Carson wrinkled her nose. “He has facial hair,” she pointed out. “And what is he wearing? We’re spending this week working on your taste in men.”
Elise felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned around to find Lanny, the producer, standing there.
“Chase Rinehart wants to talk to you,” he told her.
Elise’s heart dropped into her stomach. “Okay,” she said. “Come with me, Carson.”
“No, no,” Lanny said. “Chase wants to talk to you in private. Out on the balcony.”
“Are you kidding me?” Carson hissed at her. “Go!”
“Alright,” Elise said, following Lanny onto the hotel balcony. Chase Rinehart appeared and whisked her away to a darkened corner. A few Right Now crewmen trailed with cameras and lights.
“They’re not filming us, are they?” Elise asked.
Chase laughed. “Learn to embrace the camera, babe,” he said, reeking of vodka.
“So, Lisa,” Chase said.
“Elise,” she corrected him.
“Hey, speak up!” the cameraman hollered. “I don’t want to use captions.”
“So, Elise, are you a farm girl or some shit?” Chase continued, sounding amused.
She didn’t know how to respond to that, knowing he was too drunk to listen to a spiel about Little Bavaria. But it turned out she didn’t need to talk.
“You’re hot,” Chase said, staring at her breasts. “You remind me of my high school girlfriend before she went cokehead skank.”
Elise felt her cheeks burning. “Thank you,” she said.
Then he grabbed her by the cheeks, forcing her mouth against his.
“Whoa! Wait a second,” she tried to gasp. He didn’t listen.
The commotion from inside the Star Lounge suddenly spilled onto the balcony. Elise felt the whoosh of someone walking up behind her.
“Sorry to interrupt the show, guys, but I told him to get out,” Paul’s voice said. Elise’s spine stiffened as she tried to push Chase away.
“What the fuck, man?” the cameraman said to him. “You ruined my shot.”
“Sorry,” Paul said, without an ounce of remorse in his voice. “You needed a retake anyway. One of your stars is belligerent and can’t stand.”
Then Paul looked at her. “Be careful tonight, Elise,” he said as he walked away.
“Great,” Elise breathed to herself, wondering if Paul would ever speak to her again.
She arrived back at her hotel room feeling drunk and apprehensive. She thought of Chase grabbing the back of her hair, and her stomach turned.
“I don’t care how cute he is,” she mumbled to herself. “He reeks of creep.” She’d had enough bad nights with Brent to last her a while.
As Elise finger-combed her hair, country music blared in the next room.
“Our song is the slamming screen door, sneaking out late, tapping on your window. When we’re on the phone and you talk real slow, ’cause it’s late and your mama don’t know…”
“Hey, I love that song!” she said out loud. It was one of Taylor Swift’s first songs, back when she was an unknown teen country artist. For a moment, it took Elise back to dancing in her living room in Frankenmuth, when she was only in middle school and had her first crush on a boy.
A freckled strawberry blonde poked her head out of the bedroom. “Is my music too loud?” she asked.
Her face was sweet and doll-like, with round blue eyes and a shy smile.
“Oh no,” Elise replied. “I love that song, that’s all.”
“Me too,” the strawberry blonde said.
“You must be Carson’s new stepsister,” Elise said.
“That’s me,” she replied. “My name’s Grace.”
“I’m Elise,” she said. “So are you a singer?”
“And a guitarist,” Grace said. “I sing Christian music mostly, but I’m trying to expand my horizons. People tell me I could be the next Taylor Swift.”
“Boy, do I miss her as a country artist!” Elise said. “Her first album was the first CD I ever bought. I remember carrying my allowance down to the music shop, when those still existed.”
“That’s why I’m here. I’m hoping to meet music producers,” Grace said. “And get to know Carson, of course…”
She changed the subject.
“But get this,” she said. “There’s an open mic competition in two nights. If I practice enough, I might get a record contract!”
“That’s pretty cool,” Elise said. “I can’t wait to watch. Where do you go to college?”
