Fifteen-year-old Thea Wallis was born to entertain. Her mother, Oscar winning actress Cassie Hartley, thinks differently and has kept her daughter out of the spotlight since day one. Coming from showbiz royalty, it hasn’t been easy to go unnoticed, but mismatched surnames, a family home in Tasmania and a low-key scriptwriter father has made this possible.
Just like her cousin Rory on the hugely popular TV show Saturday Morning Dance, Thea loves to dance. She learns the show’s routines off by heart each week, despite her mother’s attempts to convince her that dentistry would be a far more fulfilling career choice.
However, when Rory goes off the rails in LA, Thea’s mother is suddenly left with no choice at all – Rory needs them and to LA they must go. Within forty-eight hours, Thea finds herself a long way from Tasmania and living her dream – on the road to Las Vegas with the Saturday Morning Dance team.
It doesn’t take long before Thea’s talents are discovered and she’s offered everything she’s ever wanted on a plate, including the dance partner she’s had a crush on forever. But, as her mother has always told her, Hollywood dreams come at a price. Thea soon realizes she will have to work out just how much she’s willing to pay. And, ultimately, discover her own way to be Hartley.
“Thea?” I hear my mom call out from the kitchen. Her voice distracts me from what I’m doing—what I’ve been doing for the last forty-five minutes—and I miss the step I’ve been getting wrong over and over again. Ugh. What is wrong with me today? I press pause on the remote and take a deep breath, trying to refocus. Okay, one more time. I rewind a few seconds, and it’s only as I’m ready to start over that I frown, realizing that the “Thea” I heard might not have been the first time Mom has “Thea’d” me in the last ten minutes or so.
I take a couple seconds to think about how annoyed she sounded.
Maybe about a seven?
“Coming!” I yell back, hoping that I can buy myself a few more minutes. “I just need to…” I let my words trail off, because not only does Mom already know what I’m doing up here (the thumping on the floorboards is a dead giveaway), she doesn’t entirely approve.
As I press play again, I decide, this time, to concentrate on my cousin Rory’s image on the screen. She and her partner Noah aren’t the lead dancers in the advanced segment on Saturday Morning Dance today, but it’s easier for me to follow someone I’m so familiar with, even if she is in the background.
The only problem is, as soon as I focus on Rory, I don’t get any further than before, because I simply lose it. The show today is a special eighties show, and the two songs we’re dancing to in the advanced segment are both Michael Jackson. The first one was “Thriller,” which was a whole lot of zombie fun. This one is a song I don’t think I’ve heard before—”P.Y.T.” I’m loving it, though. And Rory obviously thinks it’s a find as well, because she is goofing around back there with her partner, trying hard not to laugh—if that smirk on her face is anything to go by. Fair enough, really. After all, there’s some pretty weird stuff going on in that song, including…
“Michael Jackson’s ‘Pretty Young Thing,'” a voice says, and I turn to see my mom behind me, leaning against one of the house’s tall metal columns. “I haven’t heard that song in years. I thought I recognized that grunting and panting. Oh, and let’s not forget the odd chipmunk vocals at the end…”
I press pause on the remote again and raise one eyebrow as I stare at her. “Um, I hate to bring this up,” I remind her, “but you’re the one who dated him.”
“Once. One date. Before all the…fuss. And I was seventeen. It hardly even counts.” She shakes her head with its tight cap of trademark blond Hartley curls.
My eyebrow travels even higher now. “Hate to break it to you, Mom, but I think any number of dates with Michael Jackson counts. Especially now.”
She sighs at this, defeated. “Yes. Especially when people won’t let you forget about them. Wait, hang on. Not that there was ‘them’ as in, plural dates. It was one date. I’ve told you before. We got ice cream. It lasted forty-five minutes max. It was nothing! A publicity stunt, really. Now, dinner in five minutes. Understand?”
“I’ll be right there,” I say, going back to the TV. There’s no point quizzing her on how many scoops and what flavors MJ got, because I’ve asked her a hundred times before and she can’t remember. Yet—and this is just unbelievable to me—she can remember the exact outfit my dad, the scriptwriter, wore on their first date. And every course that he ordered. And how she fell for him when he somehow accidentally dunked his tie in his glass of red wine, then tried to pretend it was some kind of sophisticated wine-tasting maneuver. (I’ll stop here before I vomit.) Sure, I love my dad, but come on, Mom…really?
“Oh, and Thea?”
I look back at her now, in case she finally has remembered Michael Jackson’s ice cream preference. “The problem is you’re not hitting the fourth beat hard enough. Hold it for a half second longer and you’ll get it.” And, with this, she steps forward and pulls off the move effortlessly. “One, two, three and four. See? Don’t be in such a hurry all the time.”
