Copyright © 2013, 2016 by Mary Hughes
Enjoy the following first chapter from Falling
Vicky Brooks was at her kitchen table, peacefully grading papers, when international model Ronnie Rivers phoned to drop the bombshell on her.
“This weekend, sister dearest,” Ronnie said. “CommuniCon. I’m going—and so are you.”
“I am?” Uh-oh. Vicky laid her pen carefully atop the papers. She was a successful junior college teacher, but somehow her twin’s schemes always managed to land her in trouble, starting when they were seven and Ronnie’s “looking beautiful” ended up with Vicky caked in their mother’s expensive lipstick and eye shadow when the spanks got handed out.
Vicky loved her sister and knew Ronnie’s plans weren’t malicious. She was just overly efficient about getting other people to meet her needs.
“CommuniCon. The communications convention in Kansas City?” Vicky stifled her stampede reflex in order to hear her twin out. Besides, she was already registered—where could she stampede to? “I just saw you last week when I visited you in Los Angeles. Much as I’d love to see you again, why do you want me to go?”
“Because I’m going, silly,” Ronnie said brightly. “We’ll be seen by the beautiful people and shop for hours and have such fun!”
“Says the woman who flosses her behind in the name of fashion. Can you make ‘fun’ sound any less like ‘root canal’?”
“They’re called thongs, Vicky, and they give the glutes definition while avoiding embarrassing panty lines. What’s wrong with being seen?”
“Nothing, except you know what happens when I’m seen. I’ll photo-bomb without even trying.”
“It’s not your fault you’re not photogenic.”
And that was why Vicky put up with all her sister’s machinations. Ronnie always defended her in her own way.
“Besides, that’s my job,” Ronnie continued breezily. “Looking good.”
“Looking great, Ms. Supermodel. Your job to be seen, my job to think.”
“You can think while we’re shopping. C’mon, Vicky, it’s not healthy for you to stay home reading all the time.”
“Reading is perfectly normal. I’m perfectly normal.” Sometimes Vicky wished she didn’t have to defend herself.
“Of course you are,” Ronnie said quickly. “I’m sorry. I just want to see you happy. I love you.”
“I love you too.” Vicky smiled and shook her head. “Let’s talk about something else. How is your acting going?”
“I’m working my way up,” Ronnie enthused. “I’ve got a role in Crime Scenes: LA. A dead body, but Dead Body #1, which means I have two scenes, one where I get discovered and one where the stars have a big discussion over me. Lots of screen time.”
“Soon you’ll be getting lines yourself.” Vicky tucked the phone under her chin, picked up her pen, and started correcting the next paper.
“That’s why I’m going to CommuniCon, for the classes on emotional presentation. They’ll help my acting.”
Vicky paused in her grading. She’d learned to listen to what wasn’t said as much as to what was. “And…?”
“No other reason.”
“Veronica Lynn Brooks. You’re lying so badly, if Mom catches you, you won’t sit down for a week.”
There was an embarrassed pause. “Damn. How do you do that?”
“That’s my profession.”
“Well, if you must know…Alex will be there. I think he wants to get back together.”
Vicky flinched, dropping her pen. “Dr. Sinclair?”
Alexander Sinclair, PhD and billionaire rock star communications expert, had shot straight to international fame and fortune while still gathering professional kudos. Dating him, being seen in his Lambo, had thrust Ronnie’s career into overdrive. They’d since broken up—amicably—as he only dated anyone a couple months.
Vicky knew Sinclair would be at the convention. She’d heard he’d signed up last minute. Here might be the reason why. “Ronnie. You think Zan Sinclair wants to date you again, or he told you?”
“His friends call him Alex.”
Vicky shook her head impatiently. Of all the things for her to pick up on…though her sister was wrong. Ronnie might have dated him, but Vicky knew more about Dr. Alexander Sinclair, far too much. Sinclair’s friends called him Zan, not Alex. “You’re avoiding the question. Did Sinclair tell you or not?”
“He texted me about the acting classes at CommuniCon. And he’s going. What else could that mean? Vicky, please. You have to help me land him again.”
“I do? Why?” More importantly, how? Vicky was a middle-class academic, while Sinclair was a billionaire genius. She tended to get a touch tongue-tied around handsome men. And rich men. And brilliant men. Sinclair was all three.
