“AREN’T YOU ready yet?” Ethan asked in a slightly whiny voice that only he could make sound unchildish. Maybe it was the slight head tilt and the way he stuck his lip out just so that made the effect work every damn time. Guys in Hollywood seemed to know how to be annoying without being annoying. At least that was what Roy, Justin’s agent, had said once.
“I don’t think I want to go,” Justin Hawthorne said as he stood in front of his huge closet without seeing anything inside.
“You have to go—the party is for you. It’s to celebrate the fact that your latest movie went into the stratosphere and you’re going to be the star of the next decade.”
Ethan nudged him aside and started going through his clothes. He knew where everything was in Justin’s closet because he was the one who organized it, just like he pretty much organized everything and everyone in Justin’s life. Not that that was a bad thing. Justin was busy and never seemed to have time for the mundane things in life. Just once he’d like to be able to cook a meal, sit down, and eat it in peace. Instead he had people who did all the cooking for him. Hell, if his agent could figure out how to have people eat, piss, and take a crap for him, he’d outsource those functions as well.
“You pushed me into agreeing to go the party, and I’m tired as hell. I’ve been on three talk shows and two nighttime shows, and I’m supposed to start shooting another movie in a week. I don’t want to go to some loud club with music that gives me a headache. I want to stay home for one night this week, put my feet up on the very expensive furniture that you picked out, close my eyes, and have ten minutes to breathe.” He added a snap to the end of his sentence to accentuate his point.
Ethan stopped his rummaging and turned to face him. “Do you want something to relax you?”
Ethan left the closet at his usual frenetic pace, reached into his jacket pocket, and pulled out a small case. As he opened it and pulled out a pill, Justin, without thinking, swung his arm to bat it away. He caught the container, sending it flying and the contents scattering across the plush carpet.
“I don’t want any pills, and if you’re going to turn into a drug dealer, you can fucking leave and not come back!” Justin had seen what happened to people once Hollywood got its hands on them. Immensely talented people chewed up and spat out by chemicals and their consequences. He pointed toward the door. “You know I will not have that.”
“It’s over the counter. Geez. I know how you feel about that stuff.” Ethan gathered up the pills and was about to drop them in the trash can, but instead he went into the bathroom and flushed them down the toilet.
“Thank you, and no, I don’t want anything other than a rest.” He needed to get it under control.
“You really are jumpy,” Ethan said as he went back to the closet. “Go sit down for a few minutes. I’ll find you something to wear, and you can come in to change in twenty minutes.”
Justin twisted his finger in the air. A whole twenty minutes on his own, whatever would he fucking do with himself? He didn’t argue, though, and left the bedroom, wandering to his glass-walled living room, which overlooked his incredibly manicured lawn and the lighted pool that shimmered and glistened in the night. He pulled open one of the glass doors, and the gentle hum of the waterfall that tumbled into the far side of the rock-lined pool drifted inside. He loved that sound. It was one of the few places in the entire city that reminded him of the hometown he’d left years before.
Sometimes he wondered what his life would have been like if he’d stayed in Biglerville, Pennsylvania, after graduation. He’d probably have ended up working in one of the fruit-processing plants, just like half the people he knew. Justin sat in one of the huge chairs, then stood up once again. The damn things looked wonderful but felt like shit when he sat in them. He moved to the sofa and propped his sock clad feet on the glass coffee table.
God, this felt so damn good, just a few minutes of quiet.
Everything about LA was loud and zipped by at lightning speed. No one walked at a normal pace; they ran. At least it seemed that way most of the time. He always had to be one place and then another ten minutes later, hustled from limousine to studio and then back to the car to go someplace else. Still, the house was quiet, and he decided to take it in while he could.
“I found something wonderful for you to wear. I set it out on the bed for you.”
Justin had closed his eyes, and he didn’t open them. “Thank you.” He could feel Ethan standing in the room and knew he wasn’t moving. “I know what you’re thinking, but it’s my house and my coffee table, and if I want to put my feet on it, I will.”
