Karma Kingsley © 2017
All Rights Reserved
“Dammit. Son of a…” Alex shook out his hand, holding back a curse as he blew a puff of cool air onto his burning fingers. The skin on his knuckles reddened and sizzled, and he clenched his jaw as he waited for the pain to subside. Goddamn new directors and their tea fetishes. He’d burned himself nearly a thousand times since the new management team had taken over the set. He was certain his hands were merely bone and burn marks, as the last of his skin had certainly just sizzled off.
Taking a deep breath, he carefully placed the scalding hot cup of Orange Jasmine onto a tray with two others, both varying pretentious flavors of tea. His new bosses from Maryland, flown in to save the current film from going up in flames, had a particular palate for teas.
Alex had thought they were joking when they requested that he place an order for the list of nearly fifty different flavors of the beverage, but the cold, sharp looks from his collection of recently arrived employers had quickly assured him that being a “tea connoisseur” was no laughing matter. He’d nodded in obedience and quickly hopped on the task, having to call in nearly every favor owed to him for the more exotic brands. He’d thought that was the hard part, until they had taken to requesting that he deliver them a new flavor of burning hot tea on the hour. In addition to the other millions of tasks he had to complete, he now had a timer attached to his waist, set to beep every fifty minutes and remind him to hydrate the arrogant devils that controlled his paycheck.
Though he wasn’t in the business for the money. God knows he wasn’t in it for the money. The shit job came equipped with equally shitty pay, but this was where he needed to be. Starting from the bottom was the only way to get to the top.
He picked the tray of mugs up and balanced it on his palm, keeping it steady with the light touch of his other hand. He plastered on a smile and moved forward toward the three men sitting confidently in chairs labeled with their individual titles. None of them mattered. They all outranked him.
“Oh, the tea is here,” one of them exclaimed, turning in his chair to reach back for one of the glasses.
Alex opened his mouth to warn him that he was taking the wrong glass. He’d arranged them in the order that they sat, so as not to forget who ordered what, but his effort was futile as the man brought the cup to his lips. He took a sip and immediately spit it back into the cup.
“Is this Pomegranate Raspberry?” he asked angrily.
“Uh, yes. But it wasn’t—” Alex started to answer but was quickly cut off.
The man stood up from his chair. He wasn’t an intimidating man. His features were light, his hair platinum blond, and he was barely half Alex’s size, but he was obviously used to having power and money and thought that his size was more threatening than it actually was. His gaze burned furiously into Alex. “I specifically asked for Red Velvet. Did you think that I wouldn’t taste the difference? Do you think that I’m an idiot?”
Alex stared back at him openmouthed. He had no words. He wasn’t even sure how the two questions correlated. He would never be able to taste the difference between any flavor of tea, ever, and he certainly didn’t think himself an idiot. “Well, it’s just—”
“It-it’s just—” the man mocked him. “Just go, runner.”
Alex stood frozen, still staring at him, and mortified by his outburst.
“I said go, before I find your replacement. Hopefully, one that can read the label on a bag of tea.” The man waved him off as his two companions watched silently. Alex gathered himself. He closed his mouth and turned to leave them to bitch about him and his incompetence. He clenched his teeth together. If you want to be in one of those director chairs one day, then you better damn well keep it together, he reminded himself. He was the set’s bitch boy for now but one day, he’d be running the show. One day soon.
“Yeah, I needed those markers down like yesterday…Yes, please tell Caron to get it done as soon as she can and page me when it’s done.” Alex spoke into his headset, delegating orders as fast as he could through each channel. He turned the dial on his walkie-talkie. “Maxine?”
“Yeah, Alex?” Maxine’s voice came through the speaker barely even a second later. She was always on her game.
“Is everything ready to go for the first scene today?”
“Yes, Alex. Props are in place and the stand-ins are running through lighting now.”
Alex smiled. He knew she’d have it taken care of, but it relieved some of his stress to hear her say it. “Excellent. The new exec will be here any minute. No mistakes.”
