A successful film actress auditions for TV and receives the two biggest surprises of her career. 6,436 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
She had turned 52 in September, a Virgo, a beautiful woman whose looks could still excite. Her skin was supple and her face clear. Lovely curves in the right places. Double Cs, natural. Great legs. Twenty-six inch waist. Long red hair. White wonderful smile. But her agent hadn’t returned her calls and it had been three days.
She hoped another agency, one of the big ones, would call, but they hadn’t, and she was afraid to call them. Hollywood was a small town. If she tried to make a move, her agent Ron Astor would find out. He could fire her, and if that happened, everyone in a matter of days would know the public stigma inevitably attached to actors fired by their agents. The other agencies would ask questions. Was she too difficult to work with? Was she unreliable? Was she washed up?
She might never work again.
Laurie Blane lived in the Hollywood Hills in a home she had purchased 30 years earlier, now worth about $14 million. At the time, the asking price had seemed exorbitant – $1.2 million – but the year before she had been nominated for Best Supporting Actress and that had led to several high paying jobs. She’d paid cash.
From her back patio, the night views of the city below were mesmerizing. Laurie felt the urge to throw a party, wanted to show herself off and let people know she was still alive and able to work. But she was broke, down to her last $5,000.
As she sat in her dining room drinking herbal tea, she held a property tax bill from Los Angeles County. They wanted $18, 244.17, and that was just the first installment, due on November 1st. She set it aside, only to stare at the next bill, for water: $874.13 that was four days overdue. Electric bill: $399.28. Cell phone: $183.45. Pool maintenance: $775.00. Credit card: $2,815.00. She picked up the credit card statement and studied it for nearly a full minute, scrutinizing all of her recent purchases.
There were other bills beneath the credit card statement, but she ignored them. She picked up her tea and walked into her back yard, her mind racing. How was she going to pay her property taxes? Where would she find the money for all the other bills? She had to find work. She had to make money.
Suddenly, her yoga training kicked in. Relax. Take a deep breath. She set the tea on a patio table and walked toward the far edge. She assumed a broad yoga stance, and, for a few seconds, she looked out over the entire Los Angeles basin. The Santa Ana winds had blown all the smog out to sea, and the view was exceptionally clear. She closed her eyes and then opened them, and turned and calmly walked back to the table and took in her surroundings.
She loved her house. She loved her patio and back yard elaborately landscaped with flower gardens and eucalyptus trees. Dozens of Leucophyllum frutescens shrubs, purple sage, were scattered about the hillsides. Six olive trees sat on the slope to the west, along with several strawberry trees now covered with bright red fruit. Birds were hopping from one strawberry tree to the next. One large Blue Jay, its feathers shining in the morning sun, seemed especially energetic. Laurie realized that, in spite of her troubles, it was going to be a beautiful day.
Her swimming pool was very retro, but she had decided to leave it that way. What she liked about it was its size. The original owner had the custom pool built to his specifications: 46 feet long, 21 feet wide, 12 feet deep at one end. A solitary diving board. The pool was in the center of the yard, gardens surrounding it on three sides. There was no lawn anywhere. She had ripped it out years earlier to save water. Instead of concrete all over, she had designed a landscape that included drought tolerant plants and flowers providing a colorful display of blue, lavender, red, orange, and yellow. Two large lemon trees were growing in the northeast corner of the back yard, both heavy with flowers, and the scent of citrus drifted over the patio.
This would have been a good time of year to throw a party. Her last party, now a distant memory, had been five years ago. It had cost her $18,000, but there had been live music. Lots of wine, tequila and margaritas. All her friends had come. Ron Astor had brought his wife and several associates. But a lot had happened since then.
The years had gone by fast, and she had been offered a few roles. But all of them were in television. She had turned down every one, much to the dismay of her agent, and that had led to friction between them. He wanted her to take a part in a series. Steady income. But Laurie wanted film roles. She thought television was so shallow, and so stupid, success measured by rankings and ratings and audience shares and demographics that had no meaning for her. How could any decent actress descend to such bullshit?
Because, she knew there were bills to pay. Homes to keep up. She figured it was pretty much the same for all aging actresses, except the top ones who could find good roles regardless of their age. But she had always been considered more beautiful than talented, and she was barely hanging on in an industry that prized youth.
For a brief second, she wondered if she had run out of hope. She even wondered if she had a future.