“But that’s a—” Ethan began, probably about to name some furniture designer who was all the rage at the moment.
“It’s a coffee table,” Justin countered. “And it’s mine. At least I paid for it.” His house had been furnished like a film set and had been photographed and published in People magazine with him appearing happy and perfect. He lifted his feet and set them down again for emphasis. “I want ten minutes of quiet. That’s all I ask.”
“Okay,” Ethan said, and Justin heard him sit in one of the other chairs. He kept his eyes closed, doing his best to ignore his best friend for just a little while. Ethan stood up again within seconds and left the room. He could never stay still for more than ten seconds and always had to be doing something. “Here,” Ethan said when he returned. Justin cracked his eyes open and took the glass of grape juice that Ethan handed him. He drank, letting the sweetness slide down his throat.
“I’m tired, Ethan,” Justin said, cradling the cold glass in his hands. “I’ve been going at a death-march pace for so long I don’t have much energy left. I’ve done movie after movie, talk shows, television guest appearances, interviews. I’ve had people following me everywhere I go, and in fact, right now, there are people waiting out by the gate for me to go out tonight so they can try to take my picture. God knows why. Half the time I think they’re trying to snap the photo of me picking my nose or burping because that’s the most meaningful and human thing I do. Everything else is staged, scripted, primped, and pouffed.”
“Do you really not want to go tonight?” Ethan asked. “I’ll call and….”
“No. I’ll go because I said I would.” He always did his best to meet commitments. That was one of the things his grandfather had drilled into him. Son, always do what you say you’re going to do. That’s part of what makes you a man. “But I need you to find me a way to get out of there after no more than two hours. I’m not going to sit there all night. That’s your one job tonight. Two hours and then I’m going home.”
“But—” Justin glared at him, and Ethan nodded. “Got it. Two hours.”
Justin raised himself off the sofa and went to his bedroom, then closed the door. He found the clothes and stripped down. He checked his face in the mirror and shaved for the second time that day. He rarely looked scruffy because of his naturally blond hair, but every flaw showed in pictures, so he did it. Everything had to be clean and perfect.
Once he was cleaned up and dressed, he checked himself one more time and then stepped out of the room. Ethan was waiting by the door and fussed with his collar. “You look wonderful.”
Justin hugged his friend because he thought they both needed it, then stepped back. He blinked a few times. “Is that what you’re wearing?”
“Yes. No one is going to be looking at me.” Ethan was dressed in nice gray slacks and a light blue shirt. It was nice enough, but plain.
“Is that how you always dress?” Justin asked, realizing for the first time that he rarely noticed how his best friend dressed.
“Sure,” Ethan answered. “I’m like the wallpaper.”
“Not tonight,” Justin said and went back into his bedroom. He pulled open one of the lower dresser drawers and came up with what he was looking for. “Put this on. It was a gift from some awards show last year, and the sleeves were too short.” It was a deep red silk shirt from some designer Justin could never remember. “Try it on.” He handed it to Ethan, who smiled widely as he took the shirt.
The fabric shimmered in the light, and Justin leaned back as his friend unbuttoned his shirt and slipped on the new one. “How does it feel?”
“Luxurious,” Ethan said.
“Good. Then take it. It was made for someone with your coloring.” Ethan had the coloring that came from his Italian background, with raven black hair and an olive tone to his skin. “I used to wonder why you and I never got together,” Justin said as Ethan finished dressing.
“Because we’re best friends and that’s how we work best. Besides, I think we both like to be in charge in the bedroom.”
Ethan raised his eyebrows, and Justin laughed as he wondered why he didn’t remember that. He tried to remember Ethan’s birthday. It was sometime in August, but the date escaped him. He’d been so busy that he was missing important things about the people in his life.
“What?” Ethan asked.