“Lake Michigan College,” Grace replied, looking a little embarrassed. “I know it’s no MU, but it was a better fit for me.”
Lake Michigan College was a small school in Northern Michigan. It was more famous for its debate team than its spot in Playboy’s annual party school ranking. And it was definitely a school where Carson Vana wouldn’t be caught dead. But Elise secretly loved the campus—it was only an hour away from her family cottage.
“I love it up there,” Elise said, with an intense rush of nostalgia. Tonight, nothing sounded better than home.
Grace smiled, looking surprised. “So do I,” she said.
The door banged open. “There’s that annoying music again,” Carson said from the next room. She imitated the lyrics with a fake Southern twang.
“I hate Taylor Swift,” she added snottily, loud enough for her stepsister to hear it.
Elise turned to Grace. “I like it,” she whispered.
“I love it,” Grace whispered back, smiling as if it were a secret between them.
Elise fell asleep that first night with the song stuck in her head, wishing she was a kid again.
Elise awoke with a mild hangover and sun streaming in through her curtains. She turned on her phone. There was a text from Carson: “Mimosas at the Tiki Bar. Come.”
“Sooo. Wild night?” Carson said, greeting her with a drink.
“Don’t play innocent,” Carson said. “Everyone knows about you and Chase. How was it? I heard you got sloppy.”
Elise frowned. “It was just kissing,” she said, unable to mask the irritation in her voice. “And how did you hear that? Word must travel fast around here.”
“God, what is your problem?” Carson shot back. “You made out with Chase Rinehart last night, and for some insane reason, you’re moping around as if you did the walk of shame from the Phi Beta house. If I were you, I’d brag about it.”
Elise smiled. “I guess I will have a crazy Spring Break story to tell the B Xi house…” she said. “Maybe word will get back to Brent.”
“I don’t think he cares,” Carson said.
“Do you really have to remind me?”
“If it makes you feel better, my night ended up sucking,” Carson said. “Guess who was all over me?”
“Who?” Elise asked.
“Connor Kardeza,” she replied, disgust dripping from her lips.
Connor Kardeza was the wayward son of the family. He refused to appear on Kardeza Family Values, and his Twitter feuds with other celebrities had gone down in Internet infamy. He also landed on the covers of gossip magazines for gaining fifty pounds after a stint in rehab. Even people who worshipped the Kardezas forgot Connor existed.
Or wished he didn’t.
“Did you talk to him?” Elise asked.
“I tried to avoid him, but he would not take a hint,” Carson replied. “He’s even fatter in person. And get this: he invited me to go to the dessert bar. As if he needs more cake and ice cream.”
She snorted in amusement.
“That’s sweet,” Elise said.
“Sweet? I thought it was creepy,” Carson said. “I hope no one saw me talking to him.”
At least he didn’t take you back to his room for some random sex after just meeting you, Elise thought.
“Anyway, I have two surprises for you,” Carson said. “First, Right Now is filming an episode of Socialites: Florida Edition today. There’s a twenty-first birthday party at a private beach house for some e-famous girl named Madison. We’re going.”
“Oh my God!” Elise gasped. “Carson, how did you get us invited?!”
Elise watched Socialites at the sorority house every Thursday night. It showcased hotel heiresses, trust fund babies, and run-of-the-mill rich kids prone to shocking diva antics.
“This is disgusting!” Mom had exclaimed when Elise watched it from home. “What a bunch of spoiled brats.”
“I have friends in high places,” Carson replied. “That producer, Chandler, invited me. And she tipped me off to the second surprise: there’s a Lingerie Or Less party tonight.”
“What does it sound like?”
“I’m leery of the ‘or less’ part, but okay,” Elise said. “Who’s going?”
Carson shrugged. “Whoever wants to show up in sexy underwear,” she replied. “So if you don’t have anything sexy to wear, we’ll go shopping for something unforgettable.”
