A budding starlet and her handsome-but-moody co-star go from bitter enemies to reluctant partners when they get tangled up in the disappearance of a beautiful young actress in 1930s Hollywood.
Eighteen-year-old Henrietta arrives in Los Angeles in 1934 with dreams of trading her boring life for stardom.
She’s determined to make it as an actress, despite her family’s doubts and rumors of would-be starlets gone missing. And by the skin of her teeth, she pulls it off! A serendipitous job offer arrives and Henrietta finds herself on a whirlwind publicity tour for a major film role—with a vexingly unpleasant actor tapped by the studio to be her fake boyfriend.
But fierce Henrietta has more in common with brooding Declan than she realizes. They both have gifts that they are hiding, for fear of being labeled strange: he is immune to injury and she can speak to ghosts. When the co-stars get tangled up in the disappearance of a beautiful young actress, they go from bitter enemies and pretend lovers to reluctant partners—and possibly even friends.
Together, they might be the only people in Hollywood who can do something about these poor missing girls. And in doing so . . . they might just fall in love for real.
This whip smart, seductive caper by the author of Murder for the Modern Girl has the perfect combination of romance, vengeance, and a hint of the supernatural, set in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Hand to fans of These Violent Delights and My Lady Jane.
Release date: May 23, 2023
Publisher: Holiday House
Print pages: 352
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A Starlet's Secret to a Sensational Afterlife
Funny thing: when you drop a bomb, there is a moment of absolute silence before the explosion. I witnessed it myself—a space all of three seconds long, during which every one of my family members stopped what they were doing to stare at me with identical expressions of Excuse me??
Unsurprisingly, my oldest sister was the first to collect herself. Ruby’s fork dropped with a clatter as she pinned me with a stare so fierce I half expected to find my rear permanently glued to the seat. “Absolutely not. Ab. So. Lute. Ly. Not.”
That seemed to set everyone else off, too.
Papa: Did you say “Hollywood”?
Mama: But darling, that’s in California.
Genny: (No comment. But she did roll her eyes and go back to her book, which for her was a State of the Union address.)
“It’s ridiculous!” Ruby again, opining, but luckily her opinion didn’t matter. “Hollywood is two thousand miles away!”
I gave her a toothy smile. “Exactly.”
“That’s where they make the pictures, don’t they?” my mother asked from the end of the table, her voice, as usual, all airy dreams and perfume. “What will you do there?”
“Have you thought this through, Henrietta?” Papa asked. He took off his glasses and cleaned them, meticulously, on his handkerchief: his tell for when one of his daughters was worrying him. Poor Papa. He’d had spotless glasses for a decade now.
“Of course I have,” I said, just as Ruby answered, “Of course she hasn’t.” We snarled at each other for half a second, then we each got to work.
“Mama, it’s just the most magical place! Can’t you imagine me up on the screen?”
“Well, you know, dear, all my life people told me I should be an actress and you’ve always favored—”
“...dirty, mean, unfriendly—Papa, the whole city’s paved with bad intentions and the dreams of girls like Henny. If she goes, she’ll be back here in three months, her savings gone—and that’s if we’re lucky!”
Normally, I loved Ruby. I even liked her, even at her most annoyingly mother-grizzly-bear. Or rather, I liked her better than my twin, Genevieve, who sat opposite me with her nose so deeply buried in a book it was a wonder she didn’t fall in. She’d realized my plan to abandon Chicago for sunny Hollywood had nothing to do with her and promptly ignored the rest of the conversation. I could’ve set the table on fire and she’d only notice when it got too smoky to read.
Papa cleared his throat, and we all settled down like good little hens. His Grand Judgments were rare enough these days to warrant our full attention. “Henrietta,” he said in h
is thoughtful, lawyerly voice, “please explain yourself.”
Please explain yourself. I was going to have those words engraved on my tombstone. My entire childhood it was “Henrietta! Are you climbing up the outside of the house?! Please explain yourself!” and “I saw you get out of that young man’s car, please explain yourself,” and “WHO USED UP ALL MY ROUGE HENRIETTA EXPLAIN YOURSELF!”