Justin realized he’d been staring. “I’ve been so busy I haven’t even been seeing you.” He took a single step closer. “I doubt I’ve been seeing anything or anyone around me. All I do is go from place to place or set to set, and I’m tired all the damn time.”
“I get that. But you know this is a fickle town—you can be on top one minute and in the dump the next. So you have to make the most of the good times.”
“Yes. But what if you’re running so fast that the good times are a blur?”
Ethan nodded. “Maybe you need a vacation. As you said, you’re not shooting for a week. Take some time off and go somewhere fun. I can put together some ideas, and you could leave tomorrow.”
God, that was enticing. “I’d like to….” Justin checked his watch. “If we’re going to go, we should probably leave now or we’ll be late.” Justin waited for Ethan to leave the room and turned out the lights before following him to the garage. He had three cars: a BMW, a Ford Edge for when he didn’t want to be noticed, and a Ferrari. He headed right for the bright yellow Italian sports car and slid easily into the driver’s seat. Ethan got in the passenger seat, and once the doors were closed, Justin raised the garage door and pulled out.
“Are you going to put the top down?”
“No, I don’t want any pictures tonight.” He pulled out and lowered the door behind him, then started down the drive, pushing the button to open the gate.
There were indeed photographers, and one of them stood right in the middle of the drive. “That son of a bitch,” Ethan exclaimed.
Justin pulled to a stop, gunned the engine, and then released the clutch just enough that the car jerked forward a foot or so. The photographer dove for the bushes, and Justin sped off while Ethan pressed the button to close the gate. “Call the security service and have them sweep by to make sure one of those morons doesn’t try to scale the gate or something,” Justin told him.
“Already on it,” Ethan said as Justin gunned the engine, the hum and power thrumming through him. He listened to Ethan make his call as he made his way out of the hills and down to Sunset Boulevard. “I love this car.”
“Me too.” Justin drove as fast as he dared. Traffic built as he got closer to the club. He glided to a stop right in front and got out. The valet came around and took the car for him. Justin waved to people on the sidewalk as he walked toward the entrance. A lot of people he knew would have hurried inside the safety of the club, but Justin didn’t on principle. The camera flashes were almost blinding, but he walked at a normal pace. He stopped when he saw a young woman of about eighteen and then walked over to her.
“Hello,” he said when he got close enough that she could hear him. “What’s your name?”
She grinned and bounced up and down. “Ally.”
“Are you having a fun night?”
“I am now,” she said.
Ethan was right behind him and handed him an index-sized card and a pen. Justin wrote a note to Ally, signed the card, and leaned over to give her a kiss on the cheek. “I’m glad.” He handed her the card and continued on into the club as everyone else screamed for his attention.
The thump of the music surrounded him as he stepped inside. “Mr. Hawthorne,” one of the bouncers said. He was huge but wore a smile. “Your party is right this way. If you’ll follow me.”
“Thank you.” He followed the large man with Ethan behind him, threading between tables and the milling crowd. It was dark, and there were enough other distractions that he wasn’t recognized.
“Justin,” a familiar voice said as a hand gently touched his arm. “How have you been?”
He turned and was engulfed in a hug. “Kevin. I’m fine. How are you?” He hugged Kevin back briefly and stepped away. His ex—distant ex, thank God—had no respect for personal boundaries.
“Really good. Things are taking off for me, and I’m doing really well.” Of course he was. Kevin was now one of the “it” party people. If there was a party, he was there. If a party needed to be started, just call Kevin. He could arrange for it all… and Justin knew that meant just about anything. “We should get together for old time’s sake. Have some fun.” He got too close once again.
“Maybe sometime,” Justin said, being noncommittal and trying to figure the quickest way out of this without causing a scene.
“Don’t worry. I’ll bring everything and everyone.” He waggled his eyebrows, and Justin stifled a groan. “We used to have so much fun. Remember?”
