Read Chapters 1-3 of
You're so Extra
“This says I’m supposed to wear ‘normal’ clothes, Mira,” I say, reading through the email again on my phone. Starting tomorrow, I’m going to be a movie extra. This is the something wonderful the universe sent me after I wished for it so hard I nearly popped a blood vessel in my eye when I blew out the twenty-nine candles on my birthday cake a couple of months ago. I would pretty please with a cherry on top like to not screw it up on the first day. “What does ‘normal’ mean?”
She snorts and gives me a once-over from behind her bar, taking in my skirt with its design of little cats printed over a background of the universe. “Not what you’re wearing.”
“I like this skirt.”
“So do I,” my sister tells me, “but it’s not what someone else would classify as ‘normal.’ A T-shirt and jeans. A dress without five thousand colors. That’s probably what they’re getting at.”
I sit at one of the stools in front of her. Her cocktail bar, Glitterati, just closed down, all of the tourists and locals in Asheville gone home for the night, so she has a few minutes to spare for my existential crisis. “I’m nervous about this.”
She stops wiping the counter, slapping the lavender-colored towel down. We Evans girls have always liked color. Mira jokes that if you cut us open, you’d find twenty different shades of blood inside. Her bar is an expression of that, of us—full of glitter and color and fun, from the décor, which I helped with, to the drinks—and no one in our family is the least bit surprised by its success. She was born for this. I, apparently, was born to walk dogs, pretend I’m a mermaid at children’s events, and run errands for elderly people. I love what I do, but I’m aware it’s not the kind of life an adult is supposed to have or want. People never hesitate to tell me so.
“You’ve got nothing to worry about, Delia. You don’t have any lines to memorize. All you have to do is run around and pretend to have conversations with people.” She lifts her eyebrows. “The only problem is you’re not good at blending in.”
“That’s a big problem,” I say, tugging on a strand of my long red-orange hair. “You told me the whole point is to blend in.”
She laughs, her eyes dancing with it. “And that’s why I made you submit those boring-ass pictures for your application.”
“Was it dishonest?” I ask. “I’ll bet Mom would say it was dishonest.” Our mother has a very rigid sense of right and wrong, and unfortunately, I have a tendency to end up in the wrong category more often than not.
Mira rolls her eyes. “Our mother thinks too much for her own good. Besides, you’re going to show up wearing boring clothes, so what they don’t know won’t hurt them. You need to look out for yourself.”
“I did this, didn’t I?” I ask, pivoting back and forth on the stool because I’m nervous, and heck, it’s also pretty fun. “Your cat-eye makeup is on point today.”
“Thank you, and quit changing the subject.”
“Do you think he’ll remember me?”
She reaches across the bar to grab my shoulder, her grip firm and warm. Her eyes are a warm caramel, the color of our dad’s. Mine are blue in some lights, green in others, and sometimes, or so I’ve been told, nearly as golden as a cat’s. “You’re not easy to forget. I defy anyone to forget you. And, yes, I know you were less…yourself for most of high school, but you still weren’t forgettable.”
I don’t like being a naysayer, but I’m not convinced she’s right. If she were right, then she wouldn’t currently be my only friend under the age of sixty.
“He’s a movie star now,” I say. “And before you remind me, I know he’s only in made-for-TV movies, but that’s more of a movie star than I’ll ever be.”
She smirks at me. “Untrue, sister dearest. You’re there for a week of filming. Seven days over the next month. Maybe more.” She’d know. I’ve made her read the emails multiple times. The first day of filming is tomorrow, Monday. Then Sunday. The following week, it’s Tuesday and Wednesday, then Wednesday and Thursday. “You may not have any lines in the movie, but you’re gonna be all over that screen.” Her eyebrows wing up. “And, if everything goes according to plan, all over him.”
I can’t deny it felt like a sign when I saw Jeremy was starring in a movie filming so close to town. I haven’t seen him since high school, but I had the kind of stupid crush on him only teenagers are capable of. He was a drama kid, and I worked on set pieces for the theater club. Back then he was kind of nerdy in a hot way, and now he looks like he should be inspiring sculptors in Italy. Obviously it’s a long shot to think he’d remember me, since our most substantial interactions were as follows—Interaction One: he objected vehemently to the amount of glitter I used on a set piece for one of his plays. Interaction Two: he borrowed a pen from me and returned it broken.
On the other hand, I did ask the universe to throw me a bone, and I saw the ad asking for extras that very same night. An even bigger sign? I got an email offering me the gig just three hours after I submitted my photos. Nobody gets offered a job that fast, even at the places that have had “Help Wanted” signs in the window for so long they’re dusty and covered in cobwebs.
Mira’s been joking for weeks that the universe decided to throw me Jeremy’s bone. I’m not convinced, but I’m not unconvinced. All I know is that I’m ready for something big to happen. I feel like I’m standing on the cusp of it. If that something big ends up being Jeremy’s bone? Well, I’ll have given Mira teasing material for at least a year.
“Don’t stress,” Mira adds. ”Just dress like you did for those photos.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” I say, still playing with the ends of my hair. “I wish they’d told me who I’m playing.”
All I know about the movie is its title—The Opposites Contract—which doesn’t give a whole lot away other than that the leads are, presumably, opposites.
She snorts. “I don’t think you’re playing anyone, but feel free to make up an elaborate backstory. I know you will. And try to calm down.”
I’m a mess of nerves, and not just because I’m going to be sharing a set with Jeremy and his much more famous co-star, Sinclair Jones. It’s just…this feels like my chance, even if I’m not quite sure what that means or what form it will take.