Worse, she’d crushed on him for years—from afar, all safe and secure that she’d never actually have to talk to him.
Now Ronnie wanted her to cruise directly into his path? Meeting him for real, Vicky would trip over her lolling tongue, bad enough. With her sister’s schemes, how many ways could that go really wrong?
She took a deep breath, trying to calm herself, but it didn’t work. She bleated, “Ronnie, I can’t.”
“You have to. He’s the best boyfriend I ever had. Please? Pretty please?”
Vicky’s heart pounded harder. She was fighting a losing battle. “Why him? Because he’s rich and handsome?”
“All the men I date are rich and handsome,” Ronnie retorted. “But Alex is smart. So smart, he could practically read my mind.”
“Yeah.” Being a nonverbal communications genius would do that. She speared a hand through her hair. Helping her sister land this particular big fish was the last thing she wanted to do. But they were sisters—Veronica and Victoria Brooks forever. Although her sister had shed her twin name for Ronnie Rivers, short and snappy, great for a sound bite or a head shot.
Didn’t change the fact that her twin needed her.
Still, she tried one last time. “Ronnie, that convention was sold out months ago. You can’t register—”
“I pulled some strings. I managed two spots, although it was hard to pay for you, since I’m a bit short on funds right now. The acting is costing more than I expected, and the time eats into my modeling…”
Vicky clenched her eyes against the inevitable. “Get your money back. I’m already registered.”
“Awe-some. I’ll see you Thursday.” In the endearing singsong she’d perfected in childhood, Ronnie rang off with “Love you! Buh-bye.”
* * *
Thursday at the convention, Vicky wandered the hotel, searching for the best place to wait for her sister. CommuniCon packed a whirlwind of sessions into four days, and events, vendors, and goodies were crammed into every nook and cranny of the hotel. She finally decided the conference registration area, in the atrium off the lobby, was the best place to meet up with friends.
She stationed herself beside a marble-clad pillar near the tables and people-watched for half an hour before she heard, “Yoo-hoo, Vicky! Darling, here I am.”
Her sister waved enthusiastically in the big arch between lobby and atrium. Ronnie’s blonde hair was covered with a silk scarf, and her eyes were shielded with big smoky glasses in best vintage Hollywood style.
Smiling in return, Vicky started toward the registration tables, but Ronnie headed straight for a little coffee cart parked near a pillar on the opposite side of the room. Vicky closed her eyes briefly; she’d already cruised by and noted the prices. She loved coffee but didn’t love paying ten dollars a cup. Dutifully, she pushed through the crowd to join her sister, hoping Ronnie didn’t expect her to buy, but knowing her sister probably hadn’t thought that far ahead.
Sometimes being the smart, sensible one sucked.
“This convention is bigger than I thought it would be.” Ronnie whipped off her glasses, revealing eyes as green as emeralds—she’d apparently taken to wearing contacts as well as dying her brown hair blonde. “For it not being in Los Angeles.”
Vicky suppressed a smile. Ronnie’s idea of geography was Google shopping. “Kansas City isn’t one of the big three, but it’s a central hub for the United States. It’s a real city, Ronnie.”
“So I see.” She waved at someone. “Otherwise the Dragons wouldn’t be here.”
Vicky followed her gaze. Two women sat just inside a fashionable storefront cafe. One was slender and smart in a tweed skirt set, her short, shining silver bob the only clue to her age. She returned Ronnie’s wave. The other, with aggressively styled red hair, masses of chunky jewelry, and an ensemble that screamed trendy, pointedly ignored them.
“Who are the Dragons?” Vicky asked.
“Style mavens. Gatekeepers for the Right Set, or at least the set Alex belongs to. Leda Loper is the Greater Dragon. She’s the one who waved. She’s a huge stickler for good manners and good taste.”
Ronnie held up two fingers to the coffee vendor. “Two skinny mocha lattes. The Lesser Dragon is Lolly Darling. We call her Lady LaLa, though not to her face. Oopsies, forgot my cash.” With a sweet smile at the vendor, she waved Vicky forward.
Vicky sighed and pulled out her wallet. “They’re in communications?”
