The son of a bitch was going to make her lie.
Sons of bitches, Alison Carter corrected herself, because her adorable new friend Hugh was part of this hideous charade. In fact, it was rapidly becoming crystal clear that this – her impending lie-was the young production assistant’s reason for bringing her here, to this undetermined level of hell. Oh, it looked like the dusty street outside of movie star Trace Marcus’s huge trailer, but it was definitely hell.
The morning sky was clear and so blue it hurt Alison’s eyes. It was barely 8:30, and the desert sun was already much too hot on the back of her neck.
“Who is she?” Trace’s wife demanded through her tears, her mascara making black streaks down what had once been a ridiculously pretty face. Now she just looked ridiculous, the plastic surgery she’d had leaving her looking perpetually surprised as she confronted her philandering husband. “I want to know-I deserve to know!”
“I hate you,” Alison murmured to Hugh, who, with his tastefully messed red hair, hazel eyes, and athletically trim body, remained adorable despite his dragging her into this.
“Trace needs to be in makeup in twenty minutes,” he murmured back as he pulled her closer to this snake pit of domestic non-bliss. “Ninety-seven thousand dollars an hour…”
That was his default answer to almost anything – his recitation of the enormous amount of money it was costing director Henry Logan’s production company to bring this movie – Quinn — to the big screen.
And it was true that if an actor were late to the set, money would, indeed, pour from the company’s veins as dozens of crew members stood around, uselessly waiting for the star to undiva his or her ass and get down to work.
So far, it had happened four different times, courtesy of Trace Marcus.
“Who is she, Tracey?” Marcus’s wife asked him again. His creepy and ever-present personal assistant, Skip, mumbled something in his low-talker’s voice that Alison couldn’t hear, but the wife could and she snapped, “Shut up, Skippy, I wasn’t asking you.”
Alison couldn’t remember Mrs. Marcus’s name, but she, like her husband, had been a huge star back when she was in her late teens, early twenties.
Which really wasn’t that long ago.
Trace had started celebrating his thirty-third birthday last night. Thirty-three, and he was in desperate need of a comeback, which playing Silas Quinn was designed to provide.
No doubt about it, this was a crazy, crazy business Alison was dipping her toe into here. And she’d always thought the academic world was a little nuts.
But here she was, standing in the dust beneath the blistering hot sun, ready to provide an alibi for a man who wasn’t just a crazy actor, but was also a card-carrying moron. It was his freaking birthday. Today. A degree in rocket science wasn’t needed to theorize that since it was his birthday, it was highly likely that his loving wife was going to show up here on location, to surprise him with a visit.
Instead Trace had surprised her. Eleanor. That was her name. Although it really shouldn’t have been that big of a surprise for Eleanor to find her husband’s trailer rocking, not after ten long years spent married to the man. He was a dog. Surely she knew that by now. He couldn’t keep his pants zipped to save his life; forget about saving his marriage.
The day Trace had arrived on set, not five minutes after stepping into the much smaller trailer that was Alison’s new office, he’d hit on her – and she’d been so startled she’d laughed in his face.
Which was a mistake, because he now avoided her like the swine flu.
As the official historical consultant for this film, as the author of the latest definitive book about the shoot-out at the Red Rock Saloon, Alison had a wealth of information about the details of Silas Quinn’s life. She had a file with newspaper clippings and rare photos. Pictures of Quinn with Melody, taken shortly after their wedding. Pictures of the deceptively pleasant-looking Kid Gallagher gambling in San Francisco. Pictures Trace should want to see as he worked to bring Quinn back to life in this big-budget, high-profile movie.
Alison even had an actual cigar box that the marshal had once kept upon his desk, along with the Bible that the man had carried with him for most of his too short life, even though he’d never had time to learn to read.
Filming had started, but Trace wasn’t interested in seeing any of that material, because Alison had thought he was joking when he’d offered to do her on her desk, the way he’d done to Gina Gershon’s character in Last Cowboy Standing.
And yes, the man was almost freakishly handsome with his dark hair and brown eyes, with that trademark Marcus smile. All of the excess weight he’d put on in his late twenties had finally turned into man-muscle. True, he no longer could play a scene without his shirt, but he was now the perfect size to play Silas Quinn, who’d been a full-grown, incredibly attractive bear of a man.
Still, Trace’s offer had been absurd.
And maybe Alison was unused to the ways of Hollywood, coming as she had from Boston College’s history department, where doing it on one’s desk with a married man was usually frowned upon, independent of whether or not one was a Gina Gershon fan.
