"This is not a booty call!"
Tad Jennings gaped at the red-faced, flashing-eyed blonde whirlwind pushing past him into the condo. She looked like his Cordelia Finn, but he couldn't be certain. She could have been cloned or had a chip implanted in her skull. He'd seen far, far stranger things.
"I mean it," she continued when he failed to respond. Her finger, short nails painted a pale pink, tapped the end of his nose. "It's what all the gossipy bitches are going to say this is because I just dumped Luis, but it's not. I know you have the tendency to believe the hype."
"I do not!" Tad protested. The sharp, sculpted cheeks that had melted the panties of women all over the world flushed a bright red. He let the door swing shut before his neighbors heard any potential fodder for the gossip magazines.
Her full, pink lips, not collagen-enhanced like more than one snide columnist had suggested, twisted into a smirk. She lowered her hand to Tad's chest, smoothed a crease on his yellow linen shirt. "Oh, so it wasn't you who called last week to ask whether or not he was engaged to Gabrielle Salazar?"
"They made it sound very convincing. And there were pictures." Tad contemplated puffing out his lower lip in a pout. The pathetic, kicked-puppy look never failed to garner sympathy. When Delia simply arched a perfectly-plucked eyebrow, he rolled his eyes.
"Oh please. You're one to talk. You've listened to the trash for so long that you gave in and became the monster they created."
Her face turned to stone. She pivoted on the kitten heels of her strappy sandals and strode towards the kitchen. The sharp click of her heels on the hardwood floor conveyed more anger than words or her fiercest glare ever could. Muffling a frustrated sigh, Tad trailed after his moody best friend.
He leaned against the granite-topped kitchen island and crossed his lean, long legs at the ankle. Dark, astute eyes followed Delia as she popped open a container of blackberries and dumped the berries into a quart of low-fat yogurt. In the week since he'd seen her she'd lost her golden tan and gained heavy under-eye bags. From fit of her peach silk halter top and designer jeans, she'd lost weight, as well.
"What's wrong, Dee?"
Delia scooped up a spoonful of berry-topped yogurt and shoved it in her mouth. She chewed as slowly as possible, her gaze firmly fixed on her toes. The peach-ish polish the manicurist had chosen looked orange when out from under the bright, simulated sunlight. She'd have to change it later. After swallowing, she repeated the action. She didn't want to actually talk to Tad. He'd try to make her feel better or make her laugh and she wanted to wallow in her misery for a little longer. Was that so bad?
"Last time I saw you looking like this, we finally escaped from that backwards-land-of-beyond you'd dragged me to…"
"It was Georgia, you technology-dependent moron," she interrupted.
Tad bit back a smile. It wasn't much, but it was a start. "Fine, Georgia. The point is we got to leave, but it was only because we had no choice. You've got that rundown, beaten down, oh-let-me-wear-the-hair-coat-of-pain look going again."
Delia slammed the container on the counter, snapped on the lid, and tossed her spoon into the sink. Tad winced at the loud clatter of metal. With jerky movements, she yanked open the refrigerator door and shoved the yogurt onto a shelf.
"We're going out."
"Out? Out where?"
Delia waved a hand airily. The dozen gold bangles on her wrist jangled with the motion. "Anywhere. Put on something stunning and show me a good time. You look like you could let off a little steam. I heard about the fiasco on set yesterday."
He wouldn't have minded a quiet night at home with popcorn and their favorite movies, but he'd never been able to deny Delia anything. She'd been his only close friend for over a decade. The press called her shallow, fickle, and selfish but her loyalty and devotion to him had never faltered. Their time together was drawing short, though, and he was going to have to hurt her.
Twenty minutes later, they breezed past the line of camera-snapping paparazzi outside a dance club three blocks from Tad's building. They ignored the chorus of voices calling out their names. The only child of a big screen sex siren and one of the wealthiest men in the country, Delia had grown up with reporters. Aside from the three years she'd managed to disappear, nearly every day of her life had been photographed or written up.
Tad had been introduced to the world of celebrity gossip when he'd befriended Delia their junior year at a prestigious boarding school in Boston. After four years of being semi-famous for being Delia's 'bestie' he'd finally gained his own notoriety when he'd starred in a low-budget vampire comedy that quickly turned into a cult classic. He didn't mind being typecasted as the goofball or the immature best friend. It wasn't much of a stretch, after all.
