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You Can't Kiss A Movie

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Excerpt from Aaron's Film Blog review of First Date:

Despite reports of drama on the set - first it was Asher and Saporta's rumored affair, then Saporta's very public romance with co-star Meester, complete with tales of screaming matches and thrown drinks - with First Date, Asher has turned in a subtle and nuanced portrait of the evil that lurks within the hearts of men. For a director working on her first feature (Asher previously directed one student film and a Manhattan Short finalist), Asher has a surprisingly deft hand. No moment is overplayed. When Eduardo presses his hand against Juliette's throat, Asher lets the camera look but then pulls back to a wide shot showing us the whole room: faded blue curtains that don't quite cover the windows and Eduardo's bare feet against the wood floor contrasting with the precision of Juliette's dress and high heels.

Furthermore, Asher never lets Saporta give in to his tendency toward the unnecessarily theatric. Critics have been lauding his potential for years; for the first time, he lives up to it. I can only hope he takes the lessons he learned here and puts them to good use in future roles.

*

Victoria turned over the last page of the script and exhaled for what felt like the first time since she started reading it. It was a good script, a really good script. An Oscar-worthy script, even, in the right director's hands.

Victoria was the right director.

She could already see it playing out in her mind's eye. She knew what she wanted to tell Ryan about the art direction, and she thought she could get Kevin Jonas to do set design. All of that was great.

The problem was that every time she imagined it, it was Gabe she saw playing Jasper.

Two years and the sting of betrayal hadn't eased much. She'd started falling in love with Gabe at his audition for First Date. He read, and then did exactly what she wanted when she gave him some additional direction. They'd flirted and danced around each other, even as he followed all of her directions. And then he'd slept with Leighton.

Victoria shook off the memory. She'd seen Gabe around since then, and they'd nodded politely. Leighton had been filming on location for much of the last two years, so Victoria didn't have to see her, which was good. They'd been friends, before Victoria put Leighton in her movie. Leighton had betrayed her on a whole other level.

And now she had a project that could put everyone who worked on it on the map, and it needed Gabe to succeed.

Victoria picked up the phone and dialed Bob McLynn's number before she could reason her way out of it.

"You read it," he said in lieu of a greeting.

"I did. I have one condition for doing it."

"Only one? That makes you a lot less trouble than most directors. Shoot."

"Gabe Saporta." Victoria flipped the script over so the front page was showing. "If you can get him for Jasper, I'll do it."

Bob was silent for a very long five seconds. "You and Saporta have history. Do you really think that's wise?"

Victoria had her doubts, but she wasn't about to tell them to the man in charge of getting her what she needed to make her movie. "Gabe and I are professionals. We can work together."

Bob's next silence told her how much he believed her. "I can't promise anything," he told her, "but I'll set up a meeting."

If Bob could get Gabe there, Victoria could make him believe in the project. "You probably shouldn't tell him it's me," she said. "It might be easier that way."

"I was wrong about you being less trouble," Bob grumbled.

Victoria grinned. "You get Gabe to a meeting and talk money with Alex, and we'll make you an Oscar winner."

"Oh, I have no doubt about that," Bob replied. "But will it make me any money?"

Victoria laughed. "Yes, Bob, it will make you money. Come on, you know about me. I don't spend unnecessarily like some directors, and I hire good people so we get it right the first time instead of wasting time and money on reshoots. This movie's going to come in on time and on budget."

"I'll believe that when I see it." Victoria could hear the clicking of keys over the phone. "I'll set up the meeting and get back to you with the time."

"Thanks, Bob. I really want to do this project." That, at least, was the whole truth. As soon as they hung up, Victoria picked up a pencil and started sketching notes in the margins of the script.

*

Victoria made sure to get to Crush's offices early. Bob must have been thinking along the same lines, because instead of having her wait, the receptionist took her straight into an unoccupied conference room. A small table along one wall held coffee carafes and a plate of artfully arranged pastries and fruit. Victoria poured herself a glass of water from a pitcher next to the coffee. The main conference table was set parallel to the door; Victoria took the chair directly across from it.

She took her marked up copy of the script and her ever-present notebook-slash-sketchbook-slash-ideabook out of her bag. She did a lot of work digitally, but when it came to production meetings, she liked to have pen and paper to work with. She would transfer anything that needed to be transferred to her laptop later.

Bob was the second to arrive, with a dark-haired guy in tight jeans, a dark hoodie, and high-tops in tow.

