Tallulah Edmond stared her eight-year-old son with a tightening jaw, narrowing her eyes as the principal detailed all his transgressions of the day.
“After punching a fourth grader in the nose and kneeing him in the groin, he ran off the playground thereby disobeyed his teacher’s command. He locked himself in the boys’ restroom and it took twenty minutes for me to convince him to come out,” Principal Greenwood reported, folding her fingers onto her desk. “He refuses to tell me what brought this about.”
“If you know what’s good for you, you will tell her now, Milo Lachlan Bryant,” Tallulah commanded coldly.
Milo crossed his arms, his brilliant blue eyes guiltily casted downward. He fidgeted in the office seat, hesitant to comply with his mother’s wishes.
“Jamie Tuttle called me…a liar and he said…mean things about you,” he admitted.
Tallulah’s brow furrowed. “Why would he call you a liar?”
“Because I told him his favorite action film actor was my dad. He called me a liar and told me there was no way Nick Bryant would sleep with you to make me because he said you’re fat, black, and ugly.”
Principal Greenwood’s eyebrows shot upward, gaping at the confession.
Tallulah’s stern face softened. “Milo, have a seat outside while I talk to Principal Greenwood.”
He got out of the chair and left the administrator’s office, shutting the door behind him. Tallulah closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose, heaving a deep sigh.
“Ms. Edmond,” Principal Greenwood addressed gently. “Milo is a brilliant little boy. He has been making straight A’s since kindergarten. He is a model student with the biggest heart, but his behavior has changed drastically in the last five weeks. He’s been sent to my office quite a few times for not following directions or disrespecting his teachers, but attacking another student is a whole different ballgame. It’s so out-of-character for him. Has anything happened at home to spark such a transformation?”
Tallulah knew exactly what caused it.
“Five weeks ago, I took him to see Wicked People at the movies for his birthday. It was the only thing he wanted,” she disclosed, gazing up at the ceiling.
Dammit, she should’ve known better.
Principal Greenwood nodded. “Now, we’ve identified the influence of Milo’s lie.”
Tallulah winched slightly at the word lie, but she didn’t correct it.
“Considering the actor Nick Bryant shares the same last name as Milo, it makes sense that he’s made himself believe that the man is his father,” the woman continued. “He obviously craves to have a father figure in his life. So, why not claim one of the most famous men in Hollywood as his father? However, that does not condone acting violently against schoolmate, which leads me to how we’ll go about his punishment.”
“Buckle up,” Tallulah said after they got into the car.
Milo followed instructions before he asked, “In-school suspension?”
“Nope, 2 days of out-of-school suspension,” she replied as she slipped the key into the ignition and brought the struggling engine to life with a twist. As she looked over her shoulder to safely back the shabby red car from the parking space, she briefly looked at her son. His shoulders were slumped and his head was down, his fingers fidgeting in his lap.
A wave of guilt crashed into her.
He pondered quietly, “Are you mad at me?”
Tallulah sighed as she shifted gears and drove out of the school’s parking lot. “I wouldn’t be a good mom if I wasn’t, Milo. You can’t put your hands on other kids.”
Milo straightened his back, his face scrunching up. “But that fuckwad Ja—“
Tallulah warned her motherly tone, “Hey, language!”
He crossed his arms, slouching down in the passenger seat and grumbling under his breath, “Dad says it.”
“Yes, he does,” Tallulah agreed, “in movies, Milo.”
“He could say that in real life too,” Milo reasoned.
She nodded. “True, but he’s an adult and Milo is an eight-year-old kid who’s grounded.”
“I can’t believe I got in trouble for telling the truth,” he said, his voice losing luster.
“Milo, you didn’t get in trouble for telling the truth. You got in trouble for punching Jamie Tuttle in the nose and kneeing him in the balls,” Tallulah corrected, glancing up at the rearview mirror she witnessed her son looking out his window. “You hurt him bad.”
“I’m hurt bad,” he countered, his bottom lip quivering. “Jamie or Mrs. Greenwood didn’t believe me. They think I’m a liar.”
“It doesn’t matter what they think,” Tallulah assured. “You know the truth and that’s all that matters.”
Milo frowned, a tear rolling down his cheek. “Knowing the truth hurts, Mom.”
“I know, kiddo, I know,” Tallulah said softly before she chewed hard on her bottom lip to relieve the heavy swell of regret bubbling inside her chest.
