Camryn’s first sighting of superstar Maximo Payne suffered a tragic mishap: as Maximo fought his way through the frenetic sea of rabid paparazzi, he jabbed her in the boob with his elbow.
Maximo didn’t seem to notice. He appeared intent on reaching the black limousine where the driver already held the door open.
Camera shutters clicked like a sea of angry insects.
Stiffening her shoulders against the crush of reporters—who weren’t supposed to be there—Camryn ignored the tinge of discomfort and pushed forward to align herself once more with the six-foot-four, dark-haired, hazel-eyed heartthrob.
“Maximo! It’s Camryn Castillo from Integrity magazine. We have a meeting in five minutes–” Cam yelped when a photographer stepped on her peep-toe stiletto and shoved her rudely out of the way.
By some miracle, she didn’t fall on her butt. Paparazzi shouted questions and commands as they thrust their cameras into Max’s face.
“Maximo, over here!”
“Max, Max! Hey! Look this way!”
“Is it true you’re having an affair with Raquel Howard?”
“Maximo!” Cam raised her voice to compete with the paparazzi. She couldn’t miss the interview of a lifetime. This was the interview of all interviews, the one that would put Integrity on the proverbial map. Weeks of careful planning and arrangements with Max’s publicist were about to go out the window, all because the blasted paparazzi had somehow discovered Max would be leaving the Blue hotel in Hollywood at precisely three this afternoon.
Descending like a horde of locusts, the photographers swarmed around Max, relentless in their determination to get the best photo.
This was exactly the reason Cam had created her own online entertainment site. To offer stars a better, less intrusive way to conduct interviews and pose for casual photographs. She wanted to get the stories and scandal in an upfront and honest way, rather than hiding in bushes or stalking celebrities around town. Her promise of a quiet, casual meeting was one of the reasons Maximo’s publicist had awarded her the opportunity in the first place; Maximo didn’t do interviews, had never sat down one on one in a relaxed, candid atmosphere to talk about his striking success.
If she didn’t act fast, all hope was lost.
She shouldered into the sweaty throng of struggling bodies, prying and squirming to make headway. Now she knew what salmon felt like when they swam upstream. The harder she tried to move forward, the farther back she went, until she found herself at the outer perimeter of the group. She was just in time to see Maximo’s head disappear into the limousine and hear the door shut.
Switching tactics, Cam tried an end run around the paparazzi. Skirting to the left, she slithered and elbowed her way to the edge of the crowd. She wound up near the front tire of the sleek car, able to see the driver through the windshield. Cam waved her hand, trying to get the driver’s attention. “Excuse me! I have an interview with–”
The limousine sped away, ferrying Maximo Payne to some unknown destination.
Cam’s heart sank. Several paparazzi ran after the limousine, holding their cameras above their heads, vying for a parting shot.
She wanted to brain them all. Their desperation had cost her the biggest interview of her life. Worse, Maximo’s publicist probably wouldn’t trust her with an interview again. The publicist—and Maximo Payne—would think she’d set up the whole sordid ordeal. Set up a time to trap him for a photo opportunity.
Oh, hell no. She couldn’t let the paparazzi win this time.
Walking briskly to the parking lot adjacent to the hotel, she dug her cell phone out of her purse and dialed the publicist’s number. It went straight to voicemail.
“Lenni? This is Camryn Castillo—hi.” Cam’s pulse raced when Lenni Marin answered before she could finish her message. Maximo’s publicist spoke with a lilting, faint English accent.
“Hello, Ms. Castillo,” Lenni said. “May I help you?”
“Yes. I think there’s been a misunderstanding. The paparazzi showed up at Blue and prevented me from meeting up with Mr. Payne. I had no idea they’d be there.” Camryn wanted to reassure Lenni that she hadn’t planned the mayhem.
“One moment, please,” Lenni said, a touch of wariness in her voice.
Cam braced herself as she approached her car. Sandwiched between an Escalade and a Hummer, the mint green Fiat 500 looked absolutely miniscule. She wasn’t sure she could open the driver’s side door without hitting the Escalade, which irritated her no end. Why did people have to park so close?
“Yes?” Cam said, turning sideways to squeeeeeze between the Escalade and her car. She shuffled to the driver’s door.
“My apologies, Ms. Castillo,” Lenni said. She sounded warmer, less wary. “I’m afraid there’s been a mistake. I had you down for a meeting tomorrow with Mr. Payne.”
“Oh, that’s no problem. I can meet with him then.” Cam breathed a sigh of relief. She hadn’t missed the interview after all. Struggling to free her keys from her purse, she said, “Just tell me where and when. My schedule is wide open.”
