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Authors: Melody Carlson

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BOOK: Premiere
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“Who’s that?” I ask as nonchalantly as possible.

“Are you kidding?”

“Let me guess—Benjamin Kross?”

“You don’t watch our show much, do you?” She looks truly shocked and maybe even slightly offended.

But I just shrug. “Not so much. Sorry.”

Benjamin is coming over to us. He and Avery exchange a friendly kiss, which surprises me since Mia, his supposed girlfriend, is only about ten feet away. But then, maybe that’s just the norm around here. As Avery introduces us, I notice Benjamin has a red plastic cup in his hand, like most people at the party. It’s amazing to me that they’d be so casual about drinking with cameras running.

“And that’s Erin’s sister over there,” Avery tells Benjamin.

He nods as if he approves. “How do I get an introduction to her?” He seems to direct this query to me, and so I take the initiative and walk him over to meet Paige. Knowing that cameras are rolling, I manage to introduce them without botching it too badly.

“Benjamin,” Paige says with a twinkle in her eye. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“You too.” He grins, then holds out his arms like he’s about to say
tah-dah!
“So, tell me, how did I do? Would I make your fashion do’s or don’ts list?”

Paige looks him up and down, then smiles with approval. “Oh, you are definitely a
do.

He chuckles. “I’ll hold you to that.”

“And how about the rest of us?” A tall girl in a bright blue dress steps up. She has long, nearly black hair and is wearing gigantic silver hoops in her ears. “Which list would the rest of us make?”

“Would you like me to start with you?” Paige asks, not missing a beat.

“Yes,” says another girl. “Do Natasha.”

“Why not?” Natasha strikes a poise, confidence exuding from her. And really, she looks like she could be a professional model. Tall, thin, stately.

Paige smiles sweetly as she carefully looks her over. “The color of your dress is superb on you,” she begins. “It really makes your eyes sparkle and brings out the best in your complexion. Great choice.”

“Thank you.” Natasha smiles

“But the cut is unflattering.”

“Unflattering?” Natasha’s smile evaporates.


See
how it sags a bit here.” Paige points to the loose fabric along the sides of her midriff. “Not very attractive. A slight alteration would’ve helped…maybe. Although this fabric, in this cut…well, it’s only my opinion, but it was probably a mistake from the get-go.”

Mia laughs. “I have to agree with her, Natasha. That dress makes you look totally flat on top and kind of hippy on the bottom. I was going to tell you myself, but I never got the chance.”

“Sorry,” Paige says brightly. “You asked.”

“What about Mia’s dress,” Natasha demands. “Tell us what you think of
that.

Paige looks at Mia innocently. “Oh, I don’t know…”

“Come on,” Benjamin urges her. “I’d like to hear this too.” He steps next to Paige, cupping his chin in his hand, appearing to study his girlfriend’s red dress, which is similar to Paige’s but not quite right. At least I don’t think it is, but then again, I’m no expert.

Mia just shrugs. “Go for it, Paige. I’d be interested to hear what you think.”

Paige presses her lips together, then nods. “Well, for starters, some blondes look good in a true red…and some just don’t. It has to do with your skin tone and eye color. And, don’t feel badly, Mia, but you’re one of the blondes that should just say no to red. It washes you out.” Paige smiles. “You don’t hate me now, do you?”

“Of course I don’t hate you.” Mia frowns slightly. “And I suppose
you
can wear red?”

Paige ignores Mia as she turns to Benjamin. “What do you think? You know Mia better than anyone here, right?”

Benjamin looks at Mia and then at Paige, then back to Mia. “I think you nailed it, Paige. Mia does look kind of pale, like she’s not feeling so great.” He puts his hand on her forehead. “Still nursing that hangover from the weekend, are we?”

Several people laugh, but Mia pushes his hand away. “Paige didn’t answer my question,” she says to him. “Why don’t you answer it for her. Do you think Paige is a blonde who
can
wear red?”

