The business to righting a wrong began at a café table underneath a blood-orange outdoor umbrella. The trio of actors fared exceedingly well at the kind smiles, quick hugs, and cheek kisses, but it was all a performance for staff and patrons around them. After halfway through their beverages and meals, the meeting's intent then made clear.
"I think it's absolutely adorable how in love Jules and Milo are," Naomi said before taking a sip of her drink. "At the end of the film, they shared their first little kiss."
Tallulah brought a forkful of salad to her lips then paused at the news. Why were young mothers like Naomi so eager to accelerate or sacrifice their child's childhood in exchange for a friendship? Tallulah's childhood-her innocence-was robbed from her. Not just by her mother's death, but by her parents' choices.
She refused to take that away from Milo.
"Love is a strong word to throw around, Naomi," Nick said. "They're only nine years old."
"We can't deny how they feel. Love transcends all things. Age, race, appearance," Naomi countered, eyeing Tallulah at the word appearance. Tallulah glided her tongue across her teeth and forced a tight but polite smile, deciding to eat her salad quietly in lieu of slapping the shit out of Nick's ex.
Nick narrowed his gaze at thinly veiled dig. "Appearances can be pretty fucking deceiving."
"Well, since we're on the topic of appearances." Naomi snapped her fingers, side-stepping Nick's comment. "I think our families should take a vacation to Disneyland so the kids can have their first official outing."
Nick clenched his jaw and carefully set his fork down. "No."
Surprise flashed in Naomi's eyes. "It'll be good for the kids."
"That's not what's best for our son," he said. "There'll be no official outings, dates, sleepovers. None of that shit."
Naomi's face reddened. "We agreed that-"
Nick, however, cut her down swiftly. "It wasn't our place to agree to anything without the input of my child's mother."
A hot tangle of satisfaction and love flushed Tallulah's system, his words patching up any metaphorical damage inflicted upon her due his deceit. She was still angry at him for all the secrecy, but she couldn't deny his effort. He was fighting for them. He was fighting for their family. Tallulah couldn't discount that no matter how pissed she was at him-at this whole situation.
Tallulah hid her slight smile by drinking her iced mint tea.
"Well, what's your input?" A flustered Naomi darted her scrutiny over to Tallulah. The p in input popped off her tongue like a fiery gunshot.
Tallulah resumed eating her salad, jabbing and consuming a ripe tomato slice. "I agree wholeheartedly with Nick."
"I beg to differ. It sounds like Nick's agreeing with you," Naomi retorted crossly, an allegation lacing every uttered syllable.
An allegation that didn't sit well with Tallulah.
Nick rose, retrieved his wallet, and dropped two Benjamins. "I think we've entertained this long enough."
"Now you want to run away, Nicky? You such a coward," Naomi hissed lowly.
"You can call me whatever you want, but I ain't gonna sit around and let you disrespect my wife." He aimed an accusatory finger at her, a potent wave of anger radiating out his pores. His ex-girlfriend shrank back accordingly, her brilliant blue eyes swelling in size.
Wife. Shock pulsed within Tallulah wildly at hearing that four-letter word. The word that was most definitely a mistake uttered in a heated moment, but it hung in the sunny California air like a tangible foreshadowing.
Attention was drawn in from all around. The patrons finally sieved the dark shades and casual clothes, unveiling the truth that celebrities were amongst them. Out came the cellphones. Through her dumbfounded daze, Tallulah overheard a collective chorus of phone cameras' snap-snap-snapping as patrons captured this unscripted scene.
Only God knew how many were recording it.
He grabbed her wrist and hauled her away. Reaching his Mercedes, he opened the car door for her. A speechless Tallulah slipped inside, her plush body sinking into the fine leather. He claimed his role as driver and peeled off, tires shrieking as his foot abused the gas pedal and his hands skillfully jerked at the wheel.
Beyond the engine's furious roaring, a bizarre silence infected the car. His driving's pulse slowed to a crawl as the infamous Los Angeles traffic clotted the roadways.
"I hate this fucking city, Ray," he spoke concisely, hatred carving into his face. His fists curled tighter on the steering wheel.
Tallulah gathered the nerve to stroke his arm, hoping it'd quell whatever fire raging within him. "Maybe, we should get away for Thanksgiving break. A family vacation would be good for us."
