Movie star Mercedes Montague has it all – the fame, the fortune, and the glittering celebrity lifestyle. But she lost herself somewhere along the way. On a publicity tour for her next movie she realizes she’s just fifty miles from her hometown. Mercedes – real name Marie Dillard – decides to bolt and go home to see if she can find what’s left of herself. Hiding away in her grandparents’ old home in a working class neighborhood she’s haunted by memories and reminders of her first and only love, Joe Shelby.
Marie’s stunned when Joe shows up at her door. Passion kindles between them from the first moment their eyes meet but she won’t let it consume her unless it’s going to include a lasting love. As they renew their relationship, Marie and Joe face many struggles.
Can a movie star return to reality or is love just a distant dream?
Her Manolo Blahnik white satin pumps rested where they landed after Mercedes Montague kicked them from her aching feet. One shoe landed upright on the four and half inch heel, the other lay on its side, the crystal beaded appliqué face down against the thick toasted almond carpeting. Beside it, her crimson Atelier Versace dress pooled like blood at a murder scene. The silk scraps she’d worn as underwear lay discarded beside it. Her bare feet whispered across the carpet as she walked to the window of the suite at the top of the hotel.
Lightning stitched the night sky with crackling fire and overhead thunder boomed bass. Heavy clouds rolled into the city with speed, as the amber glow from thousands of streetlights lit them. Mercedes wondered where in the hell she and her entourage had fetched up for the night. After four long, grueling days on the road on the multi-city promo tour for Tempest, the new movie based on Shakespeare’s play, she’d lost track. Two major cities a day blurred into one stock urban image and one fan appearance merged into another. Each featured screaming fans kept behind barricades, hand-lettered signs, security guards who looked alike. The same questions were asked at every stop. Mercedes quit paying attention to their location two days earlier and when they flew into this town, she’d been asleep on the chartered jet.
Her head ached as if demons pounded on it with red hot hammers straight from the pits of hell so she didn’t look through the windows of the limo from the airport or glance around as the handlers whisked them through a parking garage, then up into the hotel. Her luxurious suite offered everything her contract required, right down to the vase of Blushing Beauty roses, white tipped with pink, on the dining room table and the mixed bouquet of roses and Asian lilies at her bedside. The bottle of Dom Perignon on ice on the dining room sideboard waited with a frosted flute.
Under normal circumstances, her personal assistant, Mara, would sleep in the second bedroom of the suite but tonight Mercedes demanded her solitude and because she was the main star of this movie, this tour, Max conceded. Max Feist, her manager, agent, and sometimes lover, had stood inside the doorway of the suite and shaken his head. “So get some sleep, get your game face back on, Mercedes, because we’re doing two mall appearances here tomorrow and then it’s on to the next. Pull yourself, together, baby.”
He kissed her, not the warm lip lock of passion they once shared but a social kiss, light as a butterfly’s flutter, and left. Mercedes fumed and shed everything she wore, tossing it all onto the floor with a casual hand. She took a long, steaming shower which reduced the headache to a tolerable level and then, with her long hair wrapped in a hotel towel, she padded nude through the suite, still angry and out of sorts. Right now she resented Max, loathed Mara, disliked her adoring fans, and hated herself most of all.
I don’t even know who in the hell I am anymore, she thought as she stared out of the window at the city’s skyline. But I know I’m not Mercedes, whoever she’s become. Her persona as Mercedes Montague was as faux as cubic zirconias. She’d worn the pretty face, highlighted with expensive cosmetics, put forward the personality the public seemed to want, and acted as she thought a movie star should for so long, she couldn’t always remember where the farce ended and the truth began. Naked as a newborn, she stared out the window of the hotel and wondered whatever happened to Marie Dillard. Somewhere along the way, Mercedes lost Marie and she realized she missed her.