And so she’d laughed at his proposal. Loudly.
In Trace’s handsome face.
She’d seen, right away, that he was affronted, and she’d immediately apologized and even thanked him – which felt beyond strange-telling him that casual sex just wasn’t her thing.
Which was not a lie. It was just not usually something she had to tell a man within five minutes of meeting him.
“Let’s move this inside,” Hugh suggested now, talking to Skippy, who tried to herd them toward the trailer door, but Eleanor clearly liked having an audience.
“I heard him in there, fucking some slut,” she told them, the crass language oddly jarring, spoken as it was in her little-girl voice. She spoke loudly enough so that the growing crowd of extras and crew could hear her, too. “So I left, but then I thought, Why am I always the one running away? So I came back, but she was already gone, and now he says it wasn’t him in there, that he was at a meeting – at eight o’clock in the morning when his call isn’t until eleven…? Like I’m supposed to believe that?”
“Trace was in a meeting,” Hugh lied effortlessly as he tried to pull Alison even closer.
But she’d gone as far as she was willing to go. She pinched him and he released her, giving her a look that meant… what? That she was disappointing him? Seriously?
“See, I was in a meeting,” Trace echoed, the slightest tinge of relief making his words rush together as he looked at Hugh and realized that they had come to rescue him. Particularly after Hugh pointed surreptitiously toward Alison. “Researching my character. With Professor, um…”
“Carter,” Hugh helpfully filled in, because the man had apparently forgotten Alison’s name. He thumbed his BlackBerry as if the star’s schedule were on his personal calendar. “It was… Yes, at seven-thirty A.M. A breakfast meeting. In Dr. Carter’s office. Which is over with the rest of the production trailers.”
And now Eleanor was looking at Alison, sizing her up with her neon blue contact lens-enhanced eyes, her fading suspicion mingling with her hope and relief as Hugh kept spewing his bullcrap.
“She’s tremendously busy. Dr. Carter. She needs to approve the costumes for every extra – and we’ve got a lot of them on set for the next few weeks. Plus she looks at every single script revision, every tweak in the dialogue. The only open time she had to talk to Trace was early this morning.”
Alison stayed silent, holding her breath, praying that Eleanor didn’t ask her outright about this alleged breakfast meeting – uncertain as to whether or not she’d actually go along with Hugh’s bald-faced lie when pressed.
Except, really, she was already going along with the lie, just by standing there as Hugh’s exhibit A.
But Eleanor turned back to Trace to ask, “Why didn’t you just say so?”
“I did,” he lied again, indignant now at the injustice of her accusations. What a prick. “I said, Someone must’ve been in my trailer, because it wasn’t me, but you weren’t listening. You were blah, blah, blah, bitching and moaning, ready to assume the worst the way you always fucking do-”
“When you left for your meeting at Dr. Carter’s office,” Hugh interrupted Trace, probably because he was good at reading body language, and he knew that Alison was about to reach out and smack the actor, or denounce them all for the liars that they were, “did you lock your trailer door?”
“I didn’t.” Trace looked properly chastised and subdued. “Did you, Skip?”
His assistant shook his baseball cap-covered head, no.
“I didn’t think we had to,” Trace said.
“You better lock it from now on,” Hugh advised him, making a very real-seeming note in his BlackBerry. “Someone probably invited an intern in to take a look, and got a little early payback. I’m sorry about the inconvenience, and the misunderstanding,” he added with an adorable smile at Eleanor, who was now in Trace’s arms, apologizing, which was giving Alison heartburn. “I’ll have a cleaning crew come in and… Have you checked to see if anything was stolen?”
Trace shook his head. “I don’t think anything was.” He looked at Skip, who shook his head, too. “No.”
“That’s good at least,” Hugh said. “I’ll make sure it gets cleaned and is ready for you by your break. But right now, Mr. Marcus, sir, I hate to do this to you after such an upsetting morning, but your makeup call is in ten minutes. You need to get to work.”
“As do I,” Alison spoke up, because she was damned if she was going to be part of this ugly conspiracy and not gain something from it. “Although, Mr. Marcus, perhaps we can schedule another breakfast meeting for tomorrow. I know how interested you are in finding out all that you can about Silas Quinn and we’ve barely gotten started.” She turned to Hugh and gave him a tight smile. “I’ll let you check our schedules and set that up for us.” The Because you owe me, you little bastard, was silent.
But understood. Hugh nodded. Message received. “Ninety-seven thousand,” he started.
