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A Baby For Kristos: The Greek Tycoon's Surprise

[A Baby For Kristos
**
**]The Greek Tycoon’s Surprise

 

 

By Holly Rayner

 

Copyright 2016 by Holly Rayner

 

All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part by any means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without the explicit written permission of the author.

 

All characters depicted in this fictional work are consenting adults, of at least eighteen years of age. Any resemblance to persons living or deceased, particular businesses, events, or exact locations are entirely coincidental.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Table Of Contents:

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

 

 

 

ONE

 

 

Emma

 

 

It all started with a really crappy day. I know that’s not the most auspicious start to things, but really, the whole day was a tribute to Murphy’s Law; everything that could have gone wrong, did.

 

It started in the morning, when the alarm I’d set didn’t go off. I’d been exhausted when I set the damn thing, and I’d accidentally selected PM instead of AM, and woke up at about 10:45, with all of fifteen minutes to shower, get dressed, and drive out to the Laurel Price Talent Agency.

 

I wasn’t famous enough to be late, so I dove into the shower like a mad woman, my long red hair flying in all directions. I’d thought about cutting it, but everyone liked it long, and in my line of work, you give the people what they want. I turned on the water, and promptly screamed.

 

When you’re in a hurry, you forget a great many basic things, like how long it takes the water to heat up. I leaped out of the spray, nearly slipping in the tub, grabbed my loofah sponge, and waited impatiently. When the water finally got warm, I soaped up and started scrubbing.

 

Two minutes later, I stepped out, stinging soap in my brown eyes, feeling around for a towel like a Night of the Living Dead zombie. Laurel was a half hour away with traffic, and I had ten minutes. I dove into my black dress and flats, anticipating that I was going to need to run, then shot out the door of my tiny apartment, bumping straight into the last person I wanted to see right then: my landlady.

 

“Why, it’s Emma Johnson,” she said, in saccharine tones. “You seem to be confused, dear, so allow me to clear something up. This is not, I repeat, not a homeless shelter.”

 

Her voice always reminded me of an evil Aunt Bea. She was gaunt and wrinkled, her eyes sharp and beady. It almost felt like they could see you through the walls.

 

“I came to tell you that a nice young woman has expressed interest in renting an apartment here. I know you won’t mind if I give her a tour of yours, because if you are unable to produce the rent in the next day or two, it pains me to tell you that you will no longer be occupying it.”

 

I don’t have time for this! I thought to myself, but I was already a good three weeks behind on my rent. Given that it was the third time in as many months, running past this woman was a very bad idea. So was fighting her about people touring my apartment. The smart thing to do was get to my car as fast as humanly possible.

 

“I’m sorry your rent is late, Mrs. Coleman,” I began, doing my best to sound sincere. “I’m going to do something about that right this minute. But I really need to go now. I’m very late. I’ll come see you the day after tomorrow.”

 

“I truly hope so,” she simpered sweetly, letting me pass. “I’ve always said you have such nice things. It would be a crying shame if I were forced to put them out in the street.”

 

I didn’t say anything. There wasn’t time. At that point, the best case scenario was I’d show up half an hour late.

 

I ran outside, and into a cloudburst. Just imagine my luck. California’s in the middle of a drought, but the little rain that is falling somehow managed to find me. I did a lot of swearing and ran to my car: a white Malibu from two or three years ago. It was nothing fancy, but it got the job done without using too much gas or breaking down too often.

 

I barreled down the streets of North Hollywood, weaving through the lanes, and yelling at drivers to get out of my way. There were two things waiting for me at that talent agency: an audition for a national commercial, and preliminary instructions for the reality show I was going to appear on that evening.

 

When I’d moved to LA from Arizona, I had hoped to do more than sell shampoo and go on televised dates, but bill collectors don’t give a damn about your dreams, so that’s precisely what I was racing to do. The pay for the reality show was described as “generous” but I couldn’t afford not to have a backup just in case. They could always cut my part, and if I didn’t get a paycheck soon, I was going to be out in the street.

 

I reached the agency at 11:40, and dashed straight up the stairs to the third-floor waiting room. I had tried out for so many parts here in the last few months that the woman at the front desk knew me on sight. Her name was Ms. Rosen. She was small and pale, about forty years old, and had a few wrinkles and a very thin smile. She shook her head reproachfully as she came into my field of vision, and instinctively I knew all my hurrying had been for nothing.

 

“They called you three times, honey, but you didn’t answer. They moved on, and gave the part to an up-and-coming named Melanie Pond. Your agent isn’t happy, and you need to run up to her office right this minute.” She said it all matter-of-factly, in a quiet, even tone, as if she wasn’t reading me a death sentence.

 

I thanked her curtly and headed upstairs. If the reality show didn’t work out now, I was pretty much screwed. I had nothing to fall back on, and it was all because of a stupid alarm. On top of that, my agent was waiting in her office, simmering in her displeasure. It wasn’t even noon yet, but I was sure my day couldn’t get worse. I was wrong.

 

You’d think a Hollywood agent would have a fancy office, but Margaret Thune’s merely had a small desk, a file cabinet, two chairs for guests, and a water cooler. Margaret was sitting at her desk, furiously typing away on her laptop. When she saw me, I got an icy stare, and she went back to typing.

 

I coughed politely, cleared my throat, and shuffled about, but the woman took no notice of me. Finally, she glanced up from what she was doing, and pointed at one of the chairs. She was twenty-six, only three years older than me, but the way she was ordering me about, she might as well have been my mother. I sat down in spite of my misgivings, and struggled to master my anger.

 

“You made me look like a fool just now,” Margaret finally began, in slow, dangerous, tones. “I spent the last half hour trying to convince the Bare Necessities representative to wait just a little while longer because the perfect candidate would be arriving any minute. I spent all that time talking you up, telling them you’d make their ads shine, only to have you be a no show. This sort of thing tarnishes your reputation as well as mine, Emma. You’re making it really hard for me to do my job!”

 

“I’m sorry,” I apologized. “It was the stupid al—”

 

“I don’t care what it was, Emma. There’s no room for laziness in this business. You wanna play in the majors, you show up on time. Movie careers have blossomed from advertising gigs. If this happens again, you’re on your own. I’m not wasting my time if you’re not serious.”

 

“Just a minute!” I roared, rising to my full height, and gazing into her cold, narrow eyes.

 

She overruled me with a wave of her thin white hand, and a pursing of her crimson lips. “We’re going to discuss your assignment this evening,” she returned coldly. “For God’s sake, don’t be late for it. You’re to be at the Merridoc at seven sharp. When you get there, you’ll go straight to wardrobe and get your script for the evening. You’ve heard of Date Roulette I assume?”

 

“Yeah,” I replied stiffly. “It’s constructed reality. Kind of like the show I did last month.”

 

“Right,” Margaret replied dismissively. “Follow the script exactly, and you’ll be home free. I don’t have anything else lined up for you yet, so if you mess this up, you’re on your own.”

 

She dismissed me like I was an army private, and I got out of there, swearing under my breath.

 

No question about it, Margaret was a hard-ass. But I needed her, and she was good at what she did. I’d been on twelve television programs because of her. Two months ago, she landed me a role as an inspector on that show about a paper company that everyone loves. It was only a tiny role in two episodes, but I’d got to be a part of one of the most popular shows in the country. Margaret had also got me bit parts in four commercials, including the one where the kids love me because I make them pizza rolls. That one allowed me to make last month’s rent and my car payment. Now she had gotten me on Date Roulette, a show more popular than any I had done before. It was going to be my largest audience yet. Hard-ass or not, I didn’t want Margaret even thinking of dropping me.

 

I went back downstairs, and out into the rain, to find something I could afford for lunch. Six or seven glamorous restaurants caught my attention, but my money hid deep in my purse at the sight of them. I ended up in a cheap sandwich shop, gnawing at an even cheaper chicken Caesar wrap. Two tables down, a six-year-old was shouting herself silly, climbing all over the booth she and her mother were in. When I looked over, her mother blushed red with embarrassment. She was trying in vain to get her little girl to settle down, bribing her with smartphone videos.

 

The rest of the day went by pretty much like that: one annoyance after another. By 6:45 that evening, I was stuck in traffic and swearing like a pack of devils.

 

“Parking’s gonna suck,” I told myself flatly. There was no point holding out hope.

 

It felt like everyone in Hollywood was trying to get to the Merridoc, and I had to weave through traffic and cut past a few people on my way there. I saw many a middle finger flashed my way, but I didn’t care; being late again was not an option.

 

I shot into the right lane like a woman possessed, just ahead of a sedan, and drove in the wake of an ambulance for three blocks.

 

“The hell are ya doin’, lady?” some guy shouted, nearly running into me.

 

I ignored him and drove on, feeling adrenaline pump through my veins. By the time the restaurant came into view, I was sure every cop in the city would be behind me, like the ending of Blues Brothers.

 

I pulled my car into the parking lot, amazed that it was still unscathed, and saw what I’d known I would: every single space was taken. It was the perfect end to a terrible day. I was five minutes late, with nowhere to park.

 

I was just considering taking my chances and parking it on the street when a miracle happened. Just a few spaces ahead of me, a car’s lights flashed to life. Someone was pulling out of a space. For the first time today, something was going right. That space might as well have come with a light from heaven and its own choir.

 

Just at that moment, I saw a car beside me, a sleek, black Audi that had to have cost more than a small house. I tensed: it was heading for the space as well, but after all I had been through today, there was no natural way anyone else was getting it. I slammed my foot on the accelerator, cut ahead of my competition, and made a very sharp turn into the empty lot.

 

My heart was beating much faster than usual, and I felt like I had just come off a runaway roller coaster. Collecting myself, I got out of my car and smoothed the wrinkles that had formed in my dress.

 

“Who the hell do you think you are?” a clear voice suddenly shouted. It had a slight Mediterranean accent. “You cut me up and nearly ran into my car! If you don’t know how to drive, stay the hell off the road. What makes you think you have the right to cut in front of people?”

 

“I saw it first,” I returned simply, turning to look at the guy yelling at me.

 

I swear he looked like he belonged in a movie. My first thought was that he was one of the bachelors I would be “dating” that evening. If the other two looked anything like him, doing the show might not be so bad after all.

 

He was tall, a few inches over six feet, with olive skin that had been further tanned in the sun. Even through the expensively-tailored suit he was wearing, it was obvious that he had a chiseled body. He had a strong jaw and short, wavy, black hair that shone under the lights of the parking lot. A neatly trimmed beard covered his face, which at the moment, was set firmly in an expression of rage.

 

“You saw it first?” he shouted, walking towards me. “What are you? Five? I was about to pull in, and you had to nearly kill us both to stop me.”

 

I was about to reply when I remembered I was already late, for the second time that day. I didn’t want whoever was in charge to find me in the middle of a shouting match, as opposed to in wardrobe, so I turned away and stepped inside the Merridoc.

 

“Get back here!” the man ordered. “I’m talking to you!”

 

The restaurant looked like a fifties nightclub, complete with the grand stage and intimate lighting. TV cameras were mounted in a ring around the rear of the room, and each one had a perfect view of the tables with their golden tablecloths. Fine crystal shone in the artificial candlelight, and silver sat at every place setting.

 

Before I could see anything else, a stocky Hispanic woman grabbed my arm. She wasn’t the least bit gentle about it, but I said nothing. It had been too rotten of a day for me to take any more chances.

 

“If you still want to be on this show, you need to get your ass to wardrobe,” she said tersely.

 

Without waiting for any sort of reply from me, she took off in that direction.

 

 

TWO

 

Kristos

 

I strode into the Merridoc in an evil temper. It had not been a good day by any stretch of the imagination.

 

The logistics of booking the restaurant for the evening had been a nightmare. You’d think a production that’s bringing in revenue would have an easier time getting the city to cooperate, but it had taken three hours just negotiating how to secure the area around the damn place. But it had been worth it; celebrities loved the Merridoc, and the viewing audience loved celebrities.

 

I barely got five steps in the building before my production assistant ran up to me. Terrence is a good man, but he’s cursed with the world’s worst timing. It was clear from his face he had a problem that was going to piss me off, and I was already livid about the woman who just snatched my parking space.

 

“Sir,” Terrence began, in a voice that might have been the soundtrack for obsequiousness, “Mr. Elliot just called. He regrets to inform you that a last-minute emergency popped up, and now he won’t be able to make it to the show this evening.”

 

I slipped my hands into the pockets of my slacks to avoid balling them into fists. When you’re in charge of production, it doesn’t look good if you suddenly start throttling people.

“He decided to let us know that an hour before we go live?” I said, exasperated. “I’m going to go ahead and guess that we haven’t got an alternate.”

 

“Er…no, sir, we don’t,” Terrence replied, nervously running a hand through his ponytail. “I’ve made a few brief inquiries, but we haven’t got anyone else on call that can perform live on such short notice.”

 

“Well, we’re not canceling the damn thing,” I asserted. “Not after all the red tape we’ve gone through to get the venue. Go back to the team and start getting things ready. I’m going to head to makeup.”

 

“You’re filling in, sir?” said Terrence.

 

I found the surprise in his tone annoying, but I just nodded. I had far more important things to do than worry about what surprised Terry.

 

When I got to the makeup room, the artists there were surprised to see me too, but they hid it better. What no one seemed to grasp was that my name was on the line, along with my reputation, and the success of the show, and I was willing to do anything to protect that.

 

Twenty minutes later, I left makeup and checked with Terrence to make sure the proper changes had been made to the script, and that the performers knew what was going on. I wasn’t going to shit on them the way Elliot had just done to me.

 

 

THREE

 

Emma

 

The moment I arrived in wardrobe, the costume designer picked out a jade green dress for me to wear. I don’t know about green; it’s not my favorite color, but I’m constantly being told that it highlights the color of my hair. She told me that the other reason this dress had been chosen was that the length of it showed off my legs, which, I’ll admit, are quite long.

 

Speaking of long, that’s the amount of time it took them to apply the makeup and crinkle my hair to just the right degree. No matter how many times this was done to me, I never quite seem to get used to it. When they were done, I thought I looked like Mary Jane’s fancier sister. One of the women shook her head when I told her this, and I was sent outside, where a pale man in a ponytail was waiting for me.

 

“Good evening, Ms. Johnson,” he said, offering me a thin hand.

 

I shook it lightly, watching him closely. The dress wasn’t tight, but it hugged my body pretty well, and the man in front of me was making a valiant effort to keep his eyes straight ahead.

 

“My name is Terry Cross, and I’m an assistant to the executive producer. I’m here to run you through the script for this evening. As you probably already know, we’re going to need you to be outgoing, effusive, and generally likable. You’ll go on three dates, one of which will be with a wealthy gentleman. Keith Elliot canceled on us, so Kristos Metroupolos, the executive producer, has offered to step in. You’ll date him first, and then two other gentlemen. Then you’ll be offered a choice: take some money or ask one of the men for a second date. You’re to ask the second guy you date if he’d like to go out with you again. He’ll turn you down. And that’s the show. Have you got all that?”

 

“Yes,” I replied, feeling slightly upset that I was going to be rejected on national television.

 

“The guy will seem like a huge jerk,” Terry continued, as if reading my mind. “People will think of him as the villain. Villains attract audiences who love to hate them, and are eager to see them get their comeuppance. Having one around is good for business.”

 

“That makes sense,” I replied, being careful to keep my voice even.

 

Terry escorted me to the set, and the moment I stepped onto the floor, surrounded by the nightclub tables, my heart leaped into my throat.

 

“This is Mr. Metroupolos, miss. He will be your first date tonight.”

 

I took one look at the guy and swore audibly. I was becoming convinced that this day was cursed. It was the same man from the parking lot.

 

I could barely breathe. I had just been arguing with the show’s executive producer! Today was definitely going down in history as the absolute worst I could remember. Kristos’ blue eyes were still flaring with anger, and I prayed to God for the safety of my paycheck.

 

“You again?” he said with bitter shock. “You’re the contestant I’m dating?” He shook his head disbelievingly.

 

“That’s right,” I said, struggling to sound calm. “Mr. Cross just took me through the script.”

 

“I hope you didn’t walk away in the middle of that, too,” he sniped coldly.

 

“I didn’t, but then he wasn’t screaming like a monkey,” I replied.

 

I hadn’t meant to say it. It had just slipped out, and I was horrified. In my mind, I saw my rent money going up in smoke. I was certain I was about to go home empty-handed, but Terry suddenly cut in and saved the day.

 

“Ten seconds to air!” he called out. “Actors to first positions!”

 

Kristos went to a table, and I went to the stage.

 

I’m going to have to date this man on live TV, I thought, moving behind the curtains. This is going to be a disaster.

 

I made a mental note to have a talk with God and ask him what I had done to deserve a day like this. A moment later, the cameras flared to life, and we were very suddenly live to millions of people across the country. A sharp-looking man with a salesman’s smile walked up to the stage’s microphone with carefree ease.

 

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Date Roulette, the show where everyone has a chance at love. My name is Matt Summers, and I’ll be your host. Let’s meet tonight’s lovely contestant. Hailing from Chandler, Arizona, this stunning redhead loves the theater, long walks on the beach, and drinks with close friends. She’s twenty-three, and works as a model. Without further ado, I present to you, Ms. Emma Johnson.”

 

I don’t care who you are, it boosts your ego just a little bit to be called stunning on live TV.

 

I came out slowly, giving the cameras a chance to pan over me, before I took my place beside Matt.

 

“Hi Matt,” I began, in the bright, sweet voice I was certain America wanted to hear. I shook his hand with gentle firmness. The handshake wasn’t in the script, but it seemed harmless, and I wanted to do something slightly assertive before I sold my soul for the rent money.

 

“Hello, Emma,” he replied easily. “A pleasure to meet you. And now let’s talk to the men you’ll be dating.”

 

Remembering how many people could see us, I forced myself to smile at this, and be led to Kristos, who was disguising his feelings admirably. The plan was to have us simulate a dinner date, so in short order, the two of us were at a table near the front.

 

We were served champagne, and Kristos started sipping his while he thought of something to say. I had an idea, though, and after a sip or two of my own, I spoke up.

 

“Kristos isn’t a name you hear every day,” I intoned. “Can I ask where it comes from?”

 

“Greece,” he answered at once, something like pride in his tone of voice. “I was raised in Patras, in the west.”

 

“I’ve always wanted to visit Greece. How long did you live there for?” I asked, sounding way more interested than I really was.

 

“Twenty years. It is a truly beautiful country, Patras in particular. Breathtaking mountains surround one edge of the city, and pristine beaches come up to meet the other.”

 

He waxed lyrical about Greece for a minute or two, and then asked me what Chandler had been like. I told him about the mix of cultures there, and before long, we were absorbed in conversation.

 

Dinner arrived: grilled salmon and wild rice, by which point I had almost forgotten we were being filmed. I looked across from me to find Kristos looking as surprised as I felt. Somehow, this “date” of ours was actually working.

 

On the stage, Kendall East was singing one of his newest songs. Kendall was a minor celebrity who had risen to fame serenading teenagers on YouTube. I ignored him. I was beginning to become far more interested in Kristos. Now that he was calm, he seemed lively and full of good humor. His mood was kind of infectious.

 

“My father rapped his knuckles against a wall,” he was saying, “and told his customers the house was solid, and would last forever. He leaned against the wall and continued to make his pitch, when suddenly, he fell right through to the other side. A piece of plaster fell from the ceiling in the next room, and hit him on the head. That’s when I ran for the door screaming ‘the sky is falling’ like Chicken Little. Needless to say, he didn’t sell the house that day.”

 

I was quaking with laughter when the date suddenly ended, and was shocked to discover that we had been talking for only fifteen minutes. When Matt took me to meet my date for the next fifteen minutes, Kristos looked genuinely disappointed to see me go.

 

I should have known that things weren’t going to keep going as well as they had been. Date number two was with Kyle who, in ways large and small, was playing a certified asshole. The first thing he did was criticize me for wearing makeup. Something about “real women” not being afraid to go natural.

 

Our date took place on the dancefloor. I’m a good dancer, but Kyle was excellent. He twisted and turned with little regard for my ability to keep up, so that I ended up looking stupid by comparison. Since I couldn’t tell him off and walk away like I would in any realm of reality, I suggested we try something a little slower. It turned out to be a fantastic idea. He was less showy and more careful of me. A celebrity dance instructor named Helen Wells took the opportunity to give us a ballroom dancing lesson. We got through that without incident, and I moved on to my last date for the evening.

 

My last date was with a man who was polite, handsome, and an excellent dresser. His only problem was that he was boring. Incredibly so. I was aware there was a camera following me the entire time he was talking, but that only barely kept me from nodding off. I felt jealous of the people watching with a DVR that could skip ahead a few minutes.

 

“Time’s up!” Matt said to my sincere relief. “And now, Emma, it’s time for the moment of truth. I want you to consider this very carefully. In my hand, I hold an envelope. In that envelope is a check, and on that check is an amount that could be anything from one dollar to five thousand. You can now choose to either take the check, or you can ask one of these gentlemen for a second date, and perhaps gain something more important. The choice is yours, but before you make it, I want you to shake hands one more time with each of your dates.”

 

I moved to comply, and when I reached Kristos, he leaned in and quietly whispered something in my ear.

 

“When he asks you to choose, ignore the script and pick me.”

 

I gave him an unsure look. Against all odds, he had been the best of the three dates, and I had to admit that I wanted to spend more time with him. On the other hand, deviating from the script was risky. I absolutely needed that paycheck. Mrs. Coleman was not understanding in the least, and I had blown my only other hope for work earlier today.

 

I shook hands with the other two bachelors and returned to my post beside Matt.

 

“Are you ready to make your choice, Emma?” he asked dramatically.

 

“Yes, Matt, I am,” I replied in my television voice.

 

“Will you take the money?” he asked, holding the envelope out to me. “Remember, I could be handing you five thousand dollars. It’s very hard for me to think of a legal way for you to make that much in under an hour.”

 

“I know,” I replied, “but I have to follow my heart.” It was the corniest schlock anyone could have uttered. But Americans love their Disney, especially in Hollywood, and if you give the people what they want, you get to take the money and run.

 

“Alright then,” Matt said, opening the envelope dramatically. “Let’s see how much money Emma has just turned down.” There was a drumroll, which I thought was a bit much, and then he held up a check that was made out to me in the amount of three thousand four hundred dollars. I didn’t need to act. I was appropriately disturbed for a moment, before I remembered that I was getting paid for this.

 

“Now Emma,” Matt continued, almost comically tearing up the check. “Tell me, which of these guys did you give up over three thousand dollars for?”

 

“Kyle,” I said after a dramatic pause. “I thought we got off to a good start. You’re a really good dancer, and a lot of fun to be around. Will you go out on a second date with me?” I made my face look adorably hopeful so that it would grip the audience more when he said no.

 

I could see Kristos’ face. He did not look happy. Beside him, Kyle didn’t look much better. He looked like he wanted to defy orders himself, until the camera fell on him. At that moment, his features suddenly exuded arrogance, like that one guy that’s the rich, evil, jerk in just about every movie.

 

“Emma, you are absolutely gorgeous, but I need someone who isn’t afraid to be natural, and someone who’s more open to trying new things. Unfortunately, I have to say no.”

 

The cameras turned to me expectantly, and I let my face fall. Matt put a comforting hand on my shoulder, and gave Kyle an impressive glare.

 

“Emma, I am truly sorry,” Matt said consolingly. “Personally, I think Kyle’s a moron to pass up a woman as beautiful and intelligent as you are. But I don’t write the rules, so we have to send you home now.”

 

“That’s alright,” I answered quietly, pretending to put up a brave front. “I had a wonderful time tonight.”

 

“I’m glad to hear that, Emma, and I do hope you’ll come back and join us again. I’m Matt Summers, and I want to thank you for watching Date Roulette. Goodnight, everybody, and remember: everyone has a chance at love.”

