BEVERLY HILLS, 1984
Damien Van Buren tipped back in his black leather chair to look at his daughter. Stephanie was playing peacefully in the corner of his home office, her toys scattered around her on the beige carpet. He might just get away with making a phone call, and he certainly had plenty to do. He picked up the receiver and dialed.
“Mike, it’s Damien. How are we today?”
“The Damien-meister!” Mike was always a little too casual, no matter what was happening. “I’m fantastic, man!”
“Great.” Damien cast another quick glance at Stephanie, happy to see that his sweet dragonling was still occupied. “I just wanted to check with you and see if you have that demo recorded for me yet. I’m anxious to see what this band can do.” Damien had recently been turned onto a band that he thought might have a great new sound for his label. As director of A&R, it was Damien’s job to find new talent. As thirsty as society seemed to be for music those days, it was a continuous job.
“Dude, they just wrapped up a couple of hours ago, and they’re awesome! I should have the tape ready in a couple of days.”
“Wonderful. I’m glad to hear it.” And he truly was. Even if his personal life was in shambles, at least his professional life was still going strong. He had a good feeling about this band.
“Hey, are you free tonight? Me and a few other guys are heading out to see Red Dawn.”
Damien pressed his lips together and glanced over his shoulder at Stephanie again. At one time, it would have been easy for him to slip out to the theater with his coworkers. But there was no chance of it happening tonight, and he was surprised to find that he actually didn’t mind. The only thing he really wanted was quality time with his daughter. “I really can’t, but thanks. Just make sure you send that tape over as soon as you can. Have the courier bring it to my house, since I’ll be out of the office for a few days.” Damien winced and looked down as he felt something hard smash into his knee. Stephanie was standing next to his chair, holding onto the arm with one hand and putting her toys on his lap with the other. She grinned at him.
“Yeah, I heard. Phew, that’s rough. Divorce is tough on anybody, but I always thought you and Linda were the ultimate power couple.”
Damien swiped a hand down over his face. It seemed that no matter who he talked to or what they were supposed to be talking about, the conversation always turned to his divorce. With both he and Linda being involved in the entertainment industry, it had been somewhat of a high-profile affair. That was only exacerbated by the fact that Linda had been sleeping around with every man—and every coke dealer—in Hollywood. “It’s fine. I’m adjusting to it.”
“Well, my condolences, anyway. I’m never going to get married. I’ll just be single for the rest of my life, and then I’ll always be happy.”
Stephanie was trying to leverage her way into Damien’s lap. “Good luck with that, Mike. I’ll talk to you later.” He hung up the phone and hoisted his daughter up easily, smiling as she patted his cheeks with her little hands. “I guess you’ve decided it’s time for me to call it quits for the day, huh?”
The little girl grinned again. She was a gorgeous child, with dark, curly locks and brilliant blue eyes. “Daddy!” she squealed.
“What?” He tickled her ribs, getting a kick at the way she thrashed around in response. It was a simple way to play, but it was one of his favorites because it always ended in snuggles. “What’s the matter with you? Why are you acting so crazy?”
Stephanie squealed with delight. “Daddy!”
Damien scooped her up and stood, carrying his daughter under his arm as he headed for the kitchen. He wasn’t the world’s best cook, so fortunately, there were several containers of leftovers from when the cook had been in. Damien had reduced her to part-time to help make up for his alimony payments, and he hoped he wouldn’t regret it. “What do you think?” he asked as he held open the fridge door. “Lasagna?”
“Yucky!” the little girl replied.
“Okay, how about some pork steak?”
“Um, no. It’s a little bit different than the kind we usually have. But there might be some beef steak in here.” That was one thing he did know how to cook. He set Stephanie down so he could dig through the fridge more easily, but couldn’t find it.
The phone rang, so dinner would have to be put off for a few more minutes. He grabbed the cordless off the kitchen counter. “Hello?”
“Well, I hope you’re happy,” seethed a bitter voice from the other end.
A row of shimmering spikes emerged along the back of Damien’s neck. Rubbing his free hand over his forehead, he paused to collect himself before responding, and the spiny projections slowly melded with his human flesh once again. “What do you want, Linda?”
“What do I want? I thought you already knew that, which was exactly why you took it away from me. You don’t think I know, but I do.”
“It would be nice if you were direct for once. I don’t even know what you’re talking about.” Damien dodged across the kitchen to stop Stephanie from getting into a knife drawer. Instead, he opened a cabinet full of Tupperware and let her have at it.
Linda made a noise of disgust. “Yeah, right. I know the only reason you insisted on taking custody of Stephanie was because you wanted to get your revenge on me. Well, it’s not going to work, Damien. I’m her mother, and she should be with me.”
