CHAPTER ONE

"Tina, all I can see is your head," I told the purple-haired woman sitting across the table from me.

Tina Bender, my friend and co-worker at the L.A. Informer, ignored me as she happily munched on a shrimp verde taco. "Ohmigod, these things are to die for," she said through a mouthful of food. She swallowed. "Seriously, have you tried them?"

It was a Friday afternoon, and we were seated on the patio outside Jose's Taco Casa, a hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant in Encino. I'd specifically requested this table for its location behind a large potted arrangement of cacti. I'd also chosen this exact seat. Thanks to Tina and the plants, I couldn't be seen from the street—but I had a perfect view of the comings and goings of about half the block. That is, when Tina wasn't leaning over and obstructing it. I was tempted to push her backward into one of the thorny cacti if she didn't get out of the way.

Kidding! Mostly…

"Scoot left," I instructed, tilting my body sideways in the chair to aim my camera past her.

"Oh. Sorry," she said, inching to the left. "But I thought this was a lunch date." She looked pointedly down at my full plate. "You haven't even touched your food." "I'm having dinner with Trace tonight," I replied, putting the camera lens back up to my eye. "I need to reserve my appetite."

 

Tina snorted. "You won't be satisfying your appetite for food, honey."

I lowered the camera, giving her an exaggerated eyeroll. "Very funny, Bender." Though, I kinda hoped she was right on some level. "He won't say where we're going," I

told her. "But I do know it's someplace swanky. He asked me to wear something nice."

Tina grinned at me. "Of course he did. Do you ever notgo somewhere swanky?"

 

I stuck my tongue out. She had a point, though. Trace Brody was one of Hollywood's hottest commodities and a bona fide movie star. How a tabloid paparazzo like me had been lucky enough to grab his attentions, I was still not sure. But thankfully, I had. For the past few months Trace and I had beenan item, and last month I'd actually heard him use the words "girl" and "friend" together. Which was a big step in a Hollywood relationship, knowing how the tabloids jumped on words like those. (At least, we did at the Informer!)

I set down my camera and grabbed a triangle of my quesadilla, chewing slowly as I savored the melted cheese. After a second bite, Imade a show of dabbing at my mouth with a napkin. "There," I said, tossing the crumpled paper ball onto my plate. "I ate something. Better?"

Tina's lips quirked. "Yep." She gestured to my camera. "Carry on." I refocused the lens of my Nikon and located the shop window once again. A

leggy young woman with long black hair stepped intomy line of vision. "Bingo."

I'd been trailing Joanie Parker all morning, and I'd finally hit pay dirt. The ravenhaired starlet had burst onto the reality TV scene a couple of years ago as a recurring side character on The Real Co-eds of Beverly Hills.While she'd kept her backstory as ambiguous as the origin of her plump lips, she'd quickly made a career out of being

famous. My favorite sort of celebrity—the kind who needed media attention like most people needed air. However today the tabloid princess was not only sans her usual pound and a half of makeup (Was that an actual pimple I saw? Oh, lucky day!), but she had also shed her designer threads in favor of a pair of baggy pants, a white, grungy (and not in the trendy way) tank top, and a pink camouflage trucker hat. "Must be laundry day at Chateau Parker," I muttered. If Tina and I hadn't been stealthily following her all over LA that morning, I wouldn't have recognized her.

"Maybe she's going for incognito," Tina said, peeking over her shoulder at the dressed-down diva across the street.

"Don't turn around!" I whispered. "I don't want to tip her off that she's being photographed." I snapped away, clicking shot after shot of Joanie bending over in her

saggy pants. She scooped up her pooch, a little teacup Pomeranian named Isabelle, and let the fluffy little pup give her a dog slobber facial. It was an adorable moment, though Joanie's expression in the photos wasn't exactly flattering. "I almost feel bad about this," I admitted to Tina, who had turned her attention to the menu.

 

"Husband with her?" she asked.

Joanie was married to NFL linebacker Antoine Parker, and their relationship was a notoriously tumultuous one. Joanie had even triedto stab him with a stiletto heel last

month outside a Malibu restaurant. Unfortunately, Ihadn't been following her that night. I shook my head. "Nope. Just the dog."

"Hold that thought." Tina signaled a passing waiterand ordered us each a pineapple margarita. "I don't care what Felix thinks—we're expensing these," she said

when the server was gone. "He can't expect us to spy on the rich and famous on an empty stomach. And of course we need something to wash down the food." She grinned. Felix Dunn was our notoriously cheap editor in chief. I silently wished Tina luck in getting him to pay for our lunch.

