Chapter One

 

“MY AMERICAN DREAM IS DEAD.”

Four pairs of drunken, partied-out eyes fall upon me as I stumble into the living room and kick off my heels. “Billy Moss is a pervert. An entitled pervert. The type of pervert who thinks he can put his roaming octopus testicles . . . I mean tentacles . . . wherever the hell he likes”

JJ, my best friend, leaps out of his chair with a wobble. “That guy had ‘son of a bitch’ written all over his face. He said hello to you by licking your ear, for fuck’s sake – you should have known, and I shouldn’t have left you alone in Sound. That place has really gone downhill.”

“I wasn’t alone. I was with Marie and Dana. At least, I think I was . . .” Something funny is happening in my head, as if my brain is trying to shake off the alcohol fog so it can do some thinking. “Oh, wait a minute . . . åh min Gud! The last time I saw Dana, she was going to the bathroom but asked me to share a taxi home with her. Billy Moss’s even pervier best friend wouldn’t leave her alone.” I rummage around in my bag for my cell phone. “Fuck! I forgot to wait for her. How could I do that?”

“Freja, relax. You know Dana is real smart. She’ll be fine,” says Peyton, my roomie and co-worker. She’s trying to calm me down, but all I can think about is Dana and the fact I’m the shittiest friend on the planet. I check my texts. Crap, I have around fifteen of them. Why is Logan still trying to call me? I told him two weeks ago that we were over. Oh thank goodness, Dana went home with Katrina and Joe. But what the hell? How many people have I given my number to tonight? There was a guy with a tattoo and . . . oh, shit and damn, if this doesn’t make me never drink again, I don’t know what will. “Guys, you have to help me. I’ve given Howard James my cell number.”

JJ and Aaron gasp in horror.

Peyton and Richie stare at me blankly.

“Who the hell is Howard James?” asks Richie. He’s my sensible English friend and other roomie. I need him to do the thing he always does: scold me affectionately, then help me fix it.

“Howard has classes with us at UCLA,” JJ says, shaking his head admonishingly at me. “He has a killer Freja-crush.”

“He’s asked me out eleven times,” I say with a shudder. “It started when we invited him and his group of musical theatre majors out with us for spring break. We were in this dive bar downtown, and it was a bit of a crazy night.”

“What Freja means is . . .” A huge grin crawls across JJ’s face. “She stripped down to a pink bikini, morphed into Shakira and danced to ‘Hips Don’t Lie’ on top of the bar.”

I can barely remember doing it, if I’m honest, but the feedback was awesome.

I read Howard’s text: Can’t wait for our date. I’ve been wanting to find out if your hips really don’t lie since spring break. Ugh, what the fuck does that mean? I can’t even think of texting him back until I’m sober. “My life sucks. I should be dating a hot movie star; or I should be planning what to wear for this year’s Oscars.” I flop down on the sofa next to JJ, bringing my feet into his lap. “Why aren’t I deciding between five blockbuster movie offers? How did I get here, huh? Sometime over the last two years, Uncle Sam must have bribed a bald eagle to fly over my American dream and shit on it from the greatest of heights.”

Nobody responds, because everybody knows I’m right.

When I left Denmark two years ago I was fearless. I never once doubted I was going to kill it in Hollywood. I thought I’d be an overnight success, with millions of fans and every accolade the industry has to offer landing at my feet. I’d be spending my days auditioning for top movies and hit TV shows. My evenings would be split between learning lines, attending all the coolest celeb parties and collecting Best Actress awards at top ceremonies (hello, Oscar!). As for my weekends? Hot and steamy sexual encounters with Leonardo diCaprio fitted effortlessly into my plan.

But now I realise I had my head up my ass. I’m studying the tedious technicalities of film production at college instead of auditioning for movie roles. I’m working as a waitress at the Cosmic Diner instead of attending celebrity parties. And then we come to the biggest disappointment – a truth so earth-shatteringly depressing that the beers I’ve thrown down my neck all night can’t drown it out. I’m still – tragically, shamefully – single. Leonardo diCaprio’s invitation to play Hide the Salami must have got lost in the mail. Along with my fucking Oscar.

“Looks like you need a top-up, sis.” JJ picks up a jug full of pina colada and tops up everyone’s glasses.

“Are you ever going to stop calling me ‘sis’, JJ?” He pulls my feet back into his lap and tenderly rubs my leg. “Having to explain to people that we’re not related is exhausting.”

“So don’t tell them. I don’t mind. I’d love it if you were my sister.”

“You do look remarkably alike,” Richie chips in with a laugh.

“We do not!” I protest, even though I know there are glaringly obvious physical similarities. We’re both pale, freckly and ginger, like human versions of Raggedy Ann and Andy.

“Yes, we do look alike,” protests JJ. “And we also have the same taste in men.”