At the beginning of third grade, his social studies teacher assigned the class a ‘family tree’ project. Filling out the Edmond family tree was a breeze, but addressing the blank family tree for his father’s side was a Pandora’s box Tallulah had avoided for a long time. Though it wasn’t easy being a single mother, raising a kid like Milo was an effortless experience. He was a quiet baby, a sweet toddler, and a bright independent boy. Occasionally, he asked about his father, but he was satisfied with her vague answers. As he grew older though, she often worried that his curiosity would increase, but it didn’t…until that damn social studies project.
Her loose replies weren’t enough for him anymore.
He was hungry for the truth.
So, he took matters into his own hands, snuck into her bedroom, and found his birth certificate. Nicholas Lachlan Bryant was what was printed in the father’s name field. Being a clever boy, he typed in the name and came up with countless results, but then he took it a step further by narrowing the search by the birthdate listed.
His search came back with only one result and when he blindsided her with his findings, it was difficult to refute him. As ludicrous as it seemed, Hollywood heartthrob Nick Bryant was his father. However, she couldn’t deny that she understood why fourth graders like Jamie Tuttle and grown women like Principal Greenwood thought that the truth was merely a lie from an imaginative daddy-starved boy. Nor could she fault them for not accepting the A-lister screwed a plus-size black woman once upon a time—or quite a few times. But the fact of the matter was chiseled handsome Nick was tall tubby Nicholas almost nine years ago.
Determination made him into the man the world loved today and it was that same determination that ultimately drove the two of them apart nearly a decade ago.
Milo pushed his diced carrots with his fork and asked hesitantly, “I messed things up for you, didn’t I? At the audition, I mean.”
“You didn’t mess anything up. In all honesty, getting that phone call from Principal Greenwood was a saving grace. I didn’t think I did a good job anyway.” Tallulah smiled weakly, giving her son a reassuring wink before taking a sip of her white wine.
“Did Uncle Finn say you sucked?”
Uncle Finn was Finn Nixon, an old college buddy who now worked a casting director and was also Milo’s godfather. He often kept his ear to the ground for cast calls and disclosed insider intel to her, but she tried not to rely on him too much. She had a hardworking casting agent in her corner. She had a few small-time gigs under her belt. Some TV commercials, radio ads, and a tiny recurring small role as a sassy secretary on a private detective cable show that lasted one season. Hollywood wasn’t too willing to give a curvy black woman a break.
Finn, however, was hired as a casting director for an indie film from legendary filmmaker and extremely selective Eugene Aaron. He was the kind of director whose movies won awards and shot people into stardom.
To which, her old friend encouraged her to audition for a minor supporting role. To say she struggled through the session was an understatement of the century. Eugene Aaron’s gaze was cold, hard, and piercing. Auditions were naturally vulnerable experiences, but his imposing presence exposed her in the rawest sort of way. He had a sour scowl on his face the entire time as if her being there was a waste of his time.
Right in the middle of a cold read with the script reader, her cellphone rang.
Oh, boy was he pissed. Needless to say, when she excused herself from the audition to rush to her son’s school, she was 1000-percent certain she signed her floundering career’s death warrant.
She shrugged. “It was a great opportunity though. It was nice of Finn to consider me.”
“You’re an amazing actress, Mom,” Milo said.
Her smile widened. “Thank you. Your opinion is the only one that matters to me.”
Milo asked sweetly, “Since you value my opinion so much, can I watch TV before bed?”
This boy was too smart for his own good.
Tallulah rolled her eyes, laughing. “Nope. Dinner, bath, bed.”
He pouted and slumped in his chair, forking his carrots into his mouth.
After dinner, she shooed him off to the bathroom while she cleaned up dinner and washed the dishes. In the midst of partaking in her third glass of wine, her phone lit up and jittered on the kitchen counter as Finn’s picture popped up on her screen.
She swallowed quickly and answered, “Finn, I’m so sorry ab—“
“Sit your ass down somewhere now,” Finn ordered.
Her heart fluttered violently in her ribcage.
This wasn’t good at all. She fucked up big time.
Tallulah wandered to the dinner table and eased her ass into a seat as commanded. Wine glass in her other hand in the event that she needed to drink away the bitter taste of her sorrows.
“Alright, I’m sitting,” she told him.
“Eugene wants you to come back tomorrow.”
She gasped loudly, “Oh, my god! Are you fucking serious?”
Down the hallway, Milo called from the bathtub. “Mom, put money in the swear jar!”
“Dammit,” she muttered, staring that the half-full mason jar on the windowsill above the kitchen sink with squinted eyes.
