She shifts uncomfortably in her seat, the backs of her legs sticking to the leather of the sleek sofa. She regrets her decision to put on such a short skirt, her thighs feels raw and sore against the grain of the leather and the seam on the edge is digging into her uncovered skin. The skirt is an attempt to impress, an attempt to convince her manager that there must be another option for her. Her hemline is meant to signify that she can be the artist they all want her to be by her own accord, that she has regained her confidence and is ready to get out there and do what she was born to do.
"Is this absolutely necessary?" she pleads, hopefully in a confident, I-can-do-it-all voice, as Meg enters the room.
Her manager stomps over and slumps down on the chair next to her, barely lifting an eyebrow at her short skirt. Meg's legs are covered in their customary black trousers, no bare skin against leather putting her off her game, just lots of layers of black fabric and black hair in stark contrast to the white leather interior of her office.
"You know the situation, April," Meg dismisses her, emphasising her name with thinly veiled condescension. "You are two albums into a three album deal, and though everyone knows that second albums can be tricky, the sales are pretty much a fucking disaster."
She says it in a way that leaves her no room to doubt that she is personally being blamed for this failure. Two years ago the world had been at her feet, the record label had so much confidence in her that they'd signed her for a lengthy and unprecedented contract, she had been bolstered by public adulation and buoyed by her first love. Just as quickly as she had risen to fame, she had come crashing back down.
"Ever since that Fuzz or Buzz or whatever his name is dumped you, people have lost interest in you, it's as simple as that. Your album barely made 45 000 copies in the first week, April, and as of this morning your tour is cancelled."
Meg's words slash into her and deflate the brief confidence the skirt had provided, she automatically casts her head down, a bad habit she thought she'd gotten rid of.
"Baz," she mumbles, hands wringing and eyes glazing over.
"What?" Meg interrupts her tirade to eye her quizzically, her tone sharp and impatient. "Speak up!"
"His name is Baz," she repeats, voice clearer, calmer.
"Whatever," Meg dismisses her, waving a ringed hand in front of her face as if she was batting away a fly. "My point is you are not interesting right now, and you need to be."
Meg gets up and marches over to her glass desk, rifling incessantly through the mess of papers. Suddenly she hammers an unpolished finger down on the intercom, static crackling and hissing.
"Alex?!" Meg snaps, impatiently leaning over the chaos, brow furrowed and tangled locks hanging in front of her face. "Get the fuck in here!"
"Is this really the only option, Meg?" she attempts, hoping to distract her from tearing into her long-suffering assistant.
"A relationship made you interesting the first time, darling," Meg sighs, leaving all affection out of the endearment as she moves across the plush carpet and back into the chair next to her. "A relationship will make you interesting again."
A tentative knock on the door alerts them to Alex's presence, clutching a thick file in his hands. Her heart already goes out to him, nervously awaiting his stripping down.
"Did I not fucking tell you to leave the fucking file on this table, Alex?"
The calm in Meg's voice is more sinister than her usual shouting, part of her really regrets convincing her to give up smoking, abstinence is not a good look for her.
"Sorry Meg," Alex moves quickly across the room, deposits the file on the edge of the coffee table between her and Meg and scutters out of the office so quickly he almost trips over his own skinny legs.
"Useless," Meg mutters under her breath, grabbing the folder and extracting a photograph. "Speaking of which, get ready to meet your new boyfriend."
She accepts the photograph being placed in her hands and scans the somewhat familiar face in front of her. She searches the sparkling eyes and the wide smile for some clue as to where she recognises him from. It finally clicks.
"Him?" Her incredulous tone doesn't even begin to cover the outrage that is building up inside her. This is going to be way worse than she first thought. "Meg, you can't be serious!"
"I'm as serious as the cancer you promised me I wouldn't get," Meg retorts, face stony and set in determined lines. "I'm not fucking tinder, April. This isn't me setting you up with someone I think you'll really get along with because you deserve some fucking happiness in your life again. I'm not a fucking unicorn shitting rainbows, I'm a business woman and this is a business deal."
