sleeping.
On US 50, it had been quiet while Alex drove. Her thoughts were a combination of rage and empathy. It was possible that Kit might have been given some sort of roofie. Her grogginess and continual passing out weren’t a result of the beating.
“Oh, my head….”
“We’re almost there.”
“You got anything to drink?”
Alex handed a bottle of water back to her.
“There’s Excedrin in my bag. Take a couple.”
Kit was moving easier, but was wincing with every effort.
“Can you tell me what happened?”
“Where the hell are you taking me?”
“To a doctor.—”
“I told you…”
“Relax. He’s a friend, someone discreet. I got the message. No hospital. What I’d like to know is why.”
“Don’t get involved.”
Kit’s voice was so low that Alex could barely hear her.
“These are bad guys. I need to get myself together. Explain what happened to my boss so he understands I didn’t screw up and start this shit.” Her voice trailed off. “It wasn’t my date. He brought a couple of guys with him.”
There was fury in her whispered confession.
“Did they rape you?”
“Men sometimes get rough when they’re paying for it. My client was choking me so I bit him. It pissed him off. He went berserk and his boys came running in. When I woke up, I was in a lot of pain. His boys must have done the rest. I don’t remember.”
“You need to go to the police.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“Look, I don’t care what got you into this mess. You’re not the first elite escort I’ve seen get beaten up and worse.”
“What are you, some kind of social worker?”
“Someone gets you the dates, right?”
“My booker is the only play if you want to make bank and not have to rely on personal dot-coms. He’s not the one in charge. I’m hooked into all the big events – entertainment, sports, you name it – through an outfit in New York. I’ve been to the Super Bowl many times. I’ve got to make this right or I can forget it.”
“So the man involved is a professional athlete?”
“The guy who I was with is in the NFL. He’s got a posse. I met him through Elegant Escorts. He’s been a regular for a long time. The choking shit is new.”
“These people will listen and pay attention if I’m involved. We make enough noise. They don’t want this kind of publicity.”
“These guys are dangerous. You have no idea.”
Alex’s mind was reeling. She called T.J. again.
“Hey, are you in Annapolis?” he asked.
“We’re not far away. I have a question for you. Have you ever heard of Elegant Escorts?”
T.J. almost stopped breathing. Maybe he had heard wrong. Yet he knew he hadn’t. Elegant Escorts was a Dalaney Enterprises entity, which had more tentacles than he could count once you hopped out of the U.S. and went international.
“Why are you asking me about an escort service, Alex?”
“The woman mentioned it. Her date didn’t do the worst of it, though she did say he was an NFL player.”
“I’ve heard of it, but this isn’t a conversation I’m going to have over a cell phone.” Would she get the message?
Alex didn’t respond for a second.
“You’re being very mysterious.”
“Call me when you arrive.”
“Sure,” she said. His odd response to her situation didn’t make her feel any better – quite the opposite.
T.J. was pacing and dialing the phone again; he was nervous as hell. “Liam, I’m going to give you an address and I want you to meet Alex there as soon as you can.”
“No problem. What’s up?”
“Good question. It may be a coincidence, but I’m… You know Elegant Escorts?”
“Sure. Dalaney’s outfit, right? High-priced pussy.”
“The same. I don’t have much information, but Alex needs help. She found some woman beat up and sexually assaulted in her building’s parking garage.”
“Holy shit.”
“She’s taking her to Sy’s. The woman is in hiding and she’s scared. There were two guys looking for her when Alex found her, but she’s not sure about anything else. I’m – ”
“ – taking no chances. Got it. I’ll call you when I get there.” Moments later, Liam Cane, T.J.’s close confidante, was on the freeway heading toward Annapolis.
Whatever had happened to Kit bothered Alex. She needed to talk to someone who knew the world of athletes, players and escorts, and the only person she could think of was Clark Stallings, the sports agent and ex-husband of her client Samantha. Alex hated to call Sam to get to Clark. There was another choice.
Brian and Clark are buddies, so he would have his contact info. Alex hadn’t talked to Brian in weeks. Calling him was a big deal. She couldn’t worry about T.J.’s reaction. His response to Elegant Escorts meant he had more to tell her. She wanted answers.
Deep in thought, she kept driving.
As Alex pulled into the office park in Annapolis, a sleek white sedan pulled in behind her. T.J. must have dispatched the car to help them, but Alex didn’t recognize it.
The door opened.
It wasn’t Liam who stepped out of the car – and it wasn’t anyone else she knew, either.

Flashback

He had everything but her.
Brian was on the outside with no way in – a situation completely foreign to him.
Another man had won and this was not only unacceptable, but unfathomable to him.
“I’m not giving up,” Brian Marks said under his breath.
The chase over, he had run aground.
