UNDER THE ROSE EXCERPT

Oct 15, 03:13 PM

Do you believe
in love at first sight?

Fred had to be exaggerating about Elliott Samson. Before they left for the theatre, Cassie told him straight out, "You're so full of it. I don't believe a word of this." They continued to bicker in the cab. Elliott had a reputation as a partier, a womanizer and an all around badass. Fred relished being flamboyant and outrageous, proudly wearing his gayness as a badge of honor. Cassie couldn't picture Fred and Elliott in the same room, let alone as best friends. Fred's sensibilities made him a brilliant interior designer, but a rocker's BFF? Not so much.

After working with Fred for so long, Cassie knew a lot about him, actually more than she wanted to know. He'd hired her as a consultant before finally offering her a junior partnership at Chic Designs. Being nobody's fool, Fred recognized their collaboration had success flashing in neon pink. With Cassie as the architect and Fred's eye for aesthetics, they'd already landed several high-end clients. Their long hours and hard work had paid off. During all that time together, he'd never mentioned Elliott.

When Fred waved a couple free tickets under her nose yesterday, she suggested he impress one of his boyfriends with the extra opening night seat. She'd made a big mistake by telling him she had laundry to do. He nagged incessantly, bitching about how effed up her priorities were and how she needed to get a life, until she finally gave in and agreed to go. He chided her, "Stop being a doubting Thomasina, missy. I have lots of friends you don't know. Elliott Samson is one of them." He never wavered in his insistence that he'd been close to Elliott since elementary school, and that Elliott had personally invited them to join him after the show.

Elliott's performance blew Cassie away, and removed any doubt that he might be all hype and no substance. He really was a rock star, owning the stage from the moment he walked onto it until the end of the third encore. Even after the house lights came up, the standing-room-only crowd chanted for more. By the time they worked their way out of the theatre, there were already several hundred fans waiting behind barricades at the stage door.

Fred took her hand and tried to edge his way through the mob. He yelled "Excuse me!" several times. It had no effect whatsoever. They couldn't move forward or go back. The crowd had closed in behind them.

"Great, we're stuck." Cassie turned as much as she could and nearly elbowed the woman behind her in the stomach. "We can't even do a u-ey and go home."

"Dearie, we aren't going home. We're calling the Marines."

"Sure we are. Maybe we should call out the National Guard, too."

"You'll see." Fred took his phone out of his jacket and dialed.

"Hello, darling . . . Yes, I know you put us on the list, but we're stuck in the crowd . . . We're outside behind the barricade and can't get to the door . . . All right. I'll wave my handkerchief over my head so he sees us." Fred put his phone back in his pocket and took out his monogrammed hankie.

"Who did you call?"

"Who do you think? He's sending someone to rescue us."

"I mean, who answered the phone?"

"He did. You don't think he answers his own phone?" Fred glanced around. "You know, I could get a frigging fortune for his number in this crowd."

"Shhhhh! For crying out loud, we'll get trampled if anyone hears you."

Fred leaned in close to her ear. "How much would you pay for it, love?"

"Will you please stop? This guy is so out of my league. If he really did invite us backstage, it's because of you, not because of me."

"Oh, my pretty, I think not. After I told him about you, he wanted to meet you. That's why he gave me two excellent house seats for tonight, so I would bring you to his show." Fred waved his hankie over his head when he spotted a burly man coming out of the stage door.

Cassie folded her arms across her chest and stared at him. "This is news! What the devil did you tell him?" Obviously, Fred forgot to mention he'd had this conversation.

"This and that, and some other things." Fred continued to wave, bringing to mind a damsel waving her handkerchief at a passing knight. "Oh, would you look at him? Remember Squash in Victor/Victoria? This one looks just like Alex Karras."

The beefy man saw Fred waving and came over to the barricade. He yelled over the heads of the crowd, "Fred and Cassie?"

Fred shouted back. "That's us."

With the authority of someone from the inner circle, their brawny liberator took charge. "Move to the side folks, people coming through." He used his arm as a dividing point in the crowd and yelled again. "Make a path and let these people through."

Fred grabbed her hand again. "It's now or never." This time, when he shouted "Excuse me," the people that wouldn't budge earlier shifted slightly. He dragged her though a crack in the crowd barely big enough for one person, let alone two. As they approached the barricade, Cassie realized they were completely fenced in.

"I can't crawl over that thing in a suit." They'd left from the office, she didn't have time to go home and put on concert clothes.

"Not to worry, dear. Mr. Man is moving it for us."

Sure enough, their new friend had unlatched a section of the metal barricade and pulled it out just enough for them to squeeze through. Their successful escape brought a round of applause from the onlookers, as well as a few shouts of, "Take me in with you!"

After he replaced the makeshift gate, the fellow took them inside. "Why didn't you folks use the door beside the stage? That's a hell of a lot easier to get to than this one?"

"Elliott said use the stage door. I thought he meant the one outside."

"The stage door is inside. They call this the back door and the alley out there the catwalk. Elliott will work it later. He always signs autographs and poses for pictures after a gig. The girls love him."

Cassie muttered, "So I've heard." Fred pinched her arm. "Ouch! What was that for?"

"Because I'm supposed to be the bitchy one, not you." He patted the top of her head. "Be nice, dear."

Cassie pushed his hand away. "I don't know how I let you talk me into this, I just want to go home and do my laundry."

Fred ignored her. Instead he asked their companion, "What's your name?"

"I'm Gus, Elliott's tour manager."

"You're Gus? My word, I had no idea. Elliott told me all about you." From the look Fred gave Gus, Cassie wondered if his resemblance to Squash went beyond appearance.

"He told me all about you, too, said you two grew up together."

Fred pointed at Cassie. "Tell her that. She still doesn't believe it."

Gus rounded a corner and stopped beside a sign that read Dressing Rooms. The arrow pointed down a narrow staircase. "From the sounds of it, you're as close to a brother as Elliott has."

"I told you." Fred pursed his mouth and stuck out his tongue at Cassie.

