Hey guys! With the read-along in the fan group, the cover re-design, the 2 year anniversary party, and writing the sequel, I’ve been in a Cinder & Ella kind of mood lately. I had originally decided that since I was doing a new cover for the book, it would be fun to finally give you guys the epilogue you constantly ask for. So I thought of an idea and started to write. Well…that epilogue quickly turned into a short story instead, which then evolved into more of a novella. By page 100 I realized I had to simply accept what was. Happily Ever After was not an epilogue; it was a full-length novel.
I figured no one would complain about the story turning into a novel even if that meant it wouldn’t be ready in time for the two-year anniversary party like I’d promised my reader squad. I know they’ll be patient a while longer in order to have a whole second book full of Brian and Ella awesomeness. Still, I didn’t like having nothing to give you wonderful readers at the anniversary party, so I decided to write a scene I’ve wanted to write for a long time. You know which one it is. Of all the scenes in the book, there is one in particular that I’ve always wished I had in Brian’s POV as well as Ella’s. It’s just too epic of a scene to only get one side of it.
We need Brian’s thoughts through this scene, so I sat down at my computer this week and started to write. My “scene” became almost thirty pages of bonus material. Apparently Brian had been bottling up a lot of thoughts all this time, and he was eager to finally have the opportunity to voice them.
Anyway, all that said, here is the infamous scene where Brian and Ella meet face to face for the first time. Enjoy!
The following scene is utterly and completely spoilerific. If you haven’t read Cinder & Ella yet, stop reading now and go read the book. Reading this scene first will RUIN EVERYTHING. Seriously. It will. No matter how tempting it may be to just keep scrolling down, stop now go read the book first. Then come back and read this. You won’t regret it. Promise.
“Say Car For Me – Brian POV Bonus Scene”
I had to cover a yawn as I settled into my seat up on the dais. Not because I was bored—I was genuinely looking forward to this discussion panel—I was just beat. As I’d suspected, Kaylee had dragged me to a party last night and I hadn’t gotten to bed until almost 3:30 a.m. But the lack of sleep wasn’t what was making me so tired. It was my damned fake fiancée wearing me out. Considering I couldn’t even have my own room during this convention, my nerves were shot, my sanity was gone, and I was down to my last shred of patience.
Someone sat in the chair on my right and slid a cup of coffee in front of me. “Is this boring you, son?” My father glanced out at the room that was quickly filling up. The crowd we’d gathered for this panel was incredible.
“No.” I shook my head and yawned again. “It’s Kaylee. She’s exhausting.”
Dad—who’d been a lot happier with me since I’d agreed to the Kaylee thing and had been bringing so much attention to his film—slapped me on the shoulder, laughing heartily. “I’m sure she is, you lucky bastard.”
I shook my head, rolling my eyes as I accepted the coffee my father had supplied me. He, like everyone else in the world, assumed Kaylee and I were hooking up through this escapade. There was no point in trying to explain otherwise. No one would have believed me, and even if they did, I’d have to explain why I wasn’t taking advantage of the situation to at least get some from the psycho if I was going to be stuck with her anyway. I wasn’t ready to explain Ella to anyone yet. Kaylee’s knowing about her had caused enough problems.
“It’s not that, Dad. It’s the nagging, and the whining, and the preening. I can’t stand it.”
Dad burst into roaring laughter. “That’s women for you, Brian. As soon as they catch the scent of commitment, they turn into sharks. Believe me. Your mother was the worst.” He shuddered. “Word of advice? Dump Kaylee the second the awards season is over. Never keep a woman longer than a couple months—three, tops—or they’ve have you on such a short leash it’ll take you years to escape and by then you’ll be lucky to get out with the shirt on your back.”
Great advice, Dad.
I laughed to myself. I definitely had a favorite parent and it wasn’t Max Oliver, but I couldn’t begrudge him his attitude toward my mom. As wonderful as she was, Dad wasn’t wrong about her. She was every bit the shark he claimed she was. She nagged like she’d invented the activity, and she definitely took him for all he was worth in the divorce.
My parents’ problem had been that they hadn’t loved each other. They got married for the party. The attention. Once the excitement wore off, they realized there wasn’t much to the relationship that wasn’t physical or strategic. Obviously they’d been doomed. I’m impressed they lasted long enough to have me.
Mom was different with her new husband. She was still an overbearing shark, but she adored my stepdad. Somehow the mild-mannered college math professor had won her heart. And he worshiped her. Mom nagged and bossed till she was blue in the face, and Douglas happily let her.
My dad always had plenty to say about Doug being completely whipped, but he hadn’t seen them together much. He didn’t see the small acts of kindness between my mom and Doug. He didn’t see the adoration in their eyes. He never spent months with them, watching them live in a happy, functional relationship.
I admired my mom. She may have grown up shallow and materialistic. She may have married my father for his money and his pull in Hollywood, but she’d changed when she met Doug. Love had changed her. Dad had laughed at the changes in Mom—still mocked her for them. But Dad was a douche, and always would be. He’d never have a clue what love was.
