Starstruck (A Bluewater Bay Story)
This title is part of the Bluewater Bay universe.
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Hollywood is full of dirty secrets, but Carter refuses to be Levi’s.
Retired action star Levi Pritchard has made a quiet life for himself in the sleepy logging town of Bluewater Bay, Washington. But then Hollywood comes to film the wildly popular television series Wolf’s Landing, and Bluewater Bay isn’t so sleepy anymore. His retirement doesn’t stick, either, because he’s offered a part on the show—exactly the kind of complex role he’d always wanted, one that would prove him more than a glorified stuntman. The only catch? He has to stay in the closet—no matter how attractive he finds his co-star.
Carter Samuels is the critically-acclaimed male lead on Wolf’s Landing. And now, the man who inspired him to take up acting—and made him realize he’s gay—is joining the cast, and sparks fly between them instantly. But Carter is out and proud and determined to stay true to himself.
Remaining just friends is the only thing to do, as both the studio and Levi’s disapproving, dysfunctional family keep reminding them. Except their friendship deepens by the day, tempting them with what they can’t have but both desperately need.
Finalist: Best Gay Contemporary Romance in the 2015 Rainbow Awards!
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Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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As Levi Pritchard sipped coffee in a window booth at the Sunrise Café, he tried not to notice how many of the cars parked along Main Street had California plates. Or think about the fact that he was here to have breakfast with a producer.
God. A producer. It was bad enough Hollywood had invaded Bluewater Bay after he’d moved here to escape all that shit. Now Hollywood was calling him. Fuck.
He put his coffee cup down and kneaded his temples, trying to massage away the headache that was starting to take hold. Why the fuck was he doing this to himself?
Oh. Right. Because he’d never been able to say no to Finn Larson.
Finn was one of those producers who had to be the progeny of a used-car salesman and a litigation attorney. No one could sell bullshit like that man. When he’d called last night, Levi’s brain had screamed, “Oh my God, no, I don’t want to see you,” but his mouth had said, “I’ll see you at eleven.” He still wasn’t sure how that had happened, only that he was here now.
Well, okay, that wasn’t entirely true. Levi knew damn well if he’d said no, Finn would’ve kept after him. Humoring the asshole with lunch was less of a headache than getting a restraining order. Finn probably wanted to resurrect the action hero who’d put Levi on the map. Levi would just politely decline and hope that was enough to get the man to leave him alone, at least until the next two-bit action flick came along.
A couple of women walked by on the sidewalk, raincoat hoods up and heads down, but he still instinctively turned away. Even though not many people recognized him out here, it was a habit to avoid the occasional stare or, worse, a nervous fan.
“Are you really Levi Pritchard?” The same question every time.
“Yeah.” It was getting harder by the year to fake that smile. “That’s me.”
And then came the inevitable:
“I loved your movies! Why aren’t you acting anymore?”
“Will there ever be another Chad Eastwick movie?”
“Guess ‘actors’ like you have a shelf life, eh?”
He’d loved acting. Loved it. It was the Hollywood bullshit he’d hated. So he’d walked away from Tinseltown and never looked back.
And now Bluewater Bay was crawling with everything he’d moved a thousand miles to escape.
That was why he didn’t come into town much anymore unless he had to. If he’d wanted to be surrounded by directors, producers, key grips, gophers, electricians, set designers, makeup artists, union representatives, cinematographers, and consultants, he’d have stayed in California. His opinionated pair of Maine coon cats were much better company than those fuckers.
The women in raincoats had to be out of sight by now, so he lifted his gaze to the drizzly scenery. A lot of the businesses on Main Street had come and gone, though plenty had been here forever. He was pretty sure the bakery had occupied the building across the street from the café since this part of town was built in the 1920s. Even the Walgreens they’d opened on the corner had tried to retain some of the small-town charm, keeping the building’s exterior more or less the same pre-Depression façade it had always had and only adding their distinctive red, cursive lettering. The sign stuck out as badly as the McDonald’s a few blocks down, but even they were more welcome additions than the invasion that had begun two years ago.
Hollywood didn’t belong here. Bluewater Bay was one of those sleepy logging and fishing towns on the northern tip of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, a long-ass drive and a ferry ride away from anything interesting apart from the rain forest, which was exactly why Levi had moved here.
Oh, if only Hunter Easton had signed that book deal one year earlier . . .
Right then, a sleek black Mercedes pulled up—California plates, of course—and despite the glare on the windshield that obscured the driver’s face, he knew. By the time the door opened, his stomach was acidic with self-loathing over letting the bastard talk him into meeting him here. In public. In his town. Hell, meeting him at all.
But it was too late to change his mind or get the hell out of here because Finn Larson had spotted him and was on his way in, briefcase in hand.
Stomach roiling, Levi waited for him. With anyone else from that era of his life, he’d have called upon every iota of theater training he could remember to make his smile as genuine as possible. With Finn? His guard was up, and he wanted him to know it.
As Finn approached the table, he extended his hand. “Levi Pritchard. My God. It’s been—”
“Do you mind?” Levi snapped, accepting the offered hand, if grudgingly. “I really don’t like announcing my presence in these places.”
The producer gestured dismissively. “It’s not exactly a big secret that you’re here, my friend.” He set his briefcase on the bench, shrugged out of his jacket, hung it on the coat rack beside the booth, and slid in across from Levi. “So how have you been?”
“I’m fine. How are things in LA?”
“Great, great. We’ve got the green light for some amazing films right— Honey, can I get a coffee, please?”
The waitress paused beside their table, threw Levi an “is he for real?” glance, and then gave an obviously forced smile. “Cream?”
“Yes, please. Thank you, sweetheart.”
From the way her eyes narrowed, Levi wouldn’t have been surprised if the cream she sent with Finn’s coffee was comprised of Drano and rat poison. The loggers and truckers called the waitresses “honey” and “sweetheart” too, but from them, it was a more affectionate variation of “ma’am.”
From someone like Finn, it was like verbally copping a feel.
“So anyway,” Finn went on, oblivious to Levi’s inner thoughts, “we’ve got some fantastic stuff on the table.” He flashed him that used-car salesman grin. “Couple of roles that would be perfect for you, by the way.”
“No.” Levi shook his head. “Not interested. Let’s just get that clear right now.”
Finn gave his trademark exasperated sigh. “I don’t get you, kid. One minute you’re riding the Hollywood wave and loving every minute. The next you’re, well, here.” He looked out the window and wrinkled his nose. “What do you see in this town anyway? It’s got no . . . character.”
“It’s got more than LA.”
Finn snorted and plucked a sugar packet from the ceramic box between the salt and pepper shakers beneath the window. Flipping it idly between his fingers, he said, “I don’t get you. I don’t think I ever will.”
“Well, I like it here. And I like my life, thank you.” Levi shrugged. “I’m starting to think I was an idiot for passing up that place in Forks, though.”
Finn’s eyebrows rose. “Forks?”
Levi nodded. “Found a great house down there, but I wasn’t moving there right in the middle of the Twilight fad.”
Finn cocked his head.
Resisting the urge to roll his eyes, Levi said, “Twilight was set there. And filmed there. Remember?”