Alex breathed a sigh of relief. Maxine was competent and loyal and if she said everything was handled, he could take it to the bank. He slid the walkie-talkie back into its holster and made his way over to the actor snack bar, where he checked once more to make sure everything was presented perfectly. Actors could get really bitchy about presentation, even if they neglected to actually eat the food. He nodded to himself in satisfaction but then thought better of it. He wanted to add just a touch more zest to the table.
“Chrystal.” He stopped one of his passing underlings.
“Yeah, Alex?” She pulled her headphones roughly from her ears, snapping to give him immediate attention.
He smiled at her, appreciating the respect. The only upside to having been a runner since the beginning of the project was that he was the King of all the runners. They admired him, trusted him, and took orders like he had the power to have them removed from the set. In actuality, he didn’t. He had no power at all but the more he puffed out his chest, the more pull they believed he had.
“Can you get me a few water bottles? I want to arrange them in sort of a flower shape at the edge of the snack bar.”
“Sure thing, Alex.” She nodded in affirmation and tore off down the hallway to oblige him. He grinned in satisfaction after her.
The corners of his mouth curved down as he turned to find someone picking at his carefully arranged table.
“Hey, you can’t eat off of that,” Alex called out angrily at the destroyer of his hard work. He glared at the top of the soft, blond tresses that lingered over his table, and at the fingers that scavenged over the array of fruit selections.
“Oh, can’t I?”
Alex’s breath caught in his throat, and his gaze unconsciously softened at the beautiful set of soft brown eyes that lifted to meet his. But it wasn’t just the stranger’s eyes that captivated him—it was the full package. The way his face jutted down in sharp angles, softening at his cheekbones to give his elegant features an almost homey touch. The mess of soft blond curls that fell delicately about his head, framing his face in a way that took the breath right out of anyone daring enough to gaze upon his beauty.
“N-no. You can’t.” Alex cursed himself for stumbling. He should have been more confident, more forceful. He was in charge of the runners, and he needed to make it known to the newbies at first meeting. He’d been in the company of beautiful people since the moment he entered the film industry. Actors and actresses with Hollywood-perfect looks stared down at him every day—he shouldn’t have let this particular beauty make him into a fumbling idiot. He knew this guy’s type. The type trying to launch their acting career by starting out behind the scenes. The kind that felt entitled because they’d been a featured extra with two lines on some low-budget sitcom. He had these guys on his staff every day and he’d managed to break them all like wild horses. This one would be no different.
Alex cleared his throat and spoke again. “Listen, new guy. I get it. First day on the job and you don’t know the pecking order. Well, here it is. You go and you get your headset. You stay on channel two at all times. What happens on any other channel doesn’t concern you. You report to me first, and if I’m unavailable then you report to Maxine. If she’s not around, then you follow the orders of anyone else around here who got here before you. Got it?” He rounded the table as he spoke, moving in closer to the beautiful creature that stared back at him.
Alex straightened, trying to make himself seem taller as he puffed out his chest. The man was at least an additional five inches to his six feet, which made him much less intimidating than his speech.
The man blinked at him. Surprise flickered in his features before a thoughtfulness took its place.
Alex narrowed his eyes. What could he possibly be thinking about? He’d laid down the law with no room for questions.
“Okay. Fine. And what is your name?” The man said the words, indicating acceptance of Alex’s demands, but there was something in the way he said them that ruffled Alex. It was as if he were merely entertaining him, toying with him without any actual intention to follow through.
Alex’s blood boiled with rage. He didn’t appreciate being pandered to. He’d poured too many fucking cups of tea and coffee to let some little nobody shit on his nearly meaningless title. “No. That’s not how this works. You give me your name and I’ll call you when I need you.” Alex spit the words out, hoping that he made his point of indignation clear.
“Atwell,” the man drawled. He reached out for a stray slice of watermelon from the plate of fruit, and Alex smacked at his hand. He could feel his fingertips stinging with the force of the slap but he gave no signs of it.