Justin did remember, and he’d put a stop to that pretty quickly, stepping away from that scene and putting distance between him and Kevin when he found out exactly what was going on at Kevin’s parties. “I have to meet some friends for the evening. I’ll see you later.” Thankfully a woman was trying to get Kevin’s attention, and he used those few seconds to escape.
He and Ethan passed through the rest of the main portion of the club to a private room where a number of friends and acquaintances were waiting, including his agent, Roy Fisher, and a number of people Justin had worked with.
“I was starting to think you weren’t going to show up,” Roy said as he took his arm and tried to steer him away from the crowd. Justin was ready for the move and whirled away from him.
“Unless it’s urgent, as in life and your impending death, I don’t want to discuss business tonight.” Roy tended to use social situations as business meetings. “Call me tomorrow and we’ll talk over what you have.”
“Have a drink,” Ethan said and stuck a glass into Roy’s hand.
“I have a huge deal for when you finish your next picture,” Roy said, leaning close. “The payday is twenty million.” Roy looked like he was going to do some kind of happy dance.
“That will send your kids to college,” Justin said without humor. Roy was a good agent, but he was also all about the money. That came first, and Justin knew it. That was also why he had an independent accountant with a large firm who followed up on every dime. He was not going to show up on the news as one of those pathetic Hollywood stories—the person who’d made millions, done all the work, and ended up broke because he’d trusted the wrong people. Justin did trust the people he worked with, but he also verified that he was being told the truth. “Come to the house at eight tomorrow and we’ll discuss it… unless you want to join me for my workout.”
Roy paled. “Fine, eight it is. I’ll bring breakfast.”
Justin patted him on the shoulder and moved into the party, greeting friends and shaking hands.
“I’ll get you another drink,” Ethan said. He was the only person Justin trusted enough to get him anything that he didn’t see go into the glass. His life was one huge caution flag.
“Thanks,” Justin said, and Ethan threaded off through the crowd.
“Sweetheart,” Lila Montagne said as she hurried up to him, wrapping an arm around his waist. She smelled of alcohol, and Justin could tell she had already had too many. When she leaned into him, he had to help her stand. “We worked so well together.” She hiccupped and tilted his way. Thankfully she weighed next to nothing. “I hope we can do it again in the future.”
“Me too, sweetheart.”
She hiccupped once more and was hit with a fit of the giggles. “It’s too bad you’re gay or I’d be all over you.” She stood up straight, eyes glassy but her gaze relatively steady. “Wanna give the other side a try?”
She made a grab for him, and Justin stepped back. He wasn’t about to get his balls grabbed by a drunken starlet. He wanted them in one piece, and Lila was known for going after what she wanted whole hog, as it were.
“No, thanks, but you’re a good friend.” He kissed her cheek the same way he had the girl out front. Ethan returned and handed him a drink, and then Justin escorted Lila to a chair, where she collapsed in a heap. “This is what you wanted me to come for?” he asked Ethan.
“No. It was for him,” Ethan said and pointed to Justin’s supporting actor in Runaway. He stood off to the side with a few people talking to him, but otherwise everyone was doing their thing.
“Alexander,” Justin called as he approached him. Alexander smiled, and they hugged in a real manly way. Alexander was as straight as they came, and he’d been standoffish when they started the film, but by the end they were friends. “Thanks for doing this. It’s a great party.”
“Thanks,” Alexander said. He turned toward a woman with a clipboard standing off to the side of the bar. “It was my publicist’s idea, but I’m glad you came. It was great working with you.”
Working together, he and Alexander had found they had more in common than either of them expected. Alexander had come from a small town and seemed on his way up.
“I took your advice. My agent had a fit, but he knows not to mess with me.”
“And you can sleep at night,” Justin said.
“Yeah,” Alexander agreed.
Justin sipped from his martini glass and was pleased to taste only cold water. “What have you got next?”
“There’s some talk about a lead in a couple features, but nothing else at the moment. You know how things are. It will take a little time and then hopefully things will bust open. You?”
