COURTING TROUBLE

Courting Trouble Copyright © 2016 Lizzie Shane. All rights reserved.

Chapter One

"Oh my God, you're her, aren't you?"

Oh, hell, not today. Elena suppressed a groan as a woman in head-to-toe pink yoga couture stepped into her path on the sidewalk. The fuzzy pink roadblock clutched a rolled hot-pink yoga mat to her chest, her eyes wide and eager as she reached out with her other hand to clasp Elena's arm as if they were old friends bumping into one another on the street rather than complete strangers.

The move also locked Elena in place in case she'd been considering dodging around her new friend and making a run for it. Not that she'd considered running. Much.

Elena had long since learned there was no point denying it once she'd been recognized--especially when she was wearing a dress she'd worn to one of the cocktail parties on the show. Unfortunately, buying a new outfit for Caitlyn's wedding wasn't in the budget right now so the slinky blue wrap dress was getting another appearance--and making Elena stick out like a bright blue beacon on the Santa Monica sidewalk. She could already see other shoppers pausing and glancing her way.

Best to give the fans their thirty-second thrill and get back to her life.

Elena curved her lips into a catlike smile, winked and admitted, "I might be."

"You are!" her hot pink barricade crowed gleefully. "Oh my God, I just love you. Can I get a picture with you? Just one? No one will believe I met you for real. Heather!" She flapped a hand at another woman exiting the yoga studio inconveniently situated midway between Elena and her car. "Heather, come here! It's the Slutty Suitorette!"

And there it was. The all-too-familiar kick in the stomach.

You get topless with one guy on national television and suddenly you have a hashtag nickname you can never escape. Thank you, social media.

Her super-fan turned away to frantically wave her friend over, momentarily releasing Elena--whose smile didn't so much as waver even as she mentally punched more pins into her imaginary Twitter Voodoo doll.

Heather joined Elena's new best friend, adding a chorus of "No way" to the "Oh my God" anthem. The two of them kept up a running commentary of "You are so much hotter in person" and "Is Samantha going to be the next Miss Right?" and "Was Daniel as big a dick as he seemed on television?" and "Do you just hate Caitlyn now?" even as they aimed and fired their camera-phones.

Elena concentrated on her smile and the perfect pose. Sunglasses off, chin down, eyes up, shoulders back, hand-on-hip--the motions were automatic now. She may not be able to control what the tabloids were saying about her or stop people--even people who claimed to love her--from using that goddamn nickname, but she could damn sure guarantee that she looked hot every time she stepped out of her apartment and took a phenomenal photograph whenever she was ambushed with a camera-phone.

She graciously accepted their compliments, protested she did not know who the next Miss Right would be, and confirmed that Daniel was, indeed, the douchebag to end all douchebags, before explaining that she and Caitlyn were actually quite good friends and she had to be running along because she was on her way to Caitlyn's wedding--to a man who deserved her a thousand times more than Daniel-the-dipshit ever could.

That last bit of news sent her new friends into paroxysms of delight--and had the desired effect of extracting her from their clutches. They shooed her off, mortified by the very idea that they would make her late for Sainted Caitlyn's wedding, and called good wishes for the bride and groom after her as she moved quickly down the sidewalk.

Elena kept her gaze straight ahead and distant behind her sunglasses, avoiding eye-contact with her fellow pedestrians in the hope that no one else would be tempted to waylay her now that Heather and Michelle had broken the seal. She'd learned in the last few months that after the first person accosted her, everyone else in the vicinity thought they had automatic permission to do the same, becoming more and more insistent as they gained in numbers.

And if she tried to turn them away that insistence could quickly turn belligerent. She had chosen to go on national television and make a spectacle of herself, after all. What right did she have to privacy? Or personal space?

She'd reveled in the attention at first--the whole idea of going on the show had been to get famous. To stop being invisible and become notorious enough that she could at least get an audition for a real part rather than just being another pretty face in a sea of unknown hopefuls.

Well, she'd gotten what she wished for. She was notorious and the offers were rolling in, but they were the wrong kind of offers. Doing a shoot for Playboy online wasn't going to help her escape the Slutty Suitorette appellate. And a porno was hardly going to be the break-out film that would land her a Golden Globe nomination.

She'd given up her day job to go on the show--and she hadn't worried about it for a second because Marrying Mister Perfect was supposed to be her big break. But now her savings were getting lower every month and prospective employers didn't want the kind of attention she brought with her. Elena Suarez was a walking fiasco and all of Southern California seemed to know it.

Though if she ever decided she wanted to take up stripping, she'd have her choice of poles.

And unfortunately if things didn''t turn around soon, she may find herself trying on G-strings before long.

She'd hoped the initial frenzy would die down--and it had, somewhat. At least the paparazzi weren't camped outside her apartment anymore, like they had been when the worst of the episodes were airing. She was still a sideshow act, but being stopped by fans of the show who called her the Slutty Suitorette without ever seeming to realize they were insulting her wasn't so bad.

It wasn't the worst thing that had been said about her online. Or to her face. America's Sweetheart she was not.

She'd learned never to give out her email address and had gotten a lot of practice at changing her cell phone number after it was posted on a message board once and hacked twice--but that was just the price of fame. She could handle it. She'd wanted this. Been desperate for it.

Now if only she'd had one or two of the perks of fame to go with it.

