Newlywed author Shontae Nichols Burke is trying to adjust to her life in Hollywood as the wife of actor Devon Burke, one of the film industry’s brightest upcoming stars. She’s left her home and her friends and moved to Los Angeles.
They both have blossoming careers. She’s attending movie premieres and living a life she only dreamed of.
Unknown to Shontae, someone else also believes Devon Burke is the love of her life. When this disturbed woman insinuates herself into their lives, Shontae learns that all Hollywood drama isn’t scripted and finds herself in a fight for her marriage that’s worthy of the big screen.
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Devon came up behind her, wrapped one arm around her tiny waist and lifted her hair from her neck with a tender hand just like he’d done to me countless times. “You don’t know how much I missed you,’ he murmured into the soft spot just below her earlobe.
“I don’t believe you,” she teased, with her back arched and her breasts straining against the thin fabric of her top. Her curvaceous rear undulated against him in a slow wave.
My hands curled into tight fists, and I blinked a few times to be certain the scene before me was really happening. What could be more devastating than a newlywed seeing her husband in an erotic situation with another woman? Another incredibly beautiful, younger woman. He seemed to be completely absorbed, as if nothing else in the world mattered. My breath hitched, and I froze.
“Oh, you don’t?” he said, his sexy baritone rough with desire. “I guess I’ll just have to show you then.” With parted lips and half closed eyes, Devon looked spellbound. He ran his long, strong fingers down the indentation in her back before letting his hands slither over her hips and down her taut thighs. In one swift motion his hands were under her flimsy top. “I’ve been away for two months. The whole time I was gone all I could think about was coming home and making love to you.”
She giggled and I gagged when he yanked the top up uncovering her perfect breasts. “Fake!” my mind screamed. I squeezed my lips together to keep from making a sound when Devon forcefully pulled her back into his crotch. My tooth broke the skin of my lower lip, and I licked away the metallic taste of blood.
She spread her arms out to the side with her fingers splayed on the wall. Devon trailed slow kisses down her spine, dropped to his knees and eased her pants down leaving her standing in a tiny black thong. His breathing was labored and the muscles in his back and powerful thighs strained with tension.
Thankfully I was in the shadows where neither of them could see the abject horror on my face. Feeling like a voyeur, I forced down the sick churning in the pit of my stomach as Devon unzipped his pants and let them fall to the floor. A lump formed in my throat when I recalled how that morning I’d watched him put on the black silk boxers I’d bought him for our honeymoon. I’d shamelessly wished I could take them off him, but knew he was expected at the studio at six and didn’t have time for any pre-dawn fun and games.
“And cut!” A voice rang out from the shadows near me.
I rocketed back to reality, thankful for the momentary reprieve. My lungs suddenly refilled with air as if someone had removed the hand they’d had clamped over my nose and mouth.
“Devon, you’re in her light,” the director instructed. “Lean your upper body to the left a little. Toccara, sweetheart, move your right leg to the three o’clock position.” They followed his direction with emotionless accuracy. “There. Yes, that’s it.”
“Quiet on the set. Roll it!” the assistant director yelled.
“Rolling,” someone else said.
“Speed,” another called before an assistant held a black and white clapboard in front of Devon’s face and slapped it shut. The director said, “Action!”
I went back to holding my breath while Devon and his seductive co-star finished the scene.
In a nonchalant move, Devon pulled up his pants and zipped them. To my surprise his heated, breathless expression left as quickly as it had come. He now concentrated on the director’s words as he glanced in the direction of where I sat. Was he looking to see my reaction? The crew had purposely seated me where I wouldn’t be in his sight line.
His co-star and new buddy, Vaughn Breland, had convinced Devon that my being present at the filming of his first love scene would reassure me that nothing freaky was going on.
Right. This whole thing was freaky.
Knowing how uncomfortable Devon was with the idea, I’d fought him on it for weeks, but he insisted. Vaughn said it was best for me to be present so I understood how love scenes were handled and wouldn’t be shocked when I saw the finished product on screen.
It was all I could do to remain calm and rational when starlet whatever-her-name-was rubbed her perfect little booty against the spot that belonged to me. Like most people, I often wondered exactly how love scenes were filmed, yet never in my scariest nightmares had I imagined I’d be educated by watching my husband and a strange woman. This was what I’d have to endure being married to the man the entertainment mags had pegged as “Hollywood’s new heartthrob leading man.”
I’m a fiction writer, for crying out loud. My days were spent creating fantasy. I should’ve been able to understand that this was fantasy. Many times I’d explained to Devon how I came up with the love scenes in my books. He had no problem with my process.