It would be their first one.
His muscles untensed at her soft touch and locked gazes with her, plunging her into an icy ocean of fathomless blue. A chill skittered down her spine as she drowned his eyes and his desperation swimming in these depths like a shark.
"Whisk us away, Nick," she whispered tenderly as she leaned in, planting an airy kiss on his neck. "Take us away from all of this. Take us to places we've never been."
All Tallulah had ever known was the Golden Coast and her love and hate for it was of equal measures. She was ready to experience the world beyond Hollywood. Beyond Los Angeles. Beyond California. This sun-drenched land of milk, honey, and fame changed, broke, and destroyed people. Nick was broken. He relied on liquor to numb his pain, but now, he had given that up. He had given up all his coping mechanisms for her and Milo even if it meant his pain would get worse before it ever got better.
His AA meetings were helping. His therapy was helping. Her and Milo's love for him was helping, but you couldn't heal in the same place that made you sick.
He needed a change of scenery and a breath of fresh air.
And she wanted to be at his side through it all, but it was nine days until the Thanksgiving holiday break. Ahead of them was nine days full of photoshoots, magazine interviews, a birthday celebration, and a school gala.
They could make it through this.
They had each other.
The next morning an irritated Juan marched onto the patio; a signature scowl nailed to his face. The Bryant family was in the midst of having a poolside breakfast.
"Good morning, Mr. Vega," Milo beamed, chewing on his omelet.
The boy's sunny mood halted Juan's determined stride.
"Erm, morning, kid," he greeted, an awkward smile cracking through his annoyance. He settled into an empty spot, aiming a pointed glare at Nick.
Tallulah took it as her cue to smooth a tender hand over her son's head. "Alright, time to get ready for school."
Milo shoved a final forkful into his mouth, chewed vigorously, and swallowed, scurrying away.
"You've been avoiding my calls," Juan growled, a tight smile twitching.
"What can I say? I like it when you bitch at me in person." Nick drank his coffee, shrugging.
Juan exhaled sharply, massaging his left temple. "Alright, mind telling me what the fuck at Café Citron yesterday?"
"Don't ask questions you already know the answer to, Juan," Nick said indifferently.
"How bad is the damage?" Tallulah asked. "How did the media spin it this time?"
Juan furrowed his brow. "You haven't looked yourself?"
"No, I haven't. I learned a hard lesson the last time I did," she replied, flickering her gaze to Nick. A devilish glint illuminated his vivid eyes. Two splotches of heat blossomed onto her cheeks as they shared a collective moment only lovers were privy to.
Juan extracted his cell and read aloud article titles. "Nick Bryant & Tally Edmond secretly elope. California King Nick Bryant crowns baby-mama Tally Edmond as his new Queen. Naomi devastated by Nick & Tally's elopement. Unbothered married Tally Edmond eats salad while the world screams. Nick ties knot with Tally to stay in son's life."
Nick chuckled richly at the fourth title, shaking his head. Tallulah's mouth, however, fell open as surprise electrocuted her, Nick's ferocious defense replaying in her mind: "You can call me whatever you want, but I ain't gonna sit around and let you disrespect my wife."
She sputtered a nervous laugh. "It was a simple slip of the tongue."
"Simple things are always blown out of portion when it comes to celebrities, chica," Juan commented, sighing as he put away his phone. A blunder spurred a tempest of allegations and conspiracies.
Now, the whole world believed they were married.
"What are we going to do about this?" Tallulah flitted her anxious attention between the two industry masters, relying on them for a solution.
"Nothing," Nick replied tiredly. "Let them believe what they want."
She hated his nonchalance attitude.
A quiet anger braided her words. "They wouldn't have believed we're married if you hadn't called me your wife, Nicholas."
"Is it such a bad thing they do, Desiree?" Nick tossed back.
Juan cleared his throat uncomfortably, shifting in his seat. "I'll give you two some privacy."
"No need. Stay. I need to take Milo to school." Tallulah rose abruptly from her seat, marching away.
As the garage door lifted to welcome the BWM, shock robbed Tallulah's breath as Nick waited for her. Her heart stammered as she eased the vehicle into the 8-car garage and shut off the ignition. She stewed in the driver's seat, her brain scrambling for an escape route. The entire trip home she analyzed a medley of strategies: head-on confrontation, quiet avoidance, defensive side-steps.
