“Thank you, Ms. Ford,” I say after a moment.

“For what?” She slides her hazel gaze over to me. It’s just as sharp as her tongue. “I merely almost ran you over and then you decided to get into my car.”

Oh. I clear my throat and reach for the door handle. “You can tell your driver to stop anywhere and I’ll get out—”

“Don’t be silly. We’re going much too fast. Plus there’s a paparazzo trailing us.”

I glance behind me, and sure enough a black SUV with tinted windows is following us a few cars behind. “I didn’t even realize. How did you know it was there?”

“I might be an ancient Hollywood actress who has no career to speak of, but I have dated enough starstruck manbabies to sense a camera from a hundred feet away.”

“I honestly wasn’t thinking when I said that in the interview,” I say, but she waves me off.

“Don’t apologize. If you apologize for everything, then your apologies will never mean anything. That woman was drilling you terribly hard. What did you do, interrupt her flirting with your costar?”

Is she…joking? Is Natalia Ford trying to crack a joke? I can’t tell. Talking to her is like playing poker with the Godfather. “I…might have. Or I said something wrong. Or any number of things that I can’t really remember doing—jeez, this convention is driving me insane. I’m not usually like this. I’m cool and composed. I don’t flub interviews. I don’t offend other people…How did you do it?” I ask, looking over at her. The leather seats are warming up, and I’m not shivering anymore. “How did you survive all of this? All of the fans hating you?”

“When I played Amara, there were barely message boards on an old dial-up computer. I didn’t have to worry about the general public giving me an earful of critique I didn’t need. But now all you young people are socially connected to everything. Your fans have you at their fingertips. It must be a nightmare.”

Her hairless cat slinks over to me and curls up in my lap, purring like a contented pet. Gently, I drop my hand down to pat it, but it hisses and swipes at me with claws out. Mixed message received.

“Nostalgia’s a hell of a drug,” she says after a long pause.

“And the greatest honor,” I add wryly, “a female character can have is death. Especially a useful one.”

A spark ignites in Natalia’s eyes, and she turns to face me. Her cat slinks over into her lap again and begins kneading her legs with its long, lethal claws. “Yet it isn’t an honor at all, is it?”

“No—and it’s not just Starfield. Even after this, if there is an after this for me, in the next film I’m either going to be fridged, or I’ll be cast as a forty-year-old actor’s love interest, or I’ll become that quirky secondary character. Or I’ll just be nothing. That’s all I’ll be. That’s all Starfield will ever be.”

“Then change it.”

“Change it?” I want to laugh, and the cat’s ears airplane back because my voice is high and brittle. “You’re kidding, right? What can I do? I just want to make a difference. I just want to be part of movies that mean something—”

My voice catches in my throat as I remember Harper’s words: Sometimes the stories we need…

Natalia gives me a keen look.

“I have to find Imogen,” I whisper, and I order the driver to pull over. I’m somewhere in the outskirts of Atlanta, I can call a taxi to take me back to the convention, but Natalia motions for her driver to keep going. “Ms. Ford, I need to get back to the convention—”

“I would suggest you check the diner on the corner of the next street.”

I look at her blankly.

She produces a smartphone from her purse and turns it on. She shows me a gossip site—and its lead photo.

Imogen and Vance Reigns.

“I think you need to save her.”

“Starflame!” I hiss, and before the car even stops I’ve shoved the door open and am hopping out. “Thank you!” I call over my shoulder, and she waves dismissively until I close the door and the car moves on.

I can already count three of those cockroaches encroaching on the diner, and from the look of it, Imogen has no clue. Of course she doesn’t. I should’ve told her to stay away from Vance Reigns. That bloodsucking social climber will do anything to get ahead.

It occurs to me a little too late that I never prepared Imogen at all for being me, because though she might look like me and can imitate my voice, she doesn’t have the years of accumulated knowledge of who to trust and who to steer clear of. And she definitely doesn’t understand how to handle these sorts of situations.