“I’m afraid that’ll be impossible, Ms. Castillo. You see, I was supposed to put you down for today, because tomorrow, Mr. Payne will be in Italy.”
Camryn thought back to the announcement she’d made that an interview with Maximo Payne was imminent. Integrity had garnered thousands of new followers as a result, and she would probably lose that many and more if she didn’t deliver.
“Actually, if I’m honest, I promised my readers I’d have Maximo’s interview up in four days. They’re expecting it. Is there any way I can meet with him this evening? Before he gets on a plane?” She jammed the key into the lock and inched open the car door. Just as she’d thought, there wasn’t enough room to get in. Not even if she sucked in her gut and contorted her spine.
“Unfortunately not. I’m very sorry, Ms. Castillo. How about rescheduling the interview two weeks from today?” Lenni asked.
Cam tossed her purse inside the Fiat and made her way around to the passenger door. There was a little bit more room on this side. Not much, but enough. Sliding onto the seat, she closed the door and angled a heel over the console. There wasn’t a lot of room to work with in a car as compact as this. She bumped her head, scraped an elbow. Keys jangled in her fist. “Perhaps a Skype session? We can make it shorter than the half an hour we originally agreed upon.”
“Mr. Payne is—are you all right, Ms. Castillo?” Lenni inquired.
“Yes, of course. You were saying?” Cam stifled a grunt and a wheeze, a difficult task when her leg got stuck. The limb popped free, resulting in a sharp rip of material.
Excellent. The back seam of her favorite black pencil skirt was now three or four inches longer. Finally, with effort, Camryn dropped into the driver’s seat.
The dead silence on the other end of the line let Cam know that Lenni could hear everything. Each bump and knock, each frustrated exhale.
“Mr. Payne is in Italy on holiday. He won’t be available for interviews until he returns. The first opening is in two weeks,” Lenni said after several seconds.
Two weeks would be the death of Integrity. She needed this interview. Maximo Payne was the hottest star to take the world by storm in decades, certainly the hottest star she’d planned to interview for her magazine.
“Can you please make an exception? Even a short phone interview? I dread to think what the public reaction will be if I don’t produce what I promised,” Cam admitted.
Great. You’ve pissed off the publicist, way to go, Camryn thought to herself. She heard tapping on a keyboard and the flip of pages in the background.
“I can arrange a sit down meeting for a half an hour three days from now. But you’ll have to fly to Rome,” Lenni said.
Fly to Rome. Camryn knew she couldn’t afford to go. Shouldn’t, by any means, spend thousands of dollars on an interview. That didn’t stifle the zing of excitement she experienced nor the glee that made her head spin. Rome was in the top five on her bucket list, which made it that much sweeter.
“Three days,” Cam echoed. “I can be there.”
“All right. I’ll text you the meeting time and place. It’ll probably be an out of the way café or restaurant. I’m sorry that you won’t be able to choose the location.”
“No, no. That’s fine. I really, really appreciate this, Lenni. Thank you so much,” Cam said.
“You’re welcome, Miss Castillo. And, once again, I am sorry I mixed up the dates,” Lenni said.
Holy mother of all things awesome and badass. Rome! Maximo Payne! She’d just struck gold. “That’s no problem. Look forward to receiving the time and place. Talk to you soon.”
“Goodbye, Ms. Castillo.”
Suddenly inspired, Camryn ended the call and pulled up her contact list. Flipping to ‘L’, she pressed a name and engaged the bluetooth so the call would come over the car speakers. After stuffing the phone into a dash holder, she slid a key into the ignition and started the engine.
“Why are you calling me right now when you’re supposed to be interviewing Maximo Payne?” Lark, co-owner of Integrity and Cam’s good friend, answered on the second ring. “It can’t be over already!”
“Listen! No time for questions.” Cam fastened her seat belt and reversed out of the parking space. The California sun beat down on the windshield, forcing her to blindly feel around for her sunglasses. “Look up every flight that departs out of LAX within the next nine hours. Rome is the destination.”
“Cam, what the hell is going on? You’re going to Rome? Am I coming, too?” Lark’s voice pitched high with excitement.
“I’m meeting up with Maximo in three days. Lenni confused the dates, so Max wasn’t expecting me. Never mind the paparazzi showed up and mobbed him. Anyway, I need the next possible flight out.” Cam swung the Fiat onto the street and took every shortcut through Hollywood she knew.
“Have you ever been to Rome? Wait, do you even have a passport?” Lark asked.