Several of Tad's former co-stars were gathered around a group of tables. When Tad tilted his head at Delia, she wrinkled her nose. She'd picked the club because it was known for its ear-splitting, bass-heavy trip-hop music. Holding a conversation was impossible. She had no desire to shout inanities back and forth with people she barely knew. She just wanted to have a few drinks with Tad and let the tension melt away.
Years of dancing together made Delia and Tad perfect partners. He knew all of her moves and she didn't have to worry about his hands slipping into inappropriate places. Under the hot, colored lights, her bare shoulders glistened with sweat. She closed her eyes, let her head fall back, and fell into rhythm with Tad's. The DJ earned his reputation as the best in New York City by seamlessly transitioning songs and keeping the crowd on their feet. Delia danced until her legs ached and Tad begged for a break.
She put him in charge of finding a table and ordering their drinks while she twirled and bopped her way to the ladies' room. Several hands reached for her, but she danced out of reach before they made contact. The club had several bathrooms located in the various sections of the building, so there was no line of chatty, squirmy women outside the red leather upholstered door.
Bobbing her head in time to the song piped in through the speakers, Delia peered in the mirror, tried vainly to flatten a particularly frizzy hunk of blonde hair. Damn humidity. Her lips thinned when Briana Lackey, the previous decade's Teen Scream Queen, staggered into the bathroom. Though they were only a few years apart and ran in similar circles, the two women had nothing in common.
Had Briana simply been like the hundreds of actresses and starlets, Delia wouldn't have given her a second thought. She didn't go about randomly choosing women to hate. Briana had more than earned Delia's loathing. She'd tried to seduce Tad. When he hadn't fallen for her surgically enhanced charms, she'd started rumors about his sexual preference, acting ability, and intelligence level. Delia didn't mind the cloud of bitter gossip that surrounded her, but she refused to allow anyone to slander Tad. It was little surprise to anyone who knew of the Finn family's influence that Briana's career had permanently stalled shortly after several disastrous interviews.
"Great party, huh?" Briana grinned. Neon pink lipstick was smeared across her blindingly white teeth. She leaned in close enough for the alcohol fumes on her breath to make Delia's eyes water. "You wanna come t' tha Rose Hall wi me? I'm drivin'. 's a sweet 'Vette. Bobby gave it t'me."
"You're smashed," Delia pointed out, taking a large step back towards fresher air.
"So? You're n' 'xactly sober."
"I'm not driving anywhere." Delia eyed Briana. The other woman was taller and about fifteen pounds heavier, but most of that weight was silicone and collagen. Delia could take her in a fight.
"I forgo' wha' a prissy bitch you are," Briana sneered. She teetered on five-inch heels to the mirror beside Delia and scrubbed at a mascara streak under her left eye. "Always gotta be better than th' rest o' us."
"Give me your keys and I'll call a cab for you, Briana." Delia held out her hand, wriggled her fingers. She didn't care if Briana wanted to kill or maim herself in a fiery car crash. It wouldn't be a big loss for the entertainment world. Likely as not, though, innocent people would pay for Briana's stupidity.
"I'll make it a limo." Delia pasted a plastic smile on her face and cocked her head to the side. "Come on, Bree. Nice, gleaming white limo with a fully-stocked bar. You can pile all your groupies inside and go to any party you want. The 'razzi will follow. You know how they love limos. Just give me your keys."
Delia's smile melted. She shrugged her shoulders. "All right. Have it your way then." Before Briana could blink, Delia clenched her fist and punched her in gut. Briana collapsed like a punctured blow-up doll. Cradling her swelling, sore knuckles, Delia skirted the body on the floor. She paused at the bathroom door, glanced over her shoulder. Muttering under her breath, she dashed back and tugged Briana's skirt down. Day of the week panties? Was that how Briana kept track of time?
Forehead wrinkled with mock-concern, Delia made a beeline for Briana's entourage. The burly, Nordic bodyguard stepped away from a giggling gaggle of girls when Delia crooked her finger at him. He'd caught her keying Briana's car once. She'd learned that three hundred dollars was the going rate for silence.
"Briana's in the bathroom. She must have tripped or fainted. She should have known better than to wear those shoes and do tequila shots."
The bodyguard nodded in acknowledgement before rushing off towards the bathrooms. Smirking to herself, Delia returned to a curious Tad. "Sorry 'bout that. Ran into Briana Lackey in the bathroom. She invited us to a party at the Rose Hall."
