At first I barely felt the bullet pierce the low-slung cocktail dress and enter my heart. It seemed impossible to consider death real, despite the warning minutes earlier from the mysterious lady with the black eye shadow alongside me. I always thought I'd have more time. Guess everyone does.
My demise only registered when I caught sight of the spatter of red – my red – peppering his shirt as he tucked the gun away, buttoned up his suit, and strode away like he'd concluded nothing more than a business deal. Like I was just a signing to one of his multi-million dollar movie contracts.
I stared at the floor, focus wavering, woozily staggering back against the railings of the veranda, roaring waves of the Pacific smashing against the rocks far below as my blood bloomed the fabric. In the momentary lulls between fireworks exploding overhead, snatches of Auld Lang Syne and piano filtered through the sliding doors from the party. Bubbly conversations, inside and out. Champagne flutes clinking. Guests laughing. Kisses under mistletoe marking midnight and ringing in hope for what the New Year would bring. A New Year of which I would only experience seconds.
She caught me as I slid sideways, the pounding in my head from booze and blood loss a companion to raging conscious thoughts. Why hadn't I listened? She'd been very clear:
"You're in terrible danger."
"What, darling? Do I know you?" I'd pawed her arm as if it would spark a memory.
She shook her head. "See that man over there in the dark suit? The one who keeps looking over here?"
I slid my gaze into the throng of partygoers, all having way more fun than me, flitting from person to person. Studio execs mixed with screenwriters, actors, directors, and anybody else in this fucking industry who wanted to impress. Zeroing on the man in question, I gazed. His dashing looks and chiseled jawline never changed, graceful grey flecks the only outward sign of the aging process. Shame underneath he was an asshole.
"Terence? He's many things, darling, but a killer ain't one of them."
Her hand gripping my forearm was startling. She was cold. Freezing almost. "I'm serious. Get away while you can."
I met her piercing stare, eyes as ice blue as her grip that I tried to wrestle away. "Let go of me."
She paused a moment longer then released my arm, warmth rushing to replace the contact. If anything, her breath was colder in my ear as she leaned in to hiss, "He knows."
I stared. Flicked my gaze between Terence and her. Said nothing.
Her tone was urgent. "It doesn't have to be this way. You don't have long." I knew enough about voice coaching to place her accent as British. "Please."
Observing Terence through the crowd, something began to not feel right. He was shuffling from foot to foot, checking his watch and glancing this way, only partially engaged in the conversation of the close-knit circle of acquaintances. I shivered under the breeze drifting from the ocean.
Was the mysterious woman right? Had he found out? I tingled, turning to her, and it was only then I noticed she wasn't dressed for the occasion. Hoodie, jeans, and ankle boots instead of the elegance of other guests. How had she got in dressed like that? In the muted light, I searched the iridescent flecks of gold in her irises for signs of deception.
"Are you serious?"
She nodded. "Come with me. I can give you a chance to fix this. Change one regret."
The burst of laughter escaped before I had a chance to rein it in. "Darling, the only thing I regret is not insisting she leave him."
"Then maybe you should."
I blinked. Twice. "Where did you say you were from?"
"Ayla, please. We don't have time. You have to trust me."
I blinked again. "How do you… have we… do I know you?"
Her eyes pleaded. Hollow, yet beautiful husks framed by the dark eye shadow. A canon of fireworks exploded in the near distance and she turned pale, taking a step back. The tang of Terence's cologne preceded his arrival and I spun to face him.
Up close he was formidable. Charismatic. Easy to see why Phoebe had fallen for him. Before she'd uncovered his true nature.
I flitted my attention left then right. Focused squarely and flashed a disarming smile. "Terence, darling. Fabulous party."
He remained silent. Another volley of fireworks burst overhead, bathing him in pink, green, and gold flares. He stepped into my space and my heart rate spiked. I tried to move one way but his hand slipped to my waist and I was paralyzed as his stubble grazed my cheek and his warm breath tickled my earlobe.