He gives a sheepish smile. “Oh, yeah, I think Paige can wear red just fine.”

I can tell Mia is
seeing
red now. And it looks like she’s not going to give up on this. “So what about the cut of this dress, Paige? Anything you’d like to say about
that
?” Mia stands
straighter now, holding her head high and exposing even more cleavage than my sister, which in a weird way is kind of a relief. Maybe Dad wouldn’t be upset after all.

“It’s an
okay
cut,” Paige begins slowly, as if she’s watching her step. “But I have to say that dress is not particularly well made.” She points to some tucks and seams along the front of the dress. “This workmanship is a little shoddy.”


Shoddy?
” Mia looks at Paige like she’s lost her mind. “Do you have any idea
who
made this dress, or what it costs?”

“I can take a guess.” Paige studies the dress even more closely. “I think it’s a Badgley Mischka—”

“That’s right,” snaps Mia. “And I can’t believe you’d call it shoddy. Do you realize that the cameras are on? And that you have just insulted one of the finest designers around?”

“You didn’t let me finish,” Paige says sweetly. “I was about to say that it looks like a Badgley Mischka
knockoff.

“That’s ridiculous.” But Mia looks uncomfortable, and I’m thinking my sister is right.

“Maybe you haven’t heard there are some counterfeits floating around this area,” Paige tells her. “My guess is that’s one of them. If you’d like, we could examine the label and determine—”

“Thank you, but no thank you.” Mia seems to force a stiff smile. “Now, how about if I critique
your
dress?”

Paige nods. “Go for it.”

Mia looks at Paige, but she just stands there and it seems she has nothing to say. How could she? Paige looks perfect.

“Oh, come on, Mia.” Benjamin goes over and nudges his girlfriend playfully, giving her a little half-smile. “Just admit it, Paige looks great. Get it over with and let’s get into the party while there’s still food left. I’m starving.”

Mia turns and storms off toward one of the tents.

“She’s probably going to change her dress,” one of her friends says quietly.

“She was already mad that Paige’s dress was red like hers,” Natasha informs everyone.

“And I told her to wear the white one instead,” another girl says.

“Did I really offend her?” Paige asks innocently. “I was only being honest and she wanted my advice. I hope I didn’t hurt her feelings.”

Avery steps in. “The gown
was
a knockoff,” she tells Paige. “And Mia knows it.”

They all laugh loudly at this, and it seems the storm has passed. But I can’t help but wonder about Mia’s so-called friends. Maybe Avery was right when she said this show messes up a lot of things. What a price to pay for fame and a bit of money.

Benjamin links arms with Paige. “Let me escort you to where the
real
party is about to begin.” Naturally, the others sort of glom onto the unexpected couple, and, like a herd of sheep, they head through the garden and toward the house, which looks as big as a hotel.

I follow the group at a distance, noticing that the cameras are still running, cameramen jogging to keep up and grab the right shots. I wonder what Mia is going to say about this, and whether Paige is in over her head.

Chapter 9

“Your sister knows how this thing works, right?” Avery asks me once we’re inside the foyer of the house, which still looks more like a hotel than an actual home.

“What thing?”

“The
show
.”

I half shrug. “I guess she does. I mean, we were sort of briefed on it earlier today. Our director said to just be ourselves…only more so.”

Avery laughs. “That sounds about right.”

“And Paige watches
Malibu Beach.
Whenever she talks about it, she sounds like an expert to me.”

“Good.” Avery nods. “And just so you know, the director wants the initial party conversations to start here in the foyer. We’ll hang here for a while and when we get the cue, we’ll start moving toward the great room over there.” She nods to an open area off to our right.

“So even though this unscripted, it’s sort of staged?” I question.

“Absolutely. Otherwise it would turn into chaos.” She kind of laughs. “Sometimes it does anyway.”

“How do they handle that?”

“The editors manage to work it all into one fairly cohesive show. It’s actually kind of impressive.”

“Sounds interesting.”

