Chapter One: Steph’s Christmas Star

Steph's Christmas StarKyle drummed his fingers on the white linen tablecloth where his citrusy Bergamot Sour sat untouched dripping beads of condensation. He swiped the screen of his TAG Heuer Meridiist phone as he scrunched his eyebrows. His dumpster fire of a social media reputation marched down the screen.

Dr. McSteamy is now Dr. McCrashy. #JusticeforNurseNancy! 

First, he dumped her. Now he drunk crashed her. #nolove4DrWyld

“A nightmare,” he muttered.

The server swung by his table.

“Do you want to order, Mr. O’Connor?”

He shook his head. “I’ll wait. My agent got stuck in traffic.”

The waiter cleared his throat and glanced around the customer-filled restaurant as if punctuating a point. Kyle noted the clink of silverware against china and the murmur of the room’s overlapping conversations. 

Yes, the restaurant was busy, and you don’t make money if customers don’t turn over quickly enough.

Kyle knew this from his days working as a waiter before he made it big.

“Should I refresh your drink, sir?” The waiter eyed the cocktail as if the melting ice cubes had insulted the pricey gin at the heart of the drink.

At thirty-five a pop? The expensive cocktail whinged what his agent called his New England parsimony, though Kyle’s Connecticut upbringing hammered home the belief that thrift was a virtue. It took a while for Aaron to convince Kyle that generosity filled an important function in the entertainment industry, too.

“Money and liquor grease the halls of commerce,” Aaron would say.

However, thirty-five dollars a drink?

“This will do, thank you.”

“Excellent, sir. I’ll check back.” The waiter spoke in the clipped, neutral tones of a typical Vancouverite. Kyle had worked hard to lose his Connecticut accent, where people rushed through the words and nearly dropped them, to make his acting more marketable on the West Coast. And it worked. 

I should have grown up here. Maybe I would have scored a regular gig sooner.

“Thank you,” replied Kyle automatically. At least his Connecticut upbringing brought his level of politeness close to Canadian standards.

A small stone vase painted in Japanese letters at the table’s center sported a red chrysanthemum paired with a sprig of long-needled white pine. Kyle stared at it, perplexed why the usual cherry blossom centerpiece didn’t grace the table. Then Kyle remembered that Christmas was two weeks away. 

He ignored Christmas. There was little to celebrate since his father, the last of his family, had passed on. Kyle’s personal assistant bought and wrapped the gifts for his coworkers on his television series. Kyle would take off to ski in Aspen with one of the women he dated.

Not this year. No starlet wanted to hang with an actor in the middle of tweetstorms and instabombs. 

That’s why his agent had arranged this meeting for tonight — to chart a course to handle this calamity.

Damn Shana Thompson. 

Maybe he should leave and hit his favorite ski slope.

A middle-aged woman in a too-tight black knit dress sidled to the table. 

“I can’t believe it is you!” she gushed. The woman must have been American. It would embarrass most Canadians to ambush a star in public. “You’re my, I mean, my daughter’s favorite actor! Can I get an autograph? For my daughter, I mean.” 

Kyle smiled wanly. He supposed he should be grateful that he had fans left. The way social media broadcasted his problems, Kyle began to think his fan base had deserted him. 

She held out a bar napkin printed with the restaurant’s name, Ten’nō, written in English and Japanese letters. 

“To whom should I address it?”

“Deanna,” she said nervously. The matron glanced over her shoulder toward a man with salt-and-pepper hair at a corner table, staring at his phone with a bored expression.

“Your husband?” asked Kyle.

She nodded.

Kyle fished inside his suit jacket for his pen, but when his hand hit a solid wall of paper, he frowned. He didn’t want to think about that. Finally pulling his pen free, Kyle scribbled a messy flourish he had practiced for autographs. Kyle handed the napkin to his fan with a smile and a wink.

“Thanks, Mr. O’Connor.” 

“Kyle,” he said. “It would be silly to keep to last names when we’ve shared a napkin, Deanna. Please give my best to your daughter.”

Her face flushed.

“Found out. I shouldn’t have a crush, but you are adorable.”

“We’ll keep that between us. You husband needn’t ever know.” He flashed his smile, the one on which he was building his fortune, and her face colored more brightly. She bent forward conspiratorially. “But he does. It’s good to make a man a bit jealous. Gives him something to prove.”

“Glad I could help.” 