"Now, why would you feel bad about snapping a few pics of Joanie Parker? You're just doing your job," Tina reasoned once our order was in.

 

I shrugged. "I don't know," I said, my face still glued to the viewfinder. "Without all those reality show cameras following her, Joanie seems like a pretty normal girl." I

watched the young woman hug the little Pomeranian to her chest. "She's just trying to spend a little quality time with her dog."

 

"Celebrities: they're just like us," Tina joked. "If we bathed in champagne and ate caviar for breakfast."

 

I smiled. "I know, I know. The price of fame." It was what Trace had often told me. Did he mind being hounded by paparazzi as he tried to take his girlfriend (God, I

loved that word.) out for a romantic dinner? Sometimes. But he said he'd mind even more if the paparazzi suddenly weren't interested.

As I watched through the viewfinder, a young woman approached Joanie. She wore a polo shirt with the Hollywood Hounds Groominglogo on the breast pocket. The

woman took the Pomeranian from Joanie's outstretched hands and carried her over to a large silver basin, where she began to rinse the tiny pup. Joanie took a seat in a chair and flipped through a magazine. I couldn't help but notice her own face was on the cover. Another woman in the same uniform walked over to Joanie and offered her a clear plastic cup of water. The reality star took a sip and immediately spat it out on the floor at the stunned groomer's feet. Then Joanie shot out ofher chair, yelling at the poor woman.

Though I'd admittedly acquired decent lip-reading skills over years of spying on celebs from afar, her mouth was moving too fast for my eyes to keep up. But it was clear from the body language that the groomer was getting a heck of a dressing down. I wondered at her crime—serving tap instead of bottled water? My well-trained trigger finger wasted no time in snapping at least a dozen photos of the whole incident. Photos that were definitely going to land in Felix's inbox before the afternoon was over.

 

"On second thought, I don't feel so bad about it after all," I told Tina, who had swiveled in her seat to watch the action as well.

"I'll drink to that," she said as our server swooped by to place a margarita in front of each of us.

I smiled and clinked my glass to hers. "Cheers."

* * *

Later that evening, I'd traded my jeans and green halter top for a sexy little black number that looked tres chic with my blonde hair worn long and loose. Before stepping

behind the lens for the Informer, I'd made a living (barely) as a model, so dressing up for Trace's shindigs was sort of like saying hello to my former self. And knowing how to pose beside him on the red carpets was like riding a bike: it came back in a way that was almost natural to me. Almost. As much as I enjoyed playing dress-up with Trace now and then, I was keenly aware that I now felt more comfortable being the one taking photos of celebs instead of being photographed.

Tonight, Trace had informed me in the car that he was treating me to dinner at Urasawa, Beverly Hills' most exclusive Japanese eatery. The upscale restaurant was

known to be primarily frequented by billionaires and celebrities. Because of this, the parking lot was a feeding frenzy of paparazzi, camping out all evening and jockeying for a position near the entrance, where they could snapthe best photos of the evening's patrons. (I knew because I was frequently one of them—the campers not the patrons.) I turned my face away from the parade of cameras as Trace guided me toward the burgundy carpet at the restaurant's entrance.

We had almost reached the open double doors when one photographer called out to us. Well, more specifically, called out to me.

"Hey there, Cammy," said a familiar voice. "Give usa smile!"

"Yeah, pretendlike you belong on that red carpet," came a second, almost identical voice.

I stopped short, letting go of Trace as I turned toglare at the two men pointing their cameras my way. Mike and Eddie were twin brothers—and twin pains inmy rear end. As the photographers for the Informer's rival paper, Entertainment Daily, it was practically their mission in life to make mine miserable whenever they could. Tonight the bearded brothers were stuffed into matching too-tight blackT-shirts, their twin bellies spilling over their wrinkled jeans.

"Turn back around, sweetheart," Eddie said, flashing me a cheesy grin and drawing a circle in the air with his pointer finger. "We wanna get your good side." His

gaze drifted down to my butt, and my face burned. More from anger than embarrassment.

"Why don't you guys go back to whatever sewer you crawled out of?" I whirled away from them before they could snap any more photos. Felix would not be happy if my

face wound up on the pages of ED's next issue.

"Hey, Trace!" Mike called, not giving up. He used his shirt to wipe Dorito crumbs off his camera lens and then looked up at my boyfriend, a malicious glint in his beady

eyes. "Got any big roles coming up?"

Trace, ever the calm one when it came to the press, opened his mouth to respond.

But Eddie ran right over him. "Nah, man. You know no one in town will hire Piranha Man."

