Ratings – No. 230

Shushing and scrambling filtered through hotel room’s double doors. Slowing on the red carpet, Jane eyed the golden placard naming the executive suite. “I didn’t want this.”

“I know you didn’t.” Gretchen dug into her purse. “But it’s your birthday.”

“Not until tomorrow.” Jane hugged the script, the crisp pages warm with the smell of ink outlining Marjorie Vendee’s part in the season’s final episode.

“Parties don’t have to be on the exact date, hon’.” Retrieving the key-card, Gretchen raised her hand in pledge. “But I promise, tomorrow you can do whatever you want.”

“What I want is dinner with Lewis.”

“Fine. I’ll have him flown in. For now, indulge me. Indulge your fans. I promise it’ll be a great boost for the show.”

Jane jabbed her agent’s meaty arm with a shellacked finger. “I see what you’re really after.”

“That’s what I do.” Gretchen smoothed the dents on her blouse’s sleeve. “Look surprised and it’ll be over before you know it.”

“I’ll hold you to that.” Jane straightened her jacket’s lapels and fluffed her hair. “And about tomorrow.”

“First flight in the morning.”

With a too-loud throat clearing, Gretchen swiped her card through the lock, counted to three, and opened the door. Lifting her chin, Jane strode obliviously inside.

“SURPISE!”

Every light flashed on, scaring shadows from the sitting area’s couches, and making the bar with its blossomed collection of bottles and plastic cups gleam. The faces from Marjorie’s fan club, President Calvin Watts among them, along with more Jane didn’t recognize popped up from behind plush cushions and released a curtain of soaring balloons. Her fans clapped, clutched brightly wrapped packages, waggled bouquets, and fluttered magazines to be autographed. The rest of the crowd flooded through the bedroom’s French doors and from the corridor to the bath amid poppers spewing streamers and high-pitched kazoos, all buffered by the hefty masses of bouncers Bulldozer and Raid.

The din, smiles, and laughter dimmed at the shove and scurry of photographers weaseling their way to the front, cameras snapping, flashes blinding.

“My goodness!” Jane managed a stage smile and blinked the spots from her eyes. Turning to Gretchen, she passed over the script and lowered her voice. “You forgot to mention there’d be press.”

Gretchen arched both caterpillar-brows. “I didn’t?”

With a disbelieving pout, Jane shoved her purse into Gretchen’s waiting hands and spoke for the rafters. “Was this your idea, Gretch’?”

“No, Jane, this was mine.”

The crowd swiveled in a rustle of silks and leathers. Balloons squeaked. Hands covered mouths and murmurs flew. Feet shuffled back, making way for the broad shoulders and long strides working their way through the throng.

Although her dimples stung, Jane strode to nearest armchair and maintained her grin. “Jeremy MacKentire.”

He offered a hand over the cushions. When she accepted, he pulled her in, planting a wet and lengthy kiss on her cheek. The cameras thundered, catching the moment of leading lady and man in the midst of their embrace.

“This is very thoughtful of you.” Jane stepped back, keeping the chair between them and her hand from wiping her cheek clean.

“It wasn’t just him, Jane.”

Again, the crowd swung about. Cameras snapped and questions about Derek rippled through the throng. The villain of so many episodes inspired stares and nudges as he made his entrance in his alternate persona’s typical black suit and silver tie.

“Walter,” said Jane, “what a pleasure.”

“It’s all mine.”

She held her hand out for another shake, but Walter flipped her palm down and with a chivalrous bow worthy of his on-screen persona, he kissed the top of her hand.

Wiggling herself free, Jane steadied on the nearest armrest and fought to retain her smile while the cameras refocused. A ring formed around the three of them, the heat of the moment rivaling the lights on set. Jeremy and Walter, and even Gretchen who slipped a glass of white wine between her fingers, seemed to understand their role before the lenses. They’d practiced their blocking, memorized their lines, and Jane wished someone would give her a cue.

“This is so…unexpected.”

“It’s not just flowers and a party.” When Walter pulled a small blue box from his slacks, a titter claimed the crowd and the press inched close.

Jeremy set his hands on his hips. “I think I should be going first, don’t you, Walt?”

Walter’s grin showed off his canines in a Derek-approved sneer. “First come, first served.”

The room froze, even the bounce of balloons against the ceiling quieting to hollow thuds.