Left splayed at the surprise delivered by the only woman who had ever challenged him, Brian had told Alex he understood. He’d even stopped calling.
The wound remained open. The only remedy he knew was to ignore how she felt, replaced with what he wanted.
A waft of stale alcohol escaped his mouth in a belch. He pushed himself off his couch, walking across the room to stare out at the expanse of the Pacific Ocean. The intense heat of an Indian summer day was gone. The smell of his inebriation remained.
The black sea in the dark night battered the shore, mist targeting him like tears, mocking his despondency but mistaking his mood. He could hear the boom of the waves but couldn’t see the sea. The moon in the sky created a light beam across the black water that appeared to be a celestial bridge. The setting was fitting for a noir film. It was a mirage that could hypnotize the onlooker into believing it was a short walk to touch the moon. But Brian wasn’t thinking about romantic images. The constant crash of the waves accentuated the beating pulse in his head.
Walking over to the kitchen, he opened a cabinet door. He popped the childproof cap off and took out two pills, swallowing them with water from a glass sitting in his sink.
Over and over, he replayed the cutting remarks Alex had delivered, which to him felt conjured out of nowhere. A typical woman’s response, he thought, without one rational element attached.
“Why do I have to account for every move I make?” He hissed, mocking what she had said to him. Like I ever would expect that of her.
Of course, Alex didn’t say that to Brian. When rejection makes a direct hit on a man’s ego and lodges in his heart, the double whammy obliterates his ability to comprehend his circumstances.
Men take rejection much differently than women.
There was no stronger proof of this universal law than Brian Marks, who came from a “boys will be boys” world. The era where womanizing and philandering were perks of power bestowed on men. He worked in an industry where sexism in casting was the creative norm. The writers, most of whom were men, were producing the screenplays that portrayed women’s roles as extensions of the male characters carrying the film. It was a power structure that existed through a moneyman’s vision driving the film, handed down to a male director to manifest.
If I’d disappeared, moved across the country without talking to her… What had made her do it, drop everything and move to Washington, D.C.?
Brian stood, watching the sea, a man alone talking to the gods, who were laughing at his weakness.
The waves beating the shoreline were confirmation that the pounding in his head was more than the drumbeat of his fury. The power of the ocean, the crashing waves and their retreat became the metronome to a new melody he was hearing.
It threw Brian backward again, memories cascading from inside his heart, while the film of it all played in his brain.
How many times had he and Alex driven the Pacific Coast Highway together from Los Angeles to San Francisco? They loved watching the Pacific Ocean change its moods all the way to the Monterey Peninsula. Their usual stop was either The Lodge at Pebble Beach or a little European lodge and spa hideaway on Carmel Valley Road, nestled among vineyards.
On these jaunts, Brian was at his best, using his connections and considerable cash to seduce Alex in every way possible. For all the finery and exorbitant spending, what she preferred most was the drive to take in the view at The Restaurant at Ventana. Located in Big Sur, with a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean, the restaurant offered a gourmet menu that put an exclamation point on the setting. The entire ambiance of this special spot was as intoxicating as the drive and ascent to its door.
Thinking of the romantic Monterey Peninsula nights they shared brought naked remembrances crashing down upon his crestfallen soul.
What did she want? I told her I was wrong.
Alex had heard what he said. She didn’t care.
I asked her to help me fix it. I told her that I’d do anything.
Now it was too late, and, for the first time, sleeping around wasn’t the cure. His favorite vice had ceased to amuse him.
Brian walked over to a credenza – an exorbitantly priced object with spectacular lacquer finish. This piece of furniture was one of the many items in his Malibu Colony beach house that imprinted the wealth and the power it gave him on the minds of anyone who stepped inside. Opening a drawer, he took out a box and walked to a nearby red leather chair.
He sank into the chair. Memories flooded his mind.
Alex Gantry had hit him like a thunderbolt. The first time they spoke, it was clear she wasn’t like any woman he’d known. She had the confidence of a man, which financial independence assured.
He closed his eyes and let the images wash over him, his drunken stupor relaxing a closed mental door, jettisoning him to another time, to a flashback that was burned into his consciousness.
“I’ll need to see all of the emails, every one of them that wasn’t leaked, and don’t think I can’t bring in digital forensic experts to check if you’re holding out on me,” Alex had said, her words accompanied with a fair amount of spittle.
It was the year before they’d become an item, lasting two years. It seemed like an eternity ago. When Brian had become mired in a Hollywood scandal that threatened to gut the independent studio he’d built from nothing.
He had made the ultimate error in the technological age.
“How the hell else am I supposed to communicate with my creative team across the world without putting strategy and correspondence into emails and memorandum?” he had asked. “We have to protect – “
“Are you kidding me?” Alex had responded. It made Brian less inclined to give her what she wanted.