Gus interrupted. "Save that for later." This time, Gus gave Fred a once over. They definitely had more than Elliott in common. "C'mon, the man is waiting for you."

Fred and Cassie followed Gus down the narrow, dimly lit flight of stairs. Cassie noticed it looked more like the basement of an abandoned building than it did a Broadway theatre. The dreary hallway needed some showbiz glitz--funky track lighting, a fresh coat of paint and show posters would give it some razzle-dazzle.

From around the corner, she heard the sounds of a party in full swing. It suddenly hit her. Not only was she about to meet this larger than life star, there would probably be other big names in there. Talk about being a fish out of water! What the hell would she say to them? She abruptly stopped. Fred ran into her.

"Slamming on the brakes without signaling is asking to be rear-ended. What's wrong?"

"Since he's your friend, maybe you should do this yourself. I'd rather just go home."

Gus heard her. "No way, sweetheart. Elliott told me he couldn't wait to meet Fred's friend Cassie. He'll hand me my ass if I let you leave."

Fred threaded his arm though hers. "You heard the man. For my sake, help him keep his ass."

Gus held Cassie's other arm and took a conciliatory tone. "Did you like the show?"

"Of course I did, Elliott is incredible."

"Tell him that. If after you meet him, you still want to leave, I'll get you out to the street. Deal?"

"How can I say no with the two of you holding me here?" She pointedly stared at Fred. "If he's expecting some sort of glamour-puss, he's going to be really disappointed."

"Gus, do you think Elliott will be disappointed?"

"Hell, no. I think she's exactly what he needs."

"So do I."

Cassie felt like Dorothy being led toward the Wizard of Oz's chamber. As they approached the dressing room, the too loud laughter spilled into the hall. Another muscular member of Elliott's entourage stood at the door screening people. When he saw them with Gus, he gave them a thumbs-up and waved them in.

Cassie had another flash of Dorothy stepping from a black and white world into the color-filled Land of Oz. They left the drab tenement-like hallway behind and entered a narrow room awash with color and light. The bulbs around the long mirror made the bright red walls glow. There were notes of congratulations stuck on the mirror and bouquets of flowers lined the countertop.

At least a dozen people already filled the narrow space. Another woman came in behind them and brusquely passed, bumping into Fred. Cassie stepped back to let her through and nearly knocked over an open bottle of champagne on the counter. Thankfully, Fred caught it, and set it back beside an elaborate flower arrangement, out of harm's way.

The tall blonde stopped to speak to Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman. Of course Cassie recognized her. Brenda Leland's picture was everywhere. Cassie even saw her in an ad on the side of a bus this morning. It didn't matter that the critics panned her last couple movies. The paparazzi loved her, and so did the gossip columnists.

"Fred, do you see who that is?"

"I see. What I don't see is Elliott. Gus, where is he?"

"He's in here somewhere. I'll find him." Gus navigated through the visitors toward the back of the room.

Fred didn't seem at all impressed by the familiar faces, but Cassie certainly was. She never expected to see Brenda Leland. Supposedly, Brenda and Elliott hit the skids and left tire marks.

Cassie poked Fred in the side and whispered, "What is Brenda doing here? Didn't she have a big fight with Elliott in a restaurant a few days ago?"

"You've been watching too much Access Hollywood. Try turning on PBS, you'll learn more."

"Smart ass. I saw it on the CNN website. They even showed her bitch-slapping him."

"It's terribly sad to hear CNN reports tabloid news. Don't believe everything you read."

"Are you saying they didn't have a fight?"

"Not the way it was reported. I can't say anymore, I promised Elliott." Fred leaned forward straining to see. "There he is, back there by that costume rack changing clothes."

Fred grabbed her hand and pulled her through the assemblage of guests. With a barely audible, "Pardon me," he dragged her right in front of Brenda, and proceeded to claim the space closest to Elliott. Cassie flushed with embarrassment. She couldn't believe Fred had been so rude. Her cheeks got even hotter imagining her freckles popping out like crimson polka dots. She barely had time to collect herself before she stood face to face with Elliott Samson.

He was still buttoning his shirt. The close-up pictures Cassie had seen didn't adequately capture Elliott's rugged masculinity, his unruly mop of dark brown hair framed a chiseled face that would've made Rodin take notice. She expected him to be attractive, she didn't expect him to be this striking.

"Well, hello there! Glad to see you finally made it." He shook Fred's hand, then hugged him. "Sorry I didn't explain which door to use."

"No harm done, Gus saved us from your groupies." Fred wasted no time with pleasantries. "Elliott, this is Cassie Fitzgerald. Cassie, may I introduce my friend Elliott Samson?"

The man Cassie watched mesmerize a packed house less than an hour ago now took her hand. It wasn't so much a handshake as it was holding her hand in his. "What a pleasure to finally meet you. For Fred to talk about a woman as much as he has you . . ." Elliott smiled before he continued. "Well, let's just say that's very unusual."

It was hard to concentrate with Elliott holding her hand. Cassie forced herself to focus and be gracious, and to stop wondering how much his perfect teeth had cost. "Sounds like Fred might have gone a bit overboard, but thank you. I really enjoyed the concert, it was good of you to invite us." That must have sounded incredibly lame, but it's the only thing she could think to say.

"I'm glad you agreed to come. From what Fred told me, it was a hard sell."

"Fred talks too much." Cassie hadn't meant to blurt that out. "No offense to Fred, of course."

Cassie expected Fred to jump in with a zinger. When he didn't, she turned to see why. Fred and Gus were both watching Brenda, who had her eye on Elliott. Almost too casually, Gus walked over to the counter and picked up an unopened bottle of champagne. His position effectively blocked Brenda's view of Elliott. While tearing off the gold foil, he quietly said, "Boss, do you know she's here?"

"Who?"

"Brenda."

Elliott's grip on Cassie's hand tightened. "You're fucking kidding me. Who let her in?"