She scans her memory for information on the smiling man in the photograph in her hands, but everything she comes up with is bad, it's all bad. She remembers a string of high profile relationships, a bunch of unsavoury stories in the gossip columns, partying, philandering, broken hearts. He is her worst nightmare and she cannot for the life of her imagine how he is supposed to be her salvation.
"Look," Meg offers, spotting the distress on her face, voice softening just a touch. "This is a supply and demand kind of situation. There aren't a string of eligible bachelors out there that we can pick and choose from. He is in a situation where he needs a deal like this too, his PR said something about a family business or something, honestly I stopped listening after two seconds. That woman could have told me I'd won the lottery and I'd be falling asleep."
"Meg, he's a playboy!" she argues, desperation seeping into her voice in spite of her best efforts. "How is that helping my image?"
"People won't see it coming, it will be intriguing, it will provoke interest, ok?" Meg humours her, though clearly losing her patience with being a reassuring benefactor. "You'll be the true love that tamed the bad boy, ok? People love that shit."
"How will it even work, though?" she tries, knowing she won't win this, or any argument with Meg. "I mean, what if no-one cares?"
"That naive farm-girl act was cute on American Idol two years ago, April, but I know you know better by now," Meg scoffs, putting her firmly in her place. "This whole industry is a construct, it's a game, you just have to know how to play."
Her heart sinks at the inevitability of it all, wondering how following her dream meant having to give up control of her life so entirely.
"And this is really necessary?" she ventures a final time, already resigned to her fate, looking to sink the knife in deeper.
"At this stage you owe the record label money for the expenses that went into making the second album and cancelling the tour, April." And there it is, the band aid is finally off. "The record label will make their money back, one way or another."
She shudders at the thought of what another way might mean for her, and faced with the possibility of a life living with crippling debts she knows there is no choice.
"You need this April, you need him and he needs you," Meg continues, already dismissing her and motioning her out of her office. "You'll meet with Jackson Avery tomorrow, let's get this ball rolling."
She begrudgingly moves through the glass and steel lobby of the office building, stalling for time. Today her legs are covered in her more customary skinny jeans, her day will not be derailed by short skirts and sore legs. She feels infinitely more confident than yesterday, more herself, more Meg-proof. More ready to accept her circumstances.
She pushes the elevator call button still holding out hope that by some divine intervention it will not come and take her upstairs to her manager's office where her new fake boyfriend will be waiting. She sighs deeply when the doors open immediately. She accidentally on purpose forgets what floor she is going to, pressing every single button from one to eighteen to win some time. She's only postponing the inevitable, but since she knows just how much Meg loathes tardiness it's the only small vengeance she can exact without consequence.
She straightens her back and examines her reflection in the elevator's mirrored interior as the doors close behind her. She runs a finger through the bouncy red curls framing her face. She may not be interesting anymore, but at least she still has damn good hair. She turns away from her reflection just as a long, slender hand grabs one door through the gap and pushes the doors wide open. Her face falls as she recognises the man entering the lift not as her saviour and further stalling tactic, but as her antagonist, her reason for stalling, her beard.
"Oh, hey," he starts, recognising her too. "You're April Kepner, right?"
His voice is softer than she imagined, but his smile and his sparkling eyes are exactly as flirtatious and disingenuous as she expected.
"Yep, that's me," she retorts, not able to force a smile in return. "Nice to meet you, Jackson."
She grabs his extended hand and shakes it as firmly as she can manage. His hand is smooth and cool, just like him. He raises an eyebrow to her as he notices all the lit up buttons on the elevator operator panel.
"I couldn't remember which floor Meg's office is on," she explains, feebly and not at all convincingly.
"How about there?" He points towards the brass plate next to the 18th floor button. "Meg Dunne & Associates, Talent Representation. Might that be the place?"
"Yeah, would you look at that..." she laughs a short, abrupt laugh, despite herself.
The doors open to the 1st floor, predictably without anyone entering or exiting the elevator. She can feel his eyes on her as she presses the close doors button, practically feels his smirk as she presses the button frantically trying to speed the process up.