 

The cameras were turned off, and I headed back to wardrobe to turn in the dress they had given me. I collected my pay and made my way slowly out of the Merridoc. I denied it to myself, but I was looking for Kristos. He was nowhere to be found, and I reluctantly headed out to the parking lot.

 

When I got to my car, I got a shock. Kristos was leaning against my Malibu with sort of a smug look on his face.

 

“Um…can I help you?” I asked, trying to sound casual.

 

“You’re a very intriguing woman, Emma,” he replied. “I’d like to get to know you better. I thought we could get a drink somewhere.”

 

“I’ve already told you no twice tonight,” I curtly reminded him. “I didn’t let you have the parking space, and I didn’t pick you as you suggested.” I was perfectly fine with having a drink with him, but I saw no reason to make it obvious.

 

“And that’s exactly why I’m here,” he returned. “I don’t like to take no for an answer. Besides, talking to you has been the highlight of my day.”

 

“You should really leave the acting to me,” I joked, before we headed to a high-end bar two blocks down.

 

 

 

FOUR

 

 

The bar Kristos chose was called The Legendary, and it was sort of a landmark in the area. Apparently, it had originally been a speakeasy during Prohibition, and since the elite kept coming afterward, its owners had decided to go legitimate.

 

We sat at one of the small, elegant, tables, and Kristos decided to start with a rum and coke. I opted for a Long Island iced tea, and my new Greek acquaintance opened the conversation.

 

“So what brought you here?” he asked as I took a drink.

 

“You did, remember?” I replied with a laugh.

 

He gave me a look of plainly false scorn. “I mean, what brought you to California?”

 

“I wanted to get into movies. I always have. When I was younger, I saw Interview with the Vampire. There’s a girl named Claudia who becomes a vampire as a child, and can never grow older. She’s tormented by it. The girl who played her put a ton of depth and devotion into the character. I thought that was an amazing thing, to be able to do that, and I wanted to give life to characters too, so I started getting into drama at school. When I got better, I wanted to start trying out in talent shows, but my parents thought the whole thing was a waste of time and money.”

 

“I heard something similar growing up,” Kristos interjected sympathetically. “Did you manage to change their minds?”

 

I laughed, shaking my head. “That’s sort of like trying to get an elephant to move when it doesn’t want to. Instead, I got a job, and paid for the fees and transport myself. The first few times, I didn’t even place, but after a while, I was hitting second or third. Sometimes, I got gigs in little community shows. I rarely got paid, but when I did, I put it into getting more recognition. But my family, especially my mother, tried to force me in another direction. ‘Nurses are more in demand than movie stars, Emma, and it’s far more likely to provide a stable life for you.’ Things came to a head when I turned sixteen, and won a scholarship to a theater camp in DC. I had pretty much killed myself to pull that off. Between school, practice, and a part-time job, getting that scholarship felt like climbing Mount Everest to me.”

 

The waitress came back to check on us, and we ordered another round of drinks. They appeared a moment later, as if by magic.

 

“And after you told them that, your parents still forbade you to go, didn’t they?” Kristos said, picking up our conversation. He sounded bitter.

 

“They did, and so I ran away. I got a friend of mine to drive me to Washington. I had to chip in for gas, and we could only afford chips and other cheap snacks. But my friend had a cousin who lived in the city, and her parents agreed to house me for the three weeks I’d be there. To me, everything seemed perfect.”

 

Kristos was impressed that I’d risked so much to follow my dream, and I told him how my parents had flown to DC and waited for me at the theater camp. I told him how I ran away again two years later, and struggled to support myself while I found an agent.

 

We started talking about his early life. Apparently, his family had been in real estate for several generations. As he was telling me how he escaped taking up that mantle, I realized that he was starting to slur his words, just every now and then. Dully I realized that my head was swimming, and I tried to remember how many drinks I’d had. I lost count twice; not a good sign. I might have been concerned, but Kristos chose that moment to start telling production stories.

 

One of his earlier shows had a shoot that was held up for twenty minutes because someone made the mistake of bringing their kid to work. The little brat saw the camera and, of course, leapt in front of it and started singing her favorite Our Rainbow Pony songs. The adults tried to catch her, but the little girl was fast. No matter where she ran, she kept coming back to the camera and singing. Kristos was drunkenly miming her actions, laughing voluminously as he did so. I could hardly breathe I was laughing so hard, and soon, we were falling all over each other.

 

“This is not what I planned to do when I saw you again,” he said after a while. “I was planning to yell at you about something or other. This is better, though.” His head was on my shoulder, and I put my arms around him in sort of a sloppy hug.

 

“What’cha wanna yell for,” I asked. “Ya need to let it go.” At that, I started to sing, but Kristos stopped me with a remark about how beautiful I’d looked in the green dress.

 

“You shoulda picked me,” he said, pulling me close to him. “I really liked talking to you.”

 

With a little bit of stumbling, he pulled himself up, and kissed me. A sharp heat ran up my spine, and I impulsively tightened my grip, matching his efforts.

 

Eventually he pulled away and whispered something in my ear.

 

“I don’t think I’m drunk enough to do that here,” I giggled.

 

“Bartender! One more!” Kristos cried.

 

Somehow, I got him to pay the check instead. We walked back out front, where Kristos’ chauffeur, a very sober man named Stanton, was waiting to take us anywhere we wanted.

 

In the back of the car, we resumed the interrupted bout of kissing. I was distantly shocked at how readily I was responding to Kristos, who was already fondling me eagerly. I took my cue from him, and slipped a hand between his open shirt buttons. I caressed the taut muscles of his chest, and felt shivers of pleasure run through my body. The cologne he was wearing was becoming intoxicating, as was the hand running along my thigh.

 

By the time we got to his place—a luxurious penthouse apartment that he said was only for weekdays—Kristos and I were on autopilot. My dress had been unzipped, and I’d accidentally popped two of his buttons. I don’t remember exactly how we got to the bedroom, but we collapsed on the bed in a knot of heat and lust. Kristos managed to disengage my bra with one hand, and I had his pants off in a flash. Within moments, we were writhing in fierce passion, making the halls echo with our satisfied moans.

 

 

FIVE

 

I awoke the next morning to an angry buzzing noise that, for the first couple of minutes, I was sure was coming from my head. Eventually, the fog lifted enough for me to realize it was my smartphone. I groped around and found it on the nightstand. I didn’t even bother to see who it was before I picked up.

 

“Hello,” I asked, in a voice that was heavy with sleep, and the voice of my agent answered me. I didn’t recognize it at first, because it was full of things I’d seldom heard there before. Like excitement. “Margaret? Is that you? What’s going on?” I asked groggily.

 

“You are,” she replied, sounding highly pleased. “A number of industry insiders saw your performance yesterday. They seem to think that they could use a talent like yours. It’s only nine and I’ve already booked you for a good three weeks of auditions!”

 

“You’re kidding…” I replied, perking up at once.

 

“I don’t really have a sense of humor, Emma. You should know that by now. The first one audition’s at 3PM tomorrow, but I want to discuss some preliminaries with you later today.”

 

“Sure!” I sputtered badly, still in shock. I was closer than I had ever been to the career I wanted. I was elated.

 

I started to disentangle myself from the blanket when I felt a light pressure about halfway down. Kristos had fallen asleep with his hand on my ass. I eased it off gently, not wanting to wake him. The conversation that follows a night like the one we had is always awkward and complicated and was not a conversation I wanted to have right at that moment. Even if I did, there wasn’t time. I had to get home, clean up and change, pay the dragon lady her rent, and go and see Margaret.

 

I searched for my panties, and found them hanging off one of my ankles. Slipping them on, I donned my bra, zipped up my dress, and headed out into the world. Stanton had been nice enough to fetch my car from the restaurant, so effecting my escape was easy.

 

I pinched myself several times on the way home, but when I didn’t wake up, I started to believe that it wasn’t a dream. After struggling for nearly my entire life, it seemed like my moment in the sun had finally arrived. I drove slowly and carefully, despite my excitement. I’d already gotten one ticket yesterday. I didn’t need another.

 

I stopped off at my bank and cashed the Date Roulette check at the ATM. Then I deposited everything I wouldn’t need for the rent, and drove back to my apartment, for the first time in a long time actually hoping to run into Mrs. Coleman.

 

Sure enough, I found her easily. She was standing at front door, measuring it with a tape measure.

 

“I think their bed will fit through here after all,” she said when she saw me.

 

“No it won’t,” I replied, shoving the money in her face.

 

She counted it in front of me. “It seems you did take care of it, dearie,” she said when she saw it was all there. “Congratulations. I’ll be back in a week for next month’s.” She might as well have cackled like the Wicked Witch of the West, and flown away on the broom in my kitchen.

 

I gave the woman a surreptitious middle finger before darting inside my apartment and slamming the door as loudly as I dared. My anger evaporated almost instantly when I remembered the spate of auditions waiting for me; I would likely never have to worry about paying that woman late again. I got dressed quickly and decided to treat myself to breakfast at a nearby café to celebrate.

 

 

 

SIX

 

The next day found me at Laurel, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, by 10:45 precisely. I did not want a repeat of the other day. Not when things were finally beginning to look up. The preliminaries with Margaret had gone quite well. She’d been approachable and light-hearted, almost like I suddenly had a new agent. Once or twice, she had even smiled.

 

Today she was introducing me to Richard Morris, a man who was famous for producing some of the better sitcoms of the seventies and eighties. He was working on a reboot of his newsroom drama Penny Lane, and I was being considered for the titular character’s best friend.

 

“It’s an honor to meet you, Mr. Morris,” I said. And I meant it. I grew up watching his shows online, and the way they’d managed to tackle some of the toughest issues of the time in an entertaining, accessible way, had stuck with me.

 

“Thank you,” he replied in a low voice. “My assistants tell me your performance the night before last was outstanding. I wonder if you might read a few lines of this,” he said, handing me a manuscript.

 

I nodded, and approached one of the audition rooms. I spent an hour and a half with Richard Morris, and another four on the three auditions that came afterward. I had never been so tired, but I was happy. Any one of these tryouts could launch the career that I had been working for since high school. It was all within my reach and I appreciated that more than anyone knew.

 

“Just a little bit more,” I told myself as I drove back toward my apartment, fantasies of sleep swelling in my mind. I could already see my bed, warm and inviting, calling to me to stop running around and relax. Those thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the last thing I was expecting to hear: the voice of my mother.

 

I had to pull over. There was nothing else for it. I hadn’t spoken to my mother in over four years. After I ran away to Washington DC, our relationship had irrevocably changed. To me, the theater camp had represented everything that was important in my life. It would have allowed me to work with well-respected actors, and many of its graduates had ended up having successful careers in television—usually that one cop show with the special victims unit. It was a dream I had poured everything into, and on top of everything else, I had gotten a scholarship. But none of that had prevented my mother removing me from the program and dragging me back to Arizona. It had been the most painful moment of my teenage years. Despite all my efforts, it had seemed like my own mother had no faith in me.

 

It had taken a long time to get me back to Arizona, and I told her every hurtful thing that occurred to me along the way: that she was a horrible mother who couldn’t be bothered to believe in her daughter or support her dreams; that I’d performed in plays and talent shows without a smidgen of support from her; that strangers had shown me more love than she ever had.

 

After that, my parents had agreed that since I believed that total strangers loved me more than they did, I was free to go live with them whenever I wanted. I couldn’t afford to move out, so I stayed. I rarely spoke to my mother, and she rarely spoke to me; that was the only thing we agreed on. The moment I turned eighteen, I left for Los Angeles.

 

What on earth does she have to say to me now? I wondered uneasily.

 

“I saw you on TV the other night,” she began in a low, stiff voice, “and a few times before, actually. Whether you believe me or not, I’m glad you got what you wanted.”

 

“Bullshit,” I responded, and hung up.

 

It was a short conversation, but it stuck like a splinter in my mind. Why had my mother said that? She had done everything she could to keep me from acting, and now I was supposed to believe she was glad I’d made it work? I wasn’t buying it. Not after all this time. I told myself she probably wanted to butter me up now that I was appearing on national television. She was seeing me getting better jobs, she obviously wanted to bury the hatchet before I became too big for her to reach me.

 

“It’ll be a cold day in Hell…” I spat, starting up the engine and trying to recover the joy I had been feeling only moments before.

 

Nothing I did made the slightest bit of difference, and I reached my apartment in a foul mood. Over the next two days, I forced all thought of my mother from my mind. I buried myself in auditions, meetings, practices, and whatever else I could think of. Eventually, I was back to feeling genuinely happy again. The role of Penny Lane looked promising, and I was beginning to form contacts I knew would be important later. I was going over an audition with one of those contacts, Kristina Bell, a semi-famous choreographer, when she casually mentioned Date Roulette, and set alarm bells ringing in my head.

 

All the work and excitement had completely driven Kristos from my mind. He had neither my phone number, nor my address, so I didn’t expect to hear from him after I left his house. But he was on my mind now, or more specifically, the fact that the first condom we’d used during our drunken encounter had broken. Granted, he’d pulled out and put a new one on, but that wasn’t exactly foolproof. I had planned to get the morning after pill, just in case, but apparently Plan B doesn’t work if you forget to take it. The pill was effective for three days, and I was currently halfway through day four.

 

I tried to reassure myself that my anxiety was most likely unwarranted. Millions of people have random sexual encounters, I reminded myself, and most of those never result in pregnancy. I told myself that I was being too cautious, and that I had more than enough to worry about with my audition schedule. In a couple of days, I was going to be considered for the role of Juliet in a satirical version of the Shakespeare play, and I had several pages of lines to learn. I was also a candidate for a tongue-in-cheek homage to the famous Mac versus PC commercial from a while ago.

 

I turned my attention back to the audition I was preparing and forced all thoughts of pregnancy and babies out of my mind.

 

“Right there,” I remarked to Kristina, “I keep losing the pacing right about there.”

 

“That’s because you keep worrying about the step that comes next. You need to relax and let each of your moves flow naturally from one to the next. Then, and only then, will you be able to get it down.”

 

I took her advice and that of several other experts, sharpening my performances with each passing day. It paid off, and by week’s end, I was a finalist for three different productions. Margaret was as close as she ever got to ecstatic. My mother called twice more, but I ignored her, determined to avoid any and all distractions. White hot anger, I told myself, was not going to get me any closer to the goals I was struggling to achieve.

 

Three weeks later, I was overjoyed to learn that I had won the role of Raven King in the Penny Lane reboot. Filming was due to begin next month, and wrap up sometime near the end of the year. I was going to be the co-star on what promised to be an immensely popular sitcom. I had just become a legitimate TV star. Margaret was already scheduling interviews with media outlets throughout Hollywood, and across the country. My name was trending on Facebook. I swelled with a strange kind of pride when I saw petitions to replace me with someone who ‘isn’t best known for a handful of commercials and losing a reality show’. It was a new and exhilarating feeling, being famous enough to be protested, and I drank it up greedily. I ran through my apartment, whooping and hollering until Mrs. Coleman threatened to toss me out, rent paid or no.

 

“It’s finally happening,” I breathed, struggling to calm down. I tried to apply myself to the mundane tasks I hadn’t had time for in days. I managed to get a little cleaning done, but couldn’t focus on very much else. I’d just switched over to gathering the laundry when an unexpected wave of nausea washed over me. For a moment I was sure I was going to vomit, but in a few minutes, the sensation passed. At that, I took a seat on my bed.

 

‘I’ve gotta be careful about that,” I said to myself. “Too much excitement is going to make me sick, and now is definitely not a good time for that.”

 

Eventually, I managed to calm down a bit and get my house in order. For the next month, my life was consumed by routine, with practices most mornings and interviews in the evenings. Every now and then, I was called in to do a commercial. In my latest, I play a mother whose children go crazy if they don’t get their favorite cereal. Things were going so well I started a savings account. For once, it seemed like everything in my life was going perfectly.

 

Well, almost perfectly. I did have one problem left. I couldn’t get the Greek out of my mind. Not the baby issue. By now I was sure that was a false alarm. I mean him. That confusing mix of coolness and passion. He was forceful, gentle, and mysterious. It didn’t hurt that he looked damn good either. Once or twice, I had been tempted to have Margaret’s secretary fish out his number from the agency’s records. But at the same time, he hadn’t made an effort to call me since our tryst, and I had no intention of looking thirsty.

 

It seemed to me that the proper thing to do was put him out of my mind, where I kept thoughts about my parents, and other unsettling ideas that would otherwise bubble to the surface. The problem with Kristos was that he wouldn’t stay there. Throughout the day, something about him would pop into my mind. In the middle of satirizing Shakespeare, I’d see him leaning against my Malibu with his cavalier attitude. Or I’d be doing a shampoo commercial and start fantasizing about tousled, black, hair. I thanked God I never ended up doing that commercial where the woman makes those sex noises in the shower.

 

When shooting finally began on Penny Lane, I hoped the project’s demanding schedule would finally make me forget about Kristos. After all, it had been two months. I was sure the chances of us meeting again were nonexistent.

 

Again, I was wrong. I was doing my fifteenth take of a scene where Penny is struggling to fire my character for taking advantage of her. I was supposed to dash up the stairs, burst into the newsroom, and demand to know how she could even think of doing such a thing. I made it about halfway up the stairs before a headache hit me with the force of a hammer. Everything went dizzy, and I clung to the railing. From a long way off, I could hear voices.

 

“…okay, Emma? Are you alright?”

 

“Cut, for heaven’s sake! There’s an emergency here.” It was Richard Morris, the show’s producer, with more agitation in his voice than anyone had ever heard there.

 

“Fine,” I replied weakly. “Just a little dizziness. I guess I ought to rest up a bit more between projects.”

 

“That may be,” Richard returned, “but you’d better go see a doctor just in case. We’ll resume filming your scenes tomorrow.”

 

“Thank you, but that won’t be necessary,” I said, standing tall. Delaying a production wasn’t good for anyone’s career, but to a relative unknown like me, it could be devastating. At this point, unless I was dead or bleeding, the show needed to go on.

 

“Yes it will be,” Ann Montgomery said firmly. Ann was the actress playing Penny Lane, and the niece of the actress who had played her in the original series. “You’re seeing a doctor, Johnson.” She was the star of the show, and as it turned out, her word was final. Forty-five minutes later, I was parked on a hospital bed.

 

“Well, the tests are back,” Dr. Iwata said brightly, tapping her teeth with her pen once or twice. She was a small, young-looking Japanese woman, with soft features and stylish glasses. “You’re pushing yourself too hard, Ms. Johnson. You simply cannot do that in your condition.”

 

“Condition?” I asked, glaring at her intently. That was not a word I wanted to hear right then. I dearly hoped whatever sickness she was about to tell me I had could be treated in a day or two at most. I was so close to stardom. So close to everything I had worked for. I couldn’t come this far just to be replaced.

 

“Yes, Ms. Johnson, your condition. You’re two months pregnant. You need to take care of yourself.”

 

Her words were a bolt from the blue. I started shaking. I tried to reply to her, but my mouth wouldn’t work properly. It was suddenly drier than it had ever been before.

 

The doctor called a nurse over to tend to me right away, telling him I was going into shock. Within ten minutes, I was alright again. Well, I wasn’t alright. Nowhere near. But I was stable.

 

“You didn’t know?” Dr. Iwata asked, real concern in her voice. “You haven’t been feeling tired or nauseous? No weakness or headaches?”

 

“I..I’ve had all those things,” I stammered, “but I thought it was stress. Are you sure about this…?” I asked, trailing off.

 

Dr. Iwata nodded gravely. “At this point in the process, it would be next to impossible for me to have made a mistake. I can see this has been rather startling news for you, but I want you to try and come to terms with it.”

 

I was barely listening. Every now and then I would nod to give her the impression that I understood what she was saying, but the whole thing just kept rolling over me, and it was all I could do just to keep myself together.

 

Half an hour later, she sent me home, with instructions to stay there and rest for three days. By the time I got there, I was close to tears. What in God’s name was I going to do?

 

 

SEVEN

My bedroom was still a very simple affair. I had only just started earning more money than I was using, and my teenage years had gotten me used to saving. There was a simple queen-sized bed in the middle of one wall, with a nightstand on one side and the door on the other. A chest of drawers with three sections stood opposite the bed, and there was a small television on the center section. There was a mirror in one corner, a tiny bathroom, and a small closet full of clothes, purses, and shoes.

 

I had been in my room for a day and a half at that point, struggling to make sense of my emotions, working hard to steady my nerves, and fighting to keep myself from reaching full panic mode.

 

I hadn’t told Richard or Margaret the news yet, but I would have to soon, and what would happen then? Richard would probably have to fight with Ann to do it, but he might replace me with someone else. He would pretty much have to. After all, Raven was supposed to be a single woman who was constantly hunting for her Mr. Right. Getting a new actress was easier than changing the entire story to include a pregnant woman.

 

As soon as word got out, the commercials would dry up. Even when the product was pizza rolls, most companies wanted a sexy redhead selling their products. With my long legs, flowing hair, and the girls, size C for the record, I fit that bill perfectly in that moment, but I wouldn’t for much longer. On top of that, when the baby came, I wouldn’t have time for anything else because I’d be damned if I’m handing my first child over to some nanny.

 

And then there was Kristos. He was probably more troubling than anything else. We had only met once, and now he was going to be the father of my child. How the hell this was going to work out, I didn’t know. I wasn’t even completely sure how I felt about him; I was attracted to him, that much was certain, but attraction was a far cry from love. What’s more, I had no idea how he felt about me. We hadn’t spoken in two months, so I think it was fair to say that he seemed like a member of Club Hit It and Quit It. What kind of parent was he going to be? Would I even want him in my child’s life? I was pretty sure his Wikipedia page knew more about him than I did.

 

I had been postponing the conversation for nearly two days, but I knew we would have to have it soon. I had little choice in the matter. Sighing, I dug my smartphone out of my purse, and made a call to Margaret’s secretary.

 

Anyone who had ever been to Margaret’s office came out of it with one eternal question: how in God’s name had she ended up hiring Delilah as her secretary? The woman had two brain cells. She had a stereotypical valley girl accent to match her stereotypical valley girl personality, but she affected more professional tones on the phone. She had short blond hair, a round face, and big eyes that went a long way toward making her look like a doll.

 

Delilah knew very little about her job, but her work always exceeded expectations—mainly because the woman had the sort of body men committed murder for. There were three men in the office that might as well have been her minions. One of these, a reedy little nerd named Brian, answered the phone when I called.

 

“Delilah Strong’s desk. Thank you for calling. This is her assistant speaking. May I help you?”

 

I shook my head and sighed when I heard him rattle off that speech.

 

“This is Emma Johnson,” I replied dully. “Delilah’s boss, Ms. Thune, is my agent. I need some contact information for one of my former clients, and I was hoping Delilah could help me locate it.”

 

“Ms. Strong is engaged in a late lunch and won’t be back for some time, but I would be happy to assist you. May I have the name of the client, please?”

 

I shook my head again after I took a quick glance at the clock on my smartphone. Even in my predicament, I felt a little sorry for this guy. It was nearly four o’clock, which probably meant he’d been doing his job, as well as hers, since sometime around noon. Still, I preferred having Brian on the other end of the line; Delilah would have asked questions, he would not.

 

A few moments later, I had Kristos’ office number. After hanging up with Brian, I had to fight the urge to stall for another day or two. I told myself it wouldn’t help matters any, and made the call.

 

The conversation did not go well. I had to tell her why I needed a meeting without actually telling her why I needed a meeting. The world already knew I had been ill on the set; they didn’t need to know about the baby until it couldn’t be helped. I told her we needed to discuss a sensitive, private, matter of some importance. She went away for what felt like a very long time, until she finally reported that I had an appointment for noon the next day.

 

I thanked her and hung up, tossing my phone on the bed before stepping into the shower, hoping the hot water would somehow be soothing. I covered my body in lather, washed my face, and shampooed my hair. Twenty minutes later, I was much wetter, but no less anxious, and it took me what felt like hours before I eventually fell into an uneasy sleep.

