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Wicked Grind by J. Kenner (1)

Chapter 1

The lights of the Hollywood Hills glittered in the distance as nearly naked waitresses glided among the crowd with a rainbow-like array of test tube shots. Or, for the more traditional guests, highball glasses of premium vodka and bourbon.

The liquor flowed, the guests laughed and gossiped, the hottest new band in Los Angeles shook the roof, and entertainment reporters took photographs and videos, all of which they shared on social media.

In other words, the lavish party at Reach, the hip, new rooftop hotspot, was a dead-on perfect publicity event.

The purpose, of course, was to officially announce that Lyle Tarpin, one of Hollywood’s fastest rising stars, had joined the cast of M. Sterious, next year’s installment in the wildly popular Blue Zenith movie franchise.

The script was great, the action pulse-pounding, the characters well-drawn, the romance poignant—and Lyle still couldn’t believe that he’d been cast, much less that he was set to play the eponymous M, an emotionally wounded antihero.

It was a role that could catapult him from the A-list to over-the-moon, transforming him into a Hollywood megastar with his choice of meaty roles and the kind of multimillion dollar paydays that had been only a glimmer of a dream when he was a kid.

In other words, this was an opportunity he didn’t intend to fuck up.

Which was why he forced himself not to wince and turn away when Frannie caught his eye and smiled. She tossed her head, making her auburn locks bounce, then started walking toward him, her sequined cocktail dress revealing a mile of toned legs ending in a pair of strappy sandals that showed off a perfect pedicure.

One of Hollywood’s most bankable stars, Frannie was set to play Lyle’s love interest—the Blue Zenith agent who turns M from his dark ways and recruits him to the side of justice—both saving him and, hopefully, adding another long running hero to the franchise.

“Hello, lover,” she said, sliding her arms around his neck and pressing her body against his. Frannie had a reputation for being a wild child who made it a point to sleep with almost every one of her male co-stars, and she’d made no secret that she wanted Lyle to join that little fraternity.

Honestly, Lyle didn’t know if she was insecure, overly horny, or simply into method acting. All he knew was that he wasn’t interested. Which, considering the damage a pissed-off Francesca could do to his career, was ten kinds of inconvenient.

“Kiss me like you mean it,” she murmured, then leaned in, preparing to make the demand a reality, but he angled back, then took her chin in his hand, holding her steady as her eyes flashed with irritation.

“Anticipation, Frannie.” He bent close so that she shivered from the feel of his breath on her ear. “If we give them what they want now, why would they come to the movie?”

“Fuck the fans,” she whispered back, her hand sliding down to grab his crotch. “This is what I want.”

And goddamn him all to hell, he felt himself start to grow hard. Not from desire for her, but in response to a familiar, baser need. A dark room. A willing woman. Just once—hard enough and hot enough that it wore him out. Soothed his guilt and his pain. Quieted the ghosts of his past, the memories of his mistakes.

Enough to tide him over until the next time. The next woman.

And to maybe, if he was lucky, chip away at the wall he’d built around his heart.

His thoughts churned wildly, and he imagined the feel of a woman’s soft skin under his fingers. A woman who wouldn’t look at him with Jennifer’s eyes. Who wouldn’t remind him of where he’d run from or of what he’d done. A woman who’d give herself to him. Who’d excuse all his flaws as he let himself just go, hard and hot and desperate, into the wild, dark bliss of anonymity.

“Mmm, I don’t know, Lyle,” Frannie murmured, her hand pressed firmly against his now rock-hard erection. “Here’s evidence that suggests our on-screen chemistry is real. Give me a chance and I bet we can really raise that flag.”

“I like you fine, Frannie,” he said, taking a step back and cursing himself for giving into fantasy. “But I’m not fucking you.”

From the glint in her eye, he was certain her famous temper was about to flare, but then an editor he recognized from Variety walked up, and Frannie downshifted to charming.

Lyle hung around long enough to greet the guy and answer a few questions about the role, then made his escape when the conversation shifted to Frannie’s new endorsement deal.

He grabbed a bourbon from a passing waiter, then crossed to the edge of the roof. He didn’t like heights, which was why he sought them out. Hell, it was why his apartment was on the thirtieth floor of a mid-Wilshire high-rise and the reason he’d spent countless hours getting his pilot’s license. When something bothered him, he conquered it; he didn’t succumb to it.

And that’s part of why this bullshit with Frannie irritated him so much.

“You never struck me as the stupid type.”

Lyle recognized the throaty, feminine voice and turned to face his agent, Evelyn Dodge. An attractive woman in her mid-fifties, Evelyn had been in the industry for ages, knew everyone worth knowing, and was as tough as nails. She also never took shit from anybody.

Lyle studied her face, trying to get a read on what she was thinking. No luck. His agent was a blank slate. Good when negotiating deals. Not so good when he was trying to gauge a reaction.

