Darling Investigations #1
January 8, 2018
This felt a lot like rock bottom.
I was sitting at the bar in Magnum, an upscale Vietnamese and Portuguese fusion restaurant, sipping a glass of white wine while I tried not to dwell on the fact that the restaurant was named after a condom. Okay, so it probably wasn’t named after a condom, but it might as well have been. I hadn’t had a decent job in almost eight years, and I was trying to decide whether to accept a nude photo shoot or star in my own personal version of hell—a reality TV show. I’d been looking for signs everywhere, and this seemed like a flashing billboard.
My grandmother was the one who’d gotten me into the habit of looking for signs. As a lifetime member of Sweet Briar, Alabama Calvary Baptist Church, I was positive she would tell me to run far away from the photo shoot, regardless of the name of the restaurant. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t talked to my grandmother in years—nine, to be exact. She always seemed to pop up in my head when I needed tough love.
But morals and principles didn’t pay the bills, and I was drowning in them.
While I was finishing my backstroke in my Olympic-size pool of self-pity, I heard a woman shout in excitement, “Oh, my God! It’s Isabella Holmes!”
It didn’t matter that my name was Summer Butler, and Isabella was a character I’d played in a teen show called Gotcha! nearly a decade ago. As far as the world was concerned, we were one and the same.
Maybe if I ignore her, she’ll go away. Sometimes it worked.
The bartender stopped in front of me and leaned his elbow on the counter, lowering his face to mine. “Want me to get rid of her?”
I studied him, wondering what he wanted. Everyone wanted something. The woman behind me probably wanted a selfie with me. The producer I was supposed to meet wanted to capitalize on my notoriety—former teen-superstar actress, now nearly bankrupt and unemployable, her life in the gutter. Alpha Magazine wanted to use my good-girl persona to sell lots of copies after they slutted me up. Justin, my manager, wanted to milk the little that was left of my career.
Ah. Judging from the gleam in his eyes, the bartender in front of me wanted in my pants, or up my dress, as the case may be. Men loved to screw Isabella Holmes.
At least I knew where I stood.
“No,” I said, holding his gaze, “I can handle her.” I had to admit he was a good-looking guy, but the perfectly styled hair screamed wannabe actor. I’d met more than my fair share who were hoping to use me as a launching pad to a career, which I found amusing given that my career was currently in the shitter.
He winked. “She’s heading this way. Let me know if you want me to intervene.”
“Thanks.” I glanced over my shoulder as two women in their thirties charged toward me.
“Oh, my God,” one woman said in a gush with her phone in her hand. “You’re Isabella Holmes!”
I offered her a polite smile. “Actually, I’m Summer Butler. But yes, I did play Isabella several years ago.”
“Whatever,” she said, waving her hand in dismissal. “I can’t believe it’s you. TMZ said you were homeless.”
I forced a laugh. Talk about bad acting. No wonder I couldn’t get a job. I lifted my brow into a playfully amused expression. “Don’t you know you can’t believe everything you read in those tabloids?”
I was pretty proud of how I’d delivered the line, but the girl’s friend didn’t look convinced. “But Perez Hilton said your house is in foreclosure.”
I lifted my wineglass to my lips and took a sip, giving the woman a patient look even though I was seething inside. Perez Hilton was right—or at least he would be soon enough. But my house was the least of my worries. I was desperate to save my family’s legacy, but that was something you’d never learn about on a gossip site. Not even my grandmother knew.
Before my grandfather had died nine years ago, he’d swallowed his pride and asked me and my mother to cosign a loan to bail out the family farm. Only he’d asked us to keep it from my grandmother and my extended family, making me swear I’d never tell.
Several months later, my grandfather, aunt, and uncle had died in a fire, my fifteen-year-old cousin, Dixie, was charged with arson and three counts of manslaughter, and I had a major falling-out with my mother. When she headed back to our hometown of Sweet Briar, Alabama, under the guise of helping her mother and her dead brother’s children, she ran off with most of my money, leaving me with the tatters of a career she’d spent the previous two years sabotaging in her greed for more money. Oh, and the responsibility for the loan my grandfather had taken out on the nearly two-centuries-old family farm. Now I was broke and nearly homeless, and there was an upcoming balloon payment on the farm, which I had no means of paying.
