“Look, I’m not trying to get a new pass, it’s just that my old ones were stolen,” I explain to the ticket guy. “All I want is to enter into the cosplay competition. I promise I won’t pass Go, collect two hundred, what-have-you—”
He points to the sign.
“No, I know what that says, I can read,” I say. “I’m just asking if I can—”
“Get special treatment?” he says, finally looking up at me. He blinks behind thick black glasses. “Maybe get tickets a little earlier next time, sweetie.”
“Don’t call me sweetie,” I snap.
“Who called you sweetie?”
Sage emerges through the crowd in the lobby, straightening her outfit, which, today, is a blue tutu dress. She looks like a deranged punkrock fairy—not that that makes her out of place at a con.
“Okay, so I couldn’t get a space in the garage because the Pumpkin wouldn’t fit under the clearance, but I found this place with a meter around the corner and raided the register for quarters. Operation Avoid a Parking Ticket is under way.”
“I think that’s illegal,” says the guy at the booth.
“So’s sexual harassment.” I try to give him a mind-melting glare, but nothing fazes this guy. Hell could be rising up around him and he’d probably just think it was so last-year’s Syfy.
He sighs. “Look, if you want to see what you can do about your ‘stolen’ passes, go talk to the organizers. They’re in the office over there.” He gestures toward the corner of the lobby. “Go bother them.”
With a scowl, I turn on my heels, making my way to the offices.
“I’ll wait out here, I guess?” Sage calls behind me. “Have fun storming the castle!”
I wave a hand over my head to signal that I heard her.
This is ridiculous. Of all the years that my dad organized ExcelsiCon, he never would’ve hired a brat like that guy. At least there are other ways of getting into a con, and I know they aren’t at capacity yet. They always leave a handful of badges unattended just in case someone important shows up. Like the president. Or Tom Hiddleston.
I reach the office door and peek inside the little window. A harried older woman is counting bills onto a desk. She looks familiar, but it takes a moment to remember.
“Miss May!” I knock and wave through the window. She jumps at hearing her own name, spinning around to me in her rolly chair. She’s in the regulation purple ExcelsiCon T-shirt and blue jeans, and I swear she hasn’t changed her Keds in the ten years I’ve been gone. Her gray eyebrows scrunch together as if trying to place where she’s seen my face before.
I flash her the promise-sworn salute, and her eyebrows shoot up into her graying-brown hairline.
“Oh my word—Danielle!” she cries, jumping up from her chair. She rushes around the desk and throws her arms around me. “Danielle, you’ve grown so much! You look just like Robin. Just like him,” she echoes, holding me at arm’s length. “Goodness, it’s been, what, six years?”
“A little over,” I reply. Seven years. How has it been that long? I wonder if she blames me too. I pull a smile over my face. “And it’s high time I came back, right?”
“Right as rain!” she replies. “Robin could never keep himself away. I knew you’d be around again.”
“Actually, Miss May, that’s what I need to talk to you about. I—we—”
Suddenly, the office door opens and slams against the knob with a bang. A tall, youngish guy—dark hair, swaggery walk—breezes past me.
“I need to speak with the manager,” he says, his voice icy. “Please.”
My mouth falls open. Because Holy Federation Prince, Batman. It’s Darien effing Freeman.
Miss May looks surprised. “Well now, hold on a moment there…”
A flustered-looking woman—his handler, I’m guessing—trips into the office after him and closes the door quietly. “Darien, it’s okay—”
“Gail, it’s not okay.” He turns back to Miss May. “I just need to talk to the director, please. That’s all. I’m sure it’s a big misunderstanding.”
“The director’s out on the floor,” Miss May says.
“Excuse me,” I interrupt him.
“One second, okay?” He barely glances over.
I feel like I’ve just gone invisible. It’s one thing to feel invisible at home, but this—this is my dad’s con. I shouldn’t feel invisible here. I won’t feel invisible here.
