New York City
The morning after I arrived home from a whirlwind trip to the Cannes Film Festival—where my first movie, Lion, won the Palme d’Or, and where I somehow had won the coveted un certain regard prize for best actress—my agent, Harper Carmichael, was on the phone first thing.
“Sienna, darling, it’s Harper,” she said in that breezy voice of her. “Are you awake? It’s seven o’clock, so I need you to be awake, because everything is blowing up right now.”
“I’m awake now,” I said as I sat up in bed and shielded my eyes from the sun that was pouring through the window in front of me. Last night, I’d arrived in New York just before midnight. By the time I got to my apartment, taken a shower and crawled into bed, it was past two in the morning. Apparently, I’d forgotten to close the curtains.
“What’s blowing up?” I said as I got out of bed and shut the curtains. “Has there been another terrorist attack?”
“You really are out of it, aren’t you?”
“I’ve only had a few hours of sleep.”
“Cry me a river,” she said. “Because what’s blowing up is you. After your win at Cannes, things are finally happening. People are talking. My phones are on fire. And I probably should get another email account dedicated solely for you. Because right now, everyone is hungry to get a piece of Sienna Jones. And because of that alone, you need to be in my office by ten, because we have plenty to discuss. And later in the day, you’re scheduled for an audition.”
“An audition?” I said. “With whom?”
“Naturally I know, but since I want to see your face when I tell you, I’m keeping my mouth shut. But I will tell you this—it’s as big as it gets. It’s with a major A-list actor—and I mean huge. As in action-star huge. If they like your audition and you snag the part, we’re talking total career game-changer here, so I need you to show up looking your best. Full hair and makeup. Wear a summery dress that makes you feel pretty—and also a little bit sexy.”
“Harper, I’m not sure that I can do pretty or sexy right now. Cannes was intense. I barely got any sleep. Those parties you told me to go to were nonstop. So as for giving you pretty, let alone sexy, let me just say this—I’m pretty sure that right now the only thing I can pull off is a hot, sexy mess.”
“Spare me the lies,” she said. “Those parties—paired with your charm and your superb performance in Lion—are the very reasons you won that award, Sienna. So I need you to do this not for me, but for you. Have your coffee. Get into your zone. And then take a long, hot shower before you pull yourself together and come here looking like the star that you are.”
“Lion isn’t even out in theaters yet,” I said. “I’m no star, Harper.”
“You’re about to become one, sugar, because after your win, you’re also about to do a shitload of interviews. Vogue wants you to be the face of their September issue.”
“You heard me.”
“Are you serious? Their September issue? But that’s—”
“—their biggest and most important issue of the year,” she said. “And then there’s the Times, which wants to do a sit-down with you STAT. Variety and The Hollywood Reporter are eager to tell your story, which is critical because they’re the trads. And the list goes on. When it comes to interviews alone, I’ve got you booked for the next two weeks. So I need you to listen to me very closely, because this is something I’ve seen happen only a few times before, and I know what it can do to a career.”
“All right,” I said, feeling as if a part of my body was separating from itself. “I’ll do it whatever I need to do. I’ll pull it together and be in your office by ten.”
“Good to hear,” she said. “Because lightning can’t strike if you aren’t standing out in the rain, my dear girl. And for you? Right now it’s pouring, and my job is to make sure that you get soaked so lightning can strike time and again. I’ll see you at ten. And don’t disappoint me. Come here looking like the knockout I know you can be.”
* * *
“Well,” Harper said when I entered her office at ten. “Look at you. Not such a hot mess after all.”
“Consider it the miracle of a hot shower and two strong cups of coffee,” I said after I gave her a hug. She hugged me back, said that it was good to see me in ways that a mother would, and then she took a step back to assess me with a glance.
“More like the miracle of youth and the luck of having good genes.”
At fifty-four, Harper Carmichael was a force to be reckoned with. She was a self-proclaimed lipstick lesbian who was part of an elite few who led the careers of some of the world’s finest talent.
For her age, she also was smoking hot.
She was the complete package—a beautiful, well-preserved blonde who was smart, quick, driven, connected and successful. She was as tall as I was, which allowed her access to the kind of fashion that wasn’t accessible to most women. Today, she was wearing a white Gucci embroidered cluny lace dress with a jeweled back bow that showed off her toned legs. On her feet were a pair of Jimmy Choo fearne patent crisscross wedge sandals in black, which I knew for a fact had set her back a cool grand. She wore her hair raked away from her face in ways that I thought accentuated her fine bone structure.
We were in her expansive office on Lexington Avenue in the Chrysler Building, where the all-powerful and all-important Creative Artists Agency held their offices on three separate floors. Anyone who was anyone in Hollywood either was signed now by CAA, or had once been signed by them. Among their current clients were Meryl Streep, Will Smith, Sarah Jessica Parker, George Clooney, Lupita Nyong’o, Julia Roberts, Johnny Depp, Nicole Kidman, and beyond.