"She's never been the same, and it's your fault." His other hand came between us. What I thought was the tip of his finger, but soon found was the barrel of the silencer, pressed to my cleavage. He punctuated pulling the trigger with a single word, "Bitch."
And then he'd buttoned up his suit and walked away.
The stranger's touch was somehow comforting, stroking my temple as I lay in her arms, life drifting away. Staring up into her eyes, I flinched when a salty tear of hers landed on my cheek.
She shook. "I'm so sorry. I should have come sooner but I couldn't get a lock and then… and then…"
I opened my mouth to speak and winced. It was as if someone was angle grinding my windpipe. All I managed to croak was, "Tell her I love her. And… I regret."
She wiped her cheek, glanced left and right. "I've never tried it this late before but..." Digits of her free hand pressed to my temples, spanning my forehead. Cold arced through my brain like I'd eaten too many spoons of ice cream. Intense pain, almost a flash migraine, forced my eyes shut as I gasped, took a final breath, and the world faded.
Fingers of early evening sunlight dappled my skin. I cracked open an eye to locate the warmth, finding my palm resting alongside my head on the luxurious down pillow. Translucent curtain material hung before the wide floor to ceiling glass doors, swaying in the lazy Pacific breeze carried across the swish of the ocean beyond.
I lay still, aware of nothing and everything. It was ethereal. Perhaps the afterlife. I shut my eyes and a flash of Terence pulling the trigger filled my mind. Then falling. Staring up at the mysterious woman. The intense cold. Then nothing.
Shifting in the bed, I stifled a cry as a sharp pain shot through my chest. Bringing fingers up, I touched the area. Found a small knot. A ridge. Traced around it and looked down at a tiny scar, the raised tissue a little pinker than the surrounding area of my breast partly concealed by sheer négligée.
My brain couldn't make sense of it. I knew where I was. Recognized the hardwood flooring leading to the expanse of glass that separated the room from the patio. The cream bedside table. Her ridiculous snoopy alarm clock perched on top.
Behind me, Phoebe let out a gentle sigh. I gingerly rolled over to face her back. Spent a long moment just gazing at her, nude from shoulder to hip where her curves disappeared beneath the sheets. Flawless skin I longed to touch but daren’t in case it shattered the illusion. I selfishly craved to hold onto the moment forever.
Curiosity eventually won and I extended my arm, reaching to trace the outline of the dolphin inked on her shoulder blade. The universe behaved as it should. She was endlessly soft. Feminine. I explored, skimming her frame and watching the fine hairs stand on end. She let out a contented little moan.
"I'll give you three hours to stop that."
I smiled. Took a breath. "God, you're real."
The delay before she said, "Of course I am," was probably her considering if I'd lost the plot. To be honest, I wasn't sure if I had.
Her skin played beneath my fingertips until I slithered in to hug her, ignoring the occasional stabbing pain from the scar as best I could. Her scent drifted and I inhaled, the floral notes of her perfume above the earthier tones from our earlier lovemaking. I could still taste her.
I stroked her hair, blonde tresses catching the golden light as the sun slid lower to meet the horizon. "Do you believe in second chances?"
Phoebe turned her head up, pretty ski-slope nose and full lips in profile. "You nervous about the casting recall tomorrow?"
My strokes paused. "Say what?"
"Don't tell me you've forgotten. Fatal Target? Olivia Johnstone?"
"But I…" I'd already got the part. Filming had wrapped the week before Christmas. I drifted my fingers to trace the scar once more, the nub of tissue still alien. Maybe this wasn't a dream. Maybe I really did have another shot. To try and do it right. To seek happiness.
My pulse thrummed, realization setting in. I couldn't suppress the gasp. It was enough to cause Phoebe to turn over and prop her head on her hand. "What's gotten into you?"
"Nothing. I'm just…"
She reached out to brush a dark curl behind my ear. "What?"
I bit my lip. Inhaled. "How long have we been doing this… us?"
Her impish smile warmed me. "Just over five months."
I did the math to fact check my sanity, proving to myself it was real. The timeline fitted. It had been wrap day on Much Ado About Everything. I'd been portraying Felicity Carmichael, opposite Phoebe playing my unrequited love interest, until the final act when the story called for us to kiss.
