I was going to pass out. The lights felt as if they were burning through my skin and I had a serious sense that I was underdressed despite it being only seven thirty in the morning.
Regardless of the years I had spent getting up early to go to school every morning, I had never considered myself a morning person.
Staring down the soulless eye of the black lens was doing nothing to calm my nerves which were only exasperated by the flurry of people darting around the set. All trying to set the scene better, touching up make-up, adjusting lights and fixing hair. Wires snaked across the floor in every direction until the floor itself was barely visible and beyond the lens, everything else was cast in darkness.
The woman across from us was getting her makeup fixed and barking orders at someone else, whilst going over pages of notes in her lap. They couldn’t all be for one interview?
“Hey,” I jumped at the sudden intrusion into my panic-induced haze. I spun to find Xander watching at me with a concerned look. “You’re a little pale.”
“I’m fine,” I answered in a clipped tone. I tried to clench my hand tightly to quell some of the nervousness but instead, I felt his warm hand slip easily into mine.
“You’re going to do fine, sweetheart. It’ll be over before you know it,” he reassured but I was too focused on where our hands met to pay attention to his words. Somehow, my racing heart seemed to kick up another notch but I wasn’t thinking about the talkshow anymore.
There was a voice in the back of my mind tell me I needed to let go but my hand had other ideas. The last thing I felt like doing was letting go.
His voice was a distant hum as I tried to block out the rest of the commotion. People were still scurrying around but they seem slower and less significant than a few seconds ago when they had been overwhelming my senses. Now, there was something else entirely dominating my focus.
Before I knew it, someone was counting down and Xander was pressing a gentle kiss into my hair and pulling me closer on the uncomfortably hard couch. Clearly, the bright yellow couch had been designed for style and not comfort. Although, with the colour choice, an argument could be made that it wasn’t stylish either.
When the set fell silent, I felt my heart try and do the same before it pounded heavily back into action.
I felt movement beside me and I barely moved my head to look beside me to find a synthetic smile plastered across Xander’s face. He shifted again until there was barely a breath of room between us and I involuntarily leant in, seeking his comfort. I felt as if I had fallen into the ocean and I was drowning and he was the only familiar thing that I could cling to, the only thing stopping me from being pulled beneath the water’s murky surface.
“Come on, sweetheart,” he murmured against my ear as the show’s theme played over the speakers but in that moment, there were only his lips and the shiver that ran down my spine. “I need one of your beautiful smiles.” His words chased all the breath from my lungs before his lips against my cheek prevented me from breathing altogether.
“Welcome back,” the woman across from us beamed. Her hair and make-up perfect beneath the studio lights. “Now, we have, Xander Collins, our favourite nightmare slayer and his lovely girlfriend, Annie Reiner.”
“Thanks for having us, Georgia,” Xander replied, smoothly. He felt so calm beneath me and I couldn’t help but wonder if he could feel my heart trying to escape out the back of my chest. My body felt like it was pulsing and the heat from the lights was only serving to further my flustered panic.
I felt Xander nudge me and I looked up with wide eyes to see Georgia’s hungry brown eyes looking at me expectantly. I felt that instant drop in my stomach like when you realise a teacher is asking you a question and you haven’t been listening for the entire lesson.
“Sorry, what was the question?” I mumbled, feeling my face flame and knowing it had nothing to do with the hellishly hot lights.
The two chuckled at my discomfort but I could hear the strain in Xander’s. I was doing a miserable job.
“I just asked what you thought of your boyfriend’s movies.” She smiled and it instantly reminded me of the smile the Grinch made when he decided to steal Christmas. “Are you an avid, Nightmare Slayer, fan like the rest of us mere mortals?”
“Oh,” I stuttered, becoming even more anxious now that I knew what the question was.
“I assume you, like the rest of us drooling females, have seen this hunk of man glistening on the movie screen.” Her words felt greasy on my skin, her smile only adding to my discomfort. She was talking about Xander like he was a piece of meat.
“Well,” I laughed nervously, shifting uncomfortably in my seat. I felt Xander’s eyes on my skin and I glanced back to see his smile slowly dimming. “I-I’ve never seen one of his movies.”
“What? Impossible?” Georgia scoffed as if she truly believed it was inconceivable that someone might not have seen one of his cinematic creations. “Have you been living under a rock?”
“Honestly, I saw a trailer for the first one and wasn’t...that interested...” I trailed off, grimacing the whole time as I felt Xander go stiff behind me. I had said the wrong thing. I should have just lied. Stupid, honest brain.
“You’ve never seen my movies?” Xander asked and if I listened closely enough I could hear the disappointment in his tone. I didn’t know I was able to wound him through that thick ego of his.
I shifted on the couch until I was facing him and the look he was giving me only made me feel worse.
“They weren’t something I was interested in,” I tried to shrug.
“Not even an opening sequence.” I laughed nervously. This was already the longest three minutes of my life and I had spent fourteen hours on a plane from Melbourne to LA with not one, not two but three crying babies. Once one started, it set the rest of them off. An endless cycle of tears and screaming and not just from the babies.
“How did you both meet, if you didn’t know who he was?” Georgia prompted as Xander tried to recover from the shock.
“Well, he thought I was a reporter at first and didn’t want a bar of me,” I explained, wanting to look anywhere but at the disappointed look on Xander’s face.
“Not a smooth meeting then,” Georgia chuckled and I shook my head with a small smile.
“It’s a wonder we got together at all.”
“What are you talking about, sweetheart? It was you who didn’t want anything to do with me,” Xander argued and I felt relieved that the playful tone was back in his voice.
“Well, you arrogantly assumed I should know exactly who you were,” I challenged, turning back to him with a playful smile.