When I was nineteen and first came to the city from Dubuque, Iowa, Harper was the only person out of the dozens of agents I’d met with who had seen my potential. When we’d first met, I’d told her that my dream was to work as an actress on Broadway—or if I had to, maybe even in film or in television. Broadway was my first choice, which is why I’d come to New York, but really, I just wanted to act. When Harper asked me pointedly how much money I had in the bank, she had other ideas.
“You’ll model,” she’d said. “Because if you’re going to live in this city, you also need to make quick money just so you can eat and pay the rent. You’re a beautiful girl, Sienna, and modeling will do that for you. On the side, you’ll take acting classes. And one day? If we’re lucky? Things might come together for you, because here’s what I suggest—we get your face out there, you become known as a professional who is easy to work with, and when I feel the moment is right, I’ll work my contacts and get you auditions. But before we go any further, I need you to understand a few things first.”
“What things?” I’d asked.
“Over the years, too many people sitting where you are now have come to me with the perception that stardom comes quickly, swiftly, easily. But the harsh reality for most is that it takes years of hard work, talent, and a hell of a lot of luck to make it in this business. If you want to succeed as an actress, I need you to know that we’re likely looking at a marathon here, not a sprint. If by chance you do happen to make it? You also need to know that it won’t be without a major fight and much sacrifice on your part, because this business is hard, Sienna. It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s fraught with frustration and crushing disappointments. Before I agree to sign you, I need to believe that you’re up for that kind of a challenge, because my time is valuable, and I don’t take a chance on just anyone. If I don’t believe that you truly are committed to this—and can handle this—know that I’ll wish you the best going forward.”
“Ms. Carmichael, I came here to make it,” I’d said with unexpected passion in my voice. “I came here to win. I’ve wanted this ever since I was a little girl. I grew up on a working farm, and believe me when I say that I know what hard work looks like. If I can shovel steaming piles of cow and chicken shit at four o’clock in the morning, as I did for years before I had to head off for school, then I can take whatever bullshit this business has to throw at me. This is my dream. If it turns out to be a marathon, let it be a marathon.”
She’d raised an eyebrow at me when I’d said that.
“Do you have a good support system around you?” she’d asked me. “People you can rely on who will help you through the difficult times?”
“I have an excellent relationship with my parents,” I said. “And several close girlfriends I always can count on.”
“How well do you handle disappointment?”
“Generally, I take the hit and move on.”
“Even when it gets personal?”
“I’m no robot,” I said. “I’m not going to lie to you and say that I don’t have feelings. What I can say truthfully is that I’m a fighter. And I’m especially ready to fight for this.”
“Well,” she’d said after a moment. “That’s good to hear. I’m also glad to hear about your relationships, particularly the one you share with your parents, because going into this, you’re going to need them, Sienna.”
And then she’d signed me, and my God, had she been right. This journey of ours had been one mother of a marathon.
But we’d made it.
After eight years of modeling and taking bit parts in movies and television shows, last year, I’d finally landed the lead role in Lion. As difficult and as challenging as everything that had led up to that moment had been, in hindsight, all of the hard work had been worth it, despite the fact that during most of those years, I’d barely made enough money to support myself in this ridiculously expensive city.
But here Harper and I were now—finally on the cusp of realizing all that we’d worked hard for. And since she was nothing if not a silo of energy when things were going well, it was just that silo that faced me now.
“Your dress,” she said as she stood back to appraise me. “Love it. Who are you wearing?”
I was wearing a bright yellow Lela Rose floral fil coupe dress with a jewel neckline, half sleeves, and an A-line silhouette, which complimented my height. At five-foot-eleven, I was a tall, slender, stacked, and leggy brunette, which was pretty much coveted in the modeling world. After all these years, my wardrobe outbanked my personal bank account due to the sheer kindness of the designers I’d worked for. Many of whom—like Lela—had been nice enough to gift me something I’d worn of theirs on the runway.
“It’s a Lela Rose,” I said to her. “Since I have no idea whom I’m auditioning for, I hope I chose well.”
“You did. Let’s sit down, have a cup of coffee, and talk. Because after Cannes? I don’t know even where to begin when it comes to you.”
“Can’t we begin with this mysterious audition?”
“That will come in time. First, you and I need to decide who has access to you, and who doesn’t. Because not everyone should, Sienna. We need to choose carefully. Overexposure is a career killer. When it comes to you, we need to leave the masses with a sense of mystery that turns into a hunger, so that’s what we’ll aim for.”
She turned away from me and walked toward her glass desk—on which was an iMac, two telephones, her own cell phone, a pad of paper and a pen. “Sit,” she said, pointing to the chair opposite her desk. “I’ll call Julia and ask her to bring us coffee.”
Julia Jacobs was Harper’s personal assistant and also my best friend—just hearing her name made me smile. When she arrived with two cups of coffee and shot me a discreet wink before she left, Harper and I got down to it.
“Obviously, you’re doing Vogue’s September issue,” she said. “I’ve already told them to count you in. That’s a done deal.”
“I still can’t believe it,” I said. “I mean, how exciting is that?”