 

 

 

EIGHT

 

I woke up the next morning feeling slightly better. Not because I’d calmed down any about the baby situation, only because my room was cold, and the bed felt safe, warm and comforting. It felt like if I could just stay there, everything would get better by itself. Unfortunately, that tactic hadn’t even worked when I was five.

 

I forced myself out of bed and checked the time on my phone. It was already half past ten, and I’d missed two calls from Margaret, who probably wanted to check on me. I made a mental note to call her back as I selected a plain skirt and blouse and started getting dressed. Kristos’ office was further away than the talent agency and I wasn’t going to take the traffic for granted this time. My plan was to get this over with as quickly as possible, to yank off the Band-Aid, as it were.

 

Just before noon, I arrived at the offices of Patras Productions, a tall white building in the middle of downtown Los Angeles. My research had told me that Kristos launched the company on his twenty-third birthday, four years ago, and that, since then, it had so far produced twelve hit shows, of which Date Roulette was the shining star.

 

Inside, I walked through an elegant lobby and took the elevator to his office on the seventeenth floor. After knocking on his door, I went inside and found him sitting on the edge of his desk, looking casually delicious in black slacks and a suede jacket.

 

“Ah, my prodigal date returns,” he opened, smiling. “I woke up and you were nowhere to be found.”

 

“Yeah, I’m sorry about that. I had an early casting call and you were sleeping so peacefully I didn’t want to wake you. But now there’s something very important we need to talk about.”

 

“And what’s that?” he replied coolly.

 

It was clear he had no idea what I was about to say, and my guess was he thought I was here to try and start things up again. I dug in my heels and prepared to set him straight.

 

“I’m pregnant. Two months pregnant. I just found out a few days ago. We need to talk about what happens next.”

 

As I said that last sentence, every bit of color drained from his face. It contorted so tightly I thought steam was going to shoot out of his ears like something out of a Looney Tunes episode. For a long time, he didn’t make a sound, and when he finally did, I wished to God that he hadn’t.

 

“You’re good,” he said, laughing bitterly and shaking his head. “You’re damn good. It was a great plan,” he said, his voice rising dangerously. “And I fell for it; hook, line and sinker! You get my attention and lay it on thick. While I’m distracted by your little sob story about how hard your life’s been, you’re busy bringing on the alcohol. And what do you do in the morning? You vanish. The trap is set. Two months later, here you are, the redhead with the golden ticket!”

 

“Shut the hell up!” I growled. “Call me anything else and you’re gonna need security. The goddam bar was your idea, remember? And where do you get off saying I had a plan? You kissed me! You don’t get to accuse me of trying to manipulate you just because you’re too scared to take responsibility for your own actions.”

 

“Take responsibility? Will you listen to yourself? How do you not realize you’re pregnant for two months? That is, if you’re not just making up this bullshit?”

 

I felt lightning burn through my body. My legs launched me forward with a will of their own. “You bastard!” I screamed.

 

Out of nowhere, security appeared, and I was restrained and roughly removed from the premises. As if they needed to, the guards loudly told me I was persona non grata. I had never been angrier than I was in that moment. Where the hell did he get off, thinking he could talk to me like that?

 

I wanted to shout it out for the world to hear; that I was pregnant, and the man on the seventeenth floor was too much of a jerk to take responsibility for his child. I didn’t do that, though. Instead, I went home, swearing under my breath the entire way. I knew then that I would be raising my child alone, and that Kristos would never enter my life again.

 

 

NINE

 

Kristos

 

I raged through my office, knocking down papers and supplies as I went, not stopping until the desktop monitor crashed to the floor. How could I have been so stupid as to let a woman betray me like this?

 

The worst part was that I had been thinking about her ever since the morning I’d woken up by myself. Everything she did pissed me off to no end, but that was what I liked about her. She knew I ran the show, but she didn’t run off with me when I gave her the chance. She wanted to talk about our lives and not my money. She didn’t seem to be impressed by any of it. I genuinely thought she gave a damn about me. I thought we were going to start over and have a real relationship. And what happens? The goddam ‘I’m Having Your Baby’ Scam.

 

Fuming, I fell into my chair and sat there, wondering how much my desire to be loved would end up costing me, and if there was any possibility that the child was actually mine. I doubted it highly, but at this point, if there was even the slightest chance, I wanted to take it. It was clear to me now that I was never going to have a woman’s love. I had wasted nearly three hundred million dollars learning that. I could continue to fight that knowledge, and spend my life buying lawyers and silence, or accept it and move on.

 

Even as I resolved to do the latter, even as I calculated the amount she would likely blackmail me for, I still couldn’t get that damn woman out of my mind. In spite of the vicious words we’d exchanged, I still wanted to see her again. I still pictured her dazzling the nation in her green dress, sharing stories with me, and making me feel like she really cared. Not to mention that she was amazing in bed—no amount of liquor would have made me forget that.

 

I struggled to stop thinking about Emma. She had used me. Like Anya, and a dozen others before her. So I tried to focus on the child, who would be innocent, and could learn to love people rather than things. I began to think of the opportunity I could give it to find the love that had eluded me, and I knew what I was prepared to offer Emma to keep her silence and protect everything I’d worked for. She would have to come back here—it wasn’t the kind of offer I could make over the phone or online. Going to either of our homes would only make things worse, and we wouldn’t have enough privacy in a public setting. I decided to call her in an hour or so, and leave a message. I decided upon one other thing: this was never going to happen again.

 

 

 

TEN

 

Emma

 

 

I have been called many things before. In school, they called me a nerd. My mother called me selfish, my father called me spoiled. Mrs. Coleman had called me a deadbeat under her breath, once or twice. But until today, no one had ever called me a liar.

 

It had been three hours since I’d seen Kristos, and I still wanted to tear him limb from limb. It would have been better if I had never gone to see him. Before, I had a new life and my career to worry about. Now I had that, plus a cloud of hot anger, and the depression that was beginning to gnaw at my bones. I was suddenly exhausted, and I fell on my bed in a heap. Every inch of me suddenly felt as if it weighed three hundred pounds.

 

Ann had called to check on me. She wanted to know if I was feeling better, and when I might be returning to work. I told her I’d be in time for filming tomorrow. Beyond that, I had no idea what was going to happen. I felt a shooting pain in my back and swore loudly. And that’s when my phone began to ring.

 

“Margaret this time,” I mumbled to myself, and forced my body into a sitting position. It wasn’t fair to keep ignoring the woman who’d struggled almost as much as I had to make me famous.

 

When I grabbed my smartphone off the nightstand, however, I saw right away that it wasn’t my agent; it was Kristos’ office. The same one I’d just been kicked out of a few hours ago. I was surprised the rat bastard had the balls to call me after what had happened, and mildly curious to hear what he wanted. I let the call go to voicemail, and then listened to the message.

 

“Mr. Metroupolos has expressed regret over the earlier unpleasantness,” a woman’s voice said. “He would like you to return to his office as soon as possible. He has devised a business proposition that he believes will be of interest to you. Have a nice day.”

 

My stomach roiled with disgust. What “business proposition” was I likely to get from a man who accused me of selling my body to get ahead in life? Besides which, I’d been manhandled and thrown out of the building. In what realm of reality did he think I was going to go back?

 

I was just about to delete the message when I thought of the child growing in my womb. Very soon, I was going to start showing, and many of the opportunities I had now were bound to disappear. I lived among superficial people, who weren’t likely to be understanding or accommodating. I had some money saved, but between caring for a baby and paying my rent, it would disappear fast. I might be able to swing a few baby commercials, but “might” was not acceptable where a baby was concerned. If I was going to raise him on my own, I really had little choice but to see what Kristos was offering. I dragged myself up off my bed, and headed back out, grumbling all the way.

 

“I lost my head before,” Kristos said when I returned. “I suppose I should be used to it by now, but blackmail still bothers me. If you’ll accept my terms, I can offer you thirty million dollars.”

 

The charge made me furious, and I started to call him on it. “I have no intention of…wait. How much?” I asked, astounded.

 

“Thirty million, if you’ll meet my terms. I need you to keep silent about the pregnancy. Neither the press, nor your agents, nor anyone else can know about it. Of course, you’ll eventually need to quit any productions you’re currently working on. I will compensate you for each of those separately. Your agents will be told you’ve decided to go abroad and work on one of my shows for the emerging Asian market. Until the baby is born, we are to have zero contact, and when it is born, you are to hand the child over to me.”

 

My face registered shock for the second time. “Give you my baby?” I sputtered stupidly. “Why in God’s name would I do that?”

 

“It’s my child, too. You said that yourself.”

 

“When you accused me of manipulating you, I got the idea you didn’t believe that!” I shouted incredulously.

 

“Like I said, I lost my head before. I’ve had a few hours to calm down now. All I want is someone to love and be loved by; someone who can carry on my work and my name. Being pregnant is going to limit your options. If you keep the child, you’re going to end up struggling to maintain your lifestyle, and your career is going to flounder. Neither of you will have the opportunities you need to get what you deserve out of life.

 

“On the other hand, if you agree to do things my way, our child will have every advantage, and once you recover from the pregnancy, you’ll have millions to relaunch your career with. If anything you told me was actually true, you can’t risk the dream you fought for your whole life being snuffed out of existence.”

 

The man was playing hardball, deliberately targeting my weak points. And it was working. The entire reason I had come to see him was because, sooner or later, if I raised my child on my own, I was going to end up struggling financially. Was it fair to rob the kid of a life of good prospects just because his father had been an asshole to me? I could see in Kristos’ eyes that this wasn’t some whim; the kid would definitely be well taken care of. As for me, I couldn’t promise that with any certainty.

 

And then there was my career. The thing I had worked three jobs for. The thing that brought me across the damn country. It was all likely going to be torpedoed very soon. I did not want to surrender my baby, but the more I considered keeping it, the less realistic it seemed. I hated it, but I had to concede that accepting Kristos’ terms was my best option. In a low voice, I assented, and he took my information.

 

All at once, the stress of the pregnancy, the fighting, and my fragile new career hit me like a bullet. Somewhere in my chest, a dam broke open, and I began to cry like the world was going to end. My emotions were physically painful, gripping like death at my heart, lungs, and stomach. Kristos dropped what he was doing and rushed to my side, wrapping his arms around me without a word.

 

His embrace felt like my bed had that morning: warm and safe. His eyes, which before had been cold and untrusting, were suddenly full of deep compassion. I needed to feel the comfort he was giving me, needed the smothering pain to go away.

 

Unable to stop myself I pushed my lips against his, reveling in the tenderness and intimacy of the act. Concern flared into his eyes, but he responded at once, caressing my back and moving ever lower. A moment later, I had his shirt untucked, and my hands were exploring the taut muscles of his chest. His hands snaked their way into my panties and began gently massaging my ass.

 

In minutes, we were rolling together on the plush carpet next to Kristos’ desk, passionately exploring one another’s bodies. My pleasured cries had turned to loud, desperate moaning, and the air cooled the heat of the sweat that clung to us. I was certain everyone in the building knew what we were up to, but at that point, I couldn’t care less.

 

Only when we finally collapsed into each other’s arms did either of us give any serious thought to what had just happened. We lay there, exhausted and silent, for nearly ten minutes, before Kristos finally spoke up.

 

“We can’t let that happen again,” he said, as if he were trying to convince himself. Gathering my strength, I nodded in agreement.

 

Kristos pointed out his personal shower in the bathroom attached to his office, and I made use of it. By the time I came back into the office, he was standing by his desk as if nothing had happened. He handed me a sheaf of papers when he saw me.

 

“These are your new accounts, Ms. Johnson. Congratulations, you’re a millionaire. Remember our agreement. Absolutely no contact for the next several months.” He said all this in cold, professional tones that made me wonder where the hell the man I just slept with went. Only minutes ago he had been full of warmth and compassion, and now this guy was giving Jack Frost a run for his money.

 

I took the papers and quietly headed for my car, dimly aware that, on some level, I ought to have been celebrating.

 

I was rich. Ridiculously rich. I could have driven my car off a cliff, and bought an Aston Martin. I could have bought Mrs. Coleman’s building out from under her, and kicked her out of it. But I wasn’t in the mood. All I could think about was what my new fortune had cost me.

 

The ride back home was long and silent. The next day, I would have to leave Penny Lane. With very little explanation, and right in the middle of filming. The internet was going to go insane. Worse, Mr. Morris, who had picked me out of hundreds of applicants, and worked with me for months, would suddenly be stuck. He would have to replace me without notice. It was a poor repayment for his faith in me. On top of that, there was Ann to consider. What would her reaction be? I was repaying all of her kindnesses to me by hampering the show that it was her dream to return to the air.

 

I forced all those thoughts out of my mind, fighting to recapture the sated feeling my encounter with Kristos had given me.

 

“I’m going to have to do something,” I told myself. Something to try to fight off all the negativity.

 

My phone rang, and I saw it was my mother. “Oh hell no,” I exclaimed. One disaster at a time. I suddenly changed my mind about going home, and booked myself in at a nearby day spa.

 

 

ELEVEN

 

“You’re leaving us?” the voice on the line was asking, in tones of utter shock.

 

It had been two days since my encounter with Kristos, and Mr. Morris had been informed that the aforementioned billionaire had arranged for me to move to Beijing. There, I was going to appear in a series of shows meant to launch an offshoot of Kristos’ production company for the Asian market. Mr. Morris had been bitterly disappointed in me for my lack of loyalty and Ann Montgomery, Penny Lane herself, had apparently just heard the news.

 

“I’m afraid so, Ann.” I told her, selling the lie. “It’s an opportunity I can’t pass up. I’ve wanted to work internationally for most of my life.”

 

“Well I wish you all the best, Emma,” she said, trying to sound diplomatic. “It was my pleasure to work with you. I only wish you had brought this up earlier, before I earned the ire of Richard and the others. I’ve been holding up the production because I consider my colleagues part of my family. I didn’t want to work with a family member missing.”

 

“I really appreciate that, and I’m truly sorry. I only got the call two days ago.” I could almost hear the curt nod she gave when she was frustrated. There was not a drop of anger in her voice, but I knew she was seething.

 

“Well, it’s really no problem, Emma. These things happen. And, as they say, the show must go on. Richard told me he had hoped you’d have been more loyal to the production, but I reminded him that some people need to follow their heart. Good luck, Emma.”

 

She hung up, and I reflected that I had just been through the most vicious but polite conversation of my life, complete with my own throwaway line from Date Roulette. What was worse, I still had another call to make.

 

The conversation with Margaret wasn’t much better, and the internet was eager to throw shade on the entire affair. I eventually ended up avoiding it almost in its entirety.

 

I spent days holed up in my apartment. Whenever I went outside, I would bump into someone eager to ask me about what really happened on the set of Penny Lane. Most of the time, it was just people in the neighborhood, but increasingly, it was the press.

 

Eventually, I decided to put my newfound wealth to good use. I was supposed to be abroad, and that was where I planned to go. Not quite as far as China, but somewhere where I could relax, away from the public eye. I was just narrowing down my options, when a sharp knock came at my door.

 

I looked through the peephole, and recoiled in shock. My mother was standing there, looking worn and haggard. Her hair was stringy and unkempt. Her eyes were hollow, and her face drawn. She was thinner than I ever remembered seeing her, and despite my animosity for her, I was worried.

 

I opened the door, and she tottered in like a woman twice her age. She wore a plain dress, gold earrings, and a crucifix around her neck. It all seemed to be weighing her down. I wanted to shout at her, to ask her what she was doing here, but she looked so frail. When she took my hand in hers, the skin felt like paper, and she winced aloud, though she tried to hide it.

 

“You don’t answer your phone,” she said, plopping down on the sofa.

 

I said nothing, still wary about her motivation for showing up like this.

 

“Nothing hurts more than being hated by your child. I came here to say something I didn’t say to you enough when you were younger. It was rough where we came from. People worked their whole lives; two, three jobs just to exist. That’s what I had to do, and it’s what your father had to do. I didn’t want for you to have to do it too. I didn’t want you ending up like this,” she said, suddenly coughing violently.

 

I sat beside her, partially supporting her slight frame. When I got close, I noticed a rash on her face I’d never seen there before.

 

“Mom, what’s wrong?” I asked.

 

“With me?” she replied dismissively. “Oh, tons of things. That’s not really important. What’s important is what’s wrong between us. One day, when you have children, I hope you never feel what happens to your heart when you wake up to find your daughter gone; what happens in your soul when you realize she’s going across the country with a man you’ve never met before. You might have been kidnapped, or worse.”

 

“If you’d have just taken me, I wouldn’t have had to do that!” I interjected.

 

“I know,” my mother replied simply. “But I wanted you to have something stable.”

 

“I had a damn scholarship!” I yelled.

 

“So did Bobby Vance.”

 

“Who?”

 

“Exactly. He was a few years above you in school. He got on television and was successful for a while, before someone else got everyone’s attention. Now he’s in bankruptcy court. And he wasn’t nearly as talented as you are. Entertainment is a fickle business, Emma; one small thing can ruin you.”

 

I stared at her for a second, wondering what was lurking beneath her words. “How would you know how talented I was?” I demanded. “You were never there to see anything I did.”

 

Shaking her head, she went into her purse, and fished out a sheaf of papers. When I looked at them, my mouth dropped open. There were handbills for the community plays I’d been in, old ticket stubs, and programs from my talent shows—every single one of them.

 

“I didn’t like what you wanted to do. I might never like it. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t proud of you. You got better and better every time I saw you, but talent doesn’t mean as much as it used to. I only ever wanted to protect you.”

 

“But I didn’t want to be protected,” I protested.

 

I glanced at my handiwork, gripped tightly in her fragile hand, and heard the slow, earnest tone in her voice. It wasn’t bullshit. She really had cared. She had had faith in me. But I was still angry at her for hiding it so long, and for trying to steer me from my dream.

 

“I’m your mother!” she replied firmly, and she pulled me into a hug. “Protecting you whether you like it or not, that’s my job. I love you, Emma, and I want you to know that.”

 

Something about that hug put a sort of fear into me that I had never felt before in my life. She was gripping me like doing so might keep her in this world a little longer, and I hugged her as tightly as I dared.

 

 

TWELVE

 

My mother stayed with me for close to two months. While it didn’t completely heal all of our old wounds, it did finally make us friends. By the time she left, I was genuinely sad to see her go. But something else was occupying my mind by that point: the baby was starting to make his presence known.

 

I was four months into the roller coaster adventure of pregnancy, and I could feel him moving about a lot now. I was starting to show, and my energy reserves were finally beginning to recover. I would wake up in the middle of the night with strange cravings for Chinese food, mostly sesame chicken and Hunan shrimp.

 

I had gone to a doctor a few days prior: Dr. Iwata, who already knew my secret. I went in covered up, under an assumed name, and she allowed me to hear my boy’s heartbeat for the first time. I cried quietly; it was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard. When I saw the first ultrasound, I felt the weight of everything come down on me. It was really happening. There was a little person growing inside me. With fingers and toes, and a cute little head.

 

It was close to midnight, but I was wide awake in my bed, staring at my copy of that ultrasound. I didn’t know if I could do it anymore. I didn’t know if I could give him up.

 

The next morning, I packed four suitcases into my car. As far as the world knew, today was the day I was finally heading to Beijing. I was supposed to have gone two months ago, but I told the press I was given a reprieve to look after my mother’s health. In all the time she had stayed with me, she hadn’t told me exactly what was wrong with her, but I had an idea. I just hoped I was wrong.

 

I jumped into my car and headed for the airport, where a chartered plane was waiting. Obviously, I wasn’t really going to China; I was headed for a compound Kristos owned in northern California. It was isolated, private, and reporters weren’t allowed anywhere near it. It was the perfect place to create the illusion that I was overseas.

 

In the air, I thought about what my mother had said. She was right about one thing: entertainment was a fickle business. One little role on a reality show had catapulted me to prominence, and one tiny sperm was threatening to force me into obscurity. I wouldn’t be able to act again until after the baby was born, and by then I might have lost all relevance.

 

Of course, I didn’t really need to keep acting. I didn’t really need to do anything. Thanks to Kristos, I had more wealth than most people earned in a lifetime. I could literally play Monopoly with real money at this point. But still, I wanted to act. I wanted to bring characters to life like that little girl in the vampire movie, but instead I was dodging cameras and sneaking off to my new home: a beautiful place smack dab in the middle of nowhere.

 

The plane landed on a strip of dirt surrounded by short, pale green, grasses, and, as planned, I was met by a driver who took me the rest of the way to the house, at least a mile away.

 

My new home looked like it could have been drawn by the Disney Company. The entire thing was surrounded by a wrought iron fence. Just inside was a wide, circular driveway with flowers and bushes lining its sides, and a neatly-trimmed island of grass in the middle. I found myself wondering how many staff members were on the premises. The house itself was huge, and looked like it had been modeled on an old English cottage. The windows were divided by small pillars, and the brick was capped with a decorative wooden frame, the color of a golden squash. The black roof was pitched, with a circular window in the center.

 

I went inside and set up in one of the rooms, which might have jumped right out of Better Homes and Gardens. I had always wanted a house like this, but these were not the circumstances I had imagined. Before long, my mind was consumed again. My mother. My baby. My career.

 

To clear my head, I took out my laptop and tried to write everything down, hoping that would make things clearer, and promising myself I would make a firm decision in the morning. I closed my eyes in front of the blank screen, trying to draw the words forth. Eventually, as daylight began to seep through the drapes, my fingers started to fly across the keyboard. Sentence after sentence, a story began to pour out of me, as if it had always been there waiting for me to find it.

 

By morning, my mind was made up clearly. It was the ultrasound that had done it; there was no way, absolutely no way that I would be able to give that little boy up when he came out. I had spent the night singing to him and reading him my story. And now I was about to call Kristos, contact rules be damned, and give up thirty million dollars.

 

By evening, I had called Kristos twelve times, and his secretary had invented twelve excuses for him. I was livid, but I wasn’t going to give up that easily; he would talk to me whether he liked it or not. The next day, I requested a meeting and discovered Kristos had conveniently filled up his schedule for the next five months. Then I started calling incessantly, until his secretary started screening my number. By the end of the week, I had done everything short of breaking into his office myself. Just as that thought entered my mind, my eyes fell on my half-finished story.

 

The beginnings of a plan were forming in my head, and I began to feel like the hero at the end of a movie. As I fleshed out my idea, I continued typing. It was going to be the foundation on which everything else depended. As I worked, my baby shifted and kicked, as if he were ready and willing to help out his mommy. That thought made me smile, and by month five of my pregnancy, everything on my end was ready to go.

 

As I said before, I made many useful contacts during the auditions that followed Date Roulette, and one of those was Elijah Reed a seasoned drama writer from the early nineties. He’d written for two popular cop shows, and one intensely gritty show about life in the inner city, among others. While the public had largely forgotten his name, it still commanded respect among Hollywood’s directors and producers. Still, though, the man was facing competition in his field from newer, younger talents. I had an idea that, with a little persuasion, I could get him to help me out.

 

I called Elijah using a false name, and told him that I represented a small organization that was interested in pitching a television show to Patras Productions in the near future. While the group was well appointed financially, I told him, it had little name recognition at the minute. I intimated that the group was willing to pay him a princely sum if he would arrange a meeting for us, in his name, with the executive producer. Within one hour, Elijah—or rather I—had an appointment to meet with Kristos the following afternoon.

 

Elated at my success in outwitting Kristos’ evasive tactics, I ran through my story one last time, searching for errors. Finding none, I packed an overnight bag and a good business suit that still fit me, and snuck back into North Hollywood under the radar. I slipped into a motel, again obscuring my identity, and prepared for the next day, when I would put my acting skills to the test.

 

 

THIRTEEN

 

The following morning, I took a pair of scissors and trimmed my long hair to just above my shoulders. Fishing some dye out of the overnight bag, I turned myself into a brunette. I put on a pair of glasses, as well as a touch of makeup, then added a white blouse and my classy, dark brown business suit. I went to the mirror and admired my handiwork. I looked like an attractive, slightly pregnant, secretary.