A wicked flash of lightning illuminated the sky and revealed her location beyond any doubt. Below her she saw the old Union Station, now a shopping and entertainment mecca for the masses instead of a railroad station and on the horizon, a skyline she would know anywhere as Kansas City. She realized she must be staying at the Westin Crown Center. “Holy shit,” she said aloud. “I’m fifty miles from home.”
Fifty miles lay between her and her past, between Mercedes Montague and Marie Dillard. Born in the rough old river town of St. Joseph, a city lying along the banks of the Missouri River, she knew Kansas City like a dear neighbor. She grew up coming down to KC to watch concerts at Kemper Arena and plays at Starlight, dreaming of the day she might move with a celebrity crowd. She still owned the house where she grew up, an old frame house in a blue-collar neighborhood and maintained it as a rat hole, a place to go if she ever needed a hiding place. The grandparents--Ma and Pop--who raised her after her parents died in a fiery car crash were long gone but she could go home. Staring out at the storm raging in the skies over Kansas City, Mercedes thought maybe she just would leave, take a respite.
The idea of running away, bolting into the night appealed to Mercedes but she would sleep on it--if she could sleep at all. Most of the time she couldn’t, without a pill or plenty of booze so she walked into the dining room, filled the flute with the best Dom Perignon and drank it in one long swallow. Mercedes repeated it twice and the bubbly wine impacted her stomach before sending warmth out over her body with slow relaxation. She towel-dried her hair, combed it smooth and pulled a satin negligee over her flesh. Still wired, she thought about taking a Xanax but resisted. Instead she lit a rare cigarette, something Max forbade long ago because he swore smoking would etch lines in her face, aging her too early. She stared out the window into the night as if she could see fifty miles northward.
Mercedes reflected on how much she hated the person she had become, the selfish, ego-tripping movie star, the kind of celebrity people loved to hate. Her excesses with alcohol and prescription drugs were legendary and too often made the pages of the gossip rags, the ones sold on supermarket checkout stands. Being a bitch somehow became a way of life, she thought now, and wondered how, why. Max sculpted Mercedes into her persona and as he did, he did his best to remove every bit of Marie but the stubborn inner self refused to die. Mercedes buried Marie under the layers of artifice, the glamorous façade and almost lost her but Marie, tough little chick from a blue-collar world, refused to go away.
Now Mercedes wanted reality. She longed to know who lurked within her physical shell and ached to release Marie before she vanished forever. Mercedes yearned to reject all the bullshit of her life, the trappings grown into burdens too heavy for her back. The more she thought about it, the more determined she became to revert to the way she’d been raised, to be Marie.
Sometime before dawn she made up her mind but realized she couldn’t head home wearing anything she owned. Her luggage yielded Prada, a Versace turtleneck with one sleeve, Valentino designs, cashmere blouses, silk scarves by Chanel, Dior, and Hermes, and a Gucci silver fox cape along with a few designer dresses. The most casual thing she could find was Levi Capitol E jeans and even they wouldn’t do. Mercedes tossed colorful garments over the floor and called downstairs to housekeeping.
“I need someone up here immediately to do some cleaning,” she said in the movie star drawl she affected and perfected long ago. Her tone didn’t allow for any denials and the housekeeping manager hearkened to her voice.
“Yes, Miss Montague. We’ll send someone immediately.”
Five minutes later, someone knocked at the door and a voice with the lilt of Old Mexico called out, “Housekeeping.”
Mercedes yanked open the door and ushered two young women, dressed in baggy, nondescript tan uniforms into the spacious suite. “Good morning, girls,” she said, more Marie than Mercedes. “If you happen to wear the same size I do, this is your lucky day.”