“Um, okay.” I rewind, ready to start over, my eyes wide. How long has she been standing there? And how can it be that easy? Anyway, I take what she said and run with it. After all, my mom’s been in the entertainment biz for forty-one-and-a-half of her forty-two years. (She started at six months with a soap commercial—six months pretty much being the average age every Hartley enters show business. Oh, except me, of course. I’m banned.) She knows what she’s talking about when it comes to stuff like this.
Ready to give it another try, I choose not to focus on my goofy cousin. Instead, I opt to follow Lucia and her partner Tobias. Nice and safe. And when I get to the step I keep messing up, I hit the fourth beat harder and hold it that half second longer.
And my mom’s right.
I’ve got it.
With a big smile on my face, I press pause one more time and swivel around to see my mom still hovering. But she doesn’t look equally happy that I’ve mastered the step that was tripping me up. In fact, she doesn’t look happy at all—she looks kind of…deflated. She takes the few steps over to me then reaches out to push some of my sweaty curls back behind one ear. “Oh, Thea,” she says with a sigh. “Honey, be careful what you wish for.”
– 4 –
Unlike Miley, I hop off the plane at LAX, not with a dream, or a cardigan, but with a hoodie and a mother who’s dragging her feet, lagging way behind her peeps (aka Deb and Anna and me).
As we make our way down the long corridor toward immigration, my mom texts Dad to tell him we’ve arrived, then pulls a Hermes scarf out of her purse and ties it around her head, leaving only a few trademark blonde curls peeking out the front.
I walk backward for a few steps, other first class passengers passing by and taking in her airport outfit modification. “You know they never let you keep it on,” I tell her, shaking my head. Honestly, I don’t know why she bothers. She used to get away with it years ago, but immigration is way stricter now. She hasn’t been allowed to keep a scarf on since I don’t know when. I’ve told her—if she really wants to fly under the radar, she’d be better off borrowing one of my hoodies, flying coach, and ditching her fancy luggage, her in-flight pashmina, SK-II beauty regimen, Hermes passport holder, her staff, all that stuff.
In front of the immigration officer, it all goes exactly the way we both knew it would. “Remove your scarf, please, ma’am,” the guy says, and Mom complies. He looks down at her passport, then up again with a slight frown. Then down again, then up again with a wide smile. “Lovely to see you home, Ms. Hartley.”
Next to me, I feel my mom tense. “Well…” is her reply as she reties her scarf, angling to get moving again. Thankfully, she doesn’t stop to point out that “home” is now in Tasmania. She finishes off with a jaunty knot and a “Thank you.” My mom prides herself on being one of those stars who values her privacy, but who also signs autographs when asked and who doesn’t actually throw things at the paparazzi. (But to be fair, she did once beat one half to death with a rolled-up magazine when his camera flash woke me up from my toddler nap in my stroller and he snapped one of those three photos I mentioned, but everyone thought that was totally justified and he dropped the charges because his mom made him.)
Of course, by the time the rest of us have been processed, with our luggage collected from the conveyer belt and our group passed through customs, the fact that Cassie Hartley is in the terminal is practically old news. By this point, there’s an airport security guy assigned to us, and as we head out of arrivals, there are already about thirty paparazzi waiting for us.
“The car’s waiting.” Deb nods at Mom, cell to her ear. “We can go now.” She turns to the security guy. “It’s a black Mercedes SUV. Right out front.”
“We’re waiting on security at the other end,” the guy says, but then he gets a call on his radio. After he answers it, he points forward. “He’s there, so we’re good to go. Straight through. I’ll lead the way. I’m sure you know the drill by now, Ms. Hartley.”
Mom turns to Deb, Anna, and me. “Like I told you. No stopping. Not for anything. And try to keep Thea between you two.”
“Mom,” I groan. “I’m not a baby anymore.”
“And no arguments!” she snaps at me. We’ve only just landed in LA and she’s already had enough.
“All right already!” I say.
We walk quickly—the security guy first, then Deb with a luggage cart, then Mom, me and Anna bringing up the rear with another cart. The flashes start almost instantly, bright and blinding, the voices yelling over the top of each other to get Mom’s attention. I’d been feeling okay before, but now, with all the confusion, I’m suddenly a bit woozy from the long flight.
“Cassie! Over here! Here! Cassie!” they call out, and Mom’s hand grips mine tighter, pulling me toward her. “Cassie! Hey! Oh my god, I can’t believe it! It’s my lucky day—it’s her daughter!” I hear as we keep walking. “Cleo! Over here!” someone else calls out. “It’s not Cleo, it’s Tia. No, Thea, that’s it! Lose the hood, kid! Hey, Thea! Show us the hair!”