“Oh, right. Right.” Finn laughed, glancing out at the two-lane main drag. “Not sure why places like this are so attractive to people who write about vampires and werewolves and whatnot, but”—he shrugged—“as long as I keep getting paid to make the shows, I couldn’t give a fuck why.”
Levi sipped his coffee, hoping it would wash some of the bitterness from his mouth. He really should’ve bought the place he’d looked at in Forks. Then again, even though they’d long ago finished filming the movies, that town wasn’t much better than this one. He’d been there recently—it was only a short drive down the coast—and the stink of Hollywood still hung over the place like LA smog.
Maybe sleepy little industrial towns were no more immune to Hollywood than any other place. On the other hand, they’d filmed a shitload of movies in Astoria, which was just a few hours from here, and the place still had the small-town charm Bluewater Bay was desperately trying to hold on to.
Levi liked to think this fad wouldn’t last forever, but he wasn’t holding his breath.
“Well, maybe all the hype will die down eventually,” he grumbled.
Finn chuckled. “I doubt it. Have you seen the ratings for the show?”
Levi bit back a curse. “Great. At least Forks only had to put up with Twilight for a few years. Sounds like the Wolf’s Landing plague won’t be leaving this town anytime soon.”
“Actually, that’s what I came here to talk to you about.” Finn folded his hands and leaned forward. “I want you on Wolf’s Landing.”
“You what?” He’d expected an offer of some sort, but . . . Wolf’s Landing?
Finn sighed dramatically. “Come on, Levi. It’s just a guest spot, and you’d be perfect for it.”
“I’m retired. Absolutely not.”
“Levi.” Finn shook his head. “Levi, Levi, Levi. I know how you acting types are. Once you’re bitten by that bug? You’re in.”
“Yeah?” Levi raised an eyebrow. “That why I haven’t been in front of a camera in years?”
Finn smirked. “Well, it might explain why you’re spinning your tires and wasting your time at that decrepit community theater.”
Levi ground his teeth. Leave that group out of this. “Just because I enjoy acting doesn’t mean I want to deal with Hollywood anymore.”
“This entire production isn’t anything like what you’ve ever worked on.”
“How so? Aside from the lack of pyrotechnicians?”
Finn laughed. “Well, there is that. But Anna Maxwell is an executive producer and one of the directors, and I mean, you and she go way back, right?”
“So I don’t have to tell you that the rest of the cast raves about her, do I? They say she gives them a lot of leeway to interpret their characters.”
Levi fought the urge to squirm. He didn’t doubt for a second that Anna gave the cast a shitload of freedom, especially on the episodes she directed. And how long had he wanted to work with a director like that, especially her? The last few had had his character development in a choke hold from the get-go—everything from his mannerisms to his voice inflections had been dictated until he’d had absolutely no room to move. Small wonder critics said his acting had “all the range of an emotionally catatonic Keanu Reeves wannabe” and that he “wasn’t cut out for a role requiring more creativity than the tree in the background of an elementary school play.” He’d been itching for the freedom to show that there was more to him than “at least he does his own stunts, so we know he’s a real boy.”
Across from him, Finn grinned. “I’m telling you, kid. This would be a good role for you. And Anna agrees. That’s why she’s specifically asked to direct your episodes.” He pulled back his sleeve and glanced at his gold Rolex. “In fact, she should be here any minute.”
“She—” Levi blinked. “Anna’s coming?”
“Of course.” Finn shrugged. “She’s been pushing harder than anyone to bring you on board.”
Levi gritted his teeth. “Has she now?”
“Absolutely. She— Ah! Speak of the devil.”
A figure swept past the window. A second later, the diner’s front door opened, and in walked Anna Maxwell.
Levi stood. “Anna. Long time no see.”
“Way too long!” She threw her arms around him. “How are you, sweetheart?”
“Doing all right. You?”
She released him and quirked an eyebrow. “I’ll be much better when my old buddy explains why he hasn’t once tried to meet up with me for coffee or something.”
“I . . .” Heat rushed into his cheeks. “Well . . .”
Anna’s eyebrow climbed.
“You’re right.” He put up his hands. “I should have gotten in touch sooner. I’ve been meaning to, but—”
“Yeah, yeah. Excuses.” She playfully smacked his arm. They both laughed, and he let her slide onto the bench before he joined her.
Finn folded his hands on the table. “So, I’ve already given him the rundown. About joining the cast.”
“Good.” She faced Levi. “And?”
Levi opened his mouth to speak, but right then, the waitress stopped beside the table. She deposited Finn’s coffee in front of him and asked, “What can I get you all to eat?”
“I’ll just have the special,” Anna said. “And keep the coffee coming.”
Levi glanced down at the menu. “The special is fine for me too. With a Coke, please.”
The waitress flashed him a brief smile and jotted down his order. The smile vanished as she turned to Finn. “And you?”
Finn pursed his lips as he skimmed over the menu. “The hash browns, are those grown organically?”
Bless her, the waitress managed to maintain a poker face. “No, sweetheart. They’re not.”
And there was that exasperated, entitled sigh.
Levi kept his head down, not to hide from her—she knew him—but to keep the producer from seeing him roll his eyes again. Thing #4,781 he didn’t miss about Hollywood—you couldn’t order a meal without someone at the table being an obnoxious activist or adhering to the latest health craze. Or both.
After she’d patiently explained that no, they had no gluten-free toast, and no, there was nothing organic on the menu, and no, the orange juice was not fresh-squeezed, Finn decided to stick with coffee. Probably a wise move on his part. As it was, Levi still wondered what other substances might be lurking in the man’s cup.
Finn sneered at the sugar packet he’d been playing with, and put it aside. Probably because it wasn’t certified and notarized as pure organic raw cane sugar harvested from sustainable fair trade fields and presented in a thrice-recycled packet after a virgin sacrifice. He stirred the cream into his coffee, took a sip—no immediate bad reactions, so maybe it wasn’t poisoned—and set it back on the saucer.
“So,” Anna said to Levi. “Are you in?”
Levi sighed. “I’m out of this business.”
Finn waved a hand. “Listen, we know you’re ‘retired’ and whatnot, but humor us here.” He looked Levi in the eye. “Come down to the set. See how things are run.” He tapped his briefcase. “Give the script a read and see what you think.”
Levi swallowed, regarding the briefcase like it was a venomous snake. “Why me?”
Anna touched his arm. “Because we—and by that I mean I—think this is the perfect comeback for you.”
“I’m retired, Anna. I don’t want a comeback. I just want to—”
“Sweetie, think about it. This is the perfect series for you. It’s set right in your backyard. You’d have a fairly small role at first. It’s—”
“At first?” Levi blinked. “Whoa. I thought you were talking about a guest spot.”
“Well, sort of.” Finn shrugged. “You’d be credited as ‘guest starring’ at first, but the character you’d be playing eventually comes back for a recurring role.”
Levi quickly ran through the series in his head—much as he hated the presence of Hollywood here, he did enjoy both the books and the show—and tried to narrow down which character they were talking about. Someone who’d surfaced early on, then came back—
The penny dropped. “You want me to play Max Fuhrman?”
A huge grin spread across Anna’s lips, and she nodded.