They did. Fifteen minutes later, all of her designer clothing belonged to the two maids, Estefani and Thrusha, along with her large suitcase. So did the Manolo Blahnik pumps and six other pairs of shoes. Mercedes dressed in a wash faded Kansas City Royals t-shirt, a pair of Wrangler jeans, and in a worn out pair of Nikes sans socks. Both maids were delighted to make the swap and Mercedes also netted a leather purse, one she could hang over her shoulder. Mercedes gathered up the rest of her possessions and crammed them all into her smaller bag. She removed some of her emergency stash, what she called her rat-hole money, from her cosmetics case and tucked it into the shoulder bag. Keeping a large sum of cash was one of her few secrets, another throwback to growing up poor. Most of the time she kept ten grand in the bottom compartment of her make-up bag just in case she needed it. Until now she never had.
After a quick scan through the suite, she thought she’d gathered everything and except for the disarray, nothing remained to show she spent the night here. She paused to brush her long hair back into a ponytail and nodded at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. Without her usual make-up and hair styling, she no longer resembled a movie star. She studied her face and titled her head, thinking, so this is Marie, a mature Marie. At the same time she caught a resemblance to Ma now, something she never noticed beneath all the artifice.
She grabbed a sheet of embossed hotel stationery from the desk drawer and used the pen she found beside the paper to write a short note. “Leaving,” she wrote in her bold, oversized handwriting she used for autographs. “Let the show go on without me.” She scrawled “Mercedes Montague,” her precise, practiced name with swirls and curls, as the signature. She folded it in half, wrote “Max” on it and as she passed his suite down the hall, she shoved it beneath the door with a flourish. On a wild, street urchin impulse, she shot her middle finger at the closed door with a grin.
Her single bag in one hand, the purse slung over her left shoulder, Mercedes headed downstairs with a jaunty walk, what her first boyfriend and love used to call her little witch walk. All she needed now were wheels to get out of town.
Daybreak sent sunlight streaming between the skyscrapers and downtown landmarks but she didn’t expect any used car lots to be open at such an early hour. Mercedes headed down the fire stairs to avoid meeting any of the Tempest entourage, although she doubted any of them were awake or out of their hotel rooms. She ducked into the back service hallways to avoid going through the main lobby. Although Mercedes doubted anyone would recognize her, she wasn’t taking any chances. She followed the sound of voices and the smell of coffee to an employee break room and walked in. Eight or nine employees fell silent and stared.
“Are you a guest?” a young man dressed in a bus boy’s apron asked.
“No,” Estefani one of the young ladies she traded garments with upstairs, said with wide-eyed awe. “She’s the lady who...”
“Wants to buy a car,” Mercedes interrupted. “Remember, I said don’t tell anyone about our trade. I need a car and I’ll pay cash if I can drive out of here right now.”
No one spoke but everyone stared. After a long pause, a young man with the face of an angel and a lithe body encased in a black t-shirt and skin tight black jeans stood up. “I don’t work here,” he said. “I’m just here seeing my lady but I’ve got a car at home for sale. It was my grandma’s, a 1981 Buick Skylark. It’s rough on the outside but the motor’s good. She died a few months ago and it’s been at my house ever since.”
Mercedes remembered what mattered in this world. “How much do you want?”
“I was asking a grand,” he said.
“I’ll give you two thousand in cash with no questions asked if you let me take it with the plates. They’re not expired, are they?” she asked.
His dark, beautiful eyes widened and his hand twitched toward his chest as if he might make the sign of the cross. “No, I renewed them for her just before she died so there’s more than a year left. Lady, are you in trouble?”
“No,” Mercedes said. “I’m just trying to get home. How far do you live? Would you go get it for me?”
The young man stared at her and grinned. He stuck his right hand out to her. “I’m Diego,” he said. “It’s not far but I’ll do you better. How about I take you to my house, you look over the car and if you like it, you can drive away in it?”
She grasped his hand and shook it. “It’s a deal.”
“Good,” he said. “I can use the money.”
“Just one thing,” Mercedes said, her gaze swinging around the room to everyone present. “No one saw me, heard of me, or knows where I’m headed, okay?”
