The Latest from Hollywood!
Quite the racket emerging from Neptune Pictures lately! Rumor has it the brunette stunner they were counting on to be their new Siren has turned out to be quite the Sea-Witch instead. Despite the whispers of her already being a diva on day one, we graciously gave her the benefit of the doubt. But it seems we were too merciful. Word comes from the set of her new picture—only her second, if you can believe it!—that she unleashed what could only be called a Temper Tsunami on everyone present. We have no idea what could have caused such an eruption, but really, is there ever an excuse for that kind of behavior? Looks like studio head Arthur Ronson might be regretting his decision to sign this troublesome beauty already…
Big change-up in Contract-land today! The fine folks at Neptune Pictures are finally unburdening themselves of their resident Difficile Dish, passing her contract across town to Parkmoor Studios. Talk of her outrageous behavior on set has become the stuff of Tinseltown legend, so it’s likely for the best that she’s moving on. We will admit, her talent is undeniable. Perhaps her new studio will have better luck taming this Shirley Temper into more of a Norma Sheer-Dream. Let’s raise a glass to Parkmoor—they’ve certainly got their work cut out for them!
Hollywood, California — 1947
Lois Ashford perched on her leaning board, in an effort not to wrinkle her costume, while she scanned the pages of Variety for any hint of the news she’d been awaiting practically since her arrival in Hollywood. She didn’t know quite why she tormented herself day after day with the same fruitless search, but it had become a ritual. As frustrating as it was, she still harbored her faint hope, buried deep, that someday she would be vindicated, that karma would eventually catch up to that bastard Ronson and he’d be forced out of his beloved Neptune Pictures. Preferably in the most humiliating scandal Hollywood had ever known.
Today was apparently not that day.
Lois forcefully flipped another page while she waited to be called for her next take. As the crew worked to reposition the camera for the next angle, John Whittacre, the director, eyed Lois warily, as if waiting for her to explode at any minute.
Here we go again.
There were only a few days left of shooting on this picture, and Lois had been expending more effort than usual to behave. Despite that, every time there was a pause, or a reset, or even if someone sneezed—literally sneezed—Whittacre’s whole body tensed up and he started to look like some poor paralyzed rabbit, eyes darting frantically.
Lois rolled her eyes. Hard.
Her reserves of good behavior were running out, and fast.
She’d been in this business for nearly a decade, had made more than enough films to know how the process worked. Each shoot required multiple takes, from multiple camera angles, with loads of equipment that needed to be moved in between. It meant a fair amount of lounging time for her as an actor. But these men were professionals. They worked hard and knew what they were doing. Did Whittacre honestly think she couldn’t recognize that, and would object to a perfectly normal part of the process? She wasn’t a monster.
Except that she was—according to anyone who “mattered,” which amounted to far too many people in this business.
One of the studio pages—the real miracle workers who kept the studios from imploding—tentatively approached Lois’s corner of the soundstage.
“Um, Miss Ashford?” the young man in the maroon jacket breathed.
She looked up, arching a perfectly groomed eyebrow.
The page swallowed audibly. “Right. Um. I have a message for you. From Mr. Bartholomew.” He looked positively terrified.
To be fair, Lois could—and often did—throw quite an impressive diva tantrum. If the gossip rags were to be believed—and judging by her charming director’s nervous face over the last several weeks, they were—she was unrivaled in this town.
Not that she had ever intended to be this way.
But ten years ago, fresh off the train to Hollywood, Lois had been hired at her first studio, Neptune Pictures. It had felt too good to be true…because it was. She’d been stopped in her tracks practically before she could even prove herself.
All because she had said one word, one of the simplest, clearest words anyone could ever say. So simple and universal that it’s the same in multiple languages.
That one word had derailed everything.
Not that she wouldn’t say it again. She had absolutely no regrets about saying it. It was exactly the right thing to do, and there was no way in hell her dream would mean anything to her if she had compromised in order to achieve it. But that only made her situation even more frustrating, since everyone who had seen her screen tests could see she had something special. In no time at all, what she had thought was a simple “no” had been transformed into another word—an unmistakable label, never to be shaken off.
Lois’s fury was incandescent. But that fury had nowhere to go—she was stuck, under contract, and completely powerless to change anything. All because of one jackass studio executive.
So she had made a decision, done what little she could to wrest back just a bit of control. If they were so determined to label her as difficult, Lois Ashford might as well make the most of it, define the kind of diva she would be. And at the very least, she gained an outlet for all that pent-up rage.
Over the years, she had turned in some of her finest performances when the cameras weren’t rolling, if she did say so herself.
She realized that an almost painfully awkward silence was ensuing with the page, and thought it best to finally intervene.
“Are you going to tell me the message?”