Oh, damn her. Damn her straight to hell. Anna knew one of Levi’s biggest frustrations with the studios was that they kept typecasting him. He’d wanted to try his chops at someone with more emotional range—hell, any emotional range—instead of spending ninety percent of his screen time jumping off or out of exploding vehicles.
Someone like Max Fuhrman.
Fuhrman went back and forth between an angsty alcoholic with a hefty case of PTSD and—thanks to a shaman’s spell—a sociopath. A lazy actor could make him into a generic villain with the occasional moment of humanity, but Levi saw so much potential to portray him as a complex, tortured character.
He swallowed. “Why me?”
Anna shrugged. “Well, you’re—”
“Because the man who played Chad Eastwick has just the kind of machismo we need for someone like Max.”
Anna exhaled so hard it was almost a growl. “Finn, really?”
“What?” He waved a hand. “Look, it’s no secret there’s been a lot of speculation about the show having a homoerotic vibe.”
Levi’s heart dropped. He glanced at Anna, eyes wide, and she gave a little “don’t worry, I’ve got this” nod.
“That’s not why I picked him for the role.” She glared at the other producer. “Levi has the chops and the versatility to play Max. Yeah, we want someone masculine and powerful, but it has nothing to do with the—”
“Your choice doesn’t,” he said. “But the studio’s only considering him because of that. Between a gay lead, the story’s homoerotic undertones, and—no offense—a lesbian executive producer and director, there’s concern about the show’s image.”
Anna rolled her eyes. She met Levi’s and shook her head slightly, a silent “don’t listen to him.”
“Anyway. Bottom line, we want you for this role.” Finn pulled the script out of his briefcase and set it on the table between them. “Give it a look. Come down to the set and see what you think.”
Levi glared at the script, its three brass brads gleaming in the fluorescent light.
Anna chuckled. “This is the role you’ve been waiting for, sweetie.”
It was. It so was.
“And you’re not the only one waiting for it,” Finn said. “The studio’s got two other actors in mind, and they are looking for a reason to sign them over you.”
Levi resisted the urge to make a grab for the scripts. Damn it. These two really knew how to corner him—offer the role of his dreams, and make sure he knew it was being offered to someone else too.
Fuck. This really was the single role in God’s creation that could coax him back in front of a camera. If Hollywood’s bullshit hadn’t turned him into such a cynical asshole, he’d have signed the contract in a heartbeat. Especially with Anna as one of the people at the show’s helm.
A shrill beep startled him out of his thoughts, and Finn pulled his cell from his pocket. “Damn. Would you two excuse me for a moment?”
They both nodded, and he got up and headed for the door. Well, at least he had the common courtesy to take his call outside. Maybe there was hope for the bastard yet.
As soon as Finn was out of earshot, Levi released a breath and rolled his shoulders.
“Ugh, I can’t stand him,” Anna muttered.
“I doubt anyone can.”
“You ain’t wrong.” She smirked. “I don’t think anyone likes him as well as he adores himself.”
Anna managed a soft laugh too, but it didn’t last. She held his gaze. “It’s good to see you again, Levi. It’s been way too long.”
“Yeah, it really has.” He paused. “So, uh, all shop talk aside, how have you been?”
Anna shrugged. “Up and down.”
“Yeah?” Levi cocked his head. “Seems like things are pretty damned good on the professional front.”
“Oh, yeah. Absolutely. But you know the kind of toll that takes at home.”
He grimaced. “You’re probably working insane hours right now, too.”
She groaned, letting her calm, professional mask slip for a second. “I am. And Leigh understands, but I’m not gonna lie: it’s making things tough.”
“Sorry to hear it.”
She shrugged again. “It is what it is. So what about you?” She glared playfully at him. “And why do I never see you around here when we used to run into each other all the time in LA?”
He laughed dryly. “We ran in the same circles there. Here? Not so much.”
“Fair enough.” Her expression turned to genuine hurt. “I figured I’d see you eventually, though.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I’ve . . .” He shook his head. “I guess I’ve taken the recluse thing a little too seriously. And, you know, once the paparazzi started lurking around town . . .”
Anna wrinkled her nose. “Can’t blame you for that. But, well, all the bullshit and paparazzi notwithstanding, it’d be good to see you near a film set again.”
Levi ground his teeth, biting back a snide “Don’t hold your breath.” He forced the hostility out of his voice. “Good to see you in the director’s chair. And executive producer too. Congrats.”
She smiled, and in spite of his mood, he couldn’t help returning it.
“So, am I going to get a shot at directing you?”
And so much for his smile. “I don’t know. It’s temping, but I . . .”
“You don’t want to come out of retirement and deal with all the crap again?”
“Basically, yeah.” He sighed. “I’ve kind of gotten used to not getting calls from my friends and family to ask if this or that tabloid story is true.”
“But have you ever gotten used to not being in front of a movie camera?”
“That’s what I thought.” Anna leaned closer. “Look, hon. This business chews people up and spits them out all the time. I get that. You know I do.”
He dropped his gaze. “Yeah, you do.”
“But look at me, hon. I made it. I had to fight my way through all kinds of bullshit because everyone thought the only thing I could possibly direct were man-hating lesbian movies. And now . . .” She gestured at the scripts. “I’m directing more episodes than anyone else.”
Levi exhaled, and then he gave another small smile. “You never have been one to take no for an answer.”
“You’re right.” She arched an eyebrow. “Which is why it shouldn’t surprise you that I’m not going to let you say no to this role.”
“Oh yeah? And why is that?”
She folded her arms across her chest. “Because this is the opportunity you were dying for before you gave up on Hollywood. I know it’s not a film, but this is big, sweetheart.”
He let himself grin. “Ever the humble one, eh?”
Anna laughed, rolling her eyes. “It’s not big because of me. Hunter Easton’s a damn genius and his characters are amazing. You deserve a shot at bringing one of them to life.”
“And we both deserve better than what people like him”—he gestured at the place Finn had been standing a moment ago—“put us through. I want to act, but I don’t want to sell my soul.”
“I know you don’t.” Her eyebrows pulled together. “But it’s a damn shame for someone with your talent to give up acting because of that shit. I’m the last person who’s going to tell you anything in that town is easy, and I almost walked away from it myself, but . . .” She touched his arm. “I also know it’s in your blood just like directing is in mine. Filmmaking gets in there, and . . .”
“Yeah, it does.”
Their eyes met, and he knew she had him right where she wanted him.
“Are you really happy, sweetie? Directing little plays in between hiding in the hills?”
“It’s better than what I had before.”
“I’m sure it is, but can you really look me in the eye and tell me you don’t want to do this again?”
“If it was as simple as choosing between acting and not acting . . .”
Anna nodded. “I know, baby.” She paused, gnawing her lower lip. “Okay, let me throw this out there. Max Fuhrman’s got a small role for the first couple of episodes. Eight minutes of screen time in one, twelve in the other.”
“And then he’s there for the whole ride starting at the end of the season.”
She nodded. “He is. But if it’ll convince you to at least give this a shot, we can just film the first episode and see how it goes. We can have the contract written so you have an out.”
Levi didn’t want to be intrigued by the idea, but . . . “An out? Meaning?”
“Meaning if you decide after filming one or two of the episodes that you want to bail, you can bow out and we can replace you before anyone’s committed too much time and energy.”