I’ve always been told I’m dramatic. My mother says it’s the red hair, as if a little pigmentation can shape a person’s whole personality. But I do have a flair for drama. Maybe the universe isn’t giving me a chance at Jeremy but at a new part-time career. This experience could be a stepping stone to other background roles or even a speaking part. Or maybe it’ll help me grow in different ways. One of the other extras could be a supremely interesting human being who changes my life.
My heart lifts, and I find myself smiling, good cheer pouring into me like it’s one of my sister’s cocktails.
“Are you thinking about all the durrrr-ty things you want Jeremy to do to you?” my sister says in a sing-song voice, making a gesture that undermines my epiphany.
She pops a hand onto her hip, her dark-brown hair bouncing in its ponytail. “You like it.”
“Sometimes I like it,” I correct.
She points a finger at me. “Now, go home and get ye to bed. You have an early call time, and I happen to know Doris and Ross wouldn’t appreciate being woken up.”
She’s referring to my elderly roommates. I live in their basement apartment in exchange for helping them with various chores. It’s slightly embarrassing to admit they’re two of my best friends. It wasn’t always like that. I did have a best friend other than my sister and my roommates once, but some blessings aren’t given to us for as long as we’d like. Hence the birthday wish.
“I’m in the clear. Ross’s hearing aid is broken, and I think he ordered the replacement snail mail so he can pretend he doesn’t hear Doris when she asks him to do things. Actually, there’s no pretending about it. He hears about one or two things out of five without it. Besides, I don’t have to be there until one,” I point out. True, it’ll take me forty-five minutes to drive to the Rolf Estate, or the Discount Biltmore as people around town call the much smaller and less grand estate, but I’m reasonably confident I can be awake and dressed by twelve. Hell, I’ll have walked five dogs by then and picked up groceries for a couple of my clients.
“We all have different definitions of early,” she says with a grin. “Now, go! Fly away, butterfly. Make me proud and send me pictures.”
“I don’t think I’m supposed to do that,” I point out, gesturing to the phone sitting on her bar. “They said no photos.”
“Like I said,” she says, one side of her mouth hitching up, “break some rules. Break a leg too. I’m told that’s lucky.”
I knock on the wood beneath the bar top. “Doesn’t sound lucky.”
“Defy the odds. It’s the Evans way.”
* * *
The next morning, I pull into the parking lot attached to the Rolf Estate, doing breathing exercises. Doris and Ross gave me a sweet send-off before I left to walk the dogs this morning, presenting me with a muffin on which Doris had shakily written Delia’s a Star. The muffin tasted strange because Doris had put a tablespoon of baking soda into the batter instead of a teaspoon. Her vision isn’t the best anymore, but she refuses to wear her glasses because she says they don’t suit her. I ate it anyway, and now my insides feel like the tangle of wires that’s been in the junk drawer of my childhood home since I was a little girl.
What if I fall flat on my face in the middle of an important scene and they have to reshoot it because of me?
It’s true that I play a mermaid a couple of times a week for birthday parties and community events, but it’s a stationary gig owing to the tail.
Rather than park, I slowly drive through the lot because I feel the inane urge to find the “right” space. And then I see Jeremy walking at the far end of the parking lot. I recognize him immediately because he has distinctive wavy russet hair. Why is he out here in the open? Where is his gaggle of adoring fans and publicists and…
I clearly have no idea what it’s like to be a movie star. He’s walking toward the house, which lives behind a row of perfectly trimmed trees that are currently concealing it from view. Would it be a bad idea to shout his name?
Obviously. I can’t fully see his face from this angle, but I have a fantastic view of his ass, and as I watch, he pushes a tree branch out of his path a little too violently—is he going to hurt the tree?—and it immediately springs back and hits him in the face. What the heck is he doing? He stomps his foot, like he’s pissed at the tree, and then—
“What the fuck?” someone shouts, and there’s a rapping on the hood of my car that seems to rumble through the whole vehicle.
Oh no, oh no, oh no. I slam my foot down on the brake, my gaze shooting forward. There are two men right next to the hood of my car, and it’s obvious that I almost hit them. I’m going about two miles an hour, but no one wants to be hit be a car, even if it’s only going two miles an hour.
I roll down my window. “I’m so sorry! Are you okay? Can I—”
I’m not sure how to end that sentence. What is a person supposed to do after they nearly run over another person? Offer them a granola bar?
The guy who hit my hood still has a hand on top of it, and his fierce gaze beats into me. He’s attractive—very attractive—with black hair, intensely blue eyes, and a tall, muscular build. In fact, from a purely physical standpoint, he’s more appealing than Jeremy. His friend is handsome too, but in a rough-edged way, and he’s wearing a beanie hat pulled low over his ears despite the heat. My gaze skates back to Blue Eyes. His coloring is pretty rare—usually people with light eyes don’t have hair quite so dark.
“You look like Snow White,” I blurt.
“W-what?” Blue Eyes sputters. “But…I’m a man.”
“Oh, I can tell. You’re very manly. I was referring to your coloring.” He’s looking at me like I’m a puzzle he doesn’t care to figure out. “Sorry. I say whatever I’m thinking when I’m nervous.”
“You should watch where you’re going,” he says firmly.
“You wouldn’t be the first person to say so,” I tell him, laughing slightly.
His expression says he doesn’t appreciate the laughter. Crap. Is he someone important? He has the air of someone important, or at least someone who thinks he’s important. Then again, I suppose nobody would be pleased if their near-murderer decided to laugh about it.
