Right Now Network headquarters, New York City
“We need to step up our game,” said Lanny McNulty, an executive producer at the Right Now Network.
Those seven words weighed heavily on the seven producers gathered around the boardroom table. Lanny had called an emergency meeting to brainstorm ways to promote Spring Break.
“Ten years ago, it was cutting-edge to broadcast a bunch of drunk college girls grinding in bikinis,” Lanny said. “But now we’re competing in the same time slot as Who Wants to Marry an Heiress? and Celebrity Rides: Bentley Edition.”
Chandler, a blonde producer with a penchant for designer labels, raised her hand.
“I’m a hundred percent confident that our new resort alone will boost ratings,” she announced. “I’m so glad Esmeralda Island turned out to be the perfect location.”
It was shameless self-promotion, since Chandler headed the scouting committee to find Right Now’s new resort. She was the office suck-up, the cutthroat co-worker determined to be CEO one day. But the rest of the team had to concede that she was right: it was perfect.
A few years ago, Esmeralda Island was home to nothing but a paper mill and a small, blue-collar town. Layoffs at the paper mill had hit the local economy hard, making the buy-out easy. The network swooped into town, cleaned up the desolate miles of beach, and transformed Esmeralda Island into an adult playground dotted with luxury hotels.
“Tell me how else you’ll make this Spring Break unforgettable,” Lanny said. “Something bolder, fresher…hotter.”
“Like that Kanye West song,” Chandler said. “Harder, better, faster, stronger...” Her voice was awful, a nasally vocal fry that might as well be fingernails on a chalkboard.
Lanny shot her the evil eye, and Chandler’s impromptu performance came to a screeching halt. He was in no mood for jokes today.
Lanny stared at Jay Mack, a rookie producer only one year on the job.
“Jay, do you care to add your two cents?” Lanny asked. “You’re never short on ideas, even though you spent your own Spring Break at a strip mall in Minnesota.”
“Once again, I’m not from Minnesota, sir," Jay shot back. He was new, but talking back to Lanny didn’t faze him. The other producers straightened their backs, looking nervous.
“Why don’t we get some of our reality stars to host events?” Jay suggested. “You know--judge bikini dance contests, interview drunk people, et cetera. They get publicity; we get publicity. Everyone wins.”
Lanny thought for a second.
“That’s an excellent idea,” he said. “Chandler, give Kandi Kardeza a call right away to see if she’s available the second week in March.”
Lanny, looking recharged by Jay’s suggestion, ended the meeting. “Good work, team,” he said. “Now get to work making this Spring Break legendary.”
As Jay sank into the chair at his desk, he wished he’d never made his suggestion. The last thing the world needed was another show starring Kandi Kardeza and her four daughters: Karmen, Kallista, Kiki, and Kadence. Every gossip rag plastered their faces on the cover, and their reality show, Kardeza Family Values, was a national obsession. No one recalled exactly how or why they got famous, but most people remembered it was around the time Kallista Kardeza made a sex tape. Jay imagined the entire family gathered around the breakfast table in the morning, sipping lattes and kicking around ideas about how they could become the trending story of the day. Nothing was off-limits.
Last week, after Kallista’s nude photo shoot went viral and “broke the Internet,” Jay finally asked his colleagues, “Is anyone else sick of these people?” He was answered with blank stares and clucks of disapproval. In this office, he truly was the only one.
“Man, I hate this job,” Jay sighed. Then he picked up the phone to make a furtive call, looking around the corner to make sure no one was listening.
The phone rang three times before going to voicemail.
“Hey,” Jay said after the familiar greeting ended. “The producers are turning Spring Break into another Kardeza spin-off. I’m starting to think a little sabotage would serve this network right.”
He heard a pair of stilettos clanging against the floor. He didn’t have to look to know it was Kandi Kardeza, sauntering into Network headquarters like she owned the place.
“So you want to make this Spring Break legendary, do you?” she purred to Lanny and Chandler. “Honey, you called the right person.”
She pulled out a file folder and set it on the conference room desk.
