RYDER, RULER of the courtyard and, well, everything of course, sat at one of the choicest outdoor tables at Coconut Cove High School. He was surrounded by his typical sycophants—beautiful people and suck-ups, the girls who thought he was their best friend, and the boys who thought they might get lucky with him. Fat chance.
It was sunny, same as usual, unless they happened to have one of those annoying downpours, like the one that had practically ruined his Gucci loafers the other day. Everyone was fashionable, although not quite as fashionable as him. The others tried, but they didn’t ever get it quite right. He’d probably be annoyed if they had.
They were the most desirable table in the courtyard. The most desirable students at the school. Of course Ryder would be in the middle of it all. Joey, a sweet sophomore who was new to the group and someone Ryder actually liked, was with him, as well as their friend Brooke, who he tolerated on most days. It was the perfect afternoon in the middle of a perfect high school scene.
Ryder should’ve been happy.
The new boy at Coconut Cove, Mack, who’d rolled in with a huge attitude and dreamy brooding eyes, had somehow ended up across the courtyard under a palm tree suction-cupped to Ryder’s best friend, Kelly. They’d just arrived and already Ryder was annoyed. Their arms resembled something close to a snake ball, and he’d never ever seen Kelly laugh like that. It was all so… cheesy. He couldn’t stand it. He didn’t want to stand it. Kelly was one of them, one of the glitterati. Kelly’s pressed bermudas and perfect polos didn’t belong anywhere near that brooding pseudo bad boy from the West Coast. Hell no. Good thing he had his brand-new best friend around to do something about it.
Ryder leaned over to Joey.
“What do you think of the new guy, baby J?” Ryder wasn’t above stirring up a little bit of trouble every once in a while. Especially when it suited his purpose.
“New? They’ve been here for weeks.” Joey shrugged. He looked wary, like maybe he’d heard that question too many times and knew exactly where it led. “I also think Kelly really likes him, and he’s your oldest friend, so you should back off.”
Ryder rolled his eyes at Joey. Of course he did. Pollyfreakinganna. Maybe it was time to banish Joey back to the social mediocreville from whence he came. Of course with Kelly gone over to the tall, irritating, and brooding side of the courtyard, their table had started to resemble a tent at Lilith Fair. Perhaps he’d keep Joey around after all. His cute dimples, perfect abs, and big sincere eyes were a lot more fun to look at than boobs.
Ryder watched Mack and Kelly for a few more moments before he decided they made him want to heave. A lot. So he pulled out his phone and scrolled through it. It was always good to look too bored to care what anyone at the school thought. If they assumed you were texting your way-older rich boyfriend who didn’t actually technically exist? Even better.
He finally decided to answer Joey. He was bored with his phone anyway. “That’s not what I meant. I’m just worried that he’s not the right kind of guy for Kelly. You know what Mack’s parents are like.”
Ryder really had no idea what Mack’s dads were like—other than their house seemed to be the vortex that his best friend had been sucked into. Ryder hadn’t seen Kelly in weeks, except maybe the back of his head while the rest of him was plastered against Mack’s labor-built body. It had to be supernatural. Or a cult. There really was no other explanation.
“They own a bed-and-breakfast, Ryder. On the beach.” Joey scrunched up his adorable eyebrows.
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about. We don’t know them. They don’t belong to the Coconut Club. They could be anyone. For all we know they hide bodies in that dingy old motel, like Norman Bates.”
Joey looked exasperated. “Bed-and-breakfast, not motel. Besides, it’s nice in there, and since when has owning a business made someone a candidate for the next Ted Bundy?”
Ryder felt betrayed. “You’ve been in there?” How could any of his friends hang out in a place like that? With those people?
“No. But it looks nice on the outside. I don’t know.” Joey looked a little less sure than before. Ryder smiled to himself. He almost had him.
“Well, I think something creepy is going on in there. I think I’m going to pay them a little visit after school.”
Okay, maybe he didn’t have him. “What? I’m just a concerned citizen, right?”
Joey did roll his eyes then. Full-on eye roll. Maybe he wasn’t as cute as Ryder thought. “Yes, citizenship. That’s exactly what you’re always up to when you start meddling in stuff that’s not your business.”
It didn’t matter. Ryder always got everyone to do what he wanted in the end.
“BLAIR FLETCHER, we need you in makeup. Please report to hair and makeup!”
The call came over the set’s harsh loudspeaker. He nearly let out a huge, and frankly pathetic, sigh. Blair took a long look at the dressing room mirror and wondered honestly what hair and makeup could really do. Was some hairspray and a few layers of foundation honestly supposed to turn him into Queen Ryder? A month and a half in and he still wasn’t sure.
