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Excerpt: Starlight Nights by Stacey Kade

At twenty-two, Calista Beckett is trying to overcome her early fame and fortune. The former savior of the world on Starlight is now a freshman at college—miles away from L.A. and her former existence. She sees it as her start to a new life, a normal life, one where she won’t make the same mistakes she made before—a brush with heroin addiction and losing her freedom to her controlling mother, thanks to a court order.

Eric Stone played her older brother, Byron, on Starlight. But she’s been in love with him pretty much since they kissed—her first kiss—while auditioning. When Eric shows up on campus out of the blue, Calista’s struck immediately by two things: first, in spite of everything that’s happened, she still feels something dangerous for him, and second, she’s absolutely determined not to let him ruin her life again.

Only Eric’s not going away so easily.

 will be available January 9th. Please enjoy this excerpt.

1

CALLISTA BECKETT

“Come on, Tamara, it’s supposed to be the biggest party on campus this semester,” Ginny says, her voice muffled through the twisted layers of scarf.

A step behind Ginny and Tamara, I brace myself, my stomach clenching in anticipation. It’s coming. I can feel it, the impending awkwardness rising like a monster out of the ocean in one of those old cheesy horror movies.

Not that there’s anything resembling an ocean anywhere near here.

Tamara shakes her head. “This is the one with all the black lights, right? Where they hand out T-shirts and highlighters?” she asks, sounding skeptical.

Good, maybe she’ll be able to redirect the conversation.

I tuck my freezing hands deeper into my coat pockets. I can never seem to get warm here. Then again, that might be because the temperature has actually fallen below zero—what is that? How can it be a temperature that doesn’t even exist on a thermometer?—and we’re shuffling to our dorms on a small cleared path between three-foot-tall drifts of snow. The Midwest in winter. Forget flames and perpetual sweatiness and thirst—hell is your nose being so cold you can’t tell if it’s leaking a river of snot again. So sexy.

I sniffle, just in case.

Plus, the cold makes the perpetual dull ache in my arm sharpen to a knifepoint, which scares me, even now. You can make it go away, the perpetual refrain in my head whispers. It won’t be like last time.

I ignore it and refocus my attention on the conversation.

“Yep, that’s the one.” Ginny bobs her head eagerly. “Tonight. At the Beta house.”

“I don’t know. It sounds like an opportunity for strangers to touch you under the pretext of ‘writing’ something,” Tamara says.

Ginny laughs, and the sound is clear and crisp in the cold air. “Exactly.”

The silence holds for a moment too long.

And here it comes …

Ginny turns partially. “You should, um, come, too, Calista.”

The invitation is weak, flat, like a child’s depiction of a sun in the corner of a drawing instead of the real thing. But it’s progress.

I make myself smile. “Sounds great!”

Ooooh, too chirpy. I flinch inwardly. They’re going to think I’m being sarcastic. Calista Beckett, former TV star, a Maxim It Girl four years ago, too cool for a college fraternity party.

And from sudden tension in the air, and the way Ginny and Tamara are studiously avoiding looking at each other or me, I’m right. I’ve already got so much working against me, I have to try to fix it.

“So, if they give you a shirt to wear, what do you wear down to the house?” I attempt to sound genuinely enthusiastic. Which is hard, because I’m not. But I should be, as this is my life now. Calista, the regular person. And I want to care.

At twenty-three, I’m the oldest freshman at Blake College—one of the oldest students on campus, actually—and I’ve got three and a half more years here. I need to blend in and make this work. Because beyond this, no matter what my mother is hoping, I have countless years of Calista, average citizen and possible bookkeeper (or maybe accountant), and I need to find a way to make friends and enjoy my new life.

You’d think that being connected to a former hit show like Starlight would help here, but it’s the exact opposite. The guys are only interested in the stuff I’m rumored to have done (and with who). The truth would make them keel over … with boredom. I was a working child actor with my mom as my manager for the first eighteen years of my life. Please. Prisoners have more freedom than I did.

And my “bad girl” phase was very dramatic, yes, but ultimately had more to do with naïveté and stupid choices than raunchy sex with anything that moved.

The girls, from what I’ve overheard from whispers in the bathroom—really, ladies, remember to check the stalls first—are less than thrilled to be competing with me, whether it’s for hot water in the morning or for the attention of the handful of guys on this tiny campus who aren’t complete assholes.