“Yeah, yeah,” she said, as she turned away.
But this charlie foxtrot wasn’t over yet.
Yes, that was Eleanor Marcus calling her name, in that Betty Boop voice that Alison had never found particularly appealing, even when the actress was a dewy-eyed teenager.
Most of the crowd had dispersed, which was good. Still, she turned back, trying to unclench her teeth enough to give the poor deceived woman a smile rather than a grimace. “Mrs. Marcus,” she said, bracing herself. Trace had gone into his trailer, but Skip was still out there, watching them from behind his mirrored sunglasses.
“I’m not acting anymore,” Eleanor said. “It’s a choice. My choice.”
It seemed like a non sequitur, a change of subject, which was a relief, but she appeared to want a response, so Alison nodded. “I’d heard that,” she said. “It’s a tough business.”
“I hurt my back,” Eleanor said, indulging in a little lying herself. Apparently it was a hobby for these people. In truth, the actress had stopped appearing in movies because, at the ancient and gnarly age of twenty-nine, she’d refused to let go of her youth-and the doctors who’d tried to make her look eighteen again had somehow botched the procedure, damaging the muscles in her face. She was still beautiful, but she now had only one expression. She’d had additional surgeries over the past five years – or so the tabloids reported – trying, and failing, to make it right.
“I’m sorry about that,” Alison said as gently as she could. She backed away, gesturing back the way she and Hugh had come. “I’m melting out here. And I really need to…”
“I’ve seen pictures of Melody Quinn,” Eleanor said. “She always looked so sad, so haunted-as if she knew what was coming. She was so young when she died.”
Melody Quinn had always stared soberly into the camera, as did everyone who had tintypes taken at that time. Say cheese! wasn’t a photographer’s battle cry until well after the turn of the century. Until long after Melody Quinn had met her tragic end.
“I would’ve loved to play her,” Eleanor continued. “Not now,” she added with the slight movement of her lips that was now her smile. “But back when I was her age. She was only twenty-one, right?”
“She was,” Alison said. “And yes, ma’am. You would’ve been great.”
It wasn’t a lie, but Eleanor rolled her eyes as if it were. “Whatever,” she said, turning to go into the trailer where her skunk of a husband was showering in preparation for stepping into Silas Quinn’s giant, honorable shoes.
Hugh was trying to slip away, unnoticed, but Alison quickly caught up.
“Don’t you ever,” she all but spat at him, her voice low but deadly, as she hurried along beside him, down the dusty street, “ever do that to me again.”
“Ninety-seven-” he started, but she skidded to a halt, catching his arm and spinning him toward her.
“Whoa!” One of the extras, a tall, lean cowboy type, had been following them so closely, he nearly crashed into them.
But Alison ignored him as she jabbed one finger into Hugh’s face, nearly sticking it up his perfect nose. “Don’t. Start. I signed a contract with Logan Productions, not with the devil. That poor girl-”
“That poor girl,” Hugh interrupted her, “was banging one of last season’s American Idols, just last week, in Vegas. She knows exactly what Trace does on set without her. She just needed a plausible excuse to keep from looking too foolish. That’s what we gave her.”
“We? Thanks so much, but next time leave me out of it. Because I will not do that again. And if I were you, I wouldn’t-”
“Believe it or not,” Hugh said, “it’s part of my job. I handle the talent.”
“Well…” Alison sputtered. “Ew. Big honking ew. It’s not part of my job and…” The cowboy was hovering. He’d backed off a bit in a show of giving them privacy, but he was clearly waiting to talk to her. She spun toward him, her voice more impatient than she’d intended. “Can I help you?”
“Um,” he said.
“You were told to find me for costume approval,” she guessed as she scanned his clothes, adding, “Oh, no. No. Nope. The jeans are too modern – they’re your own, right? They must’ve run out of your size.”
He was tall – quite a few inches over six feet-with long legs. And while the faded jeans he was wearing looked good on him – extremely good – they wouldn’t do.
“Paula!” Alison shouted. She’d spotted the intern across the street over by the Feed and Grain Store, talking with the second unit director Frank or Fred or whatever his name was. And damnit, Hugh had taken the opportunity to escape. He’d vanished completely, so Alison turned back to tell the extra, “Even looser fitting jeans are still too snug in the crotch. Plus, I can tell you’re wearing briefs, which weren’t available until 1935. The things you learn from being on a movie set are amazing, aren’t they? The boots are good, but you’re going to have to lose the watch, and that shirt isn’t…”
She reached out to touch the fabric of his pale blue workshirt. It was a soft cotton, but it had been stone-washed, and the pre-fade was too uniform. No cowboy in his right mind in 1898 would’ve bought a shirt that was already worn out.