So it was pose nude or embarrass myself on TV. Either way I lost.
But at the moment, I needed to shut down this conversation. “My attorney is currently determining what legal action we can take for the defamation of my character.”
They eyed me up and down, and even though it irritated the shit out of me, I let them look. My long blonde hair hung in loose waves, and I was wearing my size 1 thrift-store-find ivory Prada dress and Louboutin pumps; I’d dressed to impress. Small victories. I took them anywhere I could. I daintily set my wineglass on the bar. “Like I said, you can’t always believe what you read.”
“Like those photos of you in In Touch Weekly,” her friend said, staring at me with wide eyes. “You looked terrible in those.”
Everyone had fat rolls in a bikini if you were positioned the right—or wrong—way. To make matters worse, my body had been covered in a blotchy rash due to an allergic reaction to a new moisturizer. But I’d been stupid enough to let my best friend, Marina, talk me into going to the beach because “sunshine and vitamin D are nature’s cure for blotchy skin.”
“The paparazzi haven’t followed you for months,” Marina had said. She would know. She’d stopped working as my paid assistant a year ago, but she still hung out with me often enough as a friend.
Lucky for me the paps had followed Cameron Diaz, who’d ended up as the “star” in their beach-body roundup, and photographed me with a fat roll and blotchy skin. A designer who had been considering hiring me as the face of their new line canceled my lunch with the director of marketing the same afternoon the photos posted.
I lifted a shoulder into a shrug. “Photoshop. You wouldn’t believe what tabloids do to have the latest scoop . . . even if it’s a lie. Gossip sells.”
And that was the true name of the game in la-la land. Selling—movies, TV shows, magazines. Popularity. It didn’t matter what you were selling, as long as people wanted it. And no one had wanted me for nearly eight years.
“Can we take selfies with you?” the first woman asked.
I smiled even though I wanted to tell her no. I didn’t need any more bad press, although a small part of me wondered if the executive producer I was about to meet would have welcomed it. Bad press made for great reality TV.
I plastered on my fan-photo smile as the first woman sidled up next to me and held her camera up over our heads, presumably to minimize her double chin. She lowered her phone and checked the image.
“Can we take that again?” she asked.
I gave her a gracious smile even though I was feeling anything but—I was nervous about meeting the producer, and I needed a few minutes to get myself together. But the sooner I got this over with, the sooner I’d be done with them. “Of course.”
After half a dozen tries, she finally decided the first photo was the best. Her friend was less picky. She snapped a quick selfie of the two of us and then started to furiously tap on her phone.
“Hey,” a middle-aged man said from behind her. He wore a button-down shirt covered in tiny palm trees and coconuts that screamed tourist. “You’re Isabella Holmes.”
“Summer Butler,” I said with a forced smile.
“You were really a bitch when you turned that guy down when he asked you to prom. He went to a lot of trouble to ask you.”
I stared at him in disbelief, sure he was joking. But he stared right back, waiting for me to respond. “That wasn’t me,” I said patiently. “That was in a TV show.”
“It still wasn’t nice.”
“Maybe so,” I said, “but I was following the script I was given.” Not that I would have accepted had the actor asked me. I couldn’t stand Connor Blake, my former costar on Gotcha! Never content playing second fiddle to me, he’d gone out of his way to make my life hell—on the show and off. He’d loved every minute of pretending to be my boyfriend during our fifth and final season, especially since it had been the final blow to my relationship with my then-boyfriend Luke Montgomery.
“You were much too sassy to your parents.”
“Again,” I said, trying to remain calm and stave off a building headache, “I was following the script.”
I turned back to my drink, resisting the urge to chug it down to calm my nerves. The last thing I needed was my photo on the cover of the National Enquirer. I could see it now—a photo of me with my head tilted back to drain the last of my wineglass, plastered beneath the headline: “The Downfall of America’s Darling—Drugs, Booze, and Wild Orgies.” If only I had the courage to consider attending one of those wild orgies.
“Can I ask you for just one more thing?” the first woman asked.
Knowing what was coming, I lifted the wineglass to my lips to stall, muttering, “My firstborn child?”
“What?” she asked in confusion.