“What is that?” Lanny asked, sounding leery.
“Don’t worry,” Kandi said with a tight, Botoxed smile. “This is going to be the wildest Spring Break ever.”
“Attention passengers, we’re beginning our descent into Jacksonville, where the local temperature is seventy-eight degrees…”
“Whooo!” hollered the frat boys in the back row of the plane, a rowdy gang marinated with Miller Lite. “Spring Break!”
Others joined in, repeating the two words until it became a drunken chant.
Elise wasn’t drunk, but she was nervous. She was also late. It was mid-March, and the snow in Michigan had caused a three-hour backup at the airport. She tapped her fingernails on her tray until a snooty stewardess swept by and said, “Miss, we told you to put your tray table up.”
A red-faced frat boy poked his head over the seat. “Hey, blondie,” he said to her, smelling of beer. “Where are you going for Spring Break?”
“Esmeralda Island,” she replied. “My friend Carson invited me.”
“Nice! So will I see you on Right Now dancing in your bikini?” he asked.
Elise laughed. “Man, I don’t know…” she said as the plane dipped lower over Jacksonville, her voice trailing off.
And it was the truth: she had no idea what she was in for this week.
Outside baggage claim, she took a deep breath of Florida air, which smelled like saltwater and summer rain. For a moment, she swore she could smell the ocean. She loved the breeze in her hair and the freedom that came with shedding a winter coat.
Now, she just needed to figure out how to get to Esmeralda Island. She pulled out her phone and called Carson.
“Hey, what’s up?” Elise said.
“Oh, just partying with some sunglasses on!” Carson shouted over thumping music.
Elise laughed. “Can you take a break for a second and tell me how to get to the hotel?” she yelled into the phone.
“I can’t hear you. Take an Uber,” Carson said. “It’s only, like, a hundred bucks!” Then she hung up.
Elise stared at the phone for a second, disheartened. “Yeah, like I have an extra hundred dollars lying around,” she mumbled to herself, aware that she had no other choice.
“Do you need a ride?” asked a deep voice behind her.
Startled, Elise turned around to find a man standing there. He appeared her age, but she hesitated to call him a “guy,” let alone a “boy.” He was much taller than her, with a scruffy three-day beard and wavy hair peeking out from under a baseball hat.
“Um, sure,” she replied. “Can you take me to Esmeralda Island?”
“That’s where I’m headed,” he said. “I just dropped off my co-worker for a flight. Need help with your luggage?”
He grabbed her heavy bags and tossed them into the trunk with ease.
“Thanks,” she said, getting a good look at him before she climbed into the passenger seat of the dusty old SUV. He had the body of an athlete, like the guys who played quarterback in high school.
“No problem,” he said. “How many drinks did you have on the flight?”
His voice sounded familiar. His accent was deep and earthy, but it wasn’t Southern. Instead, it flooded Elise with memories of summers in Northern Michigan: the smell of pine, the sound of fireworks on the Fourth of July.
“None,” she replied, snapping out of her daydream. “I was nervous.”
“Are you twenty-one?”
“I’m about to turn twenty-two.”
He reached behind him and pulled out a bottle of Leinenkugel’s. She laughed with surprise as he cracked it open for her.
“Is this legal?” Elise asked as she accepted it.
“Don’t worry,” he said, smiling at her. “I won’t tell anyone.”
He has nice teeth, she thought, and then scolded herself in silence.
She took a sip of the Leinenkugel’s, the spiced witbier taste returning her to the shop in Frankenmuth. “I love this stuff,” she told him.
“You do?” he replied. “I wouldn’t take you for much of a beer girl.”
“Why? I probably drink more beer than you,” she replied defensively. “My parents own a German beer shop, and I work there in the summer. I mean…worked.” Now that she was graduating, her summer breaks in Frankenmuth were over. She paused, feeling a twinge of sadness.
“Well, I’m always up for a nice surprise,” he said. “Enjoy it. It’s all watermelon martinis and overpriced Bacardi shots from here.”