“No,” Alison said again, asking, “Who dressed you? It’s all wrong. Except for the boots. And the hat. You can keep the hat.” That was one very authentic looking off-white cowboy hat he was holding loosely in his big hands. She raised her voice again. “Paula!”
“I think maybe you’ve mistaken me for someone else, ma’am,” the man finally said in a soft voice that had a hint of a western drawl. “I’m not an extra for this movie.”
And Alison stopped examining his jeans and his shirt and looked up – he was so tall she actually had to tilt her head, which was rare – and into a face that she’d known for years.
Her mouth dropped open as she stared at him.
Wide cheekbones, narrow chin, big straight nose, elegant lips, blue, blue eyes…
With the exception of his hair, which was golden blond, he looked remarkably, eerily like the few rare pictures she’d studied of Jamie “the Kid” Gallagher.
And if he wasn’t an extra…
That meant he was the actor they’d found to play Gallagher.
Oh, big, wonderful hip-hip-hooray. This was too good. Casting had way outdone themselves this time.
And sure, he wasn’t perfect. He was quite a bit taller than she believed Kid Gallagher had been. But he had the same slender build, with those long legs that she’d already noticed leading to narrow hips that angled upward to broad, broad shoulders.
He was older than Gallagher, too, by a good fifteen years, but that was okay. The makeup team could take some years off the actor’s face, no problem, the same way they could darken his thick hair and make it wavier.
Alison laughed. He was perfect.
He was gazing back at her, one eyebrow slightly raised at her intense scrutiny of his face.
“Sorry for staring, but…” She held out her hand to him, laughing again. “I’m… so impressed. I’m Alison Carter. And you’re our Gallagher. Congratulations and welcome to the set.”
His hand felt cool against hers, despite the day’s heat. He had big fingers that were rough with calluses and a palm that engulfed hers. Like many actors, this man no doubt had been forced to support himself between jobs by doing manual labor. Although after Quinn, that was going to change. There would be no more ditch digging, landscaping or carpentry in this man’s bright and shiny future.
“Thank you,” he said. “But, um, I’m not sure-”
“Have you got a minute to come to my trailer?” she interrupted him. He’d have plenty of time to be humble later. “I’ve got tons of information to give you before someone else grabs you.”
Before the actor could answer her, Paula jogged over, calling, “I’m sorry, Dr. Carter. How can I help you?”
“Coffee,” Alison said. “Two cups – in my office, bless you, and…” She looked at their lovely Gallagher. “You must’ve just arrived on set. Have you had breakfast?” She didn’t wait for him to answer. “Bring over a breakfast tray, too. Thank you, Paula.”
He looked surprised and a little uncomfortable as the intern hurried away. “That’s really not necessary.”
“Get used to it,” she told him, walking backward so that she could look at him as she led the way to the row of production trailers, one of which was her office. The resemblance was really remarkable. “It comes with the territory. Where on earth did they find you?”
“Find me?” he echoed. He had a slightly puzzled look on his face, as if she were speaking a foreign language and he was having trouble translating.
“Strange new world, huh?” she said. “I’m with you there, Alice. I fell down the same rabbit hole myself, just a few weeks ago.” She rephrased her question. “Where are you from?”
“Alaska,” he said.
Alison laughed. “No wonder you look shell-shocked. You’re a long way from home. I’m from Boston myself and every time I go outside, I feel like I’m stepping into an oven. People are going to tell you that you’ll get used to the heat, but they’re lying. You won’t. You’re going to have to drink a lot of water. And always carry a hat.”
He smiled at that, and it softened his face and made at least five of those extra years disappear. “It’s been a while,” he said as they crossed the street and headed back behind the town’s single motel, where the production trailers were hidden out of camera range, “but I’ve spent plenty of time in the desert. I know how to handle heat.” He cleared his throat. “What I can’t quite figure out is… how did you know who I am? Did… someone call you or…?”
“I haven’t checked messages yet this morning. Truth is, I recognized you.” Alison took out her keys as she led him to the narrow door of her office, unlocking it. “It’s been a particularly crazy day.” She stepped back and gestured for him to go in first. “Better duck. This thing is a death trap for tall people. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve hit my head. You’d think I’d eventually learn.”
He had to both duck and angle his shoulders slightly to make it through the door and into the trailer.