When she hears my name, Mom pulls my hand again, and I jerk forward, losing the hood on my head that she made me pull up seconds before we hit arrivals.
And there it is, in all its glory. The Hartley hair. The paparazzi go absolutely wild. The yelling gets louder and the flashes flash faster.
“Thea! Thea! Hey, kid! Over here!”
But it’s too late. In a second we’re outside, and I’m being shoved unceremoniously into the back of the SUV.
As my mom sits down beside me and buckles up, she glances at my unhooded head and doesn’t look one bit impressed. “Not. My. Fault.” I point one finger at her. “You pulled me forward and it fell down.”
She leans back into the tan leather seat with a sigh and stares out the window, not even putting up a fight or pointing out that after my hood fell down, I didn’t exactly rush to pull it back up again. “Ugh, I hate LA,” she says, petulantly. “That Erik…”
As for me? Well, as my mom is dealing with the fact that my hair and I are about to be seen by millions of people, I look out the window trying to hide my grin, because how my mom feels about LA? I have to admit I feel exactly the opposite way.
– 5 –
Rory cranks the radio up, and we drive out through the gates and start down the twists and turns of Sunset Plaza Drive.
We chat as we stop at all the stop signs and slowly make our way to Sunset Boulevard. At one stop sign, someone honks and waves at us, and Rory waves back. “That’s Cindy, one of our neighbors,” she says before moving forward again. “Hey, you’ll love this juice bar. It’s fantastic—everything’s organic and they use this raw sugarcane sweetener…yum.”
“Sounds good,” I say as we make a right-hand turn and hit the main road. As we do, someone sitting and waiting at the set of lights honks and waves. “Who’s that?” I ask Rory.
“Beats me,” she says. “We’ll get a lot of that. Just ignore it.”
“Oh, right. I see.” I guess the combination of pink Bentley and RORY plates attracts a bit of attention. Which is what SMD is after, I suppose.
Over the next few minutes, I get to see why Rory’s not so keen on her new wheels. The few times I’ve been allowed to let Rory drive me somewhere in Frank, I didn’t realize there were quite so many sets of lights on Sunset Boulevard. Back then, she went largely undetected, especially if she wore a baseball cap, and I was free to enjoy the views, the palm fronds bobbing high above us, the unfamiliar billboards, everyone busily coming and going. Sure, there were a few paparazzi who knew her regular plates, but not too many. But now…every time we have to slow down for traffic or stop at a red light, people honk, people stare in the windows, people wave. At one point, we pull up next to a yellow school bus, one kid spots us, and then the whole bus begins rocking as the kids jump up and down in excitement at seeing Rory going about her everyday business.
“Am I supposed to wave?” I ask Rory.
She shrugs. “If you want.”
I give a small, half-hearted wave at the kids, and they go absolutely crazy. “Hmmm, maybe that’s not such a good idea,” I tell her as one kid in particular waves her arms around, tries to get closer to the window, and accidentally slams another kid’s face into the glass.
“I know you guys don’t travel together and everything, but you really don’t ever get this with your mom?” Rory sounds confused.
“You know how she operates.” I shrug. “Mom and Dad tag-team it—one of them works and the other one sticks with me. If we do have to travel together, I stick with Beth, my tutor. And believe me, no one’s the slightest bit interested in Thea Wallis and Beth Gibbs, her tutor.”
“Well, I am,” Rory says as we pull away from the school bus and leave the kids behind.
“Thanks,” I say flatly.
“What’s up?” She frowns, concentrating on the road.
“Oh, the usual. Can’t go anywhere by myself, can’t do anything for myself. If Mom had her way, I’d still be collecting Barbies and getting pushed around in a stroller.”
“Ah, that,” Rory answers me, her voice sympathetic. “Maybe now that Allie’s better we could start hassling them about sending you to her school again?”
“Maybe.” The truth is, however, I can’t see my mom changing her mind. Still, I let it go. I don’t really like complaining about my mom issues in front of Rory and Allie, who don’t have a mom. Well, not one that’s around, anyway. Rory and Allie’s mom, Margaret, left when Allie was two. They still see her now and then, but she remarried and they bought the whitest penthouse you’ve ever seen. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of room in her new life for Rory and Allie, though I bet she likes to brag about Rory plenty. Every so often, when Mom forgets I’m in the room, she’ll say something nasty about Margaret that I’m not supposed to hear. I get the feeling my grandmother might have hand-picked Margaret (the daughter of a senator) for Uncle Erik. And Uncle Erik did what he was told. Which is probably why Uncle Erik sees more of my mom now than my grandmother. I guess they have a lot in common.