Aaron, his partner of four years, gives me a wink and blows me a kiss.

My sozzled head is pounding, so I hold back my laugh for fear that my skull might explode. I’d go to bed with a jug of iced water and extra-strength Tylenol if I wasn’t desperate for company. “I only fell for a hot gay guy once, that guest lecturer on diversity in film casting. In my defence, he was very pretty and—”

“And clearly the gayest man in the room!” shrieks JJ. “You also came on to Perry the Pianist, who, if memory serves, was wearing white plaid shorts at the time. I mean, come on. If he’d dressed up as Liberace and started singing ‘I’m Too Sexy’ you’d probably have still tried to bang him.”

“Okay, okay. I admit my gaydar might be a little bit off.”

“Sweetheart, it’s never been on,” he says with as much West Coast attitude as he can muster. “You were probably hot for me when we first met.”

I think back to Orientation week at UCLA, and a terrifying memory floats into my mind, involving way too much gin and a really dumb idea to streak around campus. “The day we met you managed to get me naked within five hours, so maybe it was you who was hot for me.”

“That escapade was all your idea, and while you had no problem with some creep in our year filming us and uploading it to Myspace, the partners at my law firm weren’t overjoyed I got naked with my ‘sister’.” JJ shakes his head wearily at me.

Richie laughs. “Come on, JJ, you know Freja is too cool to be your sister. She’s cooler than everybody.”

Richie runs Santa Monica’s Sunshine Community Theatre, but he wants to make it in Hollywood just as much as I do. So far, his English accent has been useful in landing him gangster bad-guy roles, but they’ve always been short-lived. Literally short-lived. Every single character he’s played has been killed by a gun, or a knife, or an arrow or – in one TV show – a fire truck driven by an amnesiac circus clown.

“I don’t think I can drink anymore, guys.” Peyton places her hand on her slender hip and grimaces. “I think I’ve got an alcohol cramp.”

“What the hell?” My voice is shrill with outrage. “There’s no such thing as alcohol cramp, Peyton. Don’t be a lightweight, and don’t leave me to drown my sorrows with these three. You’ve been looking forward to a childfree night for weeks.”

Like me and a million other twenty-something West Coast residents, Peyton is an aspiring actress, and a very resentful waitress. Unlike me she’s a blonde, blue-eyed California girl with so much Malibu Barbie DNA in her gene pool she must poo plastic. She is also a single mom whose parents are kind enough to regularly help her out with childcare. “I guess I don’t feel like celebrating tonight.”

Oh crap, I forgot. Why do I keep forgetting important friend-related things? Peyton split up with her surfer boyfriend – aka Malibu Ken – this morning. I’m always Peyton’s go-to girl whenever she needs a shoulder to cry on, so why haven’t I been called on for tissues and sympathy? They’d only been dating for two weeks, but I still should have realised Peyton would be bummed out.

I haul myself up to a sitting position and wait for the right words to come, but they don’t. Focus, Freja, Focus! I take a deep breath, but my brain is too foggy. Oh my god, that’s it! Alcohol is my kryptonite. I must have temporarily destroyed my empathic superpowers through excessive cocktail consumption.

“I’m so sorry about . . . um . . .” Fuck! Why can’t I remember the guy’s name? Damn you, alcohol. “I’m so sorry about your break-up.”

Peyton rolls her eyes and I don’t blame her. I would kick my own ass if it were physically possible. “He has a name, Freja.”

“I’m sorry,” I say guiltily. Ugh, I’m never drinking again. Not ever. “I . . . um . . .”

She raises her eyebrows. “You can’t remember his name, can you?”

“Of course I can. It’s . . .” Don’t say Ken, don’t say Ken, don’t say Ken. “Karl. That’s it. I’m sorry about Karl.”

Her eyes stop rolling in order to throw daggers. “Kyle.”

Damn it! “I’m sorry, I’m just too drunk to be me right now. I’ll make it up to you when I’ve sobered up, I promise.”

“This is your biggest problem, Freja. You’re always drunk.” The snippiness in her voice takes me by surprise. “You spent so much time ogling Kyle’s biceps, it’s little wonder you never bothered to learn his name.”

My body stiffens in anger. I feel JJ’s hand grip my knee. “What is that supposed to mean?”

Peyton glances at Aaron, whose blue eyes shift immediately to the floor. Richie nervously clears his throat. JJ’s hold on my knee grows firmer, as if he’s trying to hold me back. And as if by magic, the fog lifts and my superpowers return. All four of them have something they want to say.

“What’s going on, guys?”

“Maybe we should leave this for another time,” Richie says to everyone in the room but me.

“I don’t want to leave it, so spill,” I say to Richie, who clams up and stares at his feet.

