Author: Lauren Gallagher
Publisher: Samhain Publishing
Format(s): ebook, print (coming soon)
“A porn star?” I stared at my manager in disbelief. “Are you kidding me?”
Leaning against the off-white wall of the cramped space that served as my dressing room, Rich shook his head. “Not kidding.”
I pinched the bridge of my nose and forced a breath out through clenched teeth. “Look, dancing with some guy is one thing”—I dropped my hand and looked at him again—“but this is a bit over the top, don’t you think?”
Shrugging, Rich said, “Well, it’s not your decision. This is what the label wants.”
“How does this make any sense, though?” I threw up my hand. “The company that spent how long spelling out my morality clause so I know in no uncertain terms they can drop me if I step even a little out of line and tarnish their image, and now they’re bringing a porn star into my damned video?”
Rich shouldered himself off the wall. “Rachel. Hon.” He adopted that condescending tone that had always made my teeth grind. “The idea is that you’re breaking out of your squeaky-clean image from your early career.” The smile was as condescending as his voice. “Olivia Taylor has grown up.”
I glared at him. “Grown up and, what? Joined a whorehouse?”
Rich laughed. “It’s not like you’re going to be in a porno with him. They’re just bringing him in because he’ll be unexpected and he’s got sex appeal. He’s risqué and forbidden, so the video will have that quality.”
“Are you suggesting I don’t have sex appeal?”
“Of course you do,” he said with a dismissive gesture. “But not the way a porn star does. I should also add that for a porn star, he’s quite popular with females in the demographic we’re targeting.”
I folded my arms across my chest. “Since when are porn stars popular with women?”
He chuckled. “Since Buck Harder showed up on the scene, apparently.”
A snort that was equal parts derisive and amused came from behind me and reminded me that Quinn, my assistant, was still in the room. He followed it with a muffled, “Sorry…”
I didn’t look at him, though. To Rich, I said, “Buck. Harder.” I raised both eyebrows. “You’re serious.”
“Yes.” Rich tilted his head a little, making the fluorescent glare on his bald head shift toward what was left of his hairline. “I don’t know what you’re so upset about. You aren’t going to be doing anything but dancing with him.”
“Then why a porn star?” I asked.
He shrugged again. “What we’re trying to present is the image of a woman who’s taken control. You’re a powerful vixen, and you’re not ashamed of your sexuality.”
“I’m not ashamed of my breasts, either,” I grumbled, “but I’d prefer to keep them in my clothes if that’s all right with Risen Star.”
Rich just laughed. “Well, the decision has been made. Besides, you know what they say. There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Says the man who’s never been dropped from a record label for misbehaving in the headlines.”
“You’re not misbehaving in the headlines.” He gave an exasperated sigh. “You’re just projecting a sexier, more mature image. That, and you’re clean now, which is what I think the label was more concerned about.” Before I could reply, he added, “Your music is better than it’s ever been, kid, and if this album sells, you’re golden. If this video ups those sales, then…” He trailed off with yet another shrug. “Why do you care what your dance partner does with the rest of his life?”
“Rich, my new contract specifically says Risen Star will drop me in a damned heartbeat if I bring in any bad press.”
He waved a hand. “That clause is just to cover their asses. You know that. They’re concerned about you going back to rehab or something. They’re not going to drop you unless you really screw up and make them look bad.”
“And yet they’re the ones putting me in a video with a fucking porn star.”
“Rachel. Sweetheart.” He put his hands on my shoulders and gave me that serious look that made me feel like a damned child. “You’re still on thin ice with the label, and they’re still not a hundred percent sure about bringing you back on board in the first place. You need to play their game and do things their way for a while, even if you don’t agree with or understand them.”
I sighed, and my shoulders sank beneath his hands. What could I say? Risen Star held all the cards, and until I proved myself a worthy risk, I didn’t have many options.
“It’s either do what they say,” Rich went on, “or go back to doing reality shows for washed-up celebrities. And even they aren’t all that interested in you anymore.”
His bushy eyebrows rose, and his forehead creased. “Am I wrong?”
Another sigh, this time made of pure defeat. “No. You’re not.”
“Good. Now get dressed.” He patted my shoulder. “Director wants you front and center in half an hour.”
“Okay,” was all I said.
“Trust me, hon. The marketing guys and the director know what they’re doing.”
“I hope so,” I said flatly.
He turned to go, and when the door closed behind him, I let out a breath and sank onto a folding chair.