But the truth is, it’s not a competition. I’m just trying to fit in.

“I think most people wear a cami or tank top under their coat,” Ginny says to me quietly, her enthusiasm for the party dimmed. Or maybe it’s just her enthusiasm for me coming along.

Crap. I bite my lip, then immediately regret it when the cold sizzles up the nerve endings in my teeth.

After most of a semester, Ginny and Tamara are, sadly, the closest things I have to friends at Blake; our bond is based mostly on shared proximity and the fact that we have freshman core classes together. I’m really terrible at this—making friends. I never went to a real school. Years of homeschooling followed by on-set tutoring have made me absolutely wretched at relating to my peers. I didn’t suffer through gym, work on group projects, or go to prom or on group dates to the mall—I was working.

“Maybe we’ll see you tonight, then,” Ginny says with a vague nod and smile, as she and Tamara take the split in the sidewalk toward their room in Henderson Hall.

Tamara waves, then the two of them continue on, heads together, talking quietly.

Damnit. Even I—without the aid of regular school and the shared experiences of it—recognize a polite blow-off.

Tears of exhaustion sting my eyes, but I blink rapidly to keep them from falling. I don’t want them to freeze to my face.

Tucking my head down, I tromp the rest of the way to Ryland Hall, my dorm.

There’s always next weekend. Well, after break. We’re off for two weeks for Thanksgiving, starting on Saturday. I’m not going anywhere, but maybe when everyone else comes back and sees that I’m still here, something will have shifted. Maybe then I’ll belong, and it’ll be better.

I’m halfway up the steps to the main entrance before I notice the guy leaning lazily against the brick wall to the right, an unlit cigarette between his bare fingers.

He most definitely does not belong here in Blake, Indiana.

Eric.

The sight of him hits just as hard as always, stealing my breath.

He’s wearing faded jeans and a dark blue peacoat, heavy and warm-looking. It makes his shoulders look even broader and sets off his dark eyes and dark curly hair, which is currently being tousled by the wind. His mother, an Australian model who was married to his father for about five seconds in the nineties, is half-English and half-Filipino. Eric looks like her and is 100-percent gorgeous. Straight nose, to-die-for cheekbones and a dimple in his chin. Seriously.

“Hey, kid.” He pushes off the wall to stand up straight.

“You can’t smoke here.” I jerk my chin toward the NO SMOKING sign on the wall next to him.

I’m twenty-three, three years older than he was when we first met. But to Eric, I would always be sixteen.

He glances at the wall. “I’m not smoking,” he says. “I quit. I’m just holding it. That would be a different sign entirely.” He tucks the cigarette into his coat pocket and smiles tentatively at me. And my stupid heart, which should know better, works itself into a frenzy in my chest.

I make myself walk past him to the door, holding my breath because I’m afraid that if I catch that unique combination of scents that is Eric—new clothing, expensive cologne and just him—I’ll bury my face in his collar, against his skin, and demand to know why he couldn’t just love me back.

Oh, God.

My hands tremble as I hold my ID against the security square thing and yank open the door.

“Hey, come on, Callie, I just want to talk.” He follows me inside, sounding unhurried and unconcerned.

Classic Eric. Nothing bothers him. Certainly not me. No, that would require caring.

I move faster, with every intention of getting to the elevator and to my room before he can catch up.

But as soon as I pass the visitor check-in area, I’m caught. Just not by Eric.

“Skye!” Beth blurts, standing up from her post behind the desk as soon as she sees me.

I pause and turn toward the desk, trying to force my features into something resembling pleasantness. “Hi, Beth.”

Beth is one of my floormates and very nice, one of the few people on campus to always greet me enthusiastically. But she’s not really helping with my transition to normal life. She keeps accidentally calling me Skye, my Starlight character’s name. And she has a giant poster of Season Two, featuring my huge face, dominating the wall of her room. Eric and Chase are in the background, one over each shoulder, like a devil and an angel. How appropriate.

Beth blushes. “Sorry, I meant Calista.” She offers me a shy apologetic smile. “I was just excited. Someone said that there’s a guy outside who looks like…” Her gaze catches on Eric behind me, and her mouth falls open.