“Sorry,” I say again. “I laugh when I’m nervous too.” And tap my fingers in the air. And sweat. At this particular moment, I feel like doing all of those things at once. It’s not just that I almost hit these guys—it’s Blue Eyes’s stare. It’s the kind of look that would make someone feel naked in a room full of clothed people. It’s shiver inducing, and I can’t tell whether or not I like it.
His friend nudges his arm. “Let it go, bud. Red here just made a mistake.”
“Are you guys in the movie?” It only occurs to me after I say it that it’s probably not appropriate to try to carry on a conversation with them.
“Yup,” the friend says. “We’re extras. I’m Leonard and this is…Lucas.”
My glance shifts from Leonard to Lucas and holds. “I’m usually not the best with names, but I’m going to remember you two. That’s the bond created by almost hitting someone.”
“Do you do that often?” Lucas asks, this time with a glimmer of amusement. His lips curl at the edges, and it strikes me that they’re very nice lips. Some men have an upper lip that’s better off hidden by a mustache or beard, but his has…presence. Actually, all of him does.
I clear my throat. “No. Before today, my closest scrapes were with garbage cans. The roads around here are too narrow. I’m Delia, by the way.”
Lucas glances at Leonard, who laughs under his breath. Then he shifts his gaze back to me. “Delia Evans?”
“Yeah!” I say, surprised. As far as I know, it’s not stitched into my shirt. “How’d you know? Do you have grandparents who use Granddaughter for Rent?”
“Is that some kind of kinky thing?” Leonard asks, his mouth curling with amusement.
Lucas shakes his head disparagingly, but I can’t tell whether his annoyance is with me or his friend.
“No,” I say, “but you’re not the first person to ask.” They both look like they’re holding in laughter now, and I feel a prick of annoyance. “Maybe I should change the name. I do chores for elderly people. But if you don’t have grandparents who use me—”
“Really?” I roll my eyes and shift my attention to Lucas. “How do you know my last name?”
He rubs his jaw, then glances back in the parking lot. That’s when I realize there’s a car behind me, probably waiting not so patiently for me to shut up. “Because you and I are playing a couple, light of my life.” His mouth ticks up at the corners. “I guess we’ll be spending a lot of time together, Delia Evans.”
“This was probably a dumb idea,” I say as we make our way to the house.
Delia’s still finding a parking space. Leonard suggested waiting for her, but I’m in no mood to be nice to anyone. Most of the people I know would find that surprising. Usually I make a point of being charming to beautiful women, and there’s no denying Delia Evans is beautiful. Arresting. The kind of gorgeous where you wouldn’t mind so much if she did hit you so long as she apologized really nicely afterward. But I can’t bring myself to care. The day’s not even halfway over and it already sucks. The several days preceding it weren’t any better.
Then again, I guess that’s what happens when you purposefully implode your own life.
Leonard gives me a good-natured clap on the back as we pass the sculpted pine trees bordering the parking lot, the big Rolf Estate coming into view. It has a stone façade, covered in vines that look good but are probably ruining the stone work. To one side is a trellis covered in flowering vines, leading into what looks like a well-organized garden. There’s a cobbled road that leads around the other side, but from our angle I can’t see what’s down that way.
I’ve never been to the Rolf Estate before, even though it’s less than an hour away from where I grew up. Whenever anyone suggested a visit to the Rolf Estate, my mother would cluck her tongue and say, “There’s little point in visiting someone else’s house when ours is so much nicer.” We did visit the Biltmore once or twice, because even she had to admit the mansion my great grandfather had built wasn’t nearly as fine as the Vanderbilts’ home.
I rub my chest, feeling a physical soreness from the thought. Because if I ever speak to my mother again, they won’t be kind words.
Leonard drags me from my brooding. “I won’t argue with you. We could be working on the flip house right now, man, drinking beers on the deck.”I level him with a you’re a lazy asshole look, even though I’m grateful as hell that he’s here with me. “It’s 12:50.”
“Lunch beer,” he says with a shrug. “It’s a thing.”
“Well, we’re here,” I say with a sigh as we continue down the cobbled path to the house. “And we promised Sinclair. It would be shitty of us to drop out at the last minute.”
His raised eyebrows remind me that any promises that were made were strictly mine. Sinclair Jones is the sister of my best friend, Drew, who’s currently hundreds of miles away in Puerto Rico for who knows how long. That means I probably shouldn’t bail on her at the last minute, even if they could probably pull a willing replacement extra off the street. There’ve been articles about this production in the Asheville Gazette, and apparently they had over fifteen thousand applicants who wanted to be extras. We got waved in through the door because of Sinclair, but I’m guessing they chose Delia from the stack. With that hair, she’d stand out. It’s long and red-gold, as shiny as a burnished penny.
Dammit. Maybe I do care that she’s beautiful, but I don’t want to care. I resent that I do.
“It’s worth mentioning that neither of us should be showing our faces right now,” Leonard comments without any heat.
“Sinclair said she wasn’t sharing my last name with anyone,” I remind him.
“Why, yes, you’re going to be Lucas C., I remember,” he says, giving me shit for it. To be fair, it does sound like the kind of pseudonym a fashion model or TV personality with a big ego might insist on. The C is for my middle name, Cornelius—yes, fucking Cornelius—meant to throw off anyone who might put things together if I used my real last initial. Right now, my last name doesn’t carry the kind of social currency it once did.
Sighing, I add, “And she said no one will be able to see your face.”
“That’s a shame,” Leonard says with a smirk. “This face was meant to be seen.”
