True Crime novelist Ian Sharpe has spent his career writing about serial killers for very personal reasons. For his latest exposé, he is taking on the sadistic madman known as the Red Ribbon Strangler, and when his research leads him to Hollywood’s most private and provocative actress, he will break every rule to uncover her truth.
The daughter of one of Hollywood’s golden couples, chased by paparazzi and treated as a commodity her entire life, Veronica Romero wields her sex appeal like a weapon. She expects Ian to be as easy to control as every other man she’s ever known. But from the beginning, he refuses to fall into line. Mysterious and cool, challenging and just a little bit dangerous, Ian somehow makes her feel safe—even as he digs into the deepest secrets of her life and pushes her to the breaking point.
As raw ecstasy gives way to agonized truths, their dark obsession exposes secrets that have been buried for far too long. Ian wants to tear down her walls and heal the sensual woman underneath. But if Veronica’s learned anything, it’s that the line between pleasure and pain is a narrow one—and when caught between them the only thing that matters is how you play the game.
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I take picture after picture, with a vintage champagne glass in my hand or my face buried in a huge bouquet of dahlias. Toward the end, Marc has the stylist and his assistant wrap me up in a long string of artificial belladonna since the real stuff can cause problems if it touches the skin. Then they heap my gloved hands with a mountain of the poisonous black berries and Marc has me hold my hands out to the camera in a deadly macabre offering.
Again and again Marc shoots me like that, taking pictures from every possible angle. On his knees in front of me, looking up. From a ladder above me, looking down. Beside me. Behind me. Across the room. Up close. Again and again he points and clicks. Again and again, I smile and pout and make every other expression he asks for. I even take his suggestion to tilt my head back with my mouth open wide and hold one of the berries between my thumb and index finger as I pretend to be about to drop it in. As I do, I close my eyes and pretend not to be totally icked out.
When I open them two minutes and twenty shots later, the first person I see is Ian. He’s leaning back against one of the mirrored walls and for once his omnipresent notebook is nowhere to be seen. Instead he’s staring straight at me, a half-snarl on his normally calm face and his eyes burning with a mixture of contempt and desire.
It’s the first time I’ve seen anything but pleasant or puzzled interest from him and it has the tiny hairs on the back of my neck standing up. Has ice skating down my spine and a desert taking up residence in my mouth. Because, in that moment, as our eyes lock and his turn impossibly darker, impossibly blacker, I don’t know who he sees. Can’t tell who he wants.
Me or her?
Actress or murderer?
Sentient being or a character he helped create?
It’s just more fuel to add to the fire of my earlier doubts and in that one tense and electric moment, it comes to me. What the cover shot should be.
What I need it to be.
Marc backs off a little, has his assistant come forward with a trash bag for me to throw away the last of the berries and the gloves I’ve been wearing. As she pauses to tie up the bag in front of me, I ask her for a couple wipes.
She quickly returns with a box of baby wipes and I smile my thanks even as Marc instructs me back against the mirror for what he calls “the last series of shots.”
I do as he instructs, but as he’s fiddling with the lighting, I turn toward the mirror and swipe the wipe over the right half of my face.
“What are you doing?” my makeup artist squawks as he comes racing across the room at me.
“Trust me, Dalton,” I tell him as I continue to scrub.
“Stop doing that!” he orders as he grabs on to the end of the wipe and actually tries to wrestle it away from me.
“Just wait,” I instruct, refusing to let go no matter how hard he tugs.
“What are you up to, Veronica?” Marc asks. He sounds more intrigued than annoyed.
“I’ll show you,” I tell him, pushing gently at Dalton’s hand until he finally lets go with a whimper.
And then, with the whole room—including Ian—watching me intently, I wipe the entire half side of my face clean of any and all makeup. I do it carefully, making sure that the line that runs down the center of my face is exact so that both sides are completely symmetrical.
When I’m done, I reach up and take off my right earring and hand it to Dalton who still looks slightly shell-shocked. Then I step back and stare at this new reflection of myself in the mirror.
Half me at my most natural, half her at her most armored, it’s a devastating look. Made even more so by the elaborate fifties makeup Dalton has me in—all red lips and thick black liner and long, long lashes.
There is a difference, I tell myself fiercely as I study myself. I am not her. I will never be her, no matter what it felt like four months ago.
In the background I’m aware of Marc cursing softly, of him snapping picture after picture. I don’t turn around, instead continuing to give him my back so that he gets both me and my reflection in each shot.
“Turn around,” he breathes after he’s taken at least three dozen pictures.
Reluctantly, I do as he requests, then follow his impatient gesture for me to move away from the mirror. I step forward and then the camera starts again, clicking away to get the shot from this angle as well.
At that moment, Ian moves and I make the mistake of glancing his way. Our gazes lock and heat slams through me at the look he’s giving me, has my eyes widening and my lips parting on a gasp as I struggle to draw air into lungs that have abruptly forgotten how to work.
“Fuck,” Marc breathes from where he’s narrowing in on my face. “That’s it. That’s the money shot.”
I drag my eyes away from Ian, but it’s too late. For the first time in a very, very long time, I feel vulnerable. And I hate every second of it.