He had known he was going to lose this fight the second that emails about the script shift had been plastered across the pages of Variety.
Alex had argued, “You hired one of the most talented, young and rising female film actors to do a Girl on a Train type role, playing the villainess. After the script was approved and she got on location, in the hinterlands of Australia, you decided the daily rushes weren’t edgy enough and that the film needed more sizzle. That not only meant more nudity for my client, but, considering that her leading man is 50 pounds overweight and 20 years her senior, meant a body double for him – while you insisted she splay her cooch like some softcore porn star. While not getting paid for the extra risk because you wouldn’t allow a body double for her. This wasn’t built in to our original agreement or she wouldn’t have done it and that was manufactured by you.”
“Look at what Monster’s Ball did – ”
Her glare had stopped him in mid-sentence.
“What?”
“Don’t change the subject. I’ve been through this and I’m not going to fall for some lame excuse like you didn’t plan this move from the jump. You’ve made her role into a cliché, only weaker, if that’s possible. The hot girl who falls for the married guy who’s loaded, rude and overweight, and, to add real injury to this insult, you’ve made her a slut.”
“Halle Berry’s decision was – ”
“She had to practically beg Lee Daniels to even let her read for that part in Monster’s Ball. There was substance to the role and the nudity was part of her persona. Go back to Fatal Attraction if you want. They built the Glenn Close character beautifully, giving her everything that goes with a compelling woman and putting a twist on it by depicting her with a lethal and maniacal animal sexuality. You’re asking a skilled actor with an ironclad contract to regroup and reimagine the roll she signed on for that has no depth except her vaginal canal.”
“Give me a break,” Brian had said. “And on a different subject, dare I ask, what in the hell is this to you and why are you in here making this case? A little out of your wheelhouse, aren’t you, Alex?”
“She’s one of my clients who – ”
“Stop right there.”
“Do you need me to explain it?”
“I allowed you in here because I was curious to see if the stories were right about you, but you’re getting tiresome now. You have no power over her contract, or any status to do anything about the adjustments. You’re not her agent or her manager. You’re just a – ”
“Careful. Would you like me to remind you about the phone call you made the day after we first met?”
He had completely forgotten about the call.
“No… I…”
“Oh, I can’t wait to hear you finish that sentence.”
She had known that he couldn’t without confessing everything to her.
When he’d met her at an industry bash after the Academy Awards, he’d found himself being beaten at his own game. It wasn’t that Alex was a beauty, though she was as attractive as anyone he’d ever dated. There was something irresistible about her presence. The ferocity of her independence was the foundation of her character, making her a force of nature.
For a man like Brian, it was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. It was obvious she was alone, that day at the Oscar bash. What was even more evident to him was that she preferred it that way.
Brian had watched Alex from across the room at first – seeing senior executives who worked for him, younger studio executives who were vying for his job, making a stop one by one to where she was holding court.
“Your charms can be quite intoxicating,” he had admitted, smiling sheepishly. “I let you into my world because, when we met, you seemed different from all the whiny women…”
There was that look again, her stare. He stopped.
“Okay, sorry, I’ve seen just as many men who whine. That better? But conveying a message to me from an actress who’s complaining… Okay… Who’s objecting to a little skin in a film? It’s going to put her on the map and make her rich.”
Alex had smiled. “So, Mr. Marks,” she had said, walking up to him and stopping close enough that he could smell her perfume. She had slowly taken off her black leather jacket and had laid it across the back of a nearby chair.
“‘A little skin’? How much is that, would you say? Is this ‘a little skin?’” Alex had asked, unbuttoning her top button. “You can’t quite see my bra, but maybe you’d rather not have her wear a bra, although that doesn’t show enough, right? So how about this?” Alex had unbuttoned her next two buttons and slipped off her top, leaving her in three-inch-high vixen red Stuart Weitzman heels, black leather pants that hugged her every curve and stopped right at her ankle, and a lacy black bra.
“Okay, let me stop you right there,” he had said. “This is beneath you.” But he couldn’t take his eyes off of her. She was the most spectacular creature he’d ever seen; yet, at the same time, he was embarrassed by her audaciousness. The freedom she exerted by exposing herself to him had the power to make him feel cowardly and small.
“Oh, so this is enough skin for you?” Alex had asked, smiling at him.
“Everything to you is about sexism. Fifty Shades of Grey blew the lid off what we can do with an R-rating.”
“It took a woman to teach Hollywood that, don’t forget,” she had said, referring to author E.L. James. “But, as usual, the suits in the boardroom, the money men and all the boys up and down the line see nudity as something only women do.”
“This isn’t your fight. You’re out of your league.”
“I know you are aware of exactly what I do because I’ve been brought in by your studio to fix troubled situations that artists get into. I was told before we met that you were asking around about me.”
