“That’s why the photos of Riley and Avery never ran,” I said to Anaka, frustration laced through my voice as the sun began its trek up the sky, casting early morning light across the hills. “They were never designed to run. They were taken for leverage, and Jenner used that leverage to blackmail Avery Brock into dumping Nick and stealing the role of the sixth student in weekend detention. Avery didn’t want his indiscretions to get out.”

All because of me. Because I was seduced by money. Because I hadn’t thought to do the simplest of background checks on Keats Wharton. I’d believed he was who he said he was.

“Don’t berate yourself, sweetie.” Anaka said after I told her everything as I hiked. I was too upset to jog, so I was power walking, and talking.

“But it’s my fault he lost the part, Anaka.”

“How would you have possibly known this would happen?” she said, then yawned deeply. I’d woken her up. She liked to sleep in on Fridays, but I wasn’t ready to call William this morning and discuss it with him. I needed to talk this out with my closest friend.

“I don’t know. But I should have been smarter. I mean, how many one-year-out-of-college-graduates run photo agencies?”

“How many college students earn a part-time living as a paparazzo? Only one,” she countered. “You.”

“Two, actually. There’s another girl, but I think she’s nineteen,” I said, thinking of Flash.

“Fine. One, two, whatever. It’s practically the same, and my point is he seemed totally plausible, and he paid you in cash.”

I stopped walking, and pressed my thumb and forefinger hard against the bridge of my nose. “I just feel so stupid,” I said in a low voice, as I moved to the side of the trail to let a headphone-wearing guy run past me.

“But, Jess. There’s no way you could have known Jenner was behind it.”

“If I had studied up on publicists in Hollywood, I might have.”

“Beat yourself up some more. It’s so good for you. But even if you studied the faces of every publicist in LA, you wouldn’t necessarily have been able to pick out the younger brother of Jenner Davies’s publicist. That’s why Jenner and the other dude sent the younger brother. To fool you. They planned it all out. They plotted it. And you have to admit, they did a damn good job.”

I resumed my walk, and breathed out hard. “Yeah, they did,” I said. From the website, to the other photo placements, to the business cards, the plan was beyond solid, and I might never have even known about the ruse if I hadn’t stumbled upon the three of them toasting at Rosanna’s Hideout when I went to retrieve my toothpaste. Keats had played me all right, but I was merely an unimportant pawn. The real chess piece was Jenner Davies checkmating Avery Brock.

The teen actor with the angry attitude had found his way back on screen with a bribe. And Avery Brock was exactly the type of person who was susceptible to blackmail, because blackmail only works when you have something to hide. Avery had a lot to cover up. It was ironic how I’d thought Riley was being set up by the poet brothers, when Avery turned out to be the real target. But where there was a target, there was a victim. That victim was Nick, and he was the innocent bystander with the wound from the bullet he didn’t see coming. I couldn’t just let him take the hit and lose a job. I had to make good for him.

“I’m going to call Keats and confront him,” I announced to Anaka, feeling like I was taking charge of the situation.

“What good will that do?”

“I don’t know. But I feel bad for what happened to Nick. Given our, you know…”

“Your history,” she said, finishing the sentence. “As photographer and subject, Jess.”

“Yeah, and now my photos of someone else have hurt him again,” I said, guilt pinging through my chest.

“Look, I hate to say this, but you’re one of the winners here.”

I scoffed. “Winners? How do you figure?”

“You got paid. You got paid well. You made out okay,” Anaka said, talking coolly and calmly through the situation. “Look, Jenner had something on Avery Brock. He knew Avery was up to something, and so he sensed an opportunity and he took advantage of it. That’s what Hollywood is. That’s what Hollywood does. You should know as well as anyone. You document this stuff all the time, and the only reason it seems different now is you feel like you know the people. But this affair was going to happen. And someone was going to get the shots. And someone was going to use them to his advantage, whether or not you were involved.”

She was right. There was an inevitability to the whole ruse. If Keats hadn’t found me, he would have tracked down another photographer. Still, this was one of those times when I felt about myself the way a lot of other people did about the paparazzi.

Tags: Lauren Blakely Stars In Their Eyes Romance
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