On the bright side, he wouldn’t know what he was missing. I, on the other hand, knew exactly what I lacked in life. Which made having to fake it with Kaylee that much worse. I wanted to strangle her for her nagging, but Ella could be as nitpicky and demanding as any woman, and I couldn’t wait to let her boss me around in person. Once it was safe to tell Ella the truth, she and I were going to be just like Mom and Doug. Ella was going to boss me around, and I was going to happily do everything she asked. I couldn’t wait for that day. Just thinking about it lifted my spirits.
Arms slid around me from behind, and a pair of soft lips pressed against my neck, shattering my fantasy. “It’s good to see a real smile on your face for once, baby,” Kaylee whispered, sounding so sultry I almost bet her next words would be an offer to find a janitor’s closet or a bathroom stall.
Dad chuckled at the desire in her voice. He smirked at me and then shot Kaylee a smile. “You are absolutely right, Kaylee. Whatever you did last night to make him so tired today and put him in such a fantastic mood, keep it up.”
I snorted when Kaylee’s jaw tensed. Last night she’d tried everything to get into my pants after the party. I’d told her to go find someone else and slept on the couch in our suite. She’d been pouting all day. She knew damn well she wasn’t responsible for my good mood, and it drove her crazy that she couldn’t get me excited.
I relished the flash of rage in her eyes before she smiled at my father. “Oh, Max, you don’t need to worry about that. I have no problem keeping things up.”
She followed the blatant innuendo with a slow wink. Dad laughed and his eyes filled with lust. Wetting his lips, he grinned back. “You’re not wrong, Kaylee.”
Good grief. I’d have been disgusted if I hadn’t already suspected that they’d slept together. Probably during Kaylee’s audition. How else could she have landed the lead in this movie? It was reasons like this that I’d stopped thinking of Max Oliver as my father a few years ago and started just treating him as a professional acquaintance.
Kaylee smiled at me as she took the seat on my left. “So about tonight. I was thinking we should…”
I zoned out. This panel was the last of my obligations here. Whatever I did after this wasn’t going to involve Kaylee. I was tempted to wander the convention. There was so much I hadn’t gotten to see yet. But after the last few days I’d had my fill of the public, and I’d be mobbed if I wandered around here. Unless I dressed up as something other than Cinder. Maybe I could sneak around incognito. I reached for my phone. Scott wouldn’t mind running over to my house really quick to pick up my old Lord of the Rings cloak.
My father’s low whistle distracted me before I could send Scott a text. I followed his gaze and my eyebrows rose up my forehead. A group had just entered the room dressed as characters from The Druid Prince. A lot of people had dressed like that, but these five looked like they’d raided the costume department on set. The costumes were professional quality and deadly accurate. They looked amazing.
“Twin Ratanas,” my father muttered, shamelessly ogling the girls. “Nice.”
I took a moment to drag my gaze across them too. They were beautiful girls—better looking than Kaylee if you asked me, but then, my opinion where Kaylee is concerned could be tainted. Dad was still staring at them, though, so maybe they were better looking than my supermodel co-star.
Watching the group slowly make their way to their seats in one of the first few rows, I elbowed my father. “I doubt they’re legal, Dad.”
He grunted and his brow creased. “If they aren’t eighteen yet, they will be soon enough. Give them a year or two and they’ll look even better. I should give them my card after the meet and greet. Maybe they’d like to be extras in the sequel.”
I rolled my eyes again. “Pervert.”
Dad laughed like I was making a joke. I wasn’t. But again, there was no point in trying to explain that to him. He wouldn’t understand because in his mind there was nothing wrong with a fifty-five-year-old man hooking up with an eighteen-year-old girl. That wasn’t uncommon in Hollywood. Hell, even I’d hooked up with a few women in their forties. But at least I’d never done it to earn a role in a movie.
As the group took their seats, both of the twins glanced my way several times. I noticed, but my attention had already moved on. Along with the Ratana twins there was a Queen Nesona, a Prince Cinder, and an Ellamara.
I smiled again. Another real smile. It looked like the Cinder and the Ellamara were a couple. My Ellamara would appreciate that. Hopefully the two would come up to see me at the meet and greet after the panel. I’d have to get their picture so I could send it to Ella.
I tried to get a good look at the girl dressed as Ellamara. She was the first person I’d seen dressed as the druid priestess, and I found myself completely intrigued. Why had she dressed as Ellamara? Was it because her other friends had already called the other costumes? Or had she wanted to come as Ellamara? I’d have to ask her when she came to talk to me. My Ella would want to know.
I couldn’t tell my Ella about this girl directly since I couldn’t tell her I was here. But Brian Oliver could say something about how much he liked Ellamara and was excited to see someone dress up as the druid priestess this weekend. Maybe she’d even take a picture with me. That would totally earn me some brownie points with Ella. Ella’s opinion of me—of Brian Oliver, I mean—wasn’t the shiniest. Maybe she’d think more of me if I showed her favorite character some love.
I watched the girl in the audience so long I was sure she had to feel my gaze burning a hole in her, but she never looked my way. Not once. She looked as excited as a kid in a candy store, but I had nothing to do with her giddiness. Her gaze was locked on L.P. Morgan, the writer of the novels. That made me smile again.
It was hard to tell what she looked like. She was wearing her cloak and had the hood pulled up over her head, but even from my distance I was sure she was a striking young woman. She had a beautiful light brown skin tone and dark hair hiding under her cloak. And her smile was gorgeous.