“I heard that,” her son claimed.
Tallulah rolled her eyes, pursing her lips together.
Finn chuckled warmly, “Gotta love that kid.”
“Back to the important conversation at hand,” Tallulah urged. “I’ve gotta keep a roof over that kid’s head, clothes on that kid’s back, and food in that kid’s stomach.”
Though Tammy kept bit-part gigs coming, their lives constantly teetered on the edge of alright and bad. Tallulah always made sure Milo was taken care of even if it meant she went without, but she didn’t regret it.
“You could’ve ended this bullshit years a—“
“Don’t,” she interjected. “Don’t, Finn.”
“Okay, okay,” Finn sighed, “Eugene wants you to come back tomorrow, but there’s one problem.”
She cocked her head back and groaned deep in her throat. Of course, there was a catch. Hollywood wouldn’t be Hollywood if it wasn’t.
Tallulah asked cautiously, “What is it?”
“Well, he wants you to read for a major supporting role. The mother’s private nurse.”
She blinked, her jaw hanging open. Her breath quickened at the news.
“Eugene said you were raw and you were way too raw for a minor role. So, he wants you to come back tomorrow for a chemistry test with the lead,” Finn said.
“I didn’t know ya’ll found a lead,” Tallulah balked.
She could almost hear the shrug in his voice. “We’ve had the lead from the beginning, but it had to be kept under wraps. He’s an A-lister and Eugene wants to keep this production lowkey as possible for as long as possible. The less people know, the better which means you’ll have to sign a NDA when you come at seven tomorrow morning.”
“Milo is suspended from school for beating the crap out of a kid,” she said. “I don’t have anyone to watch him.”
“Ask that old lady that lives across the hall,” Finn suggested. “This is a one-in-a-lifetime chance, Ray. It’s a fucking miracle you’re getting a callback at all with the phone ringing and you having to leave early. I batted hard for you when you left just for him to consider you for the minor role, so the fact that he wants to see how you do with a heavy hitter is goddamn divine. Eugene is known for taking risks and experimenting. I highly recommend that you do whatever you need to do to come and be the damn guinea pig.”
“I’ll be there. Bye,” she said before she ended the call and drained her wine glass in a half-celebratory/half-dread fashion.
Tomorrow, she’d be the best damn guinea pig Eugene Aaron had ever seen.
The waiting room outside the casting room was void of rivals. A sight she wasn’t accustomed to. Instead, a sharply dressed woman awaited her with a six-page NDA on a clipboard and a pen.
“Hello, I’m Kellan Greer and I am a part of Extraordinarily Artistic Films’ legal department. I have been tasked with ensuring you sign this NDA before you walk through that door. I’ve highlighted all the areas you will need to fill in or sign,” the woman said, handing over the clipboard.
“Um, thanks,” Tallulah said, clearing her throat.
She sat down in one of the many empty seats and combed through the contract, putting the borrowed pen to work. When she was finished, Kellan reviewed the document as a precaution before she nodded, gestured to the door.
“Break a leg.”
Tallulah entered the audition room carefully, noticing a familiar scene of Finn, Eugene Aaron, and a handful of producers. Casting associates assistants scurried around, setting and perfecting camera and lighting equipment.
Eugene placed his elbows onto the table, bridging his fingers together. “I have a feeling about you, Ms. Edmond. Today is your chance to prove me right or disappoint me once again. Though I hope for your sake at the very least your phone is off.”
Aside from Finn, a chorus of chortles erupted the other gentlemen at the table.
“There won’t be any interruptions, Mister Aaron,” she promised.
He nodded. “Good.”
A casting assistant handed her a script and instructed her to a specific scene buried deep within the pages as she noted the arrival of another individual from her peripheral. Peering up from her script, she blinked her eyes rapidly. A ringing rushed into her ears and air evaporated from her lungs. She jerked her attention to Finn, tightening her grip on the stapled paper. He crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair, observing the unscripted scene unfolding before him like the casting director he was.
Being the actress she was, Tallulah smiled at a blank-face Nick Bryant and approached him with an offered hand, his intense blue eyes penetrating her straight to the soul.
“It’s an absolute pleasure to meet you, Mister Bryant. My name is Tally Edmond,” she introduced, desperately praying that he’d play the fuck along.
Nick cut his unreadable gaze to Finn before he returned his attention to her, his jaw clenching tightly as he accepted the handshake. “Likewise.”