"Not me. She must've bullshitted her way in." Gus popped the stopper and filled two flutes. He gave one to Cassie and the other to Fred. Cassie now had a glass of champagne in one hand and Elliott's hand in the other.

"How the hell am I going to avoid her in here? I have to say hello to everyone. The last thing I want is another public pissing contest."

Fred stepped into the middle of the fray. "Elliott, we've got your back. I'll go talk to her, take Cassie with you and make the rounds. Cassie, stick to him like glue, don't let Ms. Psycho Bitch corner him."

Elliott smiled. "Go for it, Fred. Use your charm to win her over. That'll buy me a little time." Then he said to Cassie, "If you'd rather not get involved, I certainly understand."

Fred looked angry. Cassie could tell he was ready to take Brenda out if she started anything, and with his sharp tongue, it wouldn't be pretty. It seemed this brother thing might be for real, he wanted to help Elliott. It startled her to realize, so did she.

"I'll walk with you, if it'll keep you out of trouble. Tell me what to do."

Before he answered her, he glanced at Fred. "Good call, buddy."

Behind her, she heard Fred say, "You should know by now I'm always right." Cassie wondered if they were talking about more than Brenda.

"Cassie, all I want you to do is agree with me. Jump in and follow my lead if you want, but don't contradict me. Are you cool with that?"

"I'm cool with it. Just don't tell anyone I'm having your baby."

Elliott's grin wiped the tension from his face. As Fred passed by on his way to intercept Brenda, he patted Cassie's back and whispered, "I knew you'd come through. Just be yourself, that's all he wants." Again, the implication sounded deeper than the impromptu ruse.

The outsider feeling faded as Cassie walked with Elliott. Despite the specter of unpleasantness in the background, he seemed completely at ease and cordial. First, he introduced her to his agent, then to his record producer. There were several people there from his label, all of which chatted briefly, then left. Cassie didn't say much more than hello to them. All the while, Elliott held her hand.

His game plan became obvious. One by one, the business associates and peripheral well-wishers left. Brenda, Danny and Rhea were all laughing at something Fred had said. Since Fred still had Brenda occupied, Elliott approached the last group standing by the door. Cassie took a deep breath. The man drinking champagne straight from the bottle she'd almost knocked over was Bono. He was talking to the guys in Elliott's band.

Bono saw Elliott coming. "Hey, man! Good to see you again. Great show. Looks like you've got a winner."

Elliott shook his hand. "Thanks for coming. Sorry I didn't make it over here sooner. You know how it is, gotta say hello to everybody."

Cassie had been sipping her champagne as they walked. Her glass was nearly empty. "Looks like your lady needs a refill." Bono filled her glass from the bottle he'd been drinking.

"This is Cassie Fitzgerald. Remember my friend Fred? This is his new business partner." Cassie wondered if Fred had also forgotten to mention he'd met Bono.

Bono pointed to Fred. "That's him over there, isn't it? The decorator?"

Cassie corrected him. "He's an interior designer, one of the best."

Bono clanked her glass with his bottle. "What does that make you?"

"Irish, same as you." The champagne had done its job. She didn't care she'd just snapped one back at Bono.

"What with a name like Fitzgerald and that 'feckin red hair, you wear it on your sleeve."

"And wear it well, I do!" She proudly let her Irish accent be heard.

"Where are your people from?"

"Galway, Dad's whole family lives there. My mum's American."

"Dublin here."

"I know." Cassie couldn't believe she'd struck up a conversation with Bono. "When Dad retired, my parents moved back to Galway. I visited them a few months ago and spent some time in Dublin before coming back. I feel at home in Ireland."

"It's in our blood. You can never take Ireland out of the Irish. Maybe we should grab Elliott and find ourselves a pub." He held up the champagne bottle. "I could use a Guinness after this."

While she'd been talking to Bono, Elliott stepped to the side to thank his band for a terrific show. Like a hawk circling its prey, Brenda picked that moment of vulnerability to go in for the kill.

Cassie heard a female voice beside her say "Elliott, could I talk to you privately for a few minutes?" Elliott turned around, and Cassie found herself standing between them. Fred raised his arm and pointed to Elliott. He wanted Cassie to claim him.

As though she hadn't heard Brenda, Cassie pivoted and grabbed Elliott's arm. "Elliott, Bono needs a Guinness and asked us to go with him. It sounds like fun."

Elliott took his cue and ran with it. "I already told the driver to order us a pepperoni pizza and get some beer, so we can eat while riding around the city." He took her glass and set it on the counter, then brushed her hair back with casual intimacy.

That threw Cassie. Fred knew she loved New York at night, and that pizza ranked number one on her favorite food list. Could he have told Elliott that? Or was it just an off-the-cuff coincidence? Remembering not to contradict him, she agreed. "We can still do that. One Guinness won't take long."

Without realizing he moved the escape plan along, Bono interjected, "I wouldn't argue with her, mate. Redheads always win, especially the Irish ones."

"Hey, I know when to surrender. Maybe you can help me sign autographs on the way out." Almost as an afterthought, he acknowledged Brenda. "I'm sorry. Did you want to ask me something?"

Cassie could see the talons come out. "I need to talk to you, alone. That's why I came tonight. I thought we could go some place once everyone leaves."

Elliott calmly answered, "I've already made plans with Cassie. It's not in the cards tonight, I'm afraid."

Fred picked up the thread. "I'm going with Danny and Rhea to a club in the Village. Why not come with us, Brenda? We'll get Danny some Limoncello. We all know how much he loves it."

Elliott laughed. "Hey, Danny, I heard Clooney's in town. Maybe he could meet you there."

"My house is filled with Limoncello, I pimp my own brand of it. Goddamn, bitches, enough with the Limoncello."

Never one to be upstaged, Fred took out his handkerchief and dabbed his eyes. "How will I face my friends at the gym tomorrow? I could've bragged I did Limoncello shots with Danny DeVito. Who cares if I drink Chivas?" Fred feigned a sob.

Rhea slapped Danny's arm. "Now look what you've done. You made him cry."

