READ THE FIRST 4 CHAPTERS HERE!

CHAPTER ONE

“You bet, sir. I am a huge sports fan. Huge.”

The wall behind the suited man was decorated with plaques, trophies, signed memorabilia and photos with presumably famous athletes whose names and faces meant nothing to her. Neither did whatever championship ring he was wearing, though she had to admit it really completed his former-athlete-turned-agent look.

Had she been single and in a bar she would have used it as a conversation starter then asked him to buy her a drink with a confidence that would make his ten years on her seem obsolete. Where was that dauntless girl now?

“Sports are just so great to, um, to root for and…” The attractive man could see right through her. She just knew it. The confidence had drained from her voice too fast to recover from. “Whenever the game is on, I am definitely watching it. Them. All of them.”

The interview had been going so well until this question. At least better than all the others had. But then again, if he had to ask if she liked sports she clearly wasn’t knocking it out of the park.

She knew it was ridiculous to be interviewing at sports agency since sports were a subject Stella Price knew nothing about. Less than nothing. But she’d concern herself with that after getting the job. If she had committed to learning every aspect of an industry before an interview by now she would be an expert on publishing, finance, solar powered windows, media buying and malt liquor. But who had time for that?

Oh wait, she did. She had nothing but time. She really needed a job. Any job.

“You got a team?” he asked with one eyebrow raised, studying her in a way that proved she was failing miserably but he was trying to give her the benefit of the doubt. Broad shoulders, strong jawline and heart of gold? What a guy.

“A favorite one? Yes! Of course I do. Several actually.”  She glanced down at the inside of her left wrist at the ink she’d scribbled on her skin earlier.

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Lkr-Bskt

Kng-Hck

“I just love watching the Dodgers play baseball, and then basketball, I’m such a fan of the Lakers, and umm the Kings with their…” The ink had smeared. “Boxing? Hockey. The Kings play hockey.”

He stared blankly at her.

“You watchin’ the game Saturday?” she asked, trying to shift the focus off herself. That had to help a little. She’d heard that vague question asked a thousand times by people who knew what they were talking about.

The man just sighed in response, likely realizing he won’t get the last thirty minutes of his life back. “We have another candidate we’re interviewing this afternoon.” He rose up from his chair so she followed suit as he walked around his desk. “We’ll be in touch.”

At least it was over. She could go outside and ring the sweat out of her shirt.

“And just for the record what game is it you’ll be watching this weekend?”

So close. Okay, think, it’s April. What sport season did that mean it was? Useless question. What jersey was Mike wearing last?

“Um, I’ll be wearing purple,” she said with coy enthusiasm she hoped would be an answer.

“Alright Lakers,” he said back with matched enthusiasm.

“Yes! Lakers! Go get ‘em”

He turned toward the door to open it and she involuntarily slapped him on the butt then froze.

“I’m so sorry. I… I’m sorry. I… I mean. Oh my god, my social skills are all off.

“It’s fine.”

“I’ve basically just been sitting in my apartment for months by myself during the day and I think I’m losing touch with basic social norms and I saw that in a sports movie once. Well actually it was just a Lifetime movie – those play all day long…”

“It’s fine.”

“And there was a sports team in it – baseball I think – and they were always just spanking each other and it just seemed like the right thing to do in that moment, but I so clearly see now that it was a very wrong thing to do in that moment. And I swear if you hire me I will never hit you or anyone in this office again, be it violent or playful.”

“Please just go.”

“Yes, sir, I’m gone.”

If the spank didn’t do her in she assumed the Lifetime marathons would take of it. She used her hand as a face shield and made a beeline for the elevator.

“It’s not funny, Brooke!” Stella yelled into the phone after plopping onto her couch. Not that it could be heard over Brooke’s laughter and the ambient New York noise coming through the phone.

“This could only happen to you, Stella,” Brooke said as he finally began to catch her breath. “Oh, and can you please explain how you, my business-minded, fashion savvy friend wound up in plastic gloves and a hairnet yesterday too? I got your sad-looking photo but not the story.”

“Oh, right the quote-unquote marketing job. Very loose definition of marketing there. What they should have said was putting a toothpick in a baby pickle at Costco and yelling, “Get your Gale’s Organic Gherkin.” Worst part is I was up against some in-it-to-win-it free sample enthusiast who just screamed failed child actor.”

“It’s LA. He probably is a failed child actor.”

“Seriously. He acted like it was a friggin’ commercial audition and his mom was in the room.”

“Like a kid in an infomercial who finds a way to hurt himself with a generic pillow?”

“More like mentally stunted Welches kid trying to make a tongue-twister sound cute, but at his age it was just super creepy.”

“Would you rather he yell, “hey, come here, I’ve got a little pickle for you”?”

“That would have put me over the edge.”

“Did you at least get the job offer?”

“Nope. I’ve lost my competitive edge. I gotta hand it to the guy though, he was the better one for the job. Just like any idiot off the street will be better for the job at Sport Sports Sports, or whatever this one was.”

She glanced at her wrist to see a jumbled list of letters she’d written earlier in the day.

“Whatever. At least I’m not going to have to watch the game this weekend to keep up.”

“What game?”

“Exactly!” she yelled, thrilled to have an ally. “It’s like people are always talking about the game and everyone just knows which one. I will never ever know what game they’re talking about.”

She licked her thumb and began rubbing at the ink on her wrist. Jotting notes down on the inside of her wrist had been a habit for years and quite handy in most cases. Not that it was much help today, though.