“Pretty fucking exciting,” she admitted. “And congratulations, Sienna. They called me right after all of your buzz at Cannes. It wasn’t the other way around, and since we’re talking Anna Wintour here—and given the influence she and that magazine wield—this opportunity is indeed huge. Now, since the trads target the industry, we need you in Variety and the Reporter. I want to position you as the next ‘It girl’ so that all of the studio execs come to think of you that way—and thus start sending you scripts. I’ll schedule interviews and photo shoots with both of them, and I’ll also ask if they will give us the covers for each—yes?”
We strategized about publicity for another thirty minutes before Harper leaned back in her chair, kicked her heels up on her desk, and narrowed her eyes at me. “Now, for the good stuff,” she said.
“I assume this is about the audition?”
“It is. But before we go there, I have to ask you a serious question. Because what’s been proposed to me by a colleague here at CAA is something that will radically change your life, likely by the end of this week if you get the job.”
“How will landing one job change my life by the end of the week?” I asked.
“Let’s consider this a unique audition,” she said. “Sorry to be vague, but I have no choice. When I was approached about this opportunity, I was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement before I was told anything. And before you know what this is about, you’ll be asked to do the same.”
“That sounds kind of ominous…”
“Not in this business, it isn’t. I’ve signed so many NDAs over the years, you can’t even imagine. Frankly, they aren’t a big deal so long as you take them seriously. Because if you don’t and if you get caught breaking the NDA, I can guarantee you that you’ll be sued. And worse, when it comes to this business, your career likely will be over.”
“Already, I’m not liking this,” I said. “I’ve worked my ass off to get to where I am today. You know that, Harper.”
“I do know that, and trust me, I’ve taken several days to consider whether to even bring this to your attention. But in the end, I’ve come to the conclusion that this will be a major win for you—professionally and financially. Because if they do agree to go with you, you’ll be paid handsomely.”
Her eyes sparkled at me.
“Ten million dollars for eight months’ work,” she said.
A chill ran down my spine.
“Harper, don’t play me,” I said. “You know that I don’t have much money. You know that kind of money would change my life.”
“I’m not playing you, Sienna, and yes, ten million dollars would change your life. And I want that for you. What you also should know is that their opening offer to me was two million dollars. I got them to come up to ten, because there’s a goddamned good reason you should be paid that much when it comes to this job.”
“What job? Harper, you have to give me something—come on.”
“Here’s what I can tell you,” she said after she glanced at her watch. “In ten minutes, we’ll leave for a meeting with the action star I told you about earlier and also his miserable bitch of an agent. What you need to know is that if they want you for the job—and if you take it—your private life as you know it now will officially be dead.”
“What does that mean?”
“That you can send it your condolences. And roses—white, never red.”
“Would you please just be straight with me?”
She swung her heels off her desk and leaned toward me. “You’ll be targeted by the paparazzi. They will hunt you. They will stalk you. And they will place you firmly in the public eye. What concerns me is that you haven’t experienced that kind of fame yet, which can be daunting, sometimes crippling. But after all of these years together, I know you, Sienna. And I believe that you are tough enough to see this through to the end. As we tend to building your career, I see no quicker or more powerful way of doing so than what’s about to be proposed to you. Because if you’re chosen for the job and if you agree to do what’s asked of you? You will indeed become Hollywood’s new ‘It girl’. You just need to understand that in the process, you will be forfeiting your privacy and that your life will be lived out in the tabloids for eight straight months, and likely a month or so after that, when all is said and done.”
“After what is said and done?”
“Are you willing to sign that NDA?” she asked me.
“To find out what this is about? Of course I am.”
Satisfied, she stood. “Then let’s go,” she said as she smoothed down her dress and came around the table to offer her hands to me. When she did, I took them and stood in front of her. “Signing the NDA doesn’t commit you to anything more than silence. If they sense the kind of chemistry they’re looking for and they do want to sign you, you still can walk away from this if it doesn’t feel like a good fit for you.”
“So, this is about chemistry?”
“Oh, my love, it’s all about chemistry,” Harper said. “This whole thing is about chemistry.”
“Now I’m really intrigued.”
“Intrigued,” Harper said almost whimsically as we moved toward the door. “Actually, your mind is about to be blown. So do you best to keep this in mind before we go into that meeting. Be the excellent actress you’ve become, maintain a poker face throughout all of it, and don’t you dare let any surprise or emotion show until you and I are alone again. Got it?”
“Got it,” I said.
“Good,” she said. “Now follow me…”
“So,” Harper said as we took the stairs from the twentieth floor down to the nineteenth. “Here’s something else I probably should tell you, even though a part of me wants to die inside that I even have to.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“The actor in question happens to be repped by a former lover of mine—Mimi Kennedy.”
“Mimi Kennedy?” I said. “You two were a couple? We’ve been together for eight years, and you’re just telling me this now? My God—she’s almost as big as you are.”
“Almost, but not quite, so let’s not overdo it. Because when it comes to that one, I always will have the edge over her.”
“How long were you together?”
“I don’t know—four years? Something like that.”
“That’s a long time.”
“Trust me, toward the end—it felt like a lifetime. And then another lifetime. And then another on top of that.”
“How long since you broke it off?”
