Kasee Kean peered out of the windows of Pat’s Irish Pub, looking for a camera flash. Most paparazzi stuck to Los Angeles and New York, but Pat’s, though in Baltimore, was such a hot destination for musicians that occasionally photographers hung around outside, hoping for a photograph of Sky Mitchell or someone else that famous.
“Is anyone out there?” She smelled a hot citrus tang as her friend, Louise leaned over her shoulder.
“No, but I really need to have my photograph taken.” Her long fingertips staccato-tapped against the windowsill as she squinted into the darkening street. They slid into grooves created by years of patrons using the wooden ledge to hold glasses of Guinness. The edge of her index finger caught in a sliver and the top of her manicure tore. She squeaked as she pulled it away, hoping against hope she could repair it herself. Life as she knew it hung in the balance.
“Oh, no,” Louise exclaimed.
“Another manicure isn’t in the budget until next week. Do you have a file?” Rubbing at the rough edge of her nail as Louise dug in her purse, Kasee checked around the room, hoping someone famous lurked in the shadows, ready to take Pat’s stage. Someone who would attract a crowd and cameras.
A year ago, she’d been one of the celebrities who had been eagerly pursued through Midtown or Fells Point as a first season cast member of The Ladies of Baltimore. The network that picked up the show pitched it to audiences as a reality soap opera, and had experienced a ratings bonanza, mostly because Kasee’s marriage had imploded on camera during the two months of shooting due to her husband’s affair with her best friend, another of the “ladies.”
But then, at the reunion show, she’d foolishly gotten drunk and had attempted to pull the wig off her husband’s mistress. Now, season two had just started pre-production, and she was off the show as punishment for her bad behavior, while her ex bestie was flaunting an eight-carat diamond engagement ring and planning for her wedding to be the biggest reality TV event since Trista and Ryan married on television after a successful season on The Bachelorette.
“Found one.” Louise passed the nail file to Kasee.
“Thanks.” Kasee watched traffic going by as she fixed her manicure. Tourists with out of state license plates drove by, coming from the waterfront, delivery trucks. She recognized the van for the florist shop she used to use. Then a white SUV pulled up to the curb a couple of doors away and parked. She watched as the driver stepped onto the street. A police car she hadn’t noticed before turned on its light bar just in front of the pub and sped up, nearly squashing the SUV’s driver as it raced by. He lifted his hands and waved them, dancing around as he had himself a temper tantrum worthy of an enraged housewife after four glasses of chardonnay.
Meanwhile, the SUV’s passenger door had opened. Kasee’s hand went to her blond hair, instinctively fluffing her long locks as she saw how attractive the second man was. He had light hazel skin and his dark brown hair was closely cropped on the sides, lying flat across the top. A sharp nose, but full lips. He squinted into the fading light, but she could see he must be under thirty, unlike her, because the lines around his eyes didn’t stay. When he opened the rear door of the vehicle, biceps bunched under his tightly fitted black cotton shirt. She was admiring the way his jeans cupped his long thighs and round ass when she realized he’d just pulled out a fancy camera.
Kasee and Louise gasped simultaneously at the sight of the Canon 6D, a camera that paparazzi often used.
“He’s pretty,” Louise said with a sigh.
Kasee’s senses went on high alert. “I’m glad your husband isn’t around to hear you saying that.” Louise’s husband was the jealous type.
“At least you aren’t married anymore. Go work your wiles on that photog. Keith never looked that good on any day of his life.”
Kasee wrinkled her nose at the sound of her ex-husband’s name. “Wish me luck. I have to prove to the TV producers that I’m more an asset than a liability.” Her image being posted on the blogs was exactly what she needed, to show people were still interested in her. After all, she hadn’t actually gone so far as to physically attack Tammy. What were a few screamed death threats between old friends anyway?
“You go, girl.” Louise emptied the last inch of her lemon drop martini. “Without you as a featured part of the cast, my friend role is gone, too.”