“Stella, I watched four years of college football and still not a clue why they all get up just to fall back down. The only move I mastered was the spank, if you know what I mean.”

Stella laughed at the reference to Brooke’s boyfriend who had played football for the University of Texas while they were there.

“So in my eye’s you’ve done nothing wrong,” she continued. “Hell you even got to first base!” She could practically hear Brooke smiling through the receiver. “See what I did there?”

“That’s first base now? Kids today!”

“I don’t have a clue. I’ve been in a relationship too long.”

“How is Mr. Cartwright these days? More importantly how’s living with him? I need a distraction.”

“I’m pretty sure I have a career as a real estate broker if I fail out of Columbia grad school and never become a psychologist. We physically combed through forty apartments in one weekend before finding this place. But living together is actually amazing. By no means perfect. We still have our ups and downs. Which I choose to blame mostly on the amount of alcohol consumed in this city.”

“Or maybe the sad fact you still have the tolerance of a seventh grader.”

“Entirely fair. I don’t remember a good portion of last night. When I sobered back into reality, James and I were in a fight and I had no clue what it was about. I just followed along until I caught on.”

“What was it about?”

“I put a string cheese in the microwave again.”

“Why do you keep doing that?”

“I have no idea but it’s a bitch to clean up. Or so he keeps telling me.”

“Could be revenge. You and dairy don’t exactly get along.”

“Quite possibly. Or maybe I was trying to cook.”

They both laughed.

Stella had no idea how the two of them survived living together after moving out of the dorms their sophomore year. Both had set fire to their kitchen at least twice and one of their other best friends, Darci Moore, did it once just to see the fire fighters show up.

“So you still can’t cook, right?”

“Yes, we both know this already.”

“And James doesn’t care?”

“It’s New York. Everywhere delivers.”

Stella glanced toward her own kitchen to make sure everything was intact. She spotted her coffee mug from that morning by the sink next to a crumpled up towel on the counter. She got up, grabbed the mug and read it to herself.

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“In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different.” It was quote by Coco Chanel that she loved. Her mom had given her the mug when she was leaving for college years ago and it had been a long for the ride with her since.

She opened the cabinet and paused at the sight of it being the only mismatching mug in the cupboard. There’s irony, she thought as she looked at the quote next to the row of neatly placed white mugs. Not wanting to disrupt the aesthetic, she reached a little higher to put her mug on the shelf above but in doing so it slipped out of her hand and smashed on the counter.

“Shit!” She yelled. “Oh no!”

“What was that?” Brooked asked.

“I just broke my favorite mug.”

“The Chanel one?”

“Yes!”

“Aw, you drink out of that every day.”

“I know. I’m so disappointed. I have to go. I’ve got to clean up all of the glass.”

“Of course.”

“Thanks for listening to yet another tale of unemployment.”

“Hey, Stella, wait.”

“What?”

“It’s not too late you know. You could still -”

“I know. It’s just … it’s complicated.”

“Alright, I won’t bring it up again. Bye friend.”

“Bye.”

As she swept the broken glass off the counter she wondered if it was silly to feel as sad as she did about it. But it felt like that last piece of her old life had just been destroyed. That quote used to be her daily mantra but now she wasn’t even sure what it meant anymore.

She checked the floor for any shards of glass then looped the hand towel through the handle of the oven. She adjusted it until it was perfectly straight as she thought back to five years ago when she first met Brooke in the hallway of their college dorm at the University of Texas in Austin.

She had been carrying a Vogue in her bag with about 75 pages earmarked and her first semester schedule on the road to getting her degree in business. It was the deal she made with her parents after high school. They would pay for the Fashion Institute of Design and Marketing (FIDM) in Los Angeles as long as she would get her degree in business first from a four-year university.

After her father’s persistent encouragement, she chose the University of Texas, where her he had gone and on her first day there Brooke Aarons passed her in the hallway with two huge bags that made it impossible for them to not have an exchange.

Shortly after, they met roommates Darci Moore and Kate Holden and the group of them spent the next four years of college inseparable. Every night out was lived together then recapped in detail. Every tear shed over heartbreak was on each other’s shoulders and every one of their embarrassing moments has lived on in infamy between them. Laughing fits still broke out over them even a year after they all graduated and moved away.

Brooke moved to New York right after graduation and was splitting her time between grad school, an internship, and a clerical position in Columbia’s psychology department.

Kate was in her first year of teaching first grade. And Darci was … well, no one knew what Darci did but she lived a fabulous lifestyle and was always traveling, posting pictures from a yacht or laying on exotic beaches without any explanation of why or how she got there.

Stella dated Nolan Greenwald for only a month or two before she was on to the next. He graduated at the end of Stella’s sophomore along with Brooke’s boyfriend James Cartwright, but they managed to stay friendly the entire time.

That short-lived relationship was one of many that kept her in the dating game throughout college. And it was a regular occurrence that a friendship could be salvaged since she never really allowed emotions to be too involved in her relationships. They were fun until they were in the way and then they would have to end.

There was no point in getting serious with anyone until after FIDM. Her dream had always been to go to fashion school and design a clothing line and eventually have a high end store on Melrose Avenue.

She had argued with her parents when they demanded she received her degree from a four-year university first, but in retrospect was she grateful. But it had been almost a full year since graduation and her life had gone in an entirely different direction than she planned. She hadn’t gone to FIDM or started a clothing line, and she didn’t own a boutique by the ripe old age of 23 like she had imagined.

