Read The Sweet Life Online

Authors: Francine Pascal

The Sweet Life (6 page)

BOOK: The Sweet Life
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Chapter Eleven

A week later Elizabeth stood in the wings of the local Sweet Valley morning show, watching Bruce talk to Mindy Pete, the perky news anchor with the wavy strawberry blond hair and bright green eyes. In any place other than Southern California, she would've been supermodel material, but here in Sweet Valley, she ranked only barely above average.

Bruce had asked Elizabeth to come this morning and she had, despite the fact that she should've been checking in with Robin. She had moved to her new house yesterday, and Elizabeth had promised to come by and help her unpack.

Instead, Elizabeth was stuck watching Bruce and the perky news anchor slowly dismantle the scared girl's credibility.

“Unfortunately, we've really come to a place where there's no due process anymore,” Bruce said in his level, reasonable-sounding voice. “Anyone can accuse anyone of anything, and there's just the assumption of guilt.”

“Yes,” agreed Christina Black, an actress who had been one of Bruce's most vocal supporters. She was sitting next to him on the little couch on the morning show set. The actress, brunette and tan and leggy, also happened to be in the top spy thriller released just that week.

Jessica had said Bruce shouldn't be alone in any of his interviews. She thought it best if he appeared with a supportive woman by his side, someone credible but not an attorney, because no one went on television with a lawyer unless they were guilty.

Part of Elizabeth felt like she should've been the one sitting beside Bruce on camera. Yet she'd quickly backed away from the idea when Jessica had mentioned it a few days ago. Bad idea. Robin would certainly see her on television next to Bruce and her cover would be blown. But, worse than that, deep down, she wasn't sure she could convince other people that Bruce was innocent. Elizabeth didn't know what she herself believed these days. Bruce's story had so many holes. It just didn't add up. And then there was that nagging memory of the Bruce from high school at his family's beach house that she just couldn't quite forget. Had he just been a dumb, drunk teenager? Or was there something more to it?

“The sad thing about this whole situation,” Christina continued, “is that most people think someone like Bruce, who has wealth and power, is invincible. But the fact is, anyone, for
any
reason, can come forward and make a ridiculous claim like this and suddenly all of Bruce's hard work championing the environment and other social causes just goes out the window. It's unfortunate that good men like Bruce have become such easy targets in this accuse-first, ask-questions-later society.”

Mindy nodded her head solemnly, agreeing. Mindy would likely agree with whatever Christina said.

“The sad fact is there are a dozen reasons why a scheming person would want to target Bruce,” Christina added. “In fact, even people who oppose his environmental policies aren't above these kinds of tactics. Or just someone looking for a bit of fame or money. It's really sad what desperate, selfish people will do.”

Mindy nodded again. Elizabeth felt a twinge of anger on Robin's behalf. The actress was so convincing, and beside her Bruce looked like a battered puppy dog. Who really
was
the victim here, anyway?

“Honestly, I just wish I knew who my accuser
was,
” Bruce said. “I frankly just feel blindsided.”

Yeah, like Robin felt when you tore her clothes…
The thought jumped into Elizabeth's mind before she could stop it. Is that what she thought? Did she really think Bruce was capable of violently attacking a woman? She thought not, and yet the evidence was stacking up against him. Elizabeth always prided herself on basing her opinions on facts. That's what made her a good reporter.

Of course, on the public front, more people came to Bruce's side every day. Jessica's PR offensive was paying off.

“The woman who did this? She's just despicable,” Christina said.

The interview ended there, and Christina gave Bruce a quick hug before she darted offstage. Mindy walked back to her news anchor desk, and Bruce sauntered over to Elizabeth, a look of relief on his face.

“How'd I do?” he asked her.

“Um…good.” Elizabeth tucked a strand of blond hair behind one ear. She shifted uncomfortably on her feet and tried to look anywhere but at him. She felt he'd be able to read the suspicion on her face.

“What's wrong? Did you think Christina overdid it? I've known her forever and I know she has strong opinions.”

“No, she was good. It was all good. Really.”

Bruce studied her face a moment. “Well, she was good, but you would've been better.”

Elizabeth couldn't quite meet Bruce's eye. “You know I don't like to be on camera. That's why I'm in newspapers, not TV.”

The two of them walked together outside the studio to Bruce's waiting car.

“Yes, but you know me better than anyone,” he said as he paused by the door.

“I'm sure Christina won you more fans than I ever could.” Elizabeth sent him a weak smile.