“So, I assume this charmer right here, did something special to win you over?” Georgia interrupted, seemingly upset at being left out of the conversation. That was the only explanation for her next move, where she leant across me and rested her hand a little too far up Xander’s thigh. Judging from the barely veiled grimace on Xander’s face I noted he wasn’t that happy about the contact either. I now understood the reason he had insisted on my sitting in between him and Georgia. She must have pulled this move on him before. He just hadn’t counted on how persistent she could be.
Thankfully, the creepy interviewer retracted her claws and continued. Xander’s arm wound around my waist again and gave it a squeeze that had my heart attempting all the tricks I had seen at Cirque du Soleil a year ago. “After all, this is the man who took his own mother to his last awards night, melting hearts all over America.” This was news to me.
“Really?” I smirked, feeling him tense up behind me. “This is a side of him he has yet to reveal.”
“She is a very hard woman to charm,” Xander cut across me as if sensing the humiliation he was about to suffer. “She has definitely been keeping me on my toes,” He laughed jovially with Georgia who just seemed to eat up everything he said.
“So, why are we just hearing about the two of you now?”
“We were trying to keep our relationship off the grid. Annie, isn’t accustomed to my life and I wanted her to myself for as long as possible,” Xander explained with a loved-up look, so convincing my heart missed several beats. The arm around my waist tightened and rather than be stiff and unresponsive my body moulded to his in a way I never knew was possible.
Then, Georgia’s voice crashed through my growing daydream, to remind me where I was and how many people were watching me.
“You did seem a little nervous in that first photograph we had of you.”
“Yes, I was definitely not ready for the light to be shinning on me.”
“It isn’t for everyone,” Georgia laughed, almost patronisingly. “God knows, we’ve seen enough people in this industry get burned.”
“I’m not looking to be in this industry,” I frowned, glancing back at an anxious looking Xander. “I’d avoid the camera’s if I could but I know if I want to be with Xander I need to accept his life, cameras and all.” I smiled as a smilier one bloomed across his face. I assumed it meant that I hadn’t taken a wrong step and it was only confirmed by the gentle kiss he pressed against my forehead.
Georgia said something in the background but I was immune to her words as warmth cascaded through my body with one simple touch. Fleeting thoughts of the false nature of our relationship tried to be heard over the pounding of my heart but I was resolved to squash them down until all I could hear was the steady beat of my own heart. It would be so easy for me to fall for the flimsy facade.
The rest of the interview ran smoothly. Xander was his charming self, whilst I focused on keeping a smile on my face.
They didn’t bring up the accusation of domestic abuse because it was a condition for getting the exclusive interview with Xander and his new girlfriend. However, I could tell the reporter in Georgia Templeton was itching to ask.
Dee and Xander had agreed that any denials on the abuse front would just confirm guilt. So, instead, Xander planned to show the world how truly in love with me he was though actions. Luckily, he was an actor. Unluckily for him, I was not and I was all too aware of how my emotions tended to play out on my face. Sarah said she always came to me for an honest opinion because although my words my lie my face always told the truth of my feelings.
“You did good, Annie,” Xander smiled as we made our way off set. It didn’t go unnoticed by me that his arm still rested warmly around my waist, keeping me close to his side.
“I didn’t ruin everything with the movie thing, did I?” I cringed, trying to push all the prying eyes out of my thoughts.
“No,” he chuckled. His arm tightened around my waist, allowing me to feel his laughter rumbled through his chest. “It just made you all the more endearing.”
“Good, I was worried I had ruined it,” I sighed, allowing myself to drift further into his hold.
We had walked through the bustling studio by now, with Harold and Greg appearing at our sides, seemingly out of nowhere.
They led us back to the waiting SUV, ushering us quickly into the back seat, as the paparazzi tried to get their shot.
The car started rolling almost instantly and then we were speeding away from the studio.
“Where to now?” I asked, feeling the weight of the morning start to press down heavily on my eyelids.
“I need to get across town and meet with the producers of Forevermore,” he answered, tapping away on his phone and not looking up. “I don’t have time to drop you off at the apartment, so, you’ll need to come with me.”
“Do they know?” I frowned. Feeling any illusions in my mind begin to shatter. “Or is this another performance.”
“Only Dee and Giovanni know.”
“Right,” I muttered, looking out the tinted window and watching the early morning streets of New York rush by. If none of this mess had happened then I would be part of that rush. I would be on my way to school, preparing for a day with my kids. I never even got to say goodbye and the polite e-mail I received from Fiona, the principal of the school, in no uncertain terms told me I was not to step foot back in the school.
After several more moments of silence, Xander finally looked up from his phone with a relieved look.
“Dee says the interview is receiving a positive response on social media with most of the fans buying the act.”
“Great,” I answered trying to inject enough enthusiasm to mask my deflating mood. I had no reason to be upset this is what we had planned for, I should be happy.
“They’re eating it up,” he announced, reading another message. “They love that you’ve never seen my movies. Apparently, it makes our romance more authentic.”
“Ironic,” I muttered, shifting uncomfortably in the leather seat.
“At this rate, you could be rid of me before the month is out.”
“Perfect,” I should be happy. I was happy. I could be out of his life and back to my own sooner than expected. Teddy would be delighted.
The car rolled to a stop out the front of a tall, glass building. Greg jumped out and was opening the door before I even had the chance to unbuckle my seat belt.
I slid out behind Xander and his warm hand was instantly in mine and my mind was telling me to pull it back.
“Game face, sweetheart,” he murmured as we approached the building. “These people need to believe us, too.” A smile slipped onto my face and when I looked at my reflection in the glass doors, it almost looked real.