 

I could now walk freely through the city without fear of being recognized. No one in Kristos’ office would know who I was, either. I felt like Sherlock Holmes, but just as I began reveling in my cleverness, my baby gave me a kick. “Hey! Settle down in there!” I said, laughing.

 

My car had been returned to my apartment, so I rented one to complete my disguise. I came away with a black Accord, and set out for Kristos’ offices, working on my voice the whole way. By the time I arrived, I was no longer Emma Johnson, actress. I was Sarah Hill, secretary to Mr. Reed.

 

I carried everything I needed through the front doors and towards the elevators. No one seemed to recognize me at all. In mere moments, I was standing in front of the secretary I had called umpteen times before, trying out my new voice.

 

“My name is Sarah Hill,” I said, in a voice half an octave lower than my natural one. “I am Elijah Hill’s personal secretary. I believe he has an appointment with Mr. Metroupolos.”

 

“Yes, Miss Hill. Go right in and get set up. Mr. Metroupolos will be with you shortly.”

 

“Thank you,” I replied. I didn’t mention how lucky it was that Kristos had time to see me, considering that he was supposed to be booked solid for the next five months.

 

I stepped into his office and began setting up, determined to be the soul of professionalism. In a moment, Kristos walked in.

 

“Good afternoon, Ms. Hill. It’s a pleasure to meet you. When will Mr. Reed be arriving?” he asked.

 

He walked up to me and took my hand in his. He was halfway through his handshake when he leaped back in shock. The expression on his face was priceless: a mix of surprise, terror, and rage.

 

“Mr. Reed will regrettably be unable to meet you this afternoon. He has been unavoidably detained. I am here to function as a replacement.”

 

“I specifically said no contact,” Kristos growled.

 

“I’m not here for contact,” I replied calmly. “I’m here to pitch a show. If you’ll just sit down,” I suggested, indicating my materials when he gave me a look that clearly said ‘bullshit’.

 

“I call it A Game of Chance. It’s a modern romance that follows the lives of two people who overcome a difficult situation to find the best in each other. Our lead is Ellen Paige, a secretary for a small publishing company. She’s a smart, pretty Nigerian woman whose temper can sometimes get the better of her. Ms. Paige hopes to become a novelist one day. She keeps her work in a notebook at her desk, and adds to it whenever she has a free moment. The company is owned by David Winters. David is from the Midwest, and he’s inherited a strong work ethic and homespun values. He’s organizing an event to promote his struggling company. He wants the focus of his event to be a new American novel that will return his company to its former heights.”

 

“And he finds it in Ellen’s notebook I presume,” Kristos interjected sourly. He was doing his very best to appear uninterested, but he wasn’t quite succeeding.

 

“Yes,” I returned in social tones. “Ellen is working on a novel about two teenage sisters who help each other through Nigeria’s civil war after their parents are killed.”

 

“And what are you basing your knowledge of that war on?”

 

“Google, Wikipedia, and a dozen first-hand accounts I found online,” I answered.

 

It was an interesting idea, the kind of thing award-winning novels were written about, but I didn’t want to dwell on how much research I had done. I knew I’d be on safer ground if I stuck with the main story, and not the one Ellen was writing about.

 

“David finds her work one day, when Ellen is away from her desk, and starts to read it. He has only been reading for around ten minutes when Ellen returns, but by that point he’s become extremely interested in it and her.”

 

I continued to make my pitch, and the longer I talked, the more Kristos’ face seemed to change. It was clear to me that I was winning him over, and I hadn’t done all of this work in vain. I tried to read his expression, but quickly realized that I couldn’t analyze Kristos and make the pitch at the same time. I gave up trying to read him and followed my plan, praying that it would work out in the end.

 

 

 

FOURTEEN

 

Kristos

 

 

Nothing could have shocked me more than Emma’s sudden appearance in my office. As angry as I was, I had to admit that the woman was an excellent actress. She had changed everything, even down to her voice, and despite myself, I was impressed.

 

She wasn’t acting now, however, as she told me about the relationship between her characters. The two had hated each other from the first; Ellen had resented David’s invasion of her privacy, and David had seen Ellen as ungrateful for his help in getting her published. But they needed each other, so they worked together. When Emma got to the part about the pair having sex after getting plastered during their date, I was flabbergasted. She was drawing on our relationship for her pitch. Every line of it was similar to what we had gone through. Even though she had cast herself as a Nigerian woman, and me as a Midwestern man, there was no denying the similarities in our stories.

 

The longer I listened to Emma’s pitch, the more it became clear: I had misjudged her, and made a terrible mistake. With every word she spoke, my heart sank deeper into my chest.

 

“So Ellen is worried about what her boss is going to think and the things he’s going to accuse her of. She’s concerned she doesn’t have enough money to raise a child by herself. She wonders whether David actually loves her and whether he’ll make a good parent or not. She’s terrified, but she forces herself to make the call.”

 

I hope to God I never again feel as shitty as I did right then, sitting and wondering how long Emma had struggled with coming to talk to me. How long had she needed to steel her nerves? She had needed support, someone to help her with what she was going through, and I had accused her of making it all up. I glanced at her hair, now cropped and dyed, the glasses perched on her nose. She’d had to do all that just to be able to talk to me. I was beginning to feel like some sort of bridge troll.

 

“You were never going to blackmail me were you?” I said quietly as soon as Emma paused for breath. The not-quite question seemed to surprise her, but when she absorbed it, she shook her head no.

 

“I just wanted to talk to you. It’s really scary, you know, learning you’re going to bring someone into the world. I really had no idea what I was going to do. I wanted to know if you wanted to help raise him. He’s an active little guy.”

 

“It’s a boy? I have a son?” I gasped.

 

“We have a son,” Emma replied. “And there’s no way in hell I’m giving him up.”

 

I began to hate myself when I remembered that I had tried to take a child away from his mother. I looked at Emma, standing before me with a slight bulge at her waist and a look of determination, and I realized that I had never loved anyone more than this brave, beautiful woman.

 

“Look, Emma,” I replied dolefully. “I’m sorry. For everything. I’ve been making assumptions about you ever since we met. I’ve never been fair to you.”

 

“Just as long as you know that,” Emma interrupted.

 

“Just a moment,” I returned. “I’m not done apologizing for being an asshole yet.”

 

The ghost of a smile flickered across her face, and she let me continue.

 

“I’ve questioned your morals, and put you through a ton of grief. All because I judged you based on other people instead of bothering to learn who you really are. If it’s not too late, I want to change that. Will you give me another chance?”

 

I felt more nervous than I had in a long time, asking this. To be brutally honest, I knew I deserved nothing of the sort. But Emma simply walked quietly over and gave me a little kiss on the cheek.

 

“You can have another chance,” she answered to my delight.

 

Honestly, I can’t remember ever being happier than I was right then. All that mattered was the woman in front of me, and the person she would shortly be bringing into the world. I needed to have both of them in my life.

 

***

 

“For the record, you make one hell of a brunette,” I told Emma as I made preparations with my secretary. I had managed to talk her into joining me for a walk on the beach, and needed my secretary to look after things while I was gone.

 

“Thanks,” Emma replied. “You should have seen your face. I thought you were going to have a heart attack. It took everything I had not to laugh right then.”

 

She was laughing now. She grabbed my hand and placed it over her stomach. For a moment, I wondered what she was doing, and then I felt my boy move. Emma winced a little, but I felt like shouting.

 

“That’s amazing,” I breathed excitedly.

 

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”

 

We went to my Audi, where Stanton was waiting. He looked at Emma with recognition in his eyes, but he said nothing. On the way to a private stretch of beach I had purchased years ago, I talked Emma into finishing her story. Stanton dodged the traffic as well as he could, but it still took nearly forty minutes to get there.

 

When we arrived at the beach, the sun was just beginning to set. For a while we simply walked together, just admiring the beauty of our surroundings. Emma pointed out a flock of birds flying in formation across the sky, and I told her I wished I knew how to paint the lush golds, reds, and deep purples that were slinking over everything. We eventually started talking about what happened to Emma since I saw her last, and finally the conversation came around to her mother.

 

“If anyone had told me we would live together for nearly two months, I would have said they had lost their natural mind, but in the end, that’s what happened. I always thought she had no faith in me, and I really fought to prove her wrong. Whenever I lost, it felt like the world was saying my mother was right, that I had no chance of making it as an actor and should quit while I was ahead. But she never believed any of that. I never saw her, but she came to all of my performances. Apparently, she learned to use the DVR just so she could record one of my commercials.”

 

Emma talked about her mother for a great deal longer, and as she did, I saw worry lines etch themselves deeper in her face.

 

“Something’s bothering you, Emma,” I said at last. “Why don’t you tell me what it is?” At first, she hesitated. Then, with a sigh, she began to talk.

 

“The whole time I was with my mom, I kept asking her what was wrong. Some days she seemed well enough, but most of the time, she was weak, and her joints bothered her. I couldn’t talk her into going to a doctor, but she would go out every now and then, for several hours at a time. I guessed she might be going to the hospital, but I couldn’t get her to talk, so I did what everyone in my situation does.”

 

“You looked it up on the internet?” I asked.

 

“I looked it up on the internet,” she confirmed. “The symptoms, especially the rash, matched up with lupus. I’ve been worried sick ever since. I told her what I found, and she patted her hair, which was a wig she didn’t think I knew about. She told me it was just a bit of a virus, and a few days later, she went back to Arizona.”

 

I hugged her and told her not to worry; that her mother would be fine. When you’re a billionaire, making promises like that is slightly easier.

 

We started talking about the baby, whom she wanted to name Jacob, after her very first friend in elementary school. He couldn’t fight to save his life, but according to Emma, he was the greatest tattletale the world had ever known. She swore his tattling saved her from several schoolyard beatings. I, of course, suggested naming him Kristos, and she just smiled.

 

“That’s his middle name,” she said. “And I get the impression that he likes it. Can I ask you something?” she asked, and her face suddenly became serious again.

 

“Of course,” I replied.

 

She put a hand on my shoulder. “Why did you think I was going to blackmail you in the first place? What gave you that idea?”

 

That was the very last question I wanted to answer right now, but I didn’t see how putting it off was going to make it any better. Besides which, I had been a jackass to her for months, making her struggle for no reason. I knew that she deserved to know why, even if it was a story I hated to tell. I braced myself, and started at the beginning.

 

“Well, when I started out in television, I was a producer for a news show no one watched on a network no one had heard of. They hired me out of school, both because I did so well there, and because I was extremely affordable. Very slowly, by rearranging the format and making the hosts more engaging, I was able to turn the show around. Viewership was still low, but rising steadily. I got a raise.

 

“One of the staffers, a woman named Celine, started to notice me, and soon, we became friends. She seemed like a wonderful person, with a great sense of humor, so I thought she was kidding when she demanded I put her on the show. She was not. She told me my choice was between making her a regular feature, and facing an unfounded harassment charge. She’d been seeding our coworkers already, she said, telling them how uncomfortable I made her feel. I couldn’t expect to have a career if I was fired after only three months in my first job, so I caved and gave her a regular segment on the show.”

 

“That’s horrible, Kristos,” Emma intoned, sounding upset. “But that was years ago…”

 

“Yes, but it got worse. Eventually, I bought the news show and promoted my assistant to executive producer. Katherine had been my right hand for two solid years. At the time, I trusted her completely, and treachery was very far from my mind. That is, until she demanded that I hand over the show to her. Either that, she threatened, or she would tell everyone that I was stalking her.”

 

“Jesus!” Emma exclaimed incredulously. “Tell me you fought that one.”

 

“You’re damn right I did. Tooth and nail. She dragged my reputation through the mud, but eventually, the jury found me not guilty of all charges. After that, I never wanted to feel that exposed again. It had been the worst experience of my life, and I felt so low that I considered going back to Greece and taking up real estate like my parents wanted me to. Instead, I used the few contacts I had in the industry to pitch my first reality show about six contestants who try to build a successful business together. It was picked up by one of the major networks, and I made a fortune. You can probably guess what happened after that.”

 

“Another woman tried her hand at blackmail?” Emma asked.

 

“Several more,” I replied. “Over a dozen by the time you showed up. Between them, those women cost me three hundred million dollars.” Emma’s jaw actually fell open at that. “When I thought you were like the rest of them, I flew off the handle, and I’m sorry for that. I know I haven’t been clear about my feelings for you, Emma, but since the first day we met, I’ve never been able to get you out of my mind. I was upset when you left that morning because I really thought we might have something together.”

 

“Really?” Emma replied with a little smile. “Well in that case, I suppose it’s okay if I tell you a little secret too: I haven’t been able to get you out of my mind either. Believe me, I’ve tried. Really, really, hard. But it never quite seemed to work.”

 

“I’m glad it didn’t,” I returned in earnest, “And I’m glad you came here. Because your TV show pitch made me realize something important.”

 

“That I wasn’t trying to blackmail you?”

 

“That I love you, Emma. I can’t expect you to return the feeling after the way I treated you, but…”

 

That’s about as far as I got. She turned to me, pulled me close, and started kissing me with more passion than I have ever seen from a woman. I didn’t bother asking questions, I just matched her tempo and reveled as the love I’d craved for so long welled up in me.

 

 

FIFTEEN

 

Emma

 

My last encounter with Kristos had been an awful one, and I had been expecting this one to follow suit. Now I was kissing him with all my soul, fighting to keep my emotions in some kind of order, and failing miserably. He had shown such compassion, for me, my mother, and for our child. He had apologized earnestly, and finally been honest with me about what made him act the way he did. It was truly cathartic. After all we had been through, it felt, as our tongues entwined, that finally, things might actually work out.

 

For the first time, we actually planned to make love. Kristos owned the entire area surrounding the beach, so we could relax, knowing there was not a soul nearby. We laid down some blankets and slowly removed each other’s clothes, shivering gently as the slight breeze wafted across our skin.

 

Kristos began kissing me, trailing kisses down my body, and we were soon entwined together in the need of the moment. His hands explored my body, seeking out my breasts, while mine slipped down the small of his back. His fingers and lips were firm, but gentle, causing dizzying sensations to rip through my body.

 

In the end, we collapsed in each other’s arms, feeling warm, safe and loved. I felt like we were in some kind of cocoon that the affairs of the world would never be able to break into. We were positively glowing with the heat of our efforts. And then, as he gently caressed me, Kristos told me he wanted to say something else.

 

“I don’t want you to have to hide anymore, Emma. Granted, you’re obviously good at it,” he said, running his hands through my hair, “but I don’t want to live a life of secrets any longer. Suspicion and fear nearly pushed us apart forever. I want to live a new life, and I want you by my side.”

 

“Mission accomplished,” I replied with a wry smile. “The two of us will always be with you.

 

Kristos patted my belly gently, an expression of pure joy on his face.

 

 

 

SIXTEEN

 

 

It was nearly four in the morning when I returned to my apartment, elation coursing through my veins, and grateful that Kristos had been paying Mrs. Coleman not to rent the place out to anyone else. I fell on my bed in a better mood than I had known for several months. Exhausted as I was, I slept like a baby, and fortunately for me, so did my little baby, Jacob. It was nearly noon when I woke up the next morning, with an incredibly strong craving for waffles.

 

It was a sign of just how awesome I was feeling that I attempted to make the things from scratch. I hadn’t use a waffle iron in years, and it was messier than I remembered, but they came out all right. While I was eating breakfast, Margaret put in a call to see how things were going in China. Kristos had been paying her agent’s fee, too, so she was in a good mood in spite of the Penny Lane situation.

 

I told Margaret the truth about what had happened with Kristos, and true to form, she scolded me. Though, by Margaret’s standards, it was more of a pep talk about the many better ways I might have handled my situation. I happily agreed with every word she said, and a day or two later, she signed me up for a series of commercials. As I’d expected, I was to become the new face of that baby food everyone grew up with. It wasn’t glamorous, but I was happy, and it gave the internet something to talk about.

 

Soon after that, I got an email from none other than Ann Montgomery, who now knew as much as social media did. This time, she was far more supportive, saying that she wished I hadn’t felt the need to hide the pregnancy, and that she would have talked everyone on Penny Lane into adapting the story if she’d known. I wrote back to thank her for that, and for forcing me to go to the hospital, because that was how I discovered Jacob in the first place.

 

Three weeks later, I got a small package in the mail. It was from Arizona, and the label featured my mom’s distinctive slanted handwriting, only it was far less neat than usual. Kristos and I were sending her regular payments to help her fight her condition, though it had taken some clever negotiating to make her accept them. I hoped they were helping her as I opened the package, which could not have been anything but a Blu-ray disc.

 

I slipped the disc into my player and saw, to my surprise, three plays I had acted in during my last year of high school. According to my mother’s scrawl, my father made the recordings on the logic that the next time I ran away from home, I would be eighteen, and no one would be able to stop me.

 

It felt a little embarrassing, watching myself after all that time, but at the same time, it made me remember just how hard I had worked to do well. With a sudden shock, I also realized how much hatred I had been holding in me then. It was imperceptible on the screen, but it shouted at me like a howling wind. How much time had I wasted hating my parents? I didn’t know, but I resolved to make better use of whatever time I had left.

 

I wanted to share my feelings with Kristos, so I drove out to his weekend mansion in Hollywood. It was tucked away behind an iron gate and a long driveway, but it looked like paradise when you got there. There was a huge courtyard and elegant walkways that led to the main building and the pool house. The main building was massive. It stood four stories tall, and all of its edges were beautifully rounded. Everything was a brilliant white, except the shingled roofs, which were crimson. I was searched by security and ushered in, while a valet parked my car.

 

“Your mother flew all the way out here from Arizona to see you. We might as well return the favor.”

 

It was the following morning and we were in Kristos’ bedroom. He was getting dressed for the office, and I was under the covers in a T-shirt and my panties as I wasn’t going to be needed on the commercial shoot for several hours.

 

“You think you’re ready to meet my parents?” I inquired.

 

“You’re moving in with me in a week, and they’ll be grandparents in three months,” Kristos reminded me. “If I’m not ready,” he laughed, “it seems to me that now is the time to get that way. When will your shoot wrap?”

 

“Three days from now so long as nothing unexpected happens.”

 

“We can leave right after that, then. I will straighten everything out with my people.”

 

“Alright, but after that we’re going to Greece,” I chimed in.

 

Kristos looked at me with a bemused expression on his face. “You do know my parents still think I should go into real estate right?”

 

“I call bullshit on that. Pure and utter bullshit.”

 

“You’ll see when we get there,” he said, laughing as he moved in for a kiss. I gave him a soft one on the lips, but he moved in closer and started doing it the French way.

 

“You just got dressed!” I warned him as soon as my mouth was free. “Besides, you’ll be late.”

 

“I’m a billionaire,” he replied. “I can be late.”

 

Eventually, I got him to head for the office. I figured there’d be plenty of time for what he wanted later. I picked up my smartphone and looked at the news. As expected, my pregnancy was still trending in the entertainment sections. One gossip site was having a field day calling me an opportunistic gold digger. I didn’t even bother to read the comments. I was about to toss my phone aside and start making breakfast, when I saw something that nearly made me scream in pure rage.

 

Jacob’s ultrasound, the one that had been taken about a month ago, was staring up at me from my smartphone screen. Someone had sold it to that despicable site. There was only one culprit I could think of. I didn’t want to believe Dr. Iwata could do a thing like that, but I couldn’t think of anyone else who would have access to it. I was furious, but I didn’t want to make any assumptions without hearing the doctor’s side of things first, so I made an urgent appointment with her for that afternoon.

 

The appointment conflicted with the shoot for the commercial, so I let them know I had to reschedule, and I told them exactly why. They were sympathetic, but not ten minutes later, news that I was meeting with a doctor had landed on Facebook. Ann Montgomery took to her Twitter page to decry the invasion of my privacy, and demand a boycott of the gossip site in question. If Dr. Iwata used social media at all, she would have plenty of warning about why I was coming.

 

As it turned out, however, either the doctor never bothered with social media, or she was too busy to look at it that afternoon, because she didn’t look even the slightest bit nervous when I went into her exam room.

 

“You said it was urgent, Ms. Johnson. How can I help you?”

 

“It’s about my ultrasound, Doctor.”

 

Dr. Iwata gave me a quizzical look. “Your last one was fine,” she replied in a genial voice. “No problems whatsoever.”

 

“It’s on the internet,” I corrected her firmly.

 

She was about to speak, and then her face registered something like horror. “Someone put your ultrasound online without your permission?”

 

“Yes,” I said, a little more harshly than I meant to, “and I was wondering what you knew about it.”

 

At that, the doctor’s face hardened and became stern. “I’m a doctor, Ms. Johnson, and not one in the habit of selling my patients’ medical documents at any price. Besides, I’ve had the ultrasound for over a month. Why would I wait until now if I wanted to try and profit from it?”

 

The doctor had a valid point, but I was certain I had one to trump it.

 

“Point taken, but who else has a copy of my ultrasound? Mine goes with me everywhere,” I asserted, patting the clutch I was carrying with me.

 

“And what did you do with the other copy?”

 

“What other copy?”

 

“The one you requested several weeks ago in case your purse went missing or was stolen. Have you accounted for that one yet?”

 

I had forgotten about the extra copy completely. So much happened in such a short space of time, I was finding it hard to keep track of things. I tried to think where I might have left it, and it was my turn to be shocked.

 

I apologized to the doctor, and rushed for my car as quickly as I could, considering I was six months pregnant. In seemingly no time, I was at my apartment, banging on Mrs. Coleman’s door.

 

“Hand it over, bitch,” I said the moment she opened the door. This woman did look nervous. Very nervous. Nevertheless, she tried to play dumb.

 

“Young lady, I have no idea what you’re talking about but—”

 

“Let me just stop you right there. You broke into my apartment, you went through my things, you stole my ultrasound and sold it. Even though you were being paid for an apartment nobody was using. You can hand over the name of the person you sold it to, as well as their contact information, or I can have the police and a pack of lawyers on your ass for the rest of history.”

 

She didn’t have to think about it for long. She coughed up the name, and I made a mental note to call a moving company to come for my things as soon as reasonably possible.

 

 

SEVENTEEN

 

My former landlady had sold the ultrasound to a man named Mike Carmen, who sold pictures to a number of gossip sites. I got to his office about a half hour later, but his people tried to tell me he wasn’t there. When I mentioned the word ‘lawsuit’, however, he magically appeared, and led me inside his dingy office. One look at the man told me there was no point in holding out hope that this might play out without an argument.

 

His hair was mussed and greasy. It shot out in all directions, resembling an unkempt lawn. He had big, bushy eyebrows, a snarl on his lips, and a five o’clock shadow. He wore a gold chain and a cheap gray suit that stretched to accommodate his ample frame. His pale, doughy hands were balled into fists, and he was staring at me like I had just strangled his cat.

 

“Alright, lady,” he said in a slightly nasal tone. “What’s all this talk about lawsuits?”

 

“My landlady sold you an ultrasound of my son.”

 

“Yeah, so?”

 

“She stole it from me, and I want it back!”

 

“Well it’s mine now,” he said, laughing. “You think I give a damn where the old broad got it from?”

 

“I sure as hell do, and I’m sure the courts will too. They’ll eat you alive when I tell them you were printing my stolen property.”

 

“Well, the thing is, honey, first you’d have to prove it was stolen, and that I knew that when I bought the image. We have a pretty good team of lawyers over here. What have you got? You’re not even that famous, I’d take it as a compliment if I were you.”

 

I took that opportunity to remind him of something he had clearly forgotten: that Kristos Metroupolos, billionaire producer, was my baby’s father.

 

“You may have an excellent legal team. I don’t doubt it. But I’m guessing his is probably better. And how much is mounting a defense going to cost you? What’s your coverage going to be like while the suit goes forward? Because if I don’t get that ultrasound back, we’re going to find out exactly how famous I am. I’ll go on television, radio, and the internet to make sure your name stinks from one end of America to the other. So what’ll it be?”