Watching her, he had found himself ill equipped to handle her effect on him.
She was magnificent.
Brian couldn’t shake his feelings for her. He wasn’t sure he wanted to. He knew that everything she had said was true.
“I save studio execs like you a lot of grief, money and closed sets in situations that could be messy social media scandals without my input,” she had said.
He couldn’t get his mind off her, The way she licks her upper lip every time she makes an important point. It’s in slow motion, like she tastes the lingering kiss of a morning lover. Why can’t I ever get an actress to do that on camera? There’s something about this woman.
“My clients come to me when they’ve been betrayed and are being treated less than their contract demands. This is also why my clients are women,” Alex had said.
“Nobody wants to see giant dicks on a movie screen.”
She had laughed. “Who says? You? Not anymore, Mr. Marks.”
“You actually think Middle America is ready to see a fully engorged penis on the screen?”
“They see crime and violence every day. It’s sex, Brian, a healthy, ravenous communion. The pickle doesn’t require a close-up.”
“If she listens to the director, he’ll make her a star.”
But he had known the minute the emails hit the light of day that he would be up against it. The studio was caught. But this was the best he could have hoped for the minute the news broke: getting a personal sitting with the woman who had shaken every corner of the creative world in film and production that she touched.
As Alex talked, Brian’s mind had wandered elsewhere. I had to possess her. She was talking and I didn’t hear anything. All I saw was this woman that I had to make mine. What it would mean to have her in my bed.
“…She’s walking if you don’t reverse your squeeze, because the rest of the emails that laid this all out are now public. The reporting that dropped today in Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and now Deadline, open the door to proving the bait and switch – and that it happened because you didn’t think a woman would challenge a big studio exec like yourself. Would a man put up with this shit?”
Replaying their first major professional encounter scuttled what was left of Brian’s grip on reality.
Alex Gantry was different than any woman he had ever known.
She had no juice compared to his own power, but she was still fearless…and she didn’t care what he thought about her. Alex’s indifference to his opinion had bowled him over.
The drama playing out in his head had expanded to the second act.
“If I was going to renegotiate, and I’m not, this would be between her agent and manager and me.”
“Look, I work with her on a personal level, which you know very well. I’m not the only life coach working with actors. I’ve got all the phone numbers, including her lawyer’s. I thought that, since you’ve mentored some of the first women directors to break out, you’d be reasonable. I had hoped we’d be able to work this out.”
“She’s stopped the film, so she obviously doesn’t respect what’s on the line.”
“Only a man would have the audacity to say that.” Her gaze had delivered the only message required.
Brian remembered that particular moment with Alex Gantry above other memorable instances where he had been schooled by a smarter woman. She didn’t care what he thought of her or the effect of what she was saying to a man who could blackball her and end her meteoric rise in the entertainment industry.
That had been their beginning. Her hooks had grabbed him deeply, and he hadn’t been able to shake loose of her spell, long after she had walked away.
Staring out at the deep blackness roaring beyond his beach house, the memories helped him reflect on what had come next as if it had happened the day before.
It was years ago, but he could remember the moment Alex took a deep breath and stared at him, saying nothing. Allowing silence to widen in a debate he knew from the start he was going to lose, almost not minding it since it came through the deft touch of Alex Gantry.
Things were no longer like it was when he first began his career in the film industry.
When he had first started working in film, women fought for parts in movies that starred men and were made by armies of testosterone-laden guys, from studio heads to directors to writers and the actors. This was back when actresses didn’t expect to be paid equal to men. It was a day when the thought of a woman opening a film was a fantasy. When, as a producer and studio executive, Brian could demand script changes on location and, no matter how outrageous the expectations, the actress would gladly comply or risk losing the chance to ever earn a dime in Hollywood again.
Brian knew the stories. He knew that the most highly paid actor in Hollywood was Jack Jenkins. He was an amazing talent who had spent time in jail back in the 1990s, only to rehabilitate himself and go on to blockbuster leads and a film franchise that made him filthy rich.
There was no woman actor alive who would have survived jail to land anywhere near the exalted creative terrain that Jenkins had conquered.
How many of his younger leading ladies had Brian bedded before giving them a chance to even read for a part?
He shook his head, hoping to change the tape running through his brain.
The rolling waves outside his beach home couldn’t lull his thoughts into letting his weariness tuck him in, no matter how much alcohol he had imbibed. His memories were consuming his every thought, which were soaked in the sentiment that he now felt for a woman who’d dropped him for a younger man and a new world she was making for herself without him.
A new frame came into play and Brian felt himself drift into another world, one he could remember but that left him with a bitter taste because of the way their story had been interrupted.
It couldn’t be over.
He wouldn’t let it be.
The scene he was remembering clicked back into action.
For the first time, Brian Marks felt it all. … …