Maybe because I didn’t get naked with my characters.
But I had seen them naked.
Today I found myself on the flipside and had to remember what I’d observed was my husband’s job, not his personal life. Readers often believed I wrote from personal experience, particularly when it came to the sexier parts of my stories. No matter how I tried to convince them what they’d read was pure fiction, they winked an eye and said, “Uh huh” in a mocking tone. Thankfully I had avoided those kinds of questions with my last book, a non-fiction autobiography I’d ghostwritten for an acquaintance that had since become a friend.
This wasn’t a good way to start a marriage. Devon needed to be assured of my trust in him. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust him. I hadn’t thought there was a problem until I felt something burning its way like Draino from my heart into every vein in my body. So this was what jealousy felt like? It was horrible, and I imagined it eating me from the inside out. I had to get out of there. Fast.
“You doing all right, Shontae?” a silky voice said from behind me as a large hand rested on my shoulder.
When I looked up into Vaughn’s gorgeous dark chocolate face, I’m sure the nervous laugh I eked out didn’t back up my phony pasted-on smile. “Better than I thought I’d be. What are you doing here today? Devon said you weren’t in any of these scenes.”
“I just came by to see how my boy was doing.” He stroked his neatly trimmed beard and flashed me a blinding smile.
“Devon sent you here to babysit me, didn’t he?”
“Oh, come on,” He inclined his head toward me. “Dev wouldn’t do that.”
“You’re in the wrong business, Vaughn. You didn’t deliver those lines convincingly.”
“Okay, I confess. We thought somebody should sit with you during the bedroom scene. It’s pretty graphic.”
Of course I knew it wasn’t real. But I also wasn’t naïve. Hadn’t the affair between Brad and Angelina started on the set of Mr. and Mrs. Smith? Many Hollywood romances began during filming, but I had to believe Devon was too decent a man to succumb to on-the-job temptation. I felt for him though, with close to twenty people watching his maiden voyage. When he hugged me before he’d left home at five o’clock this morning, his body was rigid with tension. And he said he loved me twice before he went out the door.
Ever since he’d snagged his first major role last year portraying General Ben Davis, the first black U.S. Army general, in a film directed by Denzel Washington, Devon’s career had taken off. That movie had opened to great reviews, above-average box office numbers and had gained the attention of a couple of other directors. Last summer I’d helped him with his preparation for that role and had seen with my own eyes how adept he’d been at becoming the character. His talent and professionalism amazed me. This film was totally different -- a suspense thriller with a few intense love scenes. This was not real. I needed to remind myself of that fact right now. He was an actor. A very good one.
Two people moved onto the set as soon as Toccara pulled her top back over her head. One marked the floor with a piece of tape where they were standing. The other quickly dabbed Devon’s forehead, touched up Tocarra’s makeup and brushed her hair back down over her shoulders.
“Let’s go back to where Devon says, ‘I guess I just have to show you,’ the director said, looking down at his script. “Then we’ll move it into the bedroom.”
When I arrived, I had seen the king-sized bed with lights strategically positioned around it like metallic stick people in one of the other set “rooms.” All I could think of was a porn movie.
To my amazement, Devon repeated his last line, resumed his labored breathing and morphed right back into the passionate lover. I reminded myself that he could fake anything.
Maybe that was what worried me.
And now – oh, God – he was carrying her toward the bed. Convinced that I wouldn’t make it through the bedroom scene, my mind started cooking up all sorts of excuses why I had to leave. That’s when the director called “Cut!” again. For the next fifteen minutes he had Devon lift the girl in his arms and carry her back and forth until he was satisfied with the scene. First her hair wasn’t hanging right, then Devon looked at the camera instead of her face. They finally made it to the bed and the director said, “The way you laid her down was too gentle. They’re supposed to be in the throes of passion, Devon. He’s not going to ease her down like he’s afraid she might break. And Toccara, let your head hang back a bit more as he carries you. Camera two needs to get a tight shot on your expression.”
They went through the scene again until the director announced, “Cut and print. You two can get into your robes.”
After Devon and Toccara left the set, a gaffer adjusted the lights. Even though I was bored, I refused to leave. I couldn’t. Not now. The nude scene was about to begin.
Weeks ago Devon had explained how things would go, yet I still wasn’t prepared for the moment when they came back wearing white terrycloth robes.
Vaughn’s hand landed on my shoulder at the same moment Devon turned his back to the cameras, eased out of the robe and slid his fabulous naked butt under the covers. I know Vaughn felt the tension in my shoulders when Toccara did the same. From that point on I sat frozen as the director moved them through the scene. Because it was all so choreographed and clinical, I reacted much calmer than I thought I would.
