Aria woke with a jolt, looking around the dark bedroom. As her senses slowly began to adjust, she looked for the source of whatever had disturbed her. Her cell phone vibrated against the surface of her nightstand, the screen lit so brightly it cast a square light onto the ceiling above.
Yawning, Aria grabbed for it. She glanced over at the man in bed next to her, her heart filling with warmth at the sight of his sleeping form.
Finally focusing on her phone, she realized she had dozens of missed texts, calls, and emails.
"What the hell?" she whispered to herself, sitting up.
Aria, are you awake? WAKE UP NOW.
Don't look at the news. We need to talk. 911.
Is that you on E! News? Did you allow that?
OMG, ARIA! WHAT THE HELL?
What did you do?!?! This is career suicide!
Her heart began to race, panic swarming her every cell as she quickly clicked out on a website link her best friend sent her. A photo popped up, and then another, and another, and another, and Aria knew exactly what she was looking at.
Aria could barely breathe, trembling as she searched social media and entertainment news sites. The photos were everywhere. She was everywhere. Her breasts, her body, her love life on full display for the world to see.
It would have been bad enough if they'd just been images of her posing, but these were pornographic. These were her in her most intimate moments with a man she'd...
A sob stuck in her throat. Did he do this?
She looked at the man still sleeping beside her, fear gripping her heart.
This couldn't be happening.
Two Months Earlier
"Wait until you meet our lead." The heavyset producer's eyes glinted with excitement as he spoke. He brought a sandwich up to his lips, taking a bite and continuing around a mouthful of food. "She's only had small roles up until this film, but she's up-and-coming. No doubt about it. Aria Rose is poised to take the world by storm come Oscar season."
Ben didn't reply, too distracted watching the producer trying to wipe a blob of mayonnaise off his tie. Arthur Atwood was a large man with a messy comb-over and an ill-fitting suit, which must have been a deliberate choice since Ben knew Arthur made a handsome salary.
Is he licking his tie?
His new right-hand man was actually licking mayonnaise off his tie. Not a good sign. Ben made a mental note never to ask Arthur to have a meeting over lunch at his desk again.
"Bugger, it's in there good," Arthur muttered in his thick English accent, dropping his tie and slapping his hands on his knees. "All right. Enough of that. Ready for a tour of the studio?"
"Very," Ben replied, balling up the parchment paper his own sandwich had been wrapped in and tossing it into the wastebasket beneath his desk. He stood, rolling his shoulders and stretching his neck from side to side.
They'd spent the morning touring the corporate offices on the lot of Shepherd Film Studios where Ben would be officially starting in two weeks as the company's new chief executive officer. He had agreed to come in on Friday to tour everything and meet the crew on their final day of filming—but the pressure was already on.
One of the oldest movie production companies in Hollywood, Shepherd Film Studios was well respected, but struggled to adapt to new changes in the industry—the rise of streaming services, quicker distribution on the internet, and other changes that appealed to younger generations.
Maguire Industries had recently purchased the studio and placed Ben in charge to fix that. He had one year to prove to the board at Maguire that he could turn Shepherd Films back into a thriving production company or they'd dismantle the company and sell it off for profit.
He was Shepherd Films last resort, and thank goodness, too. No one else in Hollywood was desperate enough to throw him a lifeline. Being an embarrassing public spectacle for the last two years had been by far one of the biggest setbacks in his professional life to date—and his personal life was to blame.
"Have you seen any of her movies?" Arthur held the door to the office open for him, and together they headed down the hallways of the main offices. "She's a bombshell—literally one of the most gorgeous women I've ever seen."
"Aria Rose?" Ben replied, racking his brain for a mental image of the actress. "I've seen a few. Very pretty. She's very talented but never been a lead."
is her first starring role, and she's perfect for it. We can watch the dailies from today's filming, and you'll see what I mean. We were really lucky to score her for this film."
Ben had wondered about that, too. Aria wasn't necessarily A-list, but she was an up-and-coming fan favorite among millennial and younger generations. Her social media attention was nonstop, and there was an almost cult following to her that had made Hollywood execs begin to take notice. Yet, he'd seen the budget this morning. She was being vastly underpaid for this film, and he wasn't sure why.
They passed the guards at the front desk of the main offices and stepped out into the sun. "How did your team manage to sign her?" Ben asked.
"Sheer luck, I'd gather. She was following the script around—or so I heard. Determined to be part of it, though I can't say why exactly. The script is great—historical World War II romance with a Hester Prynne theme—and we're already getting some Oscar buzz from it. Still, it's a long shot, and it's nothing like her previous films."
