Author’s note: This is a sneak peek! There may be minor changes before publication that will not impact the outcome of the story.
Author’s note 2: This ABSOLUTELY spoils parts of book 1, Writing Her In. Read at your own risk!
As the youngest son of a media-hogging firebrand senator, Raleigh McKean had been stepping out of vehicles straight into bullshit for more than thirty years. With his father’s distinctive forehead, red hair, and conspicuous height, it was impossible for him to blend in. Even when people didn’t recognize him for his association with the man who’d introduced the controversial Barnes-Wilkins bill, Raleigh could rarely go anywhere and expect that he could kick his feet up and relax. Travel hadn’t been enjoyable for him since the first time his mother had pushed him and his siblings onto a rally stage on the first stop of the stump tour. He’d been eight and his parents had threatened unspecified punishments later on if he didn’t smile.
He didn’t have to smile anymore, which was a good thing. There was nothing amusing about the unforeseen mission that had him scrambling to La Guardia on a weekday morning to catch a flight to L.A. After all, it wasn’t everyday a man learned that his best friend had lost her mind and started shacking up with a married man.
And his wife.
Or maybe Raleigh had gotten that wrong. Maybe Stacia was shacking up with the married woman and the man was a bonus prize.
Either way, the shit had the potential to be as bad for Stacia’s career as it was for Raleigh’s health, and he didn’t know if he’d be able to mitigate the fallout. He hadn’t been able to eat more than soup for days. He hadn’t been so stressed since that time his father decided he ought to run for president.
“Woman’s gonna make me stroke out,” he murmured to the driver as he squeezed into a ride share sedan outside LAX.
There was another rider in the vehicle, headed the same way, and there he was, raving like a loon.
Fortunately, the rider was not a woman, and therefore did not take offense to Raleigh’s disordered prattling.
The driver dropped him off in front of the modest Hollywood estate Adrien and Dara Valliere had recently rented.
After double-checking the address, Raleigh hauled his bag up to his hip and marched toward the gate, squaring his shoulders as if he were headed into battle. He could never guess what he was going to get out of a confrontation with Stacia. She was a thin-skinned author who didn’t court opinions, but he was special and he offered them whether she wanted them or not. He was not only the publicist Athena Publishing had assigned to her more than six books ago, but the vicious wretch’s closest friend.
Or so he’d thought.
She hadn’t said one word to him about her scandalous goings-on with the Vallieres, and he’d slept under the same roof with all three of them more than once.
Suddenly, standing there on that yellow brick driveway shaded by so many towering palms, it dawned on him that their cagey behavior around him in recent weeks wasn’t due to mercury being in retrograde. All along, the trio had been trying to disguise their nascent romance, and for good reason. Even the slightest whiff of impropriety would get the Internet hate machine cranked into full frenzy mode.
“Well played, Stacia,” he murmured as he stabbed the call button from the sidewalk. Then he grunted with appreciation, running his hand along the cast iron rails of the gate. “At least the place is secure.”
He had to give her credit for that. It’d taken a small miracle to get the woman to build a fence around her property back in Richmond. Whether Stacia wanted to be or not, she’d earned a respectable degree of fame. She wrote mystery books women wanted to read, and her series was at that very moment being adapted into a television version.
Unfortunately, the man playing the charming hero happened to live on the other side of that gate. With his wife.
Raleigh stabbed the button again and peered at the camera. “I know you see me. I heard the speaker click and the little light turned on thirty seconds ago.”
A very Stacia-sounding sigh emanated from the speaker box. “What are you doing here, Raleigh? I didn’t know any of your other authors were in the area. Athena normally sends out emails when there are official signings.”
“No one’s here. I’m in L.A. on my own dime.” Around four thousand dimes, actually—and that was for a one-way ticket. He wasn’t made of money, especially since his rent check had just cleared.
“Oh? Why’s that?” she asked.
Grinding his teeth, he took a deep breath in through his nose and moved closer to the camera. “Open the gate, sweetie, so I don’t have to make a scene in front of Adrien Valliere’s driveway. The last thing you need is for a ranting redhead to show up in living color in a center spread in one of those trashy gossip magazines with a so-called reporter speculating wildly on why he’s there.”
“And for that ranting redhead to be identified as one of the McKean spawn.”
“Oh, so you do understand how this shit works, then.”
“I’m going to pretend that sarcasm wasn’t for me and that you’re just cranky because you haven’t eaten.”
“You know I’m right, Stacia.”
The paparazzi loved Adrien Valliere. They’d been swarming him since the earliest peeps had gotten out about his involvement in the adaptation. He was a genuinely nice guy and people were fascinated by him because he’d been on the covers of so many of Stacia’s books. They were finally getting a chance to see him move and talk. But the problem with that was that he had an extraordinarily private wife who was just trying her hardest not to get entangled in his fame. That was why they’d moved to the gated property in the first place. People had been starting to stalk that poor woman and, unlike Stacia, she didn’t have the heart to shame them into knocking it off.