Until the covers came off.
My husband palmed Toccara’s breasts, and she squeezed his buns. Suddenly I couldn’t sit still any longer.
“Breathe, Shontae.” Vaughn slipped his arm around me and gave me a tight squeeze this time.
I dragged in a long breath. Unfortunately it did nothing to stop my heart from pounding.
“Do you want to leave?” he whispered in my ear. “Devon won’t see us if we slip out now. We can grab a cup of coffee or something.”
“Uh – I -- ” I stuttered. “I want to see -- how this ends.”
“It’s your choice, but it may be midnight before they print this. Why don’t you meet me in the parking lot at Pacifico’s on Culver Boulevard? I could use some dinner.”
The thought of enduring this sight for another six hours made me want to poke my eyes out. “Good idea. I’m hungry too.”
“We can’t make a sound. Follow right behind me so you don’t trip over anything.” He waited until Devon’s back was turned and led me by the hand through the darkened maze of equipment and crewmembers.
I drove the short distance to the restaurant, blinking to banish the images that had been burned into my brain.
I’d only been in L.A. for six months, and it seemed as if every week I was exposed to something new and strange. Strange being the operative word. I was Jersey girl through and through. Everything I’d heard about California was true. Even though L.A. was a major city, it was so different from New York. And it depended on which Los Angeles you were talking about. There was a big difference between Compton and Beverly Hills. Everything in New York was rushed. Of course people took care of business here too, only at a different pace. Fashion had a more relaxed edge. In general people seemed to be more fit and outdoorsy. Heck, in Manhattan it was either too cold or too hot to spend much time outside. What I really loved about California was the easy-going outdoor living. Nearly every restaurant had a patio, even the Starbuck’s in Ladera Center not far from our house, one of my favorite spots to write. The natural beauty rivaled anywhere else in the country. The combination of ocean, mountains, palm trees and temperatures that rarely reached extremes couldn’t be beat.
I didn’t particularly like the “L.A. mentality” and Hollywood was just bizarre. From what I’d seen, everything was a bit too bourgie and materialistic for my taste. I’m sure the attitudes in Compton or Watts were different, but we didn’t live there. People here most likely considered me a typical uptight New Yorker -- even though I constantly insisted I was from New Jersey.
When I arrived at the restaurant, Vaughn was waiting next to his gleaming convertible Jaguar as if he’d been there for hours. “What’d you do, fly here?”
He grinned, showing off those beautiful teeth. “Baby, what’s the point of having a ride that can do one-twenty if you only cruise in it?” The mellow lilt of his voice reminded me of a Luther Vandross ballad. Vaughn was so much like Kip, our friend from New Jersey. Also an actor, Kip had the same irresistible smile, muscular build and slick playboy aura. In spite of their scandalous reputations, I trusted both of them implicitly for their loyalty to my husband.
“True.” I followed him through the pseudo beach shack and studied the modern décor and colorful murals decorating the walls. According to Devon, Vaughn was deeply ingrained in this Hollywood lifestyle. He partied hard and slept with a different woman as often as opportunity provided. Devon often said he believed Vaughn wanted the perks of being an actor more than he cared about the industry recognition. He wasn’t after an Oscar unless the little gold statue could get him some mattress time with a beautiful woman. Yet he had his own code of honor and would never knowingly cozy up to another man’s woman. He apparently didn’t want the complications those kinds of entanglements brought.
Vaughn asked for a spot by the fire pit on the patio. The hostess seated us and sent a server to our table. “You look like you might need something a little stronger,” he said after he ordered a Corona. “How about a glass of chablis?”
I nodded and the server left.
“So now you understand what your man’s job entails. Can you handle it?”
“Whew!” I scrubbed my cheek. “You know, I went in convinced that I was so centered and mature. Now I’m not so sure. The filming was staged but still very hard to watch.”
“Yeah, I guess it would be. Just know that it’s only work, Shontae. It doesn’t mean anything.”
I knew what he meant, but it was tough for me to imagine fondling a gorgeous, naked man and having it mean nothing to me. That’s why I was a writer and not an actress, I guess.
"When Devon gets home tonight he’s going to be exhausted.”
“You mean don’t nag him.”
Vaughn leaned back in his chair and narrowed his eyes. “I don’t see you as the nagging type. Just let him know you’re not upset. However you do that is up to you.” He smirked and took a sip of his beer.