“Thanks. Mr. O — , I mean Kyle. You thrilled a silly woman tonight. Merry Christmas. Bye.” 

She waved her fingers before she trotted back to her husband, and Kyle glanced at the door again, but his agent still hadn’t appeared. 

Kyle sighed and stared out the giant wall of glass that overlooked the harbor. Light from the moon danced in shimmers on the dark ocean. Finally, he took a sip of his drink. 

The gin flavored with ginger syrup and sour bergamot orange hit his nose. Most days, he would have joyfully enjoyed the cocktail, but today was not a happy day. The legal papers still sat folded in his suit jacket pocket. 

“You look preoccupied,” said a familiar voice. 

Kyle turned his head to find his agent, Aaron Meyers, behind him. 

The movement pulled at his ribs to send a twinge of pain through him, and Kyle winced.

“Took you long enough,” Kyle said. 

For a man in his forties, Aaron Meyers was fit, and he wore a suit nearly as expensive as Kyle’s. Usually, the man wore business casual and allowed his gold necklace, bracelet, and Rolex to do the talking, but Ten’nō’s dress code required suits.

“Sorry. Traffic. Some idiot got into an accident.”

Kyle glared at his agent.

“Oh, sorry. Thoughtless of me.”

“For a man in your profession, tact is not your strong suit.” 

“Yeah, my mother always said I should have been a lawyer.”

Kyle pulled the papers in his suit jacket out. The waiter picked that moment to swoop in. 

“Good to see you again, Mr. Meyers. Can I get you something from the bar?”

“We’ll order first,” said Kyle, “and then you can bring Mr. Meyers his liquor.”

“Yes, sir. Our kaiseki set menu has our sterling silver prime rib with brown butter wasabi sauce, market veggies, and iwanori butter baked Yukon potato puree. We end the meal with our green tea opera dessert — green tea genoise, dark chocolate ganache, azuki bean ice cream, and matcha butter ice cream with a hazelnut wafer. For our second offering — ”

“I’ll take the steak.”

“Very good, sir,” the server said without a ruffled feather. “And Mr. Meyers?”

“You know me. The duck and scallops.”

“And to drink?

Aaron didn’t bother to open the drink menu. “I’ll have Talisker whisky, with a bottle of the Stoller Reserve Pinot Noir with dinner.”

Kyle shook his head. Leave to Aaron to order the cheapest whiskey and the most expensive bottle of wine on the menu. But whiskey sounded good right about now, especially since the emergency room doctor didn’t prescribe painkillers, and his cracked rib throbbed.

“Acetaminophen will do for the pain,” the doctor had said. 

Tyler’s rib protested that decision.

“I’ll take a whiskey, too. Johnnie Walker Blue.”

“Yes, sir. Should I take away the cocktail?”

“Leave it.”

The waiter gave him a strange look, and Kyle realized that he probably should have said “yes” after this week’s events. 

“Very good, sir.” 

“You must not be feeling well because you’ve barely touched your Bergamot Sour.”

“My stomach’s a little off. Got served the lawsuit today.”

Aaron’s bushy eyebrows shot up. “That’s fast.”

“That’s Shana.” He handed the documents to Aaron. “What does your budding legal mind say about that?”

Aaron took the papers, glanced at them, and shrugged. He refolded the lawsuit and slid it into his suit jacket pocket. 

“The ink isn’t even dry on the police report,” said Aaron. “And obviously, this is a money grab. I’ll messenger this to your lawyer. Let him handle it.”

Kyle shook his head. “No, money isn’t the object here. It’s publicity. Studio scuttlebutt says management wants to cut a cast member to save on payroll. She’s trying to raise her profile so they don’t kick her from the show.”

“That’s an odd way to do it — suing the star of said show,” said Aaron with exasperation. 

“Now, now, Aaron. You know we’re an ensemble cast. One is not more important than the other.” Kyle repeated what their showrunner, Irving Fletcher, had said many times. 

“Bull. You carry that show. Dr. Wilson Wyld is the hottest doctor on the tube.” 

“You’re showing your age. No one calls it ‘the tube’ anymore.” 

“You’re too old to be called a ‘brat,’ yet I’ve got the urge.” 

Despite his irritation with his current situation, Kyle smiled. “Never tell an actor he’s old.” 

The server brought the whiskeys and then sped off again without waiting for a thank-you.

“That was fast,” said Aaron.