“Jesus H.” Quinn gave a dramatic huff from the other chair where he’d been sitting quietly this whole time. Glaring at the door over his black-framed hipster glasses, he said, “That guy doesn’t just drink Risen Star’s Kool-Aid. He cuts that shit into lines and snorts it.” The second the words were out, Quinn clapped a hand over his mouth. “Shit, I’m sorry. That—”
“It’s okay. You’re probably right anyway.” I ran a hand through my hair and scowled. “Besides, what choice does he have?” I leaned back in the chair. “We all know he’s right.”
Quinn clicked his tongue. “He’s still a douche, and I don’t mean the anal kind that’s actually useful.”
“God. Quinn.” I wrinkled my nose and couldn’t help giggling as I covered my face with my hands. “Eww.”
He smothered a laugh. “That got a smile out of you. I regret nothing.”
I laughed again, this time halfheartedly. “I cannot believe they’re sticking me with a porn star.”
Immediately, I knew that was the wrong choice of words, but before I could come up with something else, Quinn deadpanned, “I wouldn’t mind someone sticking me with a porn star.”
“Of course you wouldn’t.” I shook my head. “This whole thing is just insane, though.”
“Well, Rich did make one good point.” Quinn’s tone had shifted to a gentle but serious one. “This guy they’re bringing has got to have some sex appeal, and we all know sex sells.”
“Yeah, I know it does. But this seems… I mean it sounds…” I leaned forward and rubbed my temples. “Do I sound like as much of a whiny spoiled brat to you as I do to myself?”
“Honey. Honey.” He got up, dragged his chair over to mine and sat beside me. Then his cool, perfectly manicured hand closed around mine. “Rachel, look at me.”
He took off his glasses and looked me in the eye. “This is your dream. It’s fallen apart once before, and you’re getting the second chance you didn’t think you’d ever get. You’ve grown up since the last time. You’ve learned so, so much. You’ve also crashed and burned, so you know exactly how much you have to lose.” He squeezed my hand. “You’re not being a spoiled brat, sweetie. You’re looking at things and questioning them because you don’t want your dream getting away from you again, whether it’s because you screwed up or because some douchewaffle comb-over corporate cocksucker did.”
I burst into giggles. “You are so eloquent, Quinn.”
He grinned. “But I’m right, yes?”
Nodding, I sighed. “Yeah, you are. I’m really trying to walk the line for these people, but I’m so scared it’s going to get yanked out from under me at any moment.”
Quinn put his arm around my shoulders. “I don’t blame you, sweetheart. But you’re going to prove yourself this time. You’ve cleaned up, you’ve grown up, and even if this video blows up in everyone’s faces, you’re not going to make the mistakes you did before.”
I released a breath. “Thanks, Quinn.”
“Any time.” He squeezed me gently. Then he sat back and clapped sharply before gesturing toward the clothes hanging beside the door. “All right, pep talk’s over. Get dressed. Hop to it.”
I gave him the most half-assed salute I could muster. “Yes, sir.”
He laughed and pushed himself up. Strutting toward the rack of clothes, he threw over his shoulder, “You wearing the black or the white first?”
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “We’re just rehearsing today, but the director wants us doing it in costume so we get used to moving in those clothes.”
“Can’t imagine why.” He eyed the dresses. “I’ve worn condoms bigger than—”
“What? I’m just saying.”
He looked at the shining leather dresses again. “Seriously, if these things are as tight as they look, you should get a whole day just to practice breathing in something like that.”
“Yeah, yeah.” I stood and pulled off my T-shirt. “Give it here.”
He stroked his chin as he looked from one dress to the other. Then he plucked the black one off the rack. “Probably shouldn’t wear the white one today. One smudge on that leather, and…” He followed it with a look of disgusted horror.
I laughed. “God forbid.”
I stripped out of my clothes, and Quinn helped me pour myself into the leather dress, which was low on the top, high on the bottom and super tight all the way through.
“Holy crap.” I pretended to gag.
Quinn smirked. “Can’t breathe?”
“Not really.” I pulled in some air, and I wasn’t sure if it was the leather or my ribs doing the squeaking. “I think someone’s still making my clothes to fit the old Olivia Taylor.”
Quinn peered at me over his glasses. “Darling, if you can ever fit into any of those clothes again, I will drag you by the hair to Burger King and force feed you Whoppers.” His meticulously plucked eyebrow arched, and though he was good-natured about it, we both knew damn well he wasn’t kidding.
“Don’t worry.” I tugged at the skirt so it might leave at least something to the imagination. “Not going down that road again.”
“Good,” he said quietly.
I gave him a reassuring smile. “I promise.”