“No, of course not. They’re probably here because of Alex. Speaking of…you’re going to be my wingman, right?”
Joy and rapture. A front row seat to watch Ronnie land Zan Sinclair was a special circle of hell. Vicky wanted to sob in frustration, despite not having a snowball’s chance with sizzling-hot bachelor Sinclair herself. She was shy and liked to read. He was the biggest name in communications. She lectured to half-empty rooms of bored freshmen. He’d catapulted to fame when his show Revealing Secrets was the sleeper hit of the year, and he entertained millions. He was rich, a billionaire at least. She wouldn’t even know a Prada if it bit her.
“Vicky? My wingman, right?” Ronnie prodded her with a long, lacquered nail.
“I would, but…” She paid and put her wallet away. Sinclair was handsome and articulate, and she could almost see the disaster. He’d smile and say a simple “Hi,” and she’d stutter and melt into a puddle of goo. “Are you sure you weren’t misreading his text? What about his three-date limit?”
When it was over between them the first time, Vicky felt bad for Ronnie. But she’d also felt rather sorry for Sinclair. All those supermodels, starlets, and rich daughters—how had he not found a single person to share his life with?
“Maybe it’s just three consecutive dates.” Ronnie shrugged elegant shoulders. “Or maybe I’m the exception.”
“Ladies?” The coffee vendor held out two cardboard-wrapped, capped cups. “Your lattes.”
Ronnie snagged hers. “Come on. I want to see the goodies room.”
Vicky barely snared her own cup before Ronnie latched on to her elbow and dragged her away. The last thing Vicky saw of the registration table was three people hanging a ten-foot poster of Dr. Sinclair. She sighed. He was so handsome, his dark eyes gleaming with intelligence. Just seeing his picture made her want to swoon like a Victorian heroine.
She sighed. She’d been crushing on him too long. Mega-rich media star versus poorly paid junior college lecturer? They were from different worlds.
But Ronnie was from his world. If she could make him happy, if he made her happy, who was Vicky to stop them? In fact, wasn’t it her job to do everything she could to facilitate them? However personally painful it was?
She sighed and accepted the inevitable. “Wingman.”
“Great!” Ronnie happily dragged Vicky into the vendor display room, also known as the goodies room. “I’m hoping he’ll introduce me to his producer.”
“Alex’s producer is a real name in the business.” Ronnie stopped at a booth filled with high-resolution webcams.
Vicky picked up a brochure. The tool helped students read expressions and identify emotions. She touched a webcam. Her finger sprang up, two feet tall, on a flat-panel monitor. She jerked back. “Why do you want to meet a producer?” Stuffing the brochure into her convention bag, she picked up the software’s accompanying manual and flipped through it.
Ronnie pulled Vicky tight, so fast Vicky dropped the manual. She whispered in Vicky’s ear, “I’m nearly thirty. I know that doesn’t mean much to you, but modeling’s a young woman’s game. And it’s cutthroat. I won’t last forever.”
“But…but you’re sought after worldwide. You’re at the peak of your career.”
“The peak, yeah. You know what that means.” Ronnie bent over the webcam. Her left nostril filled the whole screen, along with the barest shadow of a wrinkle. “No direction to go but down.”
Vicky blinked, suddenly understanding. “That’s why you’re trying to break into television.”
“Which means meeting Alex’s producer. Which means getting back in Alex’s good graces.”
This was about more than Ronnie’s love life. It weighed on her whole future.
“All right, sister,” Vicky said. “I’ll not only be your wingman—I’ll be the best darned wingman you’ve ever had.”
* * *
Alexander Sinclair slid from the presenters’ greenroom near the CommuniCon registration desk, twitching straight the sleeves of his Kiton K50 suit while he scanned the masses of people in the atrium. He searched for two particular heads, one silver-blonde and one plain brown. As he was taller than most of the people here, he quickly saw the pair he sought weren’t in the room.
Zan wasn’t disappointed. Half of doing any job well was not letting extraneous emotions get in the way. It was ninety-nine percent of doing his job well. Effective communications relied on clear channels, free of clogging feelings. He had a plan, and he executed it efficiently. Moving into the hallway he made his way to the next room.