“Oh. Right. Yes. Of course.” The poor man really was quite flustered. “He asked to see you in his office as soon as you’re finished on set.” He blinked furiously. “Please. Thank you.”
He turned to flee the scene, and Lois took pity on him.
He whipped around, eyes wide.
She flashed a dazzling smile, rarely seen around these parts. “Thank you for the message.”
“Oh!” His cheeks blushed a deeper crimson than his jacket. “Of course. You’re welcome, Miss Ashford.” He gave her a small smile and hurried away.
Lois chuckled to herself as she turned back to her magazine. But then the young page’s words sunk in.
What does Barty want? If he’s summoned me from set, it’s either really good, or really bad…
She inwardly snorted. When had it ever been something really good?
With filming wrapping up, she was due to find out her next role any day now. And she had her eye on a juicy one. Hence the good behavior of late. It was damn time she finally got her due.
As her thoughts swirled, Lois glanced up and found the director looking in her direction once again. This time, there was something more than simple trepidation in his gaze, but it took her a minute to put her finger on it. Then it dawned—disappointment. He actually looked disappointed. What did he expect? Had he actually wanted to see her rip that poor page’s head off, as if she were some sideshow, here for his entertainment?
Growing awareness of the sudden and potent frost radiating toward him caused Whittacre’s gaze to snap back up.
“Is there a problem, Mr. Whittacre?” Lois asked venomously.
He blanched. “No. No problem at all, Miss Ashford.” He at least acted somewhat abashed. “We’ll be ready for you shortly.”
A couple of hours later, the day’s takes finished and her costume hung back up in its place, Lois made her way toward Joe Bartholomew’s office. As if by magic, another page had shown up at her trailer the minute they wrapped, offering her a ride to the meeting, but she turned it down, preferring to walk. After so many hours under the hot lights, she wanted some fresh air on her face. And it would give her a few extra minutes to think.
She mentally crossed her fingers. The studio was readying to adapt one of the most popular novels of the past year, an intense drama called Rue the Day, and the leading female part was exactly the type of role she’d always wanted to play. The type of role she never got…because of her notoriety.
As reluctant as she was to admit it, she desperately wanted this one. Not only for the acting challenge, but because of the leverage it would give her when her contract came up for renewal.
Her nerves warred with a sense of cautious optimism. It had actually been a while since the last time she’d been “summoned”—and she’d underestimated how much relief that would bring. She’d rather been enjoying the reprieve of late, as her long reign as the studio’s biggest problem had recently been toppled by all-around golden boy Nick Bradley.
The handsome matinee idol had come to the studio direct from Broadway several years earlier, quickly made a name for himself as a reliable dramatic moneymaker, and easily achieved the highly coveted reputation of being a man female audiences wanted and male audiences wanted to be. And as if that wasn’t enough, he had then enlisted in the Army and come back from the war an actual hero.
Needless to say, Lois had never been cast in a film with him. No way would the studio risk ticking off one of their best and brightest by pairing him with the Difficult One.
Then he had gone and ruined it all.
The fool had gotten himself arrested for an incident involving marijuana. Lois had been stunned, along with all of Hollywood, when she picked up the paper one morning and saw the story splashed across the front page. The studio had bailed him out and clamped a lid on the press, though not quickly enough. God knew how they had actually done it, but the charges were dropped and Bradley had gone into a hiding of sorts.
But the damage had been done. Almost a month later, the columns still buzzed about the golden boy-war hero’s fall from grace. Lois shook her head, thinking of the story she’d seen only this morning in Variety.
To be honest, Lois had some questions herself. After years on the blacklist with no way off, she couldn’t comprehend how an actor who actually had power and a robust career could behave so carelessly. Was he really nothing more than a pretty face, too stupid to know how not to get caught? Or did some truth exist to what everyone said about war being hell, and he simply couldn’t help himself? From everything she’d heard, he was one of the rare nice ones in this business. She supposed it was impossible to ever know what existed behind someone else’s scenes.
But one thing she did know—her boundless gratitude to Nick Bradley for stealing the negative attention. It couldn’t last forever, but she’d enjoy it while it lasted.
Lois arrived at Bartholomew’s office and found his long-suffering secretary at her desk, looking frazzled as usual.
“Hello, Jenny,” she greeted her. “It seems my presence has been requested.”
Jenny gave her a sympathetic look. Lois had always liked the woman.
“I’m afraid so,” Jenny said. “You’re the first one here, but you can go on in.”
First one? Oh, great, what does that mean?
Lois knocked quickly but didn’t hesitate before opening the door. “Well, Barty? You rang?” She leaned on the doorknob and tried to look as bored as possible.
Barty remained seated, waving her to sit in front of his desk. “I did,” he replied. “Come in, Miss Ashford.”