They make it to the 6th floor before he speaks again.
"So, are you up for this?" he starts, forcing her to face him.
"Oh, absolutely," she retorts, trying and failing to keep the sarcasm out of her voice. "Arranged relationships are the only way to meet decent men in LA these days."
The elevator doors open for the 7th floor but as she turns to hit the button to close the doors, he grabs her shoulder and turns her to face him again.
"I'm serious," he says, sans wide smile and eye sparkle. "This won't work unless you commit to it."
There is a slight edge to his voice, a subtle hint of urgency she wasn't expecting. He holds her gaze, eyes silently searching hers for compliance, eyes still impossibly intense even without the sparkle.
"I'm in, ok?" She wishes she could keep the petulance out of her voice, it's not very polite, but he caught her off guard. "I need this too."
He nods briefly, rearranges his face back into smooth lines and a charming, but blank expression. He finally lets go of her shoulder, but she can feel the imprint on her skin all the way up to the 18th floor.
As the elevator doors open a final time Alex is nervously skipping in the lobby, waiting to bring them into Meg's office.
"She's been in there alone with that woman for half an hour," Alex warns her quietly as he ushers them into the room.
"Fucking finally, April!" Meg exhales, managing to look happy and pissed off simultaneously.
A tall, impeccably dressed woman crosses the room to shake her hand, and instantly strips any confidence her skinny jeans had provided her with earlier.
"April," she trills, breaking out into a wide smile that somehow doesn't reach the rest of her face. Botox, she realises. "So nice to finally meet you. I'm Indie, I represent Jackson."
Indie's face is motionless above her eyebrows, but her make up is immaculate and the hand in hers is flawlessly manicured and elegant. She catches herself staring at Indie's ample rounded breasts swaying softly beneath her cream silk shirt, quickly dropping her hand and diverting her gaze. Indie throws Jackson a dazzling smile as she moves back across the room and positions herself on the leather sofa, blending in perfectly with all the white.
She turns slightly to see him introduce himself to Meg, charm on full power, sparkle back in business.
"Pleasure," Meg snaps, obviously not finding any pleasure in the meeting whatsoever. "I'm going to call you Jax, ok?"
"Actually, no one calls me that," he attempts, speaking to Meg's already turned back.
"It's shorter," Meg concludes, signalling the end of whatever discussion Jackson thought they were having and motioning for them to sit on the smaller sofa opposite Indie. "Talk them through it, India."
Indie smiles away Meg's condescension and launches into the master plan, mostly addressing her but fluttering her lashes in Jackson's direction intermittently. It all sounds straight forward, 6-month contract, turn up at each others' events, be seen together as much as possible, pretend as much as possible.
"It's not rocket science," Indie finishes, expensive jewelry glittering as she folds her hands around her knee. "Turn up together in places you know you will be photographed and look like you're in love, the rest will take care of itself."
Her stomach drops at Indie's words, carefully glancing to her side to gage Jackson's reaction, who seems impossibly cool and pragmatic about the whole thing. He looks completely at ease in the expensive surroundings, comfortably reclined against the white leather, one arm casually slung on top of the sofa somewhere behind her. It's one of the reasons she has sat rigidly upright for the past twenty minutes.
"Oh, relax April!" Meg's loud voice interrupts her churning mind. "It's not as if you have to sleep with him!"
She can feel her face reddening and her head bowing down as Jackson shifts uncomfortably next to her. India laughs a little too brightly, flashing her perfect dentures and her lash extensions in Jackson's direction.
"Now get the fuck out of my office, lovebirds," Meg spits, motioning towards the door. "We'll do a status update next week."
As she stands up from the sofa she catches Jackson winking at her conspiratorially. Great, he's a winker.
"Oh, and do me a favour and take cashmere mafia here with you," Meg shouts after them.
"She's a gem," Jackson mutters quietly in her ear as they wait for Indie to catch up. "I'll call you tomorrow, set up a date."
She shudders slightly at his words, partly because his lips are so close to her ear she can feel his breath, partly because she's wondering how many times a week he whispers those words into other women's ears.