“Skyron,” she whispers.

I squeeze my eyes shut. I should have known. The most devoted Starlight fans are usually also Skyron believers. Byron, Eric’s character, was Skye’s brother on the show. But a large—and vocal—contingent of fans saw something different. Particularly when the storyline about Skye being adopted came up at the end of Season One. Hence, Skyron: Skye/Byron.

But it wasn’t just fans’ overactive imaginations. Our directors were always yelling at us: Goddamnit, Callie, he’s supposed to be your brother. Stop smoldering at him. Eric, brothers don’t touch sisters that frequently. We’re not making Flowers in the Attic, people.

The ever illusive “chemistry.” Eric and I had it. But, as it turned out, that’s all we had, no matter how desperately I once wished for more.

“Skyron,” Eric repeats with a smile in his voice. He was always good with the fans, better than Chase and me. The attention made Chase uncomfortable, and I never knew what to say.

But Eric was born for it.

He brushes past me, in a way that has to be deliberate, and it sends electricity through my veins.

“You’re a Starlighter?” Eric asks.

I open my eyes in time to see Beth, her cheeks hectic with color, nod.

“It’s nice to meet you. We couldn’t have done it without you guys,” he says, holding his hand out for her to shake.

Beth, in turn, is staring at his hand, as if touching him and having him touch her in return will be a life-altering experience, one she wants so much it scares her a little.

I wish I could say I didn’t understand that feeling.

She takes his hand and shakes it, a nervous giggle escaping at the same time. “What are you doing here?” she breathes.

“Just leaving,” I say for Eric.

But he speaks over me. “Came to talk to Skye. Like a good big brother should.” He winks at Beth, and she gasps.

I groan inwardly. So much for building a normal life here; Eric is taking that down, brick by brick. And I don’t have that many bricks to begin with.

“Is it okay if I…” Beth holds up her phone. “Just one picture…”

I’m stepping forward with my hand out to take the phone and snap the picture of the two of them for her, anything to get this over with and Eric on his way, when she pulls back.

“Oh, no,” she says. “Of you two together.” She beams at us.

“No,” I say immediately. It’ll hit the Skyron blogs—there are still a surprising number of them, thanks to the show’s new life streaming online—and then once it’s on social media, it won’t be long before it spreads to campus.

“Of course,” Eric says at the same time, easily, as if nothing about it troubles him. Because it probably doesn’t.

I glare at him, but he shrugs, telling me in not-so-many words that I’m taking myself too seriously again. But he doesn’t understand what’s at stake for me here.

I open my mouth to say no again, but then I catch Beth watching both of us with a hopeful expression, her hand clutched tight around her phone. Nice Beth who waves me over in the cafeteria and makes everyone shove down a seat so I won’t eat alone. I can’t be the bitch who crushes her dream.

“Okay,” I say, swallowing a sigh.

Eric steps up next to me, sliding his arm around my waist and pulling me tight against his side. Air whooshes from my puffy down-filled coat as a result, and that should be enough to break the moment, but it’s not.

His grip on my hip is firm and familiar enough, even through multiple layers, that for a moment it makes me want to cry for everything that’s been lost. Though, is it truly lost if I never had it to begin with?

But then Eric turns his face toward mine and his nose, still a little cold from outside, nudges my cheek. “Smile, kid,” he murmurs.

My breath catches, and I’m stuck between the messy clutch of lust and longing and pure, unadulterated fury.

As soon as Beth’s phone makes the artificial shutter-click noise, I yank away from him, though his hand trails along my waist like he’s reluctant to let go. But I’m not falling for that again.

“Can we talk for a second?” I ask Eric, through clenched teeth in an expression that might resemble a demented smile if one squints. “Just over there.” I jerk my head toward the empty lounge area just past the check-in desk. I’m not letting him in my room. He’s not a danger to my body as much as to my peace of mind, which is precarious enough as it is, thanks.

Eric bobs his head agreeably and holds his arm out in a lead-the-way gesture.

Beth claps her hands in delight.

It takes every bit of effort I have to walk instead of stomp the twenty feet past the desk and around the couches to the center of the lounge. I spin to face him as soon as I’m there.

Eric strolls after me leisurely, his hands stuffed deep in his coat pockets.

