The presenter’s voice rang out across the huge ballroom. “And the winner of Best Performance by a Supporting Actor in a TV Series Drama is—”
Merle Justice’s stomach gave one huge clench.
“Otto Fastholder in Breakup Tales.”
Stomach release. A smile plastered on his face and his hands began clapping like mad on their own. The cameras are going to show you, so look like the world’s best sport.
His agent, Jerry Durand, leaned over. “Sorry, baby. We’ll get ’em next time.” He scooted to another table and another client. A bigger, more famous client.
Nichelle Holder, his costar in the series, squeezed his arm inconspicuously, then began her own applause. Merle gave her a pained grin as Otto moved his bulk up the aisle and onto the stage to get his award. True, Merle’s series, Blood on the Boyfriend Jeans, hadn’t had much chance. Hell, the nominators didn’t even know whether to categorize their show in drama or comedy. The fact that Merle had been nominated at all for a teenybopper supernatural romance drama had been described in the trades as a miracle. Some said the nomination was a feather in his long, wavy blond hair. Others called it a joke. He released a slow breath as he lowered his hands and let the smile fade.
Nichelle leaned over and spoke softly. “You should have won. Otto’s a thug so everyone thinks he’s so dramatic.”
Merle quirked his top lip. “And he doesn’t wear fangs.”
“True that. It’s a testament to your talent that you got nominated. Seriously, I don’t remember Twilight getting any Academy Award nominations.”
He grinned. “So everyone keeps telling me.” Sadly, his family wouldn’t see it that way.
But then, they didn’t exactly see him at all.
Another award had gone by. His hands hurt from slamming together.
“So want to go out and get drunk?” Nichelle, brunette and doe-eyed, did have an affection for the sauce.
“No. I’ve got to head for Laguna. My friends are giving a party, which sadly is partly in celebration of this award I didn’t win.”
“Yeah, but it’s mostly to fete my friends’ successful businesses, so at least we can pretend the whole award thing was a mistake.” He glanced up at her. “You want to come?”
More applause drowned her out for a minute.
“You so hard up you need a woman for a date?” She flashed her snarkiest smile.
That stabbed him directly in the loneliness. “Sad but true, baby.” He forced the dimples. “Actually, I thought you might get a kick out of it. Laguna’s fun, and the guest list should be pretty incredible since it includes Gray Anson and his husband, Ru Maitland.”
“Whoa. Big fancy names.” She bounced up and whistled for a friend who’d been named, then sat again.
Merle said, “Chase Phillips and his husband too.”
“Yeah. It’s their party.”
“Wish I could afford to hire him. He’s so great. Hell, he practically put Missy Samson on the map. That woman was twelve miles of bad road before he got his hands on her. Now she’s Best Dressed list.”
“I’ll put in a good word for you.”
“Can’t come, though. I have to be on a plane tomorrow for those interviews I told you about.”
“Oh right. You’ll be great.”
“Besides, you need to find a real date. Cute guy like you should have a million dudes on a string.” She glanced into his eyes. “How come I never see you with any?”
“The C&C factor’s too great.”
“Competition and critique. It gets old with Hollywood guys.” He’d really had a crush on Ru Maitland, who hadn’t been Hollywood at the time, but no go. Hell, who could compete with the world’s biggest action movie star, Gray Anson? Besides, he loved having Ru and Gray as friends.
“Maybe you’ll find someone at the party who’s not a Hollywood guy.”
She picked up her champagne glass, and they both turned to the stage to see the winners of the really big awards.
Right, and forget about the loser on aisle five.
Before the last award was given, he slipped out of the theater into the lobby. He wanted to get a jump on the traffic. As he strode toward the entrance, the inner doors opened, and he glanced back at the portly figure of Paul Remoulade, a reporter for a slimy and wildly popular gossip blog—although they called it a news outlet.
“Hey, Justice, tough luck.”
“None of us thought you’d win, of course.”
Merle made a face. “Yeah, vampires don’t win awards.” He laughed.