“He wants us out by the late-night service,” said Kyle. “We’ve kept him waiting.”  

“Speaking of waits, how’s your car?”

Kyle looked toward his plate and shook his head. “The front end is destroyed.”

“Wow, tough break. That was a sweet ride.”  

“Sure that Mercedes-Benz E 350 was my first love. Zero to sixty in six seconds, tan leather and wood trim interior, tons of factory upgrades. I’ve had break-ups with girlfriends that hurt less than losing that car.”

“But insurance covers it, right?” 

Kyle winced. “Yeah. They are happy to cover it as long as it increases my rates.” 

“Sorry, buddy.” 

Aaron folded his hands into a tent, telling Kyle the man was about to get deadly serious.

“I spoke with Irv this morning. He and the studio is behind you, as long as the blood alcohol tests come back negative.

Kyle scoffed. “They will. Shana’s allegations are nonsense. You know I never drink during a shoot.”

“I know, and management does too. It’s why they are behind you and want to renew your contract. I blame myself. I insisted on cultivating a bad boy image to improve your appeal to your fans.”

“Well, Shana blames me.” Damn that black ice. It was my unlucky break to offer Shana a ride home on the last day of shooting.

“Still, Nurse Nancy has a following, too, and they are very vocal. They never got over Dr. Wyld dumping her at the end of season two.”

Kyle scoffed. “As if I had anything to do with that.”

Aaron nodded in agreement. “I know. Writers.” He rolled his eyes. “But you can ride out this storm with the show. The movie deal I was negotiating?” Aaron spread his hands. “Another thing.” 

Was negotiating? Kyle sucked in a breath. Playing Dr. Wyld was a huge career boost. He wanted to transition to the big screen before he got older. It seemed Aaron was about to bag a starring role in a science fiction action film, and he wanted it — bad. Not every actor could be a Harrison Ford that hit it big at age thirty-five. 

“Why? What did they say?”

“I spoke today with Chris Kingman, the executive producer of Jetters, and he said you’d be a lock, except for this incident. The negative social media backlash makes the studio squeamish.”

“So you checked out the things she said about me.” 

“I’m your agent. It’s my business to scope the buzz.” 

The waiter swooped in again, this time with the meal’s appetizers. Kyle eyed the plate of charred chuck steak, pickled wasabi, poached organic egg, soy jalapeño-garlic dipping sauce, and organic baby greens without enthusiasm. 

Aaron clapped his hands together with delight at the smoked duck breast on microgreens drizzled with an exotic raspberry sauce.

Kyle grimaced. “Yeah. I can see where my womanizing ways and drunken behavior would make me box office poison.” He spoke with a bitter, disappointed edge.

“Stop. I know you’re practically a workaholic hermit, but this nonsense with Shana is not a good look for family-oriented Burtman Studios.”

“I get that.”

“But, I’ve spoken with the producer of Jetters, and he’s willing to sell you to the studio if you do one thing.”

Kyle pushed at the steak with his chopsticks.

“What’s that?”

“He has this PR specialist that’s willing to work with you on repairing your reputation.”

Kyle stopped working his chopsticks and gave Aaron a stern look.

“A ‘fixer?’ And how does that look?”

“A lot better than letting Shana get the upper hand. You need this, Kyle. And buddy, I do, too. I have kids that need braces.” 

Kyle snorted. “You don’t have any kids. You barely have girlfriends.”

“I could have kids. One never knows.”

Kyle thought any woman that would swallow Aaron’s line of BS would be crazy enough to have his kid — so he could be right. At this moment, Kyle questioned his sanity in considering this crazy scheme. Aaron must have seen the hesitation on Kyle’s face because he swooped in for the kill.

“Look, Kyle. Your success is mine. I want you to get that movie and many more movies after that. You’re a talented actor — ”

“Where’s the butter you’re basting me with? I don’t see it on the table.”

“This is a Japanese restaurant. There is no butter here. Now, listen. Do this thing she wants you to do — ”

“You’ve already spoken with her? Geez, Aaron. You better be paying for this meal because this sounds expensive.”

Aaron took a sip of his whiskey, probably to fortify himself for the kill. 

“You forget that I negotiated what you make. And you’ll make much more if you do the one little thing the PR specialist suggested.”

“And what’s her magic formula?” Kyle said with exasperation.

“Go home to Connecticut for Christmas.”


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