The bitterness in his voice surprised her, but she couldn’t disagree with the sentiment. “Gross,” Elise said. “I hate martinis.”
“Wow, you are my kind of girl!” he said, reaching for the radio. “Next, you’re going to tell me you like country music.”
“I do, actually,” Elise said.
He reached over to shake her hand. “I’m Paul,” he said to her. “What’s your name?”
“Elise Apple.” Then, out of habit, she added, “Like Fiona Apple.”
He laughed, so much that Elise took a little offense. “What’s so funny?” she asked. “It was a Dutch name, spelled A-P-P-E-L. Western Michigan has a huge Dutch population. Holland, Michigan, hosts a tulip festival every year like they do in the real Holland…”
She let her voice trail off, feeling like a massive dork. “My mom’s family was German, though.”
“So you know your history. It’s always good to meet a girl on Spring Break whose interests aren’t limited to tanning,” he said. “Anyway, that’s not what I’m laughing about. It’s the third thing we have in common so far. I have the same last name as a 90’s female pop singer, too.”
“Which one?” she asked.
“Does it matter?” he replied. “I’m Paul, that’s all you need to know.”
Paul. Elise hadn’t met a Paul in years. Pauls were nonexistent at MU, where Tylers, Aidans, and Brodys filled the fraternity rosters. Bible names were unfashionable, especially with celebrities who named their kids Jett and Jupiter. But at least they were easy to remember.
“90s pop singers?” she repeated. “Should I guess?”
“I’ll give you three chances to get it right,” he said. “But I have to warn you, it’s a tough one.”
He lifted his baseball cap enough to expose waves of his hair. It was dark brown, almost black.
“Jann Arden?” she guessed.
“Damn, that’s a good guess,” he said. “But no.”
“Just tell me,” she said.
“We’ll see if you can guess by the end of this week.”
The car halted as they approached the bridge to Esmeralda Island. Overstuffed SUVs overwhelmed the narrow country road. Most sported college decals or fraternity symbols on bumper stickers. Some overflowed with four or five rowdy passengers.
“What do you mean, this week?” she asked him. “You’re going to be here?”
Paul turned to face her as he parked. “You didn’t think I was an Uber driver or something, did you?” he asked.
“Well, no…” Yes. She felt the blood vessels in her face expand, making her hot and red with embarrassment.
“Don’t worry, you don’t owe me any money. I’m just some guy giving you a ride,” he said, his eyes meeting hers. “And by the way, I work for Right Now.”
Fifteen minutes later Elise was in the check-in line at the hotel, taking in the scene.
It made sense that this hotel’s name was The Palace. It had an ancient Roman theme, with soaring white pillars and marble floors. The lobby looked like Pompeii in all its glory and decadence. A huge statue of a mostly-naked Roman emperor was suspended over the staircase to the first floor, which was home to a luxury casino.
Elise scanned the crowd for Carson, waiting for her to sashay in wearing four-inch heels. She felt tempted to tell her about Paul, the Right Now employee she’d somehow mistaken for an Uber driver. She was mortified all over again, wondering if she’d insulted him.
“Elise!” a familiar voice shouted.
Carson looked so perfect, with a sleek chestnut ponytail, deep tan, and fresh manicure.
She could easily pass as the fifth Kardeza sister.
“Wow, you look awesome!” Elise said, leaning in to give her a hug.
“Ah-ah!” Carson snapped. “Watch the body bronzer.”
Carson scanned Elise up and down, wrinkling her nose at her jeans and Victoria’s Secret tee.
“You’re skinny,” she said, and Elise breathed a sigh of relief. It was the ultimate compliment coming from Carson.
The check-in clerk handed her the room keys. “You ladies have fun this week,” he said, winking. “Behave yourselves.”
“Oh, we won’t,” Carson replied with a saucy look, and Elise knew she meant it.
Elise and Carson passed an open door on their way to the elevator, allowing a glimpse into the hotel room. She’d been to Florida only once, when her parents spent a year’s savings on a wholesome week at Disney.