Blair turned to see Tony coming out of hair-and-makeup’s little corner of their manufactured world.
Blair thought Tony was amazing. He was twenty-seven, but he looked exactly like what he was supposed to look like—fifteen. He’d been playing teenagers in small guest parts and commercials for ten years until he finally got his big break as cutie-pie Joey. Blair thought he’d have been bitter, having worked so long only to be on equal footing with nobody Blair, but he was a cool guy. He was totally laid-back about the whole fame-or-no-fame thing, unlike certain, uh, people in the cast. Tony seemed so young and sweet that it was hard to remember he was actually nearly four years older than Blair and far more experienced in the business.
“Hi, Tony. Makeup swamped again?”
They’d gotten dumped on by a surprise thunderstorm earlier in the day, dousing the hard work their hair, makeup, and wardrobe crews had just finished for dozens of actors and extras. Ever since then, it had been a nightmare for everyone trying to get people ready for their scenes at the right time. They’d been blow-drying hair and the clothes right on people’s bodies, re-touching makeup, fixing soaked shoes, backpacks, and expensive leather handbags. It was a disaster. Blair felt awful for them.
Guess that’s what they get for actually filming in the Keys. If they wanted predictable weather, they probably should’ve faked it in some soundstage in LA.
“It’s a total mess in there, but if you have a scene coming up, let someone know. They’re putting people in order of necessity. You have to speak up, though. They won’t hear you over the racket if you wait quietly.”
Tony shot Blair a look like he knew exactly how long Blair would hover in the corner, unsure of his position on set, until someone took notice. The answer was probably forever.
“They just called for me, so I’m pretty sure they know I’m coming.”
“Good. And don’t let Howie pull any of his shit. He’s in a mood today.” Tony winked.
Blair rolled his eyes in a rare show of attitude. “Is he ever not?”
Tony knocked fists with Blair lightly and bounded off to wherever he was needed on set like the little goofy puppy he was. Blair liked Tony a lot. And Flynn too, the guy who played broody newcomer, Mack. As much as he’d been intimidated by the one TV star they had, Flynn was starting to become a good friend. No diva attitude, no bitchy sass, just a surprisingly nice guy.
TONY HADN’T been joking. Hair, makeup, and wardrobe was a mess. A huge chunk of the cast was huddled in there in various stages of drowned sewer rat. He hadn’t been needed that morning, so luckily he wasn’t among the soaked. One less person to bring back from swamp-thing status.
Blair hated to think of the amount of damage that had been done to Coconut Cove’s designer-label clothes and accessories. Tropical chic, they’d called it. Tropical expensivo was more like it. By the way Whitney was raging around, Blair figured the answer was a lot of damage. Never a good thing for a fledgling show with a new budget that banked on the fact that viewers might not notice when characters wore the same thing a few times over the season.
“Lorelei, do you need me, or do you want me to go to hair first?” Blair asked.
Lorelei scrunched up her face. “I have a pretty long line. Why don’t you see Whitney first, and then we’ll get you in to Eugenia and me last. It’s always so hot after the rain. I don’t want your foundation melting off.”
He was afraid of that. Whitney was a sweet guy, but he was in a pretty raunchy mood, rightfully so, and the last thing Blair wanted was to get in his way. Maybe he could find his wardrobe choices for the day on his own.
Blair was in the middle of riffling through the selections for his character when he heard someone tsking behind him.
“Trying to supplement your raggedy Old Navy wardrobe with some decent pieces magically lifted from the set?”
Howie. Of course.
Blair didn’t know where Howie got his raging attitude from. He wasn’t an established actor—none of them were, except possibly Flynn and maybe Tony. He was hot, but they hadn’t exactly hired a bunch of average-looking guys to populate Coconut Cove, and Howie didn’t have anything on Levi or even Tony. Just the attitude. He had quite enough of that to spread around. Blair and Howie played best friends on the show. It was probably good that they were supposed to be in the middle of a civil war. Blair hated the sight of Howie and had no idea how he was going to pull it off after their characters made up.
“I’m not s-stealing.” Could you sound any more afraid of him? Jesus. “I was looking for my first change to save Whitney some work.”
Whitney came swooping in from where he’d been in the middle of rescuing some Balenciaga with a low-heat dryer. “It’s fine, love. That’s what I’m here for.” He glanced at Blair, then his selections, then his clipboard, back and forth a few times.
“Looks like we have you filming a school scene first, so here.” He handed Blair a hanger with preppy slim-cut red trousers, a nearly sheer, tailored button-up with faint blue gingham that probably cost more than his mom’s rusty old car, a straw fedora, and the characteristic black handbag with shiny silver buckles that Ryder carried in nearly every scene. “Use the navy blue Vans. They’ll work with that.” Whitney skimmed over his clipboard one more time, and the hanger in Blair’s hand, before he scuttled off.
