sinine, that's what they all were. With an emphasis on the first syllable, Charly thought, stuffing a mustard-colored envelope into her oversized hippie bag while jogging down the stairwell. Anger moved her, pushing her faster, literally and emotionally. Adrenaline fed her strength as she pulled open the door and made it bounce off the wall as if it weren't made of heavy metal. She stumbled into the building lobby without the least bit of embarrassment. She was too upset to care if anyone saw her almost bust her butt; the only thing that mattered was
not catching up to her. Them being her dad and Mr. Day and all their other suited and booted flunkies who'd converged to decide what should happen with
life and career. They'd all seemed to agree with her father's demand that she
toânot shouldâstay on the honor roll to continue acting, then she was handed the envelope with the agreement they'd signed, edging her to look it over right before she'd excused herself to go to the rest room. But she wasn't going to the bathroom; she was breaking campâgetting out of there as soon as possible to avoid
demands and contract.
It's my life, not theirs,
It's not even acting
moved through her mind as her eyes looked left, then right, scanning faces. She didn't want to see anyone she knew, and she didn't. “Thank God,” surged out from her lungs, sounding more like a whoosh than a word, making her realize she had been holding her breath during her escape.
“Ms. St. James,” the building concierge greeted from behind the semicircle reception desk.
“Hello,” Charly said, speeding past, then halting, her long black tresses swishing from the sudden stop. She backtracked. She needed him. “Can you do me a favor, please?” she asked, making her way to the desk, and lightly tapping her manicured nails on the surface. She blinked her long lashes slowly and smiled, making her baby browns twinkle. “It's my boss's birthday, and I'm the lucky one who gets to go pick up his gift.” She flipped over her wrist and looked at her watch. She stretched her eyes until they saucered, then exhaled as if frustrated about the time. “He'll probably send one of his assistants, who aren't in on the surprise, to come looking for me. They think we have a meeting soon. It's a diversion though . . .” She bit her lip, trying to finish the lie. “Me and the cast couldn't think of any other way to get him out of the office while they set up one of the conference rooms for the surprise.” She widened her grin, pleased with her gift for performing.
The concierge nodded and grinned. “That's nice, Ms. St. James. Don't worry. I got'cha. I'm usually the gift runner too. If anyone comes looking for you, I haven't seen a thing,” he said, playfully covering his eyes.
Charly dug in her hippie bag, then slid him a twenty. “Thanks. I appreciate it,” she said, then turned and hurried through the lobby.
Hot wind met her face as soon as she exited, pushing her hair back. Tears started to form in her eyes as her anger rose to the surface, but they dried as quickly as they came. The temperature had to be almost a hundred. How dare they do that to her? she questioned, quickening her pace, keeping up with other always-in-a-rush New Yorkers. She'd been doing her best, studying whenever she could, and had rarely been seen without a textbook. Grades had been at the forefront of it all, and she hadn't slacked. Well, not totally. She only took a much-needed break to shop, Skype, text, and work on keeping her facial expressions in check. That's what the studio had requested; that she tame her emotionsâthe negative onesâwhile she was on camera. Other than that, she'd been all work and no play, and was glad June had finally rolled in and rolled out the red carpet for her summertime freedom. Now she could focus on what she loved best without interruption from online classesâgetting ready for the new season of
The Extreme Dream Team
People brushed against her without apology, making her realize she'd slowed her pace and was in the way. She refocused, deciding not to let her dad and the others' decisions about her life get to her. They could say what they wanted, but at the end of the day, she'd get her way. Period. She just needed to figure out how. And fitting that puzzle together required her form of therapyâshoe shopping. Yep, a new pair would be just what she needed to remix her day into something good, she decided, making her way to the curb and raising her arm out to hail a cab.
“Hi, Charly!” someone greeted, snatching her attention.