So I’d had plenty of practice. My hands folded neatly in front of me, I regarded the jury.
“Papa. Mama. Ruby. Degenerate.” Genevieve looked over the edge of the book with narrowed eyes. “I’ve decided to go to Hollywood and try to make it in the movies.”
“You can’t. Henny, you can’t.” Ruby crossed her arms. “Where are you going to get the money?”
“I have money. Enough for three months’ room and board at the Hollywood Studio Club, a clean and wholesome boardinghouse for clean and wholesome girls.”
Genevieve, who shared a bedroom with me and had witnessed me using our fire escape to great personal advantage over the last few years, snorted a laugh but said nothing. Probably because she still wanted to live.
“Wait a sec, I just read—” Ruby jumped up from her chair and popped back into the dining room a moment later, the sail of an open newspaper crinkling around her. “Look at this! ‘Parents Plead for Information About Missing Girl.’ Miss Irma Van Pelt, of Evanston, Illinois, left for Hollywood to become an actress a year ago. Now she’s missing! Mama, that could be Henny!”
In spite of the stab of pity I felt for Miss Irma Van Pelt, I considered this a low blow from Ruby. She knew that young girls could find danger down sunny side streets in small towns just as easily as in a place like Hollywood. I hardly gave the article a glance before snatching the paper out of Ruby’s hands.
“Probably ran off with some millionaire European magnate,” I said, balling it up and tossing it into a corner. “Anyway, it said she had a hard time finding any work, and I won’t have to worry about that.”
Ruby crossed her arms. “Oh, really? I can’t imagine the studios let just anyone in off the street.”
I sat up straighter. “You are looking at the winner of the Woodbury Facial Soap Citywide Beauty Contest. Prize: one one-way ticket to Hollywood and a bona fide screen test.” Ruby went white as I reached into my pocket and pulled out my trump card: the ticket, a folded-up certificate, and a letter of congratulations from the president of Woodbury Facial Soap, instructing me when and where to go for my screen test.
“Let me see that,” Ruby said, pulling the bundle from between my fingers.
“Oh, a beauty contest!” Mama said, clapping her hands together. “Darling, was it very crowded?”
“Two hundred girls.” It was actually closer to twenty, but my family didn’t need to know that.
“Did they climb out of Lake Michigan?” Genevieve asked, and I flicked a pea at her.
“How do you know this isn’t a con?” Ruby asked, peering down at the letter in search of fine prin
t—which was practically her job, busy as she was these days trying to break barriers and become some fine, sword-swinging lady lawyer. She had a few more months of school before her professors unleashed her on an unwitting public, and then everybody’d better watch out. I was actually quite proud of her, when she wasn’t swinging that sword of justice in my direction. “I’m going to call this Mr. Woodbury.”
She got up from the table right then, although it was Sunday night and I doubted even the hardworking people at the Woodbury Facial Soap Company would be in the office.
“No answer!” Ruby called from the hallway. She appeared a minute later in the doorway, hands on her hips. “What happens if you get out there and the whole thing was just some publicity stunt so Mr. Woodbury can sell a few more bars of soap? Have any of these past winners ever gone on to anything?”
“Who cares about them? I’m me. And I’m going to do it.”
“Men are going to try to take advantage of you.” Ruby tossed the letter onto the table.
“Men already try to take advantage of me.” I gave a wave with my hand. “Maybe now I can get something out of it.”
“Henrietta!” Mama said, trying to sound scandalized. “You’re only eighteen!”
“And getting older every second.”
“That’s another thing.” Ruby gave me a hard look. “You look cute now with your blond hair and blue eyes and rosy cheeks, but pretty soon you’ll turn thirty years old and no one will hire you again.”
“Oh, pish. By then I’ll be retired to a mansion with my lovable cocker spaniels and third husband.”
“No, not dogs, dear,” said Mama. “They shed everywhere.”
“You’ve all lost your minds!” Ruby said, her cheeks flushed and eyes glittering and jaw clenched. She had her hands in fists at her side but she took a deep breath and looked me in the eyes. “Henny. Hollywood is nothing but a fantasy, and you are too smart to chase fame and glamor. What on earth do you want to do with any of it?”