Damien tipped his eyes up to the ceiling and drew in a deep breath. Linda had only been out of the house for a week. It would have been sooner if he’d had his way, but she refused to leave until the divorce was final. Even so, he had already realized just how peaceful things were around the house without her. The fights they used to have were so intense that it was nearly impossible for them not to shift, and having two dragons thrashing about inside a mansion in Beverly Hills could get a little too expensive, even for them. “We’ve been over this, and I don’t see any point in covering it again. You can say whatever you want, but the judge’s word is final.”
“Only because you paid him off.”
“No, I didn’t!” Stephanie turned her big eyes to him when she heard his raised voice, and Damien paused for a moment to try to calm himself down yet again. Linda was trying to drag him into an argument. It was what she was good at, and it had taken him far too long to figure it out. The knowledge wouldn’t have saved their marriage, but it might have saved him a few years of grief. He couldn’t remember the last time they had actually gotten along. “I’m not arguing with you about this. Be an adult. For once.”
“Oh, trust me, I am. I’m having a blast now that I don’t have your sorry ass dragging me down anymore.” Her voice dripped with venom, even over the phone.
“Good for you, but I’m pretty sure I never stopped you before.” He reached into the fridge for a container of macaroni and cheese, unable to keep the memories from flooding to the forefront of his mind once again. He’d been heartbroken when he discovered Linda’s infidelity and could still feel the surge of anger and jealousy in his chest when he caught her with another man—a human, at that. The saddest part was that he hadn’t been surprised, and at that moment, he’d realized that the two of them hadn’t been in love for a long time.
“You’re right. You haven’t. You were always so nice to me, Damien. There are so many awful people here in Hollywood, but I could always count on you to be there for me. It’s what made me fall in love with you in the first place.”
He recognized the cajoling tone in her voice, and he was thankful that he wasn’t that gullible anymore. Linda had realized that she couldn’t get him riled, so now she was trying a different tactic. “I don’t want to hear this.”
“But Damien, you and I were so good together. You had your music and I had my shows. We never even got a chance to collaborate like we always wanted to, with you finding the perfect opening music for my latest series. I think that’s something we could still do. There are so many things we could still do.”
Damien pulled the phone away from his ear and looked at it, trying to decide whether or not he should hang up. He was incredibly tempted; after all, Linda had been calling him almost every day. But he also knew what happened when he hung up on her. The last time he did it, she called back incessantly until he’d had to turn off the ringer for the rest of the night. That wasn’t something he really wanted to put up with, considering he still had a few calls he needed to make for work.
“Linda, just stop. You and I are done. We weren’t good together, and that’s okay, but it’s time for both of us to move on. I just want to do my job, take care of Stephanie, and live my life.”
Another snort of disgust came over the receiver. She was back to her original tactics. “You’re pathetic, Damien. You think I can’t see straight through you? You were so bent out of shape about me sleeping around a little, but you just said you’ve moved on. Who are you fucking?”
It wasn’t any of her business, and the question didn’t even deserve an answer, but it was difficult not to defend himself. “I’m not sleeping with anyone, and I never said I was. I’ve got to go.”
“Sure. Take the easy way out. That’s always been the way you’ve done things. But let me tell you something: there is no way you can handle this on your own. You can’t work and take care of Stephanie. You’ll be begging me to come back to you in less than a month; mark my words.”
“Don’t hold your breath on that one. Look, I’ve got to get going.” He clicked the button before any more of her vile words could spill from the receiver. He was so sick of her. Maybe he and Stephanie could take a vacation and just get away from everything for a week. But he had plenty of work to do still, and he wasn’t sure how easy it would be to take a two-year-old out of town.
With a sigh, he set down the phone. Stephanie had pulled all of the plastic containers out of the cabinet and was happily stacking them on top of each other. She was adorable and good-natured, and she was everything Damien needed in his life. But as much as he didn’t want to admit Linda was right, he knew that he couldn’t really do this on his own. Working from home was great when he had the chance, but he still had to get out and scout new talent and attend business meetings. If Stephanie was older, things might have been different. He could have left her with his mother for a few hours a day. But she was still so young, and she needed so much attention. Damien touched one of her curls, hoping he knew the right way to take care of this tender life he was in charge of.
She looked up at him, her attention drawn away from her play for a moment. “Dinner?”
“I’ve got it right here for you, pumpkin.” He picked her up and seated her at the table, placing a plastic Rainbow Brite plate in front of her. While she enjoyed her macaroni, he promised himself he would find a nanny as soon as possible.