Charly paused and looked over her shoulder. She exhaled and smiled. “Hi, how are you?” she sang to a dowdy teenager. The girl's face looked around seventeen years old, but the rest of her looked ancient. Her hair was in need of a style and her clothes were a hodgepodge of disasters. The colors matched, but that was it. “It's nice to see you,” Charly said, wishing she could take the girl home and make her over. She'd never seen her before, but she'd greeted her like she had. Being a television personality, she had gotten used to doing what she'd been taught not to doâtalk to strangers. But in her line of work, she learned there was no such thing as a stranger. The viewers were more like friends who felt they knew her, so she made it a point to make them feel like they did.
“I'm great now!” the girl answered gleefully, sticking her hand in a terribly outdated purse that lacked anything remotely close to being called cute. “Can I please have yourâ”
“Sure, it'll be my pleasure,” Charly said, answering the question before the girl completed it.
The girl whipped out a piece of paper, but had a blank look on her face, which only highlighted her bushy eyebrows. “I just had it. I must've left my pen . . .”
If I had those eyebrows, they'd be arched to the max. And that skin . . . her eyes . . . Does she not know how much of a gem she could be with some polishing
? Charly thought. She nodded, then fished in her hippie bag. She shook her head. “I don't have one either,” she explained. She really wanted to be in a cab by now, but the shoes would have to wait. Viewers came first, and she was thankful that anyone wanted her autograph at all. To her she was just Charly from the Midwest, not the big star fans treated her as. “Sorry.” Her apology was genuine. She felt bad she couldn't sign her autograph for the girl, and even sorrier that she couldn't help her pretty up.
The girl locked eyes with her, and the look behind them was a mix of happiness and sadness. “I was just in there.” She pointed to a nearby frozen yogurt shop. Charly noticed her uneven nails. “And I must've left it with Liam. I just got his autograph. It'd be great if I could have both of yours.”
Charly smiled. She could use a dose of Liam now. Liam and frozen yogurt and shoes. Charly walked away from the curb. “Okay. You got it. Let's go!”
“Oh my God. Really?” the girl asked, staying in step with Charly. “I had no idea you'd be so cool. I did, but you know,” she began and didn't stop until Charly's hand was pulling open the door to the yogurt shop.
“Charly. Charly. Charly!” Liam sang, walking toward the door and taking Charly's breath away. His tall, athletic and muscular build was luring. His cocoa brown complexion had bronzed with his tan, making his amber brown eyes seem lighter, and perfect white teeth gleem. He had a huge container of yogurt in his hand and a smile on his face. “Oh, and you. How are you? You forgot this,” he said, whipping out a pen from his back pocket.
Charly took the pen from him, reached for the paper from the girl, then signed it. “It was so nice to meet you. Thank you for watching the show.”
The girl wrapped her arms around Charly and squeezed, then she did the same to Liam, but held on longer. “Oh. Sorry,” she said, letting him go and apologizing to Charly. “I forgot this is your man. But you can't blame me. He's gorgeous . . . but so are you. You make a good couple,” she stammered, backtracking to the door.
Charly grinned, silently agreeing with the girl on Liam being gorgeous, then waved good-bye. “Thank you. And you're pretty too. You are,” she said, really meaning it. The girl was pretty underneath all her layers of drab and outdated fashion, terrible hair and bushy brows. “Don't forget to watch the show!” she said as the girl left. She turned to Liam and laced her arm through his. “I need you. I need you and something cold and incredible shoes. ASAP.”
“Uh-oh,” he said, unlacing his arm from hers, then giving her a tight hug. “Tell it all to big daddy,” he teased. He pulled back, then looked at her. “Why'd you lie to the little girl?” he asked. “You can't just go around giving compliments just because someone wants your autograph.”
Charly laughed, then loosened his grip and waved away his comment. “She is pretty. She just doesn't know or show it. And she's not a little girl. She has to be at least seventeen.” She walked to the counter and grabbed a container for her frozen yogurt.
“Try fourteen,” he said, following behind her as she made her way to the wall where she filled her container with vanilla.
