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Skirt Chaser by Jenny Gardiner (1)

Chapter One

Twenty Years Earlier

 

Tanner Eliasson was a lonely boy. The only child of coquettish film star Gina LeFevre and legendary director Brady Cox, he generally came as an afterthought to his busy and self-absorbed parents. Particularly to his father, who was old enough to be his grandfather and never seemed to express much interest in Tanner except to impart annoying aphorisms that he must have fancied were the sage words of wisdom dispensed on high from an elder but instead came across as judgmental insults.

“Man up, son,” he’d say if Tanner complained pretty much about anything. “If your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

Tanner didn’t even know what the fuck that meant, but he chalked it up to his father being an old man with nothing better to say to a little kid.

His mother, well, the best Tanner could tell, wanted at least to appear to be a loving mother, but the one his mother loved the most was herself. And boy, was she good at that. Unless Tanner wanted to spend an inordinate amount of time with his mother and her vast staff of primpers and fawners—usually spearheaded by her stylist, Eliza Fink and her personal trainer, Jackson Mandelay, oh and her publicist, Orion Something-or-Other (Tanner could never recall her actual name, but it was the best he could remember)—he didn’t get much “me time” with his mom.

Because she was always prepping for something, be it a role or an audition for a role or an awards ceremony or her body or an awards ceremony. A whole lotta prepping always going on. He learned early on that it took a lot of time out of your day to be beautiful, and his mother was indeed stunning.

Tall, statuesque, and blond, she often said she was at least pleased that she passed on her half-French, half-Scandinavian beauty to her only child. Daily she would stroke his flaxen locks and remark on how handsome he was, with his sparkling blue eyes, thanks to her. He grew to be embarrassed by his looks. It felt like his mother was complimenting herself when she praised him. Besides, he wanted to be appreciated for who he was, not how he looked.

Tanner didn’t spend much time with his folks, but he also didn’t spend much time with much of anyone but himself, with the exception of his beloved yellow Labrador, Sunshine, who truly was a ray of sunshine in his world. He knew from the endless gushing of strangers that he lived a charmed life. Outsiders looking in were inherently jealous of his world, what with the Hollywood Hills mansion he lived in, complete with retractable glass walls that overlooked all of Los Angeles, capped off with an infinity pool the color of twilight, built right into the cliff. Sure, by all outward appearances, it looked like a great place to live. But the mansion was enormous and lacking in soul, especially since he was often there alone with his parents’ household staff.

Worse still, he lived far from the few peers he had from school. And his parents were never around to take him to playdates. His folks both had drivers, but they were driving them places, not him. And that cliff thing? He lost a pet iguana over the side of the pool deck one day, never to be seen again, so there was no charm in teetering on the edge of infinity if it meant your pets died on you with one false move.

When his father was home, he tended to lock himself inside his office and would holler at Tanner if he disturbed his “creative genius.” What kind of father would say that? For the most part, his mother was on location, but if not there, she was at the gym or some designer’s studio having a fitting for another big event.

Occasionally things livened up at his house. His parents were known to throw raucous parties. Sometimes his mother’s actress friends would bring their kids along, so then Tanner would be thrown in with a relative stranger and told to entertain him but always warned to stay away from the swimming pool where the grown-ups were. The kids would usually go down to the home theater and watch cartoons for a while. Then they’d move on to the kitchen to see if Cook could whip up some dinner for them. They sure didn’t want to eat the weird food the guests were served. But the caterers would shoo them away, muttering about them being underfoot.

Once his parents’ friends Alexa and Armando Lipari showed up at a party with their daughter, Zoey Richards. In Hollywood, lots of kids of celebrities didn’t share their parents’ names since their folks had to take on stage names to sound more exotic. Zoey was a scrawny, tomboy-looking thing with a pair of dirt-stained jeans full of holes at the knees and long, brown hair that hung halfway down her back. She had huge brown, soulful eyes that seemed to take up half her face, like a kinkajou, a cute little creature his friend Adam kept as a pet. Without so much as a formal introduction, her parents dumped the girl at Tanner’s bedroom door with instructions to keep her entertained. Tanner rolled his eyes. What did a ten-year-old boy do with a nine-year-old girl? Ugh.

“I don’t know what you like to do,” he said with a shrug. “I’ve got some Legos. Or we can watch TV. Maybe the caterers will be serving something that’s not disgusting and we can mooch some of it.”

She walked over to the dog sitting on the floor near the bed and sat down to pet it.

“I like your dog.” She stroked her ears as she spoke. “What’s her name?”

“Sunshine,” he said.

She looked skyward as if lost in thought. “That’s a good name. She seems cheery.”

“Yeah, well, she is.”

She frowned, got up off the ground, then hopped onto his bed, swinging her legs as she spoke. “I want to swim.”

Tanner shook his head. “Oh, no,” he said. “My parents would freak if we went to the pool. I’ve been told I’m not to bring anyone out to the pool during these parties, so I don’t.”