She said it like the words tasted bad, like she couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to muck around in all that filth, and it was the first time I felt a flash of real anger. She didn’t get it, my sweet sister, my brilliant sister, six years older, who’d had her wild flapper years, her years of parties in Gold Coast mansions and drinking bathtub booze and sneaking off to the backseats of expensive cars. That was gone now. Ruby’s friends thought they were building towers made out o
f dreams and in the end, that was exactly what they were: nothing concrete or real or solid, skyscrapers of Champagne flutes and feathers. By the time it was my turn for that delicious gin-soaked-black-silk-long-pearls-sweaty-curls debauchery, the party’d ended and the bill came due.
The markets collapsed, the jobs disappeared, and Ruby had disappeared into her safe, secluded university and left us holding the bag. Left me holding the bag, thank you very much, what with Papa growing frailer and Mama absolutely hopeless and Genevieve as ungrateful as the cat. I was the one who had to let the housekeeper go, to encourage Mama to turn her gorgeous exotic hothouse into a vegetable garden, to arrange the budget and penny-pinch for groceries and barter and sell and trade and squabble over every little thing that came into or left this house.
Now the ship had made it through the storm, more or less, with everyone blinking into the sunlight, not noticing I’d almost snapped in half from the sheer weight of it—but didn’t, thanks to one thing.
You know that moment, when you’re sitting in a theater, when it smells like popcorn and taffy and too many children, and the lights have gone all the way out, so you’re alone in the warm dark with a hundred strangers...that moment just before the organ blares to life, before the screen explodes with light, when everyone goes still and silent and waiting?
The movies saved me. I couldn’t afford the thirty-cent ticket but I could bat my eyes at the ticket man and bring over a basket of Mama’s vegetables and take one of the half-price seats at the back. In the darkness, in the light, I could feel my body dissolve. I wasn’t Henrietta Newhouse who scrubbed the washrooms and clutched at every saved penny and re-remade my sister’s winter coat—I was just a pair of eyes and a pair of ears, taking it all in. Taking in them. The actors.
I was going to Hollywood, cliché be damned, because I wanted to be a star.
Not the kind that wore mink coats and drank gin and stumbled into every leading man’s arms—although that didn’t sound too bad, frankly. I wanted to be a literal star, something huge and bright and fierce and burning, something no one could stop staring at, something that turned everyone who came close to it warm and glowing.
You couldn’t do that in a place like Chicago, I didn’t care how much Ruby chirped on about the theater companies. I knew this city and all its sharp, icy points, the way the cold of the surrounding prairie and the cold off the lake combined into something otherworldly arctic. Someday, that cold would seep into my bones and freeze me to this place forever. I’d meet a nice mechanic or a friendly shop
owner or a pharmacist with good teeth and his name would be Harry or Bill or Fred and he’d take me out and in six months we’d be married and I’d have to live forever in a tidy house in a sensible suburb and then you might as well just throw the coffin lid SHUT.
But I couldn’t say that to my family over the picked-apart Sunday chicken, so I just shrugged and said, “It’s too cold in Chicago. I want a tan.”
Ruby stared at me. She stared for so long I thought she might not be breathing, and then she let out a deep sigh.
“What will you do if you fail?”
I had an answer to that, too. “I’ll come back.” I felt the sting of the words but kept on marching. “And go to college and get married and have babies and do whatever I’m supposed to do, knowing that at least I gave my wild dream a shot.”
Mama looked at Papa, who looked at Ruby, and Ruby said nothing, her mouth set in a hard line, and that was that. I’d done it.
“When can we move your bed out of my room?” Genny asked, and I threw another pea at her.
A breeze ruffled my hair. My shoes scraped along the edge of the roof, toes pointed toward miles of empty air. Five stories up, the city looked different, the department stores and hotels jutting up like jagged teeth beside dusty one-story buildings. The light shimmered with heat, the mountains just a faraway olive smudge, hazy on the horizon. Sweat slid down my neck as I dug a finger into the collar of my costume—a three-piece suit wrapped around what had to be thirty pounds of cotton batting. How did anybody breathe in this city? Even in January, the air felt yellow and thick, sticking to my lungs.
