I flipped onto my back and closed my eyes, fighting to block out the potential backlash of this show and its exposure. More questions about Wesley. More attention on the Ranch. Paparazzis perched on the hills, long-range lens pointed at the park where he liked to sit in the morning. Bribed employees who would secretly photograph him at his worst moments. Intentional negative stimuli, designed to trigger a panic or anger attack, all in full range of their camera.
He was my responsibility, and if anything happened to him, I’d be to blame.
There was an unspoken line drawn down the center of the house. The gym, media room, and south bedrooms belonged to the guys. The sunroom, upper deck, and north bedrooms belong to the girls. The kitchen and living room were common space which I planned to avoid whenever possible.
They came in like a virus, three girls clad in designer clothes and carrying their own pillows, blankets, and bags. They stepped in and stared blankly at us, then let their gaze drift over the massive open space.
“Nice…” Marissa drawled. “Except for all of the leather.” She glared at the couch I sat on as if the cow’s corpse was still attached.
I stood and extended my hand. “I’m Cash.”
“Oh, I don’t touch.” She smiled thinly and held up her palms in surrender. “But it’s nice to meet you.” From behind her, a camera guy jockeyed into position. I flashed the smile that had won me the Jockey contract and wondered how much a pain in the ass this girl was going to be.
“You don’t TOUCH?” From behind me, Layton approached from the kitchen, a giant energy drink can in hand, the label pointed toward the camera. “What the hell does that mean?”
“Language!” A producer called from the edge of the foyer, and this was ridiculous. Sixteen hours of this a day? I settled back on the couch and angled my face away from the camera, hoping it wouldn’t see my grimace. Too late, I saw the second camera, in position and zoomed in for a close-up.
“Limiting non-essential human contact reduces the risk of disease and germ spread by over 400%,” Marissa said tightly, then beamed. “If you insist on touching, I’d suggest you use a liberal amount of hand sanitizer. I recommend the Aloe collection by Clean Design.”
“Oh, do you?” Layton mocked. “The Aloe collection by Clean Design?” he mimicked in a high-pitched voice that was a spot-on impression of Marissa. “Got the website handy? You might want to face the camera when you share it, so they can be sure to hear you clearly.”
“Do NOT acknowledge the cameras,” the producer shrilled. “And Marissa, no specific product or brand names.”
Marissa turned away from Layton and faced the producer. “But he’s allowed to wave this Eiffel tower sized energy drink in my face the entire time?”
“I’m THIRSTY.” Layton took a long and exaggerated sip from the can, then smacked his lips together. “Damn, that’s good. Cash, you want me to grab you one?”
“My Bang contract says no conflicting energy drinks,” Eileen spoke up from her spot by the door. “That can’t be in any shots that I’m in.”
“Jesus,” the producer muttered. “Can we please keep rolling?”
“I’m rolling,” the guy behind Marissa said.
“So, you do want a can?” Layton pressed, one finger pointed at me.
“I’m good,” I responded.
“Let’s have Eileen come in and meet Cash and Layton. Where in God’s name is Emma?” The producer’s voice grew shrill.
“She’s on the phone,” someone called out from behind the kitchen cameras.
“Get her off and in here,” she snapped.
We all turned as a group to see Emma standing in the doorway off the living room, the one that led to the pool deck. The sun framed her thin frame, and I held up my hand to block the fierce rays, wishing I could see her face past the glare.
“This is Layton.” Marissa took over as the introducer. “And you know Cash, of course.”
“Of course,” Emma drawled, stepping forward and letting the door slam behind her. “Hey, Layton. Big fan of your videos. Team Q?” She held out her fist to him for a bump.
He hesitated, surprised. “Yeah,” he managed, returning the pump. “Team Q. So, you watch the reviews?”
“Stop talking about YouTube,” the producer said loudly. “No one cares about your stupid barbecue reviews.”
Emma winked at Layton, and I watched as a shy smile tugged across his face, which looked naked without his customary cowboy hat. “You guys already settled?” Her gaze swept past me and landed on Johno, who had yet to say a word. He straightened from his slouch in one of the stools in the kitchen. “Hey, Johno.”
“You two know each other?” Eileen made it into the living room, and I tried not to stare at her shirt, which was completely sheer once she stepped into the light by the windows. She wasn’t wearing a bra.