“Better watch that bag, easy B.” Howie sneered.
“You have no clue, do you?” He rolled his eyes. “Let’s see, Togo leather, palladium hardware? That thing alone is worth about twelve grand. Probably more.”
“How do you even know that?”
“How are you even gay?” Howie countered.
Blair blinked. “Because I like men?”
“Well, like I said, I’d keep my eye on that bag. It probably wouldn’t look so good for you if something happened to it.” Howie shrugged just like Ryder would’ve done if he was about to cause trouble.
“Jesus.” Blair clutched the handles to his chest. He’d never leave the damn thing anywhere. Honestly, he wouldn’t put it past Howie to “lose” it for him so he’d have to answer to Whitney. His little eyebrow raise had seemed a bit like a threat. Okay, a lot like a threat. Honestly, Blair would feel better if he took the dumb thing home at night now that he knew it was on Howie’s radar. He made a note to ask Whitney to lock it up. Because he needed to worry about anything else on top of learning his lines and not feeling like a total failure who didn’t belong anywhere near real actors.
“Well, I’d better change. I need to get in with Lorelei and Eugenia before my scene.”
He escaped to a dressing room. It was early days yet, and none of them were special enough to throw diva fits about having their own trailers. He made sure to set the damned handbag somewhere safe, like not on the ground, and slipped into his first wardrobe change.
HE FELT a little less shaken by the time he got to Lorelei. Eugenia had fussed over his hair until it looked artfully disheveled and with the combination of the clothes turned him from, well, him, into Ryder.
“How you doing today, sweet pea?” Lorelei chirped. She was nice and sunny and blonde, and Blair had immediately liked her. He was sure she’d charmed everyone with her slow drawl and big smile. It always made his day better to be in her chair.
“I’m doing well. I feel bad for everyone stuck in that mess this morning, though. That was so much work for you guys.”
Lorelei snorted and giggled at the same time. She did that a lot. “It was crazy. Usually there’s more warning. The rain came out of nowhere!”
“It does that sometimes.”
A trail of half-naked extras went by, bronzed, oiled, and gorgeous, with patches of sand glued artfully onto their bodies in places and only tiny little speedos and flip-flops on. Blair’s mouth went dry. There were some perks to his job after all.
“There goes the beach volleyball team,” Lorelei said with a grin. “Must be tough to be on sand-gluing duty.”
“Eye-candy team, you mean, and no kidding.” He watched them go, one perky, round, barely covered ass at a time. “Damn. I wonder if someone should tell casting that the boys here didn’t really look like that. Not most of them at least.”
He could think of one tall, blond, Adonis of an ex-neighbor who looked very much like that. Blair sighed internally.
Lorelei nudged him. “I forget that you’re a local sometimes. You fit in so well with the rest of the cast.”
“I do?” Blair was honestly surprised.
It wasn’t that he thought anyone disliked him particularly, other than Howie, and to be honest, Howie was a shit to everyone. But still, Blair just felt so out of his depth and way out of his league. These were real actors who’d had real jobs and lived somewhere other than Key West their whole lives. He was a total impostor.
“Of course you fit in, silly. I see you and Tony giggling all over the place. He’s awfully cute, isn’t he?”
Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Blair hadn’t thought about Tony that way at all. He didn’t really want to. “He is really cute, but it’s hard not to think of him like a kid brother.”
“He’s older than you.” She tapped his forehead with the handle of her makeup brush.
Blair chuckled. “I know.”
“Well, I think you two would make a really sweet couple.”
“I agree!” Eugenia called.
Oh, Lord. Matchmaking. Being part of the wallpaper in high school and the few years after had made it easy for him to avoid the well-meaning female friends who tried to cure him of his terminal singleness.
“Guys.” Blair blushed. “Tony’s just a pal.”
And totally not my type. Waving golden hair and a tall lanky athlete’s body came to mind. Again. Huge blue eyes, high Viking cheekbones to die for. Sander. The ex-neighbor. Blair hadn’t seen him in years, not since he was about sixteen. He’d still melt into a pool of awkward quiet goo if he ran into his old crush. Tony, on the other hand? Well, that needed to be nipped in the bud before anyone else got any brilliant ideas.
“I really don’t want anyone thinking that, guys.” Blair tipped his head to look at Eugenia and then Lorelei. “You know how rumors get around this place. It’s so small, and you know Tony’s in the middle of everything. He loves to get all the gossip. I don’t want him thinking this came from me.”
He got a big exaggerated wink from Eugenia. “Nobody’s gonna hear anything from either of us, babe,” she promised. Blair wished he could believe her.