I shake my head slightly. “Anyway…” I reach forward and turn the radio down. “We’re supposed to be talking about you. So, spill already.”
Rory shrugs. “What am I supposed to say? Ugh…I don’t know. I’m just over it, that’s all. There’re changes going on at SMD, okay? Big changes I don’t really agree with.”
“Oh?” I say, hoping she’ll continue and tell me more. “Like?”
She pauses then seems to brush my question away. “Oh, I don’t know. Lots of things. And I can’t wait to get going on this Vegas bus trip tomorrow. Cooped up for three days with Sonja, her gutless assistant Melinda, and Mara. That’s my idea of a good time.” She couldn’t sound more sarcastic if she tried.
“Hang on,” I say. “Sonja’s the new producer, right? The crazy one?” Last season, the SMD ratings had started to dip, and a new producer had been brought in. Sonja was that producer, and from what it sounded like, she was going to make this show successful again if it was the last thing she ever did.
“Crazy’s the word,” Rory agrees. “As in, crazy about making SMD the highest-rated show every single week forevermore. Talk about driven. And speaking of driven, she’s making us drive to LA. Together. Wait till you see it—we’ve got this big touring bus with SMD plastered all across the side. Almost as inconspicuous as this car. We’re supposed to be bonding.”
“But…” I start.
“I know! We’ve been a team for the past five years. And some of us for years before that, on Saturday Morning Kids. You’d think we’d have bonded by now if we were going to, right? Anyway.” Rory sighs. “It doesn’t matter. Let’s not talk about that right now. I’m even over talking about it, which is all Dad ever wants to do—talk, talk, talk, talk, talk.”
“Mmm,” I answer, really uncomfortable with how all this is going. Rory is acting… very un-Rory-like. Kind of hyper and odd. And I can’t remember a time she actually told me she didn’t want to discuss something before. Maybe now’s not the best time to bring up the fake boyfriend?
“Hey, we’re almost there. Only one more set of lights. The owner is really sweet. He lets me park in the back so the car’s hidden away, which I totally love him for.”
We pull up at the set of lights Rory mentioned, and she points across the road. “It’s over there.”
I’m craning my neck to see the shop she’s pointing to when I’m distracted by a tapping on my right-hand side. When I check to see what’s going on, the guy from the lane next to us is holding a piece of paper up to the window.
“Is that his cell number?” I say, not believing my eyes.
Rory glances over. “Well, I doubt it’s his IQ,” she says, unimpressed. “It’s about eight numbers too long.”
I take a second look. “He’s, um, pretty cute. And so is his friend.”
Rory takes a second look as well now. “Maybe. If you like that kind of thing. Not my type, though.”
“What’s your type?” I ask her.
“Guys who don’t pick me up at the lights.”
I laugh at this. “Not all of us can be so choosy. I’m not lucky enough to have a ‘type.’”
Rory becomes a tad more animated on hearing this and twists around in her seat, her hands still gripping the wheel. “Wait. What are you saying? Are you into boys now? My little cousin is into boys?”
“I was always into boys. They just weren’t into me. Or aren’t into me. Or don’t know I exist. Or something.”
“What? You can’t be serious. Guys don’t like you? I don’t believe it.” She frowns.
I think about this for a second. “Well, maybe that’s not fair. I don’t ever actually get to meet any boys, guys, you know—members of the opposite sex. Maybe a few at dance workshops and stuff, but they’re pretty few and far between. It’s mostly girls who go to those.”
Rory gets an expression on her face then. One I’ve seen before—one that generally means we’re about to do something that could get us into a lot of trouble, but we’ll be sure to have a good time doing it. This is a girl hell-bent on looking for distraction. “Well, how about it, then? Want to meet some?”
I glance over at the two guys then back at Rory. “Them?”
“Yes, them. I think they might be willing. You know how I can tell? Because they’re holding up a cell number to the window.”
“Very funny.” I throw her a withering look.
“Well?” Rory’s waiting for my answer. “What’ll it be? Yes or no?”
“Um, yes? Maybe? I don’t know?”
“Oh, for goodness sake.” Rory leans over me now and points out the juice bar we’re going to, then gestures for the guys to follow us.
And then, as the lights change to green, they do.
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Allison Rushby is the Australian author of a whole lot of books. She is crazy about Mini Coopers, Devon Rex cats, Downton Abbey and corn chips. You can often find her procrastinating on Twitter at @Allison_Rushby or on Facebook. That is, when she’s not on eBay, or Etsy, or any other place she can shop in secret while looking like she’s writing…