"Oh, for Christ's sake! All right! Let's go do Limoncello shots."

Fred perked right up. "Oh, goody. I'm even more adorable when I'm drunk. Gus, you have to come along to make sure I get home safely."

Gus smiled. "That's one of my specialties. I'll be happy to take you home."

"I was hoping you'd say that."

While Fred's over the top theatrics had everyone's attention, Brenda quietly walked toward Elliott. She stopped right in front of him, so close Cassie could see the wrinkles that her makeup didn't quite hide. Elliott put his arm around Cassie's waist and pulled her closer, almost using her as a human shield.

Brenda filled the silence that followed Fred's diversion with a direct question. "If not tonight, then when can I see you?" She was putting Elliott on the spot. No one could deflect this one. He had to answer her.

"I told you I'm done with this, Brenda. It's time to move on."

"Because of what happened at Le Cirque?" Brenda traced a line down Elliott's cheek, the same spot where she had slapped him. "That was just a lover's quarrel."

Elliott pushed her hand away. "Lover's quarrel my ass! You fucking followed me in there and deliberately made a scene. I'm tired of this bullshit, Brenda. It's over."

From what Cassie had read on the Internet, this sounded similar to how things got out of hand at the restaurant, and exactly what Elliott said he wanted to avoid. She could feel his fingers digging into her side. Another explosion was building. The impulse to intervene overwhelmed her good sense.

Cassie put her hand on Elliott's chest. "I think it's time to leave. You promised me there wouldn't be any more incidents."

Elliott took a deep breath that turned into a sigh. "You're right, and I promised myself that, too." He turned away from Brenda and spoke to Bono. "We'll have to take a rain check on that Guinness. I need some time alone with Cassie. I'm sure you understand."

"Not a problem, Elliott. Maybe we can get together before I leave town."

Elliott waved at his band. "I'll talk to you guys tomorrow. Meet me here at seven. I want to go over a couple things . . . Danny, tell Fred where you're staying. I'll give you a call tomorrow."

"If I do Limoncello shots tonight, I'll probably be sleeping tomorrow." Danny poked Rhea in the side. "The wife says it's the best way to keep my mouth shut."

Elliott managed a smile. "No worries. If you're sleeping one off, I'll leave a message." Gus stood beside Fred, keeping a watchful eye on Brenda. Elliott got his attention. "Gus, can you take everyone out through the theatre? I gotta go out back."

"Sure thing. I'll call the driver and let him know you're on the way." He grinned and added, "I'll also make sure he ordered that pepperoni pizza."

Elliott completely ignored Brenda as he led Cassie to the door. Brenda grabbed Cassie's arm. "Enjoy it while it lasts, honey. In a few days, he'll find another bimbo wherever he found you. He'll be fucking her by next week."

Cassie shot back, "My name is Cassie Fitzgerald, and speaking of bimbos, Elliott told me he's sworn off them after what happened with you." She shook her arm free of Brenda's fingernails.

Fred chimed in, "Isn't that funny? He told me the same thing. Now, I understand why." If Fred opened fire, he'd take no hostages.

Before this escalated into a screeching catfight, Elliott stepped in. "We're outta here folks. Thanks again for coming." He hustled Cassie out the door and wasted no time getting upstairs.

When they reached the hallway, Cassie saw the fellow who had been outside the dressing room standing by the back door.

Elliott asked him, "Stan, did any press show up?"

"You got a bunch of photographers and a couple camera crews waiting. Someone tipped them off Brenda is here. They expect you to come out with her."

"She probably called them herself, like she did at Le Cirque. How the fuck did she get in? Doesn't this goddamn theatre have any security?"

"The stage manager brought her downstairs. Brenda told him you called and asked her to meet you in your dressing room. You didn't call her?"

"Hell, no! I don't want Brenda anywhere near me, even if I have to get a restraining order to stop her. You'll be looking for another job if she gets past you again."

Rather than being upset because Elliott chewed him out, Stan smiled. "That's the best news I've heard all day. I can't stand her."

"The membership to that club is growing." Elliott pointed to the door. "Cassie, if you go out there with me, you're going to have your picture plastered everywhere. I can't ask you to do that."

"Wouldn't it really piss off Brenda?"

"I'm sure it would, but this isn't your fight. I've already involved you more than I should have."

"The effin' bitch called me a bimbo. It's my fight now. Unless you don't want your picture with me, I'm going out there with you."

Elliott laughed. "You know, your hair just got redder?"

"Ask Bono about the Irish temper. It's in our genes."

"I can see that. All right, we'll do it. We'll give them a chance to get a few pictures, then I'll have Stan get you into the car. I need to sign a few autographs before I leave."

Stan looked like an NFL fullback. It suddenly dawned on Cassie. "Is Stan your bodyguard?"

"Stan's on my sound crew. When I need him to keep an eye on things, he does."

For a technician, he seemed awfully imposing, and he took protecting her seriously. "If the vultures come after you, be ready to make a dash for the car."

"The vultures? You mean the fans?"

"No, the paparazzi."

Elliott agreed. "When you come out with me instead of Brenda, they'll want to know who you are. Don't say anything, just head for the car. I'll deal with the reporters."

"Jeez, who knew being famous was so complicated?"

"Stick around, you're in for an education." Elliott gripped the doorknob. "Smile like it's the happiest day of your life, you're about to be center stage. Just remember--this was your decision."

He opened the door, took her hand and stepped outside. The crowd went crazy. It was as if they were giving Elliott another standing ovation in the alley. He smiled and waved. Cassie also remembered to smile, but refrained from waving.

A reporter shouted at Elliott, "Where's Brenda?" He didn't answer, he just shrugged his shoulders. All the while, the cameras clicked away. The same reporter then yelled, "Who's the redhead?"

Elliott pulled her close and whispered into her ear, "That's your cue to head for the car." He motioned for Stan to take her down the catwalk to the town car waiting on the street. As Stan escorted her, another reporter shoved a microphone at her. He wanted to know her name and relationship to Elliott. She said nothing. Stan picked up the pace and hustled her along. She could hear cameras clicking from the same crowd she had been stuck in earlier. More pictures had been taken of her in the last few minutes than throughout her entire life.