“Why are you here?” I demand when he finally reaches me.

“I told you, I came to talk to you.” He towers over me, his dark-eyed gaze searching my face as if he’s cataloguing the differences since we were last in the same room. There are plenty. Young and famous in Hollywood is a perishable commodity. I’m neither one anymore. I hate thinking about the new flaws he’s seeing—I’m not even wearing basic makeup, which means I’m pale and colorless, and my blond hair is stuffed under a knit hat.

I fold my arms over my chest like I need to protect myself. Like that will work. “About something that couldn’t be handled with a text?” I ask. The last time I had contact with Eric—You ok?—I was lying in a hospital bed, recovering from the first surgery on my arm. Three years ago.

To his credit, Eric flinches and drops his gaze to the ground somewhere near his feet. “I am … sorry about that. I just wasn’t sure you’d want to see me. After.” He clears his throat and raises his eyes to mine.

After the car accident that shattered my arm, which wasn’t even the worst thing that happened that night?

“Yeah,” is all I say. “It’s fine. It was a lifetime ago. I don’t even really remember anymore.” My cheeks turn to flame with the lie.

His brows draw together. “Callie,” he says, shaking his head. And I’m not sure if the softness in his voice is sympathy for what happened or pity because I’m pretending not to remember.

Either way, it’s humiliating.

Suddenly, I’m tired of this conversation, of him, of this whole tangled history between us that has done nothing but hurt me.

“What do you want?” I ask sharply.

He takes a deep breath and scrubs his hands over his face. If I didn’t know better, I would say he was nervous.

But Eric Stone, son of the famous producer Rawley Stone, doesn’t get nervous. That would involve giving a shit about someone or something other than his next good time.

“I started my own company,” he admits in a rush of words.

“Your own … production company?” Honestly, knowing Eric, it could have just as easily been a falafel import/export business, if that amused him. His father could line the ocean floor with money and still have some left over.

Eric nods, looking uncertain, a smile pulling at his mouth. “Yeah.”

“Okay,” I say slowly. “But I thought you said you never wanted to do that.” I’ve forgotten how many deep 2 or 3 A.M. conversations we had between takes or while we waited for the crew to set up a shot. But I knew once, to the exact number. At sixteen and seventeen, I thought it was proof of something.

Now I know better. At that time of night—or morning—everyone is tired, and the cover of darkness makes you feel closer to those you’re with, like it’s safe to be vulnerable.

It isn’t.

Eric’s expression tightens. “I don’t want to be my father. But this is different. We’re starting off small. A web series.” Enthusiasm warms his voice.

“Congratulations,” I say, trying to ignore the faint grind of envy coming from somewhere deep within me. A long time ago, I used to love what I did. Telling stories, helping transport people out of this world and into another one that hundreds of us worked together to create.

“I got it,” he says, watching me expectantly. “Bought the rights.”

I stare at him blankly. “Bought the rights to…” Then it clicks, and my heart sinks. “Fly Girl. Are you serious?”

I’ve read that book a dozen times. It’s old, but it’s still my favorite. I was sixteen when I found it—the antithesis of every superhero story blowing up the screen at the time. It’s about a girl born with superpowers. She resents the gift and the accompanying responsibility until she loses her abilities. Then she has to figure out her new purpose in life and who loves her for who she is versus what she could (once) do.

There are no big fight scenes, no big set pieces. It broke no best-selling records, and hardly anyone else has heard of it. But it was the first book I ever read that made me feel less alone. It was like someone had taken my soul and captured it in paper and ink. I wanted to climb inside that book and stay there. I even made Eric read it, back when we were friends. Once, during a particularly long night on set, I went through my copy of the book and marked it up with the lines and scenes I would translate to screen.

“Yep.” Eric grins at me.

I want to throw up.

Am I being punished for something I don’t know about? Because it sure feels like it. My nightmare scenario: my former crush showing up three years after he demolished my hopes and my self-confidence to tell me that he’s bought the rights to a project I used to dream about taking on myself.

I force myself to smile. “That’s fantastic.” And it is. That book deserves the attention, and the additional readers, that a different medium will bring to it. Assuming Eric can keep up this new responsible-citizen act, anyway. I always thought he was capable, brilliant even, just not interested. Apparently I was wrong. “Really, congratulations!”