She wasn’t working in fashion. She wasn’t working at all for that matter. She spent four months working as a receptionist at a salon that her childhood friend and roommate at the time, Jaimee Anderson, worked at. Then she spent six months with no intention of working at all. Now she was spending her days pouring over Craigslist and driving all over LA for interviews that were always a train wreck or a disappointment, looking for anything that would pull her out of her own boredom. This just wasn’t what she always planned.

On the other hand though, Stella crossed the living room of her 1,500 square foot apartment and stepped out onto the balcony over looking the Pacific Ocean. From the eleventh floor of her Santa Monica home she took in the view, tracing the curves of the coastline from the South Bay all the way up toward Malibu … life hadn’t turned so bad for her.

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CHAPTER TWO

The slam of the front door pulled Stella out of her day dreaming. She reentered the apartment from the balcony to see a handsome face with a fresh tan smiling back at her.

“I see you didn’t spend the whole time in the office,” she said and she sauntered toward him then flung her arms around his neck to greet him properly. “Welcome home.”

“Man, did I miss you, pretty girl,” he said with his slight twang as he planted a kiss on her lips.

Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, Mike Ericson had used his Southern charm, good looks and easy wit to quickly become one of the top real estate brokers in Los Angeles. A massive accomplishment for someone so young. Although many had voiced he was too old for her.

Mike rarely had a reason to venture out of LA, but over the last month or two he’d taken an interest in some properties in Orange County. His whole industry was a blur to her but she could see so clearly how he loved the chase. His face would light up like a little boy every time he closed a deal and she couldn’t help but find it endearing.
Even if it didn’t grant him the means to this beautiful apartment they lived in or the seven series BMW in the garage below or the vacations they could take on a whim, she still thought he would find what he did rewarding for the thrill alone.
“A full friggin’ week in Orange County, Mike? Really? You better not pull that stunt again. Especially not over a weekend. I was bored out of my mind.”
“That’s all I am to you, huh? The weekend entertainment?”

“Course not, darling. You also take out the trash.” Hearing the word “darling” slip out of her mouth she imagined herself in a 1950’s housewife dress, with an apron and an up-do. She forced the grotesque image out of her mind.He shook his head with a smile and pulled her in for another kiss.The truth was, he was so much more than that.  He was her whole world here in LA and he had been pretty much since the day she arrived.“So?”

“So what, gorgeous?” he said, taking his blazer off and laying it neatly over the living room chair.

“Was it worth it?”

Pausing for dramatic effect, “Oh, it was worth it,” he finally said with a grin as he pulled out a bottle of cabernet sauvignon from the side pocket of his monogrammed, leather duffle.

“Yes! Congratulations!” She skipped to the kitchen and pulled out two wine glasses.

The Ralph Lauren set was a far cry from the mismatching set she and Brooke owned when they moved into an off-campus two bedroom apartment across the from Kate and Darci.

After clanking around in the drawers for a few moments too long Mike walked into the kitchen, reached passed her and grabbed the bottle opener from a ceramic container right in front of her face. He scratched the back of her head, muffling her hair like someone would do to a cute dog.

Moments like that made her feel like she was just playing house while someone’s parents were out of town. Every time she felt lost in a kitchen, hesitated in front of the washing machine, or managed to make a shirt more wrinkled with an iron, her insecurities about how she was living rose up. But that’s how everyone must feel when they’re just starting out in their own home.

It’s like learning to open a bottle of wine she thought as she now seamlessly twisted the corkscrew in. You fake it until you make it. Or break it, she smiled to herself, remembering a time in college with Brooke, Kate and Darci, when none of them could open a cheap bottle of wine with an even cheaper bottle opener. It was the sword in the stone of corks that they drunkenly passed between them until Darci grabbed a hammer and smacked the top of the neck off. They celebrated its defeat, while possibly drinking shards of glass.

“Stella?” Mike said, interrupting her happy memory.

“What?”

“You and that door,” he said in a teasing tone, while nodding in the direction of open sliding door to the balcony.

“I know, I know,” she smiled innocently.

“It’s like inviting the neighbors into our living room,” he proclaimed, ignoring the gorgeous sunset right behind him.

She left the wine pouring in Mike’s capable hands and crossed the living room to pull the door shut.

He wasn’t wrong. If their neighbors to the left were standing on their balcony they could have a conversation with Stella and Mike sitting on their couch if they so choose. Not that it was a concern at this particular time.

Mike walked over and handed her a glass. She leaned against the glass door to face him straight on. He leaned down and kissed her in a way that pretty convincingly said he’d missed her too.  Then again privacy wasn’t the worst thing in the world, she thought.

“Cheers,” he said as he raised his glass. She tapped hers against his.

“Cheers,” she repeated. After a sip, he took the glass from her hand and set them both on the coffee table, turning his full attention back to her.

He pulled the bottom of her shirt upward and flung it behind him in an impressively smooth move. It landed on the couch behind her and moments later they did too.

 

CHAPTER THREE

Stella woke the next morning, still wrapped in Mike’s arms, thinking how her life seemed like it must be a dream sometimes. Waking up every morning in this white linen bed in a gorgeous beach-front apartment was a far cry from her long time friend Jaimee Pillsbury’s couch, where she slept the first three months after moving to LA. Three months too long she thought as she recalled the lumpy cushions and subtle smell of wet dog that always comes with a Craigslist couch.