“Never been,” Cam said. “But I have a passport. Got one when we worked at Rocket, just in case I had to fly overseas.”
“Even the name of that tabloid gives me hives. Okay, I’m going to hang up and look for a flight. Don’t wreck on the way home!” Lark ended the call.
Rocket, a sleazy tabloid with a questionable reputation, had been Camryn’s first journalist job and the place she’d met Lark. That magazine was the sole reason Cam had broken away and started her own business; she loathed the shark-like practices of stalking and harassing celebrities that Rocket encouraged. Lark preferred a more abrupt way of obtaining her material, but had nonetheless signed on as co-owner.
Now Cam was on her way to Rome, of all places, to interview Maximo Payne.
Gripping the steering wheel, she sped through the city toward the apartment she shared with Lark.
There wasn’t a second to waste.
* * *
Cam could imagine the headlines now: local journalist goes berserk over gridlocked traffic on Santa Monica Avenue. Film at six.
No matter how much begging, coaxing or threatening she did, the traffic remained at a standstill. There had to be an accident or construction blocking the road. Annoyed, she peered around the car in front of her, hoping for signs of movement ahead.
Just rows of cars sitting, sitting, sitting.
Somewhere behind her, other drivers honked their horns impatiently.
Ringing interrupted music over the speakers, indicating an incoming call. Camryn depressed a button and said, “I’m stuck in traffic!”
“Hold on to your panties.” Lark talked right over Camryn. “I’ve got news. I tracked down three flights leaving for Italy tonight and I’ve got you booked on the eight-thirty to Rome.”
“Excellent. I love that I’ll have some extra time to prepare for the interview.”
“I have even better news. I know what hotel Maximo is staying in,” Lark said.
“What? How did you find that out?” Cam asked.
“Because I’m awesome and still have good connections in the greasy underbelly of the paparazzi world. Rumors have it that Raquel Howard was spotted at the same hotel yesterday. That can’t be a coincidence. He probably has plans to meet up and boink her brains out,” Lark said.
“Crude.” Cam wasn’t offended. Lark could be counted upon to be straightforward and blunt.
“It’s only the truth. I booked you a room at the Roma Palace Hotel, too. You have to stay somewhere, and I figure you might wind up with a few extra photo opportunities you might not get otherwise.”
“Good thinking,” Cam said. Her mind raced with ideas for her upcoming meeting and how to get the most out of the setting. Interviewing Maximo in Hollywood was one thing. Interviewing him in Rome was another.
“I’ve already got your suitcase open on your bed and your favorite pair of running shoes tucked into a nylon bag,” Lark said.
“Thanks. That’ll help shave off some time. But the traffic! I haven’t moved an inch in twenty minutes. If it doesn’t clear soon, I might not make the flight.” Cam fidgeted in her seat. She adjusted her sunglasses, glanced in the rearview mirror, and stifled a groan at what the wind (and crazy paparazzi) had done to her pretty updo. The deep mahogany strands streaked with highlights of bronze currently appeared like she’d just surfaced from a tryst. Missing pins allowed several curling pieces to brush against her jaw and throat, tickling her skin.
“Can’t help you with the traffic, Cam. Hey, get it? TrafficCam?” Lark tittered.
Camryn snorted. “So lame.”
“I know. But even my lame jokes make you smile.” Lark sounded sure.
Camryn couldn’t deny it. At the moment, however, she was far more concerned with making her flight. She tapped her fingers impatiently against the wheel.
“I’ll call you back.” Lark hung up.
Used to Lark’s abrupt endings, Cam returned to fidgeting. And cursing under her breath. Finally, after ten more agonizing minutes, the line of cars began to move. Cam gripped the steering wheel with both hands. She couldn’t recall when she’d been so anxious to be somewhere.
By the time she reached her apartment complex on Wilcox Avenue, the clock on her dash read 4:44. She needed to hurry.
Leaving the Fiat in her numbered spot, Camryn jogged through the complex, heels clicking over the sidewalk. Her thumb made quick work of a seven digit code at the security gate.
Consisting of two stories, the apartment buildings had a retro seventies feel, with putrid yellow paint and flat roofs that added no charm whatsoever. At least the grounds were decently manicured, with a few small palms swaying in the late afternoon breeze and clumps of pansies poking up from designated flower beds.
Cam let herself into apartment 234, a two bedroom, ground floor unit with a tiny patio overlooking the community pool. She kicked off her heels, tossed her purse onto the dining table, and shouted for her roommate. “Did you print my boarding pass?”