The driver opened the door and Stan helped her into the back seat. He leaned into the car and asked, "You okay, Cassie?"

"I'm fine, Stan. Thanks. Go back and check on Elliott." She didn't know what made her say that, or why she felt so protective about him, but she did.

Like a soldier on guard duty, the uniformed driver stood outside and waited for Elliott. The car had one-way tinted windows. She could see out, but the crowd couldn't see in. That gave her freedom to watch Elliott as he signed autographs and talked to fans. Stan followed a few steps behind. The reporter who went after Cassie cornered Elliott.

The camera crew blocked Elliott's path, then the reporter asked him a question. Cassie immediately tensed and wished she could hear what was being said. Elliott seemed okay, his smile and relaxed posture were that of a seasoned celebrity accustomed to spontaneous interviews. He continued to sign autographs and talk with the fans. As he inched toward the car, the interviewer and cameraman moved with him.

When Elliott approached the car, Cassie scooted over to the far side of the seat. The cameraman tried to angle himself to get some shots of Cassie. Stan stepped in front of him and blocked his view. Like clockwork, Elliott waved at the crowd, opened the door and jumped into the car. The driver slammed the door shut before anyone could take any more pictures, then ran around the car and quickly got in. Elliott leaned forward and said, "Ruben, get us the hell out of here."

Ruben started the car and merged with the traffic on the street. "You still want that pizza?"

"Hell, yes--and some beer! I'm starving."

Elliott shifted closer to Cassie. He picked up her hand and kissed it. "Thank you. You went above and beyond tonight. I appreciate it."

"Fred cares about you, I did it for him."

"Fred cares about both of us. That's why he arranged this blind date."

Cassie did a double take. "He said you invited us."

"I did, after he bitched me out."

"He what?"

"Fred called me the day after the Brenda battle. You probably know, it got a lot of attention. He gave me some tough love, and told me to stop acting like a frigging idiot."

"Are you serious?"

"Damn straight I'm serious. Fred thinks I've royally fucked up quite a few things lately and he let me have it."

"So you invited me to shut him up?"

"No, I invited you because I thought he was right. Now that I've met you, I'm sure of it."

Chapter Two

Ruben parked the car; actually, he double parked in front of a pizzeria. Elliott got his wallet and pulled out several bills. "Here, Ruben. Make sure you get yourself something, too."

"I ordered a stromboli with the pizza. You told me I'd be working overtime tonight."

Cassie waited until Ruben got out of the car before she asked, "What was Fred right about?"

"He said I need someone in my life that's interested in me, not in what I do."

"You think that's me?"

"Don't know, but I'd like to find out."

Cassie restlessly threaded her fingers through her hair. "Fred really outdid himself with this one. How much of tonight did he plan with you?"

"Everything except Brenda showing up. That definitely wasn't planned."

Talk about mixed emotions--flattery and annoyance didn't blend well. "Why didn't he tell me any of this?"

"I asked him to sit on it so I wouldn't scare you off." Elliott stuffed his wallet back into his trousers. "He said you almost didn't come."

"I have laundry to do."

Elliott laughed. "Jesus, that's a first! I've been blown off for a lot of reasons. Laundry has never been one of them."

"I need clean clothes. My underwear drawer is almost empty."

"Fred said you didn't jump for joy at the opening night invitation."

"What else did Fred tell you? It must've been some tap dance to talk you into this."

"Since this is sort of our first date, I wanted to take you someplace fancy like Chez Josephine or the Blue Water Grill, but Fred said you'd enjoy pizza and riding around the city more. He also told me you're the most genuine and honest person he's ever met."

Cassie smirked. "Man, he cleaned that one up. Translation, 'She's a hothead that tells me to go to fuck myself at least twice a day.'"

"The word he used was firecracker."

"Before we came backstage, he told me to be nice. He meant watch my mouth."

With exaggerated concern, Elliott looked around the car. "There's nobody here but us. What do you want to say?"

"All right, you asked for it. You seem like a reasonably intelligent person. How did you get involved with a skank like Brenda?"

Elliott didn't hesitate. "Publicity."

"Are you serious?"

"It's how the game is played. Her PR person called mine, and convinced him we would both get free press by being seen together."

"Are you telling me that restaurant fight was staged?"

"I wish it had been. It was for real. My press agent didn't do his homework. Brenda's heavy into coke, and these days, she's not playing with a full deck. By the time I realized it, she was already shopping for the engagement ring, and I went shopping for another publicist. I lucked out. Mitch Stevens agreed to take me on; he's one of the best PR people out there."

"So the publicity stunt backfired on you."

"It wasn't a stunt."

"What would you call it?"

"They're showmances, Hollywood's full of 'em. It's not the first one I've had, but it sure as hell will be the last."

"Damn! You've done this before?"

"It's part of it, Cassie. You gotta do whatever it takes to get your name out there."

"Your name is out there. I Googled you and got pages and pages of hits."

"How do you suppose that happens?"

"You're famous. People write things about you."

"Or, maybe I'm famous because people write things about me. It's the chicken and the egg question. I pay people to hatch some of those eggs."

"Sounds to me like you're saying everything I know about you is bogus." Cassie rubbed her temple. This whole experience had given her a headache, or maybe the champagne had. Either way, her head hurt.

"It probably is bogus, especially if you read it on the Internet." Elliott glanced out the window. Ruben hadn't come out yet.

"What about the music?"

"It's the one thing in my life that I grab onto and won't let go. Not for anything."

"Do you mind if I make an observation?"

"Please do."

"You don't have to try so hard to be famous, you are famous. You're also real. What I saw you do tonight wasn't phony. Nobody can fake that kind of passion."

Elliott leaned forward and rested his forearms on his knees. He didn't look at Cassie when he said, "You live with it long enough, you start to believe the image is all there is, and losing it means the music stops. You'll do anything to keep that from happening . . . even get involved with a skank like Brenda."