She was pretty, but the best thing about her was the way she hugged a book to her chest. It was a hardback copy of The Druid Prince with the original cover, not the new one with the cast of the movie on it. I knew because I had two at home just like it—one signed to me, and one signed to Ella.
Someday, when I finally met Ella in person, I would give her that book and she’d look every bit as giddy as the Ellamara in the crowd. Maybe I’d have to scrounge up an Ellamara costume for her, too. Until now, I hadn’t realized how pretty of an outfit it is, and it would be fun to come to FantasyCon together next year dressed as Cinder & Ellamara.
I shook my head to clear it. I hadn’t even met Ella yet. I needed to stop planning out our future together. For all I knew, she wasn’t even interested in dating me. She never seemed like it, anyway. Sure, she said she loved me all the time, but it seemed more of a friend thing. I was convinced I could change that when we met, but still, plotting out the rest of our life might be premature.
Hell, I’d only just gotten her to start speaking to me again yesterday. When I finally told her the truth, she was going to be pissed. And I knew how she felt about guys like me. About me even. We might be in for a rocky start.
The moderator got the crowd’s attention, bringing the panel to a start. I had to focus on work again, but my gaze kept going back to the girl in the Ellamara costume. I couldn’t help it. She reminded me of Ella.
After the discussion was over, they played ten minutes from the movie. I hadn’t seen any of the finished footage yet and I’d been excited to watch the clip, but even then, my attention drifted back to the stranger. Watching her, it was so easy to picture Ella seeing the movie.
I hated that I was going to have to go to the premiere with Kaylee. Hated it. From the very moment I got the role I’d had this dream that I would tell Ella who I really was, and I’d ask her to be my date to the premiere. It would be so perfect. Instead, I was stuck in a fake engagement with Satan’s Mistress and was going to be forced to see The Druid Prince with her. It was so so so wrong.
As I watched the girl dressed as the druid priestess watch my film, I imagined Ella watching the film. This girl was so engrossed in the screen she didn’t even notice when the guy dressed as Cinder put his arm around her. I laughed to myself. That would definitely be Ella and me. If I took her to the movie, my attention would be on her and hers would be on the film. I’d be desperately trying to hold her hand, or pull her close, or sneak a kiss, and she wouldn’t have a clue I even existed.
The guy leaned a little closer to the girl and pulled her against his side. I nearly laughed out loud when the girl jumped, startled because she’d finally realized what had happened. A moment passed between them, he cocked an eyebrow at her in some kind of question, or maybe it was a challenge. Maybe they weren’t an official couple, then. Maybe this was just a date. The beginning of something. Must be nice.
The guy’s move worked. After only a moment’s hesitation the girl relaxed and turned her attention back to the screen. The guy grinned to himself as she snuggled against him. I envied the guy. He clearly liked his date. I loathed mine.
A roar of applause snapped me back into focus. The clip was over. It was meet and greet time. I never minded talking to fans. Meeting them when it was controlled like this could be fun. And this time a lot of them would be fantasy geeks, specifically Cinder Chronicles fans. That was cool.
Cinder Chronicles fans were my people and I had no doubt the Fabulously Dressed Five were Cinder Chronicles people. Well, the girl dressed as Ellamara was, anyway. She was obviously a die-hard fan. The Ratana twins might have only been Brian Oliver fans, and the Cinder guy seemed like he was only there for Ellamara. I couldn’t guess the Queen Nesona. She was a mystery.
As if to prove my thoughts, the group stood and instead of making a b-line for my and Kaylee’s lines, they headed toward L.P. Morgan. One of the Ratanas pouted, shooting longing glances my direction, but the rest of the group all pointed at the Ellamara girl. Ratana lost out and they headed for the writer. That should have bruised my ego a little, but I found it awesome that the Ellamara girl was more excited to meet the book’s author than me.
“What are you grinning at?” Kaylee snarked in a whisper as the fans started lining up. “I thought you hated this.”
“I don’t hate my job.” Truth. “I only hate having to do it with you.” More truth.
She glared at me. “You are such an asshole.” Quite possibly also truth.
I laughed. “You’re right. I am. You should break up with me. Tell the whole world what an immature, egotistical prick I am and break off the engagement. I’ll accept my defeat gracefully. Promise.”
Her glare turned ever more severe, but before she could snipe at me some more a couple of the nerdiest guys I’d ever seen—total Dungeons and Dragons gamer types—arrived in front of Kaylee, and a super hot chick in a Xena Warrior Princess costume stepped up to me. I looked back and forth between her fans and mine and gave her a big toothy grin. “Yep. I definitely love my job.” With a wink, I turned my smile on my waiting fan. “Xena! I love it! I’ve seen every episode.”
“Seriously?” the woman asked, surprised. They were always surprised when I revealed my inner fantasy geek.
“Oh yeah. I’m a huge fan. I watched it faithfully every week when it used to play back-to-back with the Kevin Sorbo Hercules series. Talk about an awesome hour of TV. But I have to say, as much as I love Lucy Lawless, you my dear, make a much prettier Warrior Princess.”
The woman blushed and Kaylee rolled her eyes as she quickly signed headshots for the two socially awkward guys standing in front of her staring down her shirt.