“Might be vampires.” He snorted. “Might be you.”
Shit. This asshole’s opinion should matter zero percent. Should. “Thanks for your vote of confidence, Remoulade.”
“Any time.” He narrowed his eyes. “I gotta file my story.”
Merle turned to hide his expression, threw open the outside door, and exited the scene of the crime. He jogged to the lot where he’d left his Audi before the limo picked him up for his big entrance on the red carpet. He’d kind of enjoyed all the screams since they reminded the press that, while his nomination might be unlikely, his popularity wasn’t. Too bad Remoulade hadn’t seen it.
He powered through traffic, still thick at 9:00 p.m., and made it to the freeway in record time. As planned, he missed the southward crush.
Halfway to Laguna, he finally got the nerve and clicked his phone. “Call Mom.”
The phone rang three times. Finally she picked up. “Hello, Merle.”
“Did I wake you?”
“Of course not, dear. We’re having a little soiree to discuss my latest publication in the Journal of Immunotherapy. Just a few friends.”
“So I’m sure you didn’t watch the Emmys.” He made a face she couldn’t see.
“Emmys? Oh no, of course not, dear.” She turned away from the phone a moment and laughed at something someone said to her. “So what happened?”
“I didn’t win.”
“I’m sorry. But you didn’t expect to, you told me so. After all, you play a vampire, right?”
“Yeah.” He swallowed. Two fucking years on the air and she wasn’t sure what he played.
“So there you are. I must get back to our friends, dear. I’ll tell your father. I know he’ll be sad for you.” She hung up.
He stared through the windshield and forced his foot not to press the accelerator to the floor. When your whole f-ing family topped the list of East Coast intelligentsia, it was damned tough to make a mark. Especially when you were a TV actor.
With teeth gritted, he sailed to Laguna Beach in under an hour. The moon on the water at Main Beach sparkled on every wave crest. He loved this town. He’d fallen for it while he was performing in Hamlet at the Laguna Playhouse. That’s where he’d met Ru, Gray, Shaz, Billy, and most of the people he now counted among his best friends, so that increased the town’s appeal. He’d practically been living there with all the times he’d stayed at Ru and Gray’s beautiful house on the water, and now he’d bought his own home and Billy Ballew was remodeling it for him. After all, vampires might not get much respect, but they made a damned good salary.
He accelerated through the yellow light, turned on Ocean Avenue, and raced to the small parking lot behind the beautiful building that housed Shazam and Ru Maitland Designs. Shaz said they’d save him a spot and, sure enough, a cone in the one vacant parking place said Justice on it. People probably thought they’d stolen the cone from law enforcement.
He stopped, jumped out, dragged the cone to the side, and then parked. A glance in the rearview revealed he looked disappointed—and that proved beyond doubt that his parents were right. He didn’t have the brains of the rest of his family. Carefully he reset the face the press called “beautifully boyish”—not his words, the teen mags—into his usual rakish, irreverent grin. “Okay, baby. Showtime.”
Smoothing his tux, he sauntered around to the front and, with a breath, walked through the door into a wall of humans. Glasses clinked, voices rose and fell, and three big-screen TVs on the walls that he’d never seen before showed the post-Emmy party coverage. Shit, they’d all seen his loss up close and personal.
Shaz spied him first. He looked up, smiled big, and started to applaud.
Oh no, don’t do that.
All the eyes in the room turned toward him, and people began clapping.
Oh come on, what the hell for?
Ru, dressed in one of his ridiculously cool, super geek suits complete with suspenders, walked forward and hugged him. “We’re so proud of you.”
“Unless you mean for wearing this gorgeous tux you designed, I can’t imagine why. I didn’t win.”
“Darling, you got nominated for a drama award for playing a fucking vampire.”
Gray stepped up beside his husband, and even calling the man “best friend” couldn’t dampen the sheer impact of that charismatic star power. Gray punched Merle’s arm in the action-star, alpha-male way that disguised a sweet, giving nature. “You make more of that role than Laurence Olivier did of Hamlet, man. You should have won. That Otto dude plays his part like he’s piling concrete blocks. People watch you and they can’t believe you’re so good.” His smoky eyes glinted. “Since you have fangs and all.”