“Get out,” Charly said, going to the toppings station. “She's not. Where'd you get that?”
“She told me.”
Charly poured scoops of almonds on top of granola and strawberries, then walked to the cashier to get her frozen treat weighed. “Serious?”
“Don't you dare reach for your wallet. Gentlemen don't let ladies pay.” He reached into his pocket, then paid the cashier. He looked at Charly and nodded. “Serious, love. Fourteen.”
“Liam, that's awful. I could make her a whole new girl. I'm talking fantabulous. From her head to her heels.” She scooped a spoonful into her mouth.
“You know you're on the wrong show, don't ya, love? You need to be hosting a makeover show. Charly got a mean walk, a mean shoe game.” He sang a Fat Joe and Chris Brown song, replacing his own lyrics for theirs, but keeping the melody. He laughed. “I've been in the States too long.”
Charly blushed. “Thanks. It would be kinda hot to host a makeover show, but I don't have time for that. At least not now,” she said, thinking she wouldn't be hosting any showâ
The Extreme Dream Team
or any otherâif she didn't pull up her grades to the adults' satisfaction. “So what about going to get the shoes?” she asked, trying to keep the light mood going. She didn't want to give herself another second to think about her dad and the envelope, so she stayed focused on new kicks.
Liam crinkled his brows. “Wait! I forgot to tell you that they tried to pigeonhole me for the new tapings. They said I have to
on the honor roll to keep my career.” He laughed. “I had to remind them that I turned down a scholarshipâan Ivy League one at thatâthat I was offered because of rowing
academics. Seems they're trying to make it some new policy . . . We can thank your dad for that, love. Huh? Good thing I've never gotten below a B.”
Get? Get? Get?
churned over and over through Charly's mind. “Did you say you have to
on the honor roll or
on it?” she asked, just to be clear.
Liam shook his head. “Technically, they should've said
but they said I have to
“Here,” she said, handing him her frozen yogurt. She grabbed his arm, pulled him out of the way of someone walking through the door, then reached into her bag. She took out the oversized envelope.
You have to stay on the honor roll to continue acting.
That's what she remembered them saying before they handed her the agreement.
she questioned her memory. “You have to get, I have to
” she said, then unfolded the envelope. She looked at Liam, who wore a puzzled expression. “I think I have to work on not overreacting. It interferes with my hearing.” She opened the flap, then pulled out the contract. On top of it was a copy of her report card that she hadn't seen and didn't realize had been sent out. A smile parted her lips. She nodded. “I'm good, Liam. Three Bs, and those are my lowest scores. I'm on the honor roll! C'mon. We have to get back to Mr. Day's office.”
“I thought we were going to buy you some shoes. You know, get you prepared to work on your fashion dos and don'ts for the next series you'll be hosting,” he joked.
Charly took her yogurt and laughed, but her glee wasn't in a joking manner. Liam had sparked an idea. If the Suits and Bootsâher name for the adults who felt they made the rulesâhad demands, couldn't she also? “Who needs shoes when we've got a new series coming up? A series I think we should have some say about. Let's go. I'll fill you in on the way.”
“There,” Charly said, sliding a piece of paper across Mr. Day's desk. It bore both her and Liam's signatures. “That's the contract we're proposing.” Charly sat back, crossing her legs. She looked over at Liam, who nodded in agreement.
“It's a hot idea, Day.” Liam backed Charly.
Mr. Day picked up the piece of paper, then pressed his lips together in thought as he looked at it. He rotated in his chair, then reached forward, and dialed numbers on his phone. “Can you come in here? Now?” he said into his headset. He disconnected, then looked at Charly. He sat and didn't say a word. His silence made the room uncomfortable.
Charly looked at Liam, who only shrugged and pierced her eyes with his. There was a slight knock on the door, then one of the Suits and Boots walked in.
“What's up?” the man said to Mr. Day.
Mr. Day handed him the piece of paper, and the man looked it over. “Who's responsible for this?” His eyes met Charly's, then Liam's.