Summer Island Page 4

“We have some bad news.”

“Bad news?”

Jason eased past Bob and came up to Nora.

His steel-gray hair was perfectly combed. A black Armani suit made him look like a forty-year-old mafia don.

“Earlier today, Bob took a call from a man named Vince Corell.”

Nora felt as if she'd been smacked in the face. The air rushed out of her lungs.

“He claimed he'd had an affair with you while you were married. He wanted us to pay him to keep quiet.”

“Jesus, Nora,” Bob sputtered angrily.

“A goddamn affair. While your kids were at home. You should have told us.”

She'd told her readers and listeners a thousand times to be strong. Never let them see you're afraid. Believe in yourself and people will believe in you. But now that she needed that strength, it was gone. “I could say he was lying,” she said, wincing when she heard the breathy, desperate tone of her voice.

Jason opened his briefcase and pulled out a manila envelope. “Here.”

Nora's hands were shaking as she took the envelope and opened it.

There were black-and-white photographs inside. She pulled out the top sheet. It wasn't more than halfway out when she saw what it was.

“Oh, God,” she whispered. She reached out for the chair nearest her and clutched the metal back. Only pure willpower kept her from sinking to her knees. She crammed the pictures back into the envelope.

“There must be a way to stop this.” She looked at Jason. “An injunction. Those are private photographs.”

“Yes, they are. His. It's obvious that you ... knew the camera was there. You're posing. He's probably been waiting all this time for you to become famous. That piece in People must have done it.”

She drew in a deep breath and looked at them. “How much does he want?”

There was a pregnant pause, after which Jason stepped closer. “A half million dollars.”

“I can get that amount-”

“Money never kills this kind of thing, Nora. You know that. Sooner or later it'll come out.” She understood immediately. “You told him no,” she said woodenly. “And now he's going to the tabloids.”

Jason nodded. “I'm sorry, Nora.”

“I can explain this to my fans,” she said. “Bob? They'll understand.”

“You give moral advice, Nora.” Bob shook his head. “This is going to be a hell of a scandal. Jesus, we've been promoting you as a modern version of Mother Teresa. Now it turns Out you're Debbie Does Dallas.”

Nora flinched. “Not fair, Bob.”

“Believe us,” Jason said. “The trailer-park set in Small-town U.S.A. will not understand that their idol just had to be free.”

Bob nodded. “When these photos hit the air, we'll lose advertisers instantly.”

Nora clasped her trembling hands and tried to appear calm. She knew it wasn't working. “What do we do?”

A pause. A look. Then Jason said, “We want you to take some time off.”

It was all coming at her too fast. She couldn't think straight. All she knew was that she couldn't give up. This career was all she had. “I can't-”

Jason moved closer; touched her shoulder gently. “You've spent the better part of the past decade telling people to honor their commitments and put their families first. How long do you think it will take the press to uncover that you haven't spoken to your own daughter since the divorce? Your advice is going to ring a little hollow after that.”

Bob nodded. “The press is going to rip you limb from limb, Nora. Not because you deserve it, but because they can. The tabloids love a celebrity in trouble ... and with sexy pictures. Hell, they'll be jumpin” up and down over this."

And just like that, Nora's life slipped beyond her grasp.

“It'll blow over,” she whispered, knowing in her heart that it wasn't true, or if it was true, it wouldn't matter, not in the end. Some winds were hurricane force and they demolished everything in their path. “I'll take a few weeks off. See what happens. Spend some time coming up with a statement.”

“For the record,” Jason said, “this is a scheduled vacation. We won't admit that it has anything to do with the scandal.”

“Thank you.”

“I hope you make it through this,” Jason said. “We all do.”

Jason and Bob both spoke at once, then an awkward silence descended. Nora heard them walk past her. The door clicked shut behind them.

She stood there, alone now, her gaze blurred by tears she couldn't hold back anymore. After eleven years of working seventy-hour weeks, it was over.

Poof. Her life was gone, blown apart by a few naked photographs taken a lifetime ago. The world would see her hypocrisy, and so too--oh, God--would her daughters.

They would know at last, without question, that their mother had had an affair-and that she'd lied to all of them when she walked out of her marriage.

Ruby had a pounding headache. She'd slept on and off all day.

Finally, she stumbled into the kitchen and went to the fridge. When she opened it, the fluorescent lighting stabbed her aching eyes. Squinting, she grabbed the quart of orange juice and drank it from the container. Liquid trickled down her chin. She backhanded it away.

In the living room--what a joke; if you were living in this empty room, you were either dying or too stupid to keep breathing--she leaned against the rough wall and slid down to a sitting position, stretching her legs out. She knew she needed to walk down to Chang's Mini-Mart and pick up a newspaper, but the thought of turning to the want ads was more than she could bear. The job at Irma's hadn't been much-had been godawful, in fact--but at least it had been hers. She hadn't had to stand in a hot line, begging for a chance, saying I'm really a comedian again. As if she were special, instead of just another loser in the string of men and women who came to Hollywood with a cheap one-way ticket and a dream of someday.