 

Five minutes later, I had what I came for, as well as the promise of a printed apology, and was on my way back to Kristos’ mansion. Several people recognized me on the way, but I hurried past them. I was in no mood for questions. I wanted to do two things: go home, and vent.

 

Traffic didn’t help matters any. Halfway back, I stopped at a red light to roll down my window and cuss out the old man driving at a snail’s pace directly in front of me. Of course, somebody had a smartphone handy, so that outburst now belongs to YouTube. Miraculously, I made it back without further incident. Inside, I headed straight for the den, and collapsed on the sofa, absent-mindedly hoping that Mrs. Coleman would be struck by lightning.

 

When Kristos got back and saw my stuff piled in one of the spare rooms, he asked about it, and I explained what had happened. I never found out what he did next, but within the hour, our son’s ultrasound had completely disappeared from social media. My anger, on the other hand, did not disappear so quickly. By the time we retired to bed I was still ranting about it, and Kristos, though sympathetic, was losing patience.

 

“Where the hell does that damn fossil get the nerve to break in and go rummaging through my stuff in the first place? She’s always been a cow, but I didn’t think even she could stoop so low. Here I am, six months pregnant, and I’m riding around the city like Scooby Doo, solving mysteries. It’s not even like she needs the money!”

 

Kristos rolled over so that he was facing me. Then he adopted his most accommodating tone. “She’s a horrible, greedy, old, biddy,” he opened. “She had no business being in your apartment. What she did was naked theft, and if you weren’t such a generous person, she’d be rotting in jail about now. But you did manage to get the ultrasound back, and I’ve had it scrubbed from the news. You’re only stressing yourself out now, and that can’t be good for you or the baby. I think you ought to let it go.”

 

“Let it go?” I demanded. “Let it go? That woman stole pictures of our son for money. Total strangers had aces to them, and people are writing horrible things about us and our child. How on earth can you let that go?”

 

“Because we can’t go back in time and prevent the theft. It’s done, and there’s nothing we can do to change that.”

 

“So now you’re blaming me!” I shouted viciously. “This is my fault for making an extra copy? Is that what you’re trying to say?”

 

“I’m not trying to blame anyone except the woman who broke into your apartment. I just think…” Kristos answered, struggling not to match my volume.

 

“That I should let it go,” I finished for him in bitter tones. “Well I can’t do that. This is too damn upsetting. And if you can’t be supportive of someone you claim to love, then don’t let me stop you from walking right out the door. It’s a big-ass mansion, Kristos. There no need to stay here and listen to your girlfriend whine!”

 

The argument roared on for the better part of an hour. In the end, Kristos did end up leaving, and only then did I realize that I had kicked him out of his own bedroom. I don’t know where in the house he went, but it must have been well on the other side because even when I left the bedroom to look for him, he was nowhere to be seen. I was alone with my anger, and an agitated baby that I could not get to settle down.

 

Sighing, I stood up to go to the bathroom. I was completely exhausted. My pregnancy never made up its mind; one day I would be glowing like a candle, the next, I would be vomiting all day. A nagging voice in my head was saying I had blown things out of proportion. But my anger drowned it out pretty easily, telling me that if anyone should reconcile things, it was Kristos.

 

Back in the bedroom, I stripped down to my underthings and tucked myself in before I realized I was hot. Sighing again, I toddled over to the thermostat, wondering why it wasn’t voice activated like the house in Iron Man. I eventually got to sleep, but only after hours of trying. Apparently, anger and a jumpy baby are not a good combination at night.

 

By the time I got up the next morning, one of the staff members told me Kristos had already gone to work. I was in a pretty foul mood for the rest of the day, and by the time night fell, Kristos still hadn’t returned. I was beginning to wonder where he was. A part of my mind whispered that he wouldn’t be coming back. I tried to dismiss the thought, but I couldn’t help feeling a little suspicious. Eventually, I just commanded my mind to shut up. Baseless speculation wasn’t going to help anything.

 

At about eleven-thirty, he finally turned up, looking like he had really been through something.

 

“How are you?” he asked wearily, as he came into the den and sat down near me. He looked like he’d fought a war and lost.

 

“Sorry, I think,” I said quietly. “Where did you go”

 

“For a very long walk. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. We have to be parents together, so we’ve got to learn to work together. Look, I’m sorry I wasn’t patient enough with what you were going through. I know as well as anybody that nothing about living in the spotlight is easy.” He fell silent, apparently waiting for me to say something.

 

Deep down, I knew he was right. We did have to work together; for Jacob’s sake. On top of that, he was leading the effort to reconcile things. I quashed my anger, and said my line.

 

“I’m sorry too,” I responded soberly. “I shouldn’t have bitten your head off. You were just trying to help me to calm down, but I let my anger and frustration get the better of me. Truce?” I asked, offering my hand.

 

“Truce,” he replied, taking mine in his. “You know, I didn’t just come back here for the little guy, Emma. I just can’t stay away from you. I figure we’re going to argue and fight from time to time, but I want you to keep something in mind through all the chaos that’s probably just around the corner: I love you, and I always will.”

 

“Me, and the little guy too, of course,” I responded with warmth. “We love you too, and we always will.” I followed my words with a hug for good measure.

 

Kristos must have really meant every word he said because despite looking like he’d just pulled Dorothy out of a hurricane, he proceeded to massage my feet. He was incredible at it, kneading the pain and discomfort out of existence, and before I knew it, he was working on my legs. The longer he worked, the more my tension and anger just seemed to melt away. By the time he reached my back, the comfort I felt was almost hypnotic, and I was struggling not to drift off into a blissful sleep.

 

“I don’t care what you do,” I murmured dreamily, my voice sounding like it was coming from way off in the distance. “Just so long as you keep that up.”

 

He kept up his gentle kneading until eventually, I fell into most peaceful, undisturbed sleep I have ever had.

 

 

 

EIGHTEEN

 

A few weeks later, just as the third trimester came upon me, Kristos and I finally went to visit my parents. In hindsight, it might not have been the best time for travel, but we wanted Kristos to meet my parents before the baby came. My stomach was so big, I was having trouble keeping my balance, and Jacob was clearly running out of room because he was poking and kicking with regularity now. My back was aching, and my veins made parts of me look like a road map.

 

On the way over I looked down at my belly after a particularly strong kick made me gasp. “Jacob, darling, I love you very much,” I had mumbled, “but you’re going to have to come out of there soon.”

 

We arrived at my childhood home to find my mother looking stronger than I had expected. I was also surprised to find that she and my father actually liked Kristos. My father was enthralled by the child I was about to have, but my mother? I had never seen anything like it from her in my life. She was speaking in baby talk already. She had tons of advice she was never shy about giving. When she started talking about lactating, I had to signal Kristos to come over and rescue me.

 

All in all, it turned out to be an excellent trip, and we promised to do it again soon, when I didn’t feel like a planet.

 

When we returned to California, Kristos presented me with an idea. We were seated at the small, wooden, table in the den, drinking some fresh-squeezed orange juice.

 

“Remember the show you pitched, Emma? About the secretary working at the publishing company?”

 

“Only the thing that finally got the two of us together. How could I possibly forget that?”

 

“Well, I’ve been thinking about it, and I want to produce it for television. I think it has a lot of new angles to explore. We can write it together, and start production in a few months. How would you feel about that?”

 

I wondered if he had really just asked me that. How did I feel? My ideas were going to be on national television!

 

“I feel fantastic about it. I can’t wait to start!” I was suddenly full of energy and ideas. “I’ll gather my notes together, and we can work on it in the library.”

 

“I didn’t mean we’d have to start right now, but if you feel up to it, that’s fine by me!” Kristos agreed, with a grin.

 

***

 

From that point on, we worked on A Game of Chance whenever the two of us had a moment to spare. I had given up filming commercials for the meantime, because I needed all the energy I could get. Whenever I wasn’t preparing for the grand finale in two months’ time, I would tack on a scene, talk to our consultant, or tweak the dialogue. Kristos still had an empire to run, so he would work with me early in the morning, or late at night. One time, I asked if he could delegate any of his responsibilities, but he replied that doing so could be dangerous.

 

“Terrence is an excellent production assistant. He annoys me, but he’s one of the most useful people I employ. It’s just that very few people have the ability to run twelve shows at the same time without a hitch.”

 

That usually left me with our consultant for company, a tall, slightly plump Nigerian woman named Constance Olumidae. She had rosy cheeks, and a warm, kind face that kind of reminded me of Octavia Butler. When she was younger, she’d been a nurse at one of the largest hospitals in Washington DC, until fifteen years later, when a hospital in California offered her a substantial promotion. That, and the weather, had lured her across the country. She always wore traditional Nigerian clothes and a pair of silver reading glasses. She was older than my mother, and streaks of white ran through her hair. According to her cover letter, she had been just fifteen years old when war had come to Nigeria. She spoke slowly, in a low, sometimes crackly voice, and if you were close enough, she liked to hold your hand.

 

In a month, we went through two drafts for the pilot. I was struggling to keep it from wearing me down. My eyes were beginning to feel the strain, and the joints in my fingers were stiffening. Besides that, my body had started giving me the gift of Braxton Hicks contractions, and those things snuck up on you with very little warning. But every day, I saw Ellen, David, and the world they lived in bloom a little brighter, and it urged me to go on.

 

Kristos eventually scaled back his work commitments, delegating some of his tasks to Terrence, so that he could stay home and look after me. I asked him about it, considering what he told me before, and he replied that Jacob and I were more important than twelve shows and several billion dollars. Against the protestations of his middle managers, Kristos insisted on caring for me personally, and I didn’t argue with him, especially during the massages, which were increasingly becoming the only way to get me to sleep at night.

 

“You know, I’ve been thinking,” I said one night as Kristos adjusted the thermostat yet again.

 

“About what, sweetheart?” he replied, taking over the fanning, and trying not to stare at my oversized chest. I could almost literally see his breath as he talked, but I was lying in my underclothes, fanning myself and guzzling iced lemonade.

 

“About a new show based on what you’ve been doing for me. We can call it The Billionaire Butler.”

 

“Okay, that a solid title,” he said laughing. “What do you have in mind for the concept?”

 

That caught me off guard for a moment. I had been joking, but a sudden idea popped into my head.

 

“A really wealthy person goes undercover to see if he or she can do a regular job for a week. If that wealthy person is successful, the show gives ten thousand dollars to the charity of their choice. If they fail, they donate the money from their own pockets. America is entertained, and a good cause is helped every episode.” I felt proud of myself for making that up on the fly. It sounded like a million-dollar idea, and I had hatched it in my underwear.

 

“That’s actually a good idea,” Kristos said thoughtfully. “It shouldn’t be that hard to produce either. Maybe I should hire you.” He looked appreciative.

 

“Later,” I said, gently patting my huge belly. “One job at a time. Besides, the final draft of the pilot is nearly done. Soon, the whole world will know our story.”

 

“Thanks to Twitter, most of them already do,” Kristos joked, slipping into bed beside me.

 

“You know what I mean!” I said with mock scorn in my voice, playfully swatting at him. Despite everything that was going on, I was starting to feel at peace.

 

I laid my head on Kristos’ chest and tried to get to sleep, while he pretended he wasn’t slowly freezing beneath me. In that moment, absolutely everything felt perfect, and Jacob gave a little kick that seemed to say he agreed.

 

 

 

NINETEEN

 

 

The rain should have been my first clue. It was pouring down like the Great Deluge. On TV, people were celebrating, because if there was anything California needed, it was water. The roads were waterlogged, but still passable, although the weather service had sent me two flash flood warning texts already. I was in my bedroom, in a yellow, flower-print maternity dress, staring at the very latest picture of my little boy.

 

It was difficult to remember back to eight months and three weeks ago, when he had only been as big as the head of a pin. So much had changed in my life since then, most notably me. I had my own freaking orbit, for one thing. But I wasn’t the only one that had grown exponentially; the ultrasound showed a good-sized baby boy inside me. I was getting a little anxious, but Dr. Iwata kept telling me not to worry, that everything would be fine.

 

A few days? That was my due date, but that was really only a guess. It could happen at any moment. When that thought hit me, I felt my heart quicken. For the past few days, Stanton had been on high alert, constantly fidgeting with his pinstripe slacks, never straying too far from the entrance to the carport. He’d been trying to hide it, but he was nearly as nervous as I was, never letting my hospital bag out of his sight. I could almost see him shuffling anxiously, keeping an eye on the rain. Tucking the latest ultrasound away, I made a mental note to tell Kristos to give him a raise.

 

“And how’s the baby doing this afternoon?” a crackly voice asked, followed by the sound of slow, shuffling, feet as Constance invited herself into my bedroom. She had long ago dispensed with formalities like knocking, but I hardly minded her intrusions anymore. She was wearing a long, colorful, dress and headdress and looked like some sort of West African queen. She made a beeline for the bed and sat beside me, placing her hand on my enormous belly.

 

“He’s fine,” I answered her, taking her hand in mine. “The kid moves like he’s plotting a jailbreak.”

 

“Don’t worry,” she said to my belly with a slow chuckle. “You’ll be out of there in no time at all.” She raised her gaze to meet mine. “I used to deliver children regularly when I was younger.”

 

“Which is why I hired you to be my personal doctor,” I replied, sounding a little tired.

 

“Yes, and I thank you for that. I came to tell you that I’ve set everything up in the infirmary. We’re ready in case the delivery has to take place here. You can never be too careful about these things, and with the weather outside…”

 

“I’m glad to hear it,” I replied.

 

I should have been, but I wasn’t. I didn’t like the idea of delivering at home. Granted, Constance was experienced, but she’d only have one more doctor to help her: Dr. Abe Meadows, a gentle, kind old man, with wild white hair that made him look like a corpulent Albert Einstein. I liked him a lot, but I wanted a team for this.

 

Above everything else, I knew that labor was going to hurt. My mother put me under no illusions about that. I disliked thinking about how much time my mom had spent in labor with me, and tried not to wonder how hard it would be to get Jacob to come into the world. I had never done this before, and I was secretly terrified.

 

“It will be okay, dear,” Constance said, as if she could read my mind. “I’ve been through it twice myself. It won’t be quite as bad as you think. We’ve been working on coping strategies, and Mr. Metroupolos and I will be with you every step of the way.” Her tone was soft, and the words were comforting, but the wind was picking up ominously outside.

 

As I said, the rain should have been my first clue that the universe was in a messed up mood that day. But I was too busy worrying about Jacob to notice that things outside were getting progressively worse.

 

I changed the subject, and spent the next hour or so listening to Constance tell me about her son and daughter, who were now grown up, with young children of their own. By the time she finished, I was feeling a great deal more relaxed, and the conversation moved, as it so often did, back to A Game of Chance.

 

“You need to put me in the series,” Constance was saying. “I could play Ellen’s mother. I did a little bit of drama in college, and I have a great deal of real-life experience.”

 

“As much as I would love that, Constance, you’ll have to audition like everyone else,” I replied, smiling at her enthusiasm, “but I’ll be sure to put in a good word with the casting director.”

 

That’s when the first peal of thunder roared through the skies and a notification rang out on my phone. Apparently, it was 104 degrees outside. I could hear the rain slapping against the windows, and see dark clouds rolling in to block out the sun. I suddenly felt a small contraction.

 

“Do you see that out there?” I asked my baby. “Could you do Mommy a favor and wait till tomorrow?”

 

“He’ll come when he comes,” Constance laughed sagely, drawing the curtains on the nearby windows.

 

A moment later, Kristos walked in, shaking his head and sporting an expression somewhere between exasperation and amusement.

 

“You’d think he was having the baby,” he said, bending to kiss me on the cheek. “Hello, Constance,” he said, suddenly noticing she was there. She greeted him cordially and tactfully slipped out of the room. “Stanton had a panic attack,” Kristos continued.

 

“What?” I intoned sharply. “How did that happen?”

 

“Apparently, he was worried about driving conditions,” Kristos sighed. “In case you went into labor. The streets are becoming less and less safe by the minute, and the clouds are making visibility poor. He was concerned that he might not be able to get you to the hospital when the time came, and he panicked. Dr. Meadows is looking after him now. The old man says he ought to be fine in a few minutes.”

 

“I’m glad he’ll be alright,” I remarked, stretching my legs. “He really is sweet to care so much. You really need to give him a raise, you know that, right?”

 

“I know, and I will,” Kristos replied, sitting down beside me. He put an arm around my shoulder, pulling me closer, and I gave him a quick little kiss as he did.

 

“Just a moment!” I cried, suddenly starting. “Why aren’t you worried about how I’ll get to the hospital if this damn storm keeps up?”

 

Kristos smiled. “Stanton has a pilot’s license; there’s a helipad on the roof, and on that helipad, there is a military-designed, storm-resistant helicopter, fueled up and ready to go. The hospital has been notified them you might arrive that way.”

 

“Is that safe?” I asked, trying not to seem amazed. The storm had only been raging for about four hours. How had he arranged everything so quickly? I also wondered how I’d never noticed a freaking helicopter before.

 

“That’s what I’ve been asking the people I know in the national weather service.”

 

“And how exactly do you know people in the national weather service?” I said. I figured it was a legitimate question. There was a lot about Kristos I still didn’t know—he still wouldn’t tell me how he’d managed to scrub Jacob’s ultrasound from social media.

 

“Location shoots mean you have to plan for the weather or your production gets delayed. They say that with the hospital being so close, and since the helicopter has been designed to withstand lightning strikes, the trip should be perfectly safe. They anticipate no problems.”

 

A bolt of lightning ripped through the sky, creating a bright flash behind the curtains, and I let out a deep groan of pain.

 

“That’s good to know,” I gasped as Kristos rushed to comfort me, “because damn if it doesn’t feel like it’s time to go.”

“I thought that doctor said you were still a few days away?” Kristos said, sounding slightly panicked.

 

“Yeah, well, guess who has other ideas?” I replied, pointing to my stomach.

 

 

TWENTY

 

With the help of Kristos, Constance, Stanton and Dr. Meadows, I got to the roof in good time. There was a comfortable stretcher in the rear of the helicopter, and they gently laid me on it. The two doctors positioned themselves nearby. Kristos and Stanton rode in the front, and as the doors shut, the engines came roaring to life. The whir of the blades was almost deafening, and the cabin vibrated erratically, but soon we were raising up into the air.

 

I might have been upset that there was no window and I couldn’t see what must have been a magnificent view, if my body hadn’t been in a state of chaos that I was having trouble believing. I was gritting my teeth against powerful contractions, panting with my efforts, and groaning almost constantly. Abe and Constance were trying their level best to keep me calm and offer words of encouragement, and Kristos was on the radio, frantically warning the hospital that we’d need the helipad in about eight minutes’ time.

 

The storm and the helicopter seemed to be battling each other over which of the two could make the most noise. Thunder roared all around us, and I was becoming frantic.

 

“Can’t this damn thing fly any faster?” I growled, as a new wave of pain washed over me. The chopper shook suddenly, and Dr. Meadows jerked forward.

 

“Not safely,” Constance said calmly, and Stanton shouted back his agreement, “but we only have another three minutes to go.”

 

I swore loudly at her, but a blast of thunder drowned out my voice. That, and the sheets of rain beating mercilessly against the cabin.

 

“I can see the hospital!” Kristos cried out, in what were pretty much the most beautiful words in the English language for me in that moment.

 

I began to feel the craft descend as Constance wiped my burning forehead with a cool towel, and a moment later, I was lifted onto an umbrella-covered gurney and rolled into the elevator. A few moments later, we arrived at the maternity ward. I got my drugs, and everyone got to work. It was finally time for the grand finale.

 

In what felt like only a few seconds later, a doctor was imploring me to breathe slowly, Kristos was allowing me to crush his hand, and I was whimpering between sudden screams.

 

“Push,” one of the doctors instructed.

 

Swearing at the top of my voice, I complied. The painkillers were only designed to lessen the pain I was experiencing, not eliminate it, a distinction I was acutely aware of in that moment. As time passed, I felt my energy waning.

 

“I..I…can’t…” I breathed at last.

 

“Yes you can, Emma. Just a little more. You’re doing great. Come on now, honey. Breathe!” Kristos was rubbing my shoulders with the hand I wasn’t trying to break.

 

“This is your fault!” I yelled at him, and told him to stop rubbing my shoulders. “That’s how all this got started in the first place!”

 

“He’s crowning!” I heard one of the nurses say.

 

“You’re beautiful, Emma. You’re doing such a wonderful job,” said Kristos.

 

“Alright, honey, give me a big push,” from the doctor.

 

“I am pushing, goddammit!” I said.

 

“His head is out!”

 

“Get the rest of him out!” I pleaded, as pain consumed me, dimly aware that I’d already been told that birth was like preventing forest fires: apparently, only I could do it. With the last of my strength, I gave a final huge push. Moments later, I heard the cries of a healthy baby boy.

 

I was weak, in pain, and more exhausted than I had ever felt, but when they deposited my boy in my arms, every cell in me leaped with joy. As did Kristos, who proclaimed the whole thing a miracle, kissed me more times than I could count, and nearly squeezed the nearest doctor to death. He was so excited that he kissed the next one he ran into, a curly haired man named Dr. Weingold.

 

“Control yourself, sir!” the doctor demanded good-naturedly.

 

Kristos apologized sheepishly and returned to my side. I was cooing to my new son, who was snuggled against me. Kristos took one of his tiny hands in his much larger one. For a long time, he said nothing, just stared at each of the five adorable little fingers. He touched one of the tiny, tiny, fingernails, before kissing me yet again.

 

“You’re amazing, Emma,” he breathed. “Look what you did,” he said, as Jacob took hold of his finger with both hands.

 

“Well, you helped a little bit,” I replied, looking down at my baby. “Hello, little angel. Welcome to the world.”

 

 

 

TWENTY-ONE

 

 

We named him Jacob Kristos Metroupolos. He looked just like me, but he had his father’s eyes. We stayed at the hospital for three days, while I recovered, and the nurses got me started breastfeeding. By the time we were ready to leave, the storm had long petered out, but some of the smaller roads were still strewn with water, fallen trees, and downed power lines, so we opted to fly home. I sat nearer the front this time. As I’d thought, the view was truly breathtaking.

 

Constance had fallen in love with the baby right away. She was beside me right now in the back of the helicopter, gently rocking him, and singing a beautiful lullaby in Ibo, while Kristos and I looked on. She had the kind of singing voice that reminded me of my grandmother at Christmas, and though no one said anything, it was obvious that each of us was deeply affected by a song none of us understood.

 

Jacob was a nine pound, eight-ounce, ball of energy. He had been on the planet for less than a week, but it was already obvious that Kristos and I were going to have our hands full raising him. I had changed and fed him just before we’d boarded the helicopter; that had been easy enough. It was getting him into his onesie that was a Herculean task, and I only managed it when Kristos distracted him with his newfound collection of funny faces. Watching Kristos entertain Jacob was one of my newest favorite things.

 

When her lullaby was over, Constance very carefully slipped Jacob into my arms. I kissed the cute, little, bundle, who was fast asleep now, and held him close until we arrived back at the mansion.

 

In the room directly beside ours, we had commissioned an impressive nursery, with a ceiling that looked like the night sky, decorated with stars and comets that glowed in the dark. There was a plush, neutral carpet, and smaller throw rugs that had cute little pictures of animals, letters, colors and numbers. There was a safety mirror that ran along one wall, and colorful little tunnels for our baby to crawl through once he got bigger. Along one of the walls was a well-stocked changing table. Every single corner had been padded, and all the sockets were capped with plastic. In the middle of everything was a handmade crib that had a mobile attached and Jacob’s name carved into the front. That was where we all went the moment we arrived.

 

“Shoes off!” I said just before we entered the nursery. I wanted no shoes on the floors Jacob would be crawling on. When everyone had complied, we went inside, and I put Jacob in his crib.

 

“Goodnight, sweetheart,” I said, as Kristos turned on the built-in baby monitor. Ever so quietly, we snuck out again.

