Costanza “Connie” Corda knew that somewhere inside her, feeble but not yet dead, was the nicest woman in Hollywood. And she was horrified at the things coming out of her mouth.
“This script is idiotic! I cannot look mindlessly adoring twelve hours a day. Not even at Studmuffin-of-the-West here.”
Her co-star, Vince Davis, let go of Connie’s hand. He watched her the way a rabbit watches a coiled rattlesnake. I would still be nice if it weren’t for you, she thought.
The reporter from Flick Peek took frantic notes.
At least we’ll get a few more lines of press coverage, thought the nicest woman in Hollywood gloomily. Her mouth opened again, and she cringed. But only deep inside.
“How am I supposed to look into his eyes with some rocket scientist flashing that light in my face?”
The mirror stopped flashing the New Mexico sun into her eyes. “Better?” came a voice from the left.
“Peachy,” she snarled.
Herbie’s voice came soothingly from off right. “Ready, Connie? Okay, let’s finish the page and then take lunch.”
Connie heard the patience in Herbie’s voice and felt doubly bad. They used to be such good buddies. This was their sixth picture together. If she didn’t get control of her mouth it would be their last. She tried to remember again why she had decided she wanted to live after Sam died.
Vince turned back toward her and she let him take her hand. He took a deep breath. “Dunno when Ah’m a’comin’ back, darlin’.”
She let her lip tremble. “Ah know. Jest remember, Monk, you’re ropin’ and ridin’ for me. Ah believe in yew.”
Connie looked deep into Vince’s big black eyes. He had his back to the camera, so he didn’t have to fake any feeling. He certainly wasn’t hiding the wariness in his face.
This. This man was the reason she was still alive. And the reason why she’d lost control of her suddenly rabid mouth.
They finished the page. Herbie yelled for the cut and they broke. Vince slid away.
Connie stomped off to the craft service tent for calories that wouldn’t get stuck in her teeth.
In line in the tent, she heard the whispers behind her. She kept her back stiff and her head high.
“She used to be such a good gal,” a man said.
“Yeah,” said another.
Connie stood stock still, looking down at the loaded steam tables. She couldn’t eat any of it. She couldn’t move.
“I took this job to work with her. I didn’t know it would be like this.” That voice she recognized. It was her twenty-something bimbo of an assistant, Britni.
Shame stabbed Connie. She put a plain yogurt carton on her tray. She was a horrible bitch and everybody knew it. How had this happened to her?
“How long were they married?”
“Like Meryl Streep and whatsisname.”
“She’s lost without him.” Britni sighed. “I feel sorry for her.”
Well, big whoop. Thanks for the pity, Britni, and fuck you, too.
“You feel sorry for a nice person,” said the first man. “This ain’t a nice person. Not any more.”
Outside with her tray, Connie eyed Vince across thirty yards of lighting equipment.
He smoked nervously, aiming one shoulder at her the whole time.
This was all his fault.
He didn’t know that, of course.
What was his problem? He had a rough-hewn Southern gentleman routine that covered most of his feelings, and when that failed he fell back on scowling and growling. For twenty-five years she’d thought she knew him better than his four wives did.
One thing she knew for sure. He was still avoiding her.
And now she was committed, dammit, to Herbie’s picture.
She wasn’t in love with Vince or anything. Considering how dead and empty her heart had been the past eighteen months, she would give anything to be in love again. Hell, it would be worth having a disastrous affair, at this point.
At that moment, thirty yards on the other side of the set, she caught his eye. He turned away furtively.
She needed rest. They had forty minutes left of the lunch break. Wrapped in a kimono, Connie left Wardrobe and headed for the bed in her trailer.
Her hand was actually on the door when she remembered there was a reporter inside, waiting to interview her.
She couldn’t face him.
She slipped off around the back way. Her head pounded and her back hurt from these high-button boots. Where could she go?
She felt hunted.
Desperate, she snuck into Herbie’s gigantic three-room office-and-living trailer and crawled into the bed. Reporters couldn’t find her here. She was safe.
As Herbie yelled for the cut, Vince Davis breathed a sigh of relief. His makeup itched, his cowboy britches itched, his wig itched, and his head ached from squinting into the afternoon sun.
But the most uncomfortable part was holding Connie’s hand.
Without a backward glance, Vince let go of her and headed for the smoking ghetto, where the sound boys and the grips hung out in a comforting blue haze of nicotine.
She was standing over there in Wardrobe right now, her red-gold hair shining under a hideous settler woman’s cap. She stared back at him with smoldering blue eyes.
After that near-fatal brush with his libido, he needed food. His assistant brought him a protein drink. Vince sucked his lunch through a straw, so as not to muss his makeup.