The phone rang.

Ruby didn't want to answer. It could hardly be good news. At best, it would be Caroline, her über-yuppie, Junior League sister who had two perfect kids and a hunk of a husband.

It was possible that Dad had finally remembered her, but Ruby doubted it. Since he'd remarried and started a second family, her father was more interested in midnight baby feedings than in the goings-on of his adult daughter's life. Frankly, she couldn't even remember the last time he'd called.

The ringing went on and on.

Finally, she crawled across the shag carpet and answered on the fourth ring. “Hello?” She heard the snarl in her voice, but who gave a shit? She was in a bad mood and she didn't care who knew it.

“Whoa, don't bite my head off.”

Ruby couldn't believe it. “Val?”

“It's me, darling', your favorite agent.”

She frowned. “You sound pretty goddamn happy, considering that my career is circling the hole in the toilet bowl.”

“I am happy. Here's the scoop. Yesterday I called everyone I could think of to hire you. And baby, I hate to say it, but no one wanted you. The only nibble was from that shit-ass, low-rent cruise line. They said they'd take you for the summer if you promised no foul language ... and agreed to wear an orange sequined miniskirt so you could help out the magician after your set.”

Ruby's head throbbed harder. She rubbed her temples. “Let me guess, you're calling to tell me there'sa man named Big Dick who has a night job for me on Hollywood and Vine.”

Val laughed. It was a great, booming sound, with none of the strained undertones she was used to hearing. A client got to know the subtle shades of enthusiasm-it was a skill that came with being at rock bottom on the earning-potential food chain.

“You won't believe it. Hell, I don't believe it, and I took the call. I'm going to make you guess who called me today.”

“Heidi Fleiss.”

There was a palpable pause; in it, Ruby heard Val's exhalation of breath-he was smoking. “Joe Cochran.”

“From Uproar? Don't screw with me, Val. I'm a little-”

“Joe Cochran called me. No shit. He had a sudden cancellation. He wants to book you for tomorrow's show.”

How could a world spin around so quickly? Yesterday, Ruby had been pond scum; today, Joe Cochran wanted her. The host of the hottest, hippest talk show in the country. It had been patterned after Politically Incorrect, but because Uproar was broadcast on cable, the show explored racier issues-and foul language was encouraged. It was a young comedian's dream gig. Even if she wasn't so young anymore.

“He's giving you two minutes to do stand-up. So, kiddo, this is it. You'd better spend the time between then and now practicing. I'll send a car around to pick you up at eleven tomorrow morning.”

“Thanks, Val.”

“I didn't do anything, darling'. Really. This is all you. Good luck.”

Before she hung up, Ruby remembered to ask, “Hey, what's the topic of the show?”

“Oh, yeah.” She heard the rustle of papers.

“It's called ”Crime and Punishment: Are Mommy and Daddy to Blame for Everything?"

Ruby should have known. “They want me because I'm her daughter.”

“Do you care why?”

“No.” It was true. She didn't care why Joe Cochran had called her. This was her shot. Finally, after years of crappy play dates in smoke-infested barrooms in towns whose names she couldn't remember, she was getting national exposure.

She thanked Val again, then hung up the phone. Her heart was racing so hard she felt dizzy. Even the empty room looked better. She wouldn't be here much longer, anyway. She would be brilliant on the show, a shining star.

She ran to her bedroom and flung open the louvered doors of her closet. Everything she owned was black.

She couldn't afford anything new ...

Then she remembered the black cashmere sweater. It had come from her mother, disguised in a box from Caroline two Christmases earlier. Although Ruby routinely sent back her mother's guilty gifts unopened, this one had seduced her. Once she'd touched that beautiful fabric, she couldn't mail it back.

She grabbed the black V-necked sweater off its hanger and tossed it on the bed.

Tomorrow she'd jazz it up with necklaces and wear it over a black leather miniskirt with black tights. Very Janeane Garofalo.

When Ruby had picked out her clothes, she kicked the bedroom door shut. A thin full-length mirror on the back of the door caught her image, framed it in strips of gold plastic.

It was hard to take herself seriously, dressed as she was in her dad's old football jersey and a pair of fuzzy red knee socks. Her short black hair had been molded by last night's sweat fest into a perfect imitation of Johnny Rotten. Pink sleep wrinkles still creased her pale face. Remnants of last night's makeup circled her eyes.

“I'm Ruby Bridge,” she said, grabbing a hairbrush off the dresser to use as a mike. “And yes, you're right if you recognize the last name. I'm her daughter, Nora Bridge's, spiritual guru to Middle America.” She flung her hip out, picturing herself as she would look tomorrow--hair tipped in temporary blue dye, a dozen tacky necklaces, tight black clothes, and heavy black makeup. "Look at me. Should that woman be telling you how to raise kids? It's like those commercials on television where celebrities come on and tell you to be a mentor to a kid. And who does Hollywood pick to give out advice?

Source: www_Novel22_Net

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