 

***

 

The next few days were full of people calling, emailing and texting to congratulate us. Margaret was one of the first, and I realized as she spoke that she had never sounded happier, even as she was outright demanding that I email her pictures. Ann called, too, and I took the opportunity to congratulate her on her show, which had wrapped and would start airing soon. She wanted pictures too, as did a dozen other people. Remembering Kristos’ mysterious internet-scrubbing powers, I sent them out with impunity.

 

Speaking of the internet, it was abuzz with the story. To my surprise, most of the stories were nothing but positive. Most people just wanted to be congratulatory, and welcome a new life into the world. Others speculated about how Jacob’s arrival would affect “the as yet unannounced new show Emma and Kristos are rumored to have in development.” A few people were complaining that I was refusing to comment on that, or anything else. Nor was I granting interviews, in person or otherwise. We planned to announce the show when filming began in a little over a month’s time.

 

Ann asked me about the rumors too, though she did it far more subtly than anyone else did. She was digging for clues, like when the project might wrap, and what time slot we were thinking of for the premier. I knew what she was concerned about: every show Kristos touched seemed to turn to gold, and if our show came out soon after hers, and shared the same timeslot, it might doom all her efforts of the past year. I tried to be reassuring without giving definite answers. After all, nothing was definite, and we were still in the process of working things out.

 

My mother called me when Jacob was twelve days old, sweeping all thoughts of Ann Montgomery from my mind. She said she had meant to call much sooner, but that there had been complications with her illness.

 

“I’m perfectly all right now, before you ask. And no, I’m not just saying that to make you feel better. I want you to know I’ve never been prouder of you that I am right now. Your father is ecstatic. He can’t wait to see the baby.”

 

“And we can’t wait to see you either. Do you want to come out and meet him? The sooner the better, really, before the production schedule gets too heavy.”

 

“You’ve just had a baby and you’re still making television?”

 

“Yup. Though I mostly approve the scripts, go over new ideas, and maintain the integrity of the concepts. Things I can easily do from home. I’m not quite ready to let anyone else look after Jacob for more than a few minutes at a time yet.”

 

My mother kept me on the phone for nearly an hour after that, but I didn’t care. I had nowhere else to be, and I was simply happy to hear her voice. She was officially a grandmother, and if her conversation was anything to go by, she planned on leaping into the role with everything she had.

 

After hanging up with her, I set down my smartphone, planning to finally do what I was supposed to be doing and take a nap, but at that very moment, a loud cry came through the baby monitor.

 

“I changed him just a little while ago, and he’s just had a nap, so I’m going to assume that means he’s hungry,” I said, heading for the nursery.

 

Things went on in much the same way for about six weeks after that, and I began to feel settled in my new routine. Nothing of much note happened until the day we announced A Game of Chance to the world. We were midway through filming the second episode, and Kristos felt it was time to call a press conference. A podium had been erected just outside the production studio, and inside, Kristos was drilling his production assistant. He was wearing a dark suit and navy blue tie, looking very much like a would-be presidential candidate, but at that moment, he lacked presidential gravitas, and I could see his old temper beginning to flare.

 

“Terrence! How are we doing with the lighting situation? There’s a high sun out there, and it’s shining for all it’s worth.”

 

“I’ve got a team compensating for that,” he replied obsequiously. “And before you ask, yes, I have two guys looking into the teleprompter issue. They say it’ll probably only take a few moments to fix.”

 

“It better,” Kristos grunted back. “I don’t want to have to delay things due to technical issues. I need Melanie, Constance, and Francis in makeup. They’re our stars. They’re up right after I make the initial announcement. Emma here,” he pointed over his shoulder at me with his thumb, “will take over from me, explaining the concept she developed. Have everything ready to go in ten minutes!”

 

“Yes, sir,” Terrence replied, before scurrying down a hall.

 

Kristos turned to me. I was wearing a green dress not unlike the one I had worn for our first date. He gazed at me appreciatively, and I was glad to see it.

 

Jacob was in my arms, making quiet gurgling noises and wearing a white onesie with crimson, cursive lettering on the front:

 

This Is What Happens When Two People Love Each Other

 

Hey, I thought it was cute.

 

Kristos took his son, and sent me into makeup, though he swore I didn’t need a drop of it.

 

“Flattery will get you everywhere,” I quipped, heading toward the myriad of rooms in the back.

 

When I came out again, it was to hear Jacob giggling and a few of Kristos’ braver employees applauding quietly. Apparently, when he hadn’t been firing off instructions, he’d been telling the baby the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard an English giant voiced by a guy with a slight Greek accent. Ever the showman, he kept up the performance until it was time to head out to the podium. Someone tapped me on the shoulder, and asked me to get Kristos to do The Three Little Pigs when the press conference was over.

 

“I’ll see what I can do,” I promised, stepping out onto the stage that had been set up for the event.

 

Below us stood a sea of reporters, their cameras flashing with wild abandon. Kristos must have seen the look on my face because he smiled encouragingly as he handed Jacob back to me.

 

As he approached the podium, the dull roar of voices began to die down. When everything was silent, Kristos stood straight and addressed our audience. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he began in deep tones. At that moment, Jacob gave a little hiccup. I was close enough to the microphone that the sound was amplified, and everyone took a moment to laugh. Kristos gently patted his son on the back, before continuing to address the audience.

 

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began again. “It feels like a long time has passed since my career began as a producer for The Evening News with Diane Lane.” A groundswell of applause met this statement. “After a great deal of hardship I hope you all have forgotten,” here there was more laughter, “I pitched my first reality show, The Team.” More applause. “Since then, Patras Productions has strived to be at the forefront of quality entertainment, and today, I’m here to announce a new chapter in that effort. In four months’ time, we will bring you a new series filled with comedy, drama, romance, and more. We will bring you characters and stories you’ve never seen on television before. This series will challenge you, and help you to fall in love with television all over again. We call this new show A Game of Chance.”

 

A tarp I hadn’t noticed before was suddenly removed, revealing a huge promotional poster with all of the main actors’ faces on it. I smiled when I saw Constance’s. It was larger than life, and according to the casting director, her performance had been as well. Kristos called all of the stars out to the platform, and I shouted out my congratulations, before Kristos introduced each one of the stars.

 

“Playing our heroine is Melanie Pond, who is most famous on television for selling shampoo,” he let the mingled laughter and applause die down. “But off Broadway, she’s starred in three stellar theatrical productions.”

 

Melanie, a tall, olive-skinned woman who wore her hair in a long plait, waved at the crowd with an easy smile. I suddenly realized I had heard the name before. Kristos’ comment about selling shampoo jogged my memory; Melanie had been the girl that replaced me when I arrived too late to audition. So much had changed since then that those days almost felt like another life, and I was happy to see her moving up in the industry.

 

Then it was Francis Davenport’s turn. He looked just as I’d pictured my character, David, would, and flashed the audience a confident, Midwestern smile.

 

Kristos introduced Constance next. She looked resplendent in her long, African-print dress. She took the microphone in one hand and spoke into it. “Ndewo. Hello, everyone!” With that, she left the podium to waves of applause.

 

Now, it was my turn. I put Jacob in Kristos’ arms and approached the podium. It took me about three minutes to outline the premise of the show, from the struggling book company to Ellen’s secret novel. The more I spoke, the more interested the reporters seemed to become, and when the question and answer portion of the conference came, their questions hit me like an avalanche.

 

By the time everything wrapped up, I knew we were golden. Tomorrow’s entertainment news would be filled with a slew of praise for the new show. It felt sort of awkward to see an idea I’d written up by myself one night causing an entire studio to work like bees. It was an incredible sort of power, to be able to create a whole universe with nothing but your fingertips and a laptop, but I had long ago decided I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing exactly that.

 

Kristos was in an excellent mood, so I was able to persuade him to do The Three Little Pigs before we left. By the time we got back home, I was talking him into a program for parents and young kids called Children’s Story Hour. I told him I knew it was 2016, but I thought we could go old school and use puppets, just like in Lamb Chop’s Play Along.

 

“You’re beginning to sound like a programming director,” Kristos said, smiling. “Perhaps you can do that when you’re done recovering.”

 

I laughed, remembering that was what I was supposed to be doing: resting and delegating to other people. Instead, I had insisted on working on a new television program and looking after the world’s most energetic baby.

 

I shook my head “no”. “I’ve really enjoyed writing A Game of Chance, coming up with characters and places for them to inhabit. There’s no limit to the creativity you can call upon. That’s what I really want to do.”

 

“Well, based on your work so far, I think you’ll excel at it,” Kristos replied. “I’ll support you in absolutely any way I can, but there’s something I need you to do for me first.”

 

“And what’s that,” I asked, mildly curious.

 

“You know those yellow footie pajamas you bought for Jacob?”

 

“Yes,” I answered, staring at him. “What about them?”

 

“I want you to burn them. Set them on fire.”

 

I gave Kristos a bemused look. “And just why should I do a thing like that?”

 

“I don’t know what it is, but whenever he’s wearing them, he has more energy than any baby should. He crawls faster, so he’s harder to catch, and boy does he squirm when you pick him up. Plus, he kicks out when you carry him. Those pajamas are dangerous!”

 

I was having trouble hearing him, I was laughing so hard. “For heaven’s sake,” I sputtered, struggling to stop quaking, “they’re just pajamas.”

 

“That’s what you think,” Kristos returned with a sigh.

 

***

 

Two weeks later, I put the yellow pajamas away in an attic trunk after being begged to do so by nearly the entire staff. I was in the middle of reviewing the screenplays for the third and fourth episode of my show and needed to get the work done before filming could start.

 

I had converted a room across from the nursery into my study, and that’s where I was toiling away. I was very proud of the little room. It really was a thing of beauty. The carpet and curtains were a deep crimson, a golden map of the world, framed in black, hung on one wall, and a large bookshelf covered the other. The shelf was piled with reference books, style guides, and other useful tomes. Sure, I could have just looked that stuff up online, but web pages don’t make a room look better. My desk sat under the window, so that I could use the sunlight when I worked in the morning. It was dark now, so I was using the room’s recessed lighting to work on my office desktop. It had two monitors: one for my work, and another to broadcast video from the webcam I’d installed in the nursery.

 

I could see that Jacob was in his crib, fast asleep for once. Kristos had tucked him in twenty minutes ago, but where he was now, I didn’t know. I was just thinking that he was probably somewhere else in the house, trying, like I was, to get some work done, when the door of my study popped open. Standing in the doorway was Kristos, bearing a tray. On it was a vase containing a dozen roses, two glasses, and a bottle of champagne.

 

“You’ll pardon the intrusion,” he said, sidling in and placing everything on the edge of my desk, “but I do believe the two of us need to celebrate.”

 

“Not that I’m one to turn down the offer of champagne,” I replied, surprise written all over my face, “but tell me, what’s the occasion?”

 

“Two things, my love,” he replied with a flourish. “Roughly a year ago today, we met in a parking lot, and an argument ensued that was destined to change my life. Also, your masterpiece, the show that brought us together will soon be on the air, coast to coast.”

 

I smiled warmly. “I was just thinking the other day how far away the day we met seems. These last months with you have been like a whole new life for me.”

 

I took the glass Kristos had filled for me, and sniffed the gorgeous red roses. I didn’t know whether I could still blame my hormones for it, but my thoughts were becoming more sentimental by the minute.

 

“A toast,” Kristos began. “To Emma Johnson. I don’t care what anyone says; I was a poor man before I met you. You are brilliant and beautiful, like the sun, and each day I spend with you is a treasure rarer than anything I could build or buy. You have given me all my heart’s desires: love, companionship, and someone who will call me father. I only hope I have given you as much love and joy as you have given me. I only hope I have succeeded in making you smile, for so long as eyes can see, so long lives love. May it be life to thee. To Emma Johnson!” he said, raising his glass.

 

I was speechless, and felt tears starting to well up in my eyes. I clinked my glass against his, and we drank in silence. Then I kissed my man tenderly. Between looking after the baby and all the new work we were doing, we hadn’t made love in nearly two weeks. Unless Jacob started crying in the next ten minutes or so, I thoroughly intended to do something about that.

 

“Dinner is waiting for us in the dining room,” Kristos panted, when he was finally able to talk again.

 

“Dinner can wait,” I replied firmly, leading him toward our bedroom. And wait it did, for most of the night, while Kristos and I enjoyed each other’s company. As it turns out, we really missed each other, and made a supreme effort to make up for lost time.

 

TWENTY-TWO

 

A few weeks later, Kristos and I were invited to attend the premiere of Penny Lane, and I finally got to watch the show I almost starred in. At the press conference beforehand, the producers spoke about the whole complicated mess that happened before the show, and showed some of the scenes I had acted in. Then my replacement came out.

 

Her name was Jenny MacTaggert, a gorgeous redhead who could hide her Scottish accent at will. If you squinted, she looked a little like me. Soon, Ann Montgomery was standing beside her, outlining the hurdles she had gone through to bring this reboot to television. We moved through to the screening room, and the world saw what I had seen in rehearsals: Ann’s sharp with and cleverness dominated one scene after another. Jenny did an excellent job, and I could tell that this new Penny Lane was destined to become as legendary as the old one.

 

At the after party, I went up to Ann and Richard Morris, the show’s producer, to congratulate them both. They were relieved to hear that they wouldn’t be competing against A Game of Chance for viewers; I had finally learned that our time slot would be eight in the evening, and Penny Lane would come on an hour before that. We talked about old times for a while, and then Richard implored me not to give up acting completely. I told him I’d consider, but I knew that was bull before it left my lips. I had fallen in love with writing, and I had no intention of ever going back.

 

Penny Lane, as I had predicted, was a runaway success, but I had to wait for what felt like forever for my moment in the sun. Four months of filming turned into seven as production was plagued by unexpected delays. By the time A Game of Chance began its last weeks of filming, Jacob was just over eleven months old. I was fighting with him, as I did every day, because he never just allowed me to put on his onesie. After a few exasperating minutes, I said “Jacob, darling, won’t you please get in your onesie.”

 

“Onesie!” Jacob cooed back at me.

 

At that, I dropped everything and called Kristos. It took a bit of doing, but I got him to say it again, and we both spent the rest of the day jumping for joy. Granted, onesie isn’t usually the first thing a baby says, but it was my son’s very first legitimate word. He eventually got around to mama and dada shortly before his first birthday, around the same time that, after everything we had gone through to make it happen, A Game of Chance finally appeared on the air.

 

From the moment I saw Melanie Pond quietly sitting at her desk, surreptitiously penning a few lines of her novel, I knew we truly had something. She was bringing my character to life with unbelievable ease. Francis interacted with her so well that it didn’t really feel like television. It felt like we had slipped a hidden camera in someone’s office. I dashed around the internet, looking for reviews, and I found them: dozens of stellar, glowing articles, dripping with praise. My very first effort as a writer had gone far, far, better than I, or anyone, could have imagined.

 

“Congratulations!” Kristos cried when I showed him the reviews. “Now the whole world knows that Emma Johnson is one hell of a writer. And on that point,” he continued, smiling wryly, “I feel I should ask you something. A friend of mine, Rue Golden, is struggling to piece together an educational children’s show. She knows what she wants to do, but not how to make it interesting for the children to watch it. I was wondering whether you would like to write up a concept for her.”

 

“That sounds like exactly the kind of thing I want to start doing. Where are her offices?”

 

“Upper part of North Hollywood,” Kristos replied. “I don’t think you’ve been back there for some time.”

 

It had been more than a year since I’d stepped foot in North Hollywood. I hadn’t gone back since the day my landlady decided to steal my ultrasound, and I was not, by any means, eager to return. I was afraid it would feel too much like paying a visit to the life I used to live. But what Rue wanted to do was far too tempting. I called Stanton immediately, and in a few moments, I was on my way back to where all of this began.

 

There was nothing especially eye-catching about the exterior of Rue’s offices. They were housed in a dingy, white, three-story building with a worn sign. Things looked marginally better inside. The walls were paneled in oak, but it was heavily scratched. The elevators looked like they might have been impressive one or two decades ago, but now, they were almost certainly a deathtrap, I took the stairs up to Rue’s office, and went inside after announcing my presence with two or three knocks.

 

“Come right in, Ms. Johnson,” Rue said. She had short, auburn, hair, and spoke with a decided Southern accent. “I want to congratulate you on the success of A Game of Chance.”

 

“Thank you,” I replied. “Kristos told me about your project. He says you’ve come to some sort of impasse.”

 

“And he’s not wrong. I have a basic idea of what I want to see. Three kids teach the kids at home how to study better, how to do research, stuff like that. Problem is, it’s all dull as watching paint dry. I need a way to put a little jam on it, as my granpappy used to say.”

 

“You could make them detectives,” I replied. “Junior detectives that try to solve crimes in their neighborhood. They could teach everything you want the kids to learn as skills you need in order to find the clues and solve the case.”

 

“That’s an amazing idea!” Rue replied, beaming with awe. How the heck did you think that up so fast?”

 

“I put together a few ideas on the way here. If you’re ready, we can write out a concept for the screenplay. “

 

“I’d love to. No time like the present I always say.”

 

We set ourselves to work for the next few hours, bouncing ideas off of one another, and slowly sharpening my original concept. Of course, it would be weeks, even months before the first television cameras got involved. Still, the work was exciting. The two of us were working on something that millions of children around the world would remember for generations. It was a daunting task, but as I told Rue, I had done it before. A Game of Chance was proof of that.

 

“All I had for that one was a laptop and an idea,” I told her. “You’ve got a lot more than that, so don’t give up.”

 

I held on to that idea when it was time for me to go back: don’t give up. It began to drive me, and I realized that nothing in North Hollywood or anywhere else held any power over me, and my creative mind. I had nothing to fear.

 

I felt exhilarated as I sped back toward the mansion. In that moment, I felt like the luckiest woman in the world. Not just because I had a beautiful son, had healed the rift with my parents, and my mother was on the road to recovery; I was lucky because in my new career, I could quite literally live my dreams. It was crazy to think about where the whole thing started, but it always stuck with me. My life had changed forever one day on Date Roulette. A reality show. A game of chance…

 

 

Holly Rayner

 

 

Thank you for reading my work, I dedicate this story to each and every one of you. As promised, here are the first few chapters of my previous book, The Sheikh’s Accidental Bride

 

 

Nadya opened her eyes, groggily. She hated flying, but at least she’d managed to get some sleep on the flight, she thought, as she sat up in her seat.

 

New York. Back to New York. She looked through the window and took her headphones off so that she could better hear the announcement of their arrival. The captain sounded chipper and welcoming, and in her dour mood, Nadya couldn’t help but resent him for it.

 

She was sitting in an aisle seat, and had to look across her neighbor to see out the window. As she did, her eyes caught on the book the meek, college-aged brunette was reading. She smiled to herself.

 

“Yes?” the girl asked, jolting Nadya out of her private little world of recollection.

 

“Oh, nothing,” Nadya replied. “I just recognized your book. You’re Poli-sci?”

 

The girl nodded. “At NYU. Are you?”

 

Nadya couldn’t decide whether she was flattered or annoyed at being confused with a student. Something about her huge emerald eyes always made her look a little bit young for her age, and, more to the point, she wasn’t much too old to be an undergrad. At only 21, if she’d got a late start of things, Nadya could still have been studying. But it had been three years, now, since she left that life behind. She’d worked hard, with big plans of what she’d do with her degree when she was done. She was going to change the world. Get her foot in the door and then head straight to the top. Probably the same kinds of dreams that this girl next to her had now.

 

“Seattle U,” Nadya said. “But not anymore.”

 

She didn’t mean to sound sad about it. She truly didn’t think she was. But the girl reacted as though she felt like she was intruding, awkwardly shrinking back in her seat.

 

“I like your headphones,” the girl offered, after a second.

 

It was a deflection, and poor one, but Nadya thanked her anyway. She liked her headphones, too. They were expensive – the latest generation of sound-cancelling technology. She liked the way they made the world around her disappear.

 

Nadya put them back on and settled back into her seat, preparing for landing, as she thought about the day she’d gotten them. They’d arrived a couple of weeks ago. Just a blank cardboard delivery box on the stoop of the low-rent, run-down apartment above a bowling alley that Nadya tried to convince herself she was only renting until something better came along, but that she’d been living in for several months, now.

 

When she opened the box, at first it had felt like Christmas. She’d always admired these headphones, but never could have justified buying them for herself. As she thought about where they must have come from, they began to feel like less of a gift, and more of a peace offering.

 

Jasmine. It had to be. The only one with the money and inclination to send an expensive gift, with the falling out they’d had before as motivation.

 

So Nadya hadn’t accepted them. She hadn’t thrown them away, either. She wasn’t that foolish. But they had sat in their box in the corner of her kitchenette, and Nadya would look over at them occasionally, glowering about the fight she’d had with her sister, and just letting the resentment grow that Jasmine had thought she could be so easily bought off.

 

And then, a few days later, when she got the email confirmation that Jasmine had booked and paid for plane tickets for Nadya to come back to New York for four days, she saw the headphones for what they really were: a bribe.

 

On the face of it, it was completely understandable. Jasmine was planning on throwing a party to celebrate her one-year anniversary, and she wanted her sister to be there. She sent her a terse but lighthearted email explaining as much. Fair enough, Nadya had thought. But she still hadn’t wanted to go.

 

It wasn’t that Nadya disliked Jasmine’s new husband. She didn’t know him all that well, but he didn’t seem like a bad man. What he was, though, was an exceptionally rich man.

 

Since childhood, Nadya and Jasmine had always been, freedom fighters in their own minds. They were going to fight the power, on behalf of the powerless. And when Jasmine had married Mark, well… she’d become the power, hadn’t she?

 

It was a weak decision, or so Nadya thought. She’d never thought Jasmine would be the type to just find herself a rich man, and settle down with him. But that’s what she’d done. Nadya was out in the world, making her own way without any help from anyone, and Jasmine had taken the easy way out. Nadya had been disappointed in her sister, and had told her as much in no uncertain terms.

 

As the wheels touched down and Nadya found herself, once again, tethered back to earth, she replayed the fight in her mind. It had been a bad one. Nadya had said some ugly things with some even uglier implications. She didn’t like to think of the exact words. And then Jasmine had made her a horrible, condescending offer…

 

Nadya couldn’t remember the words she had said in response. But she remembered the way her face felt – hot with anger. Her hands had felt like they were vibrating and she couldn’t control them.

 

After she had got the tickets, Nadya hadn’t immediately made a decision as to whether or not she would accept. She’d left the email starred in her inbox, but had put off arranging to swap shifts at the restaurant where she worked.

 

In the end, it was a fight between patrons at the restaurant that had made her change her mind. They were arguing about the check – one had promised to pay and was backing out of it when the time came – and began bringing up every embarrassing little detail from each other’s pasts in the argument. Nadya had been struck with two thoughts: one was that she wished she could tell Jasmine about it. The second was that she didn’t want to be like these two. Neither of them was winning.

 

She’d sent her sister a single word email in reply, and now here she was again – back in New York. Four years after she’d moved away, and a year since she’d last visited. It was time to face the music.

 

 

 

TWO

 

LaGuardia wasn’t particularly crowded, and Nadya was glad for it. Her bag came out quickly on the carousel, and she scooped it up and wheeled her way towards the exit.

 

She scanned the faces waiting in Arrivals for that of her sister. She and Jasmine looked almost perfectly alike, except for the color of their eyes. Their mother’s Middle-Eastern heritage had given them both round faces, olive skin and dark hair. They’d both grown up pulling it back in a long braid that ran down their backs, but lately Jasmine had chopped it off, and wore it as a sleek bob instead.

 

Nadya frowned. She didn’t see her sister there waiting. It was a relief, in a way, even if it was an inconvenient one. At least she’d have the cab ride to recover from the flight and try and think of what she’d say to her. But at the same time, it would cost a fortune, and while Nadya was getting by on waitressing, she couldn’t afford to splash out that way.

