Venus was particularly brilliant this morning. Natalie adjusted the lens on her Celestron NexStar telescope, bringing the planet into sharper focus. She was using a moon filter to reduce the glare as Venus’s atmosphere reflected the sun’s light back at her, and now it beamed through the viewfinder, so clear she could make out the yellowish swirls of its cloud cover.
While Venus was less showy than some of the other planets, it had always been one of her favorites, especially in these early-morning hours before the sun rose. As an astronomer’s daughter, Natalie felt closer to her mother while peering through the lens of a telescope. It was one of the only memories she had of her mom, the two of them gazing at the sky as her mom mapped the secrets of the universe for her.
When Natalie was six, the sky she’d regarded as a magical, wondrous place took her mother from her when her private plane crashed in the Alps on her way to the Sphinx Observatory in Switzerland, killing everyone on board.
Now, the world regarded Natalie as a star, and it sometimes felt as if the whole universe were looking at her, lenses pointed her way everywhere she went. The irony wasn’t lost on her.
At this moment, though, she was the one watching, not being watched. She could spend hours in her observatory. It was her favorite way to unwind after a long day of filming or press. Instead of meditating, Natalie looked into the sky.
A low whine broke her concentration, and she looked down. Luna and Orion, her boxers, lay on matching dog beds at her feet. Luna watched her with a pitiful expression, shivering despite the warm coat Natalie had put on her before coming outside.
“Cold, Lulu?” Natalie reached down to rub her behind her ears. This was a daily occurrence during the winter. Her dogs demanded to come with her to her backyard observatory, then complained when they got cold. Drama queens, both of them, and she wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world.
Natalie pulled her jacket more closely around her shoulders. Maybe Luna had a point. It was cold this morning. Living just outside LA, it never got too cold, but this was the first week of January, and maybe she shouldn’t be outside before sunrise in a light jacket. She hadn’t slept well last night—story of her life—and had needed this time to prepare herself for yet another grueling day.
The Golden Globe Awards were Sunday night, only four days away, which meant she would spend entirely too much time over the next few days giving interviews and fretting over an acceptance speech she probably wouldn’t even give. She wasn’t favored to win, but she wasn’t a complete long shot either. She had a chance. And . . . she might be the only actress in Hollywood who truly got nervous about these things.
But she did. They were so public. So . . . much. The red carpet alone was exhausting, and then there would be dozens of articles critiquing every aspect of her appearance, whether she’d worn the right dress. Had she gained weight? Why hadn’t she brought a date? Natalie almost never brought a date, and yet they always asked why.
As she left the observatory, Orion growled, a low, threatening sound that made the fine hairs on Natalie’s body stand on end. She looked down to see him staring into the bushes to their left. If he hadn’t had on his coat, she was sure the hair along his back would be standing up too.
“What is it, boy?” She followed his gaze, but she couldn’t see anything in the darkened recesses of her yard. Unlike many celebrities, Natalie hadn’t bought her house for the view of the Malibu hills or the Pacific coastline. Her property was surrounded by an eight-foot privacy fence and lined with protective trees and bushes. Her only view was of the stars overhead.
Natalie shivered, unnerved by the darkness still swathing her property as that all-too-familiar panic crawled up her throat, the fear of an unseen menace waiting to attack. It had been building for weeks as she watched the date on the calendar grow closer. John Becker, the man who’d stalked and terrorized her eight years ago, was likely to be released from prison soon.
And Natalie might never feel safe again.
“What initially drew you to the role of Adele?” The interviewer, a balding white man in his forties, sat with his elbows on his knees, legs spread in a way that irritated Natalie.
She crossed one leg over the other, sitting tall while he slouched back, making himself entirely too comfortable in her manager’s chair. The meeting room was decorated in soothing shades of gray and blue, accented by panoramic windows to her left, overlooking downtown Los Angeles, a view that was currently more interesting than the man sitting across from her. “Her resilience. Adele is a woman who refuses to give up. She’s resourceful, even when things around her look bleak. I admire that about her.”
“Some critics have accused her of being arrogant, brash.” He shrugged, a challenge gleaming in his eyes, misogynistic undertones dripping from his words.
Natalie made a mental note to add this man to the list of interviewers she declined to work with. The publication that employed him had plenty of better journalists on staff. “If Adele was a man, you’d call her a natural leader. She fought tirelessly to bring an important case all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Honestly, I’m in awe of her strength.”
“Did the courtroom scenes bring back memories of your own time in court?”
Her breath hitched, but she didn’t flinch. Oh, he thought he was so clever, trying to use her words to broach the topic that had been listed as off limits in the contract they’d signed for this interview. It was part of her standard contract and had been for years.
Natalie wouldn’t feed that particular beast, no matter how many intrepid journalists tried to weasel a reaction out of her. And there had been a lot. She glanced at her personal assistant and best friend, Jeremy Huang, who stood in the hall just outside the door, talking quietly on his phone. Usually, this was when he would jump in on her behalf, but she’d have to do it herself this time.
