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Rising Star: A Starstruck Novel by Susannah Nix (1)

1

Alice Carlisle pressed an ear against her bedroom door, listening for sounds of life on the other side. All appeared quiet in the apartment beyond. Good. Hopefully her roommate was still fast asleep.

She slipped out of her room, quietly pulling the door shut before tiptoeing down the hall to the kitchen where—

A mostly-naked man stood at the stove with his back to her.

He was hot enough to be a model, flipping pancakes in nothing but a pair of striped boxer briefs that clung to his taut buttocks and muscular brown legs. It could have been a scene straight out of one of Alice’s more X-rated fantasies, if only the pancake flipper in question were straight and single. Alas, the beautiful Diego was very gay—and very much in a relationship with Alice’s roommate, Isaac.

“I’m totally saving some of this maple syrup to lick off you later,” Diego said without turning around, obviously not realizing it was Alice who’d come into the room.

“Careful,” she replied as she walked past him. “I’ve heard food play can increase the risk of bacterial infection in sensitive areas.”

Diego glanced over his shoulder, his lip curling in an expression of distaste. “Oh. It’s you.”

“Good morning to you too.” Alice jerked open a cabinet to retrieve a travel mug.

Isaac!” Diego shouted, turning back to the stove. “She’s up.”

Shit. Alice shoved the mug back into the cabinet, electing to make a hasty exit rather than wait around for her coffee to brew. Her caffeine fix could wait until she got to work. Better that than—

“Hey.” Isaac wandered out into the living room in a rumpled T-shirt and a pair of tropical-themed boxers.

“Morning,” Alice mumbled as she grabbed a packet of cherry Pop-Tarts out of the box in the pantry.

Isaac ran his palm over the stubble on his chin. “I need to talk to you.”

“No time.” She tore the foil Pop-Tart packet open as she headed for the front door. “Running late for work.”

“Alice—”

“Later, okay?”

“You keep saying later, but you don’t get in until after midnight most nights and you’re usually gone again before I’m up in the morning.”

She turned her back on him and pulled open the apartment door. “I know! Work’s just been really crazy this week.”

“This can’t wait anymore.”

“Sorry!” Alice said, stepping into the hall.

“You can’t keep running away!” Isaac shouted as she pulled the door closed behind her.

Sure I can.

Alice had practically elevated running away into an art form. Besides, she already knew what he wanted to talk to her about, and the longer she could put him off the better.

A few weeks ago, Isaac had asked her to move out so Diego could move in. Not that he wasn’t already camped out here full time, but apparently Diego wanted her bedroom to use as a home office for his burgeoning graphic design business. Nice, huh?

Alice assumed Isaac wanted to know how much longer it would be before she was gone. The problem was, she hadn’t been able to find a new place yet—though not for lack of trying. It just wasn’t that easy, given her financial circumstances and the current state of the economy. Times were tough all over, and everyone else in the greater Los Angeles area was looking for affordable housing too.

In a way, she’d brought all this on herself. Isaac had been a great roommate before he’d met Diego. She was the genius who’d encouraged him to try online dating, and inadvertently cemented her status as an unwanted third wheel.

Alice started her car and fired up her favorite true crime podcast for the commute from Silver Lake to Burbank. As she was merging onto the 5, her podcast paused for an incoming call from Isaac. She declined it, and a minute later her phone chimed to let her know she had a new voicemail. Fantastic.

She didn’t listen to the message until she was making the long walk from her assigned parking lot into work.

Hey, Alice, it’s Isaac. I didn’t want to do it this way, but I told you it couldn’t wait anymore. It’s been a month since I asked you to move out, which is more than fair. Diego’s lease is up on the thirty-first and he has to move his stuff out before that, so I’m giving you a hard deadline of March twenty-third. You need to have all your things out of the apartment by then and give me back the key. I didn’t want to do this, but you haven’t given me any other choice. Sorry.

He didn’t sound sorry. He sounded annoyed, and eager to get rid of her. And Alice had actually thought Isaac was her friend. At first they’d just been roommates—someone she’d found through a friend of a friend—but they’d gotten pretty close there for a while. Until Diego came on the scene. As soon as he got himself a boyfriend, Isaac had chucked Alice like last week’s avocados.

That was what you got for trusting someone. Alice didn’t make friends easily, and this was exactly why. When you let your guard down, it made it easier for people to stab you in the back.

Sighing, she flashed her badge at the security guard and went in search of a much-needed caffeine infusion.

Two hours and three cups of coffee later, Alice was still wondering how the hell she was going to find another apartment on Isaac’s timetable as she stared at the gaping chest wound on the gurney in front of her.

“Chest is full of blood,” said the man beside her in doctor’s scrubs. He was handsome on a whole other level than most mortals—dark blond hair, bright blue eyes, muscles for days—but Alice paid him no special attention as she fumbled with the IV line on the patient’s arm.

Nine months at this job had inured her to both the gore—which smelled weirdly like Orange Glo—and her coworkers’ aesthetic perfection. Symmetrical faces, winning smiles, and rock-hard bodies were so de rigueur in her current workplace that she barely even registered them anymore.

Alice wasn’t in their league, but she was attractive enough, in a Scandinavian farm girl sort of way, that she’d occasionally been the target of unpleasant comments in school and at other jobs. “You’re smarter than you look,” “No one will ever take you seriously looking the way you do,” and much worse had been flung at her various times over the years, in both academic and professional settings. She loved that she was far from the most attractive person at her current job, because it allowed her to feel invisible. In fact, part of her job was to be invisible, which suited her just fine.

Anyway, she had more important things on her mind than admiring her handsome coworkers, like the fact that in a little over two weeks she’d be homeless.