Laurie finished her tea and ran through her options. She could marry Robert, her boyfriend, a film producer who made seven figures a year. But she had been wed twice before and neither marriage had worked out. She loved Robert, but she wasn’t in love. And besides, she was pretty sure Robert was seeing someone else.
She could throw herself at the feet of several movie producers she knew and campaign for a film role. But that might be viewed as a desperation move. It could easily backfire. Astor wouldn’t approve.
With her good credit, she could mortgage the house. Based on its appraisal, she could easily get a loan for a large amount, more than enough to take care of her for many years. But in her heart, it was the last thing she wanted to do. She liked owning her home free and clear. She wanted to remain here when she retired.
She could accept the role that had recently been offered in a television pilot, but Astor had said she would have to read for the part, a humiliating experience she was unwilling to endure. How could he have arranged such a thing? What was he thinking? He had become such an incredible asshole.
Her cell phone rang. “Hello, Ron. I was just thinking about you.”
“Hello, darling. I’m very sorry. I’ve been so busy the last few days. How are you?”
“I’m fine, Ron. I’ve been thinking about reading for that pilot you told me about. Is it still available?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact, that’s why I called. Listen to this, Laurie. I found out that at least 10 actresses have read for it, and the producers didn’t like any of them. You were always their first choice.”
“Will you arrange it?”
And the call ended. Was she making the right decision? What other choices did she have? Fifteen minutes later, he called again.
“Laurie, it’s me. OK, it’s set for tomorrow morning, ten o’clock. They want you to wear an evening dress. Black. I suggest something with cleavage.”
There was a long pause.
“What about them sending the script over today so I can study the part?”
“Whatever it is, it’s top secret. No one is seeing the script.”
“Then, how can you be sure if I’m right for the part?”
“Listen, Laurie, don’t worry about it. Of course you’re right for this. Just go over there and read what they give you. If they make an offer, we’ll negotiate. I’ll get you the best deal I can. Leave that to me. If this pilot flies, you’ll have a guaranteed source of income for the next five years. Just give it your best, and if I know you, that’s more than good enough. OK?”
“They’re sending a car?”
“Yes. They will pick you up at 9:30. Can you be ready?”
“Of course I’ll be ready.”
“One more thing. Tomorrow night, my boss is having a dinner party at his place, and you’re invited. Not too big. Only 20 or 30 people.”
“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“Look, it will give us a chance to talk. I’ll be able to fill you in on the details of the series. I may have figures.”
There was a long pause.
“It would mean a lot to me, personally, if you came. Everyone wants to see you. Jack wants to see you. It would be good for you to get out. There’ll be some very famous people there. He’ll have lots of security.”
At hearing this, Laurie immediately felt like she was being conned. Astor was so full of shit.
“Ron, you’re such an angel. What would I do without you?”
“Laurie, get a good night’s sleep tonight. Tomorrow’s reading will be very important for your career. We’ll talk tomorrow night. Bye, Laurie.”
And the phone went quiet.
She rose from the chair and took off her blouse and shorts. She wasn’t wearing underwear. She stepped to the edge of the pool and dove in. As she swam laps, she thought about the conversation with Astor. "We’ll talk tomorrow night." His arrogance overwhelmed her. He had assumed she was coming to his boss’ little get-together. That bothered her. Such was the state of show business, but she didn’t like being taken for granted.
Other thoughts raced through her head. Why did Astor want her at the dinner party? Why did life have to be so complicated?
After swimming 32 laps, using different strokes, she went into the middle of the deep end and began to tread water. She started doing crunches, raising her outstretched legs up and down, creating resistance in her lower abs. After doing sixty in a row, her abdominal muscles were on fire. She didn’t stop. Instead she did 40 more. Only after doing 100 crunches did she swim to the side and climb out.
She walked back to the table, not putting her clothes back on, wanting to feel the warmth of the sun on her body. After her workout in the pool, she felt good about herself. Confident.
Her acting coach had told her a hundred times that you must do everything possible to stay healthy. Professionals don’t do drugs, and they rarely drink. Skin was important. Hair was important. Eyes were important. Teeth were important. As an actress, her looks and her good health were everything. Her body was her vessel. Without it, she had no career.