Trace shut his mouth with a click as the two brothers gleefully filmed the pained look on his face.

I winced at the ED brothers' low blow. At his agent's claims that the film would, quote-unquote, "elevate him to Leo DiCaprio status," Trace had signed on as the lead for

a superhero project called Piranha Man. In it, he played a young scientist living in the Amazon who was transformed into a mutant human-fish hybrid after being bitten by a radioactive piranha. It had been promoted as the box office blowout of the summer.

Unfortunately, when the movie finally hit theaters,it was the box office bombof the season. So much so that several publications had called Trace's career "dead in the

water." (Not the Informer, of course.)

"Let's go," I urged, trying to steer Trace away from the gruesome twosome. But Trace instead shot the two a bright smile. "I'm not here to talk about my career tonight." He pulled me closer. "Tonight all I care about is spending quality time with my leading lady." Trace pivoted on his feet, sliding a hand around my back, and

dipped me in a steamy, sweet kiss that made me absolutely weak in the knees. It was so…Hollywood. Dreamy sigh.

Our lip lock was met with a chorus of whistles and cheers from the other photographers and a couple of boos from Mike and Eddie. And, of course, the all-toofamiliar click, click, clickof camera shutters sounded all around us. As Trace released me, I straightened, feeling flushed and breathless.Score one for the Hollywood

heartthrob.

"That ought to keep them happy for a while," he whispered to me with a wink as he led me inside.

I'll say!

Once inside the restaurant, Trace and I were seatedin plush velour seats on opposite sides of a marble-topped table. A server took our drink orders and then hurried

away. I perused the menu, trying to decide between the California roll and tofu ginger soup. "Everything sounds delicious," I remarked.

"Order whatever you like." Trace reached across thetable to take my hand in his.

"Tonight is about making you happy." His eyes sparkled as he lightly stroked my fingers, sending shivers all the way to my toes.

"In that case," I said, smirking, "I'll have one ofeverything on the menu."

Trace didn't flinch. "Sounds great." He pushed his menu aside without even looking at it. "I'll have the same."

I arched a brow at him. "I was kidding."

He shrugged. "Like I said—as long as you're happy, I'm happy."

I narrowed my eyes at him. While the dreamy kiss had been awesome, this line felt out of character. Or maybe I should say it felt more like he was playinga character

from one of his romantic comedy flicks. In fact, that line felt eerily like the one that he'd delivered to his high school sweetheart in Only You for Me.

"What's going on?" I asked. "If I didn't know any better, I'd think you were buttering me up for something."

His expression turned to mock innocence. "I don't know what you mean."

He wasn't that good of an actor. But before I could interrogate him, the server returned and set down our bottle of sake. After we'd ordered not quiteeverything on the menu (though between us, we'd come pretty darn close), Trace met my gaze again. He sucked in a breath and forced it slowly back out. "I've got something I need to talkto you about."

Oh boy. My stomach clenched. I knew when a guy said he wanted to have a "talk," it was never good. Suddenly I wasn't hungryanymore. "What about?" I asked,

trying to keep an even tone. Had we girlfriend-ed too soon? Had Mike & Eddie hit a nerve? Was I yesterday's news already?

Trace must have seen the apprehension on my face, as he quickly assured me, "It's nothing bad. There's just a career opportunity that's come up, and, well, I think I'm going to take it. But I wanted to talk to you about it first."

Relief washed over me. "That's great," I told him, meaning it. Any opportunity to cleanse the public's palate of Piranha Man was a good one. "Is it an action flick?

Comedy?" I paused. "Romance?" I silently prayed notthe last. Trace had been engaged to his last romantic co-star, an A-list Hollywood starlet. It was when their relationship had suddenly ended that he'd confessed his attraction to me. I'd hardly been able to believe it then. I still sometimes pinched myself, sure I'd wake up any minute to find our whole romance was just a dream produced by falling asleepon my couch after drinking too much Chardonnay while watching his film You've Got Email. But the idea of him being with another hot leading lady in intimate scenes didn't fill me with a lot of happy thoughts.

Luckily, Trace shook his head. "No, it's…it's not afeature. It's TV."

"That's new. So, what's the role?" I asked, swirling sake in my tiny glass.

Trace cleared his throat. He looked down at his napkin. He sucked in a deep breath. All of which made a small red flag start torise in the back of my mind.

"Trace?"

"The role is a man whose relationship is in trouble."

"That sounds like ninety-nine percent of all relationship movies." I thought for a moment. "So I'm guessing more of a drama?"