My gaze returns to Peyton, who promptly gulps down the rest of her pina colada. Crap, is she seeking courage from a stiff drink? “Sorry, Freja. There’s no easy way to say this, but it has to be said.” She puts her glass down on the coffee table with a clunk. “Richie and I feel you’re not pulling your weight.”

Betrayal churns in my stomach like sour milk. “Oh.”

“Yeah. We get you have the smallest room, but we think you should contribute more.”

I look at Richie, but his eyes refuse to meet mine. “You want me to pay more rent?”

“Yes, and step up in paying the bills,” she says.

I feel my eyes grow wide with shock. This is unfair. “I’m studying part-time and working at the diner most nights. I do my best.”

“Your best isn’t good enough,” she declares. Her voice is commanding, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d rehearsed this confrontation word for word. “I cooked for you five times this week. Sure, I enjoy cooking, but when was the last time you cooked? You never pick up after yourself, and we’re tired of you treating our home like a hotel. And we’re tired of the strange guys you bring back here. My daughter lives here too. I have her safety to think about.”

Peyton’s words drip into my brain like poison. Have I been inconsiderate? Should I have volunteered to pay more? I don’t know where this has come from, but I know I haven’t put Riley in danger. “I hope you’re not suggesting I’d do anything to hurt Riley—”

“You brought that guy with the soul patch home after you’d only known him for thirty minutes. Riley woke up early, went to the kitchen for some chocolate milk, and stumbled upon him making himself coffee. He was wearing your nightie and nothing else!”

“I already apologised for that. Logan is a really sweet guy, and an elementary school teacher. She wasn’t in any danger.”

“How would you know?”

“Because I know people and I’m never wrong.”

“Ha,” she says dismissively.

I feel anger bubbling up inside me. Kyle/Karl/Ken had at least two overnight stays before she’d known him a week, so I don’t know how she dares comment on my relationships. I consider giving her a few home truths, but given how drunk and furious I am, there’s a real possibility I’d be looking for a new home tomorrow if I did. Instead I turn to Richie. “If you needed me to pay more rent, you could have asked any time. We’ve been friends for two years.” Richie swallows hard, his Adam’s apple bulging against the neck of his t-shirt. I examine his body language: he looks tense, awkward and unhappy. He’s still unable to make eye contact with me.

“Truth be told, I’m struggling a bit financially. The theatre hasn’t made much money this month. Ticket sales were down on last quarter, and after we were robbed back in February . . . well, a little more rent would be helpful.”

“Tell me how much you need, and I’ll arrange it.” There’s sharpness in my tone, but as it perfectly reflects how pissed I am, I don’t try to soften it.

“Thank you,” he says. “But only if you can manage. You do have the smallest room – even smaller than Riley’s.”

Peyton rolls her eyes at him, then stands up to leave. An army of angry words rushes from my throat to my tongue. I bite my lip to stop them escaping. Have I been a shitty roommate as well as a shitty friend? I remember all the times I’ve babysat Riley, as well as the nights I’ve stayed up talking into the small hours while she cried over one of her exes. Hell, I even passed up the chance of an audition because I knew she wanted the part. I thought I’d been a good friend to her, but maybe I haven’t.

“I’m sorry if I’ve been inconsiderate, Peyton,” I say. She stops walking and turns around to face me. “I certainly didn’t intend to take advantage, but you could have spoken to me about it with kindness.”

Her eyes water and her body shakes a little, but her resolve doesn’t wane. “You’re always so full of yourself that the only way to get through to you is by being direct.”

I let yet more of her insults wash over me. “Peyton, I’m going to let you go to bed before I say something I might regret.”

She takes hold of the door handle, poised to make her bid for freedom. “There’s never a right time with you. We never know where you’re going to be from one minute to the next: college, the diner, the theatre, clubs and bars, date after date after date. If your American dream has died it’s through exhaustion from trying to keep up with you.” She opens the door and starts to walk through it, but then she turns back. “You have more talent than any of us, so you only have yourself to blame if you don’t have the life you want.”

She slams the door shut and my heart simultaneously leaps into my throat. I’ve never felt as strong a connection with Peyton as I have with JJ or Richie, but I still considered her a close friend. I’ve always been there for her, and I thought she was there for me.

“Hey, you okay?” JJ moves his hand to my back and gives it a gentle pat.

“Not really,” I reply. My vision is blurry and I try not to blink. The last thing I want to do is cry.

“I’m sorry, Freja.” Richie moves to the armchair Peyton was sitting in opposite me. “I told Peyton about my finances. All the rest of the stuff she said was her grievances, not mine.”

“But you didn’t stand up for me.”

“It’s not as easy as that.”

“Why not? Because she’s your ex?”

“Yes, and because I don’t want to upset either of you.”

“Never mind, Richie. You don’t need to explain.”