This was a definite upgrade.
“Wow,” Elise said, eyeballing the huge flat-screen TV and king-sized bed with cloudlike white pillows.
“Our room is better,” Carson said to her as they stepped inside the glass elevator.
“Here we are,” Carson said, inserting the key to a luxury suite.
“This place is really nice,” Elise said. “I’ve never stayed at a hotel this fancy.”
“It’s middlebrow for me,” Carson said with a yawn. “There’s a casino on the first floor, so I hope you brought some cash for gambling.”
There were two bedrooms in the suite, and Carson had already taken one for herself. “You’re in here,” Carson said, pointing her toward the second bedroom. An overnight bag and a pink floral dress were lying on a chair.
“Whose stuff is that?” Elise asked.
Carson rolled her eyes. “The stepsister’s,” she said. “My dad wants us to ‘bond.’ I didn’t bond with his last two wives’ kids, so I don’t know why he thinks I’ll start now.”
“What’s her name?” Elise asked.
“Gretchen or something,” Carson said. “I don’t even know why she’s here. But she keeps to herself and doesn’t get lippy with me, so I can live with it.”
Carson raided the mini-fridge with the zeal of a drunken pirate, pulling out assorted liquors with unpronounceable names and flashy labels.
“Isn’t that stuff expensive?” Elise asked, cringing. Her dad always forbade her from eating candy out of the mini-bar when she was a kid. She couldn’t imagine how much that booze cost.
“Your point?” Carson replied, handing her a shot glass. “Don’t worry, my dad is paying for everything.”
“That’s generous of him.”
“Well, after forcing me to go on vacation with his wife’s kid, it’s the least he could do,” Carson said. “In fact, let’s leave before she comes back. Want to pre-game at the Tiki bar?”
“Aren’t we pre-gaming right now?” Elise asked.
“You think too much,” Carson said, and poured her another shot. “But let me pull myself together first. I don’t want to show up on the Right Now Network looking like Lindsay Lohan during her lesbian crackhead phase.”
Carson pulled an orange prescription bottle out of her makeup bag that had someone else’s name on it. “You want an Addy?” she asked, holding out a bubblegum pink pill.
“No thanks,” Elise said, pursing her lips and trying to look nonchalant. “I heard it’s illegal to take someone else’s Adderall.”
“God, you’re such a goody two-shoes,” Carson said. “You’re going to last about two seconds on this trip.”
“So, where is your stepsister, anyway?” Elise asked as they approached the Tiki bar. It was near the pool, where a cool wind whipped through her hair.
“Beats me,” Carson scoffed. “Probably praying the rosary or something. And just a heads-up: I have no interest in spending time with her this week. That’s why you’re here.”
Carson and Elise snaked through the crowd of bodies gathered around the bar. “Everyone’s staring at us,” Carson said to Elise.
Elise wasn’t accustomed to being the type of girl that made men stare. She had to remind herself that she wasn’t in high school anymore.
“Damn,” a man standing at the bar said as she brushed by, giving her the nod of approval. She smiled politely and grabbed Carson’s wrist as she elbowed her way up to the bar.
Carson pulled out a twenty-dollar bill and thrust it at the bartender. “Two pineapple upside-down shots,” she yelled over the noise.
The bartender, a dark-skinned Latino man, put his hand up, signaling her to wait as he took someone else’s order.
“Excuse me, do you not speak English?” Carson shouted. “I’m trying to order drinks.”
She turned to Elise. “I can’t stand it when these places hire Mexicans,” she said a little too loudly. “What’s the point if they can’t understand you?”
“How do you know he’s Mexican?” Elise challenged. “Most Latinos in Florida are Cuban, or Dominican…”
The bartender returned and slid the shots across the bar to Carson. “Ten dollars,” he said in perfect English.
Carson grabbed Elise’s elbow and pointed into the crowd. “Whoa, check out that hot guy headed straight for us!”
A tan blonde in his mid-twenties was approaching, looking like he was on a mission. An equally bronzed and blonde woman with expensive clothes and a toothy, refrigerator-white smile accompanied him.