It took forever for the Fabulous Five—yes, I’d totally given them a superhero name—to arrive in front of me. I don’t know why I was so anxious to meet them. I guess talking fantasy with so many people for the past half an hour had been awesome and I was curious to see what the biggest Druid Prince fan—as I’d dubbed the girl dressed as Ellamara—thought of the movie clip.
I also wanted to know what she’d talked to L.P. Morgan and Jason Cohen for so long about. It had seemed like a lively discussion, and I really wished I could have been part of it. As awesome as it was to be involved in the project, part of me just wanted to be a fanboy.
“You five look incredible!” I blurted a little too enthusiastically. I took a breath and tried to dial it down a notch. “By far the best costumes I’ve seen all year. I hope you entered the competition.”
I could feel Kaylee’s eyes on me and I knew it had everything to do with the totally hot twin Ratanas standing in front of me so, just to piss her off, I pulled a Maxwell Oliver move and shamelessly dragged my eyes up and down the girls’ bodies. “Twins,” I said in my best bedroom voice. “You fair maidens are the most beautiful Ratanas I’ve seen since the convention started.”
Kaylee’s jaw clenched, but it was the snort of laughter in front of me that caught my attention. My head whipped toward the sound, and I met the gaze of the girl in the Ellamara costume just in time to watch her blush a pretty pink. The shyness surprised me because the laugh had been rather obnoxious.
I was about to tease her, but she looked away too quickly. “Sorry,” she muttered to her two Ratana friends. When they both glared at her, she apologized again with a little more sincerity. “I’m sorry. Of course he’s right. You know you’re both gorgeous. I was just laughing at the cheesy line.”
I nearly choked on surprise. Did she just…mock me? I couldn’t believe it. This woman was so much like Ella. “Cheesy line?” I asked.
I gave her my best pout but she didn’t buy it for a second. In fact, my act seemed to give her a boost of confidence. She shrugged a shoulder, looking both sheepish and unrepentant. “Yes,” she said. “It was cheesy. And I’m sure you’ve probably said that exact same thing to every girl you’ve met this week. I find it amazing that you can still deliver it with a straight face.”
For the first time in my life I was speechless. I blinked at the woman, utterly astonished. She was totally right, I had said that same line to just about every woman in costume no matter who they were dressed as, but I never dreamed I’d be called on it. No one ever made fun of me. Not ever. Well, besides Ella.
A thought flickered in the back of my mind that made my heart skip a beat. I pushed it away immediately. That wasn’t possible. This woman couldn’t be Ella. She just reminded me of her so much, and she was dressed in the Ellamara costume. But she couldn’t be Ella.
Ella would have told me she was coming to FantasyCon. In fact, she’d been whining to me for weeks about how she was so close this year and still not going. I’d nearly sent her tickets a billion times except I didn’t know her address and since we lived in the same city now I was too chicken to ask for it.
During the whole birthday surprise thing I’d nearly sent her an email as Brian Oliver telling her I’d have tickets to the discussion panel waiting for her at the entrance. But I’d chickened out because I’d worried that if I figured out who she was, I’d never be able to keep my identity secret, and I had to keep that secret. I’d pissed Kaylee off so much this weekend—albeit intentionally because I really am a bit of the immature asshole she claims I am—if Kaylee met Ella now, she would destroy her.
There was no way I was going to let Kaylee ruin my first meeting with Ella, so I’d restrained myself from bringing Ella to FantasyCon. Hardest thing I’d ever done in my life. How I was going to manage not to fake-break things off with Kaylee and bring Ella to the premiere in December instead was still a mystery that needed solving.
Kaylee pulled me out of my thoughts with a laugh. “What do you know baby? Someone else who’s not impressed with your bullshit.”
The Ellamara girl’s eyes widened slightly with surprise, but she didn’t seem intimidated by Kaylee. Or me for that matter. That was so rare I had to take advantage of the opportunity for some banter. “She wouldn’t be dressed as Ellamara if she were easily susceptible to charm,” I teased, unable to take my eyes off of the woman standing before me.
Now that I was really looking, it was easy to see how truly striking she was. Her friends were hot, sure, but they were like every other blond bombshell in the world. Typical Southern California girls. Don’t get me wrong, I had a great appreciation for their type—but I’d dated a million of them. Hell, I had the queen of them sitting right next to me. The girl in front of me was different.
The stranger’s eyes narrowed slightly at my flirty remark, presenting an irresistible challenge. “I meant the compliment, though,” I told her. “Your friends really are two of the most beautiful Ratanas I’ve seen this weekend.” Curious to see if could rile this woman up a bit, I winked at her friends then shot her my best panty-dropping smile. “Just as you are the loveliest Ellamara I’ve met so far.”
The smile—one of my greatest weapons—had no effect on her. Zero. None whatsoever. She snorted again and rolled her eyes. “I’m probably the only Ellamara you’ve met.”
Damn. She’d called me out again. If I weren’t already in love with an Ellamara of my own, I’d be in love now with this woman. My grin widened so far my face hurt. “You’re still enchanting. Those eyes…”
They were beautiful. Stunning. They were big, round, and as blue as the sky. They popped in contrast to her skin the same way Ella’s did.
My stomach clenched up again. Seriously. This was too coincidental. I’d seen several pictures of Ella. She’d posted them on her blog from time to time when she and her mom met different authors. I’d always loved that she looked Latina and yet had beautiful blue eyes. It had made her stand out. She was uniquely beautiful. I hadn’t thought about it before, but this woman looked like she could be half Latina, and she had amazing big blue eyes. But were they the same blue eyes? Could this really be her?
