Authors: Holly Rayner
I stalked over to the door and stepped outside. Lying in a lounge chair next to my pool was Jack Lister, my ex-boyfriend and one of Hollywood’s hottest bad boys. He had dark sunglasses on that kept me from seeing what his eyes were doing. His blond hair had been cut into the long-on-the-top undercut that was all the rage these days. The T-shirt he wore under his pinstriped suit was the clingiest of V-necks—because he couldn’t go a day without reminding everyone about his built chest. He was smiling at me like a vampire before his kill, dangling a set of house keys on his finger.
Anger boiled in my blood. I knew I should have changed the locks and alarms after Jack and I broke up, especially since he had no idea what the word ‘boundaries’ meant. I hadn’t heard from him in months, yet I wasn’t surprised to see him here now. It was typical Jack Lister behavior. Of course he was crazy and stupid enough to do something like this when he wanted attention.
“What are you doing here, Jack?” I demanded, hands on my hips, trying to keep my voice steady.
“Well hello to you too, kitten,” he replied sarcastically, a lazy grin spreading across his face.
“Don’t call me that,” I spit back. “Tell me what you’re doing here, or I’m going to call the cops and you can explain to them.”
“Oh, the tabloids would
that,” he mocked, sitting up. “They would eat that drama up with a spoon and a side of gravy. But it would really only help one of our careers, and I don’t think it would be yours Julianne. Are you sure you want to do that?”
Mention of my career sent me reeling with fury, and I could feel heat in my neck and face. Jack always knew how to push my buttons, and he had no qualms about doing it just to get his way.
But he wasn't wrong; calling the cops would make me look like another crazy ex, and make Jack look like even more of a dangerous bad boy.
Still, I was done screwing around with him.
I took a deep breath. “Jack, I’m going to count to five, and then I’m going to call the cops and have you arrested for breaking into my house. One…”
He lifted up his arms, trying to coax me. “C’mon, don’t be so dramatic.”
He threw his legs off the lounge. “You never know how to turn the diva act off, do you? That’s why you’ve ended up alone, you know.”
I gritted my teeth and held up the phone with 911 plainly displayed and waiting. “
“Okay, okay,” he conceded finally, throwing his hands up. He stood up from the lounge chair and re-buttoned his jacket, shrugging his shoulders. He shook his head at me and walked past me back into the house. “No need to make this any worse, kitten. Let’s go in and have a talk.”
“You’re not in charge here,” I growled. “I want you out of my house.”
He stopped short, turning back to face me just before he reached the glass door. “But I came to talk to you, and I’m not leaving until I’ve said what I came to say.”
“If you want to talk to me, you can contact my agent like every other professional in this city.”
Jack let out a bitter, mocking laugh. “Oh yeah, your successful and important agent who can’t even afford her own car anymore. I’m definitely going to waste my time barking up
tree. Why would I, when I have the keys to get to you myself?” He jangled them again.
“I swear, Jack, you are by far the biggest scumbag I have ever met.”
He laughed at that. Nothing ever seemed to faze him, and he had no problem using that to his advantage.
Jack took his sunglasses off, revealing his icy blue eyes. There was no denying his good looks, but being this close to him again made me reel with nausea.
He took a few steps forward. “Look, this is a real offer, I swear. It’s important. I came here to help you out, kiddo; I know you’re not doing so well on the work front nowadays. I’m just trying to look out for you.”
“I don’t need your help.”
“Sure,” said Jack, with a heavy nod. “Well that’s a shame, because I’ve got an offer from the Roland Brothers; they’re looking for leads for the new action blockbuster next summer.”
That was a nuclear bomb of an announcement. My jaw opened before I could stop it, and I saw the satisfaction spread across Jack’s face in a knowing smile.
He knew I was hooked. That’s why he had risked breaking into my house after months of no contact: he knew he had something good enough to warrant the risk. This really was all just a game to him.
There was no point trying to hide my interest in his offer. “Are you serious?” I asked.