I set down the glass. “What do you need?”
“Will you say it?”
I knew my smile had to look forced, but I couldn’t find it in myself to care. I decided to play dumb. “Say what?”
“You know,” she said in a tone that suggested I was an idiot. “The line.”
I took another sip of my wine. “And which line is that?”
“You know the line, sweetheart,” the palm-tree guy said in condescending tone. “The line from that show.”
I knew I should just say it and get rid of them, but if they had any idea how many times I’d said that line over the last fifteen years . . .
I shook my head, still playing dumb. “Which show?”
“You know,” the man said in exasperation. He thrust his hips to the side, pointed his right index finger at me, and winked as he said, “Gotcha!”
The hostess was making her way to me, so I stuck my credit card in the black folder to pay for my drink. The bartender knew I was waiting on a table, so I wouldn’t need to stay here for it to be returned. “That was really good,” I said enthusiastically. “Have you considered trying out for the remake?”
One of the fans squealed. “There’s gonna be a remake?”
There wasn’t, but it didn’t stop me from shrugging and offering a mischievous grin. “You didn’t hear it from me.”
“They’re gonna find someone twenty years younger to play you, right?” the guy asked.
My eyes widened, my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. Let it go, Summer.
But dammit, I was tired of letting everything go.
I ignored him and walked toward the frazzled hostess, leaving the two women to their excitement.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Butler,” she said, cringing, “but your party’s been seated for five minutes. I forgot you were at the bar.”
“That’s okay,” I said. The clenching of my stomach made me wish I had time to go to the bathroom, but if Scott Schapiro was already at the table, I couldn’t keep him waiting.
The hostess led the way to a semicircular booth. A good-looking man in his forties, wearing a dress shirt and tie, sat on the opposite side. The way he impatiently tapped his finger on the table was a not-so-subtle sign that he was pissed.
“I told your manager one sharp,” he said in a cold tone. “I’m on a tight timetable.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Schapiro,” the hostess said. “It’s all my fault. She was in the bar, and I forgot.”
“Uh-huh.” He looked up at me like I was an ant he was considering squashing. “How much did you pay her to say that?”
My mouth dropped open in shock, and before I could respond, he gestured to the seat opposite him.
“Well, don’t just stand there. Sit down so we can get this over with.”
The hostess shot me an apologetic look, but I was more concerned with the man glaring at me. I slid into the booth as gracefully as I could manage in my tight dress and set my purse on the seat beside me.
“I’m so sorry about the mix-up,” I said with a smile as I folded my hands on the table in front of me. “I’ve been in the bar for the last fifteen minutes. The staff said they’d notify me when you arrived.”
“Are you drunk?” he asked hopefully.
“What? No! I didn’t even finish my glass of wine.”
He rolled his eyes in disgust. “That’s too bad.”
“Whatever,” he said dismissively. “You’re here. I’m here. Let’s dispense with the niceties and get this started.”
“Okay.” I let out a tiny breath and waited for him to speak, which resulted in a five-second staring match.
He glanced down at his phone, then back up at me. “Well? I don’t have all day.”
He was really starting to tick me off. “And I’m ready to listen.”
“Listen to what?” he asked. “You haven’t even pitched me anything yet.”
“Excuse me?” I asked, trying to cover my shock.
His eyes narrowed. “Your manager told me you were pitching me a few reality TV shows.”
“He did what?” Justin had pushed me into taking this meeting, and I’d finally agreed because one, I was desperate, and two, Justin had said I would only have to listen to the producer’s pitches.
Disgust washed over Mr. Schapiro’s face. “So you’re not prepared.” He lifted a hand to flag down the waitress. “My time is valuable, Ms. Butler.”
“Of course it is,” I said, my mind scrambling. “You want ideas from me.”
“Isn’t that what I just said? Did I stutter?”
“No, it’s just that . . .” How was I going to come up with ideas in a matter of seconds? I was an intelligent woman. I could do this.
The waitress walked over, and Mr. Schapiro lifted a credit card. “I need to settle my bill.”
“Already?” she asked, taking his card. “You haven’t ordered your food yet.”
“And I won’t be. Just the drink.”
The waitress walked away, and I said, “I have ideas.”