My mouth went dry. “Have we met?”
I don’t know why I asked that. I hadn’t ever met Ella. She wouldn’t recognize me as Cinder. But I couldn’t just be like, “Hey you aren’t the woman I constantly stalk online are you?”
“Ha!” She laughed. “No. We haven’t met.”
What the hell could I say that might give me a clue? The blog! I—Brian Oliver, I mean—had read her blog. Brian could conceivably have seen her picture on there. After all the tweets and everything yesterday, if this woman was my Ella, she’d admit that it was her blog. I picked the obvious feature that Brian Oliver might recognize from those old pictures on Ella’s blog. “Are you sure? You look familiar. I swear I’ve seen those eyes before.”
There was a moment of hesitation, possibly even a spark of fear—which made no sense at all—but then the woman laughed again. “I’m pretty sure I’d remember meeting a famous movie star.”
My face fell before I could stop it. That was a no then. Ella would have mentioned the blog. She’d have thanked me for it or something. Knowing her, she’d probably try to pump me for information on Cinder’s identity.
“Especially one who uses such cheesy pick-up lines.”
I laughed despite my disappointment. For a split second I’d been sure it was her. But I was just being an idiot. I wanted it to be her. More than anything in the world I wished this woman and my woman were the same person. I wanted it so badly I was mentally turning this woman into her. I was seeing things that weren’t there. I swear I was even hearing a slight Boston accent. Ella’s had been gradually softening the longer she lived in Los Angeles, but could it have softened so much that I wouldn’t notice it without listening for it?
I grabbed a permanent marker, needing to move this along. This woman was messing with my head, and if I wasn’t careful, I was going to go home after this, call Ella, and demand we meet no matter what Kaylee threatened.
The reminder of Kaylee brought me crashing back to reality in an instant. I grabbed a headshot and uncapped my marker. “All right, I give. What’s your name, beautiful?”
She blushed. It was adorable.
She pointed at the picture I was waiting to sign and shook her head. “That’s okay. I don’t need one of those. I just wanted to bring you this.”
I wasn’t surprised when she handed me a copy of The Druid Prince. The publisher had recently released a new paperback edition of the book with the cast of the film on the cover. People had been bringing them for me to sign all week. “And who am I making it out to?”
“I don’t want you to sign it,” she said. “I want you to read it.”
I squinted up at her. “Come again?” There’s no way she’d said what I thought she’d said.
She sighed. There was something insultingly condescending in the gesture. “You’re playing one of the most cherished characters of all time. I don’t care how many academy awards Jason Cohen has won for his writing; there’s no way the screenplay could do the book justice. I know it’s too late to help you with the first movie, but there are four more to go. I really, really want you to understand who Cinder is, so I’m begging. Read the books. I swear, they’re worth it.”
Her obnoxious—and might I add highly judgmental—speech made me reconsider my earlier doubts. Who else would be so unfazed by a celebrity as big as myself that she’d have the nerve to tell me how to do my job? Which, of course, meant she lacked the faith in me that I’d done my research before playing the part. It was such an Ella thing to do. I could just imagine the rant she’d have on her blog after meeting Brian Oliver and having him confess he hadn’t read the books. Well, whether this woman was my dream girl or not, proving her wrong and stomping out some of that self-righteousness was going to be fun. “You think I haven’t read the books?”
“You mean you have?” She shot me a look that screamed I don’t believe you.
Bring it, woman. “Why do you think I demanded to play the role? I agree wholeheartedly that Cinder is one of the most cherished characters of all time. I couldn’t let someone else play him. I can’t wait to film Reign of Glory. That was my favorite book in the series.”
Her look of astonishment was priceless. It took all of my willpower not to laugh in her face. But once she recovered from her shock, she quickly recognized a kindred spirit and flashed me an excited grin. “Reign of Glory was good,” she agreed. “But The Druid Prince is still my favorite. I’m a sucker for a good origin story. Cinder’s is so tragic and moving, yet it brings such a sense of hope to a desperate kingdom. Not to mention the mystery of who he is was done masterfully in that book.”
It was my turn to agree. “No doubt. The Druid Prince is my second favorite. But I love it when Cinder finally gets to go back home, not as a useless farm boy, but as a kick-ass druid warrior. The dude lays the smack down like a master. The action in Reign of Glory is epic.”
“Battle scenes,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “You are such a guy. I bet you love what the movie producers have done with Princess Ratana’s outfit, too.”
HO. LY. SHIT.
It was her. It was really her. I was absolutely certain now. One hundred percent. The Ratana’s Outfit rant was the clincher. Only Ella. Seriously.
To prove it to myself, I gave her my cockiest smirk, knowing how much my ego drove her nuts, and looked the twins up and down again. Now that I was thinking about it, these girls were totally Ella’s stepsisters. I’d known they were twins. How had I not remembered that before? “I definitely didn’t complain,” I said in the douchiest voice I could manage.
I got exactly the reaction I knew I would. The reaction I’d gotten a million times in the last three years but had never actually seen before. Ella threw her head back and groaned at the ceiling. Seeing her irritation made me giddy. I’d imagined the different looks she was giving me every time I made her moan in disgust. It was every bit as amusing as I knew it would be. Her cheeks turned all ruddy, and she crinkled her nose up. Adorable.