Behind her, Kasee heard shuffling as someone took the stage. She turned around, hope suspended in her chest, and squinted at the band. Her 32Ds deflated instantly when she didn’t recognize anybody. Some alt-folk group, she guessed, no one she’d heard of before. Still, one thing gave her hope. The acoustic guitar the lead singer was cradling looked expensive. She recognized the distinctive shape of the Breedlove instrument as one that her ex-husband had coveted for his collection. She’d priced one, thinking it would be the perfect forty-fifth birthday present for him, just before she discovered his affair. “Hold on. Let me find out who this band is.”
When she glanced at the bar, she saw Pop sitting on his usual stool. She click-clacked over to him on her four-inch heels.
“Nice to see you, Mrs. Kean,” Pop said, a friendly smile on his face.
“You, too.” She leaned toward his ear and whispered. “Do you know who the band is?”
He shrugged. Retired now, he knew every aspect of the operation as if he were still running it. “The Lazy Merrys? Haven’t heard of them before, but Ruby is a fan.”
If Pop’s daughter Teagan, nicknamed Ruby, was a fan, they were worth knowing about. She had been a bona fide music star for over a decade now. “Thanks.” Kasee made a beeline toward the door and the gorgeous photographer.
The paparazzi had set up camp across the street. She guessed they had been warned to stay off the pavement directly by the front door. Of course, Pat’s had a rear entrance/exit as well, but people who wanted to be photographed would use the front door. The paps might live for the photographs no celebrity wanted them to take, the ones that made the big bucks, like Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt discussing divorce on a secluded island beach, but their bread and butter were shots like celebrities going out to a shop or a club.
She debated going out through the back and coming in through the front, but that just seemed silly. Why hadn’t she planned this better?
“What are you waiting for?” Louise prompted with a wave of her empty glass as Kasee hesitated at the door.
“I’m just debating if I should stage an exit with you after they are set up, or go out there and tell them about the band and try to get them to shoot me after I pass the information.”
“Good grief.” Louise set her glass on the ledge. “Let’s go out together. You look great. This divorce has taken five pounds off your midsection.”
“That’s the Pilates.”
“And Keith is no longer plying you with chocolate. I swear he must have brought you a box from Rheb’s every time he cheated on you with Tammy.”
Kasee’s chocolate martini churned in her stomach at the name of her former best friend. “Fine.” She smoothed her perfectly tailored shift dress over her hips. The navy blue helped accentuate her clear eyes and the heart shape of the bodice framed her face.
“Good for you!” Louise said. “I think I’ll grab another drink.”
“Oh, no,” Kasee said, grabbing her friend’s arm. “We should go now, before I lose my confidence.”
“Are they set up?” Louise peered out of the window again, though Kasee thought she was taking in the attractive photog’s buff chest more than his camera. “Good, I guess so.”
Louise followed behind Kasee as she opened the door, tucking her Chanel clutch underneath her arm. Kasee had her sunglasses on, though the sky had darkened in the past five minutes. When she reached the edge of the curb, she took them off, staring directly into the two photogs’ lenses.
No flashes went off. As best she could tell, no fingers moved to press buttons. Didn’t they recognize her? She’d done her patented reveal with her Jackie O sunglasses.
“Where’s the car?” Louise said with a giggle.
Her friend, all of ninety pounds, never held her liquor well, but it made her silly, not angry, which wasn’t what they were looking for in reality television. “Down the street,” Kasee said, “but we’d better cross over. Maybe the paps can’t see well.”
She waited for a taxi to pass, then sashayed across the street, careful to keep her head up and her body at a slight angle for the best photograph. They reached the opposite curb just as a herd of college students passed. The paps stepped back, with no more interest in the students than in Kasee.
“Hello?” she said, the word coming out sarcastically. “I’m Kasee Kean, boys.”
The older and less attractive of the two men stared at her then looked away. The hot one gave her a half smile.
“Sorry, love, but we’re here on a specific agency assignment.” He had a local accent, and was even better looking up close.
Those thick lips were utterly kissable, and for the first time since her divorce had been finalized, she actually found herself thinking about having sex with someone. Maybe she’d finally, at some deep level, finished with Keith.
