I am so excited to bring you the fourth part of my Frolic Original novella, Meet Me Off Camera! This is a New Adult contemporary romance, and here is the synopsis:
When Emory was seventeen, hotshot TV star Caden Khanna broke her heart. Despite their on-set fling, he’d never be seen dating a Z-lister like her. Now, four years later, Caden is out of the spotlight, washed up…and guest starring on her show. Can Emory leave the heartbreak of the past behind and find her Hollywood HEA?
Read Part One HERE!
Or, catch up with Part Two here.
And Part Three and Four!
Meet Me Off Camera, Part 5: Fall, 2019
I wake up with a wicked hangover and, predictably, a lot of regret over what I texted Caden. Considering we have the table read for our first two episodes today, things are not great in Emory-land right now.
I groan, drag myself out of bed, chug a vitamin water and hop in the shower. The cold water feels good on my face, and I know enough about my hangovers to know I’ll be fine by the time the read rolls around. I already memorized the script for episode one, and luckily, there’s no kissing in that one.
But there’s kissing in episode two. And probably later down the line when Caden’s character inevitably returns. Unlike Lacey on Globe Theory, Caden’s character gets to live after his initial two-episode arc. Caden’s playing Ethan Yates, a mysterious newcomer that we team up with for a single mission that takes place over a two-episode arc. Our characters are getting closer and closer to catching the bad guys once and for all. We haven’t been told when the rest of his episodes fall in the schedule, but there’s no way there won’t be more scenes with Hailey.
I towel my hair off and do my makeup. The drive to the office will dry my hair off just as well as the blow-dryer, and it’ll turn out wavy.
I never used to wear my hair wavy. It always had to be pin-straight and shiny. I never used to wear eyeliner either, but I swipe a heavy line on over my eye before I leave. Am I trying to show Caden that I’ve changed, that I’m not infatuated with him anymore? Probably.
I don’t know how I’m going to convince him if I can’t even convince myself.
On the drive, I crank up my playlist, which is full of pop-punk songs that Caden always teased me about. It was actually one of the things he cited when he broke up with me. I still remember it like it was yesterday, and sometimes I can’t help playing it back as I lie in bed at night.
The rest of the Globe Theory shoot went off without a hitch. I only flubbed a few of my lines, certainly no more than anyone else had. I got covered in sticky-sweet fake blood that trickled down over my lips when I laughed. Caden’s hand drifted to my waist whenever he thought no one was looking. We stole kisses in the morning, between shots, and sometimes between takes. Near the end, when the shoots went longer than expected, we caught a few hours’ sleep in his trailer, only to wake up early the next morning for another grueling day.
It was the best time of my life. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Well, maybe one thing.
During the shoot, Caden and I never took things off the set. I often wondered if he’d invite me back to his apartment, but he never did, and I didn’t ask. I figured that he wanted as much down time as possible off set, and he mentioned taking me out basically every time I saw him.
Life was good. Life on set was better than I could’ve imagined.
But on the last day, Caden pulled me aside, gave me a hug, and basically told me to take a hike.
Okay, maybe not exactly that.
He gave me some line about not wanting to pull me into the chaos of his life. That if we were seen out together, people would talk. That it’d make my life hard. Miserable, even.
I fought back. Of course, I did. I told him that none of that mattered to me. That all I wanted was a real shot with him.
But he didn’t want that with me. Apparently, he wanted to finish his role on Globe Theory, make a lot of money and then fall off the face of the earth.
I was in a pretty bad place for a few weeks after that happened, wondering what was wrong with me. Why I wasn’t enough for him. When he was photographed a month later, holding hands with some model, I understood. I was just something for him to do because he was bored. Because I was available.
Because I was gullible.
But not anymore. From that moment on, I made it my life’s mission to become more famous than Caden Khanna.
According to his Instagram numbers, I’m still losing.
I try to shake the old story, the old pain out of my head as I pull into the parking garage. I swallow my anxiety medicine and a few painkillers and pull down the mirror to stare at my reflection. I look pretty good for someone who feels like they got their face smashed in by a frying pan this morning. At the last second, I remember that I forgot to stop for coffee. Ugh.
I’m one of the last to arrive to the table read. Ammie waves when she sees me, and I see that they’ve put her right next to me at the table.
