The maître d’ was already there, smiling broadly. “Good afternoon, Mr. True. She is already at your table.”
“Thanks, Jean Paul. When the bill comes, add fifty bucks apiece for the valet and doorman, and a hundred for yourself. People magazine can afford it.”
Julian followed Jean Paul to the table. He knew he was late, not that it mattered. People—especially reporters—were used to waiting for him.
He paused, looking around, searching for famous faces, power brokers, studio heads.
Unfortunately, it was that damn hinterland of time, after lunch but well before dinner. The place was almost deserted.
He was in the mood for a little schmoozing. Hell, he deserved it. Today’s screening of his new film, The Bad Boys of C Company, had gone better than he’d hoped. Better than anyone had hoped. Julian had earned his twenty million. He’d given the studio a surefire hit.
A hit. Two of the sweetest words possible.
He saw the reporter from People magazine—a woman (good), sitting at the restaurant’s best table. Clearly she’d told the maître d’ that she was here to meet Julian.
He moved easily through the restaurant, hearing the few scattered whispers of recognition. At the table, he stopped, “Heya, Sara Sandler.”
She stopped breathing, then started again, all at once, like a newborn baby. Color fanned up her cheeks. “Hi, Mr. True,” she answered, making a clear attempt to compose herself. She tucked in a few flyaway hairs, resettled her eyeglasses. “Thanks for meeting me.”
He gave her The Smile. “Call me Julian,” he said, settling down into the seat across from her. He stretched out one leg, plunking his booted foot on the settee beside her hip. He ran a hand through his shoulder-length hair and lit up a cigarette, watching her through a haze of smoke. “So, Sara, what is America dying to know about me?”
“D-Do you remind … mind if I record this?”
He laughed. “’Course not, darlin’. But I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t mention the smoking. It used to be smokers were sexy and dangerous, but in the puritanical nineties, we just look stupid. Like we don’t have the self-control to quit a habit that has killed millions.” The smile he gave her was slow and intimate, designed to disarm. He’d learned a long time ago how to hook a woman and reel her in. It came as easily now as breathing. “Did you get a chance to see Boys?”
“It was wonderful.” She leaned forward, all schoolgirl earnestness.
“Why, thanks. That really means something to me.”
She struggled to tamp down a smile and reached into her briefcase, pulling out some papers and a notebook and pen. Then she took a deep breath and glanced up at him. “So, when did you know you wanted to be an actor?”
He laughed easily. It was a familiar question, one he answered all the time. This interview would be a breeze. He leaned toward her, gave her a conspiratorial look. “I’ll tell you a secret, Sara. I never wanted to be an actor. Acting—that’s a verb. It implies work. Actors spend the better part of their lives skulking around Broadway, learning their craft, and eating macaroni-and-cheese out of a box. But a movie star …” He settled back into the settee, gazing at her as if she were the most beautiful woman in the world. “Ah, now that’s a different thing entirely. Lightning in a jar. Fame is the greatest drug in the world. Everybody wants to be your friend. That’s what I wanted to be. I knew it the first time I saw how a star was treated.”
She didn’t seem to like that answer. “But you’re a great actor. All the reviewers say so.”
He was quiet for a moment, took a long drag off his cigarette, exhaled slowly. “I know what I am, darlin’, and it ain’t an actor. But you’re sweet as hell to say so.”
She glanced down at her notes. “Is Julian True your real name?”
Another familiar question. He gave her another Hollywood smile. “Nothing up on that movie screen is real, Sara,” he said softly, using her name again to seduce her. “And at the same time it’s as real as life. Everything I am, everything I’ve ever been is up there in Technicolor, forty feet wide. Nothing that came before matters.”
“That’s a nice way of saying ‘No comment.’”
She wrote something down, then looked back up at him. “What about love—does that matter?”
“I’ve been married four times. I’d say it matters to me.”
“And divorced four times,” she responded, maintaining a steady gaze.
The question rolled off him like warm water. “I’m an incurable romantic, I guess. Just haven’t found the right woman. Maybe she’ll be reading this article. Now, what do you say we talk about my movie? We can get back to all this personal stuff later on … maybe over drinks?” He smiled, knowing there would be no later, no cozy pair of cocktails. The truth was, he didn’t have much to say about real life. It wasn’t the world he lived in.
Julian sped down a residential street, going much too fast. As he approached the imposing entrance to Bel Air, he saw a couple standing on the side of the street.
The woman gasped, pointed. “Oh, my God, Sidney, it’s—”
Julian flashed the lady his trademark grin, then hit the gas, following the winding, stop-and-go traffic into Century City. There, he pulled up in front of a grand high-rise building and parked at a metered spot.
A doorman rushed out, held the door open. “Good evening, Mr. True.”
Julian patted his pocket, found it empty. Damn. He was so used to other people picking up the tab, he regularly left his wallet at home. “I don’t have any money with me, kid. I’ll tell Val to tip you, okay?”