I shoot him a look as we get closer to the front of the building. There are people bustling in and out and a few anxious-looking security guards watching them closely. One of them has a hand on his belt as if he thinks he’s in an Old West shootout, although there’s nothing on the belt but an oversized buckle. An old-timey looking trolley pulls away from the front of the building and rumbles down the cobbled road to the right, away from the trellis.
Yesterday, we were sent a list of rules a page and a half long about what we could and couldn’t do in the house. Basically, we’re allowed to exist there, so long as we don’t touch anything, breathe too hard, or make overly heavy footfalls. The house flipper in me wants to ask what kind of shitty craftsmanship will shatter apart if we step on the ground too heavily, but the rules are the rules.
Leonard is sure to break at least half of them.
“If you wanted the freedom to show your face on camera,” I tell him, “you probably shouldn’t have cycled through half a dozen identities.”
It’s an exaggeration. Slightly. Leonard ran from Asheville eight years ago and then went into hiding. He left because he learned a horrible truth about my parents, and he wasn’t sure he could trust me to be any better than them. Now that he’s back, I’ve decided I’m going to make it up to him. And when I decide to do something, I damn well do it. The first phase is the house we’re renovating together.
“Touché,” he mutter, rubbing his his hair through the beanie. Why he thinks hiding his hair is going to help him evade being recognized, I don’t know. Really, it’s a miracle he spent so many years under the radar if a hat is his disguise of choice. Then again, I’m not even wearing a hat. I figure I’ve spent my whole life in this town. If I’m recognized on set, so be it. Maybe it’s the price I should pay for being a Burke.
Some nervous-looking kid spots us from the doorway and comes running toward us. He has light brown hair that sticks up at awkward angles, as if someone plopped a bale of straw on top of his head, and anxious brown eyes.
“Who are you?” he asks. It probably shouldn’t feel like an existential question, but it does.
Leonard’s mouth tips into a half-smile. “We’re Lucas C. and Leonard Smith,” he says, “reporting for extra duty. We’re incredibly excited.”
“Didn’t they tell you where to go?” Straw Kid asks. He’s practically buzzing, as if he washed down half a dozen caffeine pills with a latte.
“If they did, we’d be there,” I say, then wave a hand around. “I’m not seeing any signs.”
He squints and rubs his nose, his hand shaking slightly, so maybe it’s coke that’s got him buzzing. “They wouldn’t let us tape anything up or stick spikes in the ground. They really didn’t tell you where to go?”
“They gave us this address,” I say. “And here we are.”
“Christian said he sent a follow-up email,” he says accusingly. “Everyone else seems to have gotten it.”
Christian being the coordinator for the extras.
“Well, we didn’t,” I repeat, annoyed. I hate inefficiency. It’s probably the Burke in me. Being a Burke is no longer a matter of pride, though, so I try to harness what’s left of my patience. In other words, not much.
“You need to report to costumes and hair and makeup,” the kid says.
“Costumes?” Leonard repeats with a laugh.
Straw Kid gives him an up and down look. “They’ll make you lose the hat.”
“Told you,” I say.
Leonard scowls as if he’s a woman with a bad haircut he’d rather not reveal.
“So where is hair and makeup?” I ask, questioning every last decision that led me here. I’d wanted a distraction, and this had seemed like it might be an amusing one…a month and a half ago. If Sinclair had asked me yesterday, I would have said no, or maybe even put it more strongly.
Straw Kid gives us meandering directions to The Barn, which amuses me because it’s starting to feel like we’re human cattle. According to him, though, it hasn’t been a barn since the 1800s, and even then, it was a very nice barn.
He’s nearly finished with his explanation, which amounts to following the cobbled road, when I hear the sound of running feet behind me. I turn to see Delia Evans coming toward us. She has on a simple black dress paired with wedge sandals, and the darkness of the dress only brings more attention to the flame of her hair and the creamy expanse of her tits straining against the top.
“Looks like we’re not the only ones Christian forgot about,” Leonard comments, lifting his brows.
“Sorry,” she calls out, her voice a bit loud but not unpleasant. “Sorry, I had some trouble in the parking lot.”
“Were we the trouble?” I ask incredulously. Who is this woman?
Her eyes go wide. “Well, some of it,” she admits. “I mean, it was my fault, obviously, but it made me take longer than I should have, and then Doris called me. She’s my…I guess you’d call her my landlord. She misplaced her blood pressure pills. I knew where she’d put them, but she doesn’t walk too terribly fast, so—” I mustn’t be the only one watching her with wonder, because she sputters to a stop. “Sorry, you don’t need to know all of that. I just…I wasn’t going to ignore Doris.”
“Is she one of the grandparents?” I ask, interested despite myself.
“Yes,” Delia says brightly, as if pleased I remembered. “She used to be a lounge singer back in the day. She’s incredible.”
There’s something endearing about the way she says it, but Straw Kid glances back at me, his eyes full of a better you than me look. Acting as if Delia never interrupted, he continues, “Then you pass the wall, and it’ll be right there. Ten minute walk, tops. There’s a bus doing runs, but you just missed it.” He glances down at his watch and then scowls at us. “You’re going to be late.”
“I think it’s Christian you should have words for,” Leonard says, but Delia looks upset by the news.
Straw Kid seems to catch sight of someone behind us and hurries off without another word. Then again, he might just be sick of the conversation. If so, it’s a pretty slick departure.
“This isn’t good,” Delia mutters. “I told myself I wasn’t going be late. They were really adamant about that in the email. It was underlined and italicized.”