Merle shoulder-punched him back. “Ass. And thank you.” Interesting how not winning could still be a victory—to your friends.
Shaz descended like an apricot-haired mother hen. “Enough. This man needs champagne. A lot of champagne.” He shoved a glass into Merle’s hand.
Billy Ballew, Shaz’s husband, brought the bottle. He grinned. “For refills.”
They all clinked glasses and sipped.
Ru said, “You’re staying with us, right?”
“If you’ll have me.”
“You kidding? We’ll keep you if we can.”
Billy drank his champagne like a guy who was still trying to get used to it. A barely reformed blue-collar guy. “Will you have time to see how the remodel’s going tomorrow, or do you have to get back?”
“I have a few days off shooting, and I can’t wait to see my place.” That was 100 percent true. He was thrilled to have his own home in Laguna near his friends.
A small combo started playing in the next room, and some of the guests filed in there, including all four of Merle’s best friends. He glanced around the room. A couple of the blue-collar guys were cute and totally his type, but they’d shit if he asked any of them to dance.
“Would you like to?” The slightly accented voice came from behind him. Merle turned to stand eye to hairline with a breathtakingly handsome movie actor he’d seen in a couple of recent films. The guy might be vertically challenged, but he was so good-looking otherwise, producers were happy to supply boxes for him to stand on. He extended a hand. “Darren Lincoln.”
“Hi. Merle Justice.”
“Of course, I know. We all watched the Emmys. Shaz made it required viewing.”
Merle made a face and Darren laughed, though the humor didn’t quite reach his eyes. “So, want to dance?”
“Sure.” He followed Darren’s slim figure into the next room, where the dance floor had been set up amid the makeup and styling tables of Shaz’s business. Darren turned and started to dance, bobbing and weaving awkwardly, but he seemed to think he was Gene Kelly, so Merle just followed along subtly. Dancing was definitely one of Merle’s strengths, but he didn’t want to show up Darren. No use making enemies.
When the music changed to something slow, Darren pulled him in close and started to lead. Sure, what the hell?
“You’re a decent dancer, Justice. Maybe a few lessons and you can put it on your resume.”
Merle sighed very softly. Man, I hate this shit.
Darren twirled him with a heavy hand, feeding him out until he bumped another couple. Merle grimaced. “Sorry.”
Darren pulled him back close. “Too bad about the award thing. Otto’s just so talented and a serious actor, after all. I do think it’s great that the committee decided to bend to public opinion and give a token nomination to one of the kid’s series.”
A muscle in Merle’s jaw jumped. “Just to prove to the viewers that they’re not total idiots, I assume?”
“Yes, exactly.” He nodded enthusiastically. Not big on the recognition of sarcasm, apparently. Darren leaned back and looked into Merle’s face. “I’m sure the awards producers have to get the masses watching their show, just like anyone on the small screen.”
Just then, like a cue from the gods, the band switched to a Maroon 5 song, and the singer made an effort to match Adam’s high voice on “Don’t Wanna Know.” Darren started his jerky movements, and Merle let a flash of pure disdain wash over him as he started to dance. He dubstepped, he dabbed, he whipped. People around them clapped like crazy, and another younger guy leaped in between him and Darren and started dancing with Merle. Merle jumped and twerked his ass toward Darren. Put that on your resume, asshole.
Darren frowned, stopped dancing, and said, “I’m getting a drink.”
The kid wanted to keep at it, but somehow the fun left with the revenge. It was just one more night in the Hollywood game. He raised his hand to the dancing boy, smiled, and walked off the floor into the outer room where it was a little cooler but still stuffy. A waiter with champagne walked by, and Merle grabbed one, then stood by the front door.
Hell, maybe a little air and quiet.