She scans the restaurant for a familiar face as she enters, it's only nine in the evening but the room is already crowded and buzzing. The room is all dark wood and dimmed lighting, a big marble counter is showcasing the many white clad chefs underneath old-fashioned orb lights and on the opposite side of the room the wall is filled to the ceiling with wine bottles. The hostess shows her to a table for two close to the big windows facing the street, crisp white table cloth and single candle twisting her stomach into knots. It's been over a year since her last date, and the realisation that this is all for show is nearly enough to make her bolt straight for the door.
She has to give him credit for the restaurant choice, however. It's much less sleek and sterile than she had expected from him, much warmer and more romantic than she thought he'd go for. Of course the small group of waiting paparazzi outside quickly reminds her what they are her for, to get to work, to put on a performance. None of the photographers had even bothered raising their cameras for her when she arrived.
He makes her wait for over ten minutes before he saunters in, full of confidence and infuriating calm. He shoots her a brilliant smile, generous on the sparkle, before he leans in and kisses her cheek sweetly. She is taken aback by the intimacy of it, she has to blink a couple of times for her brain to process it before she comes back to herself and manages to return his bright smile. He's already playing his part, already in character as her new, loving boyfriend and she better get in on the game.
"Am I late?" he quizzes her breezily, apparently not overly concerned that he is.
"I'm always on time," she responds, trying to not let her face show her irritation. You're in love, April, in love goddamnit!
"Like you were on time to Meg's office yesterday?" he smiles sweetly, grabbing her hand across the table.
"Almost always," she snaps back through gritted teeth and her increasingly stiff smile, folding her fingers into his and resting her free hand on top their interlocked hands.
"Good to know," he laughs, leaning in over the table and holding her gaze steadily. "Next time we'll drive together, it looks better."
Her urge to get up and punch him in the face is abruptly subdued by the arrival of their waitress, which gives her an excuse to drop his hands and his gaze. The waitress runs through the specials and takes their drink orders in a peppy, smiling manner, barely taking her eyes off her dinner date. She orders a large glass of wine and tells the waitress to keep it topped up. This night is going to require some false confidence at the very least.
"So what's the plan?" she starts when the waitress is out of earshot. "To sit here and bat our lashes at each other until someone decides its worth a picture?"
"Pretty much," he says, still so impossibly comfortable with this whole thing. "But they won't take photos until we leave, too much glare from the window."
The way he seems so at ease with situation and the way the mechanics of it all seem so familiar to him makes her wonder if he's done this before. She's about to quiz him on it when their drinks arrive, waitress still entirely focused on him and blatantly ignoring her. His eyes are firmly fixed on her as the waitress asks if they're ready to order, and before she has a chance to grab the menu and reel off one of the italian names he does the most frustrating thing in the world and orders for both of them, still without tearing his eyes away from her. The waitress leaves with a broken smile, but without noticing the angry glare on her face.
"Did you just…order for me?" she hisses, not able to conceal her outrage. "What if I don't like meat?"
"Relax, sweetheart," he coos, clearly unable to see that the endearment enrages her further. "Your management sent over a whole dossier on you, I know what you like."
He leans over and grabs her hand again, gives her his best love struck expression, reminding her gently that they are still playing games.
"What, you didn't get one on me?" he enquires when she doesn't respond.
She did get one on him, but it was full of press clippings of him on dates with celebrities of both the A- and Z-list variety, photos of him stumbling drunkenly out of nightclubs, a cameo in a salacious music video by some artist she'd never heard of, and a clip of him on a long-forgotten reality show being his usual smooth and cool self. Nowhere did it mention anything real about him, no food preferences, no hobbies beside serial dating, only a short sentence about him being the heir to something called the Harper-Avery foundation. It had made for some seriously depressing reading.
"All I got was a bed post covered in notches," she finally responds, taking a liberal sip of her wine.
"Right," he smiles, a little less sparkly, eyes flickering away from hers for a moment. "Don't believe everything you read, April."
