Smith Sullivan loved his fans. They'd supported him from the start of his career and had helped his movies gross nearly two billion dollars worldwide. Without them, he wouldn't be in San Francisco today, about to begin filming the most important movie of his career.
So, even though he had at least a dozen other important things to take care of before filming could begin, Smith headed straight toward the large group of women gathered outside the barriers his crew had erected around Union Square where they'd be filming today. Some of the women had brought their young children with them, but most of them were alone, and quite clearly available.
As he approached, he said, "Good morning," with a smile that held even as the crowd pushed in closer to him.
One smile and two simple words was all it took for a woman to reach out to shake his hand. She pressed a piece of paper with her name and phone number into his palm. She was dressed in a tight V-neck top and short skirt despite the cool fog hanging over the square.
"I'm so excited about your new movie, Smith," she purred. She ran her hand up his arm as if they'd met before, and knew each other well enough that he'd want her to touch him.
"Thank you ..." He paused waiting for her to say her name, since he'd never set eyes on her before this morning.
He smiled down at her. "I'm looking forward to you watching it, Brittany."
"Oh, I can't wait," she said in a husky voice. "And I want you to know that I'm free anytime while you're filming, if you want to talk about it. Or—" she licked her lips "—for anything else you want to do while you're in San Francisco."
Following her lead, one after the other, the women shook his hand and passed him their phone numbers while telling him that he was their favorite actor and that they'd seen all of his movies. This same scene had played out hundreds of times over the past fifteen years, and the truth was that if he'd still been in his twenties, Smith would have been more than happy to take his pick of the beauties back to his place for a night, a week or even longer if the woman was easy enough to be with.
But thirty-six was a long way from those early, wild years ... and he was tired of waking up next to naked women whose names he didn't remember, who had never made him laugh, whose families he'd never meet. What a contrast that was to the way so many of his siblings had recently found love. They all seemed to be getting married and having children. Every week he updated the screensaver on his phone with a new picture of his little niece, Emma. Soon, his sister Sophie would have her twins, and he couldn't wait to upload a picture of all three Sullivan babies.
Still, even after witnessing just how powerful real love could be, and just what amazing things could come from that love, it was hard to break the cycle. Because without those strangers in his bed, he was alone.
Alone in another hotel. Alone in another city. Alone in another country. Away from his family and friends. Surrounded by people who either wanted something from him, or treated him like a god rather than a man.
Yes, he could have his pick of these women, but he knew what they wanted: to date Smith Sullivan. And as the past couple of years had ticked by, part of him had begun to wonder if he would ever find a woman who not only meant something beyond a few hot hours between the sheets, but who also wanted him for more than his fame.
Of course, Smith was still a man. A very sensual man who adored women of all shapes and sizes. He knew that a few nights of hot sex didn't add up to much in the long run, but he would never be immune to beautiful women.
More specifically, he thought as Valentina Landon walked past in a thick, long wool coat to fight the early-morning chill, her eyebrows raised as she took in the women gathered and giggling around him, he was drawn to one woman in particular.
"Valentina," he said with the intention of making her stop in her tracks.
She turned to look at him without the slightest bit of the flirtatiousness that the two dozen women he'd just been speaking to had been pouring all over him. "Yes?"
"Do you and Tatiana have everything you need this morning?"
"Everything's perfectly in order, thank you," she said in a crisp voice. "Do you need anything from us before filming begins in—" she looked at the slim watch on her wrist "—an hour?"
"Just let me know if you or Tatiana have any problems, or need anything from me at all."
She nodded, her pretty mouth softening slightly as she said, "Thanks. We will." Unfortunately, just then her gaze caught the pile of telephone numbers that had been pressed into his hands, and her eyes narrowed in disgust.
And yet, as she walked away with her lips pressed together in clear disapproval, she was beautiful.
Smith turned back to his fans and thanked them all for their support one more time before heading back to the trailer that was doubling as his office during filming. Dumping the women's numbers on his desk without giving them a second thought, he grabbed his script and laptop and walked back out. He was just sitting down in the makeup trailer when his phone buzzed; the key electric was alerting him to a lighting issue that needed to be worked out before filming could begin.
It was just the beginning of what would be an incredibly busy day, on a set that was all his this time. And as Smith dealt with the first problem of what would surely be many before the day was through, he knew he wouldn't want to trade his career for any other. Not for the beauty of his brother Marcus's winery in Napa Valley, not for the thrill of Ryan's World Series wins pitching for the Hawks, not for the speed of Zach's race cars.
Smith couldn't wait to begin filming Gravity.
The young woman in the middle of the sidewalk was utterly beautiful, and yet, the way she moved, dressed, wore her hair with pink streaks, her makeup artfully smudged and dark around her eyes, gave her away in an instant as an overwhelmed early-twentysomething on her own in a big city for the first time. With wide eyes she took in San Francisco—the buildings, the traffic, the people rushing all around, the fog rolling in from the bay. For a moment, her mouth almost curved into a smile, but a flash of something that looked too much like fear held that smile back from her full lips.
A stray dog skittered over her cheap red plastic boots and the longing on the girl's face was almost painful as she knelt down to reach out to the mangy animal. Instead of coming toward her open hand, the dirty little dog turned and ran as fast as it could in the other direction.
Her big green eyes suddenly filled with the slightest sheen of tears, which were blinked away just as quickly. It was impossible not to wish that she 'd find happiness, and love, and everything else she 'd come to San Francisco for.
Down the street, a businessman dressed in a dark suit, impeccably tailored and very, very expensive, was talking on a phone and moving fast, faster than anyone else on the sidewalk. His conversation held his complete attention, his expression forbidding as he issued directives one after another in a hard voice. Everything about him spoke of his power ... and to just how closed off his heart was.