There was a buzz and the pedestrian gate gave an inward lurch.
Raleigh scurried through and hit the button to reverse the swing in case there were any cameras following him. Because he’d been laying low and having a relatively boring, unproblematic existence, he hadn’t been splashed in a tabloid for a few years and he wanted to continue that trend.
Stacia appeared from the north side of the property, picking her way barefoot up the stone path. Her unbound, wiry hair was more nest than style and her eyes were covered with dark shades.
“Late night?” he quipped.
She cleared her throat and canted her head in the direction she’d come from. Without moving her lips, she said, “I’m staying in the pool house. Remember?”
“Yes, that’s the lie you told me. It was a lie, right?”
“Shut up and keep walking.”
He kept his mouth shut until they were safely ensconced in the cute little guesthouse and had the door closed. Then he cast his gaze about and scoffed. There was no furniture, except for a single sofa and a couple of bar stools at the kitchenette counter. The place had the sort of stale smell that usually conveyed with unlived-in domiciles. Of dust and unflushed drains.
Stacia drew the curtains shut. “So…”
“Yes. So. Given the close nature of our relationship, I won’t beat around any bushes. What the hell are you doing?”
Turning to face him, she took off the sunglasses and blinked. She had deadline bags under her dark brown eyes, and he was glad. She deserved them for giving him the stomach ulcer he could feel forming.
“Don’t play that innocent ingénue role with me,” he snarled when she did that Bambi blink again. “I know better. Spit it out. My job is to keep your name on people’s minds so you sell more books, but it seems you’ve found another way to make people think about you.”
She rolled her eyes. “Fine. I’m sleeping with the Vallieres.”
“Such a quaint way of putting it.” He dropped his bag at his feet and emitted an impassioned snort. “You’re doing a little more than sleeping with them, in my estimation.”
She sucked her teeth. Shrugged. That was the Stacia he knew—the one he kept on a short leash at public events. She was much more sociable in text than in person, but he’d found that that was typical of Athena’s authors. They weren’t people-people.
“Okay. Yeah. So. How’d you figure it out? What’d I miss?”
“Oh, just little things, like how sometimes you or Dara will forget to log out from the other’s email account before sending me something. Only takes me thirty seconds to figure out the writer’s style doesn’t match their name, by the way. People who aren’t intimate don’t let other people mess around on their computers.” Grimacing, he amended, “Actually, it’s probably an A-plus plan not to let people you’re banging have access to your computer, either. Remember? I learned that lesson with Allison.”
Allison had been the closing bookend in Raleigh’s long period of serial monogamy. She’d been the complete package—gorgeous, intelligent, and socially conscious.
She’d also been a political operative who thought he wouldn’t mind her passing on tidbits about Raleigh’s estrangement from his father to her boss.
Raleigh had been at work staring down a nasty deadline and his phone had buzzed to inform him that he’d backed up his computer to the cloud.
He most certainly had not.
The worst part was that she’d played dumb about it. She’d reminded him that he shouldn’t give away his trust so easily. He’d needed that lesson and he’d been wallowing miserably in it for two years.
“Dara is the singular most trustworthy person on the planet so I don’t worry about her having access,” Stacia said, “but look. This is complicated.”
“Yes, polyamory tends to be by design.”
“We didn’t plan on this happening,” she said with a weary sigh. “You see, one thing led to another, and I didn’t tell you about those things because I didn’t want you going full Raleigh on me.”
It was his turn to stare and blink.
She smiled in that Stacia way with pressed-together lips and mouth twitching at the corners. For her, it was practically a grin.
He could almost trust that she knew what she was doing when she smiled like that, but that wasn’t going to stop him from worrying. People were going to judge her and the Vallieres harshly if they found out, and her career wasn’t even his utmost concern. Her wellbeing was. She was his friend, and he loved her in spite of her being ridiculous.
“Oh, hell, you’re making that face like someone poured you the wrong wine.” She manually uncurled his upper lip with a few indelicate pokes of her fingers. “It’s fine, Raleigh. I appreciate you worrying about me, but we’re very discreet. Those people out there…” She waved her arm demonstrably toward the street, most likely toward the people with cameras waiting for Adrien to return. “They’re never going to figure this out because they can’t possibly imagine that anything would happen under Dara’s nose. She’s the sweet one, right? They’re always going to make her out to be the wounded party, and she’s right here. Obviously, she’s not going to miss anything. They all believe that I’m the Vallieres’ very good friend, and that makes sense to them. I write the books. Adrien stars in the T.V. show. I live in their guest house when I’m in L.A. and tell them all the secrets of the upcoming stories.”