An army of goosebumps paraded across her flesh at the skin-to-skin contact.
Up close, he looked nothing like the man she fell in love with all those years ago. He was sculpted and fit. A messy mop of shiny hair sat on his head. A meaty well-groomed brown beard framed his face. She had always remembered him a tall man, but he seemed like a giant now, looming over her. His icy blue eyes were a blaring reminder that Nicholas Bryant fathered Milo Lachlan Bryant without deny.
She cleared her throat and took two steps back, pretending to show interest in the scene written on page. A casting assistant offered Nick his script and Finn explained the chosen scene’s synopsis, character motives, and the desired mood.
“We’re ready when you are.”
Tallulah closed her eyes and took a deep breath to steady her nerves. Her heart pounded in her throat. Don’t fuck up, don’t fuck up, she chanted in her brain before she peeled her eyelids open, her gaze washing over the script.
“This is stupid and you know it,” she hissed.
“You think everything I do is stupid,” Nick said gruffly—dismissively.
She scoffed, approaching him boldly. “Well, this is the stupidest thing you’ve done as of yet. You’re going to get yourself killed, Ryland.”
He narrowed his eyes, edging forward himself. “For someone who claims to hate me, you seem rather concerned for my wellbeing.”
Tallulah stilled momentarily at the accusation, delivering a perfected hesitant reply. “I don’t. I care about hers and only hers. That’s my job.”
Nick gave a little closer, dipping his head down with a smug smirk; his gray eyes dancing with a challenge. “I’ve become pretty good at detecting bullshit, Camille.”
She squared her shoulders and tilted up her chin defiantly, standing her ground. “Of course, you would. You’re full of it.”
“Maybe, I’m rubbing off on you then,” he countered.
She glanced down at her script, licking her lips. “All the more reason to bathe in bleach when I get home.”
When she looked up, she realized his sharp gaze were fixated on her mouth.
“Save me some while you’re at it. It’ll save me a lousy trip to the grocery store. Gotta clean the crime scene and all that,” Nick replied. “It’ll be a total bloodbath.”
Tallulah gaped, backing away from him. “I can’t believe you just said that!”
He arched an eyebrow high, following after her. “Said what? The truth? Would you rather I say I’m gonna use the bleach for laundry purposes? Maybe, we should kill two birds with one stone while we’re at it and throw your clothes in with mine for strictly energy conservation purposes, of course.”
Her eyebrows scrunching for a brief moment as she realized his last sentence wasn’t in the scene. Shit, he was improvising! Was this a pissing contest? She gulped, gauging Eugene Aaron’s reaction with a quick glance. As per usual, he seemed as though he were in a foul mood.
If she was going to down, she was going to down in a blazing glory.
Tallulah trailed her gaze down to his crotch. “I’ve handled more impressive loads, Ryland.”
Her improvised statement coaxed a few chuckles from Finn and the producers.
Nick nodded, walking backwards with his arms stretched wide. “Or maybe you just aren’t ready for my kind of dirty laundry.”
She pursed her lips in annoyance. “I only handle your mom’s laundry, Ryland.”
“Duly noted,” he stated, giving her a lazy salute. “See you around, Camille.”
Time to get back to the script, she thought.
“Wait,” she said, stretching out a hand before she shrank back, softening her voice. “Wait, Ryland. What do you want me to tell her?”
“Tell her I’ll see her tomorrow,” he said. “It’s not like she’ll remember.”
“And scene,” Finn concluded. “Ms. Edmond, you step out please.”
She bit her bottom lip, nodding. “Of course.”
Tallulah avoided Nick’s scrutiny as she passed him by and left the audition room, plopping into a waiting chair with a shaky breath. To steady her frayed nerves, she pulled out her phone and called Mrs. Newberry, her neighbor and trusty babysitter.
“Hey, Mrs. N. It’s me Tally,” she greeted with a warm smile.
“Oh, hello, sweetheart,” Mrs. Newberry said. “How is the audition going?”
“I have no clue,” Tallulah confessed, “but I hope Milo isn’t giving you too much trouble.”
Mrs. Newberry laughed brightly. “Heavens no. That baby boy is a total doll. He’s setting up that new computer my daughter Caroline bought me for my birthday. She’s been nagging me about not using it. She wants to talk to her on some video calling program called Sky or something.”
Tallulah shook her head. “It’s called Skype, Mrs. Newberry.”
“Sky, Skype, who gives a damn,” Mrs. Newberry huffed.