“A bit overkill, don’t you think?” Leonard asks as we start walking in accordance to Straw Kid’s directions. “Almost like they were challenging us.”
I can’t help but laugh. That’s Leonard for you, never a rule he didn’t want to break. Maybe I should feel bad about being late, but I couldn’t give a shit. I’d rather not be here in the first place, and the stakes of arriving late for a gig like this feel pretty small, especially with the backdrop of everything else that’s going on in my life.
“I don’t want to get fired,” Delia says.
“I doubt you will,” I tell her, surprised by my urge to soothe her. I don’t know this woman, and I have plenty of trouble without borrowing any from anyone else. “They’re filming today. What are the odds they’re going to find someone to replace you? Besides, like I said, you and I are supposed to be a couple.”
“How do you know that?” she asks, giving me a sidelong look as we hurry down the road. There are a bunch of sculpted bushes to our right—one shaped to look like a horse and another a man’s face. I notice Leonard studying them, and I can practically hear him thinking rich people will find any old shit to waste money on.
There’s a fancy wall a distance behind the bushes, presumably the one we were told to look out for. It’s covered in more of those climbing vines.
“My friend’s one of the stars of the movie,” I tell Delia.
A gasp escapes her, and she stops walking for a half a second. “Are you talking about Jeremy?”
“Who’s Jeremy?” I ask, although the name’s familiar.
“Sorry,” she says, continuing down the road. “I shouldn’t have presumed he’s the one you know. There must be a pretty big cast. But Jeremy and I went to high school together. He’s the reason I almost hit you guys with my car.”
“Well, fuck him,” Leonard teases.
A surprised laugh escapes Delia.
“You’re talking about the lead actor?” I ask, placing the name. We looked him up at my place a few weeks ago, and Leonard puffed out air and said, “Pretty boy,” dismissively. Danny, my roommate, said, “You talking about Burke?” Which led to them razzing me for a good five minutes.
“Yeah,” she says, glancing at me, her expression dreamy in a way that sours my mood. She’s taken notice of this guy, but I’m so invisible to her that she almost hit me with her car. My buddies would have something to say about that too, probably something about me being an attention whore. “He’s from Asheville originally. We went to high school together.”
“You don’t say. Where’d you go?”
“Asheville High. Are you from around here?”
I nod tightly. “I went to Carolina Day.”
“Oh,” she says in a knowing tone. Rich kid, she’s thinking. I can see it on her face.
It makes me uncomfortable. In some ways, it’s always made me uncomfortable, although I’ve obviously seen the benefits. Still am. I may be estranged from my parents, but they can’t estrange me from the trust fund I got when I turned twenty-one.
“Well, Jeremy’s probably not going to remember me.” She grins at us, and it’s a smile so wide and artless it hits me center mass. “But I had a crush on him back then. When I saw him in the parking lot earlier, I’ll admit I got a little distracted. Sorry about that. Who’s your friend on the cast?”
“Sinclair Jones,” I say. “She’s the one who told me we’d be paired up.”
She whistles, her eyes sparkling. “You know, she was nearly the last thing I ever saw. Last year, I almost got run over by this bus with a huge poster of her on the side while I was chasing after one of my clients.”
“An elderly person?” I ask, thrown by the image of this ginger-haired woman running after an elderly person waving their cane in the air.
“No,” she says, amused, and for a second I have a thought that’s damn near fanciful—that she can see the image floating in my mind. “I walk dogs too.”
“I’m starting to wish I had a dog,” I say. “Or a couple of living grandparents.”
She smiles at me, but there’s a quizzical look in her eyes, like she’s wondering what the hell I’m up to. It would be a good question. She’s not my usual type. I prefer women who are sleek and confident. The kind who want the same thing I do—a good time without any strings. But that was the old me. I’m still figuring out who the new me is. This woman is scattered and disorganized, though. I’ll bet she couldn’t find her sunglasses if they were sitting on the bridge of her nose—not the kind of thing I would normally find appealing.
It’s because she comes off as so genuine and sweet, I decide. Almost innocent. Maybe I want to suck it from her like a vampire.
“Don’t mind him,” Leonard says. “He can’t help himself. It’s like he’s contractually obligated to flirt with gorgeous women.” His mouth lifts up. “Hey, bud, it’s like this movie was named after you. The Opposites Contract.”
“You’re a dick,” I tell him without any heat.
“It’s okay,” Delia says, giving us both a smile. “Feel free to practice flirting on me any time.”
Those words shouldn’t do anything to me, but damn, they really do.
“Is that a volunteer service you offer in addition to your thirty jobs?” Leonard asks.
“You could say that.”
“So you’re a real jack-of-all-trades,” he says, lifting his hand for a high five as we keep walking. She gives it to him. “I don’t like being tied down either.”
She says, “I wouldn’t mind so much, but I can’t seem to do just one thing. My mother says I don’t apply myself.”
Her mother sounds like a bitch, although I’m probably hypocritical for thinking so. I’ve always been driven to succeed, to be the best, and the thought of having half a dozen half-baked jobs is abhorrent to me.
“Nothing wrong with keeping your options open,” Leonard says, lifting his hands in a sympathetic gesture. “Now, if you like this Jeremy, I’m guessing you have a thing for pretty boys, huh?” he asks as he trains a smirk at me.
I resist the temptation to shove him, barely. We pass the wall, and The Barn comes into view. As advertised, it looks like a barn on the outside, but there’s a nearly full parking lot beside it and a few people gathered in a knot by the propped-open double doors.
“Why didn’t that kid tell us to drive?” I complain.