He shifted uncomfortably. “And you think the studio will go for it?”
“They will if they want to keep Hunter Easton happy, and he wants you for this role as much as I do.”
He studied her. “You really want me to say yes to this, don’t you?”
Anna grinned. “I do. You were a successful actor before, and you can be again, even if I have to drag you into it kicking and screaming.”
He laughed. “I wouldn’t put that past you.”
“Smart man.” She squeezed his arm. “Just read the scripts and think about it. You don’t have to make a decision right away.” The upward flick of her eyebrow suggested he’d damn well better.
“I’ll think about it.”
“Okay. Will you come down to the set too? I’m headed back there after we’re done eating, and I’d be happy to show you around.”
He exhaled. “All right. I’ll come down and take a look.”
Levi shifted a little. “By the way, I should’ve said this a long time ago, but I am so proud of you.”
“Thank you, Levi.” She put a hand over his. “You know I never would’ve gotten this far without all your help back then.”
He chuckled. “Somehow I doubt that. We all knew from day one you were going to be kicking Spielberg out of a director’s chair eventually.”
She snorted. “Let’s not go that far.” She tapped the scripts in the middle of the table. “Now, read those tonight and then just try to tell me you aren’t going to join me.”
He laughed again. “Challenge accepted.”
Her expression turned more serious, and she looked him in the eye. “And even if for some inexplicable reason you don’t accept the role, promise me you won’t be a stranger. I miss you.”
“I won’t. Promise.”
“Good.” Anna started to say something else, but Finn picked that moment to come back into the diner.
“Sorry about that.” He smiled thinly as he took his seat again. “Damn thing is always ringing.” He glanced at Levi, then Anna. “Did we come to any consensus while I was gone?”
Anna smiled. “He’s willing to come down and take a tour of the set.”
“Great. And you’re going to read the scripts?” Finn nodded toward the bound pages.
Levi hesitated, but finally reached for them. “Fine. After the set tour.” He eyed Finn. “But I’m not promising anything.”
Judging by the way both Anna and Finn grinned, Levi may as well have just signed his name in blood.
So much for retirement.
Levi Pritchard walked onto the set, and Carter forgot every single line he’d memorized.
Oh my God.
He’d known before he’d come to Bluewater Bay that Levi lived around here somewhere but was as much of a hermit as Hunter. People saw him around town from time to time, or caught a glimpse of him launching his boat down at the marina, but Carter never had.
And now . . .
Levi was wrapped up in a conversation with Anna and Finn, and didn’t seem to notice Carter. Or the fact that Carter was noticing the fuck out of him.
Wow. He’d had a crush on Levi since forever—slight understatement—and seeing him in person wasn’t a letdown at all. Quite the contrary.
Levi must have been in his midthirties now. Maybe even pushing forty, and he made the years look good. Another five or ten, and his nearly black hair would probably start going gray.
“Well, look who’s here.” A voice startled Carter, and he turned as his stunt double, Ginsberg, sidled up next to him. “I thought he’d tell Finn to go fuck himself, but . . .”
Ginsberg lowered his voice. “You hear they’re trying to cast him as Max Fuhrman?”
Swallowing hard, Carter nodded. Considering how often his character and Fuhrman would be interacting, he’d been well aware that the man he idolized was the top pick for the role. “Yeah, I heard. I didn’t think he’d actually consider it, though.”
“Well, he must be.” Ginsberg gestured at Levi’s back. “Unless he’s just humoring them.”
“I don’t think he’d come all the way down here to humor them.” Especially not if it was true what everyone said about Levi: that he’d long ago shunned all things Hollywood. Word on the street was that when he’d been approached for another sequel to the Chad Eastwick films, the action franchise that had made him famous, he’d responded with anatomical instructions for storing the script.
“He would make an awesome Fuhrman,” Ginsberg said.
“Not to mention some eye candy around the set.” Ginsberg elbowed him playfully. “Too bad he’s straight, eh?”
“Yeah. Too bad.”
Though it was debatable. There’d been rumors since the dawn of time that Levi was gay, or bi, or curious, or something other than perfectly straight. Another actor maintained that he and Levi had dated on the down-low for a while, but Levi had always vehemently denied it. Some people said it was revenge after a bad breakup. Some said it was the alleged ex’s attempt to date his way from B-list to A-list.
But Carter had always wondered.
Maybe it was wishful thinking. Not that he had a shot in hell, but the odds might tip slightly in his favor if dudes were on Levi’s radar.
Right then, Levi glanced in his direction, and for a split second, they locked eyes. The script in Carter’s hand almost fell to the floor, but he managed to hold on to it, using his momentary fumble as a reason to break eye contact. And he didn’t dare look again. Great. First time Levi had ever seen him, and he was being a clumsy idiot. Fabulous.
When Carter finally worked up the nerve and turned around again, Levi was gone. So were Anna and Finn. Damn it. “That didn’t take long.”
Ginsberg scanned the set. “Wow. Yeah. Fastest set tour I’ve ever seen.” He glanced at Carter. “You think he’s gonna sign?”
Carter shrugged. I hope. Please, please, let it mean something. “Well, everyone says he wants nothing to do with film, TV, or anything.” Which is a damned shame.
Ginsberg nodded. “Yeah, I thought he’d given up acting completely.”
From a few feet away, a grip named Kevin snorted. “You mean he gave up on trying to act. Have you ever seen his work?”
Carter glared at him. “Actually, I have. Some of his old, pre-Eastwick stuff.”
“Yeah?” Kevin rolled his eyes and yawned. “And?”
“And it’s good. Really good.” Carter turned toward the empty space Levi had been occupying a few minutes ago. “It’s a crime they kept casting him in those stupid action movies.”
“Maybe if he’d been a little better at—”
“I don’t think he’s given up completely on acting,” Ginsberg broke in. “I mean, even if he doesn’t get cast on the show, I heard he’s been working with that community theater in town for the last couple of years.”
Carter blinked. “You don’t . . . you don’t mean the Bluewater Bay Theater Company, do you?”
Ginsberg nodded. “That’s what I’ve heard.”
“No way. Wouldn’t his name be on the marquee?” Carter shrugged. “I drive past it all the time, and I’ve never seen it.” And I would have noticed.
“And seriously, what the hell is a guy like him doing at a shitty place like that?” Carter glared at Kevin, daring him to pitch in his two cents. The guy wisely kept his trap shut.
“Well, around here, it’s really his only option aside from . . .” The stuntman gestured at the set.
“Hmm. Good point. Maybe that’s why he showed up.”
“One can hope, right?”
Oh, I’m hoping . . .
Carter pulled his phone out of his pocket and thumbed a quick text to Hunter: Anna + Finn got Pritchard to come to the set.
Almost immediately, Hunter started typing a response, so he must’ve been at his desk. Working on the eighth Wolf’s Landing book, no doubt.
You’re kidding. They must’ve threatened him or something.
Carter chuckled. LOL Don’t know. But he was here. Def. him.
Good. Did he seem interested?
Before Carter could respond, the outside door opened, letting in the blinding daylight. When it banged shut and Carter’s eyes refocused, Finn had reappeared and was speaking into his cell phone. The producer was a pro at keeping a poker face, and he gave them nothing—no signs of frustration, relief, concern, or optimism.