“Nine years ago, which likely is why I never mentioned it to you. Let the past be the past, I say.”
“Are you on bad terms?”
Harper shrugged. “At this point? Not really. For the most part, she and I try our best to keep things professional between us. But since we’re both fiercely competitive—which is what drove us apart in the end—you might catch us tossing a few zingers at one another, which is par for the course when it comes to us. Sometimes it can get personal, but for the most part, we don’t allow it to go too far. That said, if jabs are taken, try your best to overlook them.”
“Or dodge them.”
“Got that, too.”
When we stepped out onto the nineteenth floor, we walked down a busy hallway thrumming with a host of slim, sleek, well-heeled people walking this way and that. At the end of the hall, we hooked a right and Harper greeted a pretty young woman seated behind a large desk.
“Andrea,” she said. “So good to see you. Please meet Sienna Jones.”
“It’s a pleasure,” Andrea said as she looked up at me as we shook hands. “I loved you in Lion. You were amazing in it, Sienna. And huge congrats on your win at Cannes. That must have been so exciting for you.”
“Thank you,” I said, a bit taken aback by her enthusiasm but grateful for it just the same. “It was unexpected, that’s for sure.”
“Is Mimi ready for us?” Harper asked in a bored tone.
“She is,” Andrea said. “Let me give her a quick call to let her know that you and Sienna are here.”
“Mimi is big on announcements,” Harper said to me with a roll of her eyes. “It’s all about showbiz when it comes to that one.”
After Andrea made the call, she stood, showed us to a tall mahogany-paneled door, and swung it open. Harper went in first, I followed.
“Mimi,” Harper said as the door clicked shut behind us. “Good to see you. Trim and terrific as always.”
“As are you, Harper—always so on point,” said the raven-haired beauty who stood before us. Mimi Kennedy was wearing a black power suit, her straight hair fell just to her shoulders in a brisk cut, and she wore a bold red lip. I couldn’t tell if she was younger or older than Harper, but after a swift assessment, I had a feeling that they were close to the same age.
And that her presence was just as formidable as Harper’s.
“Sienna has agreed to the terms,” Harper said. “She’ll sign the NDA.”
“Smart girl,” Mimi said as she came over to shake my hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Sienna.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Mimi,” I said.
“Well done on your big win,” she said to me. “I loved your performance in Lion. It was as perfect as it was profound. Don’t be surprised if you see an Academy Award nomination coming your way.”
“Thank you,” I said. “But that’s probably a long shot.”
“I disagree,” a deep male’s voice said to my left. “You were brilliant in that movie, Sienna. Both you and it won for a reason. I think Mimi might be right. You’re going to get a nomination. We think you’re about to become the next big thing.”
I turned to see who it was—and for the life of me, I couldn’t believe who it was. It was fucking Jackson Cruise, and he was seated in the middle of the room on one of two sofas that faced each other. When he blistered me with that famous, sexy smile of his—the one with the irresistible dimples dented deep into his cheeks, which had won over women’s hearts all around the globe for years, including mine—I felt as if my body was being lifted off the ground. This meeting had to do with him? Seriously? I was here to audition for one of the hottest-looking and most successful men in the business?
God, help me.
Keep your cool. Be polite. Wear your poker face.
“Thank you, Mr. Cruise,” I said.
“It’s Jackson,” he said as he stood. “And it’s nice to meet you, Sienna. You’re even more beautiful in person.”
And you seriously are better looking in person, I thought as he strode toward me. He was wearing tight, faded jeans; a white T-shirt that did nothing to conceal his muscular frame; and his dark hair gleamed in the office’s natural lighting. When he held out his hand to me, I noted the expensive-looking silver watch on his wrist, and then I felt the smoothness of his skin as we shook hands.
“I’m such a fan,” I said to him. “It’s an honor to meet you.”
“Likewise,” he said. “Consider me a new fan of yours, Sienna.”
How can this be happening? Am I really here right now? How can it possibly be that I’m about to have an audition with Jackson Cruise? And why all the secrecy? Why the NDA? What’s about to transpire here?
“Sienna, Jackson and I are thrilled that you agreed to come today,” Mimi said. “And we’re also grateful that you’ve agreed to sign the NDA so we can move forward with the real reason you’re here today. I’m afraid we put Harper in a difficult place, because I know that she was unable to answer the many questions you likely had for her before arriving here. That must have been frustrating for each of you, and I want to personally apologize for any duress it might have caused you.”
“Thanks a million, Mimi,” Harper said as she looked at her nails. “I appreciate the sentiment.”
“I’m sure you do, Harper.”
In response, Harper simply blew her a kiss.
“Sienna,” Mimi said. “If you’d come over to my desk and sign the NDA, we can begin.”
When I walked over to her desk and saw how thick the document was, I looked blankly at Harper. “This might take a while for me to read,” I said.
“Read?” Mimi said. “I just need your signature, dear.”
“She’s new to this, Mimi. Allow me to walk her through it.”