The moment that changed everything.
I had no idea anything could taste so incredible. The softness of her lips against mine. Her delicate scent drifting between us, as the crew and cameras faded and passion ignited.
The moment stretched, elastic, and undefined as we lost ourselves. It bowled me over, heart racing, and at its conclusion we parted a few inches, and something fizzed between us. A spark that circuited my entire body in a lazy loop, lighting every zone I had a name for, and many more besides.
The director – an affable guy named Bernie with a jet black widow's peak and tiny ears – stepped in to congratulate us on an amazing job. Gushed over how naturally we'd acted and developed chemistry.
Even after the self-congratulatory applause and speeches from cast and crew had dissipated, I wasn't sure how much was acting. Every time she caught my eye as we milled, I looked away, unable to face the turmoil inside my energized body. Her kiss had rewired me. Some kind of emotional reboot.
As handshakes and hugs and endless pecks on the cheek from movie darlings and financiers dwindled, the crowd thinned and we found ourselves gravitating closer. Smalltalk led to me shyly accepting her offer of a drink, where we ended up standing hip to hip on a sticky floor in a crowded bar as Guns N Roses belted from the jukebox.
I nervously downed a few shots in a futile attempt to calm my fluttering heart. Her fingertips brushed mine. Lingered. Catching her eye, the playful bite of her lip and mischievous glint had sealed the inevitable: more shots, shameless flirting, and stolen caresses, until we fled, crashing through the front door of her luxurious beachfront pad a tangle of limbs and breathless kisses.
Five months of veiled passion. Away from the limelight, meticulously cautious, knowing a single misstep could blow up in the media. Every time our schedules aligned we ended up in bed, glowing and electrified in the aftermath of one another's pent-up sexuality. Our lust, and what I was convinced became love, drove the soundtrack to my spiritual awakening, the string of men in my life forgotten stepping stones that led to unveiling my true sexuality.
And here, once more, still reeking of her incredible essence, we lay. I walked my fingers in the tiny void between us, up her belly, skimming a breast to brush her lip. She playfully bit my fingertip.
I wanted her so much. Exclusively. Career be damned. The last time we'd shared this moment, familiar yet somehow different, I'd caved. Kept quiet. But now I knew I had to try.
Taking a deep breath, I let it out. Slid my eyes to hers.
"Would you leave him?"
Her smile faded. She stared at me then rolled onto her back, naked chest rising and falling as she studied the whitewashed ceiling.
"You don't get to make demands like that, Ayla."
"I'm not demanding. I'm asking if you would."
She pursed her lips. "You don't just leave someone like Terence."
"I know. And God knows I'm not asking you to do it today, but if the opportunity arose… would you? For me. For us?"
Phoebe turned her head and fixed me an intense gaze. "You know I can't."
I bristled. "You can. It kills me seeing you unhappy. Just—" a lone tear slid over her cheek and I almost buckled, whispering. "Just consider it."
She chewed her lip, eventually giving a fast nod. "No promises."
I reached out, stroked the salty droplet from her cheek, and drew her face to mine for a deep, searching kiss, a delicate string of saliva joining us when we parted. "Thank you."
She flashed a weak smile, rolled over, and rummaged in the top drawer, the rustle of plastic preceding her sharp snort. I didn't mean to judge but it must have been written all over my face when she sat up and turned back to me, wiping her nose and offering a sheepish shrug. "You know it's my coping mechanism."
We eyed one another, time without meaning. Part of me knew her, the other part wondered if I'd ever fully understand what she'd been through. All I could do was shake my head. "You're so beautiful."
Her face lit, a girly innocence surfacing as chemistry and biology interfered. "Show me."
Slithering away, she giggled and tugged the sheets off me, wrapping them around her torso. Casting a longing gaze over her shoulder, she coyly let the sheet drop, pacing naked away from the bed and flinging the curtains aside, bathing the room in burnt orange sunset.