“Serious as a heart attack,” he nodded.
“What’s the catch?”
“Oh, kitten, can’t we just enjoy this moment before you get all cynical? It’s almost like old times,” he stepped towards me with a sly smile I recognized all too well. He knew how handsome he was. It was one of his worst qualities—especially when he used it to manipulate people.
I put out a hand to stop him coming any closer. “What’s the catch?” I repeated.
He sighed and folded his arms. “The studio wants us to stage a reconciliation to help push up the buzz of the movie. They want to shove our faces down everyone’s throats, so that means you and I have to become Hollywood’s hottest couple again.” He made no attempt to hide his satisfaction of the shock factor, smiling like a wolf.
My heart dropped and my gut clenched. For a moment, I had let myself get excited about the opportunity, but there was no chance I would ever call myself Jack Lister's girlfriend again. Not for money, or fame, or even the most Oscar-winning role in the history of cinema.
Jack kept talking, undeterred by my sour expression. “It’s not a big deal, you know, and it’s all for the cameras. I mean, that’s not to say there won’t be some real heat between us. We always did have great chemistry, didn’t we?”
I rolled my eyes. “What happened to Avery?” I said, crossing my arms. “You made such a huge production out of leaving me for the next It Girl. All that B.S. you spouted, pretending to care about the charity work she does and becoming a humanitarian yourself. Does this mean you've already chewed her up and spat her out?”
Jack shrugged, making me sick at his lack of concern for her. “She doesn’t know yet, but she'll understand. It's just the business. Plus, it will just make the tabloid stories even harder to look away from. The public loves a sad little white girl to pity and make them feel better about their own lives.”
“What you're describing is a train wreck, and you're the suicidal conductor at the helm.”
“Hey, whatever rakes in the dough,” Jack replied without shame. “Don't hate the player, hate the game, kitten. And I didn't invent the game, I just perfected it.”
“You’re a monster.”
“That hurts my feelings,” teased Jack.
“You deserve worse,” I shot back. “I’m not doing it. I don’t want the part. It’s not worth it to fake being your girlfriend again, and I’m certainly not going to contribute to breaking the heart of another poor girl who was naïve enough to believe in you. I don't want any part in your sick little plans.”
Jack’s smile faded. I seemed to have finally hit a nerve. “Don’t act all high and mighty here, Julianne. You need this. Everyone in the Valley knows you need this, so don’t be stupid and turn it down just because you think you’re above playing the game like the rest of us.”
“You realize you’re playing a different game than everyone, right?” I told him. “Not everyone in this town is like you, Jack. Some people actually care about their craft and the decisions they make. Some people don’t want to hurt other people just to get what they want. Not everyone is okay with firebombing everything in order to collect the leftovers afterwards.”
Jack chuckled, amused. “Sweetheart, let me tell you something:
the one playing a different game. As you may have noticed, I’ve got the game down in my sleep, and the world agrees with me, which is why you see my smiling face on every billboard and movie screen across this country. So you can prattle on with your high-horse ethics or artistic integrity or whatever fancy name your yoga class introduced you to this week, but it's not going to change reality. And the reality is, you're on the downslope of your mountain, and you'll never get back up unless I help you. I'm your only ticket back to the A-list, kitten. Don't be stupid and turn it down.”
I stared at him, eyes narrowed, for a few angry moments after he finished his rant. “Wow, how could I resist a fake relationship with a charmer like you?” I rolled my eyes, disgusted, and trotted past him and into the house.
Jack followed me, chattering away, trying to wear down my resolve. He followed me right to the front door, where I held it open and gestured for him to leave, staring straight through him with tired eyes.
“C’mon Jules,” said Jack, standing in front of me in the doorway. “Stop acting stupid. You know better than this.”
“So do you. Now leave.” I pointed out the door, blank-faced.