“It’s all above board,” Harper said to me as she flipped through the document, quickly skimming each page. “This is the standard NDA document CAA uses, and it’s exactly what I signed to bring us all together today. All you need to know, Sienna, is that after you sign it, everything that’s about to be said in this room stays in this room. And whether or not you land the job in question, you must never speak about what is said here today. If you do, you likely will be sued. Do you agree to those terms?”
“I do,” I said.
“Then sign.” She looked up at Mimi and snapped her fingers at her. “A pen would help, Mimi.”
“Right, right,” Mimi said as she reached for one next to her MacBook Pro. “Here, Sienna. Use this.” She handed me a pen, took the document from Harper, and then pointed out the three separate places where I needed to sign and date, which I did.
“This is now officially binding,” Mimi said to me. “Congratulations. Now, the four of us can talk freely. Quel soulagement!”
I trusted Harper to my core, but frankly, all of this sounded kind of sketchy to me. Why did I need to sign that document just to speak freely in front of Jackson Cruise?
“We can,” I said to her with a smile I didn’t feel.
“Good,” she said. “And thank goodness! Because this is officially behind us now, isn’t it, Jackson?”
“It is,” he said quietly.
She motioned to Harper.
“How about if Sienna and Jackson sit on that couch, and you and I will sit opposite them on that couch?”
“Works for me, Mimi. This is your show to run, so—you know—run it.”
After we took our seats, Mimi clocked me with a glance.
“Sienna, do you follow the gossip rags?” she asked.
“Sometimes,” I said as I looked over at Jackson, who appeared weirdly uncomfortable to me right now. “But not for the past couple of weeks. It was only late last night that I returned home from Cannes. It was so crazy there, I’ve been out of the loop.”
“Then you haven’t read or heard anything unusual about Jackson recently?”
“No,” I said. “Should I have?” I turned to him. “I’m sorry if I missed something big. It’s probably about a major deal you’ve signed, right? I should have been paying closer attention.”
“Yeah,” he said wistfully. “If only if it were about that, Sienna.”
Confused, I looked between Harper and Mimi. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“This is rather delicate,” Mimi said.
And then a frustrated Jackson Cruise just looked at me. “Actually, it isn’t,” he said. “I’m gay, Sienna. Last week, The National Enquirer photographed me kissing another man, it’s all over the news, and my career is about to go into the shitter because of it.”
“Not if I can help it,” Mimi said. “Because you and I have a plan.”
Jackson Cruise is gay? I thought incredulously. Seriously? I’ve been surrounding by gay male models, actors, and my own gay friends for years. Everyone knows that my gaydar is legendary, and yet I somehow missed this? How is that even possible? Never once would I have pegged Jackson Cruise as a gay man. I’ve lusted after him for years, for God’s sake, as has every other straight woman in the world.
When I looked at him, I saw vulnerability in his eyes—and I felt for him. With this out in the media right now, I could only imagine the hell he was going through, particularly since the public and his fans viewed him as this big, butch action star. In my opinion, he still was, but stereotypes could affect that perception, which also could affect his career.
And so without thinking, I instinctively reached over and grasped his hand. At first, he seemed surprised by the act, but when our eyes met, I knew that he only saw my compassion for the situation he was in—and not judgment—which likely is why I felt him relax when he squeezed my hand back.
“I’m sorry,” I said to him.
“It’s my fault,” he said. “Even though I was getting on my own private plane when the photographs were taken, I should have known better than to kiss this guy I’ve been seeing over the past several months when he greeted me on the tarmac. I should have waited until we were inside the plane, where it would have been private. But I was so caught up in the moment, it felt right to kiss him there. And when I did? I fucked up big time, because the photographs don’t lie, and I’m about to lose everything I’ve built for myself over the past thirteen years. The media is trying to tear me down as we speak.”
“But that doesn’t mean that they’ll win,” Mimi said. “The photographs that were taken of you were shot at such a great distance, all of them are blurry. In every one of them, it could be interpreted that you were simply kissing your friend on the cheek before you stepped onto that plane.”
At that, Jackson groaned.
“Anyway, all of this is why Sienna is here,” Mimi said quickly. “We’ve talked about this, Jackson. You aren’t the first actor to face this kind of crisis. It can be managed. We’ve discussed how the system handled Rock Hudson back in the day—and how well it worked not only for him, but also for the likes of James Dean, Tab Hunter, and Montgomery Clift. And just look at the rumors that have long beleaguered Hugh Jackman and John Travolta, for God’s sake. Travolta’s career might be on life support because he just keeps getting stranger and creepier, but Jackman’s career is thriving, despite the speculation surrounding his sexuality.”
“Hugh Jackman doesn’t have a photograph of him kissing the man who pilots his private plane, Mimi,” Jackson said. “He just has an older wife and sings and dances in Broadway shows, which people can’t wrap their heads around since he’s best known for playing Wolverine.”
Slowly, it was dawning on me where this was leading…
“All right,” Mimi said tentatively. “Would you prefer if we just cut to the chase?”
“I would. Because I don’t want to waste Sienna’s time any more than I want to waste my own.”