He took a mouthful of bubbly, set it on the cocktail table nearby, then slipped out onto the sidewalk. The cool breeze from the ocean called to him, and he followed it like a trail down Ocean Avenue toward the beach, only three blocks away. At the corner, he waited for the light to change before trotting across the Pacific Coast Highway. A short walk over the patch of grass led to the boardwalk. He stopped there and stared out beyond the sand to the frothing of waves. Nice.
Perching on one of the built-in benches, he pulled off his patent-leather shoes and his socks, rolled up his pant legs—no way he wanted to wreck this tux—and stepped onto the beach. Such a weird feeling at night. The top of the sand held a little of the heat from the sun, but the cold and damp from beneath lurked like a deep chill waiting to slither up his feet to his heart.
He walked a few feet toward the water—just until he could forget there were Hollywood people and expensive cars and houses with television sets. Inhale. The pound of the surf covered the street noises, and the brilliance of the moon drowned out the lights on the buildings. For a second, he felt alone.
“Hey, man, don’t I know you?”
“Yeah, Larr, I think that dude’s famous.”
A bolt of beach chill shot up Merle’s spine. Ignore them and they’ll go away.
“Hey, buddy. We’re talkin’ to you. Aren’t you that vampire dude?”
Okay, ignoring won’t cut it. He turned. Oh, bad. Four young guys, mostly drunk. “Did you say something?”
The smallest of the four men, redheaded and mean-looking, said, “You’re that guy from TV, right?”
“I’m on TV, yes.”
The guy laughed and looked at his friends. “See. I told ya.” He turned back, and his eyes narrowed. “I heard you’re a fag.”
Merle tensed but didn’t reply.
One of the other dudes, overweight and sweet-faced, said, “You sure, Ritchie? He kisses girls on that show all the time.”
“It’s an act. Jesus, these homos fake it big-time and suck women in as fast as they suck cocks.”
Merle started walking as quickly as the sand allowed back toward the boardwalk.
Wrong move. Small, mean Ritchie ran and grabbed Merle by the shoulder. “Think again, fag boy. Having people like you on TV is bad for American kids. They think it’s okay to be a homo, and kids start trying to be like you. It’s bullshit, man.”
Merle shook off Ritchie’s hand and backed up a step, clenching his fists. No, he wasn’t the world’s most experienced fighter, but he was in good shape and had to practice a lot of physical shit to do his own stunts. Maybe he could take Ritchie—if his friends stayed out of it.
Sweet Face said, “Come on, Ritchie. Let’s go get ice cream.”
Merle glanced at him. “I recommend rocky road.”
Ritchie stepped forward pugnaciously. “Better we should make that pretty fag face into rocky road first, right, guys?”
No way he could turn and run. They’d catch him before he got three feet.
Sweet Face said nothing, but sadly the other two guys who looked like brothers, overdressed for the beach in black leather jackets, nodded. Brother One spit on the dark sand. “One less cocksucker will do me fine.”
Brother Two smiled, and it wasn’t reassuring. “How about we get him to suck our cocks before we drown his ass?”
Merle snarled, “You want it bitten off, asshole, give it a try.”
That shook Brother Two’s confidence but not Ritchie’s. “Don’t go acting like some fag yourself. All we gotta do is show this homo fag that flashing his sick self on our big screens ain’t cool.”
He stepped forward and threw a punch at Merle’s head. Merle ducked and slammed his fist up into Ritchie’s gut. The guy staggered back for a second but then thrashed forward with fists flying. One of the wild punches landed on Merle’s cheekbone. Shitfire, that hurts.
Merle slugged back, but Brothers One and Two moved in on either side of Ritchie—worst-case scenario. Brother One threw a punch at him, and as he feinted and punched back, Brother Two grabbed him around the throat just in time for Brother One to slam a fist into Merle’s stomach.
White bursts of light flashed in front of his eyes and a river of burning bile filled his mouth, oozing around the pressure of the big asshole’s arm on his neck. Damn. Damn. Who the fuck wants to die on the beach in a tuxedo?