She furrowed her brow. “Do you always listen to what your parents tell you to do?”

Tanner thought about it for a minute. Weirdly, yeah. It seemed to be what he did. Maybe because they were rarely around, so it’s not like there were a ton of rules, and why not honor the few they had? If they were out of town, he kind of wandered the house and ate potato chips for dinner or went to bed when he wanted to. A driver would show up to take him to school, and another driver would magically appear to bring him back home at the end of the day. Every now and then, he’d get a call from one of his parents—usually his mom—and the call was always placed by her assistant.

“Hold for your mother,” Eliza would say.

Then his mom would get on the phone while fielding a few other conversations in the background. She’d make a few loud smooching sounds and say she loved him, then hang up. Sometimes Tanner felt like he was living a movie scene of a life instead of a real one.

“I guess I do what my parents tell me to do,” he said, frowning. “Don’t you?”

She rolled her eyes. “Please. My parents hardly set the example of how one should behave in the world anyhow. Between the two of them they’ve had at least three lovers in the past two years, all of whom come and go as if they’re our roommates. My mother’s latest, some personal trainer named Giorgio, comes down to breakfast in his underwear. I’m pretty sure my father is sleeping with our cleaning lady’s daughter. Every time she’s at the house, his hands are all over her body.”

Tanner could hardly believe what he was hearing. How could a girl her age even know of such things? Granted, kids in Hollywood tended to grow up faster than your average kid, in, say, Milwaukee. But geez, he wouldn’t have a clue if his parents were doing things like that.

“C’mon,” she said, hopping off the bed and reaching for his hands. “Let’s sneak into the pool.”

“I’m telling you, we’ll get in trouble.”

She grinned. She had a nice smile, with cute dimples that punctuated the corners of her mouth. “Trouble is my middle name.”

Tanner heaved a deep sigh and relented. Somehow he knew this girl was not going to take no for an answer.

He led her down a back flight of steps, then down a long corridor that bypassed the more public areas of the house. He didn’t want to run into his parents who might put a stop to their plans.

“Do you have a swimsuit?” he asked her.

She shook her head. “I’ll swim in my clothes.”

“Really? Won’t you be uncomfortable?”

“My motto is get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

Tanner thought that was a weird thing for the child of film stars to say. He figured that like him, the one thing she could count on with regularity was being as comfortable as possible. At least physically, if not emotionally. Besides, what an odd girl she was—a proud troublemaker who already had a motto. He tried to think what his motto would be if he were clever enough to come up with one, and the only thing he could imagine was “stay under the radar,” which wasn’t much of a motto to be proud of. The mean boys at school would probably call him chickenshit for that.

They slipped down a flight of steps used mostly by the household staff and out a back door into the warm night air. Loud squeals and giggles echoed from the back of the house.

“There’s no way they’re not going to notice us,” Tanner said, frowning. He hated to defy his parents. At the very least his father would lecture him about his irresponsible failure to listen to directions.

“Look,” Zoey said. “Can you hear the crowd out there? There have to be at least a hundred people. You think anyone’s going to notice us? And if they do, it’s not like we’ll run into our parents. It’ll be some strangers we don’t even know. It’ll be fine.” She swatted at his arm. “Live a little. Have some adventure.”

They turned the corner and suddenly Tanner grabbed Zoey’s wrist and pulled her behind the stately, manicured hedges, where they both peeked over the side of the bush to see what was going on. He gasped loudly and immediately rushed to put his hands over her eyes.

“What the hell are you doing?” She flailed against his hands, which were pressed firmly against her face. “Let go!” She used all of her fingers to peel one of his hands away from her eye.

But by then Tanner had been rendered both speechless and motionless.

“Oh my God,” Zoey said, her mouth opened wide as she pointed at what was in front of them: a thicket of men and women—there had to have been at least fifty or so—completely naked. Some milled about, others were engaged in conversation, and others, still, were doing things with one another that Tanner had to assume even the street-smart Zoey couldn’t comprehend.

The two of them stood stock-still, mouths agape, as they watched what Tanner would eventually learn was known as an orgy unfold before their eyes. The two of them nearly screamed in shock when they saw their parents pairing off with people who were decidedly not their partners.

It took a few minutes for Tanner to regain his composure, but quickly, he reached for Zoey and grabbed her hand, pulling her toward the house. Luckily she complied, and they practically stampeded over one another to get far, far away from whatever it was those very naked, very noisy, and very creepy people were doing.

“If you ever let one person know about this, I’ll never speak to you again,” Tanner said, out of breath from running up the stairs so quickly.

“Fine,” Zoey said. “Because I never want to see you or your parents or this stupid house ever again.” She stormed out of the bedroom and sat in the hallway the rest of the night, refusing to discuss anything. When her parents came for her, she was asleep in front of his door and they asked no questions, which was fine by him.

He could barely believe what he’d seen, and the last thing he wanted to ever do was discuss it again. Thank goodness he wasn’t going to have to be around that pushy Zoey Richards ever again too.

 

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