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Anne Elliot paid the cabbie and entered the building housing rent-controlled, relatively cheap artists lofts, business offices, and the studios of Russelliot Productions. “Hi, John,” she waved as she passed security. She punched “up” on the elevator.
She wasn’t looking forward to the day. What little dialogue her character, Rebecca (Becky) Lindsey, had was filmed the day before. Today would be endless response shots to the dialogue of other actors. And she would also be one more body to bulk up the crowd for the huge party scene. For the past two days she had taken every opportunity to stay off camera so she could tug at the hideous green floral Alexander McQueen knock-off she’d been given. All the time wearing a pair of cheap high heels that hurt her feet.
The doors to the elevator slide open and she was relived to see she was making the ride to the sixth floor alone. When she’d first started as the innocent and fragile ingénue on the afternoon soap opera, For None But You Alone, Becky’s wardrobe been tailored to her slender frame. An important party scene would warrant a custom-designed dress with matching accessories. Back in the day, trendy designers vied to seeing their name roll on the closing credits.
In the early days of the show, Anne was the artless virgin, representing all that was good and moral in the fictional town of Kellynch Cove, Anytown USA. As the young lead, hers was the human face of a small coastal village, most noted for vacation houses and fishing shacks, which was quickly transforming to an up-and-coming arts community. The basis of the serial was the clash of the traditional, blue-collar solid citizens with modern, sleek sophisticates. For several years the show had been popular with all the right audiences, upper class women with money, college students with earning potential, and even a contingency of performance artists who could watch the show in the afternoons because they worked at night. Usually waiting tables.
After ten years, the show was losing ground with every demographic.
And, as everyone reminded her these days, Anne was no longer young and virginal. It was impossible to pass off innocence when over the years her character had been the victim of several attempted rapes, amnesia, an evil twin who turned out to be Becky’s split personality trying to kill her, a mysterious pregnancy, numerous broken engagements, one forced marriage, two murder trials—one ending in a conviction and a six-month stint in prison until being cleared of all charges—a brain tumor, and a stalker. A popular joke on all but the most loyal fan sites was that the mysterious pregnancy was due to alien implantation because Becky Lindsey and probably Anne herself were still virgins.
It wasn’t true, but just barely.
While Anne’s virtue was not untried, it wasn’t overused. “A woman with self-respect doesn’t pass herself around like a party favor,” was her mother’s favorite expression. Occasionally, Anne wondered what her mother would think if she knew how many celebrities started their careers with sex tapes. But then she would start wishing her mother had lived past the time when the World Wide Web was just about emails and the Dancing Hamsters. The fact was, sweet and endearing Becky was far more romantically active than Anne.
Anne entered Make-up/Hair. There were many times when the show employed extras who couldn’t read English so the sign of a winking, blue-eyed blond pointing to the door was supposed to show the way. For some reason, the girl’s outdated 90s makeup and outrageous, stylized flip annoyed Anne. She’d wait to mention it needing an update to her father until after his decision about whether to pull his advertising—therefore killing the show—had been made.
The glare of lights reflecting off the mirrors covering the wall above the counter was particularly aggravating today. On top of that, the place was like a chaotic prom night.
They were working on the last of the extras hired for the party scene. Some of them were doing their own makeup while hairdressers teased, brushed, and pinned their own hair or wigs. Most were wearing dresses as bad or worse than Anne’s. The extras came in early so the regular cast wouldn’t have to wait for their make-up calls. Anne noticed that a couple of them were wearing real designer dresses. For a while now she had been relegated to the back rows of scenes and storylines in favor of other, younger characters. This was the first time extras were more necessary than her.
“Hey.” Anne waved to one of the make up gals as she struggled to find a place for her coat and shoulder bag on the crowded rack.
“I’ll be with you in a minute, Anne.” Jane Smith called to her through a cloud of hairspray.
Anne nodded and leaned against the wall to wait. A few years ago she would have taken the opportunity to perfect her lines. That was in the days when she was carrying a principle storyline and it wasn’t unusual for her to have twenty pages of dialogue a night to memorize. That many pages put a crimp in her social life, but it had been worth it. Now, she had few lines and still no social life.
There was no sign that Jane would be ready for her any time soon so Anne got her attention and pointed to the catering table. Everyone was polite as she walked over. Polite and angry.
Her father’s money paid for the advertising that had kept the show afloat for the last fifteen years. Walter Elliot had bought the lion’s share of it just after Anne had come on the show. Now, in the mists of soap opera time, the legend was that he’d bought her the part of Becky Lindsey. Like the myths about her perpetual virginity, this wasn’t true either. However, to try and correct the error every time it was repeated made her look desperate, and guilty.
As usual, there were too many tempting choices so she examined every apple, chose the most perfect and made herself an espresso from the machine. She returned to the chaos of Make-up.
Just as she entered the room, Jane’s chair opened up and she was able to take a seat. Jane had been styling Anne’s hair since she’s joined the show nearly ten years earlier.
