1 There’s a cost to being the best

If someone had told her when her alarm clock went off that morning that in a few hours she'd be calmly given the odds of her continued survival, Joy would have rolled her eyes and laughed her fears into the corners of her consciousness.

If someone had warned her that later that afternoon she'd be going down on a gorgeous stranger, she'd have told that person they were certifiably insane.

Wilkie shouted her name as she raced through the din of the makeup room. A photoshoot for movie posters and other promotional materials was scheduled today. The special effects makeup department was roaring in high gear. Wilkie James looked too busy to chat, so Joy merely slowed her rapid pace. Her friend held an airbrush and was staring intently at a female's right breast as he turned its pale green, his shaggy, dark brown hair just inches away from a nipple.

"He's in his lab, angsting for your talent. 'I need Joy,' he keeps moaning," Wilkie imitated, adding a tremble to Seth Hightower's gruff baritone for comic effect. "He's been trying to reach you for hours. Where've you been, beautiful?"

"Don't I have a life, or was that all my imagination?" Joy asked, grinning.

"You may have had a life before we began production on Maritime, but that's all just a dream now, honey," Wilkie drawled as he moved to the left breast, and his model yawned widely.

That's all just a dream now.

Wilkie's careless words struck her with frightening precision. She shrugged off the shadow of dread that hovered at the corners of her consciousness and walked on, willing the energy from her surroundings to distract her . . .

Numb her.

The drama and excitement of a Hollywood film set wasn't Joy's typical work world. As an art teacher for gifted high school students and a painter, she preferred the atmosphere of the classroom or her quiet, sunlit studio at home. Even the clamor and bustle of a Hollywood makeup department couldn't fully penetrate her dread, however.

Not today.

She felt as if she were moving through a dream . . . something like the brilliant, surreal underwater world film director Joshua Cabot was creating for United Studios's latest blockbuster, Maritime.

She willfully ignored the uncomfortable pounding in her chest and flung open the door to Seth Hightower's office-studio. She needed to see the familiar, loved, the bold-featured face of her uncle; he was the only true family member she still possessed. Seth glanced around at the sound of her tool kit rolling over the threshold behind her.

"There you are!"

"I didn't get the messages until half an hour ago. I was at the doctor. I came as quickly as I could."

Seth looked contrite. "I know. Ignore me. I'm in a bear of a mood."

Joy smiled. Her uncle was a bear of a man in stature, perhaps, but hardly in temperament. At least not with Joy, he wasn't. He tossed a few tubes of paint and glue into his kit before he straightened, swept down on her from his great height and gave her a quick, affectionate kiss, his shoulder-length dark hair flicking against her cheek. "You're not even officially part of my staff and I snap at you like an intern. Your mother would have my hide." Seth focused on her face, his brows drawing together in a V shape, giving him an expression that anyone besides Joy would have found intimidating. "I know you had to take off school a few days last week. Is that why you were at the doctor? How's the cough?"

"Better," Joy said as she glanced around the meticulously organized room. As the makeup department head, Seth claimed the right to privacy. His office-studio was like the still eye of a storm. "I don't have pneumonia," she reported honestly. "What's the emergency?"

"It's coming at me from all directions. Our leading lady decided to drink some Coke spiked with vodka without a straw. The latex is lifting around her mouth," Seth said, referring to the actress's prosthetic mask. "She's throwing a fit and holing up in her trailer, refusing to let anyone touch her up but me. Meantime, I'm running behind on the tattoos."

Joy gave her uncle a humorous glance of sympathy. "There's a cost to being the best."

"Anybody on my staff could reglue Ellie, you know that. She's just throwing her weight around by asking for me personally."

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"She must think you're the best at a few things."

"As if I'd ever give that little shrew the chance to find out," Seth muttered with a disgusted, distracted air. Joy's heart went out to him. This had to be one of the most hectic days of his life. "Anyway, that only leaves you who can do the last tattoo—"

Seth paused when someone rapped and the door opened several inches. Her breath caught at what she saw.

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