When he didn’t immediately say more, Lois lowered herself into the chair, weighing her options for a moment before plunging in. “So, I’m assuming this meeting has something to do with my next assignment?”
“Let me guess, you’re giving me the Jules Marshall adaptation.” What the hell, might as well own that conceit. Diva, and all that. “I would be perfect for it, after all.”
As she watched Bartholomew visibly swallow, she knew. Should have known. Anger bubbled up in the pit of her stomach, more at herself than anyone. This is what happens when you let hope in, damn it.
“While you would be great for it, Miss Ashford,” Bartholomew began, “I’m afraid the studio’s decided to go in another direction for that role. We have something else in mind for you instead.”
Lois crossed her arms over her chest and spoke through gritted teeth. “I’ve kept a lid on it, Barty. There hasn’t been one single incident on this film.”
“I know.” He looked at her pleadingly. “I know. It’s just that…they’ve given it to Robertson to helm and…he wants someone else.”
“He’s brand-new to this studio!” Shit. She hadn’t expected to raise her voice so soon into this meeting.
“Yes, he is. But he brings with him a lot of clout. And…”
“And he’s heard all about me.” At Bartholomew’s nod, she seethed. “Wonderful. Just wonderful.”
“Your reputation precedes you, and you know it. One picture where you behave isn’t exactly going to make up for everything that’s gone before it.” He took a breath. “And with your contract up soon…”
Her head snapped up. “And with my contract up soon, I could use a film like this under my belt. You know that, Barty.”
“I do, which is why—”
A knock interrupted him, followed by the slow, cautious whine of the door’s hinges.
“Ah, come in. I’ve been expecting you,” Barty greeted the new visitor.
Lois firmly clamped a lid back on her control as she turned to see what more she’d have to endure—and her eyes went wide.
It was the reefer-happy golden boy himself, Nick Bradley.
Surprise flitted across his features, but he recovered quickly and strode toward her.
“Miss Ashford, a pleasure to finally meet you,” Nick said, offering his hand.
“Mr. Bradley,” she replied, accepting his handshake. Despite her years of practice, it was a massive challenge to hide her own surprise. Along with a few other unexpected reactions.
His handshake was warm and firm, not one of those limp-fish attempts that most men seemed to think women deserved. And quite an intriguing storm roiled in his eyes, several emotions seemingly fighting for dominance—defiance, wariness, confidence, embarrassment, and—was it possible?—respect.
And dear god, he was handsome up close. She’d seen all the tricks used in this business, so she knew how rare it was for the real thing to live up to the projected image. But in this case, the screen did not actually do him justice. Chiseled jaw, brown hair with just a hint of auburn sparked by the late afternoon sun coming in the window, tiny flecks of gold and green trying to break through the blue sea of his eyes.
Damn. Pull yourself together, Ashford. Never with coworkers, remember?
Over the years, she’d developed an impressive and ever-evolving list of Rules for Being Difficult, and that one in particular consistently resided right at the top. Nothing good ever came of trusting the men in this business. No matter how blindingly good-looking they might be. Especially then.
She blinked and gathered herself up to her full height.
“Please, have a seat, Mr. Bradley,” Bartholomew said, with impeccable timing for once.
Her control had already slipped once with Barty, and she needed to keep her wits about her, be prepared for whatever was coming next. Not go all mushy just because Nick Bradley happened to be more handsome up close than she would have expected. And seemed to actually look at her without fear or disdain. He had “too good to be true” written all over him.
As they settled into their seats, Bartholomew cleared his throat, almost nervously. “So, I’m sure you’re wondering why I’ve asked you both here this afternoon.”
That fresh tone of hesitancy coloring his voice made Lois instantly more wary. What was he about to say before Nick came in? She risked a glance at Nick, and suddenly everything clicked into place. His newfound reputation. Her summons, and the “something else” they had for her. Bartholomew’s reluctance.
She looked back to the producer, eyes narrowing.
“Oh, I think I might be able to venture a guess,” she seethed sweetly. “I’m not getting the Marshall film in part because you finally want to pair the two of us on-screen, don’t you?”
“Well, yes,” Bartholomew said, “as a matter of fact, we do. We think the timing is just right actually.”
Lois couldn’t help rolling her eyes. They were getting quite the exercise today. She looked at Nick again, and a flush of anger began at the tips of her ears.
“Yes, I suppose the timing is quite perfect, isn’t it? Your golden boy has had such a spectacular fuck-up that naturally the best punishment you can devise to put him in his place is to partner him with the studio’s resident bitch and box office poison. Do I have it correct?”
**Find out what’s next when Difficult releases on August 13, 2021!**
Copyright © 2021 by Brianne Gillen