He returned the smile, then picked up one of the two shoeboxes off the floor. “Black shoes today?”
“Yep.” I put a hand to my chest and batted my eyes. “Heaven forbid I have to put you to work wiping scuffs off the white ones.”
“Watch it, sister,” he said as he pushed aside the tissue paper around the shoes, “or you’ll be explaining bloodstains on these—” He blinked. “Oh dear Lord.”
“Well.” He did that looking-over-his-glasses thing again. “Guess as long as they have you barely dressed and dancing with a porn star, they might as well put you in…” He withdrew one of the shoes.
One of the strappy leather shoes with a stiletto heel that was sharp enough to be a murder weapon and high enough to give me altitude sickness.
“Stripper heels,” I muttered as I took it from him. “But of course.”
“They do go with the outfit.” He snickered. “And your dance partner.”
“Mm-hmm.” I sat in the folding chair again, wincing as the ridiculously tight dress compressed all my vital organs. “So help me, if there’s a pole on that set, I am done.”
“Well, if there is,” he said matter-of-factly, “it’ll probably be him dancing on it, not you.”
“Good point.” I leaned forward, but the dress stopped me well before my fingers came close to reaching my feet. “Oh. Hmm. This could be a problem.”
“Dresses like that aren’t for bending, dear.” Quinn snatched the shoe from me. “Now sit up straight and give me your foot.”
“You want it in your mouth or your groin?”
He held out the shoe. “You want to do this on your own?”
I sat back and lifted my foot.
“That’s a good girl.”
As Quinn buckled the strap around my ankle, just above the scar from the last surgery, I was sure I could hear my orthopedist screaming with frustration.
You’re going to wear those? he cried in my head, tearing at his curly gray hair. You’re going to dance in them? Oh, Rachel…
Oh, Rachel, indeed. But if Olivia Taylor was going to make any kind of comeback, that meant doing what the record label demanded. And right now, the record label demanded that Olivia dance with a porn star in a skintight dress and skyscraper heels for the next few hours, no matter how that left Rachel’s ankle feeling tonight.
“Okay.” Quinn sat up. “Shoes are on.”
“Goodie.” I took as deep a breath as the dress would allow. “Now let’s see if I can stand.”
He held out both hands. With his help, I stood carefully.
“Oh my God.” I looked around. “I think I’m a story taller than I was earlier.”
Quinn looked up at me, then down at my legs. “You don’t have any Tonya Hardings in your world, do you?”
“None that I’m aware of.”
“Good. Because if someone took out one of those heels…”
“I’d be fucked.” I carefully took a step. “Okay, time to walk.”
He didn’t let go of my hands yet. “You good?”
I nodded. “Just need to practice for a few minutes.”
“Probably more than a few minutes if you’re going to dance in them,” he muttered.
“Ugh. Don’t remind me.”
He let me go, and I took a few steps. I thought I was doing okay, but then I wobbled.
“Shit!” I squeaked and grabbed the edge of a table for balance just before I would’ve fallen.
Quinn sighed dramatically and shook his head. “Really?”
I glared at him. “You want to walk in these?”
Both eyebrows arched. “Bitch, please.” Folding his arms across his chest, he nodded toward the white pair I had to wear tomorrow. “Fifty bucks says I could put those things on and do motherfucking Riverdance while you were still limping around like a drunken goat.”
“A drunken goat?” I laughed so hard I had to tighten my grip on the table so I didn’t fall on my butt. “Do I really look that bad?”
“You’re a little shit, you know that?”
“At least I can walk in heels.”
He just snickered while I continued trying to keep my feet under me. I took a deep—sort of—breath and started walking again.
While I made slow, awkward laps back and forth across the room, he said, “So you really didn’t know there was a porn star involved in this whole thing until today?”
“Are you kidding? I didn’t even know they’d canned the other director and scrapped his entire idea until yesterday. This is all news to me.”
He walked back to the folding table where he’d left his iPad. “And you’re supposed to learn whatever choreography today and be ready in time to film tomorrow?”
“Doesn’t sound like there is much choreography.” I wobbled again but didn’t have to grab anything this time, so I took another step and caught my balance. “The backup dancers are doing their original choreography, except with a different background and costumes. I’m just supposed to do, I don’t know, something sexy and sort of rhythmic in front of the camera while this porn star feels me up.”
“Something sexy and sort of rhythmic?” Quinn laughed. “Well, I guess you can’t ask for much more when you’re going to be dancing with a straight guy.” When I glared at him, he put up a hand. “What? Have you seen the way straight men dance?” He waved his arms in the air and shook his whole body in a ridiculous frog-in-a-blender fashion. Then he stopped abruptly, peered at me, and said, “Um, no.”