“Then you have about three minutes to pitch—the time it takes her to bring my receipt and for me to sign it.”
“Okay . . .” Crap. Why hadn’t I paid more attention to reality TV? “You could follow me to auditions.”
“And when was the last time you had an audition?” he scoffed.
Score one for Scott Schapiro. “I’m considering renovating my house. You could follow that.” Oh, shit. I hoped he didn’t pick that one. Before long, I wouldn’t even own a house.
“This isn’t HGTV, Ms. Butler,” he said in disgust. “It’s E! Didn’t you do your homework?”
Dammit. The waitress was heading our way.
“I don’t have a boyfriend,” I said. “You could follow me on some dates.” When he looked unimpressed, I added, “I could do one of those dating sites.” What the hell was I thinking? Had I really sunk this low?
I imagined myself posed on a school desk, naked from the waist up, wearing my character Isabella’s plaid school-uniform skirt, my leg hiked up enough to give viewers a peek underneath it. Because that was probably my only other option if I didn’t come up with something. And quick.
The waitress set the black bill folder in front of him, then scurried away. He lifted the flap and picked up the pen. “What else do you have?”
“I take yoga. Maybe I could teach classes.”
He grunted and signed his name.
Crap! I was so pissed at Justin for doing this to me. Pissed at Scott Schapiro for treating me like I was worthless. Pissed at the people who still expected me to be Isabella Holmes, amateur teen sleuth at the made-up Roosevelt High School, who solved small mysteries for her friends and family. I was pissed at my mother for making me do the damn show at all and for stealing most of my money.
“Fine,” I said in a snotty tone. “How about this? I’m a private investigator like my character in Gotcha!, only I solve real-life crimes. You like that one any better?”
He set down his pen and looked me in the eye. “Do you want to know what your trouble is, Summer?”
“Why do I think you’re going to tell me whether I want to hear it or not, Scott?”
He grinned—slightly. “Your problem is that you’re vanilla. You were a nice girl in a nice show, aimed at the tween demographic, and you’re still nice. You don’t drink to excess. You don’t party. Hell, I don’t think you’ve had a boyfriend in two years.”
Three, but I wasn’t about to correct him.
“Sure, you were embroiled in some controversy with your costar.” He circled his finger. “Whoop-de-doo. You were nineteen fucking years old. What actor hasn’t slept with a costar.” He put his card into his wallet. “You’re boring, Summer. Boring with a capital B. No one would want to watch your show because no one gives a shit.” He stood. “Frankly, I was shocked to see a little bit of fire from you a moment ago, but a lit match isn’t enough to make viewers watch. You’d be better off giving up the ghost and getting a real job.”
I stood, getting really ticked off now. “Do you think I haven’t tried? I’m too recognizable to get a normal job.” I’d taken a managerial job at an upscale boutique, but the customers had all seemed more interested in getting autographs and selfies than in buying the merchandise. The owners had fired me for being too distracting.
“Not my problem, sweetheart . . .” He grinned. “Or should I say, Darling?”
The hostess slinked toward me with a nervous look. “Uh, Ms. Butler. Your credit card was declined.”
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Of course it fucking was.
Scott Schapiro laughed.
Palm-tree guy from the bar walked past our table and headed straight for me, wobbling a little.
“Hey!” he said, wandering over to us. “Isabella! You didn’t say your line.”
Scott Schapiro glanced back at the man and let out a bark of a laugh. “You better give it to him, Summer,” he said with a weaselly smile, “because this is about as good as it’s going to get for you.”
Those words were still echoing in my ears as the tourist came to a stop in front of me. “I want my line,” he said, invading my personal space with his pointer finger. “Some America’s Darling you are.” Then he poked his finger at me, aiming for my chest before he wobbled and got a handful of my boob.
Everything welled up inside me—the debt, my mother’s betrayal, my frustration at being the butt of everyone’s jokes, and years and years of failure.
“You want the line?” I shouted, pulling back my arm. “Here’s your fucking line!” I screeched as I punched him in the eye. “Gotcha!”
The man fell to his knees, covering his face with his hand. “Isabella Holmes just punched me in the face!”
I leaned over him and sneered, “How do you like America’s Darling now?”