Isaac’s timing was terrible. It was mid-semester, so there was nothing available near the university. Even worse, her current job was ending in just a few weeks, which meant she’d be saying goodbye to a regular paycheck. She’d tried to be good about saving, but those savings weren’t going to last her long if she had to cough up a brand-new security deposit.

“Pressure’s down to sixty,” said a nurse with a Screen Actors Guild card and a more flattering set of scrubs than Alice’s plain pink ones.

“Must have nicked an artery,” Dr. Handsome said beside her, and Alice leaned forward, pretending to suction the chest cavity for him.

The grizzled TV veteran working across the table from them plunged his gloved hands into the patient’s chest. “Call the OR and tell them we’re on our way.”

Even if the casting agency found Alice another job, studio apartments in her budget were few and far between—and usually next door to a meth lab. She’d been hoping something would turn up before Isaac lost patience and gave her an ultimatum, but that ship had pulled anchor. Her only option at this point was the one she’d been hoping to avoid: the dreaded Craigslist roommate.

Just the thought of it made her shudder. Who knew what kind of weirdo she’d wind up living with?

“He’s unresponsive,” the nurse with the cute scrubs said.

The hot doctor beside Alice—better known to television audiences as the adorably charming Dr. Ethan Convey—bent over to check the patient’s chest drainage unit. “Chest tube output is twelve-hundred cc’s. Prep for thoracotomy.”

His hip bumped against Alice’s, and she shuffled aside to give him more room. They were working in tight quarters, and part of her job was to stay out of everyone else’s way. But as she reached for a scalpel on the tray of instruments beside her, she misjudged how close it was and knocked the whole thing over, sending hemostats, forceps, and scalpels flying with a deafening clatter.

“Ow!” the man dying on the gurney cried out as he flinched away from the flying medical equipment.

“Shit. Sorry,” Alice muttered. Good thing their scalpels weren’t actually sharp.

“Cut!”

The director ripped off his headset and approached with a thunderous expression on his face. It was Dean Harwell’s first time in the director’s chair on Las Vegas General, and the technical challenges of filming the show’s complicated trauma scenes had been giving him fits all week. Dean was moonlighting from his regular job as star of Las Vegas General’s better-rated lead-in, and had only ever directed two episodes of his own show before this. The producers had done him a favor letting him direct, but at this point it was clear to everyone that they’d made a grievous mistake. The guy was in way over his head, and had been taking it out on anyone and everyone with the misfortune to attract his attention.

Alice’s feet weren’t the only ones that shifted nervously as Dean stormed toward them. The other two nurses in the scene—a background actor named Diane and a minor recurring cast member named Abby—shrank back and hung their heads. Even Griffin Beach—who was in his seventh season as series regular Ethan Convey and had recently blown up the box office in the fourth installment of the blockbuster Troublemakers franchise—visibly winced. Only Alfie Crosby, a forty-year veteran of stage and screen sitting comfortably at the top of the call sheet seemed unfazed by the oncoming tantrum.

“Why is the dead guy talking?” Dean demanded, red-faced under his backward Yankees cap. “And moving?”

Once upon a time, Alice had actually thought Dean was hot, but that was before she’d had the pleasure of working with him. Funny how much less attractive some people became once you got to know them.

“He’s not dead yet,” Alfie said, looking more amused than anything. “There’s another page of dialogue before he codes.” According to The Hollywood Reporter, Alfie was being paid a cool half million per episode, so he could afford to be amused.

“She threw a tray of sharp instruments at my face,” the not-dead-yet actor mumbled in his own defense.

“Sorry,” Alice said again. In an entire season working background, this was the first time she’d ever ruined a take—but of course Dean didn’t know that.

Background are supposed to be seen and not fucking heard!” he shouted. “It’s right there in the goddamn name: background!”

All the extras on his own show despised him. Alice had talked to some of them in the commissary last week, and they’d offered their condolences over Dean’s guest directing stint on LV Gen. Now she knew why.

Dean started to take a menacing step toward Alice, but Griffin Beach inserted himself between them. “It was my fault,” he said, facing down Dean with a level stare. “I bumped into her and made her knock the tray over. If you’re gonna be pissed at someone, be pissed at me.”

Alice could have hugged him for taking the bullet for her. Not that she ever would. There was a strict caste system in place on set. Extras who got too familiar with the talent would quickly find themselves out of a job and unlikely to be assigned a new one by the casting agency.

She hid gratefully behind Griffin’s broad shoulders and kept her mouth shut while Dean railed about professionalism and the fact that it was only eleven a.m. on Wednesday and they were already four hours and ten pages behind schedule. Someone might have pointed out that they were only behind because of Dean’s inexperience and repeated tantrums—this was his second outburst of the day and they were still hours away from lunch—but no one did, because it would only antagonize him and lengthen the duration of his tirade.

It was a full five minutes before he lost steam and stalked back to the monitors.

“Thank you,” Alice whispered to Griffin as soon as Dean was out of earshot.

Griffin gave her a wink so devastatingly sexy she felt her knees go wobbly. So much for not paying attention to how attractive he was.

“Don’t worry about that apple-faced goon,” he whispered back, covering the mic tucked under his shirt as he leaned toward her. “He’s not even qualified to be the assistant manager at PetSmart.”

Alice swallowed, momentarily paralyzed by the perfect storm of Griffin’s kindness and sexy proximity, combined with her own overwhelming gratitude and embarrassment.

“Boy, what a dickhead,” Alfie announced loudly, not caring who heard him. “Who told that moron he could direct?”

Griffin snorted and wandered back to his mark, leaving Alice to pull herself together and reapply her veneer of detached professionalism.

Props came through and reset the scene, Dean called action, and they started again from the top.

This time, Alice managed not to throw a tray of scalpels at anyone.

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