Stella and Jaimee grew up across the street from each other in the suburbs of San Francisco. Years of friendship allowed her the right to use Jaimee’s couch as a temporary solution until she could find housing near the FIDM campus. She didn’t want to put all the money she had toward a downtown apartment until she knew she was in, though she never questioned it would be an issue.

Her only refuge was the nights she spent at Mike’s, which became more and more frequent as that first summer carried on. Not to mention the five straight days they spent in Hawaii after only two months of dating.

After they returned Stella and Mike went out to a nearby bar with Jaimee. They were three drinks deep, laughing and telling stories from their trip when out of the blue Jaimee began lamenting over how she hadn’t met the one. Similar to Kate she planned to be engaged but 24, married by 25, and start a family at 26. All of which was looking difficult since she hadn’t met the one by 23. Something Stella rolled her eyes over but she had to leave Jaimee alone about her life goals. She was sleeping on her couch after all.

Stella had to get used to the age gap between herself and Mike, but a mature man, ready for a relationship was exactly what Jaimee was looking for. Mike texted his best friend and fellow broker at Gold Coast Properties, Jesse Richards,  who showed up to the bar within twenty minutes.

Like Mike, Jesse was a Southern boy but there was something more wholesome about him. Like his gentlemanly demeanor was a result  of a traditional upbringing. While Mike, who did have an undeniably stronger presence, harnessed his charm with practiced finesse that may get a girl’s attention but may also leave her wonder what he’s hiding.

Jaimee and Jesse hit it off instantly and made Stella reassess her definition of moving fast. Both described that night as serendipitous and loved to tell the story of their first meeting. He was home, trying to figure out how to make his grandma’s chicken noodle soup recipe while she had casually mentioned to her friend Stella she loved a man who could cook. Or so the story would go.

Stella, on the other hand, tended to brush over the story of how she met Mike. It wasn’t ideal, to say the least. It also happened in a bar. She was visiting Jaimee over spring break while planning her move to LA. He approached her and offered to buy her a drink. He was obviously handsome and she was single so she accepted. She made that one drink last as they spent over three hours laughing and talking in a dark corner of the bar. He gave her all of his attention like there wasn’t a single other person in the bar, in the world for that matter. Jaimee eventually dragged her away but they exchanged numbers and spent the next few days texting back and forth.

One day she got a message from him she didn’t see coming. He wrote a beautifully, eloquent block of text about how taken back he was with her and how she was all he could think about, followed by the ultimate dick move of confessing he had a girlfriend the whole time. Annoyed at herself for not realizing what a snake he must’ve be, she was immediately turned off and easily shut that door.

His texts didn’t stop there though. Nothing bad just an occasional well-wishing, a guilty apology where he admitted he missed her, or just a random “how are you?” She ignored most and responded plainly but politely to others, unsure why she’d ever bother.

“Are you still planning on moving to LA after graduation?” he asked one day. It was something she had told him that night. She sent back  “Yes.” knowing that she shouldn’t have.

“Let me buy you your first drink,” he replied immediately. But she didn’t reply, angry with herself for again responding at all.

She’d never admit it, but it always kept him in the back of her mind though. If that was his motive it was unfortunately affective.

School was wrapping up so fast she could barely comprehend the gravity of the change happening around her. The next thing she knew she was crying in a cap and gown and hugging Brooke, Darci and Kate at their graduation ceremony. Their days at UT were behind them. The days of them all living footsteps away were over.

It didn’t hit her then. It didn’t hit her as she and Brooke packed up their apartment or sold their couch to some sophomores, or even as she filled the trunk of her car and planned her nearly twenty hour drive from Austin to LA. It was after several long hours on the road. With every passing mile she felt more and more disconnected from who she was and everything she knew. What-if’s crept in. What if she doesn’t find her way in LA as easily as she did in Austin? What if she doesn’t get into FIDM? What if she gets in and she’s terrible?

She knew herself in Austin. Other people knew her in Austin. She had a persona that was not only delicately crafted but was tailored to perfection because it was her. It was who she was and who she wanted to be. She was the fashion savvy girl who could spit boys out. She was one of the smartest in her class with the motivation to be the best and get the hell out. She was the one who let people know with one look she was going to take the world by storm. Only held back by the silly necessity of a degree. Well, she had it now. She was done being “held back.” So what was she so afraid of? Here she was, driving down a path to make all the things she’d promised herself happen. So why was she terrified, lost, lonely?

She concentrated on breathing but it was all becoming too overwhelming. The pattern of her breathing changed and her head began racing with feelings she couldn’t decipher. Excitement for what was to come. Sadness for what had ended. Fear of failing. The empty, endless road with nothing but desert on either side offered no distraction to help her out.

She reached for her phone on the passenger’s side side to change the song playing through her stereo when the phone rang in her hand. Mike Erickson’s name displayed on the screen. Fear of her own thoughts outweighed morality. If nothing else it would make her feel better to put some man in his place so she answered.

Mike’s voice came through the receiver. It was strange to hear since she hadn’t actually heard his voice since they met weeks before and never over the phone.

“I know I didn’t do right by you but if you’ll give me another shot at it – I broke it off. I’m a free man. A free man trapped in the thought of you and me. I think we have somethin’, Stella. Just hear me out.”

And so she did. From Odessa to Las Cruces to Phoenix the conversation barely broke as he stayed on the phone with her mile after mile asking questions, telling stories, occasionally getting a hesitant laugh out of her. It was like being back in the dark corner of the bar that night. It was everything she needed on that drive.