Down at street level, the cops jockeyed to push back a crowd of tourists so excited by an actual movie shoot they’d whipped up into a frenzied mob. They hadn’t realized they were being used, that no one would shoot on top of one of the most stylish buildings on Hollywood Boulevard—where the hucksters, grifters, con men, and fools outnumbered the stars ten to one—unless they were after spectacle.
“The longest drop in Hollywood history!” The director made sure everyone in that crowd knew it. They’d put out a call to newspapers, reporters: Come witness it, a real stunt. Moviegoers had gotten wise to camera tricks and quick editing, taking the shock out of stunts, but everyone knew you couldn’t fake a sixty-foot fall: a real body, real distance, real danger. That jolt of reality was what audiences wanted, which made it what the director wanted, and that was why production spent a week calling up, and getting laughed at by, every stunt man in the city, until they had no choice but to put out an open call. And the only person dumb enough to respond to the ad was...me. “Great opportunity for you! Will lead to lots more work!” I’d been hearing it all day, and then there’d be an uncomfortable silence, the kind that said...if you survive.
“C-Collins? You set?” They’d sent an assistant director up to the roof with me, but mostly he’d been clutching at the parapets, his face some shade between I’m going to throw up and I’m going to pass out.
I pulled my eyes away from the ugly horizon and glanced over at him.
“If I said no, would you just give me a push?”
It was a joke, but he blanched, his legs trembling like he could no longer rely on them, as though, this high up, gravity transformed into something you couldn’t trust, a loyal pet that suddenly bared its teeth.
“One minute!” Sixty feet below, someone shouted up at me with a bullhorn, and the assistant director, needing to feel useful, echoed back, “That’s one minute, Collins.”
I looked down. Far below, there was a messy sandwich of cardboard and feather mattresses and plywood that would catch me. At least, that was what I’d been told. I’d never actually done anything like this before. The only stunts Pep had managed to find for me in the last eight months involved background bar fights or twelve hours getting drenched with fake rain on fake ships.
All right. Maybe this was a mistake. Maybe whatever blacklist waited for me on the other end of “Nope, I’ll pass, actually,” was better than staying in an industry that dropped desperate nobodies sixty feet onto Hollywood Boulevard with nothing more than a hundred dollars and some crossed fingers. Pep could find me another job...once he started speaking to me again. Or even better, we could get out of this stupid, hot city, where you didn’t matter unless you had a list of screen credits or a million dollars, and go back home to the crowded house on Valencia Street—
“Action! Stunts! Go!”
“Go!” the assistant director repeated, but before he’d gotten the word out, my body reacted, doing the thing it was meant to do before my mind could say, “Now, wait a sec.”
My toes flexed, springing me into the air, high in an arc over absolutely nothing, and for a fraction
of a fraction of a second, a moment that felt like a hundred years, I hung suspended, arms outstretched, toes pointed, body free, hot wind in my face like a hiss of breath, and then—the fall.
Just three seconds.
One—head down, air rushing past, flickering flashes of windows, wide-eyed staring faces
Two—flip and twist, face up, cottony clouds, deep blue sky
Three—screaming wind, gasping from the crowd—
Wood splintered in sharp cracks, feathers swirled in the air like snow, and for a second all I could do was lie in a pit of debris, breathing hard and blinking up at the bright California sun. Then: “Cut!” and pandemonium broke out; faces looming over me, hands reaching, a thousand voices asking, “Is he alive?”
“Did he make it?”
“I can’t believe he did it!”
The relief that broke out on everyone’s faces was so desperate that I knew right away no one had expected to pull a warm, breathing, unbroken kid from that mess. They set me down, patting me like they weren’t sure I was real, as I blinked out at the roaring crowd.