“Hey, ladies,” he said to them. “I’m Jay Mack, Right Now producer, and this is my co-worker, Chandler Brett.”
“Hey, I’m Carson,” Carson smiled. She turned to Elise and whispered, “He’s mine.”
“We’re having an exclusive Right Now party in the Star Lounge tonight,” Jay said. “It’s a VIP thing. Only the best-looking, coolest people on this island can come. We’re scouting for new reality stars. Are you two interested?”
“Oh my God, is that even a question?” Carson replied. “Of course we’re interested!”
Jay reached out to shake Elise’s hand. “You’re invited, too,” he said. “Your name is?”
“Elise Apple,” she said.
“Ah, got it,” he said with a nod. “Like Fiona Apple.”
He handed Carson a business card. Then he winked at them and turned to walk away, eyeing Elise’s body up and down as he left. “See you at the Star Lounge tonight,” he said.
“Oh. My. God. He’s totally hot. And he totally thinks we’re hot,” Carson said. “I call dibs on the producer guy. But don’t worry—we’ll find you a playmate too. I know you’re still on the rebound from Brent.”
“Can you please avoid saying that name this week?” Elise said, feeling a painful throb in her chest.
Brent was the social chair of Zeta Chi, the most popular fraternity at MU. Elise had admired him from afar at parties since freshman year. When she became B Xi’s social chair, she worked up the nerve to call him about teaming up with his frat for homecoming.
She was surprised when he invited her over the next night.
“I looked at your Facebook pictures and decided we should talk about it in person,” he said.
“Well, thanks,” Elise replied, trying to sound casual and cool.
“I’m kidding,” he said, with a suggestive look in his eyes that made it clear that he wasn’t. As they brainstormed a theme for the homecoming float, he started stroking her thigh.
The night ended with Elise’s clothes crumpled in the corner of his room. He called her at two in the morning on his way home from the bars a few days later, asking her to come over again.
“Do you want to hang out a little earlier sometime?” Elise asked him a few weeks later. What she really wanted was for him to take her out to dinner, or go to a party with only her. So far, she only saw him when she was sneaking into his bedroom at Zeta Chi in the middle of the night.
“I’m not looking for anything serious right now,” he told her. “I’m cool with how things are.” He smiled at her, which she clung onto as reassurance.
A few days later, a sophomore from the sorority house next door passed Elise on the sidewalk, talking loudly into her cell phone. Her hair looked rumpled, and she was stumbling in her heels at nine in the morning.
“Guess who I hooked up with last night?” she said to the person on the other line. “Brent!”
Elise went back to the house and cried in secret.
“Sorry,” Carson said. “Why is that whole Brent thing was such a big deal to you?”
“Because we had sex?” Elise replied.
“So? He does that with everyone,” Carson said. “It was a friends-with-benefits thing, right?”
Elise sucked in her breath, feeling like she was about to explode. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she said.
“Good,” Carson said. “Anyway, if you’re looking for a hot and rich guy, this party is going to be the opportunity of a lifetime!”
Elise smiled, still thinking about the Right Now employee named Paul with the familiar voice.
The Star Lounge was on the top floor of the hotel. It was pitch black but for the multi-colored lights that lined the walkways and bar stools. Elise struggled to see Carson through the neon glow.
“Look!” Carson yelled to her over the music. She pointed to a section behind a velvet rope, where a professional photographer was snapping pictures of the guests.
Above it was a sign that read, “Looking for the next generation of reality stars.”
“Let’s get a picture!” Carson exclaimed, giddy with excitement.
Carson and Elise joined a long parade of girls finger-combing their hair and applying new coats of lip gloss. A Right Now employee gestured for them to come forward.
“You two can cut the line,” he said.
“Thought so,” Carson said, bounding up to the cameraman. “See, Elise? That producer isn’t the only one who thinks we’re hot.”