He said the breakup had been a long time coming but it was meeting her that forced him to finally pull the trigger.

Maybe they were just two people who met at the wrong time under wrong circumstances. She drove to a dive bar in Santa Monica and he met her there. They had that first drink. The moment she gave in everything changed. They belonged to each other.

Still, she never would have expected that by the end of that summer she would agreed to move in with Mike. But by that time, FIDM had already been removed from the equation. Now summer was here again, pouring light into their room with the comfortable white linen bed.

She felt Mike’s arm move as he drew in a big breath of air.

“Morning, handsome,” she said, already wide awake.

“Morning, gorgeous,” he responded with a yawn then stretched and groaned until he finally came to life. “What’s on your agenda for today, darlin’?”

“Bridesmaid’s dress shopping for Jaimee’s wedding this afternoon. You want to join?” she teased.

He untangled himself and rolled away, “I gotta head in early today. Just a lot of stuff I need to do for this deal.” He suddenly seemed awake and anxious, like he’d magically had three cups of coffee.

“Whoa. Why do you seem nervous?”

“I don’t,” he said standing up and heading for the closet.

“You closed a huge deal, babe. In an entirely new market. You should strut in like you own the place an hour late just cause you can.”

“I’m not nervous about the deal.”

“Okay, okay. Dropping it.”

With one quick kiss on the forehead he was out the door, faster than she’d ever seen him go before.

“You and Mike are so going to be next!” Jaimee said as she ran her hand along a row of Nicole Miller wedding dresses in the bridal boutique room of the store on Sunset Boulevard. “Oh my god. Do you think he’ll do it at my wedding? He’s a groomsman. You’re a bridesmaid. It’d be so perfect!”

True, all dressed in black tie it had the makings of a memorable night, but that thought somehow didn’t excite Stella.

“I just can’t believe you’re pulling this off in six months, Jaimee. You’re crazy.”

“I am locking this down and you better be ready too, girlfriend. You know as well as I do Mike and Jesse do everything together. Oh that reminds me the boys are watching the game on Saturday at our place. I have to work but you’re welcome to join them, especially to make sure those two don’t destroy the place.”

“Mike hadn’t mentioned it, but to be honest I’d prefer miserable job hunting to faking interest in some sporting event all afternoon.”

She help up a white lace wedding gown with a sweetheart neckline stared in awe. “But this, this I’ll never have to fake it for.”

As soon as she heard the words come out of her mouth she reeled back, thinking how she never imagined herself talking about wedding dresses at this age. She quickly changed the subject. “I mean I could have designed this,” she said confidently, wishing she hadn’t taken it there.

She’d never actually designed anything. She hadn’t so much as sketched in months. The only thing in her life that was going well was her relationship, while all of her aspirations had disintegrated into childhood dreams.  But next to Jaimee and Jesse and all of the other couples they hung out with through their work friends it seemed like she was doing what she was supposed to be, which was focusing on how her relationship was progressing. Dishing about their fellow’s habits and where they plan to travel next.

“Well don’t worry, if he takes too long to pop the question I’ll turn on the pressure for you since we both know you’re not going to do it yourself. Seriously you hit the jackpot with him. He actually begs you not to work. He loves you so much he just wants you to feel supported and to taken care of. I wish Jesse would take a page out of that book. What right-minded woman would pass up that offer.”

“Um, one who lives in the 21st century,” she tried to contain her frustration, knowing they wouldn’t see eye to eye on this right now.

“All I’m saying is that you’re making your life harder than it has to be.”

“Sanity is becoming harder than it has to be. I need to do something with my life, Jaimee. I had all this momentum for twenty-two years and then suddenly I stopped dead in my tracks. I just need something.”

At that a group of girls walked into the store, most of whom she recognized.

“Yay, you’re all here,” Jaimee said, stretching her arms out to the group. “Stella, you obviously already know my little sister, Erica. She’s going to be my maid of honor and Elizabeth, my bestie at the salon, and this is Jesse’s sister, Jen. So now that my bridesmaids are all acquainted, let’s try on some dresses!”

A woman who worked at the store passed glasses of champagne around to everyone. They were each then directed to a dressing room with the exception of Jaimee, who had already picked her dress practically the day after getting engaged.

Stella stepped into her dressing room and closed the door behind her. She stared at the four dresses Jaimee had chosen. A store full of stunning pieces and Jaimee was definitely going for the ones that would ensure she’d be the prettiest in the bunch. She let out a long sigh. Chanel, give me the strength. she prayed as she tipped back her entire glass of champagne in a few gulps then stepped out of the dressing room in six layers of chiffon too many.

On cue, the girls filed out in a row and stood in position framing Jaimee in the mirror. “Aw, you all look beautiful!” she said with her hands clasped in front of her chest. “But no, next.”

Stella heard her phone going off in her purse as soon as she head into the dressing room. There was no caller I.D. but she wanted to put off putting on the next dress so she answered.

“Hello, this is Stella Price.”

“Stella, hi, this is Megan Kingma from Celebizzy.”

Her heart started to race. Back when she was still hopeful she aimed high by applying to Celebizzy. It was an online source for all things entertainment news. They did red carpet coverage, sit down interviews with celebrities, blog posts on star sightings and more.

“I have your resume here. Are you still interested in a career at Celebizzy?”

“Yes. Yes, very much so!”

“A position just became available. Can you come in today for an interview?”