The man drew his hand back, rubbing it. “Ow, well that was quite naughty,” he complained with a smile—a sultry, seductive smile that set Alex’s insides on fire.
Alex found himself fumbling for words again before he gave himself a swift reminder of the kind of guy he was dealing with. Used to privilege because he was pretty.
“I said no eating from this table.” Alex glared at him, not taking his eyes from his gaze for a second. He wanted to melt at those beautiful brown pools that stared back at him, seemingly turning him inside out as they searched him, but the man’s arrogance set a ferocious need to assert his dominance free.
“Alex, I got your water bottles.”
Alex broke their standoff to turn and see Chrystal stumbling toward them with an armful of water bottles, clearly struggling to find a way to set them all down on the table. She jumped to attention and nearly dropped every single one of them to the ground as she looked up at him. No. Not him. Behind him.
“Mr. Richards. I’m sorry. Nobody told us that you had arrived yet. We-we have your requested fruit tray in the back and your chair is ready and by the camera, sir.” Chrystal stared at Alex for backup, but Alex stared back in bewilderment. “I-I’ll go get the tray.” Chrystal hurried off out of sight. Alex stared after her in incomprehension. He could see the outline of Atwell’s shadow closing in on him, and he turned to stare up at him.
His mouth went dry as he recalled the name that Chrystal had called him. Mr. Richards. Certainly, not the Mr. Richards? His heart dropped to his stomach as he realized what he’d done. He felt like an idiot for not putting the pieces together sooner. “You’re Atwell Richards? The executive producer, Atwell Richards?”
“That’s what they tell me.” Atwell smiled at him. He had snagged the piece of watermelon from the table while Alex’s back was turned and nibbled at it knowingly.
“Jesus Christ.” Alex pulled his headset off and handed it to him as he proceeded to unclip his walkie-talkie.
“What are you doing?” Atwell furrowed his eyebrows at him.
“Well…I’m fired, aren’t I?”
Atwell shook his head, taking a step toward him. He was uncomfortably close, using Alex’s own tactics against him, intimidating him with his size. “You aren’t fired. Quite the opposite. I find you very…” He paused as he searched for the word. “Endearing.”
“Endearing?” Alex dropped his hands to his side, still clutching at his headset.
Atwell stroked his chin. “Yes. Charming, likable.”
“Yeah, I know what endearing means,” Alex said flatly.
“And feisty too.” Atwell’s grin widened.
Alex wasn’t sure what to make of him and his comments. He took a step back, needing to put distance between them. “Okay, so now what?”
Chrystal appeared from behind him, balancing a large fruit tray in her arms. “Here you go, Mr. Richards. Follow me and I’ll take you to your chair,” she offered with far too much pep. She cast a glance at Alex, probably wondering why the hell he was just standing there staring at Atwell dumbfounded.
“Now, I have work to do. As I’m sure you do as well.” Atwell picked up a piece of fruit from the tray and followed behind Chrystal as she led him out of sight.
Alex shook his head in disbelief at what had just transpired. He slipped his headphones back over his ears and pressed down on the talk button. “Maxine, why the hell did no one greet Atwell Richards at his car?”
Maxine came through the line, her voice small and frightened. “What? His car hasn’t arrived yet. I’m waiting right here. I’ve even given all of the runners a recent photo to recognize him if he slips past me.”
“Well, he goddamn well did, Maxine, and I just made an ass of myself because of it.”
“What? That’s not possible. I’ve been right here the whole time. Alex, I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened.”
Alex let out a sigh, feeling guilty for shaming her. He would have never pegged the man he just encountered for an executive of anything either. Atwell Richards’s tattered jeans and grunge-work leather jacket didn’t give him the air of superiority Alex had been expecting. “I’m sorry, Maxine. It’s fine. Everything worked out fine. Chrystal is taking him to his chair. No harm, no foul.”
“Don’t worry about it. Let’s just make sure nothing else goes wrong today.”