“I’ve never been one to be outdone.” From his blazer, Jeremy revealed a slightly larger power blue cube.

The white bows on both presents hung limp, their trail of ribbons drooping around velvet edges. Each tendril swayed a bit when the crowd inhaled into one set of lungs and held their communal breath.

“You do a lot of things for love,” said Walter.

Before Jane could burst into laughter, Jeremy smacked Walter’s shoulder, making the smaller man wobble.

“You said you were going to back off.”

Walter planted his feet. “A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.”

“So he does.” Jeremy pocketed his gift and shrugged out of his blazer. He pitched it into the seat and motioned at the door Gretchen had left gaping. “Perhaps we should take this outside.”

Jane glanced between them. “Are you two kidding me?”

“I could ask you the same thing.” With a smirk, Walter placed his box onto Jeremy’s jacket and rolled his shoulders. “You can’t really think you can take me, Mac?”

“Like hell I can’t.” Jeremy cracked his knuckles. “We had a deal.”

Jane frowned. “What deal?”

The crowd oh-ed when Walter raised a silencing finger. “This doesn’t concern you.”

Jane bristled. “It sure as hell seems to.”

“He’s just trying to get back at me for ruining his deal with Tellacorp,” said Jeremy.

A disbelieving gasp washed through the crowd.

“Tellacorp? Come on guys, this is reality. This is my—” Gretchen elbowed her gut but when Jane glared, Gretchen’s attention remained locked like the rest on the pair squaring off around the chair.

“This is the end.” In a swift motion, Walter had a gun out, his aim on Jeremy’s chest.

A shriek raced through the room, starting a stampede for the front doors. Balloons bounced against the ceiling and walls. Presents and bouquets tumbled. Feet trampled pages and petals flat. Bulldozer and Raid hustled those who dawdled in shock and others, like Watts, who cried out for Marjorie to come with them.

Gretchen fumbled a phone to her ear. “911?”

Magazine covers splashed with a bloody massacre, caution tape, and police flipped through her mind, and Jane gathered the cameramen in a frantic glance. “Please go.”

The press lowered cameras and shared uncertain glances.

Walter stepped forward, the weapon’s muzzle against Jeremy’s forehead. “Say your goodbyes.”

“Walter, wait,” said Jane, “this is insane.”

He grabbed her by the waist and hauled her against his side. “You’re mine.”

Cameras snapped and Jane tossed her wine into his face, sending Walter sputtering. Seizing the opening, Jeremy lunged. The press backed away when he tackled Walter to the ground. They captured shots of the brawl even as the two bouncers herded them out the door.

The lock fastened with a sharp crack, and at her feet, Walter and Jeremy ceased their wrestling with a lackadaisical bump into a side table. Jane caught a teetering lamp, then set her glass down and perched on the arm of the couch. She looked at Gretchen, recovering from a slouch against the doors with a sly grin, then to the pair on the floor.

Sitting up, Jeremy checked the movement of his jaw. “How’d it go?”

Gretchen neared. “Perfect.”

“Perfect?”

Jane lingered on Jeremy’s grimace, on the pistol Walter swirled around his finger like some Western gunslinger, and Gretchen who offered over the string of a lime-colored balloon. Twisting the ribbon between her fingers, Jane brought the balloon in her lap.

“You set me up?”

“Set up’s a little strong.” Gretchen headed for the bar and began assembling drinks. “Let’s call it a stunt.”

“But the gun?”

“A fake.” Walter pointed at the smashed pile of flowers and pulled the trigger. The hammer hit with faint pops but nothing fired.

“The three of you are crazy,” said Jane, “but especially you.” She waggled the balloon at Gretchen who turned with a full tray.

“I’m brilliant, hon’, that’s why you hired me.”

Walter accepted a beer. “So you think it’ll help the show?”

“Of course it will.”

“It better.” Jeremy pressed a bottle against his cheek, on the bump and developing bruise.

Gretchen held out the tray, Jane’s glass of wine refreshed. “Happy birthday, hon’.”

“Was this my present?”

“No.” Plopping into the couch, Gretchen sipped at her scotch on the rocks. “Better ratings are.”

Chuckling, Jane slipped off the armrest and let the cushions wrap around her. She raised her glass, sharing a toast across the debris. “Just what you always wanted.”