“Maybe you looked like you needed the exercise,” Leonard says. Given all I’ve been doing lately is working out or working on the flip house, it’s definitely a joke. I’m in better shape than I’ve ever been. But on the inside, I feel like shit.
“I’m glad we got to walk,” Delia says. “I know the main gardens are on the other side, but this place is so beautiful. I’ve always loved coming here. It makes me feel like I’ve stepped into another time and place. There’s something special about being able to make a short drive from the city and ending up here.”
She’s like a fucking fairytale princess. I’m surprised birds don’t flutter out of the trees to land on her shoulders. It should be annoying, but she seems perfectly genuine.
“It’s no Biltmore,” I say, for no other reason than I feel like shit, and half the things that come out of my mouth are negative these days.
She frowns at me, which is possibly the only time she’s ever frowned in her life. “Maybe not, but not everything needs to be huge. Smaller things can be their own kind of perfect.”
A strangled sound escapes Leonard, and it looks like he’s going to bite off his tongue.
“No, but sometimes bigger is better,” I say. “I haven’t had any complaints.”
Delia laughs, shaking her head slightly. “I walked right into that one, didn’t I?”
Suddenly, I feel like a dick for teasing her.
But someone at the door calls out to us. The others have gone inside or wandered off, leaving a guy wearing overalls and glasses with yellow frames that make him look like one of the minions in that kids’ movie. His hair is chin length, tucked behind his ears. “You extras?” he snips. “You’re late. We told no one to be late. I was very specific about that in the email. Italics and underlined.”
Delia gives me a wide-eyed look but doesn’t say I told you so.
I instantly want to get the guy fired for being an asshole. Of course, I’m no longer in a position to have anyone fired, except for maybe Leonard on our two-person flip job.
“You didn’t send us the directions,” I say as we get closer. “We parked in the wrong spot.”
He rolls his eyes. “Excuses are like assholes.”
“Excuse me?” I ask, pissed by his dismissive attitude.
Do you know who I am? nearly escapes my mouth but doesn’t. Thank God, because I’d prefer for him not to know. I also don’t want to be the kind of person who asks questions like that.
Apparently it’s not going so well.
“He was putting us in our place,” Delia tells me. To him, she says, “I’m sorry we were late, it was my fault.”
“Who are you?” he asks, slightly less annoyed now that Delia has basically prostrated herself at his feet. I don’t like that she did that. I like it even less that he let her. I feel a surge of protectiveness toward her, along with the need to defend her from the minion.
I open my mouth to speak, but she gets there first. “I’m Delia Evans.”
“Go on in the back,” he says, gesturing inside, toward a paper sign reading “Costumes” with an arrow pointing down a hall.
I start, “But—”
I’m about to tell him off, but Leonard drags me inside and then down the hall after Delia, who’s already walking. She’s moving fast, like a force of nature made human, and I can’t help but check out her ass in that dress. It’s round and full, the kind a man could grab on to. The fact that I’m looking—that I’ve spent the last few minutes half-assedly flirting with her—tells me that maybe my libido hasn’t taken the same beating as my ego, even if I haven’t brought a woman home with me for weeks. Leonard catches me looking and gives me a gotcha smirk.
“I was thinking about our warm welcome,” I lie.
“This is how the other half lives, buddy,” he tells me in an undertone. “Time for you to get used to it.”
He sounds like he’s looking forward to humbling me.
The costume designer tells me my dress will work just fine, which is disappointing, because the outfits hanging on the nearby racks are fabulous. There’s a gold lamé dress, a green velvet gown that I’d gladly give myself heatstroke to wear, and about five dozen outfits better than this one. He does give me a gorgeous golden belt that goes around my middle.
The extras coordinator, Christian, followed us into the waiting room after we went inside. He was adamant that he’d emailed the directions to us, and if we didn’t get his note, it was somehow our fault. He was so certain about it, I actually started doubting myself and wondering if it had gotten bumped to my spam mail, along with the less-wholesome responses to my Granddaughter for Rent business.
It’s obvious Lucas isn’t used to negative feedback. He looked like he was ready to blow up at Christian, but after he gave his name—Lucas C.—the extras coordinator’s whole attitude shifted. He called him sir and offered him a better place than “this shithole” to wait for filming. This earned several dissatisfied grumbles from the other people packed into the waiting room, several of us standing because there weren’t enough chairs.
To my surprise, Lucas glanced at Leonard, then sighed and said, “No, thanks, man. We’ll wait in here like everyone else.”
I like that he said it. I was expecting him to accept the special treatment with open arms, especially since it’s become clear to me that my first impression was accurate and he is both wealthy and possibly important. It’s in his bearing and the confidence that leaks from him. It’s in the outfit he’s wearing—understated but expensive. I also happen to know the Carolina Day School runs somewhere in the twenty-five to thirty thousand a year range for tuition, even for kindergartners.
Lucas probably came to regret his decision, however, because it took twenty minutes for someone to bring more chairs in, and we had to wait another hour and a half before any of us were called over to costumes to get our looks approved. It went by quickly, though, with Lucas and Leonard telling me about the hundred-year-old flip house they’re working on in West Asheville and me telling them about Ross and Doris.
It surprised me how genuinely interested they seemed. Usually, when I tell someone below the age of forty about my living arrangements, they look at me like I’m an exotic bug they’d like to smash or scuttle out of their house. But Lucas watched me with warmth.
I confessed that I’d been fantasizing that we would get put in colorful costumes. Big, full dresses with bright skirts, and suits paired with pink shirts. “Wouldn’t that be fun?”