“Hey.” I grin at her as I slide into my chair. “You look cute.” Today, she’s wearing a floaty floral dress with a black choker that looks like it might just be a shoelace. I glance at Max and see him watching her with what I can only describe as puppy-dog eyes. He thinks she looks cute, too, and he’s not being subtle about it.
“Thanks,” Ammie says. She looks much more at ease after yesterday, so at least something good came out of my drunken word-vomit. “I’m just about to get coffees, what do you want?’
I can’t remember being more grateful to someone. Ever.
Jaz and Kenna roll in as Ammie is leaving, a scrap of paper with the orders written on it. They both opt for skinny iced mochas—shocker—and I barely have enough time to stand up before they sandwich me in a hug.
“Season two!” Jaz says into my hair, her lips sticking to the strands.
“Season two,” I agree, trying to be more subdued, but I can’t help it—my best friends are back, and we’re going to take the network by storm.
Kenna pushes me back, hands on my shoulders. I can tell by the way her sharp eyes look me up and down that she knows I’m incredibly hungover, but she chooses not to announce it, which I’m grateful for. Kenna has an unfortunate tendency to announce whatever she’s thinking at inopportune times, but I love her for it. I love both of them, and I’m so grateful that I won’t have to go through this Caden Khanna episode alone. Neither of them know exactly what happened back then, but we’ve had enough drunken heart-to-hearts for them to put it together.
“Okay, you three. Picture,” Max announces. He steers us in front of a sign that says Bomb Squad Season Two! and makes Jaz and I do a Charlie’s Angels pose on either side of Kenna.
Kenna’s hands slip around our waists. I see Jaz grin a little wider at that.
They’re totally together. And I couldn’t be happier for them.
I’ve known Jaz and Kenna since the first read for the Bomb Squad pilot. Kenna intimidated me right away. You always hear people talk about breathtaking beauty, and I thought it was nonsense until I saw Kenna. Half Latinx and half Japanese, she has dark eyes, flawless skin and hair that literally shimmers. She has a giant heart, too, but I didn’t learn that until later.
Jaz on the other hand, seemed even more scared than I was. She overcompensated by giving both Kenna and me hugs the second we walked in the room. Her curly black hair smushed against my shirt, and she smelled like the lilac perfume she still wears. After that first read, the three of us were inseparable. We were destined to become costars and great friends.
“How was fashion week?” I ask, linking my arms with theirs as we return to our seats.
“The best,” Jaz says, as Kenna says, “Jaz puked on the subway.”
I burst out laughing as Jaz punches Kenna in the arm. “You said you wouldn’t tell anyone!”
Kenna’s holding her sides, trying to keep from rocking back and forth from laughing. “But it’s so funny!”
I laugh along with everyone else as Kenna tells the full story. Jaz glares at Kenna, but I know she won’t be mad for long. I’m having such a good time that I’ve almost forgotten about Caden, when he strolls into the room.
He spots me, grins, and beelines for the seat right next to mine.
I stand up abruptly. “That seat’s taken.”
The laughter quiets down and I’m painfully aware of the eyes on me.
Caden raises an eyebrow, but he doesn’t look mad. He looks the same as he always does: amused, at my expense. “By who?”
“Who’s Ammie?” Kenna pipes up.
Jaz shushes her. “Hey, you’re playing Ethan, right? You can sit here,” she offers, standing up.
There’s nothing I can say. I sink back into my chair, defeated, and wait for the table read to begin.
It goes fine, though my head is pounding. It subsides after Ammie returns with the coffee, and I’m feeling much better on the second run.
Until Caden leans over to talk to me. “Can I have a sip?” he whispers. Ammie hears him—I see her eyes snap to us. I roll my eyes to let her know to keep the metaphorical spray bottle at bay—for now.
“No,” I breathe back, pretending to focus on Jaz and Kenna’s discussion with this episode’s villain.
“Come on. There’s no way that’s your first coffee of the day.” Caden’s lips have drifted dangerously close to my ear. Sparks sparkle up my spine like an electric current, and I’m powerless to stop them.
“It is, actually,” I say pointedly, taking a long sip.
“Please?” Caden whines.
I turn to face him fully and suck in a sharp breath when I realize how close he is. “No,” I repeat, but my voice wavers.
Caden just shrugs. “Nice eyeliner,” he says.
“Emory?” Jen calls. “Your line.”
I round on Caden the second we’re out of the read. “What the hell was that?” I demand, shoving both hands against his chest. He doesn’t move an inch. Just smirks at me some more. He looks older than I remember, I realize. More lines around his eyes. More stubble on his chin.