Well. Carter would know soon enough if Levi was joining the cast or not. For now, he sent a message to Hunter saying he couldn’t tell if Levi was interested, and then he picked up the script again. Half an hour ago, he’d known this scene by heart. Now, it was like he’d never even looked at the damned thing.
As he reread it, refreshing his memory, he pushed all thoughts of Levi out of his head. He’d let the man take over his mind again later.
But first, he had a scene to shoot.
As soon as Finn had gone back into the abandoned warehouse-turned-soundstage, Levi muttered a few curses at the closed door.
Anna shook her head. “He drives me crazy. Sorry he had to come along, but he and the showrunner make the final decision, so I couldn’t really avoid it.”
“It’s all right. Honestly, watching you try to blow up his skull with your mind was entertaining as hell.”
She laughed. “Was I that obvious?”
“I know you, dear. And you’ve done the same to me before, so . . .”
“Only when you deserved it.” She held out her arms. “Now give me a hug so I can get back to work.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He gathered her into a hug for the first time in way, way too long. Damn, she was right—they really should have met up when she’d moved here. Still embracing her, he said, “I promise I’ll keep in touch this time. Even if I don’t take the role.”
Anna grinned as she released him. “Damn right you will.”
“I will!” He showed his palms. “Just don’t blow up my skull.”
She threw him a menacing look, and then giggled.
He shifted his weight, gravel crunching beneath his sneakers. “I do have one question.”
He studied her. “Out of curiosity, does the current cast have anything to do with why you wanted me to come tour the set before I made my decision?”
Her eyes widened, and he’d have recognized that “who, me?” look from a mile away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Uh-huh.” He raised an eyebrow. “So it had nothing to do with using a little bit of man candy to weaken my defenses?”
Anna casually inspected her nails. “No idea what you mean.”
“Sure you don’t.”
Their eyes met, and the devilish sparkle in hers made him laugh.
Batting her eyelashes, she asked, “Well, did it work?”
“No. I’m not making career decisions based on . . .” He gestured at the soundstage.
“I know you’re not.” She smiled. “But I can’t imagine you’ll turn down a role where you get to engage in some sweaty man-grappling with Carter Samuels.”
Levi’s throat tightened. “What? He doesn’t have a stunt double?”
“Of course he does. But whenever possible, he does his own stunts.” She grinned, and he was sure she almost winked as she added, “Just like you.”
Fuck. He was so fucked.
She knew it too. Brat.
Anna watched him for a moment. “Truth be told, I don’t know how you’ve lasted this long in ‘retirement.’”
He rubbed a stiff muscle in the side of his neck. “I’ve considered it a few times, but all it takes to remind me why I quit is a solid night’s sleep without agonizing over some reporter getting a little too close to the truth about my personal life.”
Anna pursed her lips. “I suppose I can’t judge you for that.”
“You know it even got to the point my own ringtone almost made me break out in hives?” He blew out a breath and kept kneading the muscle. Then he lowered his hand. “I want to act again. I don’t want to deal with people speculating about who I’m fucking.”
“I don’t blame you.”
“Speaking of . . .” He cleared his throat. “And, uh, is what Finn said true? About the studio being concerned about gay—”
“Oh, fuck them.” She groaned. “Yes, they’ve been making noise about it, but I couldn’t give two shits what they think. Everyone knows Carter’s gay, but his character is . . . well, so far, he’s straight.”
Levi raised his eyebrows. “So far?”
“Honey, have you read the books?” She smirked. “Let’s just say that if Gabriel ultimately turns out to be completely straight, I will renounce my lesbianship and take up cocksucking.”
A laugh burst out of Levi. “Really? Maybe I need to catch up on my reading . . .”
“You should.” She turned more serious. “And the thing is, the fans have caught on to that, so the studio is worried. With Carter and me both being openly gay, the studio is convinced the show is going to become hyperfocused on sexuality instead of, you know, shape-shifters and stopping the bad guys.”
“Naturally.” Levi paused. “So, uh, that means they have no clue about me, right?”
“Absolutely not.” She stepped a little closer and lowered her voice. “I’d never out you. You know that.”
“I know. But the rumors . . .”
“Trust me, nobody buys them.” She glanced back at the soundstage, as if to make sure they were really alone. “The studio, Finn, everybody—they’re all convinced you’re the heaping dose of heterosexuality this show is missing.”
Levi snorted. “Wow. I’m . . . flattered?”
“It’s studio politics, sweetie. I feel squicky jumping on the whole ‘Levi’s the straight man we desperately need’ bandwagon, but—”
“No, it’s okay. Honestly, as long as they don’t know.”
“They don’t, and they can’t right now.”
“They won’t hear it from me.” He scowled. “If the most recent session with my family was any indication, I won’t be coming out anytime soon anyway.”
She grimaced. “My God, are you still trying to iron things out with them?”
Levi nodded. “It’s better than it was a few years ago. Just, you know, a slow process.”
“Familial amputation is a lot faster, you know.”
“Yeah, well . . .” He shrugged. “Things are improving. I mean, I only really see them during our family counseling sessions.”
“How do you manage that?”
“Well, I guess that prevents you from throwing anything at them.”
“More often than they probably realize,” he muttered. “Anyway, it’s getting better. Though, ask me again after they come visit.”
She cringed. “Is that happening anytime soon?”
“Allegedly, they’re coming to see the play I’m directing in town. So, next month.”
“Good luck with that.”
“Thanks.” He hooked his thumbs in his pockets. “Anyway, if the studio’s that hung up on me being straight, it’s no big deal. As far as anyone else is concerned, I am.”
Anna pressed her lips together, and he wondered if she was going to launch into one of her lengthy dissertations about hiding who he was, but she just sighed. “Okay, well. I should get back to work before my crew decides to take a long lunch.” She gestured at his Jeep. “You go read those scripts and let me know, okay?”
“Will do. The theater’s got rehearsal tonight, but I’ll read them afterward.”
They embraced one last time, and then she headed back into the soundstage.
When she was gone, Levi closed his eyes and ran a hand through his hair. She had always been the persuasive type. So was Finn, but Anna wasn’t conniving and slimy about it. She simply stated her case, pushed all his buttons, and didn’t let up until she won.
But Levi wasn’t ready to give in yet.
Sliding his hands into his pockets, he strolled back toward his Jeep. As his boots crunched on the gravel, he replayed their conversation, the discussion with Finn, and the tour of the set. Finn’s sheer presence had been enough to keep Levi’s guard up. He was a walking, talking reminder of all the reasons Levi hadn’t read a single script that had been sent his way in the last few years.
Anna, though . . .
Damn her, she knew why, for all Levi said he’d left Hollywood and never looked back, he did look back once in a while. Every time Finn tried to twist Levi’s arm like he was trying to sell him a used Honda, Anna would quietly clear away the slime and sleaze with a matter-of-fact comment about giving him the freedom to really dig deep and make Max Fuhrman into something even more complex than he was on the page. And suddenly Levi’s hackles would go down, and he’d stop just short of swooning over this opportunity.