“This is a party scene. Real women do more to their hair than brush it and zap it with some hairspray.” Jane was teasing it a little to give it some lift, hoping to slip it by Anthony Poole, the director. “The guy is an idiot about women. No wonder your dad is dumping this relic.”
They looked at one another in the mirror. The reflection of the two of them was motionless while garish swirls of color passed back and forth behind them. Leave it to Jane to blurt out what everyone else in the cast and crew feared.
“He’s always yapping at me to ‘keep it simple for our simple girl.’” Jane broke the spell and started teasing Anne’s hair in earnest. “I’ll give the idiot ‘simple.’”
Anne’s head snapped back and stars danced before her eyes. “Ouch. You want to leave some of that on my head?” She could see that Jane was going to give Becky a real swinging updo, but she wasn’t sure she’d live to see the full results.
“I’ve won awards for my originality you know.” Jane leaned close and looked at Anne in the mirror. “Poole must think that Becky is like Sleeping Beauty: sexless and frozen in time.” She muttered as she dug through a drawer.
“Yeah, well … ” Anne couldn’t think of anything to say, but was saved when Jane stuck a peacock feather in her hair.
“We’ve always said that Becky’s styles were too little girlish. How about feathers—” She stuck a red, shiny comb at the base of the feather. “And Swarovski crystals?”
Unfortunately for Anne, the colors were just a shade or two off from the hideous green dress she would be wearing, but she was afraid to say as much to Jane.
Anne was again saved by an interruption. “Hey girls, I’ve got something to show you.” Alice Rook, a new girl from wardrobe came in with an iPad. “You are gonna love this.” She came up to the chair, handed Anne the tablet without saying anything and took a place behind the chair. “It was posted on You Tube last night.”
Feathers and crystals forgotten, Alice reached from behind and touched the screen. It burst open to a guy gyrating to a discordant Country Western tune. It took Anne a few seconds to realize that right there in her lap, with amazing picture quality and color, wearing nothing but a pair of chaps, a cowboy hat, and a smile, was a screen full of Frederick Wentworth.
Anne looked away, but not before seeing him and a cowgirl partner start a complicated reel of some sort.
“It was Texas Tornado night on Struttin’ With the Stars last night. They did a thing called ‘Bucks for the Blow,’ it’s a benefit for all weather related relief programs.”
Jane raised a brow. “That’s an unfortunate choice of name.” She laughed to herself as she went back to Anne’s hair.
Anne wondered just how many weather related relief organizations there must be in the Untied States.
“Rick and Renny danced a Virginia Reel,” Alice said, staring at the screen.
A Virginia Reel on a Texas-themed night was odd Anne thought.
Anne looked at the screen just in time to see Frederick rip his partner’s fringed skirt off and throw it into the audience.
“Now, if he’d just lose the chaps,” Alice said behind her. “Anne please,” she reached around and moved Anne’s hands so they could get a better view of the small screen. “Aaaaa!”
Anne couldn’t help herself and looked. There was Frederick swinging the chaps above his head while his partner smiling like a fool, slid between his legs. The music stopped and the crowd went wild.
At first glance, it looked like all he was left wearing was a red bandana and his cowboy boots. Then she was relieved to see that he was also wearing a pair of dark blue plaid boxer shorts.
“You must have the grace and sexuality of a Latin lover. You are seducing me with the dance, not lassoing a goat.” Renny Romanov pronounced her words slowly, with great emphasis when angry. She had been speaking very slowly all morning.
Rick Wentworth put up his hands in defeat. “Okay, time to stop.” He bent at the waist to catch his breath. “This routine is going to kill me.”
The studio in which he and Renny practiced had two mirrored walls and one wall of windows looking out onto busy Devonshire Boulevard. For a day or two an episode of Struttin’ aired, fans would gather outside and watch the practices. Today there were more people, particularly women, crowding the sidewalk than usual. He waved and gave them a crooked smile.
Renny waved as well. “I hate having to practice in front of an audience.” She did some arm stretches to keep warm. “They expect full costumes.” Renny had obliged the crowd with a sequined French cut leotard, leg warmers, and a brilliant silk scarf for a headband holding back careless blond curls.
Rick was wearing a plain sleeveless tee shirt, basketball shorts, and tube socks. Renny told him everyday he looked like a peasant. “The powers-that-be put the address out there so I guess we can’t expect they will leave us alone.” He looked up at her.
“Whatever. This routine is going to win us the competition.” Renny high-kicked and stretched her shoulders then took a bow. “I’ve been doing this show for four years and have never won the Golden Toe Shoe. You’re going to help me win it if it kills you.”
He straightened and took her hand. They did a quick succession of spins that ended with her bent backwards over his knee. He smiled for the fans. “Fine, just drag my dead carcass off the stage after they give us the statue.” If he lived so long.