This woman was Ella. My Ella. Really truly the woman I was madly in love with. I had no doubt the shock of it would hit me later, but for now, this game we were playing was too fun. Since she had no idea I was me, I couldn’t help pushing her buttons now that I’d succeeded in aggravating her. Clearly my fame meant nothing to her. Just how far would she go in yelling at a big celebrity if her beloved Ellamara’s honor was at stake? “Tell me something,” I said, coping a chauvinistic attitude that would make my father proud. “Why did you dress as Ellamara? Is it because she’s covered from head to toe? Are you some kind of prude?”
If she figured out it was me before leaving the room, I was going to be so incredibly busted. A part of me really hoped she put the pieces together. A huge part of me. Like 99% of me.
She scoffed so hard it had to have hurt her throat. And one of her stepsisters slapped her palm to her forehead. “Oh great. Now you’ve done it. She’ll be griping about this for weeks.”
I almost burst out laughing again. For as many times as Ella had complained to me on this issue, she must have gone off on her family and friends just as much.
Ella finally snapped. “I am not a prude. I just don’t appreciate Hollywood sacrificing the integrity of something just to get perverted guys like you to buy tickets. In the books the Princess Ratana was a warrior, but she was still a princess. Your dad turned her into some useless, slutty bimbo. It’s so demeaning to women! We can be beautiful while fully clothed, you know.”
Her accent got a lot thicker when she was mad. She clearly sounded like she was from Boston now. Inner city Boston, even. She sounded like she was ready to throw down with me. My thoughts were running in an entirely different direction. “As I see,” I responded with a look so intense I was sure she felt the heat of it as I studied every inch of her. My eyes lingered on every curve I could see beneath the beautiful white dress she was wearing.
She was perfect. And now she was going to be mine. She was here, in arms reach, and I didn’t care if Kaylee or the entire world saw, I was going to claim this woman. Right here. Right now. Fate finally brought us together, and I wasn’t going to waste this miracle. Ella was not leaving this conversation without knowing whom she was really talking to.
“So why Ellamara?” I asked again.
“Because she’s the greatest character in the books.”
Ella’s stepsister, recognizing the oncoming of another lecture, tried to push Ella aside. “Okay Ella, there are still other people waiting. We don’t want to take up all of Brian’s time.”
Speak for yourself, blondie. Ella could have as much of my time as she wanted. She could have my every waking minute. No doubt, after this, she would own all the sleeping ones.
Kaylee chose that moment to join the conversation. I’d forgotten all about her even though she was sitting right next to me. “She’s right, Brian. Just sign the girl an autograph and send her on her way.”
Yeah. That was so not happening. Ignoring the Shrew, I shot Ella a challenging look. “You think Ellamara is the greatest character in the books? What about Cinder? He’s the hero. He saves the entire kingdom.”
Ella didn’t miss a beat. “Sure he does—because he had Ellamara to guide him. Without her, he would have been nothing.”
If I didn’t know she had no clue it was me, I’d accuse her of trying to piss me off on purpose. Ugh. She could be so infuriatingly obtuse. “Nothing? He had his magic. He still would have rocked it.”
“Yeah, but he would have come into his power and become just another self-entitled, snobbish, idiot prince, drunk on his own power.”
Oh! She was so talking about me right now. She wasn’t even trying to hide the subtext. Grr. I was tempted to reach over the table and flick her on her adorable little turned-up nose. Excuse me, who is the one being snobby right now Miss High and Mighty?
“As it was,” she continued, throwing more condescension into her voice than even Kaylee had ever used with me, “he still chose to marry the hot chick when he was truly in love with Ellamara.”
“But Ellamara became a priestess. She took a vow of celibacy.”
“She became a priestess because Cinder rejected her. He broke her heart!”
Unbelievable. We’d had this argument a million times and she still couldn’t get it through her thick head that Cinder did what he had to do. “He didn’t have a choice! He may have loved Ellamara, but she was a commoner. Ratana was Crown Princess of the Flatlands. Their union created peace between the two kingdoms. Cinder did the noble thing, putting his own feelings aside for the good of the kingdom.”
“Noble?” Ella groaned again. “What he did wasn’t noble at all. It was an act of cowardice. He did what was expected of him because it was easier. A real man would have fought to be with the woman he loved—social class be damned.”
Several of the die-hard fans that had gathered to watch our heated discussion gasped at Ella’s declaration. Even I was shocked at that one. Maybe I’d pushed her buttons a little too far. Probably should try to calm her down a bit or she really would kill me soon—whether she figured out who I was or not. “I thought you just said Cinder was one of the greatest characters of all time.”
She pulled her shoulders back and stuck that cute little nose of hers in the air. “Every great character makes mistakes. Cinder was wise by the end and able to rule over his people only because Ellamara taught him how to think beyond himself. He was a great character, but—”
“I know, I know,” I interrupted with a playful sigh. We’d been through this fight so many times, there was only one way out. I had to let her win. “Ellamara was the real hero.”
I didn’t realize what I’d done until she froze. I’d simply been caught up in the argument. But it was clear from the sudden change in her expression that my all-too-familiar surrender had just given her the clue she’d needed. She knew the truth.