He seems to struggle internally for a moment before amping up his sparkle factor again, leans over the table again and pulls her hand up towards him.
"Let's be friends, ok?" he pleads, lips suddenly pushed up against the back of her hand. "We're in this for the next six months, so let's just make the best out of it."
She sighs deeply, feels herself bend to his more than reasonable logic and painstakingly rearranges her face into a soft smile.
"Ok," she concedes, leaning in towards him and holding his gaze.
When the food arrives the waitress is giving her a death stare like she has never seen before and outside she can see the photographers quietly murmuring at each other and nodding in their direction. Turns out what he ordered for her was exactly what she had been planning to order herself.
She fluffs up her hair, straightens her jacket and checks her make up in the restaurant bathroom, pulling her shoulders back and lifting her chin up, running through her mental checklist she normally uses to prepare for a performance on stage. She tells herself that she can do this, that she is ready for this, that this will be a successful night. She can feel her will growing and her confidence soaring. The smile on her face comes easily, she is prepared.
"Time to see if this thing has legs" he mutters quietly in her ear as he grabs her hand and escorts her out of the restaurant.
As the restaurant doors open the group of photographers turn simultaneously, a couple of cameras go up instinctively. The first flashes of the cameras are blinding, and she immediately casts her head down, but the strong hand squeezing hers steady her and when the next wave of flashes rains over them she manages to keep her head up and to find her smile again.
They walk the 20 meters to his waiting car at a reasonably slow pace and by the time they make it half way every single photographer is taking a shot. They all shout his name, they all know him and they've all been down this road with him before. Suddenly she hears her own name being called and automatically looks over in the direction of the voice. It alerts the entire posse and all of a sudden they all know her name, it ripples through the crowd like the constant noise of the shutters.
They finally make it to his car and shut the doors to the shouting and the clicking of the cameras, but the flashes are still going off.
"I guess it kinda worked, huh?" he laughs turning towards her as he starts the car.
"Yeah! I guess so," she smiles back, buzzing from the adrenaline coursing through her veins. "So this is why you told me to take a cab here?"
"Well, that and I figured you'd probably want to drink," he smirks, pulling away from the curb and the paparazzi. "I know what you like, remember?"
"Right," she nods, stealing a quick glance at him as he focuses on the road.
"Let's see where we are tomorrow," he concludes, eyes briefly flickering over to her as he negotiates late night LA traffic.
As she lets herself in to her small apartment after he's dropped her off, her heart sinks again. Tonight was the first date she'd had in over a year, the first time any man had spent more than ten minutes straight talking to her, the first time in even longer someone had held her hand. The saddest part was that it had been insincere, the interest he had in her was professional, the intimacy they had shared was false. It suddenly dawns on her that while this deal is still on the table, she has no chance of starting anything real.
By the end of the following day the verdict is in. The photos of the two of them appear on a handful of gossip sites, her mentions on twitter are up exponentially and Meg even deigns to call her in person to tell her that she told her so and that she's always right. By the time she's ready for bed Jackson's already texted her to set up another date.
She is yanked out of her sleep by her phone ringing. She sleepily answers without checking the caller ID, but is suddenly awake when she hears the panicked voice on the other end.
"April, check your mail," Alex urges, over the unmistaken sound of Meg's angry, booming voice in the background. "There's a hashtag problem."
She hangs up and impatiently waits for her email to download. Alex has sent her a link to a tweet from one of the most notorious gossip columnist and bloggers in the business and as she reads on her palms get sweaty and her stomach drops. There is a photo of her and Jackson in his car, turned towards each other and smiling, beaming at each other. Her eyes are sparkling as much as his, and if she didn't know any better she'd say that it was a photo of two people in love. But the photo is clearly not the problem, the tweet is. In less than 140 characters this woman has summed up her current predicament with painful accuracy.
"Jackson Avery spotted out with new love. #AprilWho?"
591 retweets and 426 favourites tell her why Alex had been all dramatic about it. Beneath the link Alex has written in bold letters "the hashtag #AprilWho? is now trending."