Fury crossed the man's face a beat before he spoke loudly into his phone, his entire attention turned to the conversation so that he didn't take notice of anyone on the street around him. There wasn't even the slightest pause in his gait as he kicked the girl who was still kneeling on the pavement staring after the dog who hadn't dared to trust her.
Thousand-dollar Italian shoes jabbed hard into her stomach, and as she cried out in pain, he finally stopped cursing into his phone, looked down at the dirty sidewalk and noticed her.
It was the ultimate picture of how far the girl had fallen. And yet, in that moment when she should have been cringing, her fear and sadness finally receded.
This time, she was the angry one, and even though the man had kicked her hard enough to shove the air from her lungs, she was young and agile enough to be back up on her feet and in the man's face fewer than thirty seconds later.
It didn't matter that she was so much smaller than he. It didn't matter that his clothes were worth more than what she' d managed to save over the past year working double shifts in the ice-cream shop in her hometown.
It didn't even matter to her that people had stopped on the sidewalk to watch the scene.
"Do you think you're the only person who matters?" she yelled at him. "Talking on your phone, ignoring everyone, kicking anyone who gets in your way?"
Before he could answer, she got closer and poked him in the chest.
"I matter, too!" Her mouth trembled now, just barely, but somehow she managed to get it under control as she repeated, "I matter, too."
Throughout her tirade, the man stared down at her, the phone still held to his ear, his dark eyes utterly unreadable. He was clearly surprised by what had happened. Not just that he 'd stumbled over her, but by the way she had sprung up to scream at him. And yet, there was more than surprise in his eyes.
There was awareness that had nothing to do with anger ... and everything to do with her incredible beauty, made even more potent by the flush on her cheeks and the fire in her eyes.
Everything that surrounded the two of them fell away as she searched the businessman's face for a reaction, but he was impossible to read—and on a sound of disgust, she pushed away from him and started to move back down the sidewalk.
But before she could get lost in the crowd, a large, strong hand wrapped around her upper arm and stopped her from getting away. She whipped around to shake him off. "Get the he—"
His voice resonated with genuine regret—deeper, truer, than anyone who worked with him might have thought he was capable of feeling. Even, perhaps, the man himself.
Bravado had been all that held the young woman together. She did not know that this was a man who had never apologized to anyone for anything in his life. Hearing his words, she lost hold of the strength she 'd been clinging to by her fingernails.
Her first tear had barely begun to fall when she finally pulled herself free and started running through the crowds, intent on getting away from the man whose apology had touched her despite her anger.
The man's deep voice called out to the girl as she pushed through the crowd. She was small and fast and he lost her at the busy Union Square intersection. The pink streaks in her hair were the last thing he glimpsed.
As the rest of the world rushed around him, most people either talking or texting on their phones, their attention on anything but the people around them, the man stood perfectly still.
And utterly alone.
* * *
Valentina Landon held her breath until "Cut!" rang out. Moments later, applause and cheering came from the crew who had been held spellbound by the scene.
Somehow she got her hands to move, to come together in a basic approximation of clapping, but she was too moved by what she'd seen to put anything behind it. That had been the first scene on the first day of photography for Gravity. The story had immediately grabbed her gut and twisted it hard. Smith Sullivan had not only written the screenplay, but he was also directing, producing and starring in the film.
Tatiana Landon, Valentina's younger sister, was an incredibly talented actress with ten years of experience behind her. She'd been hired for dozens of TV episodes, had shot a couple of sitcom pilots over the years and, most recently, had played important supporting roles in two feature films. But Gravity was her first lead in a major motion picture.
Valentina had always been proud of her sister, but what they'd all just witnessed from Tatiana had been so stunningly good that Valentina was still having trouble catching her breath. And she knew why.
Smith Sullivan had brought out every last ounce of magic her sister possessed.
Just then, Tatiana moved back down the sidewalk toward Smith. Valentina could read her sister like an open book, and though she was smiling at the applause from the rest of the cast and crew, it was clear that the person she really wanted a comment from was Smith.
So much like the character he was playing, for a moment it was hard to read his face until he reached out to put his hands on either side of Tatiana's shoulders and said loudly enough for everyone to hear, "You. Are. Perfect." He was grinning widely as he planted a kiss on her forehead.
Tatiana blinked up at Smith, pleasure and pride mixing with the stars in her eyes a moment before her lovely face broke into a blinding smile.
In the span of one terrible heartbeat, the ground fell away from Valentina's feet as she watched the interaction between her sister and the movie star ... and every one of her fears for her sister's welfare pushed to the forefront.
She couldn't forget the way he'd flirted and charmed the legion of female fans who had waited to catch a glimpse of him just outside the set earlier that morning. He was the cliché of a movie star. The women had fawned all over him and she had no doubt that he'd loved every second of the attention, not to mention the dozen phone numbers he'd held in his hand. Valentina had no trouble imagining just how giddy with anticipation the women were over whom he would pick to warm his bed tonight.
Like hell if it was going to be her own sister.
So when Smith went to watch playback, Valentina didn't think, didn't stop to assess whether her actions were wise as she pushed through the crew to get to him.
"We need to talk. In private. Now."
She kept her voice pitched low and even, though she knew everyone would likely be gossiping about her nervy move within seconds of their leaving the set. They would all be wondering what possible beef she could have with the great Smith Sullivan.
Valentina headed toward Smith's trailer, which had been moved to the Union Square site for the first day of filming, and even though she hadn't waited for his reply, she could feel his larger-than-life presence behind her every step of the way.