I snickered and kept “walking”. God, where would I be without Quinn and his warped sense of humor?
In a pretty bad place, actually. He and I both knew I’d have gone a whole lot further off the deep end three years ago if I hadn’t had him there. Quinn was the only reason I made it to—or through—anything toward the end, and that usually meant he spent half the morning holding my hair while I puked and the other half pouring espresso down my throat while he talked me off whatever ledge I was on. He stayed with me longer than my record company and my fiancé. You know you’ve hit rock bottom when the man who’s picked you up a thousand times is dropping you off at rehab and telling you he won’t come back until you pick yourself up this time.
Lost in my thoughts, I misjudged a step and very nearly rolled my ankle, but I caught myself.
“You okay, love?”
“I’m fine.” I put my arms out for a few seconds to give my balance a chance to level out. “Yeah, I’m fine.” I took another step and grimaced. Five minutes into wearing these things, and my right ankle was not happy. I’d be lucky if I could walk after this rehearsal.
“Hey, Quinn?” I asked over my shoulder.
I gingerly took another step. “Could you call and make me an appointment for a cortisone shot this afternoon?”
“On it.” He paused. “Want me to get some icepacks ready too?”
“That would be awesome.” I glanced back at him. “You’re a lifesaver.”
“It’s what I’m here for, love.” He polished his flawless nails on his shirt. “So have you seen this guy you’re working with today?”
Wincing, I turned around. “No. Why?”
“Oh. Honey.” He grinned over the top of his iPad. “You need to research these things.”
I rolled my eyes. “I just want to get in and get it over with before these shoes murder my feet.”
“You’ll be fine, babe.” Quinn waved a hand. “You just haven’t worn heels in a while.”
“Right, so should I really be wearing these”—I pointed at my feet—“when I haven’t worn anything above two inches in like three years?”
“Just be careful. You’ll be fine.” He shifted his gaze to his iPad. “Especially once you see what you’re dancing with today and tomorrow.”
“Mm-hmm.” He moved his hand rapidly over the screen. “And thanks to your darling assistant’s third degree black belt in Google-Fu, you may now feast your eyes on your dance partner. I present to you”—he turned the iPad around—“the one and only Buck Harder.”
“Buck Harder,” I muttered as I took the iPad from him. “What a name.”
“And what a body,” Quinn mused.
Staring at the screen, I said, “Can’t argue with that.” And I couldn’t. Wow. He was… Well, I could see why he’d apparently done so well in his line of work. He was broad-shouldered, tanned, with flawlessly defined, hairless abs. He obviously spent a good chunk of his time at the gym, but he wasn’t huge. Not a bodybuilder or a steroid junkie, just fit. Very, very fit.
His thumbs were hooked in the pockets of his jeans, his hands angled just right to direct my attention to his crotch, where the skintight denim clung to at least one reason he’d gone into porn. My God.
I made myself quit staring at his package and instead looked at his face. His sandy blond hair was neatly trimmed and perfectly styled, and those vivid green eyes might have been mesmerizing and knee-weakening if not for the arrogance radiating from them as well as that smarmy grin. Forget what he had in his pants. Something told me his ego was his largest appendage.
“Cute.” I set the iPad down. “Looks like he knows it too.”
“Of course he does.” Quinn scoffed. “He gets to have sex for a living, even if it is with women”—he stuck out his tongue—“and he’s one of the most popular and highest earning out of all the other men who have sex for a living. Of course he knows he’s hot!”
“Can’t wait to work with him,” I muttered.
A knock at the door turned both our heads.
Rich opened the door and leaned in. “You ready?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be.”
He tapped his watch. “Ten minutes.”
“I’m on my way.”
“I’ll be there in a minute.” Quinn held up his phone. “After I make your appointment.”
“Thank you, sweetheart.” I started toward the door, still wobbling a little on those ridiculous shoes. “I think I’m going to need it.”
“The way you’re walking?” He snorted. “Honey, I’d better get the paramedics on standby.”
“Oh, shut up. I can walk.”
“Uh-huh.” He snickered. “Have fun with Buck Harder, darling.”
By the time I was out in the hallway outside my dressing room, I was mostly balanced on the shoes. I’d walked in higher, skinnier heels before, and they just took a few minutes to get used to.