 

Idly, she read the signs that the chauffeurs held to gather unrecognized new arrivals, looking at the calligraphy of the names. Many were from hotels, with a few that looked like they were business contacts. Looking at the men brought back yet more memories of her sister. This was always something they had done together at airports – looking at the names on the signs and making up stories for why this or that person was in town, and where they would be taken.

 

One man stood out. He was in an impeccably-tailored light-grey suit, but didn’t have the kind of efficient business vibe to him that the others all did. His posture was remarkably straight, and his face looked like it was made out of stone. Only his eyes moved as he scanned the crowd, looking for the light of recognition in passengers’ eyes.

 

The calligraphy on his sign was intricate, and written both in English and in Arabic. Nadya had to squint to read it.

 

Nadya A. it read.

 

She stopped cold, trying to decide whether she should be glad her sister would spare no expense in greeting her, or upset because it was flaunting her newfound wealth – the very reason behind the fight they’d had.

 

Nadya was still undecided as she walked up to the man. She knew she’d have to accept the gift, anyway, if she wanted to get to her sister’s without spending a fortune, so she figured she should let it go.

 

The man eyed her suspiciously, like she was a middle schooler in a convenience store with a large backpack and a shifty look.

 

“I’m Nadya A,” she said, the words coming out a touch defensively.

 

It took him half a second to accept this. She could see him turning the idea over in his mind. But then something clicked, and he clicked into his polite, serving mode. He gave her an off sort of half bow, which would have made Nadya laugh if she hadn’t been so tired. And then, as if from nowhere, two other men in identical grey suits appeared and took her bags from her.

 

She followed the original grey-suited man out of the airport, followed by the two men carrying her luggage. She’d never been met by a chauffeur like this before, so she didn’t have a lot of experience to compare it to. But looking around her, it all seemed a bit heavy on the pomp and circumstance compared to how other passengers were being led off to their cars.

 

But when Jasmine did things, Nadya thought, she never did take them halfway. This was just like her, wasn’t it?

 

In any case, Jasmine apparently hadn’t skimped on the car. It was a full limo, which made Nadya feel more than a little underdressed. It had a flat screen TV inside, which turned on automatically when she slid inside.

 

“Good Afternoon, Your Highness,” came a voice from the TV. “What would you like to watch?”

 

The voice startled her. She looked around, as though someone should be there to offer her an explanation, or laugh at the joke, but the door was closed, and she could hear the driver climbing into the front.

 

“What did you call me?” she said out loud, her voice sounding weak and silly to her ears.

 

“I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that. Please read the title of the selection you would like to play.”

 

A TV with voice recognition, programmed to call her “Your Highness.” Nadya laughed; Jasmine really must be sorry.

 

“I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that,” the TV said again. “Please state the title of the selection you would like to play.”

 

Nadya perused the selection, but nothing stood out to her. “TV, off?” she said, taking a shot in the dark. The screen promptly went black and she was left alone.

 

She’d only been in a limo once, she realized, as she felt the engine come on and the car pull away from the curb. It had been prom, and the limo had been filled to the brim with her friends, all high on youth and possibility. Now, in the middle of the day on a Thursday, and with only Nadya inside, it still felt exceedingly luxurious, but more empty and stark than anything.

 

As they left the airport, Nadya looked at Queens going by. What a different world it was, she thought, compared to the one that her sister and her husband lived in. The view was hampered by the tinted glass, so instead she stared out the skylight at the clouds. She zoned out, thinking about what she would say to her parents. They would be there, overbearing as ever. And though she hadn’t had a fight with them that she would need to reconcile, there had been this low-level sense of disagreement between them, ever since she dropped out of college.

 

Nadya’s parents wanted her to go back to college. More specifically, they wanted her to finish her politics degree, and go out and do… what exactly? She’d tried to explain to them that she just didn’t believe in it anymore, the way she had when she had first started. It had become clearer and clearer that it was all back-room deals and no one believed in things the way she had thought when she had been young and naïve and thought she could change the world.

 

She would go back to college. Eventually. She’d assured them of this. But they wanted to know when, and she couldn’t tell them that. She spent too much time waiting tables, and worrying about rent, and worrying about how she’d pay her power bill to think about any of that. But “when I’m sure I know what I want to study” hadn’t proved to be a good enough answer to them. At least, not so far.

 

Nadya was brought out of her head by the realization that the car had slowed. That wasn’t right. There shouldn’t have been traffic between LaGuardia and Hastings-On-Hudson on a Thursday mid-afternoon, and they certainly hadn’t been driving long enough to be there yet.

 

She looked out the windows, and her heart sank. They were on Wards Island. Instead of heading north into the Bronx, the way that would take her to her sister’s house, they were heading over the bridge into Manhattan. Something had gone wrong. There must have been some confusion, Nadya thought. But the sign had my name on it.

 

“Driver!” she called out, and the partition slid down.

 

“Yes, Your Highness?”

 

The man’s words took her aback. She wasn’t sure how to respond. She’d accepted when the TV had called her that. It was a prank her sister had played on her, she’d felt sure of it. But the way the words came out of this man’s mouth, it was like he believed them.

 

She shook her head and decided she was being absurd. If Jasmine was going to go all in, she was going to go all in. Of course she’d have told the driver that she was royalty, if that was the joke she was playing. She was just taking this further than Nadya expected.

 

Jasmine had always had this playful, rebellious streak in her. Since they’d been children, this was the sort of prank she would pull. Maybe, Nadya thought, this was Jasmine’s way of trying to show her that she hadn’t changed; that she was the same girl she’d grown up with.

 

Nadya settled back, mostly feeling at ease, or at least trying to be.

 

“Is it going to be long?” she asked, trying to adopt the voice that a man who thought she was royalty might expect. It was only partially successful, but, hey, royalty was a new look for her.

 

“Not long now, Your Highness. There is some traffic in Harlem, but it should be clear once we’re past it.”

 

So, her sister was having her brought into Manhattan. She’d probably meet her somewhere upscale, and continue the ruse through an early dinner or a late lunch, whichever they wanted to call it. They’d enjoy being back in each other’s company, Nadya would forgive her sister, and Jasmine would forgive her as well. All the bad blood they’d had between them would be cleared up well in advance of the anniversary party.

 

The buildings of Manhattan went by about as quickly as they could be expected to. The traffic was light, which in New York meant that it was moderate. Nadya began to get excited about what her sister had planned for her. Jasmine had always had great taste, and she was sure she’d pick somewhere nice for the two of them to meet.

 

But not this nice. The hotel the car pulled up to was just excessive. It was the kind of place that Nadya always found her head craning to look into when she passed, but that she’d never expected that she would actually walk into.

 

“It this it?” she asked the driver as he held the car door open for her, dropping the act entirely and allowing her disbelief to show through.

 

The driver nodded, and did that little half-bow thing he’d done before at the airport, though Nadya felt she could sense a bit of suspicion still lingering underneath the surface.

 

There were porters there are the curb, gathering up her bags. They were quick and efficient, and her bags disappeared into the hotel before she could say anything. All she could do, she figured, was follow.

 

Stepping over the threshold, she began to have doubts. Maybe it had been wishful thinking that had made her think that her sister would plan something like this. Sure, they’d had a fight, and sure, her new husband was loaded. But even considering both those things, even lunch at the restaurant of a place like this would be wasteful, by any standards.

 

“Nadya?”

 

Another man was calling out to her. He resembled the driver so strongly that Nadya had to do a double take to be sure that it wasn’t actually the same man. He had the same stone-faced expression, and the same impeccably-tailored suit. And, it seemed to Nadya, the same air of curiosity and slight suspicion.

 

“I’m Nadya,” she said. Anderson, she thought. Just say it. ‘I’m Nadya Anderson.’

 

But she didn’t say it. Maybe something had gone wrong. She couldn’t be the person all this was meant for. This wasn’t her kind of hotel, or her kind of experience. The way these men were acting… the way this man was calling her “Your Highness.” It had to be a mistake. Jasmine wouldn’t have taken it this far. She wouldn’t have brought this many people into it.

 

But it was a mistake that was leading Nadya into a world she’d never really gotten a look at. Her family had always lived in small, crowded third-floor walk-ups. And then she’d been a student, trying to get by in a dorm and on a meal plan. And since then, she’d been a waitress, just trying to get by at all.

 

She still had plausible deniability, didn’t she? She could follow this through and see where things were going. At least, she could let it go just a little bit further, until she could say that she thought they had her confused for someone else, and call an end to the whole thing. But in the meantime…

 

The elevator was taking them up, higher and higher. It wasn’t the normal elevator for guests of the hotel, Nadya noticed. This was an elevator reserved exclusively for the penthouse, that the grey suited man had needed a special keycard even to call.

 

“How was your flight?” the interchangeable stone-faced man asked her.

 

Pleasantries. She would have to make pleasantries. But not too many. If they were speaking to her like royalty, she would have to act like royalty, and royalty wouldn’t say much in this situation. That was a relief.

 

“Tolerable,” she said, tilting her jaw just slightly up, as she imagined that someone who thought herself above everyone else would do.

 

If she were in the man’s shoes, she’d be insulted. But to him, her behavior seemed to allay his doubts. He approved, it seemed, of her aloofness.

 

But now there was dead space between them. Usually quietness didn’t make Nadya uncomfortable. As a waitress, she’d gotten used to sensing which customers wanted to be talked to, and which wanted to be left alone. And she was happy to offer quiet to those that wanted it. But here, in this situation, she felt herself casting about for something to say, against her better judgement.

 

She couldn’t ask any of the things she wanted to ask – not if she wanted to see the inside of the room before announcing that someone had got something wrong. And she did want to see the inside of the room, she found. It surprised her just how strong her curiosity was.

 

It was a relief when the elevator stopped, and the doors opened directly into the entryway to a suite. The stone-faced man did a little half-bow identical to the one the driver had done, and gestured for her to leave the elevator car.

 

She did, and as the door shut behind her, she was suddenly struck with fear. There was no escape, now. Something about the sound of the elevator whooshing off down back to the first floor made Nadya feel as though she were entirely in this new world, now. And it was a very different place to the world she’d lived in for the first twenty-one years of her life.

 

She took a few slow breaths in and out. She got herself together. She decided to look at this as though she were a journalist. She was here to observe. She would just take a look around, and see how the other half lived. And then, when she was finished, she would pick up the phone and call hotel reception, and tell them that she thought there had been a mistake.

 

Nadya had been in her fair share of hotels and motels for class trips and family vacations, and in hostels for the six months after she’d dropped out of college, when she’d done some backpacking while she tried to figure out what to do with her life – only to find out that new places didn’t in and of themselves provide any answers. This place was unlike any she’d ever stayed in.

 

It was like a private residence. It felt like someone had designed it for themselves, and had just happened to invite you round, and let you have the run of the place. The light fixtures looked like works of art, with their combination of shiny chrome and matte stainless steel. The Chuck Taylors she’d donned for the flight sunk deeply into the plush rug, under which were beautiful, hardwood floors

 

This high above the city, Nadya could almost believe she wasn’t in the city at all. She knew the noise of New York well. She knew the feeling of always having people below you, above you, and around you. But here she might as well have been somewhere far away, where people have the luxury of space and privacy.

 

She tried to soak it all in. She wanted to remember every detail. She noted the crown molding, and the subtle shade of calming grey. She noticed the pattern on the ceiling, so very far above her. It was like lace, made from different textures of white rather that different colors.

 

The room was bathed in a golden light. Nadya looked up and saw a skylight above her head, letting in the warmth of the sunset, just beginning. Glints of the golden light bounced off of the mirrors, and made the white lilies in a vase by the entryway look orange.

 

There were no windows just here. She was in the middle of the building. There were hallways headed off in different directions toward different rooms, like synapses, and those all had the orange glow coming in from them, reflected off mirrors and glass, or in triangular shapes on the floor, made by the light coming through windows out of her field of vision at off angles.

 

That was when she noticed the rose petals on the floor.

 

Nadya’s heart began to race. She’d gone along with everything with the understanding that she’d just been accidentally taking someone’s reservation. The fallout from that would be embarrassing enough, but at least it would happen to her alone. These rose petals meant that this was more than that. She wasn’t just stealing someone’s reservation. She was stealing someone’s date.

 

She turned back, looking at the elevator. She would just call it back up. She would just get into the elevator, and ride down to the lobby, and head straight out. She’d take the subway to the train, and then call her sister from the station. She’d tell her what a strange adventure she’d been on, before promptly forgetting what a fool she’d almost been. Her finger raised to push the elevator button, but a thought stopped her. Her bags. They’d taken her bags somewhere into this hotel. Were they going to be coming here soon? Where had they been taken?

 

She considered quickly going through the rooms in the suite, to see if they’d been piled somewhere. She’d headed straight upstairs from the lobby, but the men who had taken her bags had seemed so efficient that she wouldn’t put it past them to have beaten her here, possibly through the use of dark hotel magic. And if she didn’t find her bags in any of the rooms, she knew that it would just be a matter of waiting for them to show up with them.

 

But that line of reasoning only brought her back to the rose petals on the floor. If the person who had placed them was still here, and she had no reason to believe he wouldn’t be, then she stood a chance of running into him. And if she ran into him without any kind of explanation, what would he say? What would he do? How much had she transgressed?

 

The absurdity of what she’d done was beginning to dawn on her. She’d let herself get carried away. She’d allowed it to go far too far already, but it was still almost within the realm of possibility that she hadn’t done anything too unacceptable. She still had a chance of getting out of this. But only if she owned up now, and told whoever it was that was waiting for the real Nadya exactly what had happened.

 

Nadya swallowed nervously and began to follow the rose petals, being careful not to step on them, so that they would still look fresh and new for whoever their intended recipient was. The trail led her down the hall, and out into an open plan living room area. The light hit her just as she walked out into it, forcing her hand up to shield her eyes. The room was glass on all sides, and the same golden light that had illuminated the entryway light was spilling in, lighting up every tasteful, modern detail.

 

Outside the room was a terrace, and beyond it, the city. Nadya breathed in involuntarily as she saw it. It was a private garden, with manicured plants. Just enough to feel lush, but not overcrowded. In the middle of it was a table set for two, with a seated figure already there and waiting. He had his back to her, so she couldn’t tell much about him other than that he was tall, with black hair and a well-cut black suit.

 

She swallowed hard. The worst of her fears that had been confirmed: this was a romantic rendezvous that she had accidentally crashed. But there was no going back now.

 

Nadya strode out across the living room to the half-open sliding glass door. The rug ended here, and she could hear her own footsteps. The man on the terrace could hear them too, it seemed, and he sprang up and turned around just as she got to the doorway.

 

Two things at one struck her. First was the breeze. This high above the city, even on a stuffy day like today, the air felt cool and light. It made her involuntarily breathe in deeply, to get every precious molecule of it in her lungs that she could.

 

The second was the sight of the man himself. He was undeniably handsome, with a strong jawline and an open, honest face. He looked like he could have been an Arab mannequin, but for a single small mole on his chin.

 

She could tell immediately that he didn’t recognize her. Or, rather, that he didn’t expect to recognize her, and so wasn’t disturbed that he didn’t.

 

“You must be Nadya,” he said, sincerity radiating off him like sunlight. “It’s so good to finally meet you.”

 

This was going to be much harder than Nadya had expected.

 

 

THREE

 

“Nadya?”

 

She wasn’t speaking. Why wasn’t she speaking? Why wouldn’t her lips move to form the words to end this disaster before it went any further?

 

“Nadya, are you all right?”

 

His voice bore just the slightest accent – just the barest hint. Nadya wouldn’t have even noticed, possibly, except that the words were echoing through her head.

 

“Yes,” she said. No, no no, she thought. “I’m all right, thank you.” She followed it up with a smile, as though that would gloss over how she’d been standing stock still, unable to speak for the longest of moments.

 

She had make her excuses and go. Whichever Nadya he was supposed to be meeting, wouldn’t she be here soon? And why was it, anyway, that he was meeting a woman, here, in a truly extravagant penthouse suite of one of the most exclusive hotels in New York City, and he didn’t know what she looked like?

 

“I’m just…” she took a shot in the dark, “A bit nervous.”

 

His smile told her that she’d struck gold. “Perfectly understandable,” he said. “It’s not every day you meet your future husband.”

 

Nadya could have laughed. Or cried. Any chance that she could just walk away from the whole thing with no harm done was swiftly evaporating. Unless this man was prone to terrible pickup lines – and he certainly didn’t seem like the sort who would need one to begin with – she’d just managed to interrupt the most important day of his life.

 

At least it explained the high drama of the trail of the rose petals, and the way that his people (she had to assume that they had all been his people) had seemed so stiff and anxious to please her.

 

Nadya was glad that a few of the pieces were coming together. But she also felt her heart sinking. She’d just met the man. She’d only spoken precious few words to him, and already she was disappointed by the idea that he would be getting married, and it wouldn’t be to her. It would be to some other Nadya, who would surely arrive at any moment.

 

“You must be tired from the flight,” the man was saying, stepping back and sweeping an arm over to present the table. “And hungry. I know it’s a bit early for dinner, but when the driver said he’d picked you up already, I had them bring it up. It’s amazing that your flight got in so early.”

 

“Yes,” Nadya replied, already hating the thought that was growing in her head. “I suppose so.”

 

If the other Nadya’s flight wasn’t meant to come in until much later, Nadya thought, maybe she had some time. If indeed that was the case, then what would be the harm? Maybe she could stay, at least for a few minutes more. At least she could try some of the food. She could smell it from here – the aroma wafted over through the golden air, reminding her that she was, in fact, starving.

 

She needed a moment to think. She needed to take a moment away from the handsome man, the delicious food and gorgeous view. If she just got away from it, she reasoned, maybe she would be able to start thinking clearly.

 

“Actually,” she said, trying for all the world to play it casual, “may I have a moment? It was a long flight, and I would love a chance to freshen up.”

 

“Of course,” he said, looking only a tiny bit dejected as he gave her directions to the guest bathroom.

 

Nadya only gave a fleeting thought to the absurdity of a hotel suite with its own guest bathroom. Right now, it would be as good a haven as any. When she reached it, she found that it was gorgeous, huge, and richly decorated, just like everything in the suite. Marble was everywhere, and the sound of her trying to catch her runaway breath bounced off the walls.

 

She’d never felt like she wanted for anything. Not really. Not in the way that some people truly wanted for things. The last three years had been difficult; she’d never really gotten comfortable with having to do math before going grocery shopping. But even then, she’d gotten by.

 

So why did it feel like being in this place, with this man who clearly never had to think about money except for the passing thought that he had more of it than others, feel like she was coming up for a fresh breath of air after having lived her life underwater?

 

It wasn’t just how beautiful everything was. It was how easy it all seemed to be. Her bags were taken care of. She was taken care of. Food appeared, and a handsome man wanted the pleasure of her company for dinner. Any problem that she had ever had just seemed irrelevant, here, right now, in this place with this man.

 

She felt her phone vibrate in her pocket, the quiet ding of the alert muted by her jeans. Her phone felt wrong here. It was three models behind, and she was already making a mental note to herself not to take it out in front of the man who was out on the terrace, waiting for her.

 

Where are you? It says your flight landed, but I can’t find you in the terminal? x J

 

Nadya smiled. Jasmine always signed her texts like that. Longstanding sisterly feud or no, she was, and always would be, the sweet one. Nadya frowned as she tried to think to herself how she would be able to explain the situation to her sister, and typed in a first attempt.

 

Sorry, just commandeered another Nadya’s fiancé. Don’t worry though, they don’t know each other!

 

She laughed to herself quietly as she looked at the words on the screen. Something about seeing them written down in all their absurdity made her feel less like she was seriously transgressing, and more like she was just playing some kind of prank that would sort itself out eventually. She deleted the words and tried again.

 

Sorry, I’m seeing what it’s like to be richer than you.

 

No, that wouldn’t do. There was something spiteful in there, seeping out. Besides, if she told her sister anything about what was going on, she would have to tell her everything. Jasmine would never stand for half the information about a juicy story. Nadya deleted the words, and tried one last time.

 

Sorry! I completely missed my flight. Got on the standby list for a new one. Should be in later tonight. I’ll let you know what time when I find out.

 

That would do it. She pressed send.

 

And, just like that, she’d committed herself to staying. Just a little longer. She only wanted a little more of a taste of this life.

 

She turned her phone off so it wouldn’t give her away, and slipped it in her pocket. She splashed water on her face, and gave herself a quick check in the mirror. She hadn’t exactly dressed to impress for the cross-country flight, but she still didn’t know where her luggage was, so for the moment this would have to do.

 

She headed back out to the terrace, where she saw the man standing at the edge of the terrace, looking out over the city.

 

She went to him. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” she said. She was trying to sound casual, but found she didn’t actually have to try too hard. Once she’d made the decision to stay, at least for a little while, she found her nonchalance wasn’t so hard to find.

 

The man seemed lost in thought, and Nadya almost felt bad pulling him out of it. When he looked at her, she saw his eyes more clearly. She’d thought they were black, but they were really a warm, dark brown. They were good eyes, she thought. Kind eyes. Not the sort of eyes that she’d picture on a rich, Middle-Eastern man who was engaged to marry a royal woman he’d never met.

 

“Well you should be,” he said, with a playful feigned annoyance. “I was starving.”

 

His casual humor and easy smile, even in such a momentous occasion as this, pushed out any trace of doubt in Nadya’s mind. She wanted to taste just a little more of this life; she wanted to learn just a little more about him, and how he’d found himself waiting for a woman he’d never met, but would one day marry.

 

He pulled out the chair for her and they sat down. The starter was a small but elegant warm salad, bursting with flavors Nadya didn’t recognize but couldn’t get enough of, and she had to keep herself from wolfing it down in seconds.

 

“So, how was your flight, Nadya?” he asked.

 

She was glad for the question. It was something she could answer honestly, at least. “It always feels longer than it is, but it wasn’t bad.”

 

He frowned, pushing a bit of lettuce around on his plate as though he were annoyed with it. “Well, the flight from Dubai is pretty long. It would be hard to feel longer than that.”

 

Oops. She’d thought that she could answer honestly. “Well, you know, first class helps a lot.”

 

She tried to put on her best impression of how she thought Other Nadya might talk. Not in terms of the accent – she could hardly change that now, and he hadn’t balked at her sounding American – but in terms of the easy above-it-all way she must see the world.

 

She could see from the look on the man’s face that she’d said something wrong. She searched her words, and realized that she’d unwittingly implied that she had ever flown coach. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

 

“I mean, I imagine so, anyway,” she said, trying to cover.

 

“Don’t worry, Nadya,” he said. “I know what you mean.”

 

That was the second time he’d said her name. She liked how he said it. She liked the way it sounded with his hint of an accent making it just a little softer and more musical.

 

She was suddenly struck by how much she wanted to know his name. It was more important than anything, she felt, in that moment. She could hardly ask, though, unless she wanted to give herself away and for the whole experience to be over just as it had begun. So she just kept on.

 

He was looking at her like he expected something from her, so Nadya elected to change the subject.

 

“Anyway, I like the hotel you’ve chosen,” she said, and she meant it. The way his face lit up told her that she’d chosen the right subject to pivot to.

 

“I’m glad. It’s my favorite in New York. There’s nowhere else in this whole city that makes me feel quite as much like I live here.”

 

“But you don’t…” Nadya said, trying to ride the line between statement and question, unsure how much the other Nadya knew about him. If he didn’t even know what she looked like, then surely she had to be at least a little bit in the dark about him. That would work in her favor.

 

“No,” he said. “Not anymore.”

 

The very words she had said on the plane. Ironic that he should say them too. He was looking over the city again, like he regretted it, with the same unwilling melancholy as she had had.

 

“Why not?” she asked him. Her voice sounded too eager. She could hear it even as the words came out. They were innocuous – just the right level of small talk for a first meeting. But it was the way she’d said them, like she was calling him on his regret and urging him to open up to her; pleading for intimacy despite having only just met.