Ben pulled a pair of sunglasses from his suit pocket and placed them over his eyes. The bright Los Angeles sun was beating down on them as they climbed onto a golf cart to traverse the large lot to the studios. "Sounds like we're the lucky ones, then."
"You've got that right," Arthur agreed, taking the driver's seat since Ben was still mostly unfamiliar with the area.
A few minutes later, their golf cart pulled up outside a large warehouse-type building that read STUDIO E
in large black letters across the top. Ben climbed out and followed Arthur to a small door off to the side, a red light lit above the door.
Arthur pointed to the light. "That means they're filming, so not a peep." He placed a finger to his mouth, indicating they needed to be quiet.
Ben nodded, and they entered the building only to be immediately shrouded in darkness. It might be his first day at Shepherd Films, but Ben was no stranger to movie sets and felt immediately at ease as they carefully made their way over to where the camera crew was.
Ben's father, Roger Lawson, was a highly sought after cameraman who'd taken a career most people overlooked and became the best. He'd taught Ben to do the same—excel in everything by putting his whole heart into every project, no matter how small or large. As a young boy, he'd spent many a summer day with his father at work, learning the business of not only filming, but creating movies, in general.
Newly thirty years old, Ben had spent the last decade putting his father's words into practice, rising through the ranks to become one of the hottest names in film production. He only wished his father was still alive to see his ascent, or at least, he had wished that until his ex-wife smeared his name through the tabloids during their divorce.
Never fall in love with an actress.
The one rule his father had told him before he died that Ben had ignored. Lesson learned.
"Am I to be punished for helping a fellow human being?" A strong female voice broke through the silence around them.
Ben stepped around a crowd of onlookers to see the set. Behind him was an entire crew, and not a single dry eye. The emotion on everyone's face surprised him. Following their attention to the main set, he saw the set was a bedroom. Sitting on the edge of the bed was a tall, broad-shouldered man with his head in his hands, wearing a soldier's uniform from the 1940's.
In front of the downtrodden soldier was a statuesque blonde, her hair flowing down her back in one long, chunky braid. Pieces of her golden mane escaped the braid, framing her face and highlighting her soft, pink cheeks. Pale blue-gray eyes brimmed with tears as she folded her hands over her heart.
"I won't lie, James," she continued, her voice softer now. "I can't."
The soldier suddenly stood, gripping the woman by her upper arms. "You have to lie, Anna. Your life is at stake—my life, our life
. You'll be imprisoned, and everything we've dreamt of will be over."
She steeled herself, her jaw tightening. "If this is real...if our love is real...then we'll survive this. Without the lies, the tricks, the falsehoods. We can survive this, James."
Ben felt a swelling in his chest, a lump in his throat. He wasn't even sure what the storyline was about, and yet, he was captivated by the woman in front of the cameras. Her presence was powerful...she
"No, Anna." He dropped her arms and stepped back, a look of disgust on his face. "We can't survive this. Not if you choose their lives over mine...over ours."
The blonde shook her head slowly, her hand now on her stomach as if she might be sick. "You can't mean that, James. You can't make me pick between loving you and my purpose in life."
"It's them...or it's me. Now or never, Anna."
Ben focused on the actress's face, expecting to see her acquiesce to the steely-delivered ultimatum. Instead, her chin pushed up and she inhaled deeply. Everything about her posture and stance screamed strength, and yet, in the exact same moment, those blue-gray eyes ached with pain. Ben nearly forgot he was watching actors because her portrayal was so genuine...she was so genuine.
"Goodbye, James." Her voice was gentle, but resolute.
The soldier's nostrils flared angrily, before he slowly shook his head. "Goodbye, Anna." With that, he walked out of the door and left her standing alone in the bedroom.
She waited a moment, staring after him. Her hand slowly lifted to her lips, covering her mouth as a loud sob ripped from her throat. In an excruciating display, her body dipped forward slightly before completely crumpling in on itself. She fell against the edge of the bed, sobbing into its sheets, as the lights on set dimmed.
"Cut!" the director yelled. "Holy fuck. That was amazing, Aria!"
The blond actress pushed up off the bed, smiling and wiping the tears from her cheeks. Everyone in the studio erupted into applause, and Ben joined in. She deserved every second of it after that performance.
