Will They or Won't They
As if she needed another reminder, the fact that Lilah Hunter was once again trapped alone in a room with Shane McCarthy was confirmation that her life had gone completely off the rails.
She should’ve prepared herself. It was only a matter of time. Luckily, he hadn’t been on her flight to New York, and they hadn’t run into each other at the hotel. She knew she’d be seeing him tonight, obviously. But she’d naïvely assumed that things would be hectic enough that there would always be some kind of buffer between them—that they wouldn’t have to acknowledge each other, let alone interact. Not yet, anyway.
At first, she’d been correct. Just an hour ago, the backstage holding area for talent at Radio City Music Hall had been bustling with people, all assembled for the same purpose: the annual UBS upfronts, part of the most important television event of the year. Over the course of one week in May, every major network took turns revealing their fall schedules to potential sponsors, flying out their biggest stars to make their presentations as flashy as possible in an attempt to lure in advertising dollars.
She’d avoided Shane from the moment she’d entered the greenroom, but really, he’d avoided her first. When she’d walked through the door, their eyes had met immediately, and her spine had tingled with that familiar, involuntary frisson of disgust. She should’ve prepared herself for that, too.
If he’d seemed at all happy to see her, or even just neutral, she would’ve gone over and greeted him warmly like everything was fine. Really, she would have. Instead, he’d paused for a moment, face clouding, mouth tightening, before returning to his conversation, angling his back resolutely toward her. Fine. If that was how he wanted it. She’d squared her shoulders, sauntered into the room, and struck up some small talk with the first familiar face she saw.
Slowly, though, the crowd had dwindled, as people were escorted to the stage in small groups. Intangible
’s slot was last on UBS’s agenda that evening: the grand finale. They’d somehow successfully managed to keep Lilah’s return to the show a secret ahead of the big reveal, which, even in a gathering of the network’s best and brightest, had caused a stir when she’d first shown up backstage. She’d been a little embarrassed by the attention, but relieved for the distraction.
Now it was just the two of them, slouched on couches on opposite sides of the room, ignoring each other. Even though they’d been in the same room for more than an hour, it had still been nearly three years since they’d spoken. Since the night of her final wrap party.
Lilah felt heat rise to her face. That was the last thing she should be thinking about right now. She needed to focus. They would be called to the stage at any moment, and he was enough of a distraction as it was.
He had a beard now. His hair was longer, too, dark as ever but wavier than she’d thought it would be, the back of it almost brushing his collar. But she knew all that already. It had been impossible to avoid the ads for the last few seasons of Intangible
. The ones without her. Shane’s newly hairy face had been plastered, solo, over every billboard on Sunset.
Her throat tightened as a memory popped up, unbidden, of the first time they’d spotted an Intangible
billboard with the two of them on it, back before the first season had even aired. They’d taken turns posing for pictures in front of it, laughing and giddy. Once they’d sent them off to their respective parents, Shane had slung one arm around her shoulders and stretched the other out as far as it could go, capturing a single blurry selfie of them together, the billboard barely in frame. That one had been just for them.
She let out an exhale that was louder than she intended, so loud it bordered on a sigh. Shane’s eyes flicked over to her, just for a heartbeat, then away again. Lilah stared at her lap. This whole thing was a mistake, the latest in a long line of them. She couldn’t unburn this bridge, no matter how much money they’d thrown at her to rebuild it.
Lilah whipped her head up to see Shane looking at her, almost bored, from under half-lidded eyes. Her hand flew above her shoulder, fingering the ends of her hair involuntarily. She’d cut it to her chin several months ago in a fit of acute emotional distress (as was the case with most drastic haircuts).
His tone was so bland that it was hard to tell whether he was being sincere or sarcastic. When it came to Shane, the least charitable reading was usually the correct one. He wasn’t wrong, though. This particular cut, still overly feathered and layered even after months of growing it out, wasn’t doing her any favors. It looked okay tonight, after being professionally wrangled ahead of the event, but most days it felt like one more mistake staring back at her in the mirror.
She dropped her hand and crossed her arms, trying to match his sardonic inflection.
“Thanks. Nice beard.”
Unfortunately, his beard did
look good, but hopefully her delivery was ambiguous enough to plant those same seeds of self-doubt. If it worked, he showed no sign of it.
He held her gaze for a long moment, inhaling sharply like he was about to say something else. But instead, he just shook his head slightly, smirked, and looked away.
“What?” she asked before she could help herself.
He met her eyes again. “Bet you never thought you’d end up back here again, huh?” The superficial friendliness only made the bitter undertone more stark.
There was no point in responding. It wasn’t a real question. Of course she never thought she’d end up back here. He obviously hadn’t, either. Otherwise they wouldn’t have spent her final weeks on the show adding a few last-minute items to their endless list of grievances against each other.
He shifted positions, leaning forward to rest his elbows loosely on his knees. From the way his neck craned toward the door, he was clearly as eager to get out of there as she was. He muttered something under his breath.
“Sorry? I didn’t catch that,” Lilah said crisply.
He turned back to her. “I said, this is bullshit
.” Every word was perfectly enunciated this time.
She forced herself to take a deep breath, but it didn’t help; her tone was just as venomous as his. “Well, it wasn’t my idea. Believe
A flicker of amusement crossed his face, relieving some of the tension pulsating between them. “Oh, I know. I saw your movie.” He winced.
Lilah fought the blush rising to her cheeks as she glowered at him.
It had seemed like a no-brainer to leave the show at the time. She’d been there for five seasons, her contract was up, her star was on the rise, and things between her and Shane were as bad as they’d ever been. They barely said a word to each other that wasn’t in the script. So, naturally, she’d jumped at the offer of what seemed like her dream role: a feature adaptation of an award-winning journalist’s memoir about his relationship with his troubled mother, helmed by a legendary director she’d been dying to work with.
In retrospect, the fact that they were willing to cast a twenty-seven-year-old in a role that spanned the ages of thirty-five to seventy should’ve been her first hint that things were creatively awry behind the scenes. Still, Lilah had thrown everything she had into her performance, ignoring the misgivings that piled higher and higher as the shoot went on, writing them off as the standard insecurities that came from pushing herself as an actor for the first time in years.
She’d known for sure that she was in trouble before they’d even wrapped, when an unflattering candid picture of her on set in her old-age makeup had leaked and gone viral, instantly taking off as a humiliating meme. Her own sister had texted it to her with the caption “You after seeing this picture for the millionth time.” That was the only one she’d laughed at.
The movie itself had fared even worse, hailed as a career low for everyone involved. Not just mediocre but laughably bad—an instant camp classic. When she’d first received the script, she’d been practicing her Oscar acceptance speech in the shower; by the time the movie was released, she was contemplating whether to go pick up her Razzie in person. For the next year, she couldn’t get an offer for anything more substantial than a birth control commercial.