 

He distanced himself, answering by rote. “I went to Columbia for finance. Oh, I’m sure your family told you. No use in covering the same ground…”

 

“No,” Nadya hoped she wasn’t too quick to respond. “Actually, they haven’t told me all that much. They wanted it to be a surprise, they said. My parents said it was a surprise for them, and it was helpful for them to get to know each other on their own.”

 

It was a guess, but it was probably a good one. Nadya figured that any couple that would send their daughter into an arranged marriage probably would have had one of their own. And even if Other Nadya’s parents hadn’t, maybe this man didn’t know. Regardless, it would give Nadya the breathing room to figure out a little more about him, without showing herself to be an imposter.

 

“Well, we’ve got three whole days to do it in, then, so we’d better get started.”

 

Nadya nearly dropped her fork. “Three days?” she said, out loud, before she could stop herself.

 

The man nodded. “Yes, three days. Nadya, are you sure you’re all right?”

 

“No, I just… I’ve gotten myself confused by the time zones and everything. Today is Thursday, then, if it’s three days.”

 

He nodded slowly, and Nadya congratulated herself. Quick recovery. A bit messy, but she seemed to have gotten away with it, for now at least.

 

Her mind turned back to what had shocked her so much in the first place. It was one thing knowing that he was going to be married, eventually, to other Nadya. But knowing that it was going to be so soon, her presence there felt even more wrong. She was eating into their precious time to get to know each other. They didn’t have long, and she was taking it.

 

“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” she said, with perfect sincerity.

 

The man nodded. “Honestly? Me either, some days.” He looked wistful, again, as he had when she’d come back out from the bathroom.

 

This was all wrong. He shouldn’t be sharing these doubts with her. She shouldn’t be the one he admits this to. If he did, she couldn’t trust herself not to try and talk him out of it, and then where would she be? She’d have done real, lasting damage, thanks to a misunderstanding that she’d let get out of hand.

 

“You were saying, Columbia?” she said, trying to draw the conversation back to safer territory. This time she would be the one to hold back, and keep them on the safe track.

 

The man looked back relieved to be back on the planned tour, as well. “Right. I studied finance. I came here ten years ago, actually. Studied at Columbia, and then did my postgrad in business. Went to Stanford for that.”

 

“California,” Nadya said, her voice betraying the memories she had there, maybe more than the meant it to. She had grandparents out there, and to her California would always mean beaches and long, lazy days.

 

“Yes,” the man said, noticing her tone. “You like California, then?”

 

He sounded surprised, and Nadya froze. She wasn’t sure – did other Nadya know California? Did she like it? Had she been there often?

 

“Only once,” she said. “Between flights. But it seemed nice.”

 

It seemed like the answer least likely to give her away, but the lie hurt her. She was lying about being his fiancée, but still… something about him and his openness with her made her want to only tell him the truth. At least, as much as she could without revealing herself.

 

He seemed to buy it, nodding sagely. “I wish I could say I had as fond of memories of it as you seem to. I studied, most of the time.”

 

Time was ticking away. She had so little time, and she was wasting it on small talk. Since they’d sat down, the whole conversation had felt like a dangerous shifting compromise. She missed the man that had been joking with her before they sat down to eat. Oh, what the hell.

 

“So you’re a nerd, then?” she said, any pretense of trying to talk like a princess now dropped.

 

He almost choked on his wine, but the corners of his lips were turned up in a smile. “You know,” he said, “princes can’t actually be nerds.”

 

“Oh, is that so?”

 

“Oh yes,” his said, his mock seriousness kicking in. “It’s a little known fact. We can only be wise or brave. True story.”

 

Here he was, again. No small talk, no brooding look. Just a quick joke and an easy smile.

 

“Those are your only options?”

 

He nodded gravely.

 

“So you picked ‘wise’, then? If you’re off studying instead of anything else…”

 

“Nadya, Nadya, Nadya… are you ever lucky. As it turns out, I’m actually both!”

 

Nadya laughed. “Brave and wise? Is that even possible?”

 

He shrugged, wineglass in hand as though he were toasting it. “It appears so. I’m quite shocked myself.”

 

Nadya picked up her own wine glass and settled back into her chair. Suddenly waiters were around them, whisking away their salad, and replacing it with what looked like lobster bisque, but she paid them no mind.

 

“I’m afraid I’m going to need proof. You studied, and succeeded, I take it. There’s your wisdom. But where’s your bravery?”

 

He looked around, as though amazed that she wasn’t seeing the obvious. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

 

She set down her glass and reached for her spoon; the bisque smelled far too delicious for her to be put off trying it any longer. “So, an arranged marriage is an act of bravery, is it?” she asked between bites.

 

He shrugged, and picked up his own spoon. His little play-act of cocky bravado was gone, but it only revealed the casual confidence of the man beneath. “Well, either that or after four years of pouring myself into my undergraduate studies, two years pouring myself into my MBA, and four years pouring myself into managing my family’s Stateside operations, somehow my father is surprised that I’m 28 and haven’t met anyone.

 

Nadya nodded, as though she could empathize.

 

“And then it begins,” he continued. “Every other week my mother is asking ‘Salman, have you met any women lately?’”

 

Salman. There it was, at last. Just when she’d gotten too caught up in the conversation to plot ways of getting him to say it, he’d come right out with it.

 

She’d never met a man named Salman before. He was the sole owner of the name for her. She liked the name. She liked the way he wore it.

 

“Yes, parents have a way of pressuring you into making decisions you aren’t ready to make, don’t they, Salman?”

 

She took the opportunity to say his name immediately, even though it may have given her away if he were already suspicious. She liked the way it felt on her lips.

 

“I didn’t say I wasn’t ready to make it,” Salman said, backtracking. They were already back on the unsteady ground they’d found themselves on earlier, only this time, they were just a bit more comfortable with each other. They stepped out onto it together.

 

“So this was your parents’ idea as well, was it?” he asked, innocently enough.

 

Nadya hurriedly said that it was, and her eagerness brought a little smile to his lips.

 

“And you came willingly? Or have you been sent against your will?” He bent down close to the table and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Shall I call for the police?”

 

Just the idea sent an involuntary shiver down her spine. Was this illegal? Was she committing fraud?

 

“I’m right when I want to be, thank you very much,” she said. And she meant it. “Anyway,” she carried on, trying to distance herself from the embarrassing moment of sincerity and the terrifying idea of the police, “don’t family always kind of have you captive?”

 

He frowned. “I love my family,” he said.

 

Nadya hurried to clarify. “Oh, I love mine, too,” she said. “But that’s beside the point. Even if they want to help you… I mean, especially if they want to help you… it can sometimes feel like a bit of a trap.”

 

His eyes narrowed, and Nadya wished she hadn’t gone down this line. But she couldn’t stop now. “It’s like, because they know you… or… no, that’s not what I mean.” She was flailing, unsure how to say what she meant. “Don’t you feel it?” she asked. “When you’re with them? Like they’re trying to suck you in, and they’ll never let you go.”

 

He tilted his head from side to side, like he was knocking the thought back and forth to see where it fit. “I suppose I know the feeling you mean. But I think you value too much being let go. Sometimes it’s nice to be held onto.”

 

Nadya went back to her wine.

 

“And I think you might not value it enough.” He looked at her for a long moment, before he followed her lead and went back to his wine, as well. “You surprise me, Nadya.”

 

She arched an eyebrow. “I do? Good. You know, a princess can be surprising, or agreeable.”

 

He smiled, seeing where she was going with this. “And let me guess… you just happen to be both?”

 

“Oh no,” she said, with gusto. “I’m just surprising.”

 

 

FOUR

 

The fear of Other Nadya’s arrival began to fade from Nadya’s mind as the dinner wore on. It seemed less and less likely that she was going to arrive if she hadn’t already.

 

“And what about you?” he asked her, over their third course. “What did you study?”

 

“Political Science. But I didn’t finish.” The truth burst out of her without her meaning it to.

 

“Where?” he asked, and she told him. “And why didn’t you finish?”

 

There was a trickier subject. It would have been difficult to answer even if she hadn’t been pretending to be someone else. But now she wasn’t sure what to say. How would a Middle-Eastern royal ever feel the way that she did? How would it play with Salman if she told him how she really felt?

 

Maybe it was the light of the night, with the stars beginning to peek out through the glowing sky above them that made her do it. Whatever the reason, she continued. “I just realized the reasons that I got into politics weren’t something that politics can really change. Not well, anyway. Everything’s just power-mongering, isn’t it? The rich and the powerful squabbling over what they have. The people who have nothing aren’t even in the game.”

 

She held her breath, the stillness between them punctuated by a car horn many stories below. She prepared for him to be offended, or to tell her that she couldn’t possibly be who she said she was. But to her surprise, Salman sighed.

 

“I feel the same. Take you, for example.”

 

“Me?”

 

“No, I don’t mean it in a bad way,” he reassured her, seeing her nervousness at the attention. “I mean take my family choosing you as a bride for me. It didn’t matter who you really were, just what family you were a part of. It’s all loyalties, and alliances. Even now, with everything we are so fortunate to have, and all the power that my family has… Still we give our lives to defend it.”

 

She liked the way that he looked when he was riled up. It made him seem less like he was the perfect model of a man, and more like he was an actual, living, breathing human.

 

He moved on quickly, not lingering in the point of pain. “And, of course, they picked you to make sure then don’t end up with grandchildren named Tim and Julie.”

 

Nadya giggled a little. She wasn’t prone to giggle. The wine must be going to her head, she thought. “You should name your kids Tim and Julie, anyway,” she said. “That’ll show them.”

 

Salman smiled, and corrected softly: “Our kids.”

 

The certainty of it all hit Nadya like a shot in the dark. Here she was, admiring and dreaming. But there were things that couldn’t be changed.

 

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ve said something to upset you.”

 

“No… No, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to put a damper on the mood. You just reminded me of everything that’s happening.”

 

They were talking about it now, really and truly. There would be no turning back from it.

 

“You know, if you don’t want to do this, they can’t make you. And I’d understand. Really, I would.”

 

The temptation was there. It would be so easy. She could just tell him that she wanted to call it off, at least for now. Maybe she could say that she wanted to get to know him a little bit better, first – more than three days would allow. But what would that change, in the end? Maybe she would plant a seed of doubt in his mind. Maybe she wouldn’t. Maybe Salman’s declaration that the wedding was postponed would make its way back to the real Nadya’s family, and she would choose that point to show up.

 

The gears were going underneath the surface, but outwardly she only pursed her lips. “No,” she said. “I don’t mean that. It’s just a lot, very quickly.”

 

They moved on from there. They’d tackled the elephant in the room, so there was no longer any need to be afraid of it. With that, conversation became easier. They talked about movies. That seemed, to Nadya, like it would be a safe subject, and for a while, it was. And with every word, he seemed more and more human, and she felt, rightly or wrongly, like he was more and more hers.

 

Even there, their experiences differed. He asked her what she thought when she first saw the unedited movies from her childhood and her mind blanked.

 

“I mean the ones you saw in theaters back home… when was the first time you saw them over here and realized bits had been cut out of them the first time you saw them? All the kisses?”

 

She mumbled something about not really going to the movies much as a child, and he said that it was a shame. It wasn’t much, and it didn’t stick. He didn’t seem suspicious. But still, it reminded Nadya that this wasn’t her date, and that she’d better get going.

 

There was no graceful way out of it. There was no good way of saying that she’d been lying to him all evening, and that she didn’t’ know where his fiancée was, but that he should probably be worried, at this point.

 

Her best chance, Nadya thought, was to simply call it a night. Then she could go off to her room, find her bags, and sneak out when she thought that he was asleep and wouldn’t hear her. This suite had to be huge; breaking out shouldn’t be too hard.

 

Nadya started yawning. Subtly, at first, but then more and more often. She hoped he would catch on and comment, and luckily, he did. Just after they’d finished dessert and the dishes had been carried away by some waiter so discreet as to be invisible.

 

“You must be exhausted,” he said, as though thinking of it for the first time. “You know, I had a date planned for us. I thought I might take you to the theater. But all things considered…” He had a grin that could charm a Chihuahua out of yapping. “Do you want to stay up here? There are loungers up here, hidden behind the plants. I found them earlier. I’d like to look at the stars with you.”

 

“It’s hard to see the stars in New York City,” Nadya said, even as she could feel herself getting more and more carried away with the idea of laying on this rooftop by him, side by side.

 

“Then we’ll have to look carefully.”

 

 

 

FIVE

 

What she’d remember about that night, far and beyond everything else, was how precious every moment felt. It was all impossible; everything she was experiencing wasn’t hers. She was in this invisible bubble that would burst any moment, but until a bubble bursts, is there anything more peaceful?

 

They lay on the sun loungers, looking up at the night sky. Summer in the city is miserable on the streets, but up on the roof…

 

Nadya thought she could get used to the sound of his laugh. It was unique – and after only an hour she thought she could recognize that rising and falling pattern anywhere.

 

And maybe she would, she thought. Maybe she’d hear it one day, from the other side of some barrier. Maybe she’d hear it floating up from the seats by the stage up to where she was seated in the nosebleeds.

 

“What’s the matter, Nadya? You’ve gotten sad all of a sudden.”

 

He touched her hand for the first time, grounding her in the present moment. The one where they were happy, and together. Nadya thought she’d best enjoy it while she could.

 

“Nothing is the matter. Absolutely nothing at all.”

 

“I’m glad,” he said. She’d spoken softly, and so did he. The quiet volume held them close to each other, though they were just far away enough so as not to be touching except for his hand on hers.

 

“Do you really think that?” he asked, as though expecting her to read his mind and know what he meant. The expectation of that closeness – so close that she should know the very thoughts in his mind – delighted her.

 

“Do I really think what?” She kept her voice low, so it could barely be heard over the distant din of the city, dampened by their dizzying height.

 

“Do you really think this isn’t brave?”

 

She turned her head, that had been directed towards him, and looked upwards instead at the stars. “I’m not sure,” she said. “I’ve never been able to decide whether it’s brave or stupid marrying anyone at all. I guess whichever one it is, marrying them without having met them is just more so.”

 

“Foolish?” he asked. It wasn’t harsh, only questioning. But she didn’t answer, so he continued. “I suppose it’s all back to the same thing,” he said. “They’d never let go of you.”

 

Again, he didn’t say it harshly, but Nadya still felt the sting of it.

 

“I suppose you’re older,” she said. “Everyone you know is married. But there’s still hope for most of my friends.”

 

Her attempt at humor felt hollow. Salman didn’t laugh, and she didn’t either.

 

“Do you know many people that aren’t married?” she asked. She turned her face back towards him, and saw that he had never looked away.

 

“One of my sisters isn’t,” he said. “But most of them are.”

 

“And are they happy?” Nadya asked, not realizing until the words were out of her mouth that what she really wanted to know was if her own sister was happy. It was a question she’d never asked herself.

 

“The ones that are, or the one that isn’t? Oh, I guess the answer is the same with either. They don’t tell me how they feel.”

 

He seemed sad as he said it, and Nadya felt a stab of guilt, though she couldn’t put her finger on why.

 

They turned the conversation to lighter topics. She asked him about his sisters, and he went on and on about them. He wasn’t a shy man with his emotions, she realized. It was refreshing, after the last man she’d dated, and of course, she made the mistake of telling Salman that, after which he wouldn’t let the subject go.

 

“So then, I shouldn’t be jealous?” he asked, the tone in his voice making it clear that jealousy was the furthest thing from his mind.

 

Nadya felt like she was being teased, but she wasn’t sure quite why. “He was a perfectly nice man,” she said, defensively.

 

“Was?” he asked. “Did you kill him?”

 

“Is!” she said. “Is! Well… probably is. I’m not exactly sure, but I heard from someone that he’s a bit more bitter, now.”

 

“Oh!” he said, crowing as though he’d made a great discovery. “You ruined him! How does it feel, to know that a man is forever damaged because of you?”

 

She was blushing. “Oh, stop!” she said, raising her voice over his gleeful one. “Let’s be real, he was probably a little damaged anyway.”

 

“Well, I mean, everyone’s a little bit damaged, aren’t they?” he said. The wine seemed to be going to his head.

 

“Yes, that’s very deep,” she said, teasing.

 

“Oh, shut up.”

 

Nadya smiled outwardly, though his words, said jokingly, stuck with her. The other Nadya had never come. But she would.

 

Had she actually ruined everything?

 

They talked and talked, making less and less sense with every hour, the way these things often go. The flight and the excitement of the day began to catch up to Nadya. Her eyelids began to droop, and real yawns, rather than put-on ones, began overtaking her.

 

For Salman’s part, he didn’t look tired at all. It seemed to be more the wine and the spirit of the night taking his sense from him than the late hour. When she asked him about it he feigned shame.

 

“Ah, well, I was afraid you would find this out about me sooner or later. I am, and always have been, a night owl.”

 

Nadya laughed the little giggle that only the very tired or the very drunk can manage. All tight, high knots in her chest coming unraveled one after the other and shaking her as they went.

 

“Do you think you can possibly still marry me? Even knowing this? Even knowing that this is the life you’d be in for?”

 

“Yes,” Nadya said, quietly and mostly to herself.

 

They could see each other quite well in the light from the stars and the light from the city.

 

“Good to know,” he said.

 

They talked more about silly, inconsequential things. It was the kind of talk where one subject just spirals into another, and the lines between them get blurred to the point that what they’d discussed wouldn’t make any sense in the morning, but in the moment it all seemed brilliant. Nadya felt herself slipping away.

 

She awoke in his arms. She’d hit her foot on a chair as she passed it, and while it didn’t hurt, it had roused her just enough to feel him carrying her to her room. She didn’t let on, though. She didn’t want to walk. She could feel his heartbeat, and she didn’t want to lose it.

 

He brought her through the hallways that had been golden earlier. They were silver, now, from the moonlight coming through the skylights. Her room itself was in a suite of its own, within the penthouse suite, separated by a pair of grand double-doors that he had trouble getting open while still carrying her. They were huge, carved wooden monstrosities. Detailed enough that they had to be antiques from somewhere. Reclaimed, and refinished, removed from some doomed church or crumbling mansion and hidden away here for the ultra-rich to cherish. They were valuable, in every sense. But Nadya would be sealed behind them, away from him, and she resented them for it.

 

She smiled at the effort it took him to try and get them open, and then smiled at him pretending not to notice that she had woken up. She tried to keep her eyes closed as he brought her into her suite-within-a-suite, but it was hard to resist. She felt like a child on Christmas eve, trying to resist looking at the corner of a present where the wrapping paper had ripped off. She peeked glances, and saw the same high ceilings, the same reclaimed wood floors. The same skylights above.

 

The windows looked frosted over, though it was hard to tell from just small glances. What she could tell about them was that they were huge – it was like this room was a peninsula out into the street. There were windows on three sides, and the somewhat dulled lights of the city flew across everything.

 

The bed was another antique. A four-poster affair. It must have belonged to someone famous or influential, Nadya suspected. This place was like that. He laid her down gently, and then paused for a moment. He knew she was awake. He must have. It felt like he was hovering, resisting the temptation to break the shared illusion they found themselves in and kiss her.

 

But then he slipped away. He paused again by the door, she saw out the thin slit of her barely open eye. Then he tapped something on the wall, and the lights of the silver moon and the city coming through the window were all instantly gone.

 

The darkness was unnerving. Good for sleeping, she supposed, but unnerving all the same. When she heard his footsteps departing, she slid out of the bed and carefully maneuvered in the dark towards the place she’d seen him tap.

 

It looked like a touchpad on a laptop, built into the wall. She hit it once, and suddenly all of the glass was completely clear. She could see the building across from her windows in perfect relief – she could even make out a woman watching TV in her apartment.

 

She touched the pad again, and the room was once more pitch black. She needed somewhere in the middle. She moved her fingertips lightly across the touchpad, and was glad to get the desired result. Customizable. This was what it was to be rich. It wasn’t just about having everything you wanted, it was about having everything you wanted, exactly how you wanted it.

 

She picked a setting that seemed best, and looked around the room in the dim light. She wasn’t sure what she was looking for until her eyes ran across it. Then there it was – her luggage. Her things had been unpacked and put away. She could see the dress she’d brought along for her sister’s anniversary party hanging there on the door to the closet, as though it were on display.

 

It didn’t belong here. It wasn’t stylish enough, or grand enough, and it stuck out like a sore thumb. It was a wonder that whatever helpers, or servants, or whatever Salman called them, had unpacked the dress, hadn’t gone right ahead to their employer and told him she was just a commoner who had somehow slipped into their world and was pretending that she belonged there. It wasn’t just the dress; she didn’t belong here either.

 

Nadya could feel the bubble that she and the prince had been in bursting. And as it did, she remembered her sister. She’d probably be worried sick by now.

 

She slid back into her bed, feeling too defeated even to undress. He clothes were uncomfortable against the sumptuous softness of the mattress. She dug her phone out of her pocket and turned it on. The screen lit up the room with a phony artificial light that felt as much like it didn’t belong here as she did.

 

The device took a long time to boot up – a symptom of its age – but when it did, the number of notifications by the phone and messaging apps was intimidatingly large.

 

They would be from her sister, probably. And her parents. She didn’t want to look at them. She’d thought, only moments before, that she wanted to see them, but now that she only needed to tap a button, they didn’t seem quite so necessary.

 

Nadya turned the phone off and set in on the night stand. She wouldn’t need to answer the messages if she didn’t go home tonight. And what would be the harm, she figured, of sleeping here for just one night? If Salman was a night owl, it made sense that she’d be able to wake up before him in the morning. She’d be gone before he woke, so what did it matter if she was here while he slept?

 

The defeat she’d felt a moment before was lifting. She had a plan. It would be all right.

 

The bed really did feel like a cloud, and the sheets had to be felt to be believed. She shimmied out of her clothes, still under the covers, and settled in. This was the night of her life. She might as well enjoy it.

 

The Sheikh’s Accidental Bride is available now

 

 

 

Other books by Holly Rayner:

 

Sheikhs and Princes:

 

Bought By The Sheikh

Stealing From The Sheikh

The Sheikh’s Captive Woman

Marrying The Sheikh

The Sheikh’s Make-Believe Fiancee

The Sheikh’s Accidental Bride

 

 

 

Merry Christmas Romance:

 

The Billionaire’s First Christmas

The Sheikh’s First Christmas

 

 

European Billionaire Romance:

 

An Heir For Alexandros: The Greek Billionaire’s Baby

A Baby For Kristos: The Greek Billionaire’s Surprise

 

 


A Baby For Kristos: The Greek Tycoon's Surprise

Emma Johnson is a participant on the staged and superficial reality TV show, Date Roulette, and she sure isn’t looking forward to it. After a furious altercation with the show’s producer – debonair Greek billionaire Kristos Metroupolos – she’s dismayed to learn that he’s her mystery suitor, and has to pretend to enjoy dating him for the cameras. To their surprise however, the staged ‘date’ goes surprisingly well, and Emma finds herself ensnared by the tycoon’s beguiling charm. Their fake TV romance ends in a very real encounter she won’t ever forget, and it will change their lives forever… Sure enough, Emma soon realizes she’s pregnant, but after fighting for her Greek ex-lover’s attention, he’s shocked and hurt by the revelation! Scarred by past experiences, and believing Emma to be little more than a gold-digger aiming to tarnish his reputation, Kristos makes her an offer: hand the baby over to him, with no publicity and no questions, for a huge cash sum. Emma surely can’t give away her only child, and a chance to make a life with the man she loves, can she? This is a standalone Greek billionaire romance novel from best-selling author Holly Rayner. It contains a guaranteed HEA, and a tale of romance that will capture your heart. As an added gift, it also contains the first few chapters of Holly Rayner's prior novel, The Sheikh’s Accidental Bride.

  • Author: Forbidden Fruit Press
  • Published: 2017-01-31 17:35:23
  • Words: 42668
A Baby For Kristos: The Greek Tycoon's Surprise A Baby For Kristos: The Greek Tycoon's Surprise