She narrowed her eyes at the man sitting across from her, realizing she didn’t even remember his name. “Stop the recording.”
“Excuse me?” His eyebrows bounced comically, except there was nothing funny about what he’d done.
Ambushing her with a past trauma, one he’d been informed was off limits? Crude and tasteless. She wasn’t going to ask twice. Natalie reached over and stabbed a finger against the screen of his cell phone, which sat on the table between them, ending the recording. “This interview is over.”
“You heard her.” Jeremy was at her side in a flash, finally having realized what was happening. “The interview is finished. I’ll show you out.”
The reporter’s face had reddened. “Now wait a damn minute.”
Sick of the sight of him, Natalie stood and walked to the window while Jeremy escorted him from the room. She squinted against the afternoon sunshine as her gaze settled on a little park on the corner where a woman was walking a pair of fluffy white dogs. Unwilling to invite extraneous people into her house, Natalie conducted most of her interviews here at her manager’s office space. Right now, though, she longed for the comfort of home.
Did the courtroom scenes bring back memories of your own time in court?
Natalie sucked in a deep breath and held it until her pulse had calmed. The press had been trying to learn the answer to that question, to any question about her kidnapping and the subsequent trial, for eight years. The court transcripts were public record, of course, but that wasn’t enough to satisfy curiosity. Nothing would ever be enough.
“I’m so sorry,” Jeremy said as he came back into the room. His glasses today had periwinkle-blue frames to match his shirt, something he often did. Jeremy and Natalie had grown up in the same neighborhood in Edmonton. His parents had emigrated from China to Canada before he was born, to work in Edmonton’s booming nanotechnology sector, but—much to their dismay—Jeremy wasn’t technologically inclined, instead preferring the glamour of Hollywood. When he moved to Los Angeles five years ago looking for behind-the-scenes work, she’d hired him as her personal assistant, and he’d been with her ever since. “Jaz called, and I didn’t hear whatever Greg Pearson said, although I can guess based on your reaction.”
“The usual,” she confirmed. “And it’s fine. I handled it. What did Jaz want?”
“She’s on her way here to meet with you and Frank before you leave.”
An unplanned meeting with her publicist was never good news. Tension slid down Natalie’s spine, tightening each muscle along the way. She’d avoided asking for details until now, but there was no use putting it off any longer. “Becker’s getting out, isn’t he?” Her voice came out hoarse, and she cleared her throat, hoping to cover the moment of weakness.
“He’s being released on Friday,” Jeremy said quietly.
A harsh noise escaped her, the sound of all the air being expelled from her lungs. “Fuck.”
“That about sums it up,” Jeremy agreed.
She stared unseeing at the cars moving along the street below. Eight years ago, after a string of successful Hollywood rom-coms had solidified Natalie’s status as an A-list actress, her nightmare had begun. John Becker started as an overzealous fan attempting to contact her through her website and social media. His behavior quickly escalated, and he began showing up at the studio where she was filming, trying to convince her staff that she knew him.
When that didn’t work, he found out where she lived and left gifts on her doorstep. One night, he camped outside her house and serenaded her with love songs until she called the police. She took out a restraining order, and for about a month, he disappeared from her life entirely.
And then, one balmy August night, she woke to find him standing at the foot of her bed. What followed were the most terrifying twelve hours of her life. He’d taken her sense of safety that night, something she’d never quite recovered, even knowing he was behind bars.
“Unfortunately, he’s been approved for parole. Since that one incident right after he was sentenced, he’s been a model prisoner.” The incident Jeremy was referring to was when Becker attacked another prisoner, earning himself a few extra years in prison. “He’s agreed not to contact you or come anywhere near you as one of the conditions of his release. He says he’s moved on.”
Natalie laughed, a stiff, harsh sound. “He’s moved on.”
“Frank and Jaz want to discuss how to manage publicity surrounding his release.”
“Publicity?” Natalie turned to stare at him as her brain clicked up to speed, beginning to whir with the ramifications of her new reality. The media had had a field day with her ordeal when it happened. Headlines like “Natalie’s Nightmare” and “Natalie’s Night of Terror” had graced the cover of every entertainment magazine in the months afterward. The interview requests had been relentless and invasive, which had been almost as traumatizing as what she’d already gone through.
She’d never spoken publicly about her kidnapping, and yet interviewers were still asking, as evidenced by what had transpired not fifteen minutes ago. The thought of them getting wind of Becker’s release, of dredging up the story of how she’d been stalked and terrorized . . .
Natalie refused to go through that again.
She and Jeremy were still talking when Frank and Jaz arrived. Frank Rollins had been her manager for ten years, a steady presence who had steered her rise from a midlevel actress to a bona fide leading lady. He was a teddy bear of a man, with a blond beard and an ever-present smile. His nonthreatening appearance put people at ease, but if anyone crossed him—or one of the actors he managed—he could unsheathe the metaphorical claws.
Jasmine Leeds followed him into the room. Jaz was Natalie’s longtime publicist, a tall, energetic woman with dark-brown skin and a wild halo of black curls. Today, she wore an aqua pantsuit that complemented her complexion beautifully.