From the corner of her eye, she saw several phones being lifted for stealthy pictures as she walked past, but she made it the rest of the way back to her car unmolested. She unlocked her little Beetle and slid inside, setting the bag from the stationary store which contained Caitlyn's wedding present on the passenger seat.

They were still watching her. She didn't need to look back down the sidewalk to feel the stares. How many of them would sell those cell phone pictures? She didn't fool herself for a second that the captions would be as innocuous as Slutty Suitorette Goes Shopping! The gossip rags would probably have her buying crotch-less lingerie for an affair with a married septuagenarian by this time next week.

Elena threw her car into first and pulled out of the parking spot, enjoying the feeling of revving her little yellow Bug through the gears as she zipped north toward the Pacific Coast Highway.

Caitlyn's wedding was being held at a private beachfront mansion in Malibu--thanks to some help from the deep pockets of the Marrying Mister Perfect franchise who were filming a Making-the-Wedding Special. The ceremony wasn't scheduled to start until much closer to sunset, but Caitlyn had invited Elena and a couple of the other former Suitorettes to join her for a private champagne toast at the mansion before she needed to start making herself bridal.

Elena checked the time and floored it up the highway, digging one-handed in her bag for the little scrap of paper on which she'd scribbled the directions.

She found it, wadded in a corner of her bag, and smoothed the scrap against the steering wheel, frowning as she tried to make out her own handwriting. The name of the street was clear enough, but the number had been smudged.

Catching sight of the street, she turned sharply across traffic--and almost had to slam on the brakes to avoid running over a paparazzo. Not that it would have been much of a loss, but it would have been hard to explain to a judge. Plausible deniability and all that.

She needn't have worried about figuring out which house was the right one--a small pack of paparazzi swarmed around the gate at the second driveway on the street. It wasn't a Kardashian level feeding frenzy, but it was a bigger group than she'd expected. Especially this early in the afternoon, before any of the guests would normally be expected to arrive.

The fence was high, the foliage thick and the driveway long, so she could only see the roofline of the mansion as she pulled up at the gate. The paparazzi swarmed closer, shouting, "Elena! Elena, over here!"

She smiled and tossed them a wave--resisting the urge to add a middle-fingered salute. One of the security guards at the gate shouted something that made the ravening hordes fall back and she rolled down her window at his approach.

There were two guards, neither of which she recognized from the show, but she vaguely remembered Caitlyn telling her something about hiring additional muscle--and these two both had muscular down to an art.

Unlike the show's security guards who tended to wear t-shirts and jeans and look more like bouncers than bodyguards, these two wore dark, tailored suits that looked like they cost more than her car. Both were jaw-droppingly handsome in very different ways--more like actors hired to pretend to be security than actual security, though they carried themselves like they knew they were the biggest badass on the block. The bigger of the two was built like a professional football player--a giant hulking mass of muscle, his shaved head gleaming darkly in the sunshine.

The one who approached the car, on the other hand, was all lean grace--more quarterback than linebacker. His light brown hair was cut short, which only seemed to accentuate the classically handsome lines of his face.

Hello, gorgeous.

Stud Muffin here was exactly the kind of guy she would lose her impulse-control for, if she hadn't sworn off men. And anything else that negatively impacted her impulse-control. She was New Elena now. And New Elena did not cause scandals. She was too busy trying to live down all the ones she was already saddled with thanks to Old Elena.

Stud Muffin carried a tablet, which he lifted as he stopped at her open window, all business. "Name?"

She arched a brow over her sunglasses, waving toward their paparazzi audience. "Didn't you hear? I'm Elena-Elena-look-over-here."

"Is that under L for 'look over' or H for 'here'?" he deadpanned

Elena grinned, tempted to like this guy. He hadn't even missed a beat. "Suarez. Elena Suarez. Caitlyn's expecting me."

He hummed acknowledgment and tapped his tablet to flick through his list, while she occupied herself with admiring his profile. The man really was entirely too handsome for her self-restraint. The urge to flirt had her reaching up and tipping her sunglasses to the top of her head so she could make eye contact. Daniel--useless douchebag though he may be--had always told her that she could make him lose his train of thought with just a look.

She cranked The Look up to full volume.

Stud Muffin didn't even notice.

His attention was wholly focused on the tablet. She cleared her throat softly. He flicked another page.

She looked down at his left hand, but there was no ring on his finger.

Elena hadn't been invisible in so long she'd forgotten how annoying it was. All too soon he found her name on his list. Tapping it once, he snapped a crisp nod to his partner, who moved to open the gate.

"Have a nice evening, Ms. Suarez." He patted the roof of her car, stepping back.

"Thanks." Elena flipped her sunglasses back down over her eyes, resisting the urge to pout. She shouldn't have been flirting in the first place, but she was irrationally irritated that her target hadn't even noticed the do-me eyes she was giving him. That was premium grade sex appeal she'd wasted on him.

She rolled through the gate, one elbow resting on her open window. Another guard--this one even more disgustingly handsome and whom she swore she recognized from a cologne ad--passed out of the gate as she was driving in, calling out, "Hey, Dylan, the boss man wants to see you in the command center. I'm supposed to relieve you of duty."

Stud Muffin--Dylan, apparently--passed over the tablet and started moving toward the open gate before Elena's car rounded a curve in the drive and the Studs on Parade at the gate vanished from her rearview. She forced her attention forward. She was New Elena now. New Elena did not ogle. New Elena was chaste and pure if it killed her. And it just might.

 

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