"How can anything out there stop your music? Didn't you sing before you had the image?"

"Sure I did. I've been singing since I was a kid. Fred knows."

"For some bizarre reason, Fred hasn't told me anything about you."

"He wants me to tell you. That's part of hooking us up. He thinks you'll see though the bullshit and make me be myself."

"Well, he's right about not believing the bullshit." Cassie saw Ruben coming out of the pizzeria. "Here comes the food. Don't know if you want to keep talking about this."

"I trust Ruben, but this is a little too personal." Elliott sat up. "Maybe sometime soon we can have a quiet dinner with just the two of us."

The light in Elliott's eyes had dimmed, he actually looked sad. She'd glimpsed this part of him on stage tonight, with a few of the more gut-wrenching songs he sang. Cassie felt bad for him, he actually seemed lonely.

"Tell you what. I'll cook you dinner if you agree to my conditions."

Before she could continue, Ruben opened the back door. "Here you go." Elliott slid closer to Cassie so Ruben could set the pizza box and his stromboli on the seat. "I have to run back in for the beer. I couldn't carry it all."

"Can you get me a Coke?" She took a couple dollars out of her jacket pocket and reached over Elliott to give them to Ruben.

Elliott grabbed her hand. "What are you doing?"

"I'm giving him money for a soda. I have a headache. I don't want any beer."

It startled her when Ruben laughed. "Lord, almighty! Don't let her get away." He slammed the door shut without taking it.

Cassie stared at the closed door. "What's so funny about wanting a soda?"

"Wanting a soda isn't funny. Wanting to pay for the soda, well, that's another story."

"What? Because you have money, I shouldn't pay for something myself? That's total bullshit!"

"Cassie, you're my guest. I can pay for the Coca-Cola." Elliott took the cash she had in her hand. "But if it will make you feel better, I'm happy to accept this." He carefully folded the dollar bills and put them into his shirt pocket. "Now, what are the conditions? I want that home cooked dinner." His eyes once again had a playful shine.

Elliott could be dangerously disarming. She'd lost her train of thought when he yanked her chain. His question got her groove back. "If you come for dinner at my place, absolutely no one is to know about it, no press, no photographers, no driver, nobody."

He interrupted. "Where the hell do you live? If I'm walking, it better be close by."

"I live on the Upper West Side. I just mean no chauffeured car that would draw attention. You can take a cab."

"Where on the Upper West Side?"

"West End and Eighty-first, right down the street from Zabar's."

Elliott smiled so broadly she could count his perfect teeth. "Well, isn't that something!"

"What?"

"We're practically neighbors. I just bought a coop on Eighty-fourth and Riverside, in the same block where Rachmaninoff lived way back when."

Cassie didn't believe it. "C'mon. If you lived so close, Fred would've at least told me that."

"Fred doesn't know yet. The board approved my application after I started the tour. They agreed to wait until I got to New York to finish the paperwork. I signed the contracts two days ago and picked up the keys."

"Are you there now?"

"Sort of. Here comes Ruben. Ask him if I moved in already."

Cassie didn't understand what he meant. Ruben quickly jumped into the car and handed Elliott the bag of beverages. "There's a cop coming. We need to move before I get a ticket."

While Ruben got them back into the flow of traffic, Elliott served the pizza. It smelled wonderful. He gave her a slice on a paper plate, then got her a Coke out of the bag.

"Christ, Ruben, how much beer did you get? I'm the only one drinking it."

"I got plenty of beer and soda. You can take what's left home."

That gave Cassie an opening. "Ruben, Elliott told me to ask you if he moved into his new place. What's up with that?"

"I moved him in yesterday, if you want to call it moving." He stopped at a traffic light and Elliott handed him his stromboli.

"Tell Cassie what we did."

"Yesterday morning, he checked out of that hotel right over there." Ruben pointed to the Crowne Plaza in Times Square. "I got a message to pick him up and take him uptown." The light changed. Ruben paused his story to ask Elliott, "Where do you want to go?"

"Take the tunnel to New Jersey."

Cassie nearly choked on her pizza. "New Jersey? Why are we going to New Jersey?"

"To park and look at the Manhattan skyline. I used to live in New Jersey. The view of New York is the only reason I can think of to go back there." Elliott grinned. "I said that to Springsteen at the Grammys last year and thought he would deck me."

The name dropping didn't faze Cassie. "I have to work tomorrow. I don't want to be out all night."

"You won't be. Across the river and back is a short trip. It'll give Ruben a chance to finish his story."

"Do you know you're a presumptuous son of a gun?"

"I've been called worse." Ruben turned onto Forty-second Street, heading toward the Lincoln Tunnel. "So what's it going to be? New Jersey or home?"

Cassie studied her half eaten pizza. Each pepperoni slice held a small puddle of oil. She loved those little grease pools, even if they were bad for her. More to herself than to Elliott, she said, "I guess sometimes, you just have to say, 'What the hell.' Let's go."

"All right! Ruben, you heard the lady. Find us some place to park where we can see the city."

"Ruben left me with a cliffhanger. I want to know the rest of the story."

"Elliott didn't tell you he's living in an empty apartment?"

"No. How empty is empty?"

"We're talking walls, ceiling and floor, nothing else."

"It's not furnished?"

"Well, it came with some kitchen appliances, and now he has a mattress and two lawn chairs."

"That's nuts! How can you possibly live in a place with no furniture?"

"I've been living in hotels for so long, I wanted to sleep in my own place last night."

"With no bed?"

"I would've slept on a pile of clothes on the floor, but Ruben remembered a jingle for a mattress place that has same day delivery."

"Yeah, the only way I could remember the phone number was to sing the damn commercial." Ruben chuckled. "Can you believe that? I sang to him."

"He sang me the number and I called them on my BlackBerry. I ordered a memory foam mattress, pillows and bedding. Pretty amazing that they can deliver all that in a few hours."