“What’s your name?” she asked, breathy, flirtatious.
She held out her hand and he let his camera dangle by the strap around his neck as he took it. A zap of electricity coursed through her as their palms met. “My, oh my,” she purred.
“Sorry, Mrs. Kean, I do know who you are, but as I said, we’re on assignment. Need music celeb pics, like Sky Mitchell tonight.”
“The Lazy Merrys are doing a set,” she offered.
“Never heard of them,” Dion said flatly.
“Oh, c’mon,” she said, frustrated. “Only takes a nanosecond to snap my picture, and what, ten minutes to upload it and try to sell it? Give me a break.”
The other man said something in Spanish and lifted his camera. Across the street a limo had pulled up. A number of miniskirt-clad girls about a decade younger than Kasee poured out. One of them had that alpha quality. Both of the photogs took shots.
“Pop starlet?” Kasee asked.
“Maybe,” Dion said. “I think she just signed with Atlantic Records.”
“So why are you here tonight? A rumor about someone big visiting?”
“Couple big tours in town.” They all watched as a BMW pulled up in front. “Bingo.”
Both men moved into the street. They must have spotted a definite target.
“Quick,” Kasee whispered to Louise. “What do I have to do to get a picture?”
“They aren’t interested.”
“They want to make quick money. They all do. If I’m memorable enough…” she trailed off. “Maybe if we wait by the door? I can drape myself over anyone we recognize. That would get me in the blogs.”
“Do you care if they are married or not?” Louise asked, her gaze following a town car was stopping in front of the bar.
“Because that’s Sky Mitchell.” Louise pointed at a handsome man with dark hair and tight jeans, in a crowd of others, who had just exited the town car.
“Strange that he’s going in at the front. He’s family to the Collinses.” Kasee finger-combed her hair, refusing to second-guess herself. “Here goes.”
Watching for a break in traffic, she stepped into the street, then raced across on her heels, narrowly missing the back of a motorcycle. Louise squealed behind her, but Kasee ignored her friend as she barreled straight for Sky.
The famed rocker held out his muscled arms as she attempted to hug him. He held her off, her arms wheelbarrowing in an attempt to throw them around his neck.
“Come on,” she called. “Just give me a hug, Sky. It’s Kasee Kean.” She attempted to fling her arms upward again, but someone grabbed her around the waist and hauled her back.
The man pulling her sent her flying backward. Her right heel, stiletto thin, snapped against the rough pavement. The impact jolted her from ass to brainstem as she hit the sidewalk. Nerve endings in her hands began to scream. She glanced down and realized she’d attempted to catch herself on her hands. When she picked them up, her palms were scraped and bloody, and her nails were mere shards of their former glory.
“Sky!” she screamed, her jostled brain still on its former path. “I’m Kasee Kean. Please, I need this.” Sitting there, legs spread wide apart, displaying her black silk underpants for the world to see, she began to cry.
Three men surrounded the superstar and pushed him into Pat’s. Kasee stayed on the pavement, legs splayed, hands bleeding. And only then did she see photographers had crossed the street and were finally taking her picture.
The pub door opened, blocking Dion’s final shot of the disgraced reality TV star. She hadn’t fallen gracefully, this Kasee Kean, ending Dion’s theory that she’d once been a model. Though the height and the slimness were there, the poise decidedly was not. Her friend, equally waiflike and blonde, squatted next to Kasee and attempted to wipe gravel from her palms.
Jorge, his face impassive, continued to take shots of the pair, until another limousine pulled up, discharging an American Idol winner, one of the R&B singers. Then he moved back into the street snapping off dozens of pictures. He kept his camera on automatic, hoping the tool would do the work of composing the shot for him.
Dion didn’t work that way. He changed his settings quickly and took a shot as Pop Collins and one of his sons stepped over to Kasee and helped her up. The mascara sliding down her cheeks, the concern on Pop’s face, made for a beautiful picture he might be able to sell to a local paper, or certainly the blogs.