Agents, producers, and directors, and the camera itself, all prized good-looking women. But as she aged, it was becoming more and more difficult. Time marched on. Aging was inevitable. Many successful actresses simply gave up. They left the profession. Or they married. Some married agents or producers. A select few married industry outsiders, but almost always someone with money.
Some resorted to cosmetic surgery. Face lifts, peels, injections. Laurie shuddered at the thought. She didn’t want to wind up on one of those Internet lists of The 25 Worst-Aging Celebrities, objects of pity.
Some famous actresses were now doing infomercials, selling cosmetics or miracle skin creams that eliminated wrinkles. She wondered if she would ever resort to product endorsements. Perhaps if the money was right. Why not?
An hour later, Marty called. She said she wouldn’t be able to make it today. Would tomorrow be okay? Marty was her personal assistant who had been with her for the last 14 years, very reliable, completely honest. She only came to the house a few days a week, but Laurie paid her $600 a week because her loyalty was worth every penny.
“Yes, dear. See you tomorrow. In the morning, I have to go into town for an audition. I should be back just after noon. See you then.”
Laurie was glad to have the house to herself, and for the rest of the day, she mentally prepared herself for the audition. She hadn’t done a cold reading in years, but she remembered how nerve-wracking they could be. The worst thing was not knowing exactly what she would have to say. Would it be a monologue, or would she have a partner? If she had a partner, would it be a man or a woman? A seasoned actor, or some fresh kid? How many people would be in the room?
She made mental notes. Memorize the first three lines. Memorize the last three lines. If the script had multiple pages, she would dog-ear them so they were easier to turn. Most important, though, was getting the right feel for the character she would play. She would have to identify who her character was and play the part with the correct attitude and emotion and inflection. And she couldn’t make stupid mistakes. She needed to impress them with her skills. She had to enunciate the words properly.
At that thought, Laurie put her clothes back on and went into her house. She walked into the library and pulled out Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet from the bookshelf. She opened it and began reading the first essay aloud as she paced around the room. She went on to the next essay, and then to the next. For the rest of the day, she practiced reading aloud. And when she had finished, she felt ready to do a cold reading.
That night, she meditated for nearly two hours. Her mantra was simple — be brave and everything will be all right, a theme she repeated over and over to herself. At nine o’clock, hungry and tired, she went to bed and slept deeply.
The next morning, she showered, did her own hair and makeup, and put on a black dress. At precisely 9:30, the car arrived and the driver held the door open for her as she settled in the back seat. As the car headed into the city, Laurie tried to relax, but she found it difficult. She was perspiring, and her palms were sweaty. She couldn’t remember the last time that had happened, and she shook her head in disgust. Why I am nervous, over a fucking television audition? She got angry, chastising herself for being so amateurish. As she thought about it, she realized the audition must have meant more to her than she dared admit.
When they arrived at the studio, the driver drove through a side entrance, taking a circuitous route through the backlot to a sound stage used exclusively for television production. A young woman stood at the entrance, waiting, and as Laurie got out of the car, she walked over, extending her hand.
“Ms. Blane, hi, I’m Cheryl Hansen. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Hi, Cheryl,” Laurie smiled, and as the two women shook hands, she added, “It’s nice to meet you, too.”
“We’re ready, Ms. Blane, so if you’ll come with me, everything is set up for you.” Cheryl smiled again, gesturing toward the entrance, and she led Laurie inside the gigantic building, taking her to a small rehearsal room about sixty feet beyond the entrance, opening the door to reveal a well-lit room with a camera and several men inside.
“Mr. Green, here is Ms. Blane.” Cheryl made the announcement, then exited the room.
“Hi, Laurie. I’m Herb Green.” He shook hands with her, giving her a toothy grin.
“Hi, Herb. Have we met before?”
“No, I would certainly remember that. Let me introduce my assistants. This is Matt Simmons, and this is John Wright.”
Laurie shook hands with both men.
“And this is our cameraman, Pete Ryan.”
“How do you do, Ms. Blane.” Pete shyly shook hands and quickly stepped back to his camera.
Simmons handed her a two-page script. “Why don’t you take a few minutes to look this over. I’ll be your reading partner.” Then, he and Wright turned and sat down in two folding chairs lined up against one wall. Green took a position to one side of the camera.
Black tape in the shape of an X was on the floor in the middle of the room, the all-too-familiar mark. Laurie stepped onto it and began reading the script, silently. She memorized her first lines and the last lines, scanned through the rest. It was evidently a comedy, and she played the part of Norma. The other character was Will.