“That’s fine,” Mimi said. “And I agree. Now look—Harper and I just saw how Sienna reached out to you. We witnessed your connection, especially when you responded to her touch. It was real, and it was honest. Do you think we even need to go through with an audition at this point?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “In fact, I don’t know anything right now.” He looked over at me when he said that, and I could literally feel his embarrassment, which saddened me. Nobody should feel ashamed or be shamed for their sexuality, but Jackson Cruise clearly felt differently. He was suffering because of this. “Sienna, when you took my hand a moment ago, you were very kind. Whatever happens between us going forward, I want to thank you for that, because it meant something.”
“Signed documents or not, your secret always will be safe with me, Jackson,” I said. “I’m sorry that you’re going through this. I don’t mean this to sound trite given the world in which we live, but you should be allowed to live your life freely, and not one that suits a mold meant to be sold to the masses. It infuriates me that you aren’t able to do that, even though I understand why you don’t want to risk the consequences. The idea that your sexuality is even an issue in this day and age infuriated me. I’m angry for you. So, tell me, Jackson—what do you need from me today? There’s a reason I’m here.”
Before he could speak, Mimi leaned toward me.
“What we need is a distraction,” she said. “And we’d like it if you were that distraction.”
“Go on,” I said.
“You’re a gorgeous woman, Sienna. You’re fresh on the scene, people are starting to talk about you, and then there’s Jackson himself. Even before this happened to him, he mentioned to me in passing that he loved your performance in Lion. And then just a day or two later, when the crisis hit and we were trying to figure a way out of the speculation surrounding his sexuality, I reminded you to him. And what I suggested to him has been done countless times before in Hollywood.”
“And what’s that?” I asked, already knowing what it was, but nevertheless wanting to hear Mimi say it anyway.
“What we’re proposing is that you enter into a fake relationship with Jackson as of today. If we play this right—if we really show off your budding romance in front of the world’s eyes—we think eight months will be enough time for this nightmare to be behind us before you two publicly decide to go your separate ways. But before that happens, you must know this—you will be seen everywhere together. At popular restaurants, movie premieres, parties, and just out and about on the streets of New York, especially since Jackson is about to start shooting his next movie here in the city tomorrow. What we’re seeking are plenty of PDAs.”
“What’s a PDA?” I asked.
“A public display of affection,” Harper said.
“Exactly,” Mimi agreed. “We need the paps to see you two holding hands, kissing each other, and looking into each others eyes as you fall in love with one another. At first, people will speculate because people, in general, are risible human being ripe for the sewer. But given your combined acting chops and because this agreement means that you will be exclusive to each other for the duration of the contract, I believe your relationship will look real and that it will eventually shift the attention away from those unfortunate photos and Jackson’s true sexuality. After eight months, each of you will be free to see whoever you want again.”
Since I hadn’t been with anyone since I ended my relationship with Eric two years ago, when that motherfucker cheated on me, eight months of forced celibacy really didn’t bother me—if only because of the deep scars Eric had left in his wake. I didn’t want to be involved with anyone right now, so eight months of being in a fake relationship meant nothing to me, especially since I planned on seeing nobody anytime soon.
“Sienna,” Harper said. “What’s in this for you is exposure. Being romantically linked with Jackson Cruise will only funnel more interest in you. As I said earlier in my office, the next stage of your career is all about exposure. The interviews I’ll line up for you will help, as will snagging the cover of Vogue’s September issue. But if you do agree to do this, which I think you should, it will only amplify everything. It will do amazing things for your career.”
“And mine,” Jackson said. “Because I’m not going to pretend that it won’t.”
“True enough,” Harper said. “So, if you two agree to this, Mimi and I also are in agreement. Even though you’ll be faking it, we know you can pull this off, because each of you is an excellent actor. What all of this comes down to is simple—Sienna, do you want to do this? Because if you don’t, Mimi and Jackson can find somebody else and we can all part friends. Beyond the NDA you signed, there is no pressure on you. After all, you have your own career to tend to. And all of us in this room respect that.”
“We do,” Mimi said.
“I sure as hell do,” Jackson said. “Because I remember what it was like back when people were first talking about me like they’re not talking about Sienna. It was thrilling. Thirteen years ago, I was the new guy on the block. I was just eighteen at the time, and it was a shitload of fun. I had the time of my life back then, and as you are being discovered, Sienna, I don’t want to rob you of experiencing what I experienced. Because that wouldn’t be right. I only want you to do this if you feel it’s something you want to do. And I mean that.”
He wasn’t acting for me now. As I looked him in the eyes, I knew in my gut that he wasn’t. Because no one was that good of an actor. Jackson Cruise really did care how this might affect me.
And so I made my decision.
“I’m in,” I said to him. “You can start wooing me now.”
“Kiss her, Jackson,” Mimi said in earnest. “Let Harper and I judge for ourselves if you two can make us believe before you sell your lust and love for one another to the world.”
“Jesus,” he said. “Mimi, sometimes I think you missed your calling as an actress.”
“I’ve always been theatrical,” she said. “But you love that about me.”
Harper coughed when she said that, and then sharply cleared her throat.
“You can kiss me,” I said to Jackson. “In fact, I wouldn’t mind if you did. You know, if only to have one of my fantasies met.”