Witnessing the filming of Devon’s love scene added yet another new test to the ones I’d faced every week since coming to L.A. Everything from learning my way around to finding places where I could work comfortably presented a challenge. The major one had been leaving my best friends behind in Jersey. We’d been logging in a lot of phone time, but it wasn’t the same as sitting together and commiserating over a cup of tea. I missed them so much.
Just six months earlier Linda and Jo, my two best friends, had helped me pack my apartment.
“Two down, two to go,” Jo said as she emptied one of my dresser drawers onto the bed.
“What are you talking about?” Linda stopped taping the bottom of a box and glared at her.
“With Shontae and Kinnik married, that just leaves us.”
Linda stacked my Writers Digest and Romantic Times magazines and dropped them into the box. “Don’t include me in your body count. I’m fine just like I am.”
Jovita Blassingame and Linda Cash stood in the middle of my bedroom, which looked as if a tornado had recently roared through strewing boxes, newspaper and bubble wrap along with books, CDs, shoes and clothes. They’d helped me take down and wash the curtains, wrap the living room accessories, and the few dishes I had in the kitchen cabinets.
“I don’t know anyone out there.” I pulled the last of my sweaters from the closet, rolled them tight and added them to a box marked “winter.”
Jo laughed. “Tae, as friendly as you are, you won’t have any trouble making friends.”
“What if I hate it?”
“You’ve been out there twice, and you loved it.” Linda said, trying to restore my common sense.
“Yes, the scenery and the weather are wonderful, but I didn’t meet any of the people, except Devon’s agent and Vaughn Breland.”
“Meeting Vaughn Breland would’ve been enough to make me want to move there,” Jo said with a devious smile.
Linda frowned. “Why are you talking yourself out of being happy?”
Taking the next step frightened me. Everything was so uncertain. My life in New Jersey had order and routine. I got up in the morning, went to the neighborhood park to walk, showered and drove to the local coffeehouse where I knew everyone on the staff. Familiarity made life easier even though not always interesting. For the next few hours I would write until it was time to eat lunch. Funny, I’d never considered predictability a positive thing until now. When I’d first moved to L.A., just going out felt like a chore. Devon bought a GPS for my Nissan, because every time I left the house I got lost. Each coffeehouse or restaurant had to be “tested” to see if the atmosphere and staff were conducive to “camping.” If the location proved too noisy or the wait staff seemed overly anxious to free up the table, the minute I took the last bite of my obligatory purchase, I had to look for another location. Moving around to different spots wasted time. For a writer, time is extremely valuable.
My first few months in California had been lonely. If I had a bad writing day, I couldn’t call Linda or Jo and ask them to meet me for lunch so I could moan and complain. Here I wasn’t that close to anyone. Devon’s non-stop work hours were horrendous. Not a good thing for newlyweds. He promised we would spend some quality time together, but after the Ben Davis film premiered he was offered some TV spots and voice-over work. He kept telling me how rare it was to have constant work in Hollywood. I didn’t complain, especially since we were paying a $1,900 a month mortgage now. He needed to work. A big chunk of the money he’d made on the Ben Davis film had gone toward the wedding, a substantial down payment on the house and to buy furniture. My royalty checks only arrived quarterly, and I hadn’t done any freelance magazine work since my relocation.
“People are people wherever you go,” Linda rationalized. “Besides, we need someone to stay with when we come out there to visit.”
“This is so opposite from what I originally wanted. Last year all I could think of was finding a quiet little house here in Jersey where I could write in peace. Now I’ve volunteered to become part of Devon’s life in La-La Land. What’s wrong with me?”
“For crying out loud, Tae,” Jo said, carefully folding one of the many lace teddies someone had given me at my bridal shower, “you married one of the most beautiful men on the planet. Girl, it’s just not wise to leave him in another state sleeping in an empty bed every night.”
Linda chimed in. “Look at it this way. At least you’ll be three thousand miles away from his mother.”
She had a point. Before Devon and I had even made it to the altar, Olivia Burke had bulldozed her way into our lives. We’d planned a small ceremony with only our immediate families, closest friends and a few business associates in attendance. Right after we called to share the good news, she put her plan into action to make our wedding an event of epic proportions. Devon and I explained to her over and over again that small, intimate and casual was what we wanted but Olivia, as she’d instructed me to call her, wasn’t hearing it. Personally, I thought Mother Burke fit her better. She had even offered to cover the expense for an additional fifty of her friends and relatives, a live band instead of a DJ and a sit-down meal rather than a buffet like Devon and I wanted. After two months of telephone arguments and a couple of heated in-person debates, she reluctantly gave up, and we had the wedding we wanted. Following our honeymoon in St. Lucia, Devon went back to Hollywood to promote the military film. I returned to Jersey to prepare for the move.
