He was improving. He hadn’t stuttered or drooled while he talked to her. Russ Vukovich collapsed against the brick wall of the soundstage and scrubbed his face with the palms of his hands. Then he held them there when he realized they smelled like the lilac skin cream Layla used. He was such an idiot.
After he’d left the Navy, a friend of a friend had hired him to help out with his stunt business in Los Angeles. They quickly discovered that Russ’s talents lay more in teaching actors how to fight than standing in for them. When a no-name show needed
someone to do sword fights and wrestling, as the newbie, Russ drew the short straw. Fortunately, he got along with the cast members and when the show was renewed, his contract was too. He’d mostly worked with the men but the few scenes he’d done with Layla had reduced him to a babbling wreck.
He sniffed his hands again and forced them down to his side. He’d only come in to organize his equipment. Running into Layla had been an unexpected bonus. Before he could move, he heard shouting from around the corner. It was Layla’s voice and she sounded pissed, which made it a regular day.
Two security guards he recognized were escorting a skinny dude out of the make-up trailer and the guy was not happy to leave. Russ looked at Todd Olson and nodded towards the trailer. The tall guard shook his head.
He was on his way back out when he saw Layla bolt from the trailer. A minute later, the show’s tiny stylist left too, locking the door behind her. He was going to let it go until he saw that Erin had obviously been crying.
The bitch queen strikes again. Yes, Layla looked like a wet dream walking but, personality wise, Russ was glad he didn’t know her other than by sight. She’d been utterly professional and completely emotionless in their sessions but she hadn’t gone out of her way to annoy him like she had most of the other crew.
“Erin, are you okay? What happened?”
The woman stared up at him, surprise overtaking her red, puffy eyes. “Nothing.”
“I know how hard it can be when actresses get,” he paused, “difficult.”
“No, it’s fine.”
“Layla may be one of the leads but that doesn’t give her the right to make you cry. I can talk to Chris or Nick,” Russ offered. Chris Peck and Nick Thurston had pulled him into their circle of friends after the Greek gods accidentally targeted him during one of their prank wars. Since then, the targeting had been on purpose until they learned that he was the person who’d invented payback. He was currently two up on them.
“She didn’t do anything. My ex-boyfriend showed up and Layla called security for me to get rid of him. She was really nice about it too. She said she’s going to put him on a watch list at the gate so he can’t get back in.”
Maybe there was a special effects shot coming up and they had a double on set. After all, the woman in the car had smiled at him. Now she’d been nice to Erin. It had to be a different person.
“We’re still talking about Layla Andrews, aren’t we? Hera, Queen of Olympus with the attitude to match?” he asked.
Erin smiled. “I know, right! She was really quiet last week. And nice so far this week.”
“Maybe she’s been replaced by a pod person.” Although it was easier to not act on his crush when he knew she was a bitch. If she were nice, it would be a lot harder to stay away from her.
“I vote we keep this version.”
Russ put his finger to his lips and looked over his shoulder in mock fear. “I won’t tell if you don’t.” They shook hands in a silent pact.
* * * *
It had to be an imposter. Some kind of android look-alike. Because there was no way
that Sean Glenn would be looking at the real Layla Andrews with anything near awe. He listened and nodded while he drank a bottle of water while Layla explained the set-up for the fight that was coming up. Sean stood quietly to the side, staring at her.
“Sean, you okay?”
Layla looked over her shoulder. “I think he’s in shock at the thought that I went to college.”
“I’m fine with you going to college,” Sean protested.
She transferred her gaze to Russ and he could have sworn the corners of her chocolate brown eyes crinkled at him. “Okay, I think he’s in shock at the thought that I may or may not have wrestled in Jello and whipped cream in college.”
Russ didn’t understand why they thought him dropping his water bottle was so funny.
Sean left early since his part of the fight consisted mainly of not stepping on the small actress as they wrestled. Layla asked if Russ could stay a bit longer so she could run through everything a couple more times and he easily agreed. Aside from the Jello wrestling comment, which he tried very hard to forget whenever he had to position her, Layla had been her usual cool, professional self. When she was confident she had her moves down, she thanked him for his help and headed out. She got to the door before she turned around and came back.
“I need to apologize,” she told him.
“Why? I thought the session went really well.” She even cracked a smile. It had been a shockingly nice change actually.
“No. About not saying ‘hi’ to your friends at the volleyball tournament last weekend.”
Russ really didn’t want to get started about the tournament. That entire day was a disaster from start to finish when it came to the cast of Olympus. The plan was to have a cast member, one of the gods, serve as a fan’s slave for the day and Chris was designated as the volunteer. When Zeus showed up at the contest winner’s house that Saturday he learned that his now ex-assistant had tried to torpedo the whole event, going as far as to lie to the sweepstakes organizers about the winner’s agreement and participation. Nobody had been informed he was coming.
According to Chris, when he knocked on Sydney Richardson’s house that morning, she shut the door in his face. Russ smiled in spite of himself as he remembered Chris telling the story of hearing her dismiss him, saying “I’m busy” while he was tried to convince her to go along with the studio’s publicity stunt.
She’d eventually agreed, at a price. She would help Chris out if he agreed to show up at a fundraiser she had running that day to raise money for a charity she’d established that helped burn victims like herself. She’d played her part but then Chris had ditched her before he could follow through on his half of the agreement. To make up for it, Sean, Nick and Layla had to substitute for him by attending Sydney’s “Curse the Darkness” beach volleyball match. Russ tagged along—officially to act as security, unofficially to keep an eye on Layla.
Fortunately for everybody, Chris showed up eventually and the guys were a hit with the crowd, helping raise a lot of money for Sydney’s foundation. Layla, on the other hand, refused to go anywhere near any of the burn victims who were there to cheer on the
teams, including some of Russ’s wounded military buddies in the crowd. It worked out for Chris and Sydney in the end; the pair had ended up dating and were still going strong. But the rest of the cast and crew who had been involved were still suffering through the new, added tension between Chris and Layla that the contest had raised.
“You don’t have to say anything about that afternoon. At all. Really,” Russ told her. The sooner he could forget about it, the better.
“I do. I’m truly sorry. I didn’t mean to insult you or your friends. I just don’t do well around burn victims,” she tried to explain.
“No, you have to understand. I really don’t do well around them. When I was little, my dad was an insurance claims adjustor. On his last case, he was checking out an accident site and it blew up. My mom and I had to visit him in the burn ward every day for two months. It was…beyond horrible. He was in so much pain all of the time. I remember the smell and the bandages and the crying. It never fades. Ever since then I can’t do the hospital thing. Or the burn patient thing. I’ve tried but I can’t. So I’m sorry for disappointing you and upsetting your friends.”
She didn’t give him time to respond after that. He blinked and she was gone, the heavy security door clanking as the brace at the top eased it shut.
Definitely a pod person.
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