“Forget about it,” JJ says. He tucks his head into the crook of my neck and gives me a hug. “She’s just jealous because she isn’t as talented as you.”

The last thing Peyton said to me tonight was I had more talent than the rest of them. Is he right? Is that what this whole thing is about – jealousy?

“Come on.” JJ gives me another hug and tops up my glass with what’s left of the pina colada. “How about we get this party started back up?”

I chew over Peyton’s words. I left Denmark intent on having the time of my life. My career may not have taken off, but the best part of my life is embodied by the friends I’ve made. I’m twenty-five years old; I shouldn’t be worrying about my future, I should be living my life with parties, sex and as much alcohol as my stomach can hold.

I leap to my feet. “Okay, I’ve had it with you three miserable bastards. We need to celebrate being alive. No more worrying about money or careers or relationships. These are supposed to be the best days of our lives! We’re young, we have each other and we’re all blessed with fabulousness!”

A smile erupts on JJ’s face, making the hairs on his scratchy orange beard stand to attention. “Damn straight, we’re fabulous. What the hell are we waiting for?”

“I’ll crank up the music,” says Aaron.

“And I’ll refill the pitcher,” says Richie. “I bought strawberries today. Let me shake us up some daiquiris.”

“Now you’re talking. If I’m going to have a hangover tomorrow, best make it a good one.” I stand up and wobble a bit, but my head actually seems a bit clearer. “I’m sure I’ll be able to manage at least three strawberry daiquiris before I fall into a coma. Leave the entertainment to me. I’m going to put a smile on all your faces tonight if it’s the last thing I do.”

I go to my room and hunt for the sexy elf outfit that delighted a room full of gay guys at JJ and Aaron’s Christmas party. The top part of the costume disintegrated in the dryer, but I still have the shorts . . . somewhere. After fifteen minutes of searching I finally find them stuffed in a shoebox on the second shelf of my closet. They’re made from red velvet, which is a little festive, but they’re a perfect match for my . . . well, “top” would be misleading – they’re a perfect match for the two teeny-tiny stickers Riley gave me to say sorry for scribbling on my Fendi handbag with black crayon.

I stick Mickey Mouse on my left boob and Minnie Mouse on the right.

Then I take a deep breath and tiptoe out of my bedroom, planning the details of my surprise with every step. The music coming from the living room is so loud I half expect our neighbours to call the cops, and . . . oh, isn’t that typical? They’ve left the door open. Never mind. I can improvise.

I swing behind the door just as the music switches to “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley. Perfect. How did the iPod know? I reattach Minnie’s nose to my nipple and make my grand entrance.

“Ta-da!” I bound – or rather, I bounce – into the room.

And I come face to face with the most drop-dead gorgeous guy I have ever seen in my entire life.

I forget I’m standing there half naked as I give him the once-over – warm tanned skin, incredible dark eyes, and sandy-brown hair that is brushed away from his face in soft, choppy waves. The guy stares unapologetically at my tits and a delicious cheeky grin spreads across his face. “Am I in Disneyland?”

For fuck’s sake. “I’m sorry. I was trying to perk—I mean cheer . . . Crap.”

“Don’t be sorry,” says the hot guy, who possesses a hot English accent and a smile that looks like it’s been made from vanilla-bean honey blended with sex endorphins. “I’ve just got off an eleven-hour flight and there’s no better welcome to America than this. Have you got Donald Duck stuck anywhere?”

The guy’s eyes skirt around my barely-there elf shorts.

“Are you done gawking?” I shout over the music.

A slightly embarrassed Richie steps forward. “Um, Freja, meet Nate.”

Great. It would be, wouldn’t it? Richie talks about Nate Klein as if he were a platinum-selling rock star. They met at Oxford, and Nate owns the lion’s share of Richie’s theatre. Why did I have to be half naked to meet him? Well done, Freja. Well freaking done.

“Nate is here to see Aaron. His company, Klein & Co, is huge in the tech world.” As if I need the mini bio. “Freja rents our third bedroom.”

Nate’s eyes finally head north and lock onto mine. “Hi, Freja,” he says, beaming me a huge smile. He offers me his hand, and despite never feeling embarrassed about being naked at any point in my life previously, I suddenly want the ground to swallow me up. I cover my tits with one of my arms and shake his hand.

“I should go and get dressed.” My cheeks warm up. For fuck’s sake, why am I blushing? Half the students at UCLA and most people with a Myspace account have seen my tits.

Nate laughs from his belly. “I’m sorry, but this is hilarious.”

“What, are you fifteen?” I put my hands on my hips and inhale a confident breath. “Okay, you’ve seen my body, so deal with it.”

As I spin around, I realise my elf shorts barely cover my ass, but I waltz out of the room with my head held high regardless.

 

End Chapter One.