But as he coolly sauntered to the car, all those sound plans flew out the window.
Nick opened the door for her to exit-for her to face him.
Tallulah hesitantly stepped out.
"Welcome home, wife," he greeted humorlessly, a challenge flaring in his eyes for her to correct him.
She gifted him a pristine middle finger as she passed him, but he took ahold of her forearm and drove her against the car's hood, forcing her to sit on the heated metal.
"Comfortable?" He hiked an eyebrow as he released her arm, planting his hands on either sides of her bare thighs-caging her in as he leaned in dangerously close.
"So comfortable I'm almost thought I was on cloud nine for a second," she retaliated sweetly.
"You didn't answer my question I asked at breakfast, Desiree," he said throatily, his calloused thumb grazing her outer thigh; inspiring her capacity to think to quaver. "Don't leave me in suspense."
"I'm still trying to adjust to being a celebrity's partner. I don't know if I can handle being a celebrity's wife. Regardless of it's gossip or genuine. I don't have the mental or emotional capacity for that and I'm not sure when I will. I don't want this life to break me like it did my mom, Nick. I can't do that to Milo." Tallulah dragged her teeth over her bottom lip as a flood of emotions engulfed her, hot tears bubbling up.
He pressed his forehead against hers, cupping her cheek. "You've got to ignore them, baby."
She squeezed her eyes shut and sniffled, her tears breaking free. "It's hard, Nick. It's so fucking hard."
She had done so well in avoiding the gossip magazines, blogs, and entertainment shows like the plague, but at the base of her skull, a reminder pulsed like a steady heartbeat. Lies about you are out there, the tiny voice of insecurity whispered.
He brushed away her wet sadness. "I think I've got just the thing."
"What?" she croaked softly.
"Let's fuck with them, Desiree," he said. "We know they're there, but we're actors and what do actors do when the cameras are rolling?"
Tallulah whispered, "Act like they don't exist."
"That's right, baby." He grinned, kissing her nose's tip. "We'll give them the show we want. Not what they twist around and make into something else. But in order for this to work, you've to flaunt it. You've got to own all the things I love about you. Can you do that?"
"I can try."
Nick shook his head. "No more trying. Say you can do it."
"I can do it," she reiterated like a bride saying her vows at the altar.
"That's what I like to hear. Now, c'mere." He gripped her thighs and dragged her close to him. She framed his bearded jaws with her hands as he claimed her mouth, plunging his tongue inside.
"You have a photoshoot today," she breathed in-between his domination.
"What's the point of having expensive cars if I can't ravish you on them or in them?" he posed in a husky growl that made her tingly and wet. A giggle hummed brightly in her throat at his frustration.
Nick wrenched a laugh out of her as he hauled her over his shoulder, carrying her off.
"Where are you taking me?"
"We've got to get ready. You're coming with me to the photoshoot."
His voiced intentions sucked the humor out of her lungs.
"Yes, yes, yes. Perfect," Dmitri Chernov, the Russian photographer, exclaimed as Nick lounged in a clawed bathtub and smoked a cigar, allowing smoke to flutter out his parted lips. A perfect tailored suit clung to his body. The first few buttons of his button-down were undone as a teasing peek to his hardened physique. He stared dead-on into the camera, offering a confident smoldering look only a Hollywood king could muster.
A full-fledged photoshoot crew commandeered a Beverly Hills mansion for the day. As crewmembers and equipment clotted much of the space, Tallulah found a prime spot to watch the Nick Bryant in action. Locked Out of Heaven by Bruno Mars played from nearby speakers to establish a mood.
"Let's get some shots of you looking away," Dmitri instructed. Nick lolled his head and pinned her with a single look. He ran his tongue across his teeth and casted a wink.
Tallulah crossed her arms and swallowed down a laugh, rolling her eyes.
"I like, I like," Dmitri snarled enthusiastically as he vigorously snapped photos. "Alright, I want some bed shoots. We'll lose the jacket and undo all the buttons."
A crew assistant arrived at the empty tub and presented an ashtray for Nick to snuff out the cigar. He rose and stepped out, heading straight to her as the crew swarmed around to move necessary equipment to the next location.