I stared as she placed her palms on the window, either side of her head. Wiggled provocatively. She made it impossible not to follow. We made love in front of the darkening ocean, her breath fogging the glass as she lost control under my searching caresses and playful bites.
She left him a month later. I had no idea if it was the drugs or he'd threatened her again and she simply had enough, but she showed up a teary mess on my doorstep. I let her in. Made us both a stiff drink and we talked, huddled on my jade sofa in the basement den as an unseasonal rainstorm began to buffet the foundations.
Phoebe jigged her left leg up and down, heel tapping the rug. "You know we can't stay here, right?"
"Does he know about us, then?"
Her brow knitted. "Don't think so. But I meant here. In LA."
Her nod was grave. "He'll find us. The place is vast but he knows everyone."
I leaned back on the sofa. Idly stroked her thigh.
"What makes you think he'll look?"
She cast a gaze to the holdall she'd been clutching in the porch. I stopped stroking, reached down, and unzipped it, eyes widening.
She shrugged. "I probably shouldn't have done it. But fuck it."
I stared between her and the bundles of money. "How long do you think we run?"
Phoebe shrugged again. "Long enough."
"Dunno. I've always fancied upstate. How about Yosemite? Cabin in the woods. Nobody for miles."
I pursed my lips and exhaled. "I guess that would work."
So that's what we did. At first light we packed, arranged a house sitter to keep my place in check, stocked up on supplies from the local Home Depot and Walmart, then headed away from the smog in convoy.
I'd been south into San Diego before but never driven north. We took the 101 to San Luis Obispo and picked up Highway 1 to the coast, stopping at Morro Bay for the night. Two hundred miles between her and Terence seemed to visibly relax Phoebe, and the situation improved the further north we drove over the following days. The scenery of Big Sur was stunning. Rugged. We took in Pfeiffer Beach. Carmel. Monterey, before cutting inland to meander up over the mountains and down into Yosemite.
The one thing I noticed most was the air quality. Every lungful seemed to fill me with joy as we explored and hiked hand in hand. We spent truly magical days among nature breathing the richness of negative ions, and memorable nights in our rickety cabin with its uneven floor, limp shower pressure, and creaky bed frame.
It was a month or so in when I detected Phoebe becoming listless. Maybe conscious that staying too long in one place increased the likelihood of word getting back to Terence of our whereabouts. So we moved on. Back over the mountains, up to San Jose for a few weeks, then eventually to San Francisco.
There was something cathartic about dropping everything, leaving the industry and friends and family behind. We kept in touch with some of them, but never revealed our location. I took a bar job on the pier and Phoebe waitressed. We didn't exactly need the money, but it was fun and a great way to meet people. A complete change of pace from movie scripts and agent deadlines and makeup. Very few people recognized us, and we threw those that did off the scent by acting more outwardly comfortable in our attraction. It's easy to sell mistaken identity when behaving in an uncharacteristic manner.
Becoming more open about our relationship was even more liberating than I'd anticipated. Confined to the shadows of society for so long, I began to find it easier to breathe. I smiled more. We kissed in public and each time my heart would flutter with desire.
We rented a spacious apartment on a long-term let. Hit beaches and bars. Whiled away the summer in a whirlwind, a never-ending honeymoon of sun-kissed road trips, sunsets, alcohol, drugs, and each other.
Phoebe knew how to party hard. She always had. Despite my low-level insistence she needed to dial back the coke, she always found a way to score more. The false promises of giving it up never quite materialized.
One Friday night I rolled in from a shift to find her sprawled naked on the couch. Not an unusual situation, but she seemed more out of it than normal. Her pulse was racing and she had a stupid grin on her face when I scooped her up and took her to bed.
She pawed my cheek. "Are you my knight in shining armor?"
"I'm your guardian angel."
She giggled. "Will I go to hell for fucking an angel?"
I laid her on the bed and covered her up, stroking hair from her temple. She offered a crooked smile, although her glassy expression could have been at me or through me. "You're awfully nice."
I kissed her. "Sleep it off."
Stripping, I crawled in behind her and wrapped her in a hug, listening to her ragged breathing gradually even out, before sleep took me too.