Lucas’s lips lifted slightly. “Categorically no. If I’m asked to wear pink, I’m out.”
“What’s wrong with pink?”
“Nothing, as long as I’m not the one wearing it.”
Despite his aversion to color, he’s interesting. Sometimes he comes off as casually smooth, like the guys who hang out at Mira’s bar—all honeyed words and come-hither eyes, another Doris-ism—but there’s a darkness in him, simmering down deep. It’s like he’s at war within himself, and he’s not sure which side will win. Maybe I’m just creating stories again, making mountains out of mole hills to make life more interesting, but I don’t think so. It makes me want to know more about him, to ask the kind of questions you’re not supposed to ask someone you met a few hours ago. I’d also like to know why someone who clearly has money and prestige is flipping houses. He seems more like the kind of man who’d be ruling boardrooms, making and ruining lives, and—
Yes, there’s my overactive imagination at work again.
I didn’t mean to, but I kept stealing glances at him while we were stuck in the waiting room, taking in his pitch-black hair, the bright blue of his eyes, the amused tilt of his lips. I’ve always had a weakness for good-looking men, one that dates back to Jeremy of the russet hair. I told myself that’s all it was—an appreciation, like I’d admire a work of art, or a decked-out cake in a bakery window.
When I got called back first, Lucas grinned at me and said, “Tell me you won’t talk the costume guy into his-and-her outfits.”
“I make no promises,” I said, and despite myself, I looked over my shoulder at him as I walked away.
I’m still thinking about him now. Then again, I’d still be thinking about that fancy cake if I’d just laid eyes on it.
As the designer, a gorgeous man with dark skin and an outfit much better than mine, finishes arranging my belt, he says, “Would you believe I’ve been here since seven a.m., sugar?” He heaves the sigh of someone who hasn’t had enough coffee.
“Did Jeremy come through earlier?” I ask before I can think better of it. If he’d already been through costumes, I can’t think of a good reason for him to have been in the parking lot, but maybe he went out there to make a phone call.
“Didn’t he ever,” he says, pretending to fan himself. Then his mouth purses to the side. “He’s a bit of a tool, hon.”
“Really?” I ask, crestfallen but not as disappointed as Mira will probably be. “I knew him back in high school.”
He moves the buckle of the belt a millimeter to the left. “Was he a dick then too?”
I consider our two interactions. “Maybe. He broke my favorite pen and didn’t apologize.” I knew it was less-than-optimal behavior, obviously, but it happened when I was seventeen. I’d done the teenage thing of keeping the broken pen and idolizing it because he’d broken it.
He huffs out a laugh. “All I can tell you is that he strutted in here all high and mighty, as if he were the bigger name celebrity. He asked for a seltzer and then said it was too cold.”
“On a day like today?” It’s early August and nearly sticky.
“Precisely. We let it sit out for a few minutes and then it was too hot. And he made poor Pammy redo his makeup three times without a please or thank you. He wanted every line covered and shellacked. Now, Sinclair Jones, mind you, was as sweet as you please. And everyone knows she’s the real star.”
I release a sigh. “That’s disappointing.”
He waves a hand. “Draw your own conclusions.”
“I will,” I say, “but consider me thoroughly warned.”
“You know, I heard Lucas Burke is here as one of the extras, but we were all told not to talk about it.” He makes an aggrieved face. “As if they could stop us from talking. They may have stuffed us in a barn, but we’re not animals.”
“Lucas’s last name is Burke?” I ask, my heart thumping. Does that mean he’s one of the Burkes? As in the bigwig family that runs Burke Enterprises? I don’t want to think so. I like Lucas.
“You’ve already met him?” he asks, his eyes getting wide. This is clearly the most exciting news he’s heard all day.
“Yeah…unless there’s more than one Lucas. I think he’s my scene partner.”
The look on his face suggests I’ve just made his day.
“They didn’t tell you that we’re supposed to be a couple?” I ask. “Lucas says Sinclair Jones told him.” I should have pumped him for more information about that, but I’d gotten side-tracked. Story of my life.
“They don’t tell us a single thing more than they want to,” he says with a sniff. “Which is ridiculous, because we’ll want your colors to coordinate, obviously.”
“I thought about mentioning it earlier, but black matches with everything,” I say, not managing to sound very happy about it.
“Pity, sugar. You’re someone who could carry color.”
It’s the kind of compliment that can only make me glow, even though my mind is on Lucas and that dark underbelly I sensed. I’ve always been drawn to wounded people. Like to like, they say.
The costume designer glances back to the end of the corridor, but we’re alone other than one extra fussing with the goodies on the accessories table, making a face at all of the pairs of oversized clip-on earrings. “What do you know about the Burkes?” he asks.
“Just what everyone else knows, I guess. They own a lot of buildings all around town.” My heart lurches. My voice sounds tight as I add, “And they owned that one building that collapsed eight years ago.”
“Don’t you watch the news, hon?”
The honest answer is no. The news depresses me nine times out of ten. Some people can watch those horrible stories about lives ripped apart without carrying the weight of it, but I’m not like that. People have been calling me too sensitive all my life, but I don’t know how to be any other way.
“Not much,” I say, feeling a little ashamed by it. This is something else an adult should be: informed.
“Well, do I have a story for you—”
“You ready for another one?” Christian asks in that harried tone of his, popping out from behind a clothing rack. A shortcut, I’m guessing. It’s a wonder he’s in this much of a hurry when we’ve done nothing but sit around for almost two hours, but I can sort of understand. I always feel late for things, even when I’m not. My mind is constantly moving from one thing to the next—it’ll be chugging along on one topic when I remember something I wanted to tell Mira. Probably something I wanted to tell her the day before.