“Can you set this up for me? Who is Norma?”
“Norma is a fifty-something wife who meets Will, a younger man, and she is attracted to him, and these pages describe their flirtation.” The room fell silent.
Laurie read the pages one last time. She took a deep breath, looked up and said, “I’m ready.”
“Okay,” Green announced. He looked over at Ryan who nodded that he was ready. “Laurie Blane. Take one.”
And with those words, she began reading her part, holding the two pages firmly in her right hand. The reading went well. Smoothly. After it was all over, she was told her reading was wonderful and they were all effusive in their praise, thanking her, but they were noncommittal as to whether she had won the part. They needed to talk with her agency. She asked about the concept for the series. From the lines she had read, she couldn’t discern much about it.
Simmons said they weren’t at liberty to discuss it, that the concept for the series was under wraps, but she might soon find out. Laurie thanked them, and then Cheryl came in and together they walked out to the parking lot, and to the waiting car.
“Thank you, Ms. Blane. I’m sure Mr. Green will be in touch.”
Once again, the driver held the door open for her and she got in. She was happy with the way it had gone, but vague doubts began to surface. As the limo drove through Century City, a million thoughts ran through her mind. She realized she was entirely at their mercy. At Astor’s mercy. She felt powerless, in the grip of a system she had no control over, completely under their thumb.
When she got home, she found Marty in her kitchen, making lunch.
“How did it go?”
Laurie shrugged and smiled. “I don’t know. They’re being very mysterious. Secretive.”
“Did you know them?”
Laurie shook her head. “No. Never met them before. They were very professional, though.” She shrugged again. “We’ll see.”
“Astor’s secretary called an hour ago. She wanted to confirm you’re going tonight. She asked if you would wear an evening dress. Oh, and Robert called. He said he has to go out of town today. He’s scouting a location up north. So, I didn’t tell him about the dinner party.”
Scouting a location? Laurie blinked. She realized at once it was the beginning of the end for them.
“It’s okay, Marty. Actually, I’d rather go without him.”
Marty nodded, frowning, sensing Robert was up to something.
“So, then you’re going?”
“Yes, Ron wants me there. Besides, he might have news for me about my audition. After lunch, call his secretary and tell her I’ll be there.”
She stared at the counter where Marty was chopping green onions, adding them to a large salad bowl. “That looks good. Let me help. I’m going to go undress. I’ll be right back.”
She went upstairs and took off her dress, carefully hanging it. She had already decided she would wear it this evening. It was comfortable and she knew she looked good in it. She put on a tank top and shorts and went back down to the kitchen, helping Marty put the finishing touches on their salad by slicing two large avocadoes, and as they both ate together, neither one of them mentioned Robert.
That night, Laurie drove herself to Jack Martin’s house in Beverly Hills. Martin was a power player in Hollywood, heading an agency of more than three hundred agents. The agency was making headway in a business known for its callous competitiveness. Some referred to it as agency wars. One agency stealing agents from other agencies, stealing clients, too. Clients changing agents on a whim. Ambitious agents switching their allegiance to some other agency. Everyone gaming everyone else, and yet they were all making serious money.
And I’m not seeing any of it.
Late for the party, she parked her Mercedes on the street. As she walked toward the house, she saw that several security people were directing guests toward a gate that led to the back of the house, except it was more than a house.
Jack Martin’s home was palatial, an eighteen thousand square foot, three-story mansion with two tennis courts, a huge swimming pool with a large grotto, magnificent tall palm trees, magnificent rock and stone work, magnificent walkways, magnificent lawns, colorful gardens, hundreds of outdoor lights, altogether an impressive estate of palpable wealth.
Three security guards stood on either side of the gate. As she approached them, all three of them recognized her, one of them holding the gate open for her.
“Thanks,” she said, walking into Martin’s back yard. A tent had been set up for the food caterer, tables were set all around, and dozens of people were milling about, including some of the biggest names, on either side of the camera, in television. She stood there for a moment, taking it all in.
Then, to her left, she spotted Ron Astor. He was talking to Jack Martin. She walked toward them, wanting to let them know she was here, thanking them for inviting her. But as she got closer, they unexpectedly moved away, away from the party toward a more remote part of the yard.
Determined to say hello to them, she followed them. They had disappeared into some dense landscaping, large bushes growing on either side of the walkway.