Elise braided her arms around Carson, struggling to drop her shoulders and put on a natural-looking smile. She was so tense she was sure her face looked screwed into an awkward half-grimace.
“Smile, ladies!” the photographer said as the flash lit up the dark Star Lounge.
“Love it,” the producer said as he studied their faces on his camera’s review window. “I’m Lanny, executive producer.”
“I’m Carson Vana,” Carson said.
Lanny glanced up at her. “Do people tell you that you look like a young Kallista Kardeza?”
“I get that a lot,” she said, flipping her long dark hair.
Then Lanny looked at Elise. “And what’s your name? You’re pretty in a California girl way,” he said, examining her like a piece of fruit in a supermarket. She imagined Lanny holding a ripe apple, inspecting it for bruises and blemishes.
“My name’s Elise Apple,” Elise said.
He reached out and touched her hair. “Is that real?” he asked.
“You don’t have extensions?”
“No,” Elise said.
“Is it naturally blonde?”
“Yes,” she said. “I mean, I highlight it now, but when I was a kid…”
He ignored her as he reached out and touched her chest. “Those are real too?” he asked.
Elise flinched. “Don’t worry, he’s gay,” Carson whispered to her.
“Yes, they’re real,” Elise said, crossing her arms over her chest.
“Fabulous,” Lanny said. “You two have potential. I’ll see you around this week.”
“Holy shit,” Carson said. “He loves us. We just became mini-celebrities.”
“I hope they don’t post those pictures online,” Elise said. “Do you read celebrity gossip blogs? They’re MU Live times one thousand!”
She remembered the hundreds of anonymous comments people left below posts about Carson: some admiring, some scathing. It all seemed to roll right off her.
“Did they have to post that picture of me?” Carson said after a shot of her at a fraternity formal surfaced on MU Live. “I’m so sick of girls in the lame sororities copying my hairstyles and buying cheap knockoff versions of my formal dresses.” Then she sauntered out of the room, off to the campus rec center to work on her impeccable gym body.
“Learn to ignore the haters, Elise,” Carson said with another confident toss of her hair. “They’re just jealous. They hate us because they ain’t us.”
“Alright, I’ll try,” Elise said, feeling doubtful.
“Hey, there’s that Jay Mack guy!” Carson said, pointing across the room. But her excitement faded when she laid eyes on his companion for the night. “Oh, and he’s with that skanky girl from Eligible Bachelor.”
Elise didn’t follow Eligible Bachelor last season thanks to a Monday evening class. It was a Right Now reality show where twenty girls competed for the affections of one man. The reward for the last woman standing was a massive engagement ring, although the relationship was far more likely to end with a blowout breakup than a wedding. Eligible Bachelor had a few predictable roles to fill each season. There was the conniving bitch, the drama queen, and the free spirit. There was the wholesome girl next door who was always favored to win, but didn’t.
And, of course, there was the slut.
“That’s the skank?” Elise asked. “She’s wearing jeans.”
At Jay’s side was a tall girl, blonde and tan, who looked like a model for a cheesy swimsuit catalog. But instead of a skintight dress, she wore clothes that downplayed her bombshell body. She hid behind Jay, looking at the floor and fiddling with her phone.
“Whatever. She got kicked off the show after someone leaked her nudes on the Internet, so she’s a skank in my book,” Carson snapped.
“And I don’t think he’s dating her,” Carson added. “I read on Richie Perez’ site that she was sleeping with one of those trashy guido guys from Jersey Boardwalk. So let’s go talk to him.”
Carson fluffed her hair and sauntered up to the bar, pretending she was only ordering a drink.
“Hey,” she said to Jay, flashing a seductive smile and touching his arm. “How are you?”
Elise couldn’t stand the way Carson made her voice sound ditzy and high around guys she liked. She spends too much time watching the Kardezas, she thought. She even talks like them now.
“Hey!” Jay said, then furrowed his eyebrows. “You’re…Carly? Right?”
“Carson,” she said, still smiling. Then she turned to Elise.
“He forgot my name?” Carson huffed, with more dramatic flair than a bad soap actress.