“Honestly, I don’t see what you’re worried about. You spend most of your time by yourself to begin with,” Linda groused. “All you used to talk about was getting a house near the water so you could write. Now you have one, so stop stressing and enjoy it.”
Devon had found a foreclosure in the Old Ladera Heights area of L.A. I hated taking advantage of someone else’s misfortune, but with the housing market being in such bad shape, it was the only way we were able to afford a house. The older house sold for $365,000, which in my opinion was outrageous. In view of Cali prices, it was a steal. We couldn’t see the ocean, because the house wasn’t in the hills, yet it was still considered part of the exclusive, predominantly black area.
At first, the fact that Devon had chosen a house without my input disturbed me. He seemed insistent on being the one to make the decision, even though we would both be living in it. This was a side of him I hadn’t seen before. We hadn’t dated that long before he’d proposed, and then our relationship suffered from a three-thousand-mile separation. I didn’t really have a problem with him making the final decisions; in fact it was something I wanted. But I would have appreciated more than a cell phone video tour before he’d plunked down a hefty deposit. I kept reminding myself that he had impeccable taste and didn’t make rash decisions. When I finally saw the charming three-bedroom, white stucco Spanish-style house, I fell in love with it right away. Even though the rooms were small, it had a fireplace in the living room, arches between the rooms, a big, old tree in the front yard and a built-in pool.
Linda lifted a stack of t-shirts from the dresser. “How many of these things do you have anyway?”
“You know that’s my uniform.” I chuckled. “Your sister still doesn’t understand how I can live in t-shirts and jeans.”
“Speaking of Kinnik, she and Jerome will be out in L.A. next month for some kind of awards ceremony. Did she mention it to you?”
“No, I haven’t spoken to her in a couple of weeks. Now that the blitz for her book is over, we don’t talk as much as we used to. She’s still getting exposure from the book. Since I was only the ghostwriter, my five seconds of fame are over. Last time we talked she said something about working on a jewelry line.”
Linda’s sister, Kinnik, a former video dancer had married one of the ruling hip-hop producers. I’d ghostwritten her tell-all book about her experiences in the industry.
“She’s realizing her dream,” Linda said with a thoughtful expression. “And I’m thankful she’s not dancing anymore.”
The heavy-duty tape dispenser Linda dragged across the box made that annoying screeching sound. “I don’t think you’re afraid of not making new friends,” she said, getting right to the point. “You’re afraid you won’t fit into Devon’s world.”
I stopped organizing my DVDs in title order and peered at her. She had uncanny intuition and didn’t hesitate to share her thoughts. “Oh, really? What makes you say that?”
“In all the years I’ve known you, you’ve never been nervous about meeting people. I’ve seen you speak to groups of total strangers at bookstores and conventions. You never seemed the least bit intimidated.”
“That’s different. When I’m working, I know what I want to say and generally have a good idea of what people want to know. The social situations are nerve wracking because people always want to get into your personal life.”
“You mean because of Devon?” Jo asked, pointing a long, dramatically painted fingernail in my direction.
“Of course. People aren’t interested in me. All they want to know is how this plain looking sister from Jersey hooked up with a man with the face and body of a god and a voice like Barry White.”
Linda flopped down on the end of the bed, grabbed my hand and pulled me down next to her. “First of all, Tae, you are not plain.” The way her gaze locked onto mine, I knew I was in for one of her self-esteem lectures. “Secondly, that’s not all people would be interested in. You have your own career, which is doing pretty well, by the way. You’ve even done some TV appearances.”
“Yeah, but that’s here. People in California don’t know me.”
“Well, this is your opportunity to let them get to know you. I remember you saying something about literary events in Los Angeles. Jump in with both feet and make yourself known. Don’t downplay your accomplishments just because Devon’s in another line of work.”
I laughed. “You make it sound as if he’s in middle management or drives a big rig or something. Devon’s not just in another line of work, Lin. He’s a movie star!”
“And you knew that when you married him. In my opinion, you need to capitalize on his stardom as much as you can to gain exposure for your books. Why don’t you talk to your agent about how to do that? Or maybe talk to Devon’s agent. I’m sure he’d give you some pointers.”
Always the businesswoman, Linda had a knack for looking at the bottom line. The artist in me had a hard time being so methodical and systematic. Right now I couldn’t think that far ahead. I was having a hard enough time imagining what I was getting into being the wife of a Hollywood hunk.