“Good boy! Good boy!” A flushed face appeared, a hand clapping my shoulder, and I realized it was the director when he turned around and shouted to the spectators, “Sixty feet, ladies and gentlemen! The longest drop ever! And you can see it again on the big screen in Falling for Thieves, out this April from Silver Wing Studios!”
I looked back up at the building, the neon KRESS sign far away and pale in the sunlight, my heart pounding fast like I’d gotten away with something. They’d set up a makeshift dressing room for me, a canvas tent on the wide sidewalk, but when I tried to move, one crew member clutched at me, eyes wild. He was shouting about a doctor, getting a doctor, and even though I kept telling him I was fine, his fingers gripped my arm like he worried I might explode into a million pieces.
The crowd parted—no easy feat, because even at eighteen, Pep barely came up to most men’s shoulders. But what he lacked in height he made up in volume, running off the anxious crew member like a sharp-taloned rooster before throwing an arm around me.
“Hey, that looked pretty good.” He leaned in with a raised eyebrow. “Think you got another one in you? I could slip the cameraman a fiver, say there was a glare, get you double pay.”
What he meant was get
us double pay. Pep was my oldest friend, but in a city like Hollywood, friendship usually came with some sort of business transaction, which was another way to say he worked as my manager.
Before I could respond to him, a woman popped into our path, holding a notepad and wriggling her fingers. “Say, that was some swan dive! Think you’ve got a tick to chat? The Reel Picture readers would love to hear what it takes to be a real-life stunt man!”
She gave me a look like she was dangling a juicy bone in front of a starving dog; any extra in this city would kill—truly, kill—for a feature in Reel Picture.
“Nope,” I said, giving my tie a hard yank, and Pep, laughing nervously, slid between us.
“Josepe Perez! Mr. Collins’s manager, nice to make your acquaintance!” He had his hand out and his hat off, and, figuring I wasn’t needed anymore, I pushed past him into the tent.
In the dim, gold-colored light under the canopy, I struggled to shuck off my costume while I listened to Pep diving into the latest version of his pitch. He’d been perfecting it for close to a decade now, walking the fine line between talking me up and selling me out. Before “Declan Collins, stunting sensation,” there’d been “Kid Duke, teenaged prizefighter,” and before that he’d tried pitching me to carnivals as the “Incredible, Unbreakable Boy.” Even as kids together in the Mission, no bigger than pair of puppies, he’d tell anyone who’d listen, “My friend Declan is SO STRONG he could take on any one of you!”
But then, that was Pep, always pushing, always trying to get me to do just a little more than I’d agreed to.
“Where would you be without me, Duke?” he liked to ask, with a grin and a punch on the shoulder. I knew exactly where I’d be: like the other kids we grew up with, a job at one of the factories or tanneries, the occasional ball game at Seal Stadium, my days spent within the boundaries of our neighborhood. Pep made it sound like prison, but I wasn’t so sure. You knew who you were in a place like the Mission. People knew you, your reputation, and judged you for your character instead of what you could do for them. If five folks like that existed in Hollywood, I’d jump off a building twice as high.
I’d only managed to slip off my tie and unbutton my shirt before I heard Pep’s voice rise.
“...not just stunts, but act, too! I’ve got him set up with a screen test—”
Screen test? I pushed open the flap, startling the reporter.
“Uh, ’scuse me, Mr. P
erez, sir, but you are talking out your ass,” I said, trying to pull off my jacket. “You know I don’t act. You know I don’t want to act. You know I only agreed to even come here because you said I wouldn’t—What’s the matter with this damn thing?” The jacket was stuck on something, and I finally gave it a hard tug free, taking my shirt with it. I looked up to see the reporter staring at me—my torso bare except for the roll of padding around my stomach—with wide eyes.
“What is that?”
“Come on, like you’ve never seen—” My words broke off as she lifted a trembling finger, and I glanced down...
A piece of wood, three or four inches thick, stuck out from the cotton batting, somewhere in the area of my left kidney. Without thinking, I yanked it free, the reporter letting out a gasp so sharp I thought she might pass out, but instead of bloody, jagged edges, the end of the wood had turned blunt, like someone had tried to hammer it into concrete. I suddenly remembered the white-faced crew member, the one anxious to get me to a doctor.