She heard a voice, heard Astor’s animated voice, coming from the other side of a large bush that was growing nearly ten feet tall. She slowed as she got closer, suddenly realizing Astor was talking about her.
“Laurie Blane is in denial. She still thinks she’s got it.”
“Was he at all positive about her?”
“Green said she was too old for the role. And he didn’t like her red hair. He can’t use her.”
Laurie froze. Seconds later, she stealthily moved to her right, off the walkway. She stood like a statue, listening.
“So do you want to dump her?” Jack Martin asked.
“She’s becoming more trouble than she’s worth. She hasn’t really worked in 10 years, Jack. For God’s sake, she’s 52 years old.” He paused to sip a drink. Laurie heard the sound of ice clinking in his glass. “I don’t know, let me think about it.”
“What about Green? Will he look at some of the other girls?” More clinking ice.
“Yeah, he will. He’s agreed to take a look at several. I’m sending Ella. I’m sending Jill. Vivien. And Margo. They’re all in their late forties, except Margo. She’s 54, but she looks much younger.”
“She might be too old.”
“I won’t send her, Jack.”
“We need this deal, Ron. This is going to be a really big series. A hit. I can feel it. I want one of our clients in there.”
“I’ll do my best. I promise.”
“Come on, let’s get back.”
She quickly stepped behind a nearby bush and stood perfectly still as the two men walked by. She waited for several minutes, trying to compose herself, on the verge of tears, but she couldn’t hold them back. Teardrops started rolling down her cheeks. She turned, hurrying back toward the gate, knowing there was no way she could face anyone after what she had just overheard, but as she got close to the gate, a voice from behind her shouted out.
Laurie stopped and turned to see a man in a business suit jogging toward her. He ran right up to her, looked directly into her eyes, saw that she was crying, deftly pulled out a handkerchief and offered it to her. Laurie took it and began to dab her cheeks. She turned away while she wiped her face, then turned back toward him.
“Thanks,” she said, shaking away her tears.
“You’re Laurie Blane,” he said, his voice very serious. “You’re crying.”
“Yes. I’m crying.” She smiled and looked up into his face. The man was ruggedly handsome. Blue eyes. Black hair. A strong dimpled chin. She was instantly attracted. “I don’t care what the song says,” she said. “Big girls cry, too.”
He held out his hand. “I’m Russ Kelly.”
“Laurie Blane,” she said, shaking his hand.
“I know who you are. You’re the reason I came tonight.”
She didn’t respond.
“I told Jack I wanted to meet you, and he said he would arrange it.”
“He’s the one we’re dealing with.”
She looked at him with a questioning expression.
“We’re considering a rather substantial investment in Martin’s agency,” he explained. “My company is a private equity firm.”
“Kelly Capital Funds Sourcing.” He smiled, and leaned toward her. “We’ve been in meetings with Jack and his attorneys all week long, and when I found out the other day that they represent you, I asked that you be invited tonight. I wanted to meet you, and talk to you.”
“You asked that I be invited?” So that’s why Astor wanted me to come. That son-of-a-bitch.
“I have an idea and I wanted to talk to you about it,” he went on. “I didn’t really want to discuss it with Martin. I wanted to run it by you first. Laurie, I’ve seen all your movies. I think you’re a wonderful actress.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, why were you crying?”
“Because. It’s been a shitty day. And I’m 52 years old!” She turned away and headed for the gate.
“Please don’t go!” He ran forward and caught up to her. “I’m 52 also.” He said it softly, then smiled. “Why don’t you let me buy you a drink? You look like you could use one.”
Laurie shook her head, which only encouraged him to say more.
“I’m staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel,” he said. “They’ve got a great bar. What do you say? We’ll take my car.”
“Where are you from?”
“Australia. Sydney to be precise. I’ve travelled a long way. I would love to talk to you. Are you sure you won’t allow me to buy you a drink?” He tilted his head slightly, his grin infectious.
Who is this guy? And why did he have to be so handsome? And charming?
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” she said. “If you’re doing some deal with Jack Martin, I probably shouldn’t be seen with you.”
“Being seen with you is, I think, quite an honor.” He paused, letting his words sink in. “They also have great food. What do you say? Are you hungry?”
Laurie had only eaten a salad that day, and she was starving. At the mention of good food, she relented.