It was silly for her to have let him go first, because now he stood there, at the top of the stairs, gazing at the piles of books and papers that crowded not just her desk but every available surface-including the enormous leather sofa that lined one whole side of the tiny room. The thing must’ve been built in there — or the trailer constructed around it — according to some actor’s contract, circa 1985.
“Sorry about the mess,” she said, shutting the door firmly behind her in a pathetic attempt to keep the cool air in and the scorching heat out. “And it’s not really as bad as it looks, I know exactly where everything is, so let me… Excuse me.” She squeezed past him – he was extremely solid in addition to being tall – and cleared off space on the sofa for him to sit.
“Organization is actually one of my strengths,” she added, “but – and I don’t know how many movie sets you’ve been on – but everyone who knocks on my door needs something done immediately, top priority, drop everything, including whatever five minutes ago’s screaming priority was, so filing nearly always gets pushed to tomorrow. Sit. Please. I figure I’ll get it all filed the day after we wrap.”
“I haven’t,” he said as he lowered his big frame into the huge couch, making it look not exactly tiny, but certainly more average-sized. “Been on a movie set before.”
“So it’s been stage plays, then,” she deduced as she moved behind her cluttered desk and sat down, too. “This must be so exciting for you.”
“Um,” he said, glancing around the room again. “Well…”
“You’re probably stressed about how last minute this all is,” she sympathized. “We’ve already started shooting, and you’ve got a lot of research to do in a short amount of time to get up to speed. But don’t worry. I’m here to help you. It’s going to be fine. You probably have a million questions, but I want to preface this part of our discussion by freely and openly confessing that I am and always have been an admirer of Silas Quinn. I’ve done extensive research on this man who was, in my opinion, easily the most tragically heroic figure in the history of the American West. Needless to say – but I’ll say it anyway-my opinion of Kid Gallagher is neither charitable nor unbiased.”
Their Gallagher was nodding. “I’ve read your book. You made that… pretty clear.”
“But I don’t go into much detail about Kid Gallagher’s long list of crimes,” she told him, happily surprised that he’d already read her book, without her having to push it on him. That was always awkward – or at least it had been with both Trace Marcus and Winter Baxter, the actress who was playing Melody. Neither of them were big readers, and their eyes had immediately glazed over when she’d pulled out the thick book. “And the list was long. Gallagher had quite a rap sheet, so to speak, starting right when he left home at age fifteen.”
She used her toe to open the file cabinet that was wedged in next to her desk, and pulled out her hefty Gallagher file. “He came from Philadelphia, from a wealthy family,” she continued as she handed the actor the file, which he opened immediately and began looking through – his eagerness winning him even more points in her opinion. “And although there’s no record of this, I’ve always imagined him as one of those horrible little boys who drowned puppies and pulled the legs off insects.”
He looked up at that, glancing briefly around the room before meeting her eyes, his dismay apparent.
“I know,” she admitted. “There’s no proof – it’s just my prejudice showing. But after he left home, his family never mentioned him again. It was as if he’d never existed – as if they’d disowned him and didn’t want him to come back. One theory is that he was gay and his family’s rejection turned him into an outcast and it wasn’t a big step from that to outlaw, but there’s also no proof of that so… I’ve spoken to Henry Logan at length about the Kid’s character – have you talked to him yet?”
He looked up from the file again, his dark blue eyes somber. “No. I haven’t. Um…” He cleared his throat, glanced around the room again. “Dr. Carter-”
She cut him off again, which was probably rude, but he was a slower talker, and she had information that she knew would, immediately, relieve some of his trepidation. “I know Henry’s got this reputation for being a real perfectionist when he directs his movies, but I’ve found him to be open to discussion. He’s sincerely interested in listening to different ideas, so don’t be shy about speaking up. But the one thing you should know is that he’s particularly interested in making Kid Gallagher multidimensional in his film. All of the other movies about the gunfight at the Red Rock Saloon have portrayed the Kid as psychotic, which comes out as extremely one-note. But something I’ve heard Henry say, over and over, as we’ve discussed this particular character, is that no one is ever the bad guy in his own movie, or in his own life. And that was probably true of Kid Gallagher. He probably didn’t see himself as a villain.” She couldn’t keep herself from adding, “Despite the fact that he was a bank robber, a kidnapper, and a cold-blooded killer.”
Their Gallagher smiled at that. “Bank robber, kidnapper, and cold-blooded killer,” he repeated, shaking his head and laughing softly. “What if I told you that you were a hundred percent wrong?”