Tanner Rose squeezed her eyes shut for a second against the pitiable scene unfolding before her. Two guys—strangers—had been thrown together for the moment. Thrown into a fight. Spontaneity would have made it more natural. Punches and kicks flew, but they lacked passion, realism, kung fu. The dark-haired kid looked about eighteen. Too old for the part. His kick almost knocked him off balance. The blond, about fourteen, blocked with his arm, whacking away the kick. The older boy winced, grabbing his wrist, and stepped back. In a split second, he rushed the younger kid, punching and jabbing like a boxer while the kid dodged and ducked. Their groans and grunts became unbearable.
“I’m not convinced,” Tanner Rose said, though not loud enough for the fighters to hear her. It was more to herself. The boys were clunky and awkward, instead of smooth and swift and passionate, like Gabriel. Why couldn’t they be more like Gabriel? Gabriel. She sighed. She missed him.
“Okay, thank you!” She raised her hand and wiggled her fingers, speaking in a harsh voice meant to grab their attention.
She turned her eyes toward her assistant Eric, seated next to her on the long red couch. “Make it stop,” she muttered, as she reached up to the back of her head and grabbed fistfuls of long brown hair in agitation.
She released an extended sigh, her glance flitting around the room, a large formal space lined with tall windows set in stone walls. She’d recently selected this particular suite in a trendy refurbished riverside mill building—a former textile mill—because of its fashionable location in the city. She’d hoped it would add credibility to her brand. The sell was the open area where she sat, where she could set up auditions on one side of the room.
Eric stood, brushing his brown, shaggy hair out of his eyes, and shut off the camera on a tripod. “That’s great,” he said loud enough for the guys to hear.
The actors froze mid-action and looked their way. Then the blond bent over, hands on his thighs, catching his breath. The dark-haired kid, hands on his hips, breathed hard too, his brows pushed together, his hair damp.
Tanner uncrossed her legs and rose from the couch. She waited for Eric to return to her side and said softly from the corner of her mouth, “They’re awful.”
“They’re all we can afford.”
Tanner couldn’t argue. All funding was coming from her pocket until they could find a reputable investor who believed in her vision. She had hardly worked in the last year and a half, depleting her finances as she toiled on her script, writing and rewriting, and then polishing it to perfection. She’d asked Gabriel to read her first draft nearly two years ago, and he’d seen that she’d used their story as inspiration. He’d helped her as much as he could with the “devotional, from the heart parts,” as she’d described it at the time. They’d worked on it together, and it was the best work she’d ever done. Not just because they’d done it together, but because they made such a great team, focusing on God’s desire for the project and glorifying Him with it. She’d learned so much about God in the process. About Gabriel too.
Unfortunately, her wholesome, Christian initiative was being blackballed since its recent founding, and it was killing her financially. The suite alone cost a fortune. But it was gorgeous and came fully furnished. She couldn’t wait for Gabriel to see it. He hated coming to the city, though she’d been trying to coax him here since she started leasing it three months ago.
To her right stood an oversized stone fireplace, a full bar on the opposite wall, which doubled as a chic open kitchen—large enough for a catering company to move around if needed, and a relaxing hangout area in between, boasting comfy red cushioned seats around small rustic tables. Beyond that space, an arched opening in the wall led to a long conference room.
The stunning office suite was a short drive to her studio apartment. Another recently added expense she felt was necessary, because it allowed her to stay later at work and get there earlier in the morning. Of course, there was also the apartment in the country near Gabriel. That was her real home. Close to him. But all this added to her monthly expenses, and without work, it was sucking into her filming funds. No wonder Alicia was always so mad at her.
Tanner rubbed her forehead with the tips of her fingers, frustration building inside. “My first movie’s gonna flop, and I’ll be done before I even get started.”
“Don’t be like that.” Eric stooped to pick up his clipboard from the table then pressed a stubby finger to the page and dragged it down the list of names. “There are two more waiting. Do you have time to see them?”
Tanner slipped her phone from her back pocket and checked the time. It was getting late, and she wanted to head back home today. She missed home. She missed Gabriel.
The auditionees had been waiting for a few hours now. It would be cruel to reschedule at this point. “Maybe if we hustle it along.”
Eric nodded and scurried toward the two actors still waiting for instructions, his sneakers squeaking on the hardwood floor. He spoke to them quietly while escorting them to the elevator behind them. Before they reached it, the elevator doors slid open and another young man strutted in.
The two actors gawked at the new arrival, muttering to each other while stealing glances, all while Eric hustled them out.
Tall and handsome, with short, stylishly disheveled blond hair, the guy wore blue jeans and a white tee under a black leather jacket. “Tanner Rose, baby.” He opened his arms out to her.
“Jason Allen!” She dashed around the table toward him, her mood lifting.
He wrapped his arms around her and pressed a wet kiss on her cheek, too close to Tanner’s mouth. She pulled back quickly.
“Hey, your face fixed up nice, huh?” He squinted at her. “Can’t even see it.”
She touched her cheek instinctively, using the opportunity to swipe his wet kiss from it. “Makeup helps.” But he was right. The doctors had done a great job with her face, the scar barely visible nearly two years later. Although the memory of that terrifying gala night would never dissolve into nothingness.
It was the night they’d received a call from Adam while on their way back from the gala because his younger sister Faith had sneaked out to attend a party. Tanner would never forget the fight in which Christian, Gabriel, and Adam had been hurt, and she had been caught in the chaos, struck by a metal rod that had been flung in the air. Her world had shattered at that moment, and she’d thought there was no returning to a career in film because her life as an actress was over. No one would cast her. But here she was on a new path, with a new dream. One she was giving to God, who had shown her so much mercy and love, even after everything she had done to defy Him over the years.