Now my heart really did stop. She looked at me and this time she was seeing me. She was seeing Cinder. Adrenaline shot through me. I’d been so tired when I’d walked into this room, and now I was so alive I wouldn’t need to sleep for months. I was practically shaking with excitement, but I had to keep my cool. She knew. That was enough for now. I didn’t need to blurt it out and inform the entire world. Maybe now we could have some time to talk before the world went to hell in a handbag around us. I could explain myself and warn her about Kaylee. This was perfect.
“What made you say that?” Ella whispered. She looked as if she was one second away from dying of shock.
I had to wipe the smug smile from my face, and shrugged my shoulders. “It was what you were going to say.”
“Yes, but how did you know? Why did you say those particular words?”
Speaking of particular words, there was one I’d absolutely love to hear from her right now.
She knew the answer to her question—how I could know exactly what she was going to say. She was trying to deny it because it seemed impossible. If she needed help accepting it, though, I could manage that. I leaned forward, anticipating her reaction so much I could taste it, and whispered, “Say car for me.”
I don’t know what I’d expected. I knew she’d be surprised, but the amount of shock she displayed was startling. She looked almost…afraid. Her face drained of color, and she stumbled backward as if her legs were going to give out at any moment.
The guy dressed as Cinder caught her, and something clicked in my brain. The dude I’d been envying earlier was the freaking athlete. Rob. What the hell kind of name was Rob, anyway? This guy was the stupid high school punk that was trying to steal my woman from me. And now he was holding her. He’d caught her when she stumbled and he hadn’t let her go yet. He jumped on the opportunity Ella had accidentally given him, and slipped his arms around her. The bastard!
I wanted to kill him. I was so close to jumping over the table and tackling the guy to the ground. How dare he put his hands on her like that. She was mine. Could I say anything though? No. Because technically she wasn’t mine. Technically, we were just Internet friends who’d never even met. Technically, I was the guy who’d refused to meet her and claim her as mine when she’d given me the chance. Her friend Vivian had warned me about Rob, and had invited me to take his place. I’d said no.
Damn it! I was the biggest idiot on the planet.
Mr. Fantastic may not have understood who I was, but he was definitely feeling the vibes I was sending his way. His eyes narrowed on me, and his grip on Ella turned possessive. I clenched my jaw and balled my hands into fists beneath the table. I couldn’t lose it here. Not like this. Not only would it make a spectacle that would be played on the news for days, and Ella really wouldn’t like that, but I had no right to be angry. She wasn’t my girlfriend. Not yet. But that was going to change, damn it. The second this meet and greet was over.
Now that I’d seen her—met her, interacted with her—there was no way things could go back to the way they were. Ella was absolutely perfect in every way.
Glaring at me, Mr. Fantastic ducked his head next to Ella’s ear and said, “Are you okay, Ella?”
I wanted to punch him again because he sounded worried about her. It shouldn’t be his damn job to worry about her. And what was there to be worried about? It was just me! I opened my mouth to tell the punk to mind his own business, but then I realized what he’d said. He’d called her Ella. Her stepsister had called her that earlier too and I hadn’t realized what that meant because it was the same thing I’d always called her. Could that be her real name? Completely derailed from my rage, I met her eyes. “Ella?”
She nodded slowly and blinked a couple times. She was still in a daze from learning my identity. But why? Her shock was starting to get concerning. True, it had to be insane to learn that your secret best friend was a movie star, but I would think that would be fun news. Exciting on some level. And come on, I’m rich and gorgeous. Those aren’t exactly bad things. Why did Ella look so sick to her stomach?
“Ellamara,” she whispered in a shaky voice. I’d forgotten the question until she added, “My mom really loved the books, too.”
Ellamara? Her real name was actually Ellamara? I couldn’t believe it, but I loved it. It was just too perfect. I’d always loved calling her Ellamara. I loved that it was a connection we both shared. I’d loved the significance of it. That it was a character from my favorite book and the whole reason I’d even found her in the first place. I’d gotten so used to calling her that, that every time I wondered what her real name was I got sad at the idea of having to call her something else. I loved that I’d never have to. I loved that I wasn’t going to lose that detail about her. Ella. She really was my Ella. My Ellamara. It was a beautiful name. She was beautiful.
Man was I ever in love with this woman.
I was staring. Mooning even. The happy grin on my face kept getting bigger and bigger. Other people were starting to whisper. But I couldn’t look away from her. I couldn’t do anything but sit here and soak up this moment. I’d wondered, fantasized, dreamed about her for years. I’d wanted this meeting—no, needed it—for so long and here it was. Here she was. Both of our lives had just changed. I was sure she could feel it too.
“Brian!” Kaylee’s whispered shriek snapped me out of my moment. “Baby, you’re starting to cause a scene. Stop flirting with her and sign a damn autograph already.”
The next moment happened in slow motion. Ella’s eyes flicked to Kaylee and she put the pieces together. I watched the facts click in her brain. Ella thought I was engaged to Kaylee.
After the knowledge sunk in, Ella swallowed. And then she broke. Not outwardly. To anyone else, she just looked flustered and a little upset about something, but I could see it. I saw the utter devastation in her eyes when she forced a smile at the shrew next to me and choked out the words, “Congratulations on your engagement. I’m sure you’ll make a beautiful bride.”