All the way to the room where we were rehearsing, I was still sure I’d need that cortisone shot later, but no longer afraid of breaking my neck. Or re-breaking my ankle. All I had to do now was get through this rehearsal, a day or two of shooting and hope the press didn’t go psycho on me for being on-camera with a porn star.
The thought made me roll my eyes. The media was already going to have a collective conniption when the video finally dropped, because right now, no one knew a thing. My comeback album was a closely guarded secret, and everyone involved, myself included, had signed ironclad nondisclosure agreements. One of those “go ahead, tell the media; we’ll sue you for anything they paid you and then some, and don’t think we won’t find out it was you” things.
The secret would be out soon, though. The release was coming up fast, and the video we were shooting tomorrow would drop within a couple of days of the album. The marketing twits said they were aiming for “shock and awe” by breaking out a brand-new Olivia Taylor album and video without any kind of lead-in hype.
“You’ve been off the radar for three years,” one of the suits had said. Gesturing wildly like marketing guys always did, he’d added, “Now you’re going to explode back onto the scene.”
My gut told me they just didn’t want to promote anything until they were absolutely sure the album would happen. An artist who was a way better gamble than me had fizzled out midway through recording a highly anticipated third album. She went to rehab—didn’t we all?—and the album never happened, so the record label wasn’t even giving me the chance to embarrass them like that. Not a word to the public until every track was cut and the video was in the can. Even then, total silence until the minute the album dropped.
Probably so they still had a chance to pull it if I did something “outrageously and typically Olivia” and wound up the laughingstock of the tabloids. Again. Which, the bigwigs had reminded me a hundred times over, would be in violation of the ominous morality clause they’d hammered into my contract when they re-signed me this year.
“Fuck up,” it said in not so many words, “and you’re not only dropped, you’re never signing with Risen Star again as long as you fucking live.”
This from the people pairing me up with a porn star.
I rolled my eyes again.
For all the business bullshit and the constant reminders that I’d screwed up before, I was still walking on cloud nine. In stripper heels, maybe, but even that couldn’t put a damper on my excitement about being back in the game. Every step of this album—writing it, recording it, and now this—had been like a dream, taking me back into a world I thought I’d never be a part of again, and I could not wait to get back onstage.
That thought made me shiver. The stage. Nothing beat the feeling of singing on a stage.
Yeah, I may not have been thrilled about some aspects of my current situation, and I was worried sick about it all getting yanked out from under me, but I was excited as hell. This was really happening. I was a signed, performing musician again.
When I reached the door to the soundstage, the security guards standing outside gave me a nod and let me in.
The set was still mostly plain plywood and sheetrock, and the room was packed with cameras, crewmen, backup dancers and enormous lights. The air was heavy with coffee, hot electronics, and fresh sawdust, and at least someone in the room must have been outside recently for a prescription smoke break. People shouted over equipment and chatted amongst themselves. Hammers banged. Saws whined. Crew members strode past with stern looks on their faces and coiled extension cords on their shoulders. A small flock of suits loomed in the shadows, peering at everyone and everything over their Starbucks cups. Dancers stretched beside the far wall, people with clipboards muttered and swore, and someone somewhere barked at someone about a missing gel for one of the lights. Typical set for a video.
I smiled to myself. This wasn’t the first shoot we’d done for this video—we’d shot some other footage last week—but walking into a music video set was like coming home. Despite all the chaos and insanity, it took me about three seconds to home in on him.
His back was to me. All in black leather, just like me and the backup dancers, but he stood out. I couldn’t put my finger on what set him apart from the other guys. They were all obviously fit, and he was probably just as limber as they were, given his profession, but he still looked…different. Like a runner compared to a swimmer. Just as fit, just as powerful, but honed for a different sport.
Or maybe my brain just couldn’t process him, or who he did or didn’t look like, because whatever his body was designed for, right then it was wrapped in skintight black leather. Nothing but skintight black leather. It covered his broad shoulders. Stretched over his biceps. Coated those narrow hips and that butt like it was painted on.
Holy hell. Sex appeal, indeed.
He was talking to one of the producers, and right at that moment, the producer saw me and gestured over Buck’s shoulder.
Buck turned around.
The camera hadn’t done him any justice. None at all. Even from here, the black leather emphasized his green eyes. He gave me a quick nod and a smile, and damn him, he didn’t look half as cocky as he had in his photos. Just a guy, a regular guy, who happened to be loaded with quiet charisma and a hot body.
There was no pretending he hadn’t seen me. He saw me all right, and he was heading this way, and there was no escaping.
And suddenly my high heels weren’t the biggest threat to my ability to stand.