“Your fantasies?” he said. “Doesn’t the fact that I’m gay crush that?”
“Not when you look the way you do, Jackson.”
“Lean in for the kill,” Mimi demanded.
“Are you sure?” he asked me.
“Just think of me as one of the hottest men you’ve ever seen,” I said. “Kiss me as you’d kiss him.”
When I said that, Jackson Cruise gave me a mischievous smile, he took me into his arms, and then he planted one mother of a kiss on my lips. He kissed me in ways that were so heated, sexy and yet somehow tender, I felt my stomach do a little flip flop. I’d just been kissed by one of my idols, and I couldn’t give a damn if he was gay.
“That was hot,” I said when our lips parted.
“Really?” he said. “I don’t get it.”
“Let’s just put it all down to technique,” I said. “Because you’ve got that in spades.”
He laughed when I said that, and in that moment, I could sense tension lifting off him, which made me happy. I hated that he was being smeared for his sexuality. If I could make a difference, I would.
“Look, Jackson,” I said. “I only hope that whatever man you kissed before you boarded that plane of yours experienced what I just experienced. Because that was something. You seriously know how to kiss.”
“So this is done?” Mimi said. “Jackson, do you want to work with Sienna?”
“Sienna, you’re certain about this?” Harper asked.
“I am,” I said. “So long as you’re sure.”
“I am,” she said. “I think this will be a good move for you.”
Harper had never lied to me, so that was that. “Then, let’s do it,” I said. “I’m officially here with my new beau.” I looked at Jackson when I said that, and I addressed him seriously. “I’ll have your back,” I said to him. “Let’s do our best to turn this around for you, OK? Let’s romance the hell out of each other before we break things off. What do you say?”
“That I’m grateful. And that you’re an amazingly kind woman, Sienna. Not many would be at my side at this point in my career. Don’t think I don’t know that, especially since you’re on the cusp of taking Hollywood and the world by the balls.”
“We’ll fix it,” I said. “Because after that kiss? I’m fairly certain that we could do a few more of those to appease the paparazzi—and likely to get people talking.” I looked at Harper and Mimi. “Do I need to sign anything else so we can get this going?”
“You do,” Harper said as she and Mimi stood. “Mimi has the contract detailing the terms of your fake eight-month affair.”
“I do,” Mimi said. “It’s on my desk—let’s go to it now.”
While Jackson remained on the sofa, Harper, Mimi, and I walked over to Mimi’s desk, where she removed the contract from a folder next to her computer.
“Harper, you’ve read this?” I asked.
“About a dozen times.”
I hated to ask about how payment would be handled in front of Jackson and Mimi, but since money was so tight for me, I needed to know the answer. “What are the terms of payment?” I asked. “Am I just looking at the full amount at the end of the eight months?”
“No,” she said. “Since you won’t be able to work elsewhere for the duration of the contract, today you’ll receive $250,000 upon signing, and then Jackson will pay you the rest of the remaining proceeds in one lump sum at the end of the contract, provided you’ve successfully completed it.”
“What does ‘successfully completed it’ mean?” I asked.
“Well, my goodness,” Mimi said. “She certainly is thorough, isn’t she?”
“As she should be,” Harper said, and then she looked at me. “All you need to do is to show up for your daily public outings with Jackson, behave as if you two are falling in love, and remain exclusive to him. If for any reason you get sick, the contract allows for ten sick days, with room for more if for some reason you become seriously ill.”
She held up a finger of warning to me.
“But if you make the mistake of breaking exclusivity and get caught seeing another man on the sly—which would break the illusion we’re trying to create here—then you will need to pay back your signing bonus, forfeit the ten million dollars that’s being offered to you, the contract will end, and you will be open to a lawsuit should Jackson decide to pursue one with you.”
Since I had zero plans of seeing anyone, I was perfectly fine with all of that. But I still had to wonder…
“What are Jackson’s terms?” I asked.
“Stricter than yours,” Harper said. “If for any reason he breaches the contract by being caught with another man, for instance, the contract ends, and you will receive the full ten million, which will be paid to you at once.”
“That seems more than fair,” I said.
“Any other questions?”
“No,” I said. “And I promise that I’ll meet my obligations.”
“I know you will,” Harper said in a soft voice to me. “When haven’t you?”
“So, am I good to go?”
She motioned toward the contract on Mimi’s desk. “If you want this, the contract is there. If you don’t, we simply part ways as friends.”
I signed the contract. And when I did, I felt proud of myself, because for me, it was more than just about the money and how being linked to Jackson might potentially lift my career. Now that I knew I was being treated fairly by Mimi and Jackson, what also mattered to me was how Jackson was being treated by the press. I was a fierce advocate of the LGBTQ community, and that man sitting over there on that sofa? The one who hadn’t challenged any of the questions I had about the contract? He needed me right now, and I planned to come through for him.
“So, what happens next,” I asked. “Harper is scheduling a lot of interviews for me. Is this going to get in the way of them?”