He waited for me to relent, but I wouldn’t. Finally, he shook his head in some sort of disgust and carefully put his sunglasses back on. “You’ll be back,” he said as he walked onto the porch. “I saw that pile of overdue bills on the kitchen counter. You should think long and hard before rejecting me, Julianne. I'm all you've got.”
Before he could continue with his bile, I slammed the door on him and locked it, resolving to call a locksmith within the hour.
The day had been terrible, a complete inversion of the previous twenty-four hours I had spent with Zane, happy and laughing, worrying about and wanting for nothing. Being back home in my lonely, empty mansion was bad enough; being reminded not only of my past mistakes, but the dire nature of my future, only compounded all the turmoil raging in my head like a vast stormy ocean.
All I wanted was to be back in Al-Dali, tucked in the private cinema next to Zane, letting the day go by as we laughed and watched movies together. At the very least, I wanted to be able to sink into the walls of my house and never come out to face the world again.
Zane was right when he called Jack a monster. He had no boundaries, no concern for anyone but himself, and I had to make sure he stayed out of my life and far away from me forever. Now that he'd been in my house again, all the work I had done over the months of making the place feel like mine was undone. Now I could hear the footsteps of Jack's ghost, stomping drunkenly down the hallways.
I needed to deal with the shattering of the fleeting peace I’d had in heart and mind. I took a long, hot shower with some relaxing oils, then ordered dinner from my favorite Mexican restaurant. With a TV tray on my lap and a green tea on the night stand, I tucked myself into my cozy bed and, once again, allowed myself a lazy night of watching sitcoms. I kept my phone on silent, ignoring any emails or texts that came in. I didn’t want to risk seeing anything from Jack again tonight; his invasion of the sanctum of my home was bad enough.
Even after all the relaxation and carbs, sleep refused to come without a fight. Jack’s reappearance in my life was more upsetting than I could have imagined. He was such a vicious snake of a person, coming into my house without permission. He probably couldn’t help himself, couldn’t wait to give me the ugly news that he held the key to my salvation.
The fact that he came to make the offer in person told me it was important to him. Too important to trust to his agent, or even the chance a text or email would be leaked. Maybe the deal he had made with the studio heads relied on someone Jack knew getting stabbed in the back; it definitely wouldn’t be the first time. Whatever it was, Jack was trying to control how this all went down to make sure he was not only protected, but came out on top when all was said and done. Jack could be trusted to do one thing only: look out for himself. Every one of his calculated actions had that goal in mind.
This meant, for once, that I had an upper hand on him. During our relationship, I hadn’t seen Jack for what he really was, and that had left me broken every time my needs got in the way of his. Half the time he would go as far as to blame me for my own bad luck, even when he was helping manufacture it behind my back. He had no shame, and I hadn’t been able to see it, so it had been like fighting a ghost. I had lost every time.
But Jack’s nature was clear to me now. And it was clear he needed me very badly for this plan to go through. He knew how badly his actions had damaged my life and my career; he knew I hated his existence, and yet he asked me anyway. He would have found an easier way if there was one. That meant there wasn’t.
The thought made me smile in the dark. Jack must have endured more bad press than I thought after our breakup. It appeared on the surface that his bad boy façade made him more popular to the everyday movie fan, but that regard didn’t always translate with his fellow industry workers. Maybe his reputation was finally catching up to him, and he had to do something to fix the nasty things he’d done.
If there was any way my involvement in the movie would help Jack’s career or erase the damage he had done to my life, there wasn’t a chance I would say yes. Even though the move would no doubt benefit me too, it felt too much like I would be handing my soul over to the last person in the universe who should be near it. Jack didn’t deserve my help; I wasn’t going to enter a devil’s bargain with him. There would be nothing but regret down that road.
Still, he wasn’t wrong about the bills piling up on the kitchen counter. Now that I had turned down Zane’s money, I had to start being a little more realistic about my survival and reconsider some movie options I had been too proud to accept before. I’d rather deal with the shame of being in a B-list movie than swallow my pride and bend to Jack’s will.