Ruben picked up the story. "Yeah. While Elliott waited on the delivery, I found a hardware store and got him a couple lawn chairs and a few dishes. That's it. Except for the suitcases and laptop he had, there's nothing else."

Elliott slapped another piece of pizza on her plate. "That mattress I got is damned comfortable, kinda like floating on a cloud."

"Tell her about the towels."

Elliott raised his beer can in a mock toast to Ruben. "This guy keeps me honest. The towels . . .well, I sort of stole them from the hotel."

"Sort of my ass. He stuffed them into a pillowcase and put it on the cart with his luggage. The porter loaded it in the trunk with everything else."

"I'm not a total thief. I left a note in the bathroom saying I needed the towels and to charge me for them."

They had entered the tunnel. The echo chamber of car engines nearly drowned out Ruben when he said, "Hey, Elliott, can you hand me a can of Coke?"

"Sure thing, Ruben." Elliott opened the Coke, put a straw in the can, then leaned over the seat and put it in the cup holder. It surprised Cassie to see the familiarity between them.

"Does Ruben work for you like Stan and Gus do?"

"I rent Ruben when I'm in town. He works for a car service I use. They know when I call I want Ruben as my driver."

"It seems to me he did a little more than drive you around yesterday."

Even with the loud hum from the traffic, Ruben had no trouble hearing what she'd said. "I get paid by the hour if I'm driving or waiting. Elliott treats me good. I don't mind helping him out when he needs something extra done."

Cassie caught Elliott's eye. "He tips well, does he?"

"Hell, yes. Some of these rich shits squeeze a penny till it squeaks. Not Elliott. He's real people."

"You know something, Ruben, I think you're right about that." In the last few minutes, she'd seen someone she liked. Maybe going to New Jersey wasn't such a bad idea after all.

Since they were yelling in the tunnel more than talking, they sat quietly for a few minutes and ate. When Ruben exited the tunnel, he did a loop-de-loop on the ramp to the highway. At first, Cassie didn't know if they were going north or south. When she oriented and saw they were headed north, she guessed where they were going.

"We're going to Weehawken, aren't we?"

"Yes, ma'am, Pershing Road. It's the best view I know. I'll find a place to park and go have a smoke." Ruben seemed to know right where to go, and what to do once they got there.

Cassie wondered if Elliott had done this before. "Do you always bring your guests to Weehawken?"

"If you're asking who else I've brought here, that would be no one. The women I've known lately wouldn't be interested in seeing the city lights."

"Are you?"

"I'm interested in seeing the city through your eyes. I hope you're willing to share that with me."

"Why on earth are you interested in how I see the city?"

"We'll talk about that after I finish eating." Elliott nodded toward Ruben.

Cassie understood his hesitation, so she changed the subject. "My headache is better since I ate. I'll take a beer now."

"Note to self, when she gets a headache, feed her." He popped the top on a beer can. "Sorry, no glasses. The best I can do is a straw." He peeled the wrapper off a straw and stuck it in the can.

"I thought rock stars always rode in stretch limos with full bars." Cassie didn't mind drinking from the can, but used the straw anyway. In an offbeat way, it was a charming gesture.

"A sedan isn't as obvious. I only use a limo for red carpet entrances. The fans expect it."

"You don't like limos? I thought they were parties on wheels."

"Sometimes, they are. If you ever want to party in one, let me know."

For the first time during this ride, Cassie caught the hint of a come on. She didn't discourage it. "If Ruben drives, I might consider it sometime."

Elliott seemed surprised. "You would?"

"Maybe. It depends."

"On what?"

"On if I like you well enough to party with you. It's too soon to know."

"Jesus, no pressure there." He tossed his empty plate on top of the pizza box, then drained his beer and opened another one.

Cassie hadn't meant to upset him, but she must have. Even more frustrating, she couldn't ask him why until they were alone. Rather than shifting directions again, she asked Ruben, "Will we be stopping soon?"

"Pershing Road is coming up. I just have to find a place to park."

"Great. Thanks." The strain on Elliott's face troubled her, so much so she'd forgotten about the skyline across the river. She patted his hand. He half-smiled, but couldn't quite get the mask back on. Cassie could see something had really gotten under his skin.

Ruben found a parking space beside a small park on Pershing Road. They had a spectacular view of the city. "Elliott, call me when you're ready to go."

"I will, Ruben. Thanks." Ruben took the rest of his food and left them alone. He headed for a bench at the edge of the park.

Cassie shifted to better see Elliott. "Did I say something that pissed you off?"

"I'm not pissed."

"Well, something has you in a twist. All I said was it's too soon to know if I like you. For God's sake Elliott, I just met you."

"I don't know what you want."

"You think I want something from you? I don't want a damn thing. You invited me, remember?"

"You do want something, maybe not what the others wanted, but you want something."

"I don't know what the hell you're talking about."

"Do you give a shit that I'm Elliott Samson?"

"I came tonight because of Fred, not because I'm ga-ga over you, if that's what you're asking."

"Do you have any of my music?"

"No, but I listened to a song of yours on YouTube this afternoon." Cassie had no patience for this cat and mouse questioning. "Will you tell me what the bug is up your ass?"

"I don't know how to act with you. You're not a fan, you don't care that I'm a singer, you don't want publicity. What do you want?"

Cassie had an aha moment, and the pieces began to fall into place. "Fred told me just to be myself with you. He said that's all you want. That's all I want, too. Just be yourself."

"I don't know who that is anymore."

"Elliott, what happened to you?"

"Fred wasn't that gentle. He asked me if I planned to follow the fight with a sex tape of me and Brenda on the Internet. That would get us even more publicity."

"He thought you staged the restaurant thing?"

"He did when he called me. After tonight, I hope he gets how nuts Brenda is."

"I read about the fight on CNN. Fred said they didn't report everything, but he promised you he wouldn't talk about it."