A surge of excitement ran through Ben's body—he could do this. With acting like this, there was no way their movie wouldn't be a success. There was no way he wouldn't be able to bring this studio success within the year with a film like this.
"Hey, Russell," Arthur called out to the director and ushered Ben over to him. "Meet our new studio head, Ben Lawson."
Ben extended a hand to the grungy looking man with long, curly black hair to his shoulders. "Good to meet you, Russell."
"Please, call me Russ. I'm Russ Rains, director. I'm sure you've heard of me." He donned a cocky smile. Metal and bracelets around his wrists made a clanking sound as they shook hands—a not too unusual fashion choice in this city.
"I have," Ben admitted, though he didn't really like this man's ego already. It was certainly nothing unusual in Hollywood, and Ben had met the type many a time before. Russell Rains was a legitimately well-known director with several big box office hits under his belt, though it had been many years since his last. "Your work is amazing, Russ."
"Thank you, Benji," Russ said with an obnoxious chuckle. "Come on. Let me introduce you to our leads."
"I'll meet you back at the office," Arthur told Ben. "Have fun on set!"
Ben followed Russell onto the bedroom set where the actress he'd been so captivated by was hugging the soldier who'd just broken her heart.
"You were amazing, Travis," she said to him, pulling back from their embrace to smile at him.
Something inside Ben stirred—irritation, anger? He wasn't sure, but he didn't like seeing the man's arms around the beautiful blonde.
"Sweet pea, come meet our new studio head," Russ called out to Aria, who visibly bristled at his demand. Ben made a mental note to ask about the director's dynamic with the actors later. "This here is Benji."
Lawson," Ben corrected the director, extending his hand to the woman.
"Aria Rose," she replied, taking his hand with a gentle squeeze. Her fingers were small and warm around his, and there was something sad about letting go. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Lawson. This is my co-star, Travis Peters."
The soldier shook his hand next. "Good to meet you, sir."
"Please, call me Ben," he instructed them both. "Travis, you were fantastic. And, Aria, I have to admit that your performance just now was incredible. I was unbelievably moved."
Her pale pink cheeks darkened as she looked down at her hands. "Thank you."
"I have no doubt this movie will be phenomenal."
Russ slapped a hand on Ben's back. "Hell, yeah. That was our last scene, so we're officially wrapped." The director stepped away from them and yelled to the entire crew. "It's a wrap, fuckers!"
Ben didn't even cringe at the man's abrasiveness this time.
The crew clapped and cheered, and everyone was hugging and high-fiving each other. A swarm of people came onto the bedroom set to congratulate Aria, pushing Ben backward as he watched her gracefully accept their praise.
In fact, he couldn't take his eyes off her, and it only had a little to do with how unbelievably attracted he was to her. As he stepped to the side, he watched how she smiled, laughing and embracing her co-workers. It was captivating. Aria commanded a room, not just when she was acting, but as herself. Her eyes danced and shone as she spoke to the crew and other actors, her smile wide and transformative.
He felt drawn to who she was, not just what he saw, and it was intoxicating. Though, what he saw was certainly breathtaking. Gorgeous wasn't enough to describe this woman, or the way her long neck dipped into thin shoulders and a deep collarbone. Her breasts pushed against the dark red dress she was wearing that highlighted her hourglass silhouette, and her golden braid hung down over her shoulder with a weight and visible softness he'd never seen before.
Someone bumped Ben's shoulder as they rushed in her direction, bringing Ben back to reality. What the fuck am I doing?
He was barely six months out of a long divorce and had sworn off women entirely for now. And an actress? That was not happening. No way would he repeat his previous mistake twice. Not to mention that he was her boss, essentially, and that it would be a major conflict of interest. That was even assuming she was single and interested in him, which...
Why am I even thinking about this?
Ben shook the thought from his head, unsure when the last time was that he'd ever felt this foggy-headed over a woman.
Aria's laughter peeled through the air just then, melodic and joyous. Ben swallowed hard, shoving his hands in his pockets and heading for the door. He had to get out of there. Now.
He wouldn't let himself fall for another actress, not even one as beautiful as Aria Rose.
Aside from being a Top 10 Barnes & Noble and Amazon Bestseller, Sarah Robinson is a native of the Washington, DC area and has both her Bachelors and Masters Degrees in forensic and clinical psychology. She is newly married to a wonderful man who is just as much of an animal rescue enthusiasts as she is. Together, they own a zoo of rescues including everything from mammals to reptiles to marsupials, as well as volunteering and fostering for multiple animal shelters.
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