His mouth quirks in a knowing smile, as if he can see right through my fakeness. “I want you to play Evie,” he says gently, as if breaking bad news to me.

My mouth falls open, and in spite of my best efforts, I feel interest unfurling in me, like a petal loosening on a tightly wrapped bud.

But I shake my head. “No, no way.”

“It’s two weeks’ worth of work for the first six episodes. I know you have a break coming up and—”

“I’m done. I’m retired.”

His mouth twists in disgust as he looks around the lounge, taking in the dinged-up walls and the faded furniture painted in the dull gray light of a winter afternoon. “No, you’re hiding.”

I ignore the automatic stab of fear that he might be right. Eric does that, makes me doubt myself. All the more reason to stay away. “This is my life now,” I say through gritted teeth. “Find someone else.”

“No,” he says. “You’re perfect for Evie, and you know it. Plus…” He glances back at the desk where Beth is pretending not to watch us.

Then it makes sense. “Plus, you’re going to capitalize on an existing fan base,” I say faintly. Of course. Especially if he’s playing the role of Cory, the love interest/villain. The Skyron legion will turn out in droves for that.

So it has way less to do with me being perfect for the role and more to do with funneling Skyron fans to the new series.

Hurt throbs in my chest for exactly three seconds before I shut it down. This is exactly why I left acting and want to stay gone. Too many people presenting false faces to the world.

“Go home, Eric. Leave me alone. This is my life now.” I push past him, leaving the lounge.

“Not according to your mother,” he calls after me.

I laugh and keep walking. “Like you agree with anything my mother says.” Half the time—or more—I’m not sure I do either. My mom dreamed of becoming a movie star—not an actress, a star. And when I was born, that became her dream for me. Whether or not that was a realistic goal.

After everything that happened—the show being canceled, the accident, my drug arrest—she enacted her version of the “Natalie Portman/Emma Watson plan.” (Never mind the fact that they’re both A-List movie stars who didn’t need an image revamp, just some distance from their most famous roles.)

According to Lori, I wasn’t getting jobs because I was overexposed (thanks to all my legal trouble) and pigeonholed as “Skye.” Going to college would show my newfound maturity and stability. And going to college somewhere absolutely no one gave a crap about, a place no paps would follow, would ensure that I would have a chance to make a “grand reentrance.” So tiny little Blake college, in my mother’s home state of Indiana, would become both my hideout and the stage for my eventual reemergence from the ashes.

Officially, I’m taking a hiatus from my acting career to focus on my education. In reality, my mom’s hoping the time and distance will help people see me differently, as someone other than Starlight Skye or the troubled actress ordered back into her parent’s custody. And then the good parts will start rolling in again.

“Lori is going to need money,” Eric says. “And soon. It’s been, what, almost four years since you last pulled a salary?”

I freeze.

“You’ve got residuals, but she’s got a husband and three other kids to support. And you’re her meal ticket. You know it, and I know it.”

Eric hasn’t forgotten our late-night conversations either. I spin around to face him. “So what?”

But he seems undisturbed. “So, the next thing you know, she’ll be signing you up to audition for a local car dealership commercial or one of those TV movies where you get eaten by an ant-octopus-shark creature in the second act. All for her percentage.”

He’s right, as much as I’d like to pretend otherwise. But I’ve been hoping that I can hold her off long enough to graduate from Blake and that, by then, I’ll have found another career that I love, and she’ll be forced to recognize that Hollywood is not the—

A sickening realization dawns. “Wait, you talked to my mother?” I ask, barely able to force the words out.

For the first time, Eric looks ashamed, his gaze bouncing away from mine, patches of color appearing on his cheeks.

But then he lifts his head and gives me the cocky smile that used to make my heart beat just a little faster. Only this time it’s tinged with sadness. “Money talks, and your mom is fluent, kid.”

On cue, the phone in my pocket begins to buzz in the rhythm I have set for my mom. Three short, three long, three short. Like SOS. Only I’m not sure who the cry for help is really for.

Tears burn my eyes. “I hate you,” I say to Eric, my voice shaking, as I pull the phone out of my pocket.

He takes a deep breath and nods. “I know.”

 

Copyright © 2018 by Stacey Kade

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