I realized something then. Something I hadn’t dared to hope before now. Ella was every bit as in love with me as I was with her. When she said those words to me, she meant them the same way I did. She was doing the exact same thing I’d always done—saying them in a way that could be taken as platonic…just in case we weren’t on the same page. But we were.
I loved Ella more than she’d ever know. And right now she was telling herself that I would never feel that way about her. She was mentally replaying all of our interactions since we’d been reunited. I could see it in her eyes. They were bouncing from side to side so fast it was dizzying to look at her. She was thinking back, and remembering how I’d told her I liked that we’d never met. She was remembering every word I’d said when I told her I couldn’t meet her. When I’d said she didn’t belong in my world and I’d begged her to be content with the friendship we’d had.
I exhaled like the wind had just been punched out of me as another realization hit me. I’d broken her heart that day. That’s what that fight we’d had was really about. If she’s been in love with me this whole time, then I crushed her that night. She hid it like a pro, but I could see it all now. Standing in front of me doing everything she could not to start crying, I could read all of her emotions on her face. None of them were good. I did that to her. Was doing it to her.
How the hell could I fix this? Would she even give me a chance? No wonder she’d looked so shocked when she realized who I was. She’d been putting together the mystery of me. I’d kept so much of myself from her over the years. I’d been purposefully vague about my personal life. She knew I was doing it. She’d asked me why from time to time but had never pushed when I’d dodged her questions. I’d been uncomfortable and private and she’d just accepted that about me. She’d accepted it and taken whatever I could give her.
Now, all of the gaps in my stories made sense to her, and she was painting a picture in her head of who I was. That was not a picture I wanted her to create on her own. I needed to explain myself. I needed to tell her why I’d held back and how I really felt. I needed to stop hurting her.
“You okay?” Rob asked, startling us both from the trance we’d fallen into.
At the sound of his voice, Ella snapped out of her shock and whirled around, burying her face in his chest. My heart broke as I watched her tremble in his arms. She shook her head in response to his question and my stomach rolled. No. She wasn’t okay.
So many people had hurt her in her life. So many had disappointed her. Abandoned her. Broken her heart. Abused her. And now I could add my name to that list.
“I need to get out of here,” she muttered. There were tears in her voice.
Rob didn’t hesitate. He turned her away from me, and the other girls followed, no questions asked.
Shit. “Ella, wait!”
Shit again. Everyone in the room was watching me now. I’d called out to her in a panic. I’d sounded desperate. I was desperate. If she walked away from me now, like this, she’d never speak to me again.
Ella met my gaze, her beautiful blue eyes shining with a layer of moisture that pierced my heart. How could I have done this to her? How could I fix it? I needed to talk to her. But with the crowd of people watching us, I couldn’t say anything.
After scrambling for a solution, I saw the stack of headshots in front of me and quickly scribbled a note onto the top photo.
I can explain.
Meet me at the Dragon’s Roost. Six P.M.
I held up the photo and breathed a huge sigh of relief when she stepped back up to the table. She reached for the picture with a confused frown gracing her heartbroken face. I wouldn’t let go of the headshot until she looked down. She was hurt enough that I was afraid she’d rip up the photo and throw it in the trash without ever seeing what I’d written.
Her eyes fell to the picture and widened before meeting mine again. I silently begged her for understanding and forgiveness. I begged her to take pity on me and meet me for dinner. Still holding onto the picture, I forced a smile on my face and said, “It was truly a pleasure to meet you, Ella.”
It wasn’t nearly enough, but it was all I could say at the moment with so many people watching. But when she looked at me again, fear and confusion in her gaze, I mouthed the word please.
Something flickered in her expression and after a moment she muttered, “Thanks.” Then she turned around again and let Mr. Fantastic Soccer Dude escort her away from me.
I hated watching her leave. I wanted to chase after her but I couldn’t. I had a few last impatient fans still waiting for their turn to talk to me, and I’d kept them waiting quite a while now.
I flicked my gaze to the new group of people standing in front of me, and they stared back with stunned and curious expressions. It took me a moment to switch gears. I had to compartmentalize. I had to put Ella away and be Brian Oliver the Movie Star again. Usually that wasn’t hard for me to do, but right now I was more shaken than I’d ever been in my life.
I forced the group a smile and said my flirty hello, but all I wanted to do was run after Ella. As I signed autographs, I glanced her direction again. Her party was at the exit now and Ella didn’t look back as she walked out, but the twins and the redhead all did. They all saw me watching them leave. Did they know who I was? Had they figured it out? Would Ella explain it? Would they make her show up to meet me?
I didn’t know if Ella would come, but if she didn’t, I’d stalk her until she had no choice other than to talk to me. I prayed it wouldn’t come to that. The longer we went without speaking, the longer she would hurt. If she’d let me, I could take away all of the pain I’d caused her. I could make it up to her. I’d spend the rest of my life making it up to her if I had to. She was the one. I knew it with every fiber of my being. We belonged together. I couldn’t lose her. I wouldn’t.
Glancing at the pissed off shrew of a woman next to me I sucked in a breath. It was time to man up and take back control of my life. Screw Hollywood. Screw the Oscars. It was time for this prince to claim his real princess.