“Yeah, I forgot to pack my garter belt and fishnets,” Elise said sarcastically. “There won’t be a bunch of cameras there, right?”
“Of course there will be a bunch of cameras, Elise. Duh,” Carson replied. “You need to lose those inhibitions, babe. It’s your last spring break ever, and you’re on Esmeralda Island.”
She clanked her glass against Elise’s. “Thanks to me, of course,” she added with a wink.
Elise forced a smile and sucked down the rest of her drink. “I hope this helps me loosen up.”
Elise and Carson hit the main boulevard a short while later. The island’s mom-and-pop stores were selling out to flashy, overpriced boutiques.
“Let’s go to Lola’s,” Carson suggested. “We’ll get you something to wear to the lingerie party.”
A man holding tourist pamphlets stepped into their path.
“Historical tours at the old Spanish fort,” he said, handing Elise a brochure.
“Thanks!” Elise exclaimed, taking it from him with unconscious exuberance.
“Do you think we have time for historical sightseeing?” Carson scoffed. “What’s next, a ghost walk? I forgot you were into that weird stuff.”
“I loved these things as a kid,” Elise said, flipping through the pamphlet as they walked.
“You’re weird,” Carson replied.
“I wanted to major in history freshman year,” Elise said. She chose journalism instead. She moved from photojournalism to broadcast after her hair got blonder and her teeth got whiter.
“You’re too pretty to be a photographer,” people told her. “You should be in front of the camera, not behind it.”
She gave in eventually, figuring a career as a news anchor or morning show host would be more lucrative than working as a photographer or a history teacher.
“Here we go,” Carson said as she spotted the lingerie store. “Lola’s Lingerie. It’s like a Victoria’s Secret for high-priced hookers.”
Elise scanned the racks of leopard-print push-up bras, leather bustiers, and see-through nighties. She ran her hands over her breasts and belly, wondering how much she really wanted to display them for hundreds of people.
Elise bypassed the see-through teddy section and meandered toward a white lace dress buried in the corner. Elise couldn’t fathom why it was stuffed away back here—in her humble opinion, it was the most beautiful item in the store.
“I love this,” she said, pulling it off the rack to show Carson.
“You’re in the bridal section,” Carson replied without looking.
“Oh. But it’s…”
“Honey, no,” Carson said. “You cannot shop in that section unless you want to look creepy and marriage-desperate. No one wears bridal getups to lingerie parties, okay? They just don’t.”
“I’m not marriage-desperate,” Elise shot back, sounding defensive. “What does that even mean?”
Carson slipped her arm around Elise’s shoulder. “Honey, you can’t wear anything that suggests weddings are on your mind. It’s a great way to send guys running for the hills.”
“So nothing white, period?” Elise asked.
“Right,” Carson replied. “Remember that basic rule. You know how it’s tacky to wear white to a wedding? You cannot wear bridal lingerie to a lingerie party, period.”
“Okay, fine,” Elise said.
“This has been an ongoing problem that we need to remedy ASAP,” Carson said. “Didn’t Brent get weirded out when you tried to get too serious?”
“I guess, if wanting to go out in public before midnight counts as ‘getting serious,’” Elise replied. Carson pulled a sheer black nightie with fuschia trim off the rack.
“Now this is what I’m talking about,” she said. “Do you have black shoes?”
“Yeah, I brought a pair of black heels,” Elise replied. They left blisters on her ankles and she couldn’t walk in them, but least she could show off her hard work at the gym.
“Perfect!” Carson said. “Pick a pair of sexy black panties and your ensemble is complete.”
Elise complied, but looked back at the white dress as the cashier rang up the black nightie, longing to wear it.
“So, who’s the socialite?” Elise asked as they walked toward the beach house where Right Now was filming the episode.
“Madison Banks,” Carson replied. “She’s internet famous. Her parents have six houses, and her dad part-owns an NFL team, so she’s a good person to befriend.”