“Love that color on you,” Natalie said as she moved to the chair where she’d sat for the interview.
Jaz took the seat next to Jeremy. “Thanks, love.”
“I apologize that we have to see each other today under such unpleasant circumstances,” Frank said.
“Not your fault.” Natalie drew in a deep breath and blew it out. “What do we think the chances are that the press will find out about Becker’s release?”
“About fifty-fifty,” Jaz said. “It’s been long enough since he made headlines that most outlets probably aren’t watching for his release, but you never know when you’ll get an intrepid reporter keeping tabs. It might help if we could generate a distraction, some positive press for you to keep anyone from looking in that direction.”
“Like a Golden Globe win?” Natalie asked, hands clasped tightly in her lap.
“That would help, yes,” Jaz agreed. “Something we have control over would be better, though.”
“And what if he comes after me again?” Natalie was pleased that the question came out evenly, as if she hadn’t been dreading the answer for eight years.
“His release is conditional on him having no contact with you whatsoever, so if he does show up . . . he goes right back to jail,” Jeremy said.
“That never stopped him before,” Natalie countered. “There was a restraining order against him when he broke into my house. I think I should hire extra security as a precaution, at least temporarily.” Between the Golden Globes on Sunday and a new movie that would begin filming next week, she had a lot going on, ample opportunity for Becker to sneak in if she wasn’t careful.
Frank clasped his hands over his belly, fingers tapping as he seemed to think it over. “You’ve already got a bodyguard. Tommy’s damn good at his job too.”
“Yes, but—” She pressed her lips together, frustrated. Tommy was great, but he was only one person. He couldn’t be at her side every moment of the day.
“I agree with Frank,” Jaz said. “If you start walking around in public with a whole security team instead of just Tommy, you risk tipping your hand. The press will go hunting to see why you’ve beefed up security and discover Becker’s been released.”
She sighed. “‘Natalie’s Nightmare,’ part two. God knows I don’t want to go through that kind of media frenzy again.” She’d hated knowing millions of people around the world were speculating about what he did to her. Just thinking about it made her skin crawl.
“That’s decided, then,” Frank said.
“No, it’s not.” Natalie straightened her shoulders, stung that they didn’t take her security concerns more seriously. “I know better than anyone what Becker’s capable of, and I want extra security in case he decides to pick up where he left off.”
For a moment, no one said anything. The air felt heavy and uncomfortable, but she refused to back down. Then Frank nodded. “Of course. Your safety is the most important thing.”
“What if we found a way to beef up Natalie’s security without drawing attention to it?” Jaz looked thoughtful. “We could bring in someone to pose as a friend or a date, something along those lines. We could even rotate a few people who could be seen hanging around with you without screaming bodyguard. It would be expensive, but it could work.”
Natalie was quiet as she considered it. While she wanted to reject the idea of hanging out with fake acquaintances who were actually bodyguards, it might be the best solution to the problem. Because it would be naive to take Becker at his word when he said he’d moved on.
And Natalie wasn’t naive. Not anymore.
The meeting room fell silent, except for the occasional cell phone notification and the muffled sound of traffic outside. Natalie tended to retreat inside her own head when she was thinking something through. Her team was used to it by now.
What would it be like to attend the Golden Globes with someone posing as her date, someone who was actually there to keep her safe? It would have to be a woman. Natalie had come out publicly as a lesbian five years ago, tired of hiding that part of herself even though she hadn’t had a serious girlfriend since much earlier in her career.
The press would eat it up if she brought a date to the Golden Globes. They’d be so focused on generating headlines about the new woman in her life, it might do the trick and distract them from Becker’s release.
Natalie hated that invasive media presence when she dated, the feeling that every look, every touch, was being scrutinized. It was hard to date under that kind of media glare, but if it was all for show? Well, that lowered the stakes considerably.
An idea was starting to take shape in her mind, a variation of Jaz’s suggestion, a way to work the headlines to her advantage. It was somewhat ludicrous, but so much of the Hollywood lifestyle was smoke and mirrors anyway, and desperate times called for desperate measures.
“Okay.” She rested her hands in her lap. “I want to go with Jaz’s plan, but I say we lean all the way in and hire an extra bodyguard to pose as my new girlfriend.”
“Your girlfriend?” Frank’s eyebrows rose. “Do you have any idea the media frenzy that would cause?”
Natalie nodded. “Yes, and you know how much I ordinarily hate the frenzy over who I’m dating, but in this case, it’s the perfect cover story to distract from Becker’s release. The media will be tripping over themselves trying to get the scoop on my new girlfriend. Becker will be the last thing on their mind.”
“She’s right.” Jaz’s eyes lit with excitement. “That’s a smart plan. It lets you control the narrative. You make headlines for your reasons, not theirs.”
“And I make headlines for happy reasons instead of traumatic ones.” If she pulled this off, she might actually be able to spin an awful situation to her advantage for once.