And then of course, though Anna would never confess to deliberately making it happen, Levi had caught a glimpse of Carter Samuels. Whatever Finn had been saying at that moment had faded into the background with the usual film set noise.
Good lord. The kid was cute on camera, but he was gorgeous in person. The blond-blue look had never been Levi’s thing, but Carter made his pulse jump. Remembering that fleeting eye contact made him stumble over nothing, and he glanced around to make sure no one had seen him. Thank God, there was no one else in sight. Face burning, he continued to his Jeep.
If working with Carter was part of the deal, Levi could almost convince himself to sign on the dotted line right then and there.
He unlocked his Jeep and got into the driver’s seat. He started the ignition, but didn’t leave immediately. While the engine idled, his gaze drifted to the old warehouse. What scene were they shooting right now? Something in a dank, atmospheric place, judging by the lighting and set dressing. If he told Anna he was considering the part, would she let him hover in the background and watch them film?
Laughing to himself, he shook his head, and then put the Jeep in gear. Just what he needed. Fuel Anna’s persuasion by confirming he had a wicked crush on one of her cast members.
He pulled out of the parking lot and headed for the highway that would take him into town. And of course, his mind went right back to the warehouse and that stunning blond lead.
It wasn’t just that Carter was smoking hot. The man was as talented as he was gorgeous. He’d been drastically underutilized for the first couple of years of his career, relegated to pretty boy sidekicks and wisecracking cannon fodder, but then he’d been cast on Wolf’s Landing, and now he was the star he deserved to be. He’d accumulated a whole pile of awards for his role on the show, and even though Levi wasn’t sure he could untie his tongue when they were face-to-face, Carter was one actor he dreamed about working with.
And fantasized about—
You’re old enough to be his father, idiot.
Still. Fantasies aside, they’d work together. Their characters interacted fairly regularly—first as adversaries, later as tense allies—and that meant he’d finally be able to act opposite someone with some serious chops.
If he took the role, that was.
Of course, Anna wouldn’t let him pass it up without a fight. When she wanted something, she got it. End of story. Small wonder she had successfully clawed her way out of obscurity and scored a job as an executive producer on this show. He wouldn’t have been surprised at all if she’d parked her ass in a higher-up’s office and refused to back down until the guy had thrown up his hands and said, “All right! All right! Produce the goddamned thing.”
The thought made him laugh, but at the same time, he kept his guard up. Just because Anna could persuade him didn’t mean it was the right thing for him to do. And hadn’t he promised himself hundreds of times that he wouldn’t do this?
If it had been any other role . . .
If it had been any other producer . . .
If it had been any other costar . . .
He glared at the scripts sitting on the passenger seat, but no matter how much he tried to tamp it down, excitement started swelling in his chest.
Excitement, and some nerves he hadn’t felt in a long time.
The cast of Wolf’s Landing were in a huge fishbowl. Their fandom was, as some of them had joked in interviews, “gently obsessive.” While the fans weren’t terribly discreet about their fantasies—which manifested in everything from fan fiction to graphic art—about the actors and characters alike, the legitimately scary stalker types appeared to be few and far between. But the collective fandom still watched the cast’s every move, flocking to public appearances and blogging endlessly about the briefest mention of an actor in a magazine.
For a lot of the cast members, this was their first major role. He couldn’t blame them for basking in the adoration. In fact, he envied their ability to appear at conventions, chat up fans, and genuinely enjoy being on Q&A panels. By the time Chad Eastwick had become a fixture at things like Comic-Con, Levi had already turned bitter and jaded, desperate to separate himself from that role as much as possible.
He’d never let it show, but it had been agonizing to have fan after wide-eyed fan approaching him and raving about the one character he regretted playing. In fact, he was pretty sure some of them were still furious about the piece of Eastwick fanfic he’d anonymously penned a while back. It was still floating around out there somewhere, along with all the angry—and some alarmingly supportive—comments from the readers who couldn’t believe its author had gleefully killed the guy in such grisly fashion.
What he wouldn’t have given for the opportunity to visit with fans when he was as enthusiastic about a character as they were.
He glanced at the scripts again.
Maybe this was that opportunity.
What the hell am I doing?
Carter’s stomach clenched at the sight of the marquee above the Bluewater Bay Theater Company. Did this qualify as stalking? Oh God. Probably.
He very nearly accelerated past the theater, but slowed down instead. Go in? Go away? Go find something better to do than try to talk to Levi Pritchard?
A car honked, startling him, and he realized he’d slowed to a crawl in front of the theater. He waved an apology at the other driver, and turned into the tiny, mostly empty lot between the theater and the bank next door. He pulled into a space at the end of a row where he hoped no one else would park and issue his Porsche a door ding.
You’re really going to do this?
Oh hell. Why not? What’s the worst that could happen?
He didn’t let himself entertain that thought as he got out of the car and walked over to the theater. He’d driven by this place a million times, but had never really given it a second look until now. It was a cool building, reminding him of some of the movie theaters in LA that were designed to look old and run-down, except here it wasn’t done ironically.
Time had darkened the edges of the marquee, and a relatively recent paint job couldn’t quite cover up the slight warping of the wood. Like most of downtown, the theater was probably Depression era, maybe even a little older, and no one had made much effort to update it. The weathered look gave it some charm, though. Some character that those new-but-old-looking playhouses in Los Angeles lacked.
The door creaked on its hinges. Inside, the dimly lit lobby was deserted apart from a couple of teenagers playing on their phones. They glanced at Carter and recognition flickered in their eyes, but they didn’t say anything.
A lot of the ironically aged theaters in LA had lined their lobby walls with fresh versions of classic movie posters—Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz. Carter suspected this place had had those faded, yellowed posters since the films were first run, showing in this very theater back before it had been converted into a playhouse.
The auditorium door was propped open with a half-rusted metal folding chair, and voices and activity came from the other side. Stomach fluttering, he wondered again and again if this was a good idea.
Before he could talk himself out of it, though, he stepped through the doorway and into the auditorium.
Onstage, three actresses—two middle-aged, one who might’ve been in her twenties—in street clothes stood with dog-eared scripts in their hands amidst an obstacle course of sawhorses and half-constructed sets. A half dozen theater techs worked in the background, painting the set pieces and talking amongst themselves, but didn’t make much noise. Must’ve been nice—nothing was more fun than rehearsing over the whine of a power saw.
There were people everywhere. Actors studying the script and quietly rehearsing their scenes. Techs. Someone standing in the corner and frowning with her cell phone pressed to her ear. Probably a producer.
But where was Levi?
Carter scanned the room. A few people noticed him—they did double takes and subtly murmured behind their hands to get others to turn and look at him. Well, shit. There was no pretending he hadn’t been here. Might as well not chicken out at this point, assuming he could find—
Carter couldn’t see much of Levi, but the man’s voice was unmistakable. He sat low in a third-row seat, invisible except for when he gestured at the actors onstage. His presence, though. God. Carter could feel him. The second he heard Levi’s voice, the hairs on his neck stood up just like when the man had appeared on the set this afternoon.
Like Carter, the actresses onstage were focused on Levi, watching him intently as he gave instructions.
“Marti, you’re getting there, but I still don’t quite believe you. I need the people in the back row”—he gestured over his head, making Carter’s heart skip—“to feel how hard this news is hitting Sadie.”