“OK, Mr. Kelly. You’re on, but are you sure you want to leave this party?”
“Yes, quite sure,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve met so many pompous jackasses in one place at one time in my entire life, and I was only there for all of 40 minutes. And please call me Russ.”
Before she could change her mind, he took her arm and led her out through the gate and past the security guards to Martin’s gigantic circular driveway, and to where his driver stood waiting by his limousine.
The driver immediately opened the back door for them. The door closed and for the moment they were alone in the car.
“Forgive me if I get tongue-tied,” he said. “I think I fell in love with you when I saw you in your first movie. And now, in real life, well, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone in real life as beautiful as you.” He grinned, utterly confident in everything he said, everything he did.
Laurie instinctively saw that he was being himself, disarmingly genuine. She reached out and put her hand on his knee. “You’re not so bad yourself,” she said.
The limo started to drive away, just as Jack Martin came running toward them, his arms flailing. “Keep driving,” Kelly ordered in a firm voice, and as the limo drove by the exasperated-looking, red-faced agency boss, Kelly and Laurie both laughed at the sight of him.
“What are you going to tell him?”
“That something more important came up,” he said.
As the car drove out onto the street, Laurie studied the man sitting next to her. His black suit had caught her eye. It appeared to be Armani. It made him look impeccable. When he caught her looking at him, he simply smiled, then turned to the window, gesturing outside.
“Lots of money here,” he remarked. “It seems like everyone has to live in their own mansion. I wonder what their electrical bills are like?”
“Very high,” she said. “Like everything else in this town.” She wondered why he would ask such a question, and, as if reading her mind, he looked directly into her eyes.
“In my line of work,” he said, “we scrutinize expenses. They tell us everything we need to know about a company.”
“What do you mean; everything?”
“The way a company spends money says a lot about them, about their mindset, about their discipline, or lack of discipline. You know, whether or not they have good internal cost control. For example, I’ve often wondered how an American film studio can spend a hundred million dollars on a movie, and still come up with such utter shit that they then try to pass off as being entertainment.” He shrugged, and smiled.
At hearing this, Laurie had to laugh. She turned away from him so he couldn’t see the delight in her eyes, the delight that also said she was glad she was in the car with him. He had the ability to make her laugh, and she hadn’t laughed in a long time. Maybe this was going to be an interesting evening, and she hoped it would.
The drive into downtown Beverly Hills took only a short time, and the limo pulled up to the main entrance of the hotel. The driver jumped out and moved toward their door, opening it.
“Here we are,” Kelly said. “I’m starving. What about you?”
“I’m starving, too.”
He got out first, then held her hand as she climbed out, and without giving it a second thought, she took his arm as they walked into the hotel. Several paparazzi came forward and started shooting photographs of the two of them. Within minutes, the photos of them together were being broadcast all over the Internet, both of them seen smiling like two lovers in love.
“Would the Polo Lounge be all right with you?”
“Yes, Russ. That would be fine.”
“The Polo Lounge it is, then.”
“First, let me use the ladies room. I need to fix my makeup.”
“I’ll wait over there,” he said. “Take your time.”
Laurie headed for the ladies room and when she looked at herself in the mirror, she saw that her mascara had smeared, and she looked terrible. She pulled out her cosmetics bag from her purse, and began working on her eyes. Within two minutes, she had reapplied her mascara and put more foundation below her eyes, replacing what her tears had washed away. She put on another layer of lipstick, and satisfied with her appearance, she exited the ladies room and walked back to where Kelly was waiting.
He seemed not to take notice of her transformation. He smiled broadly. “Shall we?”
She nodded and smiled, took his arm as he led her through the hotel, and to arguably one of the finest restaurants in the world.
When they were seated, two young men approached their table, one pouring water into their glasses, the other taking a position to Kelly’s left.
“Would you like something to drink, sir?”
Kelly gestured to Laurie. “What would you like?”
“House wine is fine,” she said. “Red.”
“Ms. Blane will have your red house wine,” Kelly said. “I’ll have the same.”
It was Friday night, and the restaurant was nearly full. Laurie was aware that several people were staring at her. Kelly noticed it, too.
“I suppose you’re used to it by now,” he said.
“One never really gets used to it, Russ. Let’s just say it comes with the territory.”
Within a minute, the waiter was back with a bottle of red wine, conspicuously pouring it into Kelly’s glass, then stepping back, but Kelly shook his head slightly and waved him toward Laurie.