"Oh, I expect drama alright." I noticed Trace stillwasn't making eye contact. That tiny red flag began waving in the back of my mind. "Who's the lead actress?"

 

"That's the part I want to talk to you about," he said, eyes still on the napkin, voice low, perfectly white teeth nibbling his perfectly plump bottom lip.

I took a mental deep breath. "Okay. Who?" I asked, bracing myself for the worst. Busty Sophia Vergara? Flirty Emma Stone? Seductive Jennifer Lawrence?

 

Trace finally lifted his eyes to meet mine. "It's you, Cam."

 

"Me?" I blinked at him. "I-I don't understand. I'm not an actress," I said, pointing out the obvious.

 

Trace darted a look around the room. "As you may have noticed, I'm not exactly anyone's first pick for all the top roles lately. Or any roles, for that matter." He gave a

self-deprecating chuckle before clearing his throatagain. "Anyway, my agent called this morning with an opportunity. You've seen that show Celebrity Relationship Rehab,

right?"

Celebrity Relationship Rehab was pretty much every woman in America's guilty pleasure—including mine. Tina and I cleared our schedules every Tuesday night at nine to sit on my couch, sharing takeout and a bottle ofwine as we watched doomed celebrity couples endure group therapy sessions with the renowned marriage counselors and reallife couple, Doctors William and Georgia Meriwether. Couples talked about their feelings and competed against other famous duos in ridiculous trust-building exercises. Each episode was chock full o' drama, catfights, and those awkward confessionals where each star gossips about the other contestants behind their backs. I absolutely ate it up.

I nodded. "Of course. Who hasn't?" I felt my mental hamster slowing turning on his wheel as it sunk in what Trace was getting at. "Wait a minute…don't tell me…"

 

"It's just for a week."

"No way!" I shook my head so hard that the restaurant wobbled in my vision.

"My agent says it'll be a piece of cake. We'll onlybe filming a couple hours a day."

"No."

"The rest of the time it will be like we're on vacation."

I gave him a get real look. "Have you seen the show, Trace? Those couples are a train wreck."

He at least had the decency to look guilty. "Just one week," he repeated. "It'll be over before you know it. We do a few silly drills, talk about our relationship, and—

bam!—it's over."

Another thought occurred to me. "What will we be saying about our relationship?"

He gave me a blank look.

"It is relationship rehab," I emphasized. Okay, so maybe things between Trace and I hadn't been ideal lately, what with the stress of his career teetering on the edge and

my odd hours at the Informer, but I hadn't thought we needed rehab. Doubt crept into my belly. Did we? Admittedly we came from different sides of

the tracks…or freeways, as the case might be in LA.He was VIP, and I was behind the velvet rope.

Trace studied me for a moment, his expression unreadable. Finally, that boyish grin pulled his lips up at the corners. "Don't be silly," he said, reaching out to cup my

chin in the palm of his hand. "We're fine. We're more than fine." He quirked an eyebrow.

"You know those shows are completely staged, right?All the arguments between the couples—it's fake. It's just to raise the ratings. People tune in to see who's going to try to rip whose hair out or which couple is going to finally call it quits." He rolled his eyes. "For some reason, people seem love that kind of crap."

My cheeks colored. Clearly Trace didn't know about my reality TV habit. "Right. So, what does that mean? We just stage a few fights?"

He shrugged. "All the couples do. It's not that hard." He leaned in. "Please. My agent thinks it might be the opportunity I've been waiting for to win back my audience

after The Film That Must Not Be Named."

 

I took a deep breath. I had a bad feeling I was going to live to regret this… "If you honestly think it will help, I'll do it."

"Really?" Hope lit up his eyes, and my heart melted a little.

"Really," I sighed. Okay, so spending a week with Trace didn't sound all that bad.

We'd finally have some time to reconnect. Felix wasprobably going to flip, but if I promised it would be a week-long working vacation full of awkward celebrity photo ops,

maybe I could smooth things over. If the show was anything like last season, there was bound to be at least a couple alcoholic starlets, afew Botoxed beauty queens, and maybe even a member or two of a Hollywood royal family—like the Kardashians.

"But you owe me one," I cautioned him.

Trace grinned. "I promise I'll find a way to make it up to you."

"Oh, yeah?" I raised a playful eyebrow at him. "Starting tonight?"

"Anything you want."

"In that case," I said, leaning forward, "have the server box up our food, and let's take this party to your place."

Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all…

 

To find out what happens next, pre-order your copy of Hollywood Homicide, available May 8th!

Check out the other great books in Gemma Halliday's Hollywood Headlines series.

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© Anne Marie Stoddard 2017