We got up late. Wandered around the apartment in our underwear. I made filter coffee, and waffles with honey. Phoebe put her stash away and I stared.
"Jesus, how much of that shit is there?"
She normally had a tiny clear pouch but this must have been the size of a bag of sugar.
"Shhh, I got it off Johnny The Red."
I switched my stare from the stuff to her. "Are you bat shit crazy? He's a fucking gangster." Johnny was a hard-ass. Thought he was God's gift to women with his man bun, stubble, and ratty features.
"No, Phe, I'm serious. Have you been frittering our cash away?"
"It's my cash."
"No, it's our cash."
She fixed me a hard stare across the bed. "Johnny's fine. Besides, I didn't exactly… pay for it."
"What?! You ripped him off?"
"Nooo. Well, maybe a little."
"Come on, you either did or you didn't. Look at me. Look at me." She complied and I gave a penetrating look. "Did you steal his gear?"
Her silence said it all.
"Fuxake. You're gonna have to give it back."
"I can't." She was quick.
"Once it's open, it's no good to him."
"Then offer to pay for it."
"Right. Have you any idea how much that's worth?"
I admit I didn't and shook my head.
"It's more than we have, put it that way."
I ran my hand through my hair. "So what do we do? Do we have to run again? I can't believe you sometimes. You can be so… selfish."
"Awww c'mon. Don't be like that. It'll be fine. He won't miss one little bag. You should have seen how much was on the table. And nobody saw me knock it into my purse."
I raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure?"
She leaned in and kissed me, our breasts skimming as her tongue explored, coaxing mine to join in. When she pulled away, she traced her fingertips down my body, a shivery trail forming in their wake. Lingering over the knot of keloid tissue, she whispered, "I love you. Trust me."
Phoebe pushed me back, stripped off my panties, and showered my body in kisses, her locks tickling my energized flesh. "Besides," her voice husky as she reached for the bedside drawer and retrieved her ill-gotten gains, "if there's no evidence, there's no crime, right?"
She lapped at my skin. Kissed my thighs alternately, before sitting up. Using a teaspoon, she dug a little and fashioned a powdery line on my bare mons. I shook, enrapt by her boldness. It still didn't feel right. I wanted to rattle some sense into her, and knew she had to get help, but her confidence was magnetic, always just the right side of rational.
With an unwavering gaze on mine, she crouched, kissed her way up from knee to thigh, snorted the powder from my sensitive skin, then devoured me as I clutched the sheets and called out her name.
The club was buzzing. Bodies everywhere, a sea of limbs and sweat as the DJ spun another relentless beat. Phoebe and I danced, cheek to cheek, damp skin pressed close, hands wandering. She leaned in and nipped my ear lobe, her voice clear despite the pounding rhythm. "Been thinking about what you said. Maybe it's time for a fresh start after all. A New Year's resolution to…" she swallowed, "kick the habit."
I pulled back in her arms. Searched her eyes. Hollered over the music, "For real?"
She nodded. "Starting tomorrow."
I kissed her, overjoyed. "Thank you."
"I can't do it on my own."
I stroked her hair. "Of course. I'm with you every step."
She beamed. "God I love you."
"Love you too."
We danced some more. Carefree. Another weight seemed to lift from my chest and I watched the way the sinew flexed around her muscles as she flung her hair and arms to the beat. So beautiful.
Phoebe leaned in again. "Bathroom break."
I nodded. Watched her thread her way through the crowd to the far corner and disappear. The DJ mixed another tune and a roar erupted, the crowd surging. I was swept up in the heady wave of pheromones and frenzy as clubbers threw shapes and shook off the old year ready to embrace the new.
It was only after a few more tracks and the DJ announcing ten minutes to midnight that I noticed Phoebe hadn't returned and began scanning the crowd for her. I set off in the direction she'd gone, squeezing between throngs of gyrating, slickened skin as I circled the dance floor a few times and ultimately approached the bar.
My heart tanked.