The pair wasn’t in that room either, but he simply proceeded to the next, and the next. His careful planning and patience was rewarded when, in the swag room, he saw the toned blonde.
At first he didn’t see the blonde’s sister and nearly panicked. But no, Veronica, in her platform heels, was simply half a head taller than her twin. There. The slender brunette stood nearby, reading a manual.
Dr. Victoria Brooks.
A zing of pleasure shot through him, quickly suppressed but not ignored. Though he didn’t indulge in his emotions, he did have them. He especially had them around her.
Strange to feel so strongly about a person he’d never actually met.
But if things went the way he hoped they might, he’d remedy that soon enough. Ronnie would introduce them. She might even think it was her idea.
Nearby, a woman waved at him. He didn’t know her, but she knew him. That happened a lot these days, a part of the fame gig. He smiled as she rushed up, offering an open convention booklet and pen. He signed his name, chatting easily with her while she stood with a slightly dazed smile. Finishing with a flourish, he pressed her booklet and pen into her hands, nodded goodbye, and strode toward the sisters.
They were close in conversation, looking as different as fraternal twins possibly could. He hadn’t a clue they were sisters when he’d first seen Dr. Brooks in a series of homemade teaching videos on the Internet. He’d immediately been struck by her. She looked smart, sweet, and genuine. In her most recent video, posted three weeks ago, she’d invited students to connect with her at CommuniCon. Lonely, he’d planned on trying to meet her here.
The conference organizer, Josiah Johnson, had been most helpful when Zan called to arrange a late berth. Almost too helpful—he’d wanted to ax the keynote speaker for Zan. Zan had explained that he’d rather attend for pleasure—and had gotten assigned as a speaker anyway.
He’d discovered only after it was too late that Vicky Brooks was related to one of his ex-girlfriends.
He remembered Ronnie Rivers. Fun, a touch self-centered—not that unusual for models—and easy to please.
But also easy to anger.
The problem was, if this didn’t happen in exactly the right way, Ronnie might get jealous. Not a problem if she only got angry with him. But she might lash out against Vicky. So he’d pretend to be surprised when Ronnie introduced him to her sister. He’d ask if the two of them were hungry—a few minutes after noon, it was highly probable. He’d take them both to lunch. Talk with both of them equally. Make plans for dinner, with both. Take them shopping; Ronnie liked shopping.
He wondered briefly if Vicky liked shopping, too. Soon, now, he’d find out. Another thrill of excitement rushed through him at the thought.
With his height and build, he cut easily through the crowd. Now that he was out from between the pillars, several people recognized him—well, nearly everybody did, but most only smiled or nodded. He smiled back but kept cleaving through. A few people tried to stop him for his autograph, but he had slips on hand for just this purpose—head-of-the-line passes for his autograph sessions during the convention. He kept his focus on the sisters and kept moving.
About halfway across the room, Ronnie saw him. She waved, just as the crowd thickened with people clamoring for autograph slips, and blocked his view.
He tamped down his frustration and slid from the grasping fingers.
Then a tug on his back suit coat flap—a tug down—turned him.
A child of maybe eight stood there, eyes hopeful, autograph book extended.
Touched, he stopped to sign her open book and handed it back with a smile, touched even more when she whooped and trotted happily away with it.
His attention had been off the sisters for only a few moments, but when he resumed plowing through the last of the crowd to where they’d been, only Ronnie’s silver-blonde head was there.
“Alex, darling. So good to see you.” She offered her cheek.
He gave her the expected double air buss, using the mimed pecks to search for Vicky. He couldn’t quite believe that she was gone.
“Who are you looking for?” A faint double line appeared between the model’s big green eyes, the only sign she allowed herself of a frown. A blatant warning to a man like him.
He straightened. As casually as possible, he said, “I thought I saw you with someone.”
Ronnie’s eyes narrowed.
Red alert. He recognized that expression. Not jealousy, but its prickly precursor. Think fast, Sinclair. His brain worked like lightning. “I only mention it because…my friend Nate Winters was talking about getting some lunch. I saw the two of you and thought we could make it a foursome.”
“Oh.” Ronnie slid her manicured hands over his. “Are you hungry? I’m starving. My sister is off listening to some boring presentation. Let’s ditch your friend Winters and go somewhere nice.”