“Yes!” she screamed, all logic escaping her. “Yes, when?”

“Our office is at 9000 Sunset, eighth floor, fourth door on the left, suite 821. If not this interview will have to wait until Monday. And to be honest the position may be filled by then. In the next fifteen minutes would be ideal.”

Stella ran to the counter of Nicole Miller, grabbed a pen from a woman’s hand, and started frantically taking the information down on the inside of her left wrist. 9 Snst 821”

“Got it. Yes. That’s close I can be there soon.”

She tore the clips off the back of her dress and started stripping right there in the middle of the salon.

“Jaimee I have to run! I have an interview. I’ll love anything you pick,” she lied.

“What? Stella! Are you being serious right now?”

“Yes, it’s a good one. I have to go!”

“We just talked about this!”

“I love you. I’ll call you later.”

She ran out of the store with the intent of jumping in her car, but the traffic was a nightmare. It wasn’t budging an inch. She looked west down Sunset and into the distance. Last she checked she ran about a fifteen minute mile. Unimpressive to say the least but with roughly a half a mile ahead of her and needing to account for her three-inch heels, it might be doable. The clock was ticking so she saw no other choice than to Tim Gunn this thing and make it work.

She checked the scribbled markings on her wrist. “821” meaning eighth floor.

Stella burst through the glass doors off Sunset and slid into the elevator and pushed the button and by the time the doors reopened on the eighth floor she was looking effortlessly intact, with exception of some panting. She glanced at her wrist.

She walked toward the receptionist’s desk where a beautiful Asian girl with aggressive eyelash extensions sat with teal strips in her hair that matched the company color she was surrounded by. “Hi I’m -”

“Stella Price?”

“Yes,” she said turning to see a tall bony woman in a silky blouse tucked into a short leather skirts that flared out and chunky accessories.

Megan gave Stella an obvious look up and down, seeming to approve, then turned about face. “Just follow me. I bet you didn’t expect I would be the one picking you up from reception.” Her emphasis on “I” made it clear she was somebody. “But you’ll soon find out that it’s important we all wear many hats around here.” Stella could barely keep up with how fast Megan was walking.

“If you applied here I assume it’s because you know our content and if you know our content you recognize me as celebrity reporter, Megan Kingma.”

The way she added “celebrity” in front of “reporter” seemed to be intended to describe her status not her beat. I seriously do it all here though. Seriously. I can’t even tell you how busy I am.” she laughed in a pretentious chuckle.

“So you’re meeting with Julian Grant. He’s the Editor in Chief and head honcho around here. Started this blog completely on his own, with no help, right out of his parent’s summer house in the Hamptons.” The way she said it was intended to sound like a massive accomplishment, but those circumstances didn’t exactly scream struggle. “He loves me,” Megan continued. “Seriously, so much, I can’t even. He can’t even. We just adore each other. I could basically hire you on my own but he still needs to approve everything. He’s through that door so just go ahead on in.”

At the same mile-a-minute pace she’d been going to keeping up with Megan, Stella pushed the door open and entered Julian Grant’s office.

“Get out!”

“I’m so sorry!” She pivot-turned so fast she got whiplash. Megan had magically disappeared around the corner. She was frozen in the hallway when again she heard the man’s voice repeat more dramatically this time, “Get out!”

She looked around to confirm that she was actually out, before she heard a catty laugh. “Oh, we’re printing that. I’m dying. Get your sources to confirm and it’ll go live in the next twenty. You got it?”

Stella heard the sound of a phone slamming on a receiver.

“Um, hey. I said hey. Whoever you are. Come back in.”

Her confidence had completely deserted her as she peered around the corner to see if it was safe.

“Yes, you. Girl who doesn’t knock.”

“I’m so sorry, I was told you were waiting for me.”

“I was until I heard who punched Bieber’s face this time.”

“Oh, who?” she said trying to appeal to his gossipy nature.

“If you want to be in this business, you need to already know.”

As if his thirty second lead made him that much more superior.

“So why are you here?”

“I submitted my resume a few months ago and just received a call from Megan, who said there was an opening. I came in immediately. I’ve – ”

“Where were you before this?”

“Um, Nicole Miller. Looking for bridesmaid dresses with my friend who is getting -”

“For work. I don’t care about your social life, please.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I was working at a salon called–”

“What’d you do for them?”

“Mostly scheduling. I worked on some interior design projects,” she exaggerated, and -”

“Listen,” he interrupted harshly. “Can you show up on time? Other than today of course.”

“Yes. Always.”

“You’ll work late hours and come in early?”

“Absolutel-”

“We need someone immediately and we don’t have time for rounds of interviews but a monkey could do this job. Opportunity for growth though if you can keep up. Can you start Monday?”

“Yes!”

“I already forgot your name.”

“It’s -”

“Fill it in here, sign at the bottom and take this over to Megan. You’ll report to her from here on out.”

“So I got the job?.”

“You got the job.”

“Thank you. You won’t be disappointed. I–” She held out her hand to shake it and he turned the other way.

“We’ll see. Go. I have another meeting coming in.”

“Right. But um, ‘scuse me, uh what, what am I?”

“Huh?” he said looking back in her direction.

“What’s my position? Job description?”

“Oh. You’re a PA. A production assistant. A dime a dozen. You’re a nobody and you do everything. Welcome aboard,” he said already swiveling his chair all the way around away from her.