There she was. And next to her, Johnny The Red, flanked by two of his heavies. She caught my eye and gave a rapid shake of her head to warn me off but Johnny saw it and spun. His henchmen stepped away and hauled me into the group before I could react.
"Well well," he bellowed. "Look who also came to the party." He reached out and stroked my cheek. I twisted away. "This must be the Ayla I've heard so much about."
Phoebe spat. "Leave her alone. It's me you want."
Johnny sneered. "Yes it is." He addressed me, eyes brimming with malice. "Did she tell you what she did? Hmmm?"
I looked away. Said nothing.
"This bitch stole from me. Thought I wouldn't notice." He reached out to twist her arm behind her back and she winced. "Thieving little slut."
I glared at him. "Let go of her!"
He seemed amused. Passed his attention from me to her and back again, a flicker of recognition forming. "Oh look at this, boys. They're more than just friends." He guffawed. "Awww, lez bee special fwiends."
Even over the thud of the beat, my "Fuck you," carried venom. Enough that a few clubbers close by paid us brief attention.
His amusement never wavered. Cocked his head. "She's ever such a good girl you know. When she isn't stealing. Did she tell you how appreciative she is that I can hook her up with powder?" He shivered theatrically. "So much sin those pretty lips have been wrapped around."
I slid my gaze to her, for validation that he was just goading us. Phoebe avoided my eyes and the bottom dropped out of my chest. A hollow numbness bit. How could she? Was her addiction far worse than I'd realized? Should I have stepped in sooner? Been stronger? Had I failed her after all? A tear pricked at the corner of my eye and I blinked it away.
Johnny hardly paused. "This is priceless, boys. What should we do with them?"
Phoebe begged first. "Let us go. We'll pay you back, right Ayla? We'll figure something out."
I wasn't listening. The music drowned everything, my knees weak. The strobe in the club kicked in, and everything around me freeze-framed. Sneers. Smiles. Snapshots. And just beyond our impromptu circle, a glimmer of recognition. The woman with the black eye shadow. She didn't register in my subconscious at first, but as I stared and she stared between the flashes, I gawped.
The DJ began hyping up the crowd with a countdown from ten, the strobes picking up speed, clubbers stamping and cheering as they joined in.
Johnny was still monologuing. Boasting: "Do you know why they call me The Red?" He pulled out a gun and pointed it at Phoebe's temple. "Because I see red and take red."
Everything rushed into focus. I screamed, "Nooo!" loud enough for a few nearby to react.
One of them yelled, "Gun!" grabbed his girlfriend and scrambled away, knocking me into the heavies who, in turn, stumbled into Johnny. His surprise registered a split second before mine as he caught me and the gun went off, masked by the commotion of the clock striking midnight.
I barely felt the bullet pierce the fabric of my crop top and enter my heart. It seemed impossible to consider I'd screwed up a second time. I'd done what I'd set out to achieve. At least, I'd lived life to the max. Six months of carefree loving with my soul mate. The heat of reciprocity. Had I done everything I could to counter earlier regret? Was my destiny fulfilled?
Johnny panicked, holstered the piece, and ran with his heavies in tow, leaving me to collapse to the floor. A circle of onlookers formed as Phoebe knelt and cradled me, tears splashing my face.
"God I'm sorry, baby. I'm so sorry," she chanted over and over, rocking me in her lap and stroking the plastered inky locks from my forehead. "This is all my fault. I never meant to hurt you. God. I wish I could change it."
Fumbling for her hand, I squeezed it tight. "Shhh. I love you."
My focus drifted. An intense cold frosted my collarbone. The mysterious woman had knelt beside us and laid a hand on my shoulder. Despite the continuing throb of the music and laughter and cheers, I could somehow hear her clearly, as if she was inside my head. "I'm supposed to be here for Phoebe, not you."
I tried to sit up as blood bloomed my top, but pain ripped through my chest. "I still… regret."
She gently nudged Phoebe's hand away and pressed her fingers to my temples, spanning my forehead. The intense freezing pain arced through my temporal lobe, forcing my eyes shut.
I gasped, took a final breath, and the world faded.