The middle-aged woman nodded. “Okay.”
“All right,” Levi said. “Start at the top of page four.”
The actors all flipped back a couple of pages, and began going through the lines again. Carter took a seat in the back row. It wasn’t a play he had ever heard of. Might’ve been written by one of the locals, or maybe it was an obscure show the company had found God knew where.
After a few more attempts and more guidance from Levi, the woman finally breathed some life into her lines.
“Good, good!” Levi rose, unaware he was taking Carter’s heart rate with him. “That’s perfect, Marti. Carry that through the whole scene and you’re golden.”
The woman smiled, her cheeks coloring under the overhead spotlights.
Levi took his seat again. “Let’s run through the entire scene one last time, and then we’ll call it a night.”
Carter’s heart went into his throat. This was it. While the actresses did their final run-through for the evening, he tried to find the nerve that had brought him this far in the first place. He’d known when he moved here that Levi lived in the area, and he’d desperately wanted to connect with him ever since, but he’d never known how to cross paths with him until now. Did that make it right? Did that make this not creepy?
But then, if the guys on the set knew Levi was working here, it was probably no big secret. The theater was public, so it wasn’t like Carter was chasing him down at his house, which was likely secluded and tucked far away from town for a reason. As long as Carter took “no” for an answer and didn’t push, then he wasn’t being a stalker.
Whatever helps you sleep at night, man.
The actresses wrapped up their scene, and Levi dismissed the entire crew after a brief pep talk. Carter rose, ready to pull him aside as he came up the aisle, but a paint-and-plaster-splattered tech beat him to the punch, cornering Levi with some paperwork. They slowly made their way toward the door, faces buried in a stack of file folders.
“The lifts haven’t been used in years.” The tech gestured at something on a form in front of Levi as they passed Carter. “If we want to raise and drop the sets the way you’re asking, we’ll have to completely refit it, and it’s going to blow our budget.”
“Fuck,” Levi muttered. “All right, get some estimates and get it done.” He handed the papers back to the tech. “Let’s keep it reasonable, but I’ll pay it out of my pocket if it goes over budget. The theater needs an upgrade anyway.”
Carter didn’t hear the response because they disappeared through the lobby door. He started to follow them, but a pretty brunette suddenly materialized beside him.
“Excuse me, are you . . .” She blushed. “Are you Carter Samuels?”
He smiled. “Yeah, I am.”
“Really? Would you mind—” She gestured with her phone.
He’d gotten pretty damned good at taking selfies with fans, so he took her phone, and they posed for a quick picture. Though he was eager to catch up with Levi—what if he left?—he gave her a chance to make sure the shot turned out, and waited until she’d hurried off to show the other cast members before he slipped out to the lobby.
Fortunately, Levi hadn’t left yet. The tech he’d been talking to earlier was gone, but a small group of actors were listening intently as he spoke, though Carter couldn’t hear what was being said.
While Levi talked with his cast members, Carter hung back and tried not to notice that they’d noticed him. Two other women—one of the actresses he’d watched earlier and another who he guessed was a tech because of the dust on her jeans and T-shirt—asked for a photo and an autograph, and he was as gracious as possible. He even appeared, he hoped, calm and cool—thank God for a few trips down the red carpet and four appearances on Comic-Con panels. Those had taught him well how to hide his nerves.
While he posed and chatted with them, his heart pounded and his tongue threatened to stick to the roof of his mouth. He wasn’t sure if waiting made it better or worse. It gave him time to get used to being in the same room with Levi before he had to actually speak to him, but it also gave him more time to get worked up and nervous.
The women left, and suddenly Carter was alone with his thoughts and those ever-present nerves.
How do you talk to someone who doesn’t know he shaped who you are?
Carter took a few deep breaths. This was definitely a bad idea. He should’ve waited to see if Levi accepted the role on the show. At least then it wouldn’t seem creepy or weird for them to be in the same place at the same time. In the same room. Breathing the same air.
Fuck. What the hell is wrong with me?
Movement caught his eye; in Carter’s moment of distraction, Levi had left his conversation and was disappearing into the night.
Carter hurried after him, catching the door just before it closed. “Hey, Mr. Pritchard.”
Levi stopped dead in his tracks, looked around, and then faced Carter. His eyebrows jumped. “Uh, yes?”
Calling on every bit of confidence he had to banish the fresh onslaught of stage fright, Carter stepped closer and extended his hand. “Carter Samuels. I work on—”
“Yeah, I know who you are.” Levi hesitated, but then shook Carter’s hand. “I watch the show.”
“Oh. You . . .” Carter suddenly couldn’t remember how to shake hands. “You do?”
Levi nodded. He gently freed his hand. “And I also, uh, saw you on the set today.”
You saw me? You noticed me?
“Right. Yeah.” Carter shifted his weight. “Look, I’m not gonna go all fanboy on you, but I’ve, uh, kind of been wanting to meet you since I moved here.”
Levi held Carter’s gaze, but drew back a little, and Carter couldn’t decide if the guy was uncomfortable, embarrassed, amused, creeped out . . .
Carter cleared his throat. “I wanted to pick your brain. One professional to another.” Now that he’d said it, he suddenly felt like a school bus driver asking Mario Andretti for driving tips. One professional to another? Yeah. Right.
“Pick my brain?” Levi’s eyebrows rose. “About?”
“Your technique.” Carter swallowed. “I’ve always admired you. The things you do with a character are just—” So much for not going all fanboy on him. Lowering his gaze, Carter added, “If you’ll let me buy you a drink, I’d love to just ask about how you do it.”
Levi laughed bitterly. “You’d be better off talking to a stuntman. I just do what they do, except with lines.” He started to walk away.
“I don’t mean your action roles.”
Levi stopped midstep. “What?”
Carter chewed his lip. “I mean films like Broken Day and Stir.”
“You’ve . . .” Levi turned around. “You’ve heard of those two?”
“Heard of them?” Carter laughed nervously. “I have them on DVD. My copy of Tin Horse was stolen, but I—”
“Tin Horse?” Levi stared at him, eyes wide. Moving slowly, almost cautiously, he came back toward Carter. “You had a copy of Tin Horse?”
Carter nodded. “I’ve been looking for another one for three years. It’s . . . it’s my favorite of all your films.” It’s one of my favorite films ever.
“Mine too. I haven’t heard someone else mention it in ages.” Levi paused and cleared his throat. “All right, let’s go get a drink. This one’s on me.”
“Really? I can pay, it’s—”
“No, no.” He smiled sheepishly. “I’m the one who was about to storm off like a dick. Consider it an apology in a glass.”
Carter laughed. “Okay. Second round’s on me, though.”
Holy shit, he’s really taking me up on it? I’m having a drink with—
Right. Not going all fanboy.
“So if you’ve heard of those titles, you must be into indie films.”
“My mom calls it a mild obsession.”
Levi chuckled. “Is ‘mild’ an attempt to be gentle?”
“Maybe . . .”
They glanced at each other and laughed. Something electric shot down Carter’s spine. He’d worked around enough actors—even a couple of Oscar winners—that he’d long since gotten over any inclination to get starstruck.
But . . . Levi Pritchard.