He let his camera drop on its strap against his chest. “There you go, Mrs. Kean. You got your chance. I’ll try to sell something.”
She sniffled and looked at him, a little girl lost. Then, her expression seemed to change, sharpening, as she wiped under her eyes. Her fingers came away black and sparkly. “Thank you, Dion.”
He nodded and turned away.
“Hey, wait a minute,” she called.
As he turned back, she nodded at the Collins men and they went back inside. People walked behind her, entering the pub. Dion couldn’t quite remember which band they were with, and Jorge had taken all the shots anyway.
“Look, I really appreciate it,” she said.
“No problem.” He stared into her incredibly clear blue eyes, so calm now, nothing like the stills he’d seen of the crazy woman who had attacked her friend on Ladies of Baltimore. Yeah, he was vaguely aware of her story, but that was just part of his job. You couldn’t make a living as an eastern seaboard-based photographer without knowing who the local celebrities were.
Her gaze caressed his face, almost as if she had touched him. But what she said wasn’t what he expected. “Can I ask you a potentially annoying and offensive personal question?”
“If you really feel the need.”
Her eyes opened even wider, drawing him in. “You’re mixed race, right?”
“Sure.” He shrugged. “My mom’s white and my dad wasn’t.”
Her tone went business-like and her gaze lost its laser-like intensity. “Any interest in being on television?”
“Why?” He’d often thought that photographers chasing celebrities would make for good television, on cable at least. The most exciting jobs had elements of James Bond to them, and the producers could edit out the long hours of waiting.
“I think the producers of my show would eat up a storyline about someone like me dating someone like you,” she said.
Dating? She wanted him to be her arm candy? She had guts, he gave her that, though he was finding her surprisingly hard to read now that they were up close and personal. He couldn’t help running his gaze down her body, the trim, muscled arms, the fake rack, flat belly, and toned legs. The attractive package sent his blood rushing south. “Am I supposed to be insulted or flattered by that?”
“You’ve seen yourself in the mirror,” she said. “You have an interesting, active job and you’re a little bit younger than me. With Baltimore being so diverse, we took a lot of heat for only having one black member in the cast in the first season. I’d love to have you on the show.”
He wondered how old she was. He’d have to find out. “Are you asking me on a date, or offering me a job?”
“Maybe both. Can I have your number?”
He hesitated, then pulled a business card out of a back pocket of his jeans. While he didn’t want her harassing him with every fantasy she had of a photo op for himself, only wealthy or well-connected women were cast on the show in the first place. It was supposed to be about the elite, and people paid for photographs of the elite.
Of course, elite was about as far as anyone could get from him.
Nonetheless, he handed her the card, not sure what she was up to. Hell, he wasn’t even clear on how real these reality shows were. Did she actually want to date him, or to pretend? Jorge shouted at him as another big black car turned on to the street.
“I need to get back to work, and you’d better clean your hands,” he said.
She smiled at him, the expression going decidedly feline, due to the shape of her features. “Absolutely. I’ll be in touch.”
The next day, Dion went to Pat’s in the afternoon, without a camera this time. He had the impression that Kasee Kean was well known at the pub and he’d learn more about her from her friends than he would reading a bunch of garbage on the blogs.
He spotted Pop on his usual stool at the bar. The bartender nodded when he lifted a finger, and then he sat down next to the elderly pub owner.
“How are you doing, sir? I’m Dion Hamilton.”
Pop smiled in a friendly fashion, a response a photojournalist didn’t always receive. “I know who you are, son. Seen you outside a hundred times.”
“If you’re going to make a living as a photographer in Baltimore, Pat’s is one of the main spots around,” Dion said. “I think a quarter of my income comes from staking out your pub and restaurant.”
“If the celebrities didn’t want to be photographed, they’d complain,” Pat said.
“Exactly. Or they’d sneak out the back.”
“Or try something else. Did you ever hear the story about Sky’s first visit here?”
Dion had, of course, it was legend by now, but he wanted to hear the old man’s version. “Tell me.”