“Deal.” She watched her reflection in the mirrored wall as she swivelled her hips and shook her shoulders. “You better remember that the next time you make wardrobe changes without talking to me.”
Telling Renny about his plans to wear the baggy boxers instead of the skimpy costume designed for the Virginia Reel dance set would have been like telling the director of Struttin’, Willy the Weasel. “I didn’t come on this show to bare it all. I went along with the shirts open to my navel and the peek-a-boo chaps, but the planned wardrobe malfunction was too much.” Thankfully there was only the live championship show to go. If he was to be on the show any longer, he was sure he’d wind up dancing in nothing but his skin.
“So, why did you come on the show, Wentworth?” An impeccable British accent reverberated off the glass and mirrors.
Rick and Renny turned to Liam Elliott, this season’s director of Struttin’ with the Stars.
Elliott’s claim to fame thus far was three controversial music videos and a training film on the ergonomic use of a stepladder. Elliott was an acquaintance of Wentworth’s manager and that was how Rick got roped into struttin’ his stuff.
Before he could say anything snide, Elliot held up a small piece of beige material. “This is what you were supposed to be wearing at the end of your set last night. Why weren’t you?” He shook the thong with each word.
Renny looked at each of the men and moved to the far corner of the studio. She started doing positions on the barre, but still watched for the confrontation that was brewing.
Wentworth moved close to Elliott. “Have you ever worn one of those things?” He’d realized early on that the director was afraid of him and that the closer he stood to him, the more nervous Elliott became.
“No, I have not.” He stepped closer to Wentworth. He was evidently mad enough that Wentworth’s physical presence wasn’t as intimidating as in the past. “It was part of the costume designed for you and you are contractually obligated to wear it.” The flimsy bit of cloth flopped in his hand.
Wentworth grabbed the thong and shot it like a rubber band at the floor-to-ceiling windows. It landed in the corner of one of the frames. The women in the front surged forward to look at it and the rest of them clapped jumped up and down. Even through the thick glass he could hear the whistles and laughs of the crowd.
Elliott’s nostrils flared, his lips whitened, and he went to get the thong. He bent to pick it up. Rick could hear the women booing. Elliott straightened, watched the women for a moment and then moved as though he was coming towards them.
They jumped back and booed more loudly.
So much for viewer goodwill.
Elliott again waved the thong at Rick. “Women have been wearing these things for decades with no complaints. Your wearing this would have been a ratings coup.”
Rick backed away a step. No one had worn it as far as he knew, but he didn’t appreciate having it shoved in his face. “Look, women cram their feet into shoes too small and wear jeans that cut off their circulation too, that doesn’t mean I have to embarrass myself wearing that.” He grabbed it again.
He figured he’d auction if off on Ebay for a charity and held it behind his back. “Besides, if I’d worn this itty-bitty bit of nothing, the network would have had kittens. They couldn’t have shown any of me from the waist down.”
“The network doesn’t matter.” Elliott reached around Rick. “This show is about more than the uptight, can’t-stand-any-hint-of-skin American markets.” He tried reaching around the other side. “It’s about Europe, and Asia, and distribution on iTunes, you idiot.”
“So me in the buff is worth something, huh?” Rick smiled.
Elliott actually huffed in failure and put his hands on his hips. “Wentworth, you have been a thorn in my backside the entire time you’ve been on this show.” He tried to run around behind Rick, but Rick took one step and turned around, thwarting him.
“I’m sure I have, Willy.” He jammed the thong down his gym shorts. He lifted up his hands, daring Elliott to make a move.
Elliott stepped back, panting. “My name is Liam.”
“Your name is William. Liam is just an affectation to make you sound cultured. I’ll bet you drink cold beer on a hot day just like the rest of us American slobs.”
Renny laughed from across the room. She was Russian by birth, but had hoisted a couple of cold ones with Rick after a hard rehearsal.
The stare down continued. Liam’s face was red and he was breathing loudly through his nose. It was all Rick could do not to laugh. It was worse when he realized that Elliott plucked his eyebrows. It wasn’t unusual in Hollywood for men to have their brows shaped, and to do a lot more personal grooming, but Liam was getting sloppy about his manscaping and needed a few strays rounded up.
The whole thing was ridiculous. Rick pulled the thong from his shorts and tossed them to Elliot. “This has been fun, Willy.” He turned away. “Renny, let’s get back to work.”
Still grasping the thong, Elliott pointed to Rick. “You listen to me, you don’t want to make me your enemy, Wentworth. I will do everything in my power to see that you lose this competition. Everything. Do you hear me?” He turned and stalked out of the studio.
A soft cheer went up from the crowd outside. Wentworth and Renny took their bows.
“Did he sound like a nutcase just now?” Rick asked.
They assumed the dance position. “Yes, he did.” Renny was frowning. “And if your teasing him makes me lose this time, I will have to drag you off the stage. After I kill you.” She smiled.
“Fair enough,” he said.