A variety of voices answered in unified agreement. Mercedes dug into the shoulder bag, pulled out a C-note for each. “Since you don’t know where I’m going, I should be safe,” she said, “but if anyone asks tell them I took a taxi to the airport, all right?”
“Anything you say,” Diego replied. “Let’s go so I can get to my job on time after this.”
Mercedes nodded and followed him out to a low-rider Chevy, sleek and beautiful. Without any fear she climbed into the seat beside him and they took off. They headed west on Twelfth Street and headed for the old stockyards district. Diego turned into the driveway of a dilapidated house divided into apartments and parked.
“There she is,” he said and pointed at the car. The old Buick was about what she expected an older lady might drive. Rust speckled the tan exterior and a hairline crack divided the windshield into two halves. Mercedes walked over to the vehicle and peered inside at the sun-cracked dash, the worn seats with holes. “Start it up,” she said.
Diego opened the driver’s door and sat down. He inserted the key and turned it. On command, the motor purred like a cream-filled cat. “What do you think?” he asked.
“I’ll take it,” Mercedes said.
“Let me get the other set of keys,” Diego said.
In less than five minutes, she handed over a thick stack of twenty dollar bills. Diego counted them with speed and gave her the keys, including the one he jerked from his key ring.
“The title’s in the glove box,” he said. “It’s signed already and there’s a spare tire in the trunk. It’s in pretty good shape. I hope you get where you’re going and run a lot of miles out of it. It’s still a decent car.”
“I’ll get there,” Mercedes said. “Thanks.”
She resisted the impulse to kiss him because in Hollywood, everyone kissed and it meant nothing, no more than a simple handshake. He nodded. “De nada.”
For the first time in years, Mercedes climbed behind the wheel of a car made in the USA. She adjusted the seat and checked to see where all the controls were located. She set the mirrors and with a wave, she drove away, palms slick with nervous perspiration, heart pounding, but with a sense of total rightness about what she was doing.
A few blocks away she rolled through a McDonalds for a cup of hot coffee, drank it black and savored how strong it tasted. If she could do this thing, make an escape, she needed caffeine and she required strength. She munched down a sausage biscuit, the greasy pork slick against her tongue but tasty in a way she hadn’t experienced in years.
As she sat in the parking lot, licking crumbs from her fingers and sipping coffee, her cell rang. Mercedes didn’t answer but pulled it out and saw Max’s number on the screen. Son of a bitch, she thought, he can track me with the damn phone. I’ve got to ditch it.
Getting rid of the phone should be simple but she wanted to do it so there’d be no way Max could find her. She considered pitching it into the convenient Missouri River but it seemed too clichéd. Her next choice was to toss it into rush hour traffic. A big truck idled in the back of the fast food restaurant’s lot as the driver dashed inside for breakfast. Mercedes stared at the truck and then an idea hit her. She remembered a scene from a made-for-television movie she did early in her career where the villain put a tracking device up into the wheel well of a big rig. If it worked in the film, it should work in real life.
She pondered the notion, figuring if Max had the phone pinged or if he tried tracing the location, he would go crazy as the truck headed for points unknown. She imagined him trying to figure out her destination if the route went from Kansas City to St. Louis and down to Memphis. If the driver dropped the trailer after delivering a load, the phone could make a cross country circuit. With delight, Mercedes gathered up her trash, got out of the car and sidled over to the trash can near the rear of the truck. She stepped up to the rear wheels, reached up into the wheel well and shoved her cell phone into a tight spot. Her fingers jerked on it, testing how well it was jammed in place and she decided it wouldn’t move. With a grin, she retreated to the Skylark and headed out.
Mercedes found her way to Prospect Avenue, the route of Highway 71, the road existing before the interstates and the interchanges. From there, she managed to backtrack her way until she reached I-29 and headed north, toward home.
Maybe once she got there she might figure out who in the hell she was and more important, who--and what--she wanted to be when she grew up this time.
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