“That’s money in the swear jar, Mrs. N,” Milo said from somewhere in the distance. Tallulah clasped a hand over her mouth, swallowing back a laugh. Her son was a real hustler when it came to his swear jars.
Nick stepped out of the audition room and she rushed her neighbor off the phone as politely as she could.
“In my biggest audition thus far and you decide to go off the dome. Really, Nick?” Tallulah glared at him.
“I did you a favor,” Nick claimed before he added, “Oh, and it’s good to see you too, Ray, unless you want to keep pretending that we don’t know each other.”
She snorted a laugh. “You did me a favor? Maybe, you’ve been at the top so long than you forget what it’s like to be at the bottom. Eugene’s going to let you get away with improvising, but an unknown like me? I doubt it.”
“Gene gave me my first big break and you want to know why? The one and only Davis Stone improvised during my audition for the role as his son in his last film before he retired from acting. I rolled with it. Little did I know, it was my saving grace and my first taste of working with Gene,” he said as he settled comfortably into a seat across the way and stroked his beard, jerking his chin to her script in her lap. “That script will change fifty million damn times during production and even then, there will be a lot of improv after you get the part. Gene loves it when his actors feed off each other to survive.”
Tallulah frowned. “When? You can’t guarantee I’ll get the part.”
“I sure the fuck can,” he said.
“And how do you know that, Nick?”
“Because less than two minutes ago, I told everyone in that goddamn room I wanted you in that part or I’d give them hell,” he said, shrugging casually. “The perks of being an A-list celebrity.”
Her lips faltered. “Why would you do that?”
“Come on, Desiree. If a science teacher graded that chemistry test, our score would be off the charts. There’s no point in denying we’ve got chemistry or the fact that we have chemistry because of our history. I’ve agreed to lead Gene’s film because I’m hungry for authenticity. I’m fucking starving and I need the right people to feed me,” he said, his blue eyes boring into her boldly. “And if you feed me well, I promise return the favor.”
She winced at her first name, a testament to an old life.
Finn strolled out of the audition room, rubbing his hands together. “I see you two have gotten reacquainted. A lot has happened in nearly nine years.”
“Yes,” Tallulah agreed.
“Indeed,” Nick joined.
Finn settled his attention on her. “I assume Nick’s big mouth told you the news?”
Nick grinned, running his fingers through his hair. “Of course. I’m terrible with secrets.”
“Some of us hold secrets much better than others,” Finn expressed innocently, earning a mean scowl from Tallulah, “but that’s neither here or there. Eugene wants to begin filming as soon as possible. We’ve got a mountain of paperwork to go through over the next few days and much to discuss, Tally Edmond.”
She concurred tightly. “Yes, we have a lot to discuss, Finn.”
After Finn excused when Eugene barked his name, Tallulah gathered her things and rose from her seat.
Nick followed suit, glancing at his pricy smart wristwatch that could most definitely pay for Milo’s future college tuition. “Still plenty of time get breakfast.”
She paused, cocking a head at him. “What are you getting at, Nick?”
“We haven’t seen each other in just about nine years, Ray. Old friends catch up.”
Tallulah shook her head, showing off her thumb. “First off, we haven’t seen each other in almost nine years for a good reason, Nick.”
Glancing around to ensure their privacy, she lifted her index finger as a second digit, adding in a hushed whisper as she approached him, “Second off, we’re not old friends. We were never friends. I was your wife back then and I’m your ex-wife now.”
A slight grin etched onto his lips as he looked down at her with those gorgeous blue eyes. “Why do I have an inkling there’s a ‘third off’ somewhere?”
She gave him the middle finger as her sole performer. “Third off, let’s be honest, Nicholas. Us having breakfast and ‘catching up’ will garter unwanted attention. I don’t need my fat black ass plastered all over the tabloids and gossip blogs looking like your charity case, especially when barely a month ago pictures of you with a topless Australian model eating breakfast off your abs on her billionaire daddy’s 400-foot yacht went viral.”
“First off, it was a 457-foot yacht,” he corrected, tiny wrinkles of amusements crinkled around his eyes as he gazed down at her. “Second off, don’t get judgy, Desiree Tallulah. Once upon a time, I ate a lot of things off you. Third—and most importantly—off, your ass— “
Holding up a palm, Tallulah interrupted him with a frustrated groan, rolling her eyes far into the back of her head. She swirled on her heels, turning to leave.
“See you soon, Ray.”
She tossed him a begrudging peace-out. “Deuces, Nick.”