“Anyway, we should probably move closer to the action,” she directs me. “We need to at least appear interested in the key characters.”

We stand nearby and watch as Benjamin and Paige continue to talk and banter and seemingly hit it off. Whether their behavior is for the cameras or for real is anyone’s guess, but there is clearly some flirting going on, and it seems to be coming from both directions.

“What about Mia?” I ask Avery with uncertainty.

“Meaning where is she?”

“Sort of…but more like, will she be jealous?”

“Of course.”

“So are the relationships—like Mia and Benjamin—for real? Or are they just hyped up for the show?”

Avery turns and looks at me like she can’t believe I don’t know this, but I honestly don’t totally get it. “Be assured, Erin, Mia and Ben are really dating. They’ve been together for almost two years now and Mia is pretty sure that they’ll get married.”

“But isn’t Mia only eighteen?”

Avery nods. “Yes. And Benjamin is only twenty.”

“That seems pretty young to be thinking about marriage.”

“Well, it’s not like Mia’s planning her wedding.” Avery glances over to the entrance as if she expects Mia to charge in here at any moment.

“Didn’t I hear that Benjamin has a movie contract?” I can’t
believe I actually remembered a bit of
Malibu Beach
trivia. Probably from something Paige said when I was half asleep.

“Yes, and that’s just one more thing Mia’s not too thrilled about.”

“She’s not happy for Benjamin?”

“She’s upset that she hasn’t been offered a deal yet.”

I’m tempted to make a prima donna comment about Mia, but then remember that Avery is her friend. Although I’m not so sure about how these girls define the word
friend.
I have a feeling it’s more a term of convenience than endearment.

I see a couple of guys coming our way now. Obviously they’re from the show so they know Avery, but I can see them looking at me. Probably wondering why someone like me has sneaked onto their show. At least they’re smiling.

“So, are you going to introduce us to your new friend?” the tall dark-haired guy asks Avery. I can feel him looking at me in a way that doesn’t make me feel particularly comfortable.

“You already know who she is.” Avery rolls her eyes for my benefit. “Everyone on the show knew that you and Paige were coming today.” Suddenly, I notice one of the cameras is focused on us now. “This is Vince Stewart.” She nods to the tall guy. Then she smiles at the shorter one. “And this is Juan Romero. And this, as you know, is Erin, the younger sister.”

“Pleasure to meet you.” Juan shakes my hand and then slips his arm around Avery as if they are a couple.

Now Vince shakes my hand, holding a bit longer than necessary. “Nice to meet you, Erin. How about you save me a dance once someone starts breaking the ice on the dance floor?” He chuckles as he holds up a red cup. “Which reminds me, I need a refill. Can I get you something, Erin?”

“No, thanks,” I tell him. “I’m fine.”

“Oh, oh,” Vince says. “Look who’s coming.”

We all turn to see Mia entering the foyer. Her red dress has been exchanged for a white one. Even I can see it’s an improvement, but in my opinion she still doesn’t look as good as my sister. She seems to have regained her cool, else she’s just a good actress. She goes directly to Benjamin, moving into the small crowd and taking his arm with a look in her eyes that suggests ownership. Benjamin just smiles, but it seems like a placating smile, like he’s only humoring her. Is it just me or is that a red flag?

“Would you like to comment on this dress?” Mia asks Paige in a loud voice that sounds more like a challenge than an invitation.

But Paige just smiles.

“What, no critique, no fashion suggestions? No hints as to whether I’ll make Paige Forrester’s do’s or don’ts list tomorrow?”

“It looks lovely, Mia,” Paige assures her. “Like a princess.”

Mia doesn’t seem to like this. “A
princess?
As in too sweet? Too little girlish?”

Paige looks like she’s weighing her response, although I can’t tell which way the scale is tipping. “Well, it’s much better than the knockoff.”

Mia looks like she wants to punch my sister. Instead she seems to tighten her grip on her boyfriend. “Benjamin,” she says sweetly, “isn’t it about time to go inside and dance?”