“Something is still bothering you.” It was a statement of fact, not a question. Suspicion lurked in Bruce's eyes.

Elizabeth sighed. “I just don't understand how food poisoning could've made you dizzy.”


This
again?” Bruce's voice rose a little bit. “Elizabeth. Don't you trust me? I mean, it sounds like you're doubting me.”

“No, no—of course not.” Elizabeth put her hand on his arm. “I trust you, Bruce. I believe you.”

Relief fell across his face, and Elizabeth felt guilty. All he wanted was her support. Why couldn't she just give it to him—no questions asked?

Bruce folded her into his arms for a hug and Elizabeth went, but stiffly. She couldn't quite relax with his arms around her. The reporter in her would never stop asking questions. That's just who she was.

“Elizabeth…” Bruce said, and in that moment she knew he could feel her discomfort, too. Elizabeth had never been a good actress. She stepped away from his embrace.

“I'm sorry, Bruce. This whole thing…I'm just so upset…for you. For both of us. It's just so much to handle and I want to help you, but I feel so powerless about everything.”

That part was the truth. She felt powerless to protect Bruce…if it turned out he was really guilty.

“If we could only find out
who
this girl is, then I'm sure we could get to the bottom of it,” Bruce said. “Have you found any new leads?”

Elizabeth cleared her throat. “No, and that's partly why I'm so frustrated. I'm going to work on it today.” The lie came so easily. Since when had she become so good at lying? Elizabeth never used to lie, hardly even white lies. Yet ever since these allegations had surfaced, she'd turned into a habitual liar. Lies, she realized, were more addictive than potato chips. She started with one and had to keep going with another, and another, and another. She wondered if she'd ever be able to stop.

“I'm going to work on it today,” Elizabeth promised.

“Okay,” Bruce said, but a sliver of doubt remained in his eyes.

During the car ride home, both were silent, lost in their own thoughts.

Chapter Twelve

Elizabeth asked Bruce to drop her off at her car, parked at the newspaper's lot. She promised him she would do more digging on his case. That, for a change, wasn't a lie. She needed to find out more about Robin. After speaking with the girl, she'd gotten more details about her work history before she was hired at the Patman Foundation. Pretending to be Laura Christer, the concerned therapist, she'd gotten Robin to talk about when she'd moved to L.A. two years ago.

Born and raised in small-town Kentucky, Robin had moved to Los Angeles in hopes of working in films. She'd been a creative artist-type back home and decided she wanted to use her talents in film. She wasn't sure how, though. Creating PR posters, perhaps, or even working on art direction. She came without a definite plan and just hoped everything would work out—like so many hopeful people who flooded L.A. every year.

Robin's first job had been as a nanny to a family in Malibu with two girls, ages five and three. Elizabeth hadn't had any luck tracking them down yet, since they'd moved to Italy, but she did have a reference letter that Robin showed her, sent via e-mail. It seemed to check out.

After that, Robin got a job working for Filmart as a secretary. Robin said she'd hoped to just get her foot in the door at a production studio, even if it was just answering phones.

Elizabeth drove to Burbank, where Filmart Studios rented their offices. She formed her cover story as she went. The last thing she planned to do was introduce herself as a reporter from the
L.A. Tribune
investigating the Bruce Patman scandal. Instead, she just made up another story: She was thinking about hiring Robin for a freelance job and just happened to be in the neighborhood, so decided to drop in and check her references in person.

Robin's boss, the Filmart office manager, seemed happy enough to chat about her. He was a slightly overweight man in his forties. Even though he worked at a movie studio, it wasn't every day a pretty blonde took the time to ask him such detailed questions.

Elizabeth found with a little smile and nod of encouragement, Larry volunteered Robin's whole story.

“She was great,” he said. “Nice girl. Dependable. Always came in on time. Was happy to work overtime, too.”

“Did she like being a secretary?”

“Well, I knew she wanted to work on films,” he said. “She was a graphic designer or something.”

So far, Elizabeth thought, everything Robin had said checked out. She hadn't found a single inconsistency yet.

“Why did she leave?”

“That's personal information I couldn't give you even if I did know, which I don't. I haven't seen her since she had that internship this past summer. After that she quit.” He sat down behind his own desk.

Elizabeth leaned forward.

“Last I heard from her was just after she did that internship at the Patman Foundation. She called up crying one morning.”

“Crying?”

“Yeah, really upset. She said she couldn't tell me what happened, but she said she was quitting.”

“When was this?”

“Oh, July, I think.”