“The next big deal. I start shooting on a sort-of Beowulf adventure. Costumes, women in saucy clothes, the works. It’s a great story, and it should be fun. We’re talking about the project after that. I’ll work with you anytime, and I passed on the word to some directors I know. You’re professional, on time, and good at what you do. You’ll be getting some calls.”
“Thanks, Justin,” Alexander said.
Other people called out, and Justin shook hands with the guys in Alexander’s crowd, then continued working the room. He talked to everyone, saying hello and shaking hands. He never knew when a good impression was going to be required, and he was damned sure to make one.
“Do you ever relax?” Ethan asked once Justin was able to stop talking and had finished his glass of water.
He leaned close to Ethan. “No. You have to remember that for the most part, these people aren’t my friends. They’re partygoers, hangers-on, and people trying to get a leg up in the business. They all want something from me.”
“That’s pretty cynical.”
“Reality. I want something from them too, and I’m going to get it. Each of these people will see me and talk to me. I’ll be nice, pleasant, and they’ll have a positive opinion of me. Then I can go home and they can get drunk off their asses, fuck a stranger, and have their pictures in the tabloids while I’m in bed, getting rested for work.”
Ethan shook his head, but Justin definitely saw more than a little admiration. “You always wanted it bad and were willing to do what it took.” Ethan weaved his way back to the bar, and Justin headed toward the one corner of the room he hadn’t visited yet.
“John,” Justin said and shook hands with the director of Runaway. “Glad to see you here.” Ethan pressed a glass into his hand and joined the group. “This is my best friend and mother hen. Ethan, this is John Westhoffer.”
“You did an amazing job on Runaway. Some of the shots and the setups were unbelievable. Your vision for the film was stunning and so far reaching.”
“Thank you,” John said with a grin. “I love to plan out my films in a lot of detail, but I also think it’s important to give good actors their head and let them add themselves to the part. Justin here is a natural at making a character come to life.”
“Ethan would love to work behind the camera,” Justin said, and Ethan nudged him in the arm. “He has a great eye and thinks much the same way you do.” He smiled. “Remember that first day, when we were on two different planets?”
“God, yes. I thought I was going to have an ulcer if the entire film was that difficult, and then the next day you came in and it was like we were in perfect sync and you got the vision.”
“Ethan got your vision when I told him what was happening. He helped get my head in the right space.”
John nodded and then reached into his pocket and handed Ethan a card. “Call me this week and set up an appointment. We need to talk.” John excused himself.
Ethan nearly fell over. “No way,” he said, practically jumping up and down.
“Yes.” Justin smiled and sipped his water. He felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. He pulled it out, checked the number, and handed it to Ethan, who answered it. Ethan continued talking, then tapped Justin on the shoulder and tilted his head toward the corner of the room. They stepped over, and Ethan handed the phone back.
“You need to take this call.”
Ethan stepped away, and Justin lifted the device to his ear. “Yes?”
“Mr. Grove?” a strange man said, using Justin’s real last name.
“How did you get this number?” He kept things like his cell phone number very private and personal.
“From your father. Mr. Grove, I’m Dr. Heath from Adams County Medical Center in Gettysburg, and I regret to inform you that your father is in critical care.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, but I haven’t spoken a word to my father in seven years. Did he tell you he disowned me? The bastard said he didn’t have a son, and now, when he wants something….”
“Your father could die,” Dr. Heath said, and Justin bit back the retort that threatened. “He asked me to call you.”
“Why didn’t he call himself?”
“Your father can’t speak. He communicates through hand gestures and a few words. He wrote down this number, and it took him three tries to get all the numbers. He’s very weak, and I honestly don’t think he will last more than a few days. This call could be his dying wish.” That was worthy of any screenwriter. “I told him I would try on his behalf.”