Herbie showed up and threw an arm over his shoulder. Herbie was half Vince’s size and sounded twice his age, though they were only a couple years apart. Vince trusted Herbie.
“Let’s pow-wow,” the boss said.
Inside Herbie’s trailer office, they raided the fridge for iced tea. Vince collapsed into a chair.
Herbie mopped his forehead and neck. “She’s on the rampage today.”
“Tell me about it,” Vince said.
“I blame Sam,” Herbie said.
Vince nodded. “The dumbhead. He must have known she couldn’t live without him. Goes and gets lung cancer,” he said severely, thinking with guilt of the cigar-case tucked into his back pocket right this minute.
“Irresponsible,” Herbie agreed, producing a cigar. “Gimme a light.”
“I’m trying to cut down,” Vince said. He handed Herbie his Ronson.
“So breathe my second-hand smoke. Taper off.” Herbie got his cigar drawing and blew a blue ring at the ceiling. “God, I needed that.” He passed a hand over his bald spot. “I can’t take a lot more of this.”
Vince eyed Herbie with concern. Surely he didn’t want Connie off the picture? “She’s not normally unprofessional.” He sniffed Herbie’s cigar smoke with longing. “Remember how she sailed through shooting when she was nursing the twins?”
“Mm-hm,” Herbie said. “Always sunny. God knows when she slept. I didn’t sleep on that picture myself, and I wasn’t doing two-a.m. feedings.”
“Sam took some.” Vince sighed. “He was a good guy.” He hadn’t played poker since they lost Sam.
“He was a prince,” Herbie said.
Vince set his teeth. What the hell. He opened his cigar case and lit up. “Fairy tale marriage,” he said, sucking gratefully on his own nicotine source.
Herbie broke ash. “That was the trouble. It was too perfect.”
“How do you figure?”
“Movies and marriage don’t go together. You know it, I know it. Nobody stays married. What are you up to, three divorces now?”
“Four.” Vince grimaced. He wasn’t in the mood to talk about Almira’s lawyer.
Herbie grunted. “Once was enough for me.”
Vince laughed shortly.
“If we could make movies without women.” Herbie drank iced tea. “And then a couple of saints like Sam and Connie come along and make us all look like jerks.”
“I’m worried about her,” Vince lied. Well, he was. He was worried she was turning into the kind of woman he was always getting married to.
Herbie licked the end of his cigar. “I’m worried about me. This fucking picture is going to kill me. I can’t yell at her. She’s Connie, for chrissake. Sweetest babe in Beverly Hills. But I don’t think I can face two more weeks of her like this.”
Vince blanched. “Jesus, no.”
Herbie narrowed his eyes and pointed his chin at Vince. “You were close to them. Closer than me.”
Vince looked away. “Sunday dinner and poker, every week.”
“Think you can get the old Connie back?”
Vince whipped his head around. “What?”
Herbie blew smoke at the ceiling. “Sweeten her a little. You know she’s always been soft on you.”
So this was why the pow-wow! “Herbie, I don’t think—”
“Josh her along. Cheer the old girl up.”
Vince’s blood froze. “What? You mean, come on to her?”
The real Connie was nice and accommodating and easy to work with. Kind of a sister, which was awful comforting, back before Sam died, since he always seemed to be on the rebound from a divorce and in need of a sister.
But now … brrr ….
“It’s not like you’re serious about women.”
This was not true. Vince had been serious about a whole string of women, every one of whom was what the tabloids called a “panther girl.”
“It’s not like you’ll break her heart. It’ll pep up her spirits. Give her a distraction.”
“Jeeze, Herbie, I dunno.” Never mind worrying about breaking her heart. What about mine? Vince spat a fragment of tobacco leaf off the end of his tongue.
Herbie bore down. “C’mon, bub, we’ve worked together a lot. We know you can do it. What did you get that Oscar for? You’re good. You can pull this off. Save everybody’s sanity.”
Vince felt stuck. He never said no to Herbie. He never said no to any director, which is a big part of why he was invited to take so many sweet roles. Herbie was a god in Hollywood. Nobody told him no.
“She used to be so nice.” Vince felt the trap closing around him.
“Everybody knows you’ve got a thing for impossible women,” Herbie said tactlessly. “They won’t be surprised if you show interest. I’ll see to it you’re left alone by the press, if that’s what you’re worried about. I’ll give you plenty of time alone together and I’ll chase the jackals off.”
Great, Vince thought glumly. Lead me up to the cliff and chain me to a nice round cannonball. He made a last-ditch argument.
“She’ll murder me if she finds out we’ve set her up.”
“Relax,” Herbie said. “She’ll never know.”