“That girl’s got more power than you think,” she continued when he stayed silent. “You want the quick and dirty route to Career-in-the-Toilet Town? Because that path runs straight through your pretty co-star. You piss Francesca Muratti off and suddenly Garreth Todd will be playing M and you’ll be lucky if you can get a walk-on in a local commercial for a used car lot.”

“Thanks for giving it to me straight,” he said dryly.

“You think I’m exaggerating? I thought you knew your ass from a hole in the wall. Or have I been misreading you all this time?”

“Christ, Evelyn. I’m not naive. But I’m not sleeping with Frannie just to make things nice on the set. Are you honestly saying I should?”

“Hell no, Iowa,” she said, using his home state as a nickname. “I’m telling you that you need to be smart. As long as you’re single, she’s not going to let it drop.” She sighed. “You’ve worked damn hard to get where you are, and you’re flying high. But let me remind you in case you think that makes you invincible—the higher you are, the more painful it is when you crash back down to earth.”

“I’m not going to screw anything up, Evelyn.”

“You don’t know Frannie the way I do. She’s destroyed careers more established than yours—and that was before she had a hefty gold statue on her mantle.”

Fuck. He ran his fingers through his hair.

“How long have we known each other?” she asked, obviously not expecting an answer. “Two, three years? And never during all that time have I seen you date. You told me once you weren’t gay, and that’s fine. Thousands of teenage girls across the country sleep easier knowing you’re on the market.”

“What the hell, Evelyn?”

“I’m just saying that if you have a girlfriend tucked away in an attic somewhere, now’s the time to pull her out and dust her off. Because our girl Frannie is like a dog with a bone. A very pampered, well-groomed dog, who has one hell of a bite when she doesn’t get her own way. But she doesn’t mess with married men.”

“So, what? I’m supposed to trot off to Vegas and make a showgirl my bride?”

“Just be smart. And if you do have a girlfriend hidden away, then now’s the time to invite her to a few industry events. And if you don’t, maybe you should get one.”

“It’s bullshit,” he said mildly. “But I’ll take it under advisement.”

“Good. Now let’s go mingle.”

With a sigh, he glanced around the set-up. At the free-flowing alcohol and never-ending stream of finger foods offered by waitresses in outfits that were just a little too skimpy to be decent, but which covered a little too much to be obscene. At the napkins and stemware that displayed the series’ logo, and at the band in the corner that was playing a never-ending stream of music from the franchise, while on the opposite side of the roof, clips from the previous movies played in a continuous loop on a giant screen.

It was opulent, ridiculous, and completely over the top.

Jennifer would have loved it.

She would have swept into Hollywood and conquered it, making Francesca Muratti look like an amateur in the process.

Go big or go home. Wasn’t that what she’d always told him? Jennifer? With her innocent eyes and her not-so-innocent mouth?

But she’d never gotten the chance.

And now here he was, thirteen years to the day since that goddamned hellish night. And Jenny was dead, and he was standing in a fucking spotlight wearing Armani and living her dream.

How fucked up was that?

“I lost you somewhere,” Evelyn said. “Let’s head to the bar. I think you could use another drink.”

Damn right he could, but he shook his head. “I was just thinking.” He gestured with his hand, indicating the whole area, including the city beyond the rooftop. “This really is where dreams come true.”

But only an unlucky few—like Lyle—knew how many nightmares hid inside those bright, shiny dreams.

He forced a smile for Evelyn’s sake. “I’ve been here for almost two hours. I’ve been effusive and charming and a team player. I’ve done everything they’ve asked. Officially, anyway,” he added wryly, thinking of Frannie’s overtures. “That should at least earn me a cookie, don’t you think?”

She crossed her arms, shifting her weight as she looked at him. “Depends on what kind of cookie you’re looking for.”

“I’m leaving—”

“Dammit, Lyle.”

“Do I ever cause you problems? Do you have to run interference for me? Do I not live up to my damned golden boy reputation?”

She said nothing.

“Make an excuse for me. Anything. I don’t care.” For just a moment, he let his mask down. The innocent Iowa boy who’d been discovered at seventeen, plucked out of obscurity to ride to fame on his Midwestern good looks and piercing blue eyes. He’d thrown himself into the work, scrambling up through television and indie films to where he was today. A genuinely nice guy, untarnished by Hollywood’s bullshit.

Except that was all just a part, too. And for just a flicker of a moment, he let Evelyn see the pain underneath. The loss. The darkness. And all the goddamn guilt.

Then he was the movie star again, and she was looking at him, her brows knit with an almost maternal concern.

“Please,” he added, his voice low and a little hoarse. “It’s not a good day. I need—”

What? A drink? A fuck? Magic powers so he could change the past?

“—to go. I just need to go.”

“Do you want company?”

Hell, yes.

He shook his head. “No. I’m fine. But thanks.”

But he did want company. Just not the kind that Evelyn was offering. He wanted the kind of company that was raw. That was dirty and fast and anonymous.

Mostly, he wanted discretion and absolutely no fucking strings.

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