“What are you talking about?”
“You made me mess up,” I say, exasperated.
“You did that all on your own,” Caden laughs.
I glare at him. Heat rises in my cheeks. “Is everything a joke to you?” I ask in a low voice.
Caden’s smile falters. He shakes his head. “I thought—”
“I don’t care what you thought. You have the part, and I can’t change that. But if you start trying to mess with my career, I’ll have you thrown off the set. I’ve been good. I can die on this hill,” I threaten. Would Jen actually fire Caden for me? I’m not sure. But if making the threat makes him back off, its emptiness is worth it.
“Emory, listen,” Caden says. His face is serious, for once in his life. “I just—look, can we go somewhere and talk?”
I cross my arms. “Like where?”
Caden shrugs. “The balcony?”
The balcony. Where we had our first kiss all those years ago. Does he think that if we go out there, I’ll remember falling for his games and fall for them all over again?
“Or anywhere,” Caden says quickly, like he’s remembering the same moment I am. “I just want to talk, Em. Please.”
And as I look into his stupid, handsome face, I believe him. What harm can talking do?
A whole lot, since that’s literally what I asked Ammie to help me avoid. But I have a feeling that this is a conversation that’s going to happen at some point. May as well get it out of the way now rather than later. So, I ignore Caden’s outstretched hand and lead the way to the balcony.
The fall air hits my face as soon as I step through the door, and some of the shivers running down my spine fizzle out. I lean my arms over the railing, staring out at the Hollywood sign, and wait for Caden to say something.
“You remember this spot?” he asks finally, sidling up next to me.
“You remember this spot?” I turn to face him, incredulity scrawled all over my face. “I mean, you remember being at this spot with me?”
He hears my intention and rolls his eyes. “I know what you think, Em, but you were the only girl I ever brought here.”
I laugh. “Bullshit.”
“Well, believe what you want, I guess,” Caden says. His voice is kind of flat, like that took all of the fight out of him. “Can we talk without you jumping down my throat?”
I think about launching a snarky remark back at him, but I bite my tongue. “Okay. Talk.”
Caden takes a deep breath. I watch his chest rise and fall. He’s more built than he was back on Globe Theory, but not in a body-builder way that makes me think he could crush my skull with a fist. In an…okay way.
Oh, who am I kidding? He looks hot. Better than he ever has.
“I’m sorry,” is what he says first.
I blink and touch a hand to my head to make sure this isn’t some kind of hangover-induced hallucination. Did Caden Khanna just apologize? To me? Did Caden Khanna just apologize!?
“Uh, okay,” I say, waiting for him to say more.
“I took advantage of you when you were on Globe. You were young.”
“I didn’t do anything I didn’t want to do, Caden,” I sigh. And it’s true. I didn’t. I fell for him, hard and fast.
“That’s not what I’m saying,” Caden says quickly. “I know I made you think what was happening was more than a fling.”
I look out at the horizon because I can’t stand looking at him anymore. “I was fine with it being a fling. You’re the one who made it seem like you wanted more.”
Caden doesn’t say anything right away. “I know,” is what he finally comes up with.
“You know. Great.”
“Come on, Emory, I was eighteen,” Caden bursts out. “Barely eighteen. I was a moron. Weren’t you a moron at eighteen?” He cracks a smile at my withering gaze. “Okay, fine. You were always the smart one.”
“Not back then,” I say bitterly. After Caden broke things off, I spiraled. I latched onto one of the last things he said to me—that he’d take me out for frozen yogurt—and started spending my whole day at different froyo joints around LA. I’d go there, order a coffee or something, and read. Or write. Or listen to audiobooks. As long as I was in a froyo shop, there was a chance I’d run into him.
Could I have picked up the phone and called him? Sure. But him ignoring my call would’ve hurt so much more than not calling at all. I didn’t know if he would’ve picked up if I called. All I know is that he never called me.
“I made a lot of mistakes,” Caden says finally. “They hurt you. So, I’m saying sorry.” He holds out a hand. “Can we start over?”
I consider him. Starting over, with Caden Khanna. What does that look like? Where does that lead?
I decide I don’t care. I shake his hand, and it’s like we’ve traveled back in time, to four years ago.
The final chapter of MEET ME OFF CAMERA will be posted Saturday. Thank you for reading!