"You enjoyin' yourself?" Nick smirked as he shrugged off his jacket, passing it to the wardrobe stylist.
"I suppose I find some mild entertainment in watching you be a cocky rich bastard," she replied teasingly.
He feigned disappointment as he unbuttoned his shirt. "Just mild? I need to up my fuckin' ante then."
Eventually, Nick ended up on a rumpled bed. A hair stylist used a brush to ruffle his hair to achieve a sexy disheveled look. As Dmitri commenced a flurry of snapshots and barking out commands, a smug Nick laid a hand on his crotch.
Tallulah pursed her lips together to contain her laughter.
"Put your hand elsewhere," Dmitri directed to which Nick obliged, instead deciding to massage his pec sensually and toy a nipple. His choices garnered confused looks, but because of who he was, everyone just went with it.
Oh, the power of celebrity, but while everyone saw Nick Bryant, she saw Nicholas Bryant behind the blinding stardom.
And she was falling in love with him all over again.
Tallulah's eyelids fluttered as her eyeballs rolled back to the whites. Her fingers braced the foggy glass as her slippery pussy glided up and down his cock at her pace. Nick's grip bruised her hips as she tormented him with a hellishly slow tempo. His red handprints decorated her bottom from where he struck her to establish dominance which graduated to grabbing meaty fistfuls to show his reluctant submission.
"You enjoying yourself?" she reiterated his photoshoot question in a husky whisper.
"You're gettin' cocky, Diamond," he breathed against her neck's column and dragged a rough hungry tongue up it. "Puttin' all this delicious pressure on me."
She curled her fingers around his throat and squeezed, tilting his mouth up to hers. She sucked in a sharp breath as she sunk onto him in a hard plop and grounded her ass in his lap in circular motions, her fingertips soaking in his trapped groan's vibrations.
Tallulah smiled as she caressed his lips teasingly with hers, drawing away when he tried to ensnare her in a dark desperate kiss. "Are you going to crack, Nicholas?"
"Naw, I'm gonna shatter," he growled, palming both her asscheeks as she broke him down with each masterful roll of her hips. She loved him this way. Wrapped around her finger. Completely at her mercy by his choice. It wasn't lost to her that Nick could've snatched away her control a while ago and ravished her in the backseat of a car the cost of Ivy League student loan debt. But he didn't. He wanted to be her victim. He wanted to be tangled in her web of seduction.
And that made her wetter than the Pacific Ocean.
"If you can't take it, do you want me to stop?" she whispered, dipping her tongue into his mouth like bait then reeled it out. A dark anger burned in his blue eyes at her toying. She was playing with fire. She was tiptoeing an ultra-thin line between being in charge and him taking charge.
That exhilarated her.
"Don't," he answered, his tone raw with quavering restraint.
The word sent electricity to her throbbing clit, further powering her cockiness.
His objection to her stopping unlocked something inside her. Unable to bear her own devious rhythm, she rode his cock in wild abandon. An unadulterated pleasure engulfed her in droves. He reestablished his dominance by gripping a fistful of her hair and forcing her mouth onto his, pulling her into a furious world-dissolving kiss that was all thrashing tongues and mean teeth.
An animalistic need to cream on his thick cock consumed her.
"You're mine," she whispered roughly, biting his bottom lip hard then let go. "Mine. Not theirs."
Theirs as in the world's. Evidence of today's photoshoot would soon enough be plastered all over an international magazine, blogs, online forums, fan sites, and entertainment news segments.
But the world couldn't have him.
He was hers.
"Always. You own me, baby," he guaranteed throatily as his calloused hands held onto her hips while she rode him frantically, steering herself toward a head-on collision with an inevitable orgasm.
She caught a glimpse of him entranced by her pursuit of rapture as if he didn't want to miss a single moment. A silent cry wrapped in a smile heralded her undoing. Her muscles spasmed as she climaxed hard. She stilled her tempo as she reaped her reward. Her body was a quivering bundle of live nerves. She dropped her sweaty forehead against his neck's crook as she descended from her orgasmic high.
Nick claimed her hand and made her curl it around a hard roof handle.
Immediately, she knew what that meant. He purposely held back falling victim to his own climax. He was still seated deep in her; rock hard and ready for another round.
"Hold tight, Diamond."
She obliged, gasping sharply as he drove his hips upward.