He nods, and they begin to head toward the great room with cameras trailing closely behind. Before they enter the room, he turns and smiles brightly. I think I see why he’s getting a movie contract, because this guy knows how to light up a room. “Hey, Paige,” he calls back, “don’t forget that you promised me a dance.”

She gives him a little finger wave and a nod, and Mia gives my sister a look so chilly that it could freeze a hot cup of coffee.

Eventually, we all meander into the great room, which is huge. When we get inside I hear music from a live band, which is situated outside on a huge deck with the beach and ocean behind them.

The next thing I know, Vince is tugging me out to the dance floor where Mia and Benjamin and several other couples, including Paige and a good-looking blond guy, are already dancing. It’s not that I don’t like to dance, but I’m not too impressed with Vince. I would’ve appreciated the chance to say, “no, thanks.” But with cameras running, I don’t really want to create a scene (and draw unwanted attention to myself) by ditching this guy out here on the dance floor, so I comply.

After a while I have to admit that although I didn’t like my first impression, Vince is not a bad dancer. When we finish our dance, he starts questioning me about our upcoming show, asking me what my role is going to be.

“I plan to stay behind the scenes as much as possible,” I tell him.

“Why would you do that?” he demands, like I’m nuts.

“Because I’m more interested in filming and producing,” I explain. “Paige is the star.”

He nods as he watches my sister from a distance. Right now she’s dancing with Benjamin and Mia is with the blond guy—they must’ve traded partners. The cameras seem to be eating this up, and I can see why since the expression on Mia’s face is priceless. It’s like she’s trying to act like it’s no big deal, but she’s seething.

“Oh, yeah,” Vince says with approval, “that sister of yours has definitely got star quality going on.” Then he smiles at me. “So can you get her to dance with me?”

Well, why should this surprise me? I shrug as if it’s the most natural thing in the world for people to use me to access my sister. And maybe it is. “You’d have to ask her.”

“But you could introduce me,” he suggests.

“Okay,” I agree. “I’ll introduce you if you’ll tell me what’s in that cup.”

He looks down at his red cup, then grins. “I thought you knew.”

“I’m guessing it’s not punch.”

“Oh, it’s punch all right. But punch with a little more punch.”

“And your producers don’t mind?”

“We have a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy.” He chuckles.

“And no one gets in trouble?”

“No more than they do on the outside.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning kids drink, you know, and sometimes they mess up with it. And sometimes”—he takes a big swig—“they don’t.”

“Right…” I’m sure my skepticism is written all over my face.

“Hey, don’t be all self-righteous,” he warns me. “The kids in this show know how to handle themselves. They know how to stay out of trouble.”

“And so the stories we hear about teenage stars doing rehab are just made up?” I counter. “Publicity stunts, perhaps?”

He chuckles. “Maybe so. Anyway, our producers know that it loosens the cast up to have a drink or two…and
that’s what they want…and so I think they just look the other way.”

“As in ignorance is bliss?”

He nods. “So I answered your question. How about introducing me to Paige?”

“One more question.” I nod over to where Paige is just starting the next dance with Benjamin. “Since she’s occupied.”

Vince looks slightly irritated. “Fine. But what are you anyway? Some kind of investigative reporter, trying to get the inside story?”

I nod. “Yeah, maybe so. But I’ll protect my sources, okay?”

He grins. “Okay, shoot.”

“So, tell me, Vince, why do you need to drink to loosen up? If you’re an actor, like most of your cast members claim, why can’t you just act like you’re loosened up?”

His brow creases. “You know, that’s a pretty good question.”

“How about a pretty good answer then?”

“Hmmm…” He looks over the crowd as if searching for the answer. “Maybe it’s because we’re not really actors.”

I nod. “Maybe so.”

“Now, let’s make our way over there”—he nods to a corner of the room where the action seems to be happening—“and you can let your sister know that you want to talk to her. Okay?”