Stella thanked him again and stepped out of the office feeling elated. Her head hadn’t completely caught up yet but the job was hers. That much she knew. This huge space in an iconic building on Sunset Boulevard was her place of work. She felt the energy of the newsroom and all the people in there who had a purpose and were hard at work. She was about to be one of them.

She drew in the first deep breath she’d had since she picked up the phone call and then proudly turned about face just as someone took a sharp turn around the same corner. They smacked head on.

“I’m so sorry,” they both exclaimed at the exact same time and the both dropped to the floor to gather the collateral damage.

“No, I’m sorry, I – ” she was interrupted by a loud belch that erupted out of her as she slapped her hand over her mouth.

“Whoa,” he said with wide brown eyes and a look on his face that fell somewhere between horrified and entertained.

“Oh, my god. Oh, my god. I chugged a glass of champagne and then ran here and then was talking and I haven’t been breathing and I think I’ve been swallowing a lot of air and I wasn’t looking where I was going and I might be a little light headed from the running and the talking and the air swallowing and I am just so sorry.”

“Do me a favor,” he interrupted.

“Anything.”

“Exhale.”

She obeyed with a long sigh that brought her back down to earth.

“Better?”

She nodded slowly then looked back up to meet his still wide brown eyes. He looked ready to laugh with his lips pursed tightly, but she was the first to crack.

“Um, did I break anything?” she said with a weird grin that was struggling to contained.

“Like your bones?”

Stella coughed out another laugh then flashed him a playful smile. “I was referring to any of this equipment,” she said as she carefully picked up some type of battery pack and tapes.

“We’re all good here,” he said casually in a blue flannel shirt and dark, tight jean that looked like they’d earned the holes in them, rather than being store-bought distressed. “Did you just say you’ve been drinking on the job?”

“No, no, I would never! I mean yes I did have a glass of champagne but -”

“It’s alright,” he said teasingly. “You wouldn’t be the first to, you know…” he made a gesture as if he was tipping one back.

“Fuck off Max. Why do you have to tell everyone I went to rehab!” Megan appeared out of nowhere and stood over them in painfully bright yellow pumps with red Louboutin bottoms, that should have been chic but weirdly made her look like Ronald McDonald.

“I don’t, Megan. That’s you.”

He and Stella exchanged a look she immediately understood somehow. Not that she hadn’t already assessed Megan as someone who thought the world revolved around her.

Suddenly ringing on the floor in front of Megan’s shoes was Stella’s cell phone. Max reached over to to grab it but pulled his hand back as if it would be an invasion of privacy. Maybe because the call was coming from Mike, which displayed a pre-set photo of the two of them kissing in Hawaii. Something about it felt way too personal for a stranger, even a future potential coworker, to handle.

She silenced the ring and threw it in her purse. She’d call him back. And change that photo.

“I’m sorry about that,” she apologized not entirely sure what this one was for.

Do you need help finding something or do you know where you’re going?”

“She’s fine, Max. She’s with me.” Megan let out a dramatic sigh at the sight of the offer letter on the floor. “You’re signed that, right? Thank god. We just lost our second PA in three months yesterday just had a nervous breakdown. This one wound up in the hospital and completely bailed on us when we needed her.”

“It was super rude,” Max said sarcastically to Stella, seeming to know his humor would evade Megan.

“But you’re going to love it here. Lots of opportunity for growth.”

After leaving the office she looked at her phone to see Mike had text her as well. “Dinner tonight? Our spot 7pm?”

It was as if he knew there would be something to celebrate. She decided to hold the news until dinner, which wouldn’t be possible if she called him back. “Sounds perfect,” she typed and sent back.

Their place was a restaurant called, Pearl Dragon in the Pacific Palisades. It was an elegant sushi restaurant where they had their first official date and where they were when he asked if she wanted to move in.  Where they had celebrated so many of the deals that he had closed.

She always heard people say how hard it was to have it all. But look at her, she had a wonderful boyfriend, a beautiful apartment, and at last the missing piece of the puzzle- a job at last. Not that being a PA was the career she’d imaged for herself, but still, it was a start. At least something to fill her days and make her feel like she was part of the world again.

“Hey, sorry that took me a while. Traffic was brutal.” She leaned down and kissed him on the lips before taking her seat across from him.

“I ordered you a drink.”

“Thanks. How was your day?”

“Good, good. Yours?”

“Actually, it was great.” She couldn’t hold the good news in any longer. “I got a job!”

“At the sports agency? They hired you?” he said not masking his surprise. “That’s – wow. You really pulled one over on them.”

“God no, that was a train wreck. I actually may need a lawyer it was so bad. I got a last minute interview at Celebizzy today and they hired me on the spot!”

“That’s awesome! Aw, congratulations Stell! As what?”

“A PA.”

“A PA? Seriously?”

“I know. But it’s a start. Lots of opportunity for growth. It’ll be great!”

Their drinks arrived and she held hers up in the air. He tapped hers against his and took a sip.

“Well I am so happy for you, Stella. And, to be honest, this is coming at a really good time.”

“I’m so happy too. I’m still a little unsure exactly what I’ll be doing but I’m really excited. Wait, why is this coming at a good time?”

He seemed to squirm in his chair and look around the room. A wave of heat came over her and he took her hand in his. Holy crap. They were in their favorite restaurant. Why was it good timing? She remembered how weird he was acting this morning and suddenly that light headed feeling was coming back again.

“I’ve been doing some thinking lately…about us.”

“Oh my god…” escaped her lips.