They arrived at a gated driveway hidden by tall trees. Limos and luxury SUVs congested the street as guests arrived, plugging up the thoroughfare that led to the old part of Esmeralda Island where the locals lived. The hospital and neighborhood elementary school were just up the road, but they might as well be a world apart from Madison Banks and her opulent, vaguely obnoxious mansion.
“This is the biggest house I’ve ever seen,” Elise said.
“Wait until you see the inside,” Carson replied. “It’s not even a house. More like a hacienda. Her parents built a huge addition onto the back so Madison could have her birthday party on the show. It cost them six figures.”
“Wow,” Elise said. “They must be loaded.”
“I know, right?” Carson said as she buzzed the bell. “I’d kill to be this classy.”
“Come over here and fight me, bitch!”
Carson and Elise heard shrieking before they even stepped inside the house. In a kitchen fit for a European castle, two drunk girls tore at each other’s hair.
“Ooh, cat fight!” Carson said. “I love it when they get drunk and fight with each other.”
Right Now cameramen swooped down on the fight, circling around them like vultures. One girl picked up a glass of red wine and tossed it at the other.
“How dare you ruin my party, you cheap whore!” she screamed.
Elise figured this must be the socialite. “Real classy,” she said, and Carson gave her a dirty look.
A third woman jumped in, grabbing the target of the wine-throwing by the hair.
“Get your tacky homewrecking ass out of my house before you ruin my daughter’s special day,” she screeched. It was only then that Elise realized she must be Madison’s mother. Her painted-on tan, clingy dress, and obvious breast implants made her look the same age as her daughter.
“Hey, break it up, ladies!” someone shouted as he pulled them apart. It took a moment for Elise to recognize him as Jay Mack, the producer they met last night. When no one was looking, Elise overheard him talking to the cameraman.
“I hope you got that on camera,” Jay said. “These bitches are white trash broads pretending to be jetsetters.”
Then he spotted Elise and Carson standing there. “Hey, ladies,” he said with a broad grin, his demeanor shifting in an instant.
“What a buzzkill,” Carson said as the fight died. “Let’s go outside before I end up with red wine all over this new dress.”
The backyard surrounded a magnificent pool with sparkling fountains and tiered waterfalls. Madison Banks had picked a jungle theme for her birthday party. The yard was a slice of paradise, where a simulated rainforest mist cloaked giant orchids and a canopy of green leaves. Elise gasped as an enormous snake swooped down at her.
“Don’t worry,” Carson said. “They’re de-fanged.”
“Wow,” Elise said. “I had a plastic tiara and a giant wine glass as decorations on my twenty-first birthday.”
“Jungle juice, ladies?” someone purred.
Elise turned around to find a half-naked black woman in a tiger costume. She wore elaborate face paint and a headdress, but not much else. Elise glanced around the party to see who else was painted up like an African beast.
“All these servers are black women,” she said. “Dressed like exotic animals.”
“Yeah. So?” Carson replied.
“Isn’t that sort of racist?”
“Who cares?” Carson said.
“I care,” Elise replied. “In Women’s Studies class we watched this documentary about sexist advertising, Killing Us Softly. Jean Kilbourne says—”
“Once again, who cares?” Carson interrupted. “It’s not like white people, like, live in the rainforest or anything. Who else would they get to dress up like jungle animals?”
“That’s not the point,” Elise said, getting annoyed. “The point is that advertisers dehumanize women of color—”
“Oh my God, shut up already,” Carson said. “Why would you take Women’s Studies anyway? That entire department is a swarm of dykes.”
“Don’t use that word,” Elise said quietly.
Then she did shut up, but not without burning with shame. She knew what her mom would have to say about this. She scanned the party for photographers, hoping to avoid the cameras, praying that her presence here wouldn’t be blasted all over the Internet.
Suddenly, the crowd parted like the Red Sea. A bevy of dark-skinned men in loincloths paraded in, carrying the socialite on a canopy. She looked like Jane from Tarzan in her loincloth skirt.