Pop reminisced for twenty minutes about the courtship between his daughter Teagan and the legendary rock star before Dion steered him off course. “Speaking of celebrities and Sky, did you catch much of what was happening last night with him and that Kasee Kean?”
Pop shook his head. “That poor woman. I didn’t watch her program but Riley told me about what happened to her. It’s enough to send any woman off the rails. Still, I’d rather she not attack my customers.”
“She wanted to be photographed.” Dion reflected. “She’s actually pretty clever. We told her we were only shooting musicians so she put herself in a photo op with one.”
“Did you sell any of the photos with her?”
Dion chuckled. “For good money, too. Not sure what it will do for her career, looking like a lunatic, but yeah, she got exposure.”
“Maybe that’s her new brand. Kasee Kean the lunatic.”
“Do you know her very well?”
“She’s in between my children and grandchildren, age-wise. But I think one of my sons knew her ex-husband. I remember she told me her first date with him was at our restaurant.”
“Sure. They had a weekly Saturday night date here for years. But you know how it is with some men. They turn forty and suddenly their lives aren’t looking so perfect. I remember hearing about one of their date nights. This would have been before the reality show. They had a shouting match and one of the servers got concerned.”
“Keith broke his wineglass, I think, and then ended up brushing his arm across the table, sending all the dishes flying.”
Dion frowned. “Accidentally?”
“No, on purpose. The server was afraid his wife was being abused. We discussed banning them from the restaurant, but the server said she wanted to keep an eye on Mrs. Kean.”
“So there was drama long before the show aired?”
“Yes. Maybe they thought stardom would help their marriage? I’m sure it helped his businesses.”
“Car dealerships, right?”
“Yep. He’s made good money, that Keith Kean.”
Dion passed cash to the bartender as he set a beer mug down. “She hit on me.”
“Divorced now,” Pat said evenly. “Husband’s about to remarry.”
“It must have happened pretty fast.”
“No children. Prenup.”
Dion blew foam out of his way and took a sip of his beer. “How old is she?”
“Thirty-one. Fourteen years younger than the husband. New fiancée is in her twenties. She won’t last long. The former mistresses never do.”
Dion was twenty-seven, considerably younger than the ex-husband. “He’ll keep trading down for a younger model.”
Pop lifted his eyebrows. “She’s trying to trade down too, from what you’re saying.”
“It might be entirely mercenary. She thinks I’d make good television.”
“You’re a good-looking kid.”
Dion laughed. “Thanks, Pop. I appreciate that.”
“You interested in her? Not the type of lady to play games with. Fragile, newly divorced.”
“I would imagine. Those prenups are never going to favor a woman like her.” Pop shook his head, a sharp, disgusted movement.
“She looked expensive. The shoes, the purse.”
“Left over from her marriage. Nah, she doesn’t have much. Her job was that TV show, and she was fired, right?”
Suddenly, the motivation for her behavior became clear. She’d indicated she was still on the show. Liar. “So she’s trying to get her job back. If that doesn’t work it’s back to whatever she did before her marriage?”
“That was going to college. Like I said, she’s been coming here for a long time. Still in school when she started dating Keith. She’s probably never worked a real job.”
“Would you hire her as a waitress?”
Pop slapped the bar in time with his laugh. “Not after that mess with Sky last night. No, she’s got a strike against her now, just like her husband did with his fit a couple of years ago.”
“If you were me would you date her?” Dion lifted his mug as the bartender reappeared.
“I would,” the bartender said before Pop could answer. “Crazy can be a lot of fun in bed.”
“She’s calculating, though,” Dion countered. “I talked to her just a minute before she went for Sky. Yeah, she got hurt and was a little nuts for a second, but then I talked to her again afterward and she was making sense.”
“So she’s not crazy?” the bartender asked.
“I think all celebrities are a little crazy,” Dion said. “The question is, do I want to be with that kind of crazy?”
Pop grinned. “She’s a pretty little thing. Nothing like my late wife Sunday at her best, but I’d have given her a second look when I was a young man.”