"Are we going?"
"Nope. Neither is Bree." Delia jerked her chin towards the rear of the club. The bodyguard and the club's manager were trying to carry Briana out through the backdoor without being noticed by other partiers or the paparazzi. "Someone that top heavy should never wear five-inch stilettos. She should fire her assistant."
"Dee…" Tad slid her cranberry and vodka cocktail across the table. Her innocent expression didn't fool him. "I'm not going to be reading about in the morning am I?"
"I seriously doubt she'll remember anything in the morning." Delia sipped her drink, grinned as she remembered Briana's choice of underwear. "Apparently she has trouble even remembering days."
"She was going to drive to the club."
"And she was drunk?"
"Plastered. Worse than she was at that cast party for that awful movie she did two years ago."
He choked on his beer. "Isn't that the one where she…with the…and the three…."
Delia's lips twitched. "Oh yeah."
Tad leaned back in his chair and studied his best friend. She was more relaxed than she'd been at the condo. Half-buzzed from his beer, he felt brave enough to broach the topic of her earlier attitude.
"Someone asked about your birthday didn't they?"
"What?" Delia cupped her ear and leaned forward as if she hadn't heard his question. The hint of resentment and old pain in her eyes betrayed her.
He'd willingly let her set the tone and pace of their lives for twelve years but things were changing. He dreaded bringing up her birthday; it was a necessary evil. At least if he broke her heart in public she wouldn't do anything drastic.
"Do you think your dad's going to remember?" he asked, well aware that mention of Patrick Finn was strictly forbidden when they were in public.
"Seeing as he's in the middle of divorcing his personal assistant, I'm not going to hold my breath." Delia shrugged a shoulder, swirled her glass so that the ice chips clinked against the sides. The last time she'd spent her birthday with her father, she'd been eight. He'd been on his phone for the entirety of her party. "Want to do the usual?"
Tad's palms were slick with perspiration. He set his beer on the table and refused to meet her steady gaze. "My brother's going to be in town, Dee."
"So? Bring him. Don't you think it's time I meet the mysterious Travin? I'm starting to think he's a figment of your imagination." She ducked her head to meet his averted eyes. For as much as he tried to pass himself off as an enigma, she could read him like a picture book. The guilt written on his face wasn't what she'd expected.
Oh God. It was so obvious. Her heart skipped a beat, her fingers and toes tingled as her blood went cold. "He doesn't approve of me, does he? He doesn't like his precious baby brother hanging out with a train wreck."
"It's not like that, Dee."
"No, I think it's exactly like that, Tad." It shouldn't have hurt. She'd been rejected by classmates, teachers, five out of six step-mothers, three grandparents, and, more than once, by her own father. Having a man she'd never met decide that she wasn't good enough to be friends with his brother shouldn't have even been a blip on her emotional radar.
It did hurt, though. She was tempted to glance down and make sure there wasn't a giant hole in her chest or a dagger stuck in her back. Tad, with his unconditional, steadfast friendship, had been the one thing she'd counted on. It gutted her to realize that all the times he'd said that his brother was too busy to join them for dinner or out of the country he'd been lying.
She lifted her glass to her lips, blinked back tears. She could almost feel the frost in her veins coating her heart. She took a long sip of the tart liquid and set the glass back on the table. "You should have said something, Thaddeus. I'm a big girl. I could have taken it."
"No! No, you couldn't."
Tad grabbed for her hands, sighed when she pulled them out of reach. The mask she'd slipped on was one he'd seen on her face a thousand times. He'd just never seen it used on him. It pissed him off and depressed the hell out of him. If only he'd had time to prepare her.
"You pretend that nothing touches you, but I know the truth. It would have eaten at you; it would have killed another piece of you and I couldn't do that."
"So you handled me? Just like my father? Just like Grandpa Finn?"
"Not like that at all! I did it because I love you, Delia, not because I'm embarrassed by you or don't have time for you. I didn't want you to get hurt."
"Yeah, well, you failed on that one, Tad. Epically."
Delia shoved her chair away from the table. She had to get out of there before she did something humiliating like cry or punch Tad in the nose. Either way, the hovering vultures would have a field day. "I'm leaving. Don't follow me. I'm packing a bag and staying at a hotel. No, you may not call, text or e-mail me."
"Cordelia," Tad snapped.
"Enjoy your weekend with your brother."