That would've been around the same time Robin claimed Bruce had attacked her. Elizabeth swallowed.

“What do you think happened?”

Larry shrugged. “Maybe she broke up with her boyfriend? Who knows. But she said she was really sorry but it was personal and she couldn't go into the details.”

Elizabeth felt the knot in her stomach grow. Robin had said she'd felt so victimized after that night with Bruce that she didn't leave her house for a full week and that she'd had to quit her job.

“Don't get me wrong, she's a nice girl,” Larry said. “I'd hire her back if she called me. She never missed a single day before that. Whatever happened must have been really bad.”

“Thanks, Larry. You've been really helpful.”

Elizabeth picked up her purse and walked out the door, hoping her hands weren't shaking. The more she dug into Robin's past, the more impeccable she seemed. The evidence was stacking up against Bruce.

She got into her car just as her phone chirped, announcing an incoming text message. She looked at the phone and saw it was from Bruce.

 

SORRY I WAS GRUMPY THIS MORNING. LET'S DO SOMETHING SPECIAL FOR DINNER.

 

The thought of going home to Bruce—and, actually, spending any time with him at all right now—just made Elizabeth feel queasy. How could she keep up the pretense? She'd never been any good at pretending.

Already this morning, he'd seen right through her. She was trying
hard
to be the supportive girlfriend, but even he could tell she was faking it. Now, armed with new information supporting Robin's side of the story, it would just be ten times worse.

Elizabeth texted back.

 

GOT HUNG UP AT WORK WITH A LATE DEADLINE. DON'T THINK I'LL MAKE DINNER TONIGHT. MIGHT EVEN STAY AT JESSICA'S.

 

Jessica's town house was slightly closer to the newspaper office than Bruce's mansion. This was pure avoidance, but Elizabeth couldn't think of a better idea.

 

I REALLY NEED YOU RIGHT NOW. PLEASE COME HOME.

 

Elizabeth's heart ached. She hated not being there for him. He sounded so lost. Maybe she was just being selfish. Then she remembered Robin's tearstained face.

If he was guilty…then he'd have to learn to soothe himself. Because Elizabeth couldn't be with him. Nothing could make a near-rape okay, no matter how much he'd had to drink.

She decided to go check on Robin. Basically an orphan with few friends, Robin truly had no one. She texted Bruce.

 

SORRY. I CAN'T.

 

That much, Elizabeth thought, was true.

Chapter Thirteen

Bruce looked at his phone and sighed. Elizabeth wasn't coming home. She was avoiding him. He'd been in love with her for years, long before she'd even seen him as anything more than a friend. He knew her better than she knew herself, and it was obvious she doubted him. Every day, it seemed, she moved further and further away from him, and he didn't know why. He asked her all the time what was wrong, and yet she refused to tell him. Or if she did talk, it came out as a veiled accusation that he might be lying about what had really happened that night with the intern. Or was it some veiled reference to high school? Yes, he knew he hadn't always been the nicest guy. Sure, he did stupid things in high school, but didn't every seventeen-year-old? And, besides, he really thought that was ancient history. That short-tempered, spoiled kid wasn't him now. He'd changed. Grown up. Matured.

Of course, none of that seemed to matter these days since he felt like he was fighting against enemies he couldn't see, phantom accusers who popped up to hit him and then disappeared before he could strike back.

Just like the intern. If he only knew who she was, he felt convinced, he could solve this mystery. But he had no idea of her name or where she lived. All his power and connections weren't helping, either. Someone was keeping her hidden someplace where she could say all those terrible things about him and not even give him the chance to defend himself properly.

Rage bubbled up in his throat and for a second, he felt the urge to throw his phone across the room. He thought about how satisfying it would be to watch the phone's screen—and Elizabeth's text—go dark as it cracked to pieces. He almost let the phone fly, but a beep from an incoming text stopped him.

He glanced at the phone's face, hoping Elizabeth had reconsidered. Maybe she would say she was sorry. Maybe she'd come home.

But, no. It wasn't from Elizabeth.

 

I'VE GOT NEW INFO ON YOUR CASE. MEET AT NEVIN'S BAR TONIGHT?

 

The text came from Gavin MacKay, the private detective he'd hired to try to find his accuser. Bruce had hired him after it became clear Elizabeth wasn't getting anywhere finding her. And Gavin was the top private detective in the business.

Maybe now he'd finally get some answers. He certainly wasn't getting any from Elizabeth.

Bruce grabbed his jacket and headed out the door.

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