“You’re a side-chick to two people.”
She let out the tiniest titter of amusement, put her hands on his shoulders, and gave him a silly little shake. “No, babe, I’m a primary source of entertainment around here. And come on. The only reason you figured out the scheme was because you have unprecedented access to all three of us. No one else does. Honestly, you should be flattered.”
He was. A little.
Raleigh may have been the head-down, walk-fast type, but Stacia had a knack for making her fans think they knew everything about her when in truth, she only fed them chaff. She was intensely private.
“Who all knows?” he asked.
Stacia was going to do what she wanted, but Raleigh needed to settle his nerves about the situation. If the circle of knowledge was small, they might be able to keep the truth sheltered.
“My parents and Adrien’s parents.”
“You told your parents and not me?” he asked with more than a little indignation. She rarely even answered the phone when her parents called. She answered for Raleigh by the third ring.
“I was going to tell you, but I hadn’t figured out how yet. With our parents, it was sort of a necessity because they like to know where their babies are at any given time. Obviously, with Dara being estranged from her family, there was no need to tell them anything. My parents honestly don’t care because they thought I was going to die a spinster, and this is…” She snorted and gave her red eyes vigorous rubs with the heels of her palms. “Well, this is far from that. Adrien’s parents are crunchy hippie Cajuns. They’re fine with the arrangement as long as our relationship is a closed one. Even they have their limits.”
“Huh.” He still couldn’t believe it. The little grinch he couldn’t get out of her house for a signing without resorting to savage deceit, had played nice enough to worm her way into a ménage.
The Good Lord was almost certainly humbling Raleigh in that moment by teaching him the limits of his intelligence. The shit didn’t make sense.
“Yeah. So.” She gave him another little shake. “Any other questions? Hate to rush you, but I was supposed to send feedback out on a script for the T.V. show today, and it looks like it’s going to be a doozy. The screenwriter took some liberties. Normally I try to be hands off with the show, but they can’t rewrite my characters’ traits without me noticing.”
“So, you’re dismissing me?”
“No, silly!” She bumped his thigh with her hip and rubbed her eyes again. “Of course not. Stick around. Adrien’s working, but Dara’s here. She’s working, too, though. Trying to get my inbox down to zero. If you can entertain yourself until dinnertime, we can promise to be much more interesting after that.”
Raleigh drummed his fingertips against the sides of his arms. His goal hadn’t been to bust in on the threesome and be the bad guy. He’d only wanted Stacia to know that she wasn’t being as discreet as she thought she was, but that wasn’t true. She was perfectly discreet, but Raleigh’s tuning was calibrated a bit differently than the general public’s. Stacia was the one person on a planet of billions who’d seen his foundation and all the bare wood studs that held up the roof that was his personality, and yet she still loved him, anyway.
Of course he’d notice if something was off, even if no one else would.
He raked a hand through his travel-flattened hair and shook his head. “Okay. I’ll leave you to work. I’ll catch up with you later, I suppose. I booked a one-way ticket not knowing how long I’d be here. I need to try to get a ticket back to New York for tomorrow, and I suppose I can find some other way to entertain myself in L.A. for a few hours, right?”
“If you can’t find something to do here, then where can you?”
“Use Dara’s car, if you want.” Stacia was already shuffling toward the door. “She won’t care.”
“Thanks, but I can just call for a ride. I hate driving in L.A.”
She shrugged and passed through the open doorway. “Suit yourself. Keep me updated. My cell’s on.”
Stacia left him to his own devices with no further pleasantries.
Raleigh jammed his hands into the pockets of slacks and stared at the spot where she’d been standing.
He’d flown three thousand miles to save someone who hadn’t needed saving.
It could have been worse, though. He could have crossed the country to support someone who’d never return the favor for him. He’d been systematically pruning people like that out of his life for more than a decade. He was used to people trying to use him for access to more powerful or more important individuals. His father, mainly, and that said a lot about them.
Stacia had been the only person he’d met in recent years who’d not only recognized him on sight—“Oh, God. You’re that polka dot tie guy’s son”—but who hadn’t interrogated him about his past privileges. In fact, when she’d been formally assigned to his author roster, he hadn’t even been able to get her to respond to his emails.
That’d been the basis of an honest friendship, to him—him doing the chasing for a change, and her knowing whom he had access to but tuning out any mention of it, just like he did.
Groaning, he headed to the bathroom with his bag in tow. He needed a shower and shave to feel like himself again, and then he’d deal with travel plans and figure out what he’d do with himself for a day. He was in the land of sunshine and excess. The sun, he avoided by virtue of being a natural ginger. The excess, though—that, he could appreciate.
For a day, anyway.
Then it was back to business as usual. Books didn’t sell themselves, after all.