“You should be dead!” The color had drained from her face, her eyes as big as dinner plates, but before I could say anything else, Pep had whisked the wood out of my hand and out of sight, then clapped me on my shoulder.
“Hey, looks like it’s a good day to play the lottery, huh? Declan Collins, the luckiest stunt man in Hollywood!” He all but shoved me back into the tent, shouting over his shoulder, “Now remember: it’s Collins with two l’s, and I’m Josepe Perez!”
A second later he’d joined me under the canopy, a loopy grin on his face like a speeding train had missed him by an inch.
“That was close. Think she’ll write about you?”
“She better not.” I held up the jacket and wriggled a finger through the hole the wood had made. “Look at this! I told you this job was a bad idea.”
“You worry too much. And anyway, this job was a GREAT idea! After today, I’m going to need a secretary to handle your offers. Just picture it!” He stretched out his arms, like he was building some grand marquee in the sky. “‘Declan Collins, stunt man, leading man!’”
I unwound the sweaty rolls of cotton and tossed them right at Pep’s face. “You promised we’d stick around this city for a year, tops. You’ve only got five more months—”
“Plenty of time! Now polish your awards speech, Duke, ’cause we’re going to the moon!” He had that grin I’d seen a million times before, full of dreams about everything we were going to do, together, all the doors that would open, the money and the fame and the power.
Pep fit right in here, wh
ere it seemed like everyone from our landlady to the corner grocer believed they were one good day away from stardom, if they just stuck around, tried harder, met the right person.
But the whole thing left me cold. Hollywood made me think of quicksand, a whirlpool, sucking people in. How many washed-up actors spent their days panhandling on the corner of Wilcox and Hollywood Boulevard? The lines for the soup kitchens south of Sunset stretched around the block. It was a two-city town: a dream world of glittering parties and expensive clothing and elegant restaurants, and a nightmare of desperate hopefuls and the monsters who preyed on them.
Pep was a good salesman, but he hadn’t sold me. I wasn’t going to stay. What would the prize be? Money? Fame? Who really wanted fame? Crowds of strangers desperate for a piece of you, reporters looking to rip you up, would-be “friends” always after a few favors.
The truth was I came here because there were only so many places in the world that would pay you to survive stupid things, and Hollywood was the closest.
Pep launched into his arguments, but I was ready for him.
“Acting pays more!”
Not after today. I’d earned a hundred dollars to jump off that building and, more importantly, a reputation for doing the kind of stunts no one else would. I was on my way to a steady stream of work. I could get maybe a couple hundred dollars a week, and that was enough to satisfy any decent fella.
“Lots of pretty girls on movie sets!”
I’d already gotten onto enough movie sets to know those girls didn’t give a hoot about a lowly stunt man. If they only cared about me once my name had moved up the call sheet, I didn’t want to meet them.
As soon as he said that, we both burst out laughing. True, I didn’t know any stunt men with gray hairs—but getting hurt was one thing I didn’t have to worry about.
Shove me down a set of stairs, set me on fire, drag me from a galloping horse, throw me from a runaway train: I’d live. I’d survive, pop up without a broken bone, without a bruise, without a scratch. I couldn’t even catch a cold. Couldn’t explain it. Didn’t know why. Pep was the only person in the world who had any idea what I could really do, and I figured he was also the only person in the world to see it as an opportunity.
That alone made it worthwhile to be his friend, to follow him through his craziest schemes, even all the way to Hollywood. But I had to draw the line somewhere.
“Come on. I did the fall. It’s gonna lead to more work, I know it. Let’s just make our money, then we can get out of here and go back home.”
“Home?” He sounded disappointed. “Duke, don’t you want to be famous?”
“Didn’t you hear that crowd?” I asked with a grin. “I’m already a star.”
“Yeah, sure.” He snorted out a laugh. “A falling star.”
Well. I had some strong words regarding the hospitality of the Woodbury Facial Soap Company. A “grand send-off” consisting of a single bored photographer and a hurried handshake from “Mr. ...
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