“It will be fine,” he said, indicating he didn’t need to test it. He watched as the young man filled Laurie’s glass.
When the waiter had gone, Kelly hoisted his glass. “Here’s to lipstick,” he said.
She laughed, holding up her glass, taking a sip. “Why lipstick?”
“Because that’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” he said, and seeing the perplexed expression on her face, he grinned.
“Laurie, I have a proposition for you. My company recently bought a cosmetics company that specializes in organic lipstick. It’s a great product. No pork fat, no artificial dyes. All natural. All healthy. It’s loaded with jojoba oil and aloe vera. Jojoba oil is the best natural oil in the world for the skin and lips.” He paused and made intense direct eye contact with her. “I want you to be the international spokesperson, in all forms of media. Will you do it?”
Laurie seemed surprised. “Well, you certainly have my attention. Can you tell me more about it?”
For the next ten minutes, Kelly talked about his recent acquisition, and in that short time he sold her on the product. She watched with rapt attention as he spoke enthusiastically and earnestly. He ended his monologue with a question. “So, what do you say?”
“It sounds like a remarkable product,” she said. “Can I have time to think it over?”
“Of course,” he said. He pulled out his cell phone. “Can I have your phone number?”
She gave him her number. “Why me, Russ? Why do you want me to be the spokesperson?”
“Because I know you can do it,” he said. “Look, Laurie, I don’t know what the going rate for this sort of thing is, but I can assure you, you will be well-compensated. Whatever the going rate is, we’ll double it. I want you to sell my lipstick. I want this company to be successful. You would make the perfect spokesperson.”
A doubtful expression formed on her face.
“Everything has to go through my agent,” she said. “I’m not allowed to sign contracts. You’ll have to work with Ron Astor.”
“Consider it done. Now, why don’t we quit talking about business. I want to know more about you. Will you tell me all about yourself? I want to know all about you.”
And they talked all through dinner, and long after. At times, Laurie wondered if she was in the middle of a dream. Russ Kelly was the most fascinating man she had ever met. It was after eleven by the time he took her back to her car. When they pulled up next to it, he got out of the limo with her and walked her over to her Mercedes.
He looked at it with appreciation. “Nice car,” he said. “You have good taste.” He looked at her and his voice grew serious. “I want to thank you for having dinner with me. This has been quite an evening. You made my trip to America worthwhile.”
“It’s been a wonderful evening for me, too.”
“Will I see you again?”
“Do you want to see me again?”
“Yes. Are you free to have dinner with me tomorrow night?”
“I’d love to.” She hesitated, looking at him introspectively, waiting.
He smiled, then stepped forward and kissed her fully on her lips. And she kissed him back for nearly half a minute before pulling her lips away.
“Whew!” she said. “You’re making my head spin. I’d better go.”
“Yeah, me, too, before I make a complete fool of myself. Thanks, Laurie. I had a great time.”
She smiled demurely. She walked to her car and opened the driver’s door and got in, starting the engine, watching as he waved at her and went back to his limo. When he was inside, it moved forward, turned into a drive, went into reverse, and then drove away, driving right by her car. She waited until the limo was well down the street before pulling out.
As she drove herself home, all she could think about was the extraordinary turn of events. Suddenly, she wondered if he was married, something she had forgot to ask him. With her right hand, she searched the name Russ Kelly on her cell phone, quickly learning he was single, divorced, with a net worth of eight billion dollars. The words eight billion dollars jumped out at her, and she nearly ran her Mercedes off the road.
She tossed the phone into the passenger’s seat, a million thoughts racing through her head, the word lipstick foremost among them, the word indelibly imprinted in her mind.
The next morning, a special delivery package arrived just after ten, and when she took it into her house and opened it, she saw that it was a cosmetics case containing twenty-four tubes of various shades of lipstick.
A handwritten note lay on top.
Looking forward to dinner tonight. Would seven be all right?
She took out a tube of lipstick and held it up. The letters JAV stood out in elegant, black raised lettering. Laurie wondered what they stood for. Jojoba aloe vera?
She opened the tube and applied it to her lips. It went on soft and easy, a slight hint of berries. She pressed her lips together, instantly aware that this was a superior lipstick to anything she had ever used before, and she smiled. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
Lipstick. Yes, she told herself, I can sell lipstick.