Levi Pritchard was walking with him. Talking with him. Sharing a laugh with him. They were going to sit down and have a drink and talk shop and— Okay, so apparently he was still capable of getting starstruck.
There was a tavern three doors down from the theater, and only a few heads turned when Levi and Carter walked in. Most of the locals knew each other, but largely ignored the “foreigners” as he’d heard a few of them refer to the cast and crew.
A hostess showed them to a booth in the corner, and they ordered drinks—a light beer for Carter and a Coke for Levi. Carter wasn’t particularly hungry since his stomach was full of butterflies, but he perused the menu anyway. Or tried to. His gaze kept drifting from the words and pictures to the man on the other side of the table. Jesus fuck. Was he really sitting across from Levi Pritchard? The man who’d inspired him to be an actor in the first place?
He gave up on the menu, and let himself look at Levi. The overhead light picked out details and imposed heavy shadows on his face, including a faint, silvery line spiking upward from his cheek to his temple. Where the scar met his hairline, a few stark white hairs crisscrossed with the darker ones. Carter didn’t remember ever seeing that scar before, and God knew he’d looked closely at a few of Levi’s pictures.
Levi’s eyes flicked up, and Carter quickly shifted his to the menu in front of him. The skin on the back of his neck prickled. He wondered if Levi was scrutinizing him the way he’d been doing, but he was afraid to look.
Their server appeared. “What can I get you gentlemen?”
“Um, let’s see . . .” Carter scanned the menu and realized he hadn’t read a single word of it. “You go ahead. I’m still deciding.”
Levi ordered a plate of nachos, and Carter quickly decided on steak fries. When the waitress left, their eyes met briefly, and they both cleared their throats and looked away.
From the corner of his eye, Carter watched Levi poking at ice cubes in his soda with his straw, and he struggled to kick-start a conversation.
Levi beat him to the punch, though. “By the way, I’m sorry again for almost storming off like that. Isn’t very often I run into people who know me as anything other than Chad Eastwick.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Carter waved a hand. “I can, uh, relate a bit.”
Levi laughed. “Yeah, I suppose you can, can’t you?”
Groaning, Carter rolled his eyes. “I will be Gabriel Hanford until the end of fucking time.”
“Just be glad he has some depth.”
“I am, believe me.”
Levi was quiet for a moment. Then he met Carter’s eyes through his lashes. “So I’m curious. How did you stumble across my old stuff?”
“Buddy of mine saw Broken Day at Sundance. We found a—” His cheeks burned. “Okay, it was a bootlegged copy. But I did buy a legal copy as soon as I found one!”
Levi chuckled. “It’s all right. To be honest, I can’t begrudge a bootleg on one of those films. At least that means someone put in the effort to get their hands on it.”
“It was worth the effort. Great movie.”
Silence threatened to settle in, so Carter asked, “How did you even go from roles like that to the action movies?”
Levi sniffed. “Because someone in a suit thought I looked good with a gun and a few smears of fake blood.”
Oh, he wasn’t wrong there . . .
Carter cocked his head.
Levi rubbed the back of his neck and sighed. “My agent talked me into taking the role in the Eastwick films because he said it would get me on the radars of people who counted.” Rolling his eyes, he added, “Do a few Die Hard roles, and sooner or later, you’ll get cast in The Sixth Sense.”
“So they say,” Carter muttered.
“Right?” Levi watched him. “You have plans for after Wolf’s Landing? I mean, other kinds of roles you want to play?”
“I want to try everything, but I’m worried it’s going to be tortured detectives from here on out. At least for a while.”
“You never know. Your character’s got some depth and versatility.” Levi snorted. “I have yet to see a critic say you’re a stuntman with lines.”
You’ve noticed what critics say about me?
Mouth suddenly dry, Carter reached for his beer. Which was also dry. Fuck. He cleared his throat. “I guess I’m just afraid I’ll be typecast as Gabriel forever.”
“Could be worse.” Levi smirked. “You could be Chad fucking Eastwick for the rest of your life.”
Carter laughed. “That role put you on the map, though, didn’t it?”
“Yeah. And as far as most people are concerned, it’s all I’ve ever done.”
“Hooray for being typecast.” Carter lifted his beer bottle.
Levi raised his glass slightly, then took a drink.
The waitress arrived with their plates. After she’d gone, and they’d both nibbled at their appetizers, Carter quietly asked, “So, is it true you’re considering the role in Wolf’s Landing?”
Levi bristled. Carter almost retracted the question, but Levi sighed and shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe. I know Finn’s bent on convincing me—”
“Oh, fuck, I hate that guy!”
Levi laughed. Like, really laughed. “Do you?”
Carter groaned. “Fucking slimeball.”
“Ah, so you’ve had the pleasure.”
“Mm-hmm. And he’s trying to talk you into signing on for the show?”
“But you’re on the fence?”
“Yep.” Levi tugged a chip free from his nachos. “People like Finn are the biggest reason I left Hollywood. Roles like Max Fuhrman are the biggest reason I’d consider going back.”
“Wow. Tough position to be in.”
“Yeah, you could say that.” Levi laughed, bitterly this time, and then crunched on the chip.
For a long moment, they were both quiet, munching on their food and sipping their drinks. Carter wasn’t sure how to keep himself from blurting out, “I really hope you take the role because I’m dying to work with you,” so he just focused on his steak fries.
“Listen, um . . .” Levi muffled a cough. “I still have a few copies of Tin Horse. If you want to grab coffee or something, I could bring a copy.”
Levi lifted his head, and his smile made Carter’s pulse soar. “For someone who actually appreciates that film? You bet.”
“Awesome.” Carter grinned. “Thank you.”
“Thank you.” Levi held Carter’s gaze for a second, but then broke eye contact again. “Just, you know, let me know when and where. Your schedule is probably crazier than mine.”
Carter took out his phone. “Fortunately, there’s an app for that.”
“Must be nice.”
“It’s a lifesaver.” Carter pulled up the shooting schedule. “Actually, I’m pretty free tomorrow. We’re doing a few reshoots in the morning, but . . .” He scrolled through the entire day’s schedule. “Yeah, I’m free.”
Levi smiled, which buzzed Carter more than the beer had. “Why don’t we meet up for coffee, then? There’s a place over on Sandy Bluff Road.” He pointed over his shoulder. “Annette’s.”
“Sounds great. What time?”
He shrugged. “Whenever. I don’t have a schedule.”
Carter glanced at the app again. “Two thirty?”
“Two thirty. I’ll be there.” Levi’s smile broadened a little. “And I’ll bring Tin Horse.”
“Great. See you then.”
[A] true master storyteller...so well done it rocketed this story to the top of my favorites list! ...I can’t recommend it highly enough, especially to those m/m readers who enjoy a contemporary romance with believable characters who come to life within the pages of a book.
A great story about being true to yourself and being rewarded for living your life without boundaries. A must read for hopeless romantics!
L.A. Witt is an amazing writer, and I'm just starting to notice that everything I randomly pick up by this author has been fantastic.... I finished this book the same night I started. I could not put it down. Highly recommended read.
...the storyline was honestly one of the best I've read.
An outstanding portrayal of how hard many people try to suppress themselves in order to please others and the journey they go on to come to terms with themselves.