Elliott leaned forward on his knees again and looked at the floor. "That call from Fred sucked. He reamed my ass good and let me know how low he thought I'd sunk. I had to tell him the whole sleazy story to convince him I had nothing to do with it. Even then, I wasn't sure he believed me."

"Well, I didn't believe Fred when he told me you two were friends. That street runs in two directions."

Elliott tilted his head and squinted. "Why didn't you believe him?"

"Jeez, you are out of touch. In case you haven't noticed, Fred is a queen."

Elliott laughed. "Yeah, I noticed. Got my butt kicked a few times defending him in high school."

"You did?"

"He hasn't told you any of this, has he?"

"No, he rarely talks about his life before New York."

"We were neighbors in West Milford. His mom taught me how to play piano. Feels like ancient history now, but that's how my music got started. I was still in grade school."

"He mentioned his mom gave piano lessons before she died, but I had no idea she had such a famous student."

"Fred played, too. We always did music. We were in school chorus together."

"Was he as gay then as he is now?"

"Well, he didn't mean to be. But he got picked on a lot, you know, the usual bullshit about being a fag. That effeminate thing, it's just the way he is."

"That didn't bother you? I would guess you were a jock."

"Yeah, I was. I went to college on a football scholarship and studied music." Elliott stared at his hands. "Always worried when I played. Nothing worse than a pianist with a broken finger."

"And Fred? Where did your friendship come from?"

"Fred was the only one who got how much I loved music. I found out I could sing in chorus. Got pulled out as a soloist almost right away. I'd go to his house to rehearse and his mom would play for me. After she got sick, Fred would accompany me and she would listen."

"Why hasn't he ever told me any of this?"

"Probably because he'd just as soon forget those days. They were tough for him. Did he ever tell you about the time he got jumped and ended up in the hospital?"

"No." Cassie wasn't sure she wanted to hear this.

"It was pretty bad. Some jerks nailed him on the way home from school. It started with the usual name calling, but this one asshole decided the faggot needed a lesson in manliness. He and a couple of his buddies beat the shit out of Fred, and left him unconscious on the street."

Cassie's eyes welled up. "God, Elliott, he never told me. That's brutal."

"I know. I went after the sons of bitches. I busted the ring leader first, then I got the other two. I let the whole goddamn school know that anyone smacking Fred around would answer to me."

Tears slid down Cassie's face, she couldn't stop them. "I'm sorry. I love him so much. It breaks my heart to think of him getting beaten."

Elliott handed her a napkin. "Me, too. Funny thing, I expected some serious shit at school for what I did, thought I might lose my chance at the scholarship over it. Know what happened?"

Cassie blew her nose before she answered. "No, what?"

"They gave me a slap on the wrist, just a couple days detention, didn't even get booted from chorus or the football team. The other guys got suspended for three days, and probation for the rest of the year."

"Didn't they arrest the Neanderthals?"

"The police interviewed Fred, but he didn't want to press charges. His mom was real sick then, and he didn't want to put his family through that."

"I'm glad he had somebody to stick up for him. He's a sweetheart, even if he is a pain in the ass."

"You're telling me! Every time I get caught pissing in the wind, I get a call. He must have all the gossip sites bookmarked. He's got some kind of alarm system going."

"Like what he did the other day?"

"No. The other day was different."

"How?"

"He was ready to write me off."

"Because he thought you faked that fight with Brenda?"

"Yup."

"What did you tell him really happened?"

"Before I left California, Brenda started the rumor that we were reconciling. She tried to contact me, and I ignored her messages. In the last message I got from her, she threatened to smear me with some pretty ugly shit. When I got to New York, she tracked me down and made that scene at the restaurant, I suppose to prove she meant it."

"You mean there might be more of this?"

"Who knows? She showed up tonight in her best 'I won't be ignored' mode. Thanks to you and Fred, she didn't get away with it."

"And all the press outside?"

"She either wanted a kiss and make up photo op, or another brawl." Elliott smiled and shook his head. "Instead, you'll be the new anonymous woman with me."

"Oh, boy!"

"Exactly! Welcome to my world."

Cassie glanced out the window. Ruben still sat on the bench, smoking a cigarette. The Manhattan skyline twinkled across the river. "Do you know I'm really comfortable? Seems to me I'm talking to a real person."

"You're easy to talk to."

Ruben tossed his cigarette butt on the ground and leaned back on the bench. "Looks like Ruben is pretty relaxed, too."

"He's made dozing an art form. I've seen him take cat naps more than once while waiting on me."

"Then we have a few minutes to enjoy the view. We've been talking so much I haven't been paying attention."

"We've got a lot more to talk about before we leave."

"We do? Like what?"

"Like that view . . . like can I hire you to make my apartment livable . . . like can I put my arm around you while we talk." He scratched his head. "There's something else. Oh, yeah. When's dinner?"

Of the list Elliott rattled off, one item glaringly stood out. "You don't have to buy my time. I'm sure Fred will be happy to help you out. You won't need me."

"If I hire Chic Designs, don't I get both of you? I thought you were partners."

"We are. But I don't want to feel like you're paying to see me. There's a word for that."

"Yeah, there is. It's called business. I've seen pictures of what you two have done. You're friggin' great together." Elliott held his arm out. "Before we go there, how about talking about this arm thing?"

"I have a question."

Elliott lowered his arm "All right."

"What do you want from me?"

"I told you, someone real in my life."

"To what end, Elliott? I'm not interested in a fling. The last thing I need is to fall for you and watch you walk away. Been there, done that. Not doing it anymore."

"Would you believe me if I told you I don't want a fling either?"

"Maybe."

"What would it take to make that a yes?"

"Time mostly, and patience."

"How about meeting me halfway?"

"Explain halfway."

"Give me a chance to show you I'm not an asshole." He raised his arm again. "And stop being afraid of me."

"I don't think you're an asshole and I'm not afraid of you."

"Prove it." He gestured with his raised hand for Cassie to move closer. "C'mon, I double-dog dare ya."

Ever wonder what it would be like
to fall in love with a rock star?

Find out

UNDER THE ROSE

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