“S-Sure, Mr. True … and thank you.”
Julian followed the doorman through the ornate marble-paneled lobby and into the elevator.
At the penthouse, the doors opened. Julian’s agent, Val Lightner, lounged in the open doorway of his condo.
No doubt he was waiting for his most famous client, waiting to pop the champagne.
“Hey, Juli,” Val said, lifting his martini glass in a salute that upset his precarious balance. He staggered against the door frame. “How’d the interview go? I heard they sent you a baby reporter who couldn’t talk for an hour after she got back to the office.”
Julian grinned. “I think she wants to bear my children.”
“The phones have been ringing off the hook since the screening. If you were any hotter, you’d need asbestos underwear.”
They’d been friends forever, Julian and Val; they were cut from the same cloth. Val had made his bones in this business a long time ago, with the world-famous Angel DeMarco, an actor who, for years, had been called the young Robert De Niro, and who—at the peak of his game—had walked away from it all, creating in absentia a legend greater than anything he could have accomplished on screen. Val had wielded the power of Angel DeMarco to create a world-class career for Julian True.
Val grinned lazily and pushed a long, cornsilk-blond lock of hair away from his face. “Come on in, superstar. There’s a babe with your name on her.”
Julian followed Val into the condo, where a raucous party was in full swing. Movie stars mingled with wanna-bes; you could tell them apart by the eyes. The stars looked confident; the wanna-bes looked desperate, starvelings standing at a banquet table where they’d never be fed.
The place had the tasteful decor of a fraternity house. No paintings, no knickknacks, no rugs. Val had bought the unit, picked a few things to sit on, and called it home. But then, Val didn’t need to decorate. In this town, failure to do what you could easily afford had a cachet all its own.
“I need a drink,” Julian said to no one in particular, and within seconds someone handed him a drink. It didn’t matter what was in the glass, as long as it had a kick. He downed it and glided into the room. He knew that every pair of eyes was on him. The men wanted to be him and the women wanted to sleep with him. And why not? He was on top of the world. There was no perfume like success. He moved through the crowd, laughing and talking, his gaze constantly searching the room.
He saw her on the sofa in the living room, a stunning blonde in a barely-there white dress. Perfect. He strode over and sat down beside her.
His hand slid familiarly along her thigh, and damn, she felt good. “Hiya, darlin’. You’re the most beautiful woman in the room, but I guess you know that.”
She giggled, and at the movement, her grapefruit br**sts—the best that money could buy—threatened to pop out of her plunging neckline.
“I’m Margot,” she purred. “Margot LaMere. You like that name? Val made it up for me.” She sniffed and rubbed her runny, pink-tipped nose, then she leaned forward and grabbed her drink so fast that amber liquid sloshed over the rim and splashed on her dress. “I got great reviews in my high-school production of Our Town.”
Julian felt an unexpected—and unwelcome—flash of pity for the girl. There were so many women like her in Los Angeles.
When he looked closely, he saw that she wasn’t that pretty. Her hair had been bleached so many times it looked like straw, and she was dangerously thin. Her collarbone stood out in mountainous relief against her tanned, sunken flesh. And beneath a dozen layers of mascara, her brown eyes held a lifetime’s desperation. Girls like her landed in Hollyweird every day, butterflies in search of fame’s golden flower. In a few years’ time, she’d probably be broke and alone and strung out on designer drugs.
It was not the sort of reality Julian liked to consider. He yanked his hand back and lurched to his feet. “I’ll be right back, babe.”
She sighed, and in the heaviness of her breath, he heard that she’d understood. He wouldn’t be coming back.
He turned away from her and made his way through the crowd, past a couple hav**g s*x in the hallway.
He found Val in the bedroom, snorting a line of coke off the table by the bed. There was a woman beside him, wearing nothing but a pair of lacy red panties.
Val turned, grinning sleepily. “Hey, Jules, say hi to May Sharona. She wanted to talk to you about a part in—” He cupped the woman’s perfect right breast in his hand. “What movie were you interested in, doll?”
The woman was talking now. Julian could see her painted lips moving, but he didn’t listen. He’d heard it all before.
“I’m going to another party. This one’s dead.” Julian realized a second too late that he’d just stomped all over the woman’s litany of dreams.
Val didn’t seem to notice that May Sharona—what a name—had turned beet red and seemed to be gasping for air. He angled up to a swaying sit. “Whassa matter? I have more coke in the bathroom.”
“No? No?” Val untangled himself from the woman and grabbed his martini glass from the end table. He sauntered unsteadily across the room. Looping an arm around Julian, he kind of hung there, swaying, smiling up through a fringe of blond hair. “Hey, before you go, I gotta message for you. Someone called the office, looking for you. A doctor. He said he needed to talk to you about Mikaela Luna. How’s that for a blast from the past?” He lifted the martini glass to his lips and took a long, dribbling swallow.