 

CHAPTER FOUR

“Then what?” Brooke asked sharply. Stella could hear Brooke pacing through the receiver.
“He um, he said very plainly, like it was a smart business decision, that it was time he moved on. He doesn’t love me and hasn’t for a while now.”
“And then you …?”
“I calmly got up and walked to the bathroom, splashed cold water on my face and tried to think of the mature response to all of this because he was carrying on like this was a deposition and because I didn’t want to say anything unreasonable and because I couldn’t understand what was happening. And I didn’t want to lash out or be immature about it or lose my composure. I don’t even know how long I was in there before he -”
“Before he what?”

“After a while he knocked on the door.”

“He came to check on you?”

“No. There was someone in the men’s room and he said he really had to go.”

“I’ll kill him.”

“He cracked some joke about how it’s good I’m leaving now because he’d never be able to get used to me actually being able to pay rent. As if I didn’t feel small enough. As if he ever wanted to me have my own life to begin with. He wanted me home and waiting and readily available to take care of him.”

A car laid on their horn. “Shit! she corrected back into her lane. “I’m sorry.” She weakly to the driver who had already sped past.

“Stella, where are you going?”

“I just want to go to sleep. I just want to crawl in bed forget the last hour of my life. I just want to be …” She was about to say home when it hit her. “I’m… going….” She had retraced the road she’d taken for the last year without realizing that in the last hour everything had changed. She and Mike had failed to discuss how they would do this. He hadn’t given her a deadline to pack up her stuff nor had he been polite enough to offer he sleep on the couch tonight.

“Where are you going, Stella?” Brooked asked again.

All she had gathered from that miserable dinner without food was that they were over. And where she had been living was no longer hers to call home. That beautiful beachfront apartment wasn’t her home anymore. The left side of that white linen bed wasn’t her safe haven. She didn’t have one anymore. Not her parent’s house in San Francisco. Not her apartment with Brooke in Austin. Not even Jaimee’s shitty Craigslist couch.
“Can you stay with Jaimee tonight?”"She lives with Jesse now. I can’t be there.”"Any family down there? Or friends?”"No. My family is all in San Francisco and any friends, my whole life here, was through Mike.”"Pull over. Please. And stay on the line.”

Unable to think for herself anymore, she did what Brooke said, pulled her car over and put it in park. A level of anxiety came over her that she had never experienced before. Her breaths were short and her chest was tightening by the second. She pulled her seatbelt off hoping it would help. How had she missed this? Just yesterday he was pulling her close and kissing her as the sun set. He was calling her gorgeous and holding her tightly as they fell asleep. She had been living this entirely strange, new life in LA that revolved around him. Mike had been her world. She didn’t know anything outside of him. Everything familiar to her changed in an instant and there she sat in a car on the side of the road trying to remember how breathing worked.

Every version of how the next hour, day, week would play out could image was worse than the last. Where could she go? Who could she go to? What was she going to do?

“I’m back,” Brooke’s voice cut through the silence darkening internal monologue.  Stella picked the phone back up, grateful for the interruption.

“I’m texting you an address. You’ll be safe there. Follow my instructions.”

“Brooke, stop. I don’t need a safe house no one is trying to kill me.”

“When you get there, pull up to the gate, use the call box to call security tell them your name, they’ll have it on a list by the time you get there and will let you in.”

“Let me in where?”

“James’s house. Nobody will be there. His parents are in Santorini this week. Call me if you have any problems.”

“I’m not going there, Brooke.”

“Yes, you are!”

“No. I refuse!”

“Oh, okay, so you’d prefer to sleep in your car tonight? My mistake. Just give me a shout tomorrow to tell me how bad your back hurts, then when I offer you painkillers just slap those away too.”

The called ended and Stella looked at her phone to see if Brooke had actually hung up. Seconds later a text message from Brooke came through.

“I’ll just leave this here… 22413 Ellice Street, Malibu”

The silence forced Stella to mentally run through her options. Jaimee and Jesse’s place was definitely out. Sure it was a pride thing but that mattered since she had so little left. She tossed around the names of the few friends she had and realized none of those people were the kind of friends that would be there for in the middle of the night. In LA no one was your friend unless you had something to offer – a harsh realization during her stint with unemployment.

She tapped the address to open up navigation on her phone.

Stella turned on to Ocean Avenue to see her gorgeous building, her home looking ominesce in the night sky. She drove passed her building, refusing to look at it, made a left down the California Street incline, then headed north on the Pacific Coast Highway in the direction of Malibu.

About thirty-five minutes later she followed her GPS’s direction up Yerba Buena and down a private drive until she came to a large gate. She hesitated for a long time before finally pushing the call button. A remote security guard came through the speaker and asked what her name was. Moments later a massive gate began to open in front of her. She pulled ahead slowly and parked next to a corvette and an Escalade. The house looked dark, so she assumed the cars must just stay there permanently.

The security guard digitally unlocked the front door for her as well. She stepped in carefully. It was strange walking into someone’s home without them being there. All permissions had been granted and yet she still felt like she was doing something highly illegal. She probably would have gotten a small high from it if not for the events that led her there still so fresh in her mind. She set her purse down slowly and started to walk around.

At the sight of the first bed in the first bed she came across, one of many she assumed, a wave of tiredness ran through her and all she wanted to do was sleep. She found bedroom, one of many she assumed, crawled under the covers in her clothes. She shut her eyes and worked to breath through the tightness in her chest. She felt warm tears stream down the sides of her face until she finally drifted off to sleep.