“This is Jackie,” he said, nodding toward the blonde girl who looked like a swimsuit model.
“I loved you on Eligible Bachelor,” Carson said with a sneer. “You provided quality entertainment, that’s all I can say.”
“Well, at least someone enjoyed it,” Jackie said with a shrug.
Before Carson could double down, determined to get under Jackie’s skin, a huge commotion erupted across the room.
“Hey, you have to pay for that!” the bartender shouted. The crowd gawked as he wrestled a bottle of top-shelf vodka away from a gorgeous guest. Even piss-ass drunk, he looked like he stepped out of an old-school Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. A glaring white light swept over the bar. Right Now cameramen were circling around like hawks, filming the scuffle.
“Don’t you get it, retard? I said bill it to my room!” the Abercrombie model shouted, slurring his words. He jabbed his finger in the bartender’s face. “I’m the customer, you’re the help. Don’t you know who I am?”
“Oh my God,” Carson gasped. “Is that Chase Rinehart?”
“No way,” Elise said, holding her breath.
“It’s totally him!” Carson squealed. “Can you believe we’re in the same room as him?”
Chase was an alum of another hit Right Now reality show, Newport Beach. The girls of Beta Xi followed it with near-religious devotion. The show documented the fabulous lives of filthy-rich teenagers in Orange County. The seniors who lived off campus had a ritual of tuning in from the sorority house every Tuesday night.
Chase was popular with the girls. Season three climaxed when two female rivals clawed each other’s eyes out in a catfight over who he’d bring to the prom.
“He’s so hot,” Carson said.
Elise watched as Chase pushed aside the bartender and stumbled toward a VIP booth. “He’s so…drunk.”
As the words escaped her lips, Chase locked eyes with her in the semi-darkness.
“Hey, cutie,” he said to her. “Have we met?”
“Me?” Elise said, in disbelief that he was talking to her. “I don’t think so.”
“You’re not from Orange County?” he asked.
“I’m from Michigan,” she replied, turning red.
“Nooo. You are way too hot for flyover country,” he said. “Where are you sleeping tonight?”
“Uh, my hotel room.”
He laughed. “I’ll add you to my list,” he said with a glassy-eyed smirk. He turned to a producer and said, “What’s her name?”
“The pretty one,” a familiar voice behind her said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Hi, Elise.”
“And you,” Paul said to Chase, snatching the vodka bottle from his hands, “You can get the fuck out.”
“Hey, why don’t you mind your own business, asshole?” Chase snapped.
Paul was wearing a black shirt and worn-out jeans. The ensemble made him stand out in a sea of people eager to impress each other.
“It’s my job to throw you out,” Paul said. “Now go, before I drag you out by the hair.”
A nervous-looking Right Now employee put his arms out, trying to fend him off. “That won’t be necessary, Paul,” he said. “He’s paying for a VIP booth.”
“So?” Paul said. “That doesn’t give him a right to steal from the bar.”
“Who is that?” Carson sneered, watching Paul argue with the other employee. “Like some random guy has the power to throw the Chase Rinehart out of a VIP party? Who does he think he is?”
“Someone I met earlier today,” Elise replied.
Elise was hoping she wouldn’t ask. “The airport,” she replied after an awkward pause.
“Tell me more.”
“He drove me here,” Elise said.
“A random guy gave you a ride?”
“Well, he’s not a random guy,” Elise started to say.
“Don’t even tell me he drives a cab,” Carson said, looking disgusted.
“No, he works for Right Now,” Elise said. “That’s what he told me in the car.”
“Erroneous. There’s no way that’s true,” Carson replied. “Look at what he’s wearing.”
“I think he does security for them,” Elise said, watching as Paul forced Chase out of the Star Lounge.
“Ew!” Carson shrieked. “Chase Rinehart wants to bone you, and you’re more interested in flirting with some bouncer?”
“I was not flirting with him!” Elise exclaimed, even though Carson shot her a dubious glare.
“You want to,” Carson said. “You should see the look in your eyes.”