“Just a second,” the designer says. “I’m finishing up with Giselle here.”
“Giselle?” I ask as Christian waves a hand and walks away.
“You remind me of Amy Adams in that kids’ movie,” he says, giving the belt another micro-adjustment.
This is obviously a huge compliment, so I thank him.
His gaze follows Christian’s back before pinging back to me. “Your belt’s fine, sweetheart. I just wanted to give you the scoop. But if I do, I’m relying on you to keep an eye on Lucas for me.”
I don’t like the thought of spying on Lucas, but the designer continues without waiting for me to say anything. “The House of Burke is tumbling down.”
“Why?” I ask, my heart thumping faster again. “What happened?” I’m gripped by the sudden certainty that whatever he’s about to say next is the real reason I’m meant to be here. Not Jeremy. Not acting. But something to do with Lucas Burke. That’s why I almost hit him this morning, why he’s my scene partner even though no one told me so. I’m supposed to be.
“Burke Enterprises has got themselves a whistleblower.” He motions for me to follow him and leads the way over to the accessories table. He selects a pair of bright gold clip-on earrings for me that make my heart happy because at least these and the belt add some flair to my outfit. They make me feel more like myself.
“What did they do?” I press him after I clip on the metal, which is uncomfortable but pretty.
“Plenty, it turns out,” he says. “But the main thing is that they were responsible for that building collapse. The evidence is pretty compelling. The Burkes knew they were putting people in danger by building the Newton Building too close to a sinkhole, but they chose to build there anyway. And then they set up that general contractor to take the fall for it. Paid off a few folks too, to keep it all quiet.” He tsks. “That’s rich people for you. Always someone else’s fault.”
My blood runs cold.
My best friend was killed in that accident.
* * *
I’m pacing in the corridor next to the room where the other extras are waiting, my heart thumping an uncomfortable rhythm in my chest.
I need to talk to Mira. She’s well informed, so there’s no way didn’t know about this. She knew and didn’t tell me, which feels crappy. At the same time, I get it. She was trying to protect me, and I’d do the same if our situations were reversed.
I tell myself not to jump to conclusions. After all, the costume designer, whose name I somehow still don’t know, was speaking off the cuff. He didn’t show me any proof.
If only I had my phone, I could do some poking around of my own, but I left it in the car.
“Are you okay, Delia?” a deep voice asks—the sound of my name sending a shock through me—and I turn to see him behind me. Lucas.
He’s wearing a belt with a golden buckle, just like mine. It’s ridiculous, but the first thought that occurs to me shoots straight out of my mouth. “I guess our characters got his and her belts after all.”
He takes a step toward me. I take a step back.
A furrow appears on his brow. “Did I do something to upset you? You’ve been out here for half an hour.”
“You’re Lucas Burke,” I say much too loudly. “Your family runs Burke Enterprises.” In my peripheral vision, I see someone scurrying around a corner.
He sighs and then swears under his breath. “I was hoping not to advertise that.”
“Because people have figured out the truth about what your family did?” I accuse, my heart racing like a scared rabbit’s. But I have to confront him. Have to. I would be doing Nat a disservice if I spent a whole month with this man without confronting him.
“What did he say to you?” he asks, his tone cold now. “It was the costume guy, right? I noticed the way he was looking at me.”
“Going to get him fired?” I blurt. “You’re used to getting your way, aren’t you?”
His jaw hardens. “I didn’t realize I’d created such a bad impression.”
Something in my stomach sinks, because the truth is, he didn’t create a bad impression. Up until half an hour ago, I liked him. He’s a Burke, though, and if what the very forthcoming costume designer said is true, then he’s my enemy.
Maybe this is why fate brought us together—so I could confront him. So someone could make the Burkes understand what they took from us that day.
“My best friend died in that building collapse,” I blurt.
The look in his eyes shocks me. I’d expected him to be defensive, but he seems devastated, his eyes a liquid blue like the depths of the ocean. He takes a step toward me, his hand lifting, then stops himself. Swallows. “I’m sorry. I’m trying to make it right.”
“How?” I blurt, knowing I’m speaking too loudly but unable to be quieter. “You can’t bring her back. No one can.”
Again, there’s pain on his face, raw and bone-deep, and I feel another flicker of doubt. Maybe I got this wrong. Maybe, like usual, I should have done more research before leaping in.
“I know that,” he says thickly. “It’s what keeps me up at night. I’ll bet you wish you hit me with your car for real. Maybe you should have.” The expression on his face says he half means it, that feeling physical pain would be a relief because of what’s been living inside him.
My mind is a traitorous and terrible thing, because it’s urging me to comfort him. To trace the shape of his jaw and wrap my arms around him. To give him the forgiveness he’s clearly seeking from someone. But I won’t. It’s not on me to make him feel better, to lift the guilt from his broad shoulders. If his family had acted differently—if they’d acted humanely—Nat would still be alive. We’d be running Rent a Granddaughter together, as we’d planned.
I wouldn’t be alone.
“Were you part of that project?” I ask him point blank.
“No,” he says, and I believe him. The truth of it is written into every piece of his being. “I didn’t know anything about it, and I don’t work there anymore. But if you want me to leave, I will. Or I can ask to switch extra roles with Leonard so we don’t have to be paired together.”
“No,” I say. “It’s fine.”
Except I’m far from sure that’s true.
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