“Okay.” I’m mulling his response in my head as we start for the other side of the room. When we’re about halfway over there, I start to hear voices getting louder, but I’m too short to see exactly what’s going on. Ironically, as the voices get louder the music gets quieter—and I’m wondering if the band has been directed to reduce the volume when something “interesting” develops on the set.

“Get your own freaking boyfriend!” It sounds like Mia’s voice.

“You need to just chill, Mia.” This sounds like Benjamin, and it’s not quite as loud as Mia’s, but equally intense. “This jealousy routine of yours is not attractive.”

With Vince’s help, I push my way through the crowd of onlookers, and am not all that surprised to see that Paige, Mia, and Benjamin are in the center of things. It’s almost as if this scene has been rehearsed. If Avery hadn’t told me that Mia and Benjamin were really a couple, I’d think this was just a staged scene for the sake of the viewers. Even now, I’m not totally sure. I mean, what is reality TV here and what is not?

Mia steps closer to Paige, jutting out her chin and swinging her pointer finger practically in my sister’s nose. “What’s the deal anyway?” Mia says with slurred words. “You can’t find your own guy? So you come here and try to steal mine?”

“Mia—”

“Shut up, Benjamin!” Mia shoots at him. “You keep out of this!”

“We were only dancing,” Paige attempts.

“You shut up too,” Mia shrieks.

“You need to relax.” Benjamin is trying to get Mia’s elbow, as if he plans to escort her out.

But she does a quick flip around, freeing herself from Benjamin and lunging at Paige. “Witch!” she screams. “I’m gonna tear you to—”


Stop it!
” Benjamin leaps, grabbing Mia from behind and catching her by the back of her dress. The onlookers have what seems to me to be an unlikely response. Kind of like they expected a catfight and are disappointed, or maybe they’re
surprised at Benjamin, as if they expected him to let his girlfriend attack my sister.

Paige is backing away and she looks honestly scared. “I’m sorry, Mia,” she says quietly. “I was really only dancing with—”

“Shut your face!” Mia screams as she struggles to free herself from her boyfriend. Meanwhile, he’s holding on like he’s got a tiger by the tail. I’m surprised no one’s helping him and I’m a little worried Mia is going to get away and seriously hurt my sister.

“Help Benjamin,” I command Vince. And to my surprise, he jumps in to restrain Mia. In the meantime I run over and stand by Paige and am surprised that she actually holds onto me as if I could protect her—pretty funny when you consider she’s a lot taller than me.

“Back off,” I tell Mia.

“Shut up, Nerd Girl!” She shakes her fist in a wobbly sort of way, like she really is drunk. At the same time she eyes me like I’ve just made her hit list. But I can see that she’s kind of weaving back and forth and I doubt that she’s going to be standing on her feet much longer.

“You’re drunk,” I tell her. “And maybe when you’re sober, you’ll remember all this and you’ll see what a fool you made of yourself and learn how to—”

“You’re jus’ jealous,” she slurs at me, “you wannabe. You wish you was beaut-a…beaut…you know whadda mean, Nerd Girl. You wish you were pretty like me.”

Despite her drunkenness and the fact that she doesn’t look the least bit pretty at the moment, the jab still stings. And it doesn’t help when everyone laughs at this.

“Let’s get her out of here,” Benjamin says to Vince. Now
Juan joins them and the three guys manage to drag Mia away. Naturally, some of the cameras are trailing them, and we can hear her screaming and cussing all the way. As I turn to Paige, and notice that her face is paler than usual, I mildly wonder if her network allows that kind of language to go on the air.

“Are you okay?” I ask my sister.

“Yeah, but that was a little freaky.”

“What did you do to get her so mad?” I notice that the cameras are on us now, but I don’t even care.

“I was just dancing with Benjamin.”

“Dancing way too close,” Natasha informs Paige in a snarky tone. “What did you expect Mia to do?”

“To have a little dignity,” I toss back.

BOOK: Premiere
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