“Is there any way to get in touch with him?” he says. “Call him? Something?”
“Dare, you’re running late to your panel,” his handler pleads. “Maybe we can get this straightened out later…”
“But the signing’s right after the panel,” he says, trying to reason with her.
I set my jaw. First he gets cast to ruin Carmindor. Then he has the indecency to show his abs on national television to sell Carmindor. And now he’s barging into the office interrupting me and pretending I’m invisible? This is why I blog. There are things in this life that I can overlook. Catherine, the twins, the crap at the country club. But you don’t mess with my Starfield.
“Aren’t you a little ungrateful?” I say.
He finally glances over as if seeing me for the first time. Oh, hello there, I think. Nice of you to finally notice.
“I’m sorry?” he says.
“Aren’t you,” I enunciate, “a little ungrateful?”
“I’m sorry, uh, miss, I’m in a bit of a hurry—”
“And I’m not?” I fold my arms over my chest. “I was here first and there’s no reason for you to barge in here and throw a hissy fit because you can’t sit your pretty butt down and sign for thirty minutes. That’s disgraceful. In the grand scheme of life, what’s thirty minutes to you?” I put my hands on my hips. “What’s thirty minutes to make someone else’s day pretty stellar?”
His shoulders stiffen. “You don’t understand. You couldn’t—”
“Couldn’t I?” I laugh. “Give me your paycheck and I’ll sign for you.”
He opens his mouth to retort, but then closes it again and turns back to Miss May. “Please, is there any way you can talk to your manager? We can work out a deal. I just don’t want to sign—”
“Well maybe you should sign,” I reply for Miss May, who’s growing paler by the moment. “Maybe that’s exactly what you should do, Darien Freeman. Maybe you should’ve realized that being Carmindor is more than just putting on a pretty face.”
It’s a good line, because I happen to be quoting directly from my blog post. And when his gaze hardens into a glare, I realize he must recognize it. Well, good.
“You’re just a spoiled star like all the rest of them,” I add, waving my hand toward the door. “So why don’t you work for once and go sign some autographs! It’s the least you can do, if you call yourself Carmindor.”
His handler—bless her, she looks overworked and underpaid in those terribly old sneakers—puts a hand to her mouth to stifle a gasp.
Darien Freeman faces me for the first time. I kind of see the allure—he’s beautiful in person, especially with the scar, and those eyes—but his personality is the biggest turn-off I’ve ever had. He’s definitely been working out for Starfield. I don’t remember him looking so, um, imposing in Seaside Cove. He folds his arms over his chest, shoulders straining his T-shirt. “You’re that blogger, aren’t you. The one who hates me.”
“I don’t hate you.”
“Then what’s your beef?”
I stand taller—which, next to Darien, is not very tall. “What I hate is that you’re being a bully!”
“I’m not being a bully.”
“Oh, so going up and demanding things from nice people is what you consider normal, polite behavior?”
“I said ‘please’! Didn’t I say ‘please’?” He asks in disbelief, looking back to his handler for confirmation. She purses her lips tightly, and something silent passes between them. When she doesn’t come to his rescue, he throws up his hands. “Fine! Okay! Look Miss, uh—”
“Miss May,” I interject. “Her name’s Miss May.”
“Miss May,” he repeats. A muscle twitches in his jaw. “I’m sorry for being forceful. It’s been a long day—”
“It’s barely one o’clock,” I mutter. Darien glares at me.
“—but I just want some free time at the con, you know? Just a few hours, and I won’t have that with the signing. Could you please get your director on the walkie-talkie and tell him to find me? I’ll be at the Starfield panel”—he looks back to me—“working.”
Then he turns on his heels and leaves. A flood of fans has amassed outside and tries to overtake him as he exits the office, but a beefy guy—probably his bodyguard—shields him from the fans and guides him and his handler through the lobby. The door closes behind them, successfully shutting out all the people crying his name.