“Girl, I heard you were working on your own movie, and I have some time off between filming, so I thought, why not? Worst case, I see an old friend.” He scanned the room around him, then seeing the bar, paced toward it.
Tanner followed him. “That’s so sweet. I’m actually headed back home after this last audition.”
“Yeah?” He raised his eyebrows, shrugging his jacket off and slinging it over the back of a stool before walking behind the bar. “Home to LA?”
She shook her head, leaning against the rustic wood bar and watching him open the small fridge and peer inside. “No. I’ve left LA behind.”
“Yeah, I heard that.” He shut the fridge and browsed the liquor selection, opting for a bottle of vodka and two shot glasses. “So, listen, I’m staying in the city, and I want to help.”
“Help?” She squinted at him. “What do you mean? In what way?”
“In any way you need me.” He twisted the lid off the bottle, tossing her a wink, and filled the two shot glasses. “Unless you don’t need me.”
Actually, she needed him and any other prominent actor willing to help for next to nothing in payment. “Of course I need you.”
He smirked, sliding a glass to her.
She narrowed her eyes. “What?”
“Nothing.” He shrugged. “I just love the way you said that.” He threw the shot back then scrunched his face.
“Whatever.” What was it with guys reading double meanings into innocently made comments? Although a few years ago she’d have thought it funny. She slid the full glass back to him, crinkling her nose. “No thanks. You know the liquor’s for the big cheeses we schmooze.”
He raised his brows. “I’m not a big enough cheese for you?”
“There was a time you liked schmoozing me, didn’t you?” He downed her drink, wincing again.
“Jason, come on. That was ages ago.” She neatened a pile of coasters next to her, uncomfortable with the new direction of their conversation. “Besides, things are different now.”
“Oh, you seeing someone seriously?”
Her stomach lurched. Gabriel was none of his business. Her skin prickled as she watched him pour two more shots. “Not just that. I’m different too. I want different things. My priorities have changed.” She’d also become sober. Her former Hollywood self would have joined him in softening the edges with a couple of shots. But thanks to Gabriel’s guidance and God’s grace, she’d left drugs and alcohol behind, preferring to face reality as the real Tanner Rose. Maybe she’d be able to convince Jason to do the same thing.
“I hear ya’. I feel that way too. Getting older. Maybe connecting with someone more seriously. I know what you’re saying.” He threw back the two shots, one after the other, making a face after each one. Then he bounced his eyebrows. “So, who are you seeing?”
She folded her arms in front of her. “I’m not officially seeing anyone . . .”
“But . . .” She looked him square in the eyes. “But I do like someone a lot.”
Jason leaned on the bar, opposite her, closing the gap between them. “The guy from the gala?”
She bit her lip. Her heart skipped a beat at the mention of Gabriel, even without saying his name. “The guy from the gala.”
That event had been a complete bust. She’d begged Gabriel to go with her, knowing he’d hate the idea but needing him so desperately to be there by her side. Finally, he’d agreed. Sweet, selfless Gabriel had gone anyway, and the night was as crass as she’d expected it to be. But he’d sat quietly, supporting her until even she couldn’t take the phoniness and immodesty for one more second. It amazed her how she’d once accepted that world, blind to the ungodliness, but with Gabriel by her side, she saw it all and it affected her.
“Well, I hope things work out for you guys. You really deserve it.” He leaned in farther and kissed her cheek again, the wetness cooling her skin. “I shouldn’t have let you go.” He pushed himself back from the bar.
“We weren’t officially together, Jason.” Hardly. She had to explain it to him. “Just typical celebrity on and off casual dating.” Hollywood couples were superficial. They thrived on sporadic “honeymoon stage” relationships that ended as soon as they became too real. Bursts of euphoria that often only lasted as long as the buzz. It hadn’t been any different with Jason and her. It was horrible to think back on. I’m so sorry, Lord, but thank You for saving me. Tanner knew that God had already forgiven her, but she felt the need to continue apologizing every time such memories came to her.
Jason walked out from behind the bar. “No, and that was my fault.”
“Like I said, that was ages ago.” She twisted away from the bar.
“Yeah.” He grabbed his jacket. “So, whadaya’ need me for?”
They ambled toward the elevator. “Well, obviously you can be my lead.”
“Are you my love interest?” He swung an arm over her shoulder.
“What makes you think there’s a love interest?”
“Isn’t there always a love interest?” His misty eyes clung to hers.
Tanner broke the stare. She used to revel in Jason’s flirtatious behavior, but it only made her uncomfortable now that she had strong feelings for Gabriel. “I guess. But I’m not in this one. I wrote it and I want to co-direct and stuff, but I’m just not interested in acting.” They stopped at the elevator. “Anyway, I can’t pay you much. I’m trying to get more funding, but you know what that’s like.”
“Oh, please. Think of it as a favor. Maybe you can owe me one.”
His generosity touched her. He wasn’t usually one to help someone out unless there was something in it for him. But she literally had nothing to offer him, so his “maybe you can owe me one” comment would likely come to nothing. In fact, he could end up ostracized like she had been simply for associating with her and her project. Still, he’d always had an optimistic outlook. Maybe he figured he could afford this moment of charity, so who was she to decline the opportunity? No. This would work out. It had to. “Okay, let’s try it out.”
Jason’s smile widened into a beam. “How cool is this?” He opened his arms and she let him hug her. “Jason Allen and Tanner Rose are back together.”
END OF CHAPTER 1
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