Lark ran into the small living area from the direction of her bedroom, one hand hitching up a loose pair of jean shorts. Lanky and lean, with spiky blue-blonde hair and a rash of tattoos, Lark looked better suited to a mosh pit or biker bar. She slapped a piece of paper down on the table. “Boarding pass.”
“Thank you!” Cam rushed past Lark toward her own bedroom. She tried not to notice the piles of clothes on a chair, the debris on the floor, or the empty cereal bowl on the nightstand next to the sofa. Lark could devastate the space in a hurry. The woman had no sense of order or a desire to pick up after herself.
Cam’s personal space was clean, decorated in modest earth tones, and had an air of whimsy thanks to little lights that she’d strung up along her carved headboard. She went straight to the closet and began yanking clothes off of the hangers. Some of the items went into the suitcase in rumpled heaps.
“Oh. And as of this morning, Integrity has ten thousand and fifty-four new followers. Word of the interview with Maximo went viral. I think you’re going to have a lot more followers by tonight, and maybe even a hundred thousand by the time the interview goes live. I know you’re worried about the money, but this trip is totally justified,” Lark said from the doorway.
“Oh my God. Ten thousand?”
“Yes. Integrity is about to go big time! By the way, I managed to track down a few photos of Raquel entering the Roma Palace Hotel three days ago. It’s all but confirmed that’s where she’s holed up. That should be where Maximo is staying, if my boinking theory is correct. So you’re going to be right in the middle of everything.” Lark beamed proudly.
“Do I even want to know how much the rooms cost at the Roma Palace Hotel?” Cam hastily folded two nicer shirts and a pair of black slacks. Not everything could be shoved haphazardly into the suitcase. The last thing she wanted to do was waste time ironing in Rome.
“Not really. You also should be aware that the only seat available on your flight was in first class,” Lark said.
Cam paused, hands flat on the clothes she’d been smoothing. First class seating. Inwardly, she cringed.
“Breathe, Cam. It’s a business expense, right? Plus, you earn miles or points or something,” Lark said. “I’m totally jealous I don’t get to go with you.”
Galvanized into action, Cam returned to her closet to find appropriate shoes. She definitely couldn’t miss the flight now. Not after she’d already paid an arm and a leg for first class. “Trust me. This isn’t exactly the way I wanted to see Rome. I won’t even be able to enjoy it. I mean, I’m excited, but it’s far from my idyllic vacation.”
“Still. You’ll be there. Don’t forget your passport,” Lark said.
Cam liberated her passport from the bottom of a jewelry box. “How many days am I staying?”
“Four. I figured that would give you time to settle in, find him, and get the interview before coming home. You’re not technically arriving until tomorrow anyway.”
Four days. That was cutting the timeline awfully close.
She could do this.
“Okay. I think I have everything,” Cam said, tugging the zipper of the suitcase closed.
“Deodorant? You don’t want to be stinky. What about perfume? Eyeliner? Cash? Don’t forget to change currency when you get there.”
Cam ran into the bathroom and stuffed a small bag with a few more essentials.
“I knew you forgot deodorant,” Lark called from the bedroom.
A bump and scrape let Cam know that Lark was moving the suitcase toward the front door.
Makeup bag in hand, Cam diverted into her bedroom once more and plucked her laptop off her nightstand. She needed it to edit the interview with Max. At the last second, she remembered to grab the charger, as well as the one for her phone. Then she trotted through the apartment, aware time was slipping away.
“Now I have everything,” Cam said.
“Why is there a gigantic rip in the back of your skirt?” Lark asked.
Cam pushed the smaller travel bag into the suitcase. The laptop and chargers went into the front zipper pocket. She put the passport in her purse. Straightening, reminded of the damage to her skirt, Cam groaned and ran back to her bedroom. She couldn’t board a flight with ripped clothing. “Some idiot parked right up against the driver’s side of the Fiat, so I had to crawl over the console from the passenger’s seat. Pencil skirts aren’t made for calisthenics.”
“I might have paid money to see that,” Lark said from the living room, laughing.
Cam yanked on her most comfortable pair of jeans. She jammed her feet into flats and pulled a soft shirt of kelly green over her head. Since her hair had come all the way down from its updo, she grabbed an elastic band from her nightstand and scraped the strands into a high, messy bun. She didn’t have time to make it pretty. Running back into the living room, she snatched up her purse, keys and boarding pass.
“Bye. Thanks.” Cam smacked a fast, sisterly kiss on Lark’s cheek. Hauling her suitcase by the handle, she dashed out the door.
With any luck she would return four days hence, Maximo interview complete.