But Jessica Stone does.

I whirl around to the paparazzo who had been following Natalia’s car and motion for them to pull over. I have an idea—it’s an awful one, and Ethan would definitely not approve, but I don’t have time for a better plan. The skies have brightened and it’s only drizzling now, and the city has become so humid that the air sticks to me like a tongue.

The paparazzo pulls over and a window rolls down to reveal a woman in her midtwenties, her hair swirled up into a bun atop her head. She pops her gum and lowers her heart-shaped sunglasses. “Miss Stone, you know I only park illegally for you—”

“Can I ask you a favor?”

“I’m sorry, did you just say you need to ask me for a favor?”

“I’ll give you an exclusive. A photo no one else’ll get. I just need you to help me out.” I glance over to the other paparazzi. “Can I get in?”

She gives me a once-over before she pops her gum again and smiles. “Yeah. Get in, loser. We’re gonna get some photos.”

TO GET OUT OF THE RAIN, VANCE AND I dip into a small diner a few blocks away from the convention and slide into a booth. We’re only moderately wet, and we’re laughing from our mad dash into the restaurant. The is the second time in twenty-four hours I’ve been within touching distance of Vance Reigns. My heart should be about ready to explode, but I can’t stop thinking about the glare Ethan gave Jasper at the meet-and-greet.

He looked about ready to kill him.

I shouldn’t have snapped at Ethan like that. He was only trying to help.

Yeah, but he’s a burnt Hufflepuff, I try to reason with myself, and you’re getting food with a Gryffindor.

A clap of thunder rumbles overhead, and lightning reflects off the skyscrapers around us. We made it to the diner just before the storm hit in full swing, and I shake off errant water droplets on my arms.

The diner is red-and-white checkered, with neon signs glowing in the windows and the smell of greasy fries and sweet ice cream hanging in the air. I sit on one side of the booth, assuming Vance would go for the other, but instead he slides in next to me, stretching his arm across the back of the booth behind me.

He smells like a mixture of motorcycle exhaust and some sort of expensive cologne, and sitting this close I can see stubble on his cheek. This feels really, really cliché, straight out of a ’90s rom-com starring a rough leathery bad boy and a chaste good girl.

Oh, if he knew me—the real me—he’d realize I am not that good at all.

“You looked upset earlier. Is everything okay?” he asks softly, as a preppy waitress comes over and hands us two menus.

“I’m fine. A strawberry shake, please,” I say before I can think of what Jessica would order. I’m too tired to play that game.

“Um, yeah, chocolate malt. Thanks,” he adds, giving the waitress a dashing smile before turning his gaze back to me. She stares at him, blinking, for another moment, realizing that yes, it is Vance Reigns, before she hurries off to tell the other waitstaff.

“Are you sure you’re fine?” he asks. “Is there anything I can do?”

I toy with my words, arranging them in my head, before I say, “Do you ever have a little voice in your head that tells you that you aren’t good enough? And you’ve never done anything in your life, so you begin to think that maybe that little voice in your head is right? That maybe you aren’t smart or talented or pretty enough—”

“Pretty? Jess.” He angles himself in the booth to turn his full attention to me. “I think you’re beautiful.”

It’s a phrase I’ve never heard in my life. At least, not directed at me. Not while some utterly gorgeous guy stares into my eyes, his gaze curving down my cheek, resting on my mouth. He knows what beauty is—he must, because he is beautiful. The way his shoulder-length blond hair is twisted back into a bun while wavy locks escape, framing his chiseled face. The intensity of his icy blue eyes makes it a little hard to breathe, and a lot hard to think.

He called me beautiful.




“I-I do?” I stutter. “I…I am?”

“Of course. Why do you seem so surprised?” His thumb trails down the side of my neck.

Gooseflesh prickles my skin before I can remember that I’m Jessica and not Imogen, and Jessica is told that she is beautiful all the time. She lives in a land where she’s probably never been told anything else.

She’s probably reminded that she’s beautiful every day of her life.