Justin felt the pain of rejection and heard the vitriol and condescension from his father just like it was yesterday. “I’ll have to think about it,” he said. He was seconds from ending the call.
“Please do. I know you don’t know me from Adam, but don’t do something you might regret. Once your dad is gone, it will be too late for a second chance.”
His father didn’t deserve any kind of second chance as far as Justin was concerned. “I’ll think about it. Thank you for calling.” He hung up, jammed his phone in his pocket, and headed toward the bar. When he arrived, he set his glass aside and ordered a shot of tequila. “Keep them coming,” he told the bartender.
“Are you sure about that?” Ethan asked from right behind him. “You have to drive home.” Justin took the shot, downed it, and waved off another. He pulled a bill out of his pocket and placed it on the bar before turning to Ethan.
“Let’s get out of here,” Justin said and turned away from the bar. He did his best to do the meet-and-greet thing as he made his way to the door, but he needed to get out of there. The paparazzi were still outside, so Justin plastered on a smile as he called for his car. When it arrived, he got in, and as soon as Ethan closed his door, he pulled into traffic.
“What happened? Is there something wrong? The guy said he was a doctor and—”
“I’m fine. It’s my father. He’s dying.” Justin sped up and drove into the hills toward home. He had to get away from everyone.
“The one who kicked you out?” Ethan asked as Justin pulled into the driveway. They had shared their stories when they first met, after Justin had arrived in LA with huge dreams and empty pockets. Ethan had taken him in, giving him a place to live while he waited tables at night and went to auditions during the day.
Justin got out of the car and went inside with Ethan following. “Yeah. The bastard who told me he was no longer my father has a doctor calling to say that the fucker is dying and I should go back to say good-bye or some shit.” Justin went to his bedroom. He pulled off his clothes, leaving them on the bed, and yanked on a navy blue Speedo before running out through the sliding glass doors and diving into the water. He needed to cool off and leave it all behind. When he surfaced, he started swimming laps, and he felt when Ethan entered the pool. He drove all the hurt and pain from his mind as he pushed his body through the water. He had to clear away the old, get rid of it, so he could decide what he wanted to do.
Time had little meaning. He kept swimming until his arms and legs refused to move any longer. Then he glided to the side of the pool, where Ethan lay on one of the lounges, wrapped in a supersized bath sheet like a blanket against the cooler night air.
“What do you want to do?” Ethan asked without lifting his head off the back of the lounge.
“I haven’t a fucking clue,” Justin said, folding his arms over the edge of the pool and resting his chin on his hands. “My father disowned me, and my mother did nothing to stop him. He said I was no longer his son and that I wasn’t welcome in his life. When my mother died, he never called me. He had my number from my mother because he used it today. The bastard cut me out completely, and now he wants something.”
“Do you want to find out what it is?” Ethan asked. “If you do, we get on a plane and find out. It’s as simple as that. Are you going to wonder, or can you simply let this all go?”
Justin settled back in the water, sinking to the bottom of the pool, letting the warmth surround him. Sometimes he needed a chance for the answers to come to him. When he was about to run out of air, he surfaced, swam to the steps, and climbed out. “I have a meeting with Roy at eight tomorrow morning. Book us on a flight to Baltimore that we can catch after the meeting. Reserve a car there, and we’ll drive up.” With that decision made, he got back into the pool and floated quietly, looking up at the few stars that permeated the LA light and haze.
Ethan’s lounge scraped the concrete as he got up and then went inside the house. Justin floated for a while before getting out once again and wrapping himself in a towel. He padded inside and found Ethan on his laptop.
“There’s a one o’clock with seats available. We’ll get in late. Do you want to get the car and drive or spend the night first?”
“Get the car. It will be late there, but for us, it will be normal hours. Get a place to stay in Gettysburg. The hospital is there.” Justin left Ethan to make the arrangements and went to his room to get ready for bed.
Living in the same house as Justin did have its advantages, like a very quick commute to and from work.