“Not at all,” Harper said. “As Mimi noted, Jackson starts shooting his new movie, Annihilate Them, tomorrow in Manhattan. While he’s busy at work, I’ll schedule your interviews and photo shoots in ways that won’t compete with his work. It’ll be seamless. I’ll make sure of it, because there are two careers that need to be propelled forward here—not just one.”
“They’re like our mothers,” I said to Jackson as he came over and wrapped an appreciative arm around my shoulders. As tall as I was, he literally towered over me, which was rare for me. Not many men were as tall as Jackson Cruise, at least in my experience.
“They are,” he said. “We’re lucky to have them on our side, Sienna.”
“To say the least.”
“Thanks for doing this,” he said. “Thanks for helping me out. It means a lot to me. I need you to know that, Sienna.”
“Just sweep me properly off my feet, OK? I want the world to think that I’m the luckiest girl in the world.”
I looked over at Harper. “If we’re starting this today, what’s the plan?”
“Per se is the plan,” Mimi said. “Each of you will be dining there later tonight. It’s a hot spot for celebs. Now that you’ve signed the contract, Sienna, I can get to work on leaking the news to the paps that Jackson will be seen there with you tonight.”
“Sienna,” Harper said. “I need you to brace yourself for that, because every bit of this is designed to make front-page news. As early as later tonight, your dinner with Jackson will be all over the Web, Facebook, and Twitter. In the wake of Jackson’s crisis, I need to be prepared for that.”
“You’ve given me plenty of warning,” I said. “Because now that I know what this audition was really about, I get it. The attention on Jackson and me is about to get hot—and fast. That’s going to be new for me, but I promise everyone in this room that I’ll do my very best to adjust to it as quickly as as I can.” I looked up at Jackson. “So, what do you say, Jackson? Do you think I have what it takes to catch your eye?”
“So long as I think of you as a hot cowboy,” he joked.
“Then that’s what I am,” I said with a laugh. “A hot cowboy with a bulge big enough to shut down a bus stop. What time is dinner?”
“Eight,” Mimi said. “Jackson will pick you up at your apartment at seven-thirty. Turn yourself into a siren, Sienna, because with the sheer amount of photographs that will be taken of each of you, you’ll want to look your very best in an effort to assist your own career.”
“Mimi’s right,” Harper said. “But there’s also this—tonight, questions will be hurled at each of you, and when they are? I say that each of you say nothing. Don’t give them a word. Instead, when you step out of the limousine, just make sure that you’re holding hands as you make your way toward the doors. Let your chemistry speak for itself.”
“Couldn’t have said it better,” Mimi said as she placed her hand on Harper’s shoulder. “And just look at how well we worked together today. How could it be that we ever broke apart?”
“To be discussed as in never,” Harper said.
“And there you go again,” Mimi said. “Off your meds as usual.”
“Mimi, would you call Austin?” Jackson said. “No offense to Sienna, but I’m feeling kind of stressed out about all of this. Hitting the gym before tonight would help.”
“Of course,” she said as she picked up her phone and hit a button. “Audrey, would you please ask Austin to come in? Yes? Thank you, darling.”
“Who’s Austin?” I asked.
“His name is Austin Black,” Jackson said. “He leads my security detail. And because of that, he knows everything there is to know about me—sometimes a little more than he should know. We’ve worked together for years. At this point, he’s kind of like a brother to me.”
There was a rap on the door, Mimi called out for Austin to come in, and when the door swung open, it literally was filled with one of the tallest, most muscular and handsome men I’d ever seen.
Oh, my God, I thought as I soaked him in. And, hello, how are you, Austin?
“Austin,” Mimi said. “Come and meet Sienna Miller. Sienna, this is Austin Black.”
As he strode toward me in his fitted gray suit, which strained to contain just how rock solid and muscular he was—and failed spectacularly to do so—I could feel a raw sense of confidence in him. As hot as Jackson was, Austin was way hotter. With his coal-black hair, chiseled face, full lips and piercing blue eyes, Austin Black was the one in this room who should have been the A-list action star, not Jackson.
“Pleasure to meet you, Sienna,” he said as his hand engulfed mine.
“It’s vice to meet you, Austin.”
“Vice?” Harper said.
“Sorry?” I said.
“You just said, ‘vice to meet you,’ Sienna.”
“Is that what I said?”
She lifted a brow at me. “In fact, it is…”
“Well,” I said. “Slip of the tongue. Super busy day! All sorts of things happening at once! It’s nice to meet you, Austin. And I mean that. It’s really nice to meet you.”
“The pleasure is mine, Sienna.”
Could his voice be any deeper?
I saw him glance down at his hand, which I was still shaking.
Oh, girl, you need to get yourself together—as in now.
I released his hand and thought I caught amusement in his eyes before he turned to Jackson. “What’s up?” he asked.
“I need to hit the gym.”
“Want me to join you?”
“If you’re up for it,” he said. He nodded his head at me just as I caught Austin’s gaze roaming over me. “She and I are about to fall in love,” Jackson said. “And because of that, I need you to spot me, because tonight? Tonight, I need to look my best for her. And I plan to. Because when it comes to my life? Shit changes now.”
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