"Victoria," Bob said, coming around the table to shake her hand. "This is Pete Wentz."

Victoria didn't have to fake her smile even a little bit. "Pete," she greeted him, "I love your script."

Pete beamed at her. "Thank you. I loved First Date." He pulled out a chair next to her and banged on the table with an imaginary gavel. "This meeting of the mutual appreciation society will now come to order."

There were voices in the hallway, and then the door opened again. Victoria had been steeling herself for it, but she still wasn't quite ready for the way her stomach flipped when she saw Gabe behind Alex.

Gabe paused in the doorway. He started moving again so quickly most of the room probably didn't even notice, but Victoria was watching him closely.

"Vicky," he drawled.

"Don't call me that," she snapped automatically.

He smirked, and took the chair directly across from her.

Alex came around the table, though, and Victoria stood up to hug him.

"Suarez," she said, "still trying to manage him."

Alex smiled at her, and he looked just the same: suit, neatly combed hair, and black-rimmed glasses, all of which contrived to make him look quirky rather than nerdy. "He does bring in the big bucks." He went back around the table to sit next to Gabe. "I don't think you've met Cassadee."

Victoria reached across the table and shook hands with the third member of Gabe's entourage. Cassadee was a very young woman with stylishly sharp angles to her hair and a floral patterned black tank top under a yellow vest.

"Cassadee's my assistant," Gabe informed her.

Victoria wondered if he was sleeping with her too, and then reminded herself that it wasn't any of her concern, not anymore.

"Gabe," Bob said, "this is Pete Wentz." Victoria watched the way Gabe's gaze sharpened for just a moment as he looked at Pete. "Pete, this is Gabe Saporta, Alex Suarez, and Cassadee Pope."

"Your script is the shit," Gabe said.

"You're an excellent actor in the hands of a competent director," Pete told him, and Victoria had to stifle the urge to laugh.

Gabe did laugh. "And you think Victoria's a competent director."

"More than," Pete said, with a smile much sharper than Victoria would have expected.

They were interrupted by the door opening again. There was another round of introductions so everyone could meet Jonathan. He was the less well-known co-founder of Crush. Victoria hadn't met him before, but she'd heard that where Bob was the public face of Crush, Jonathan was the one who took care of the difficult behind the scenes tasks. Appropriate, then to have him in this meeting.

"Jonathan, Pete, and I are the executive producers on this project," Bob said when everyone who wanted coffee had it and they'd all settled down. "We want to make this movie."

"We're going to make this movie," Pete corrected, and received a quelling look for his trouble.

"We believe in Pete's script." Bob nodded at Jonathan. "We think Victoria's the right person to direct it, and we're strongly considering Gabe for the role of Jasper." That wasn't quite laying all his cards on the table, but Victoria let it play.

"And you think that's a good idea?" Victoria wasn't surprised that it was who Gabe said it. "The two of us working together?"

"Frankly," Jonathan said, "we have our doubts."

"We also want to do this movie justice," Bob added. "And we think you two can do that."

"What kind of terms are we talking about?" Alex asked.

"Three million, up front, and net points." Victoria mentally translated Bob's answer to five and cash break, which meant they were willing to pour serious money into this project.

Gabe snorted. "You're paying me more than that if I do it." He looked at Victoria. "You think you can work with me again?"

Victoria met his eyes and didn't let her expression waver. "Yes. Can you work with me again?"

"That's going to be good publicity," Pete murmured. Victoria ignored it.

Gabe looked away first. "How about you give us a minute alone." It wasn't a question.

When Bob looked at her, a clear question on his face, Victoria nodded.

"That means you too, chickadee," Gabe said when everyone but Cassadee got out of their chairs.

"It's Cassadee, dumbass." Cassadee thwapped him on the back of the head as she followed the others out of the room. Victoria wouldn't be surprised if they were sleeping together.

The door closed behind everyone else, leaving Victoria and Gabe alone in silence.

Gabe finally broke it. "Are you going to throw your water at me?"

"Are you going to give me a reason to?"

Gabe tapped his fingers against the table. "What do you think?" He'd dropped the act and was actually being serious.

"I'm not doing it without you." Victoria folded her hands and rested them on top of the script.

Gabe's mouth twisted into something that might have been a smile if it were softer. "And if I say no?"

"Then I say no." Victoria leaned forward and met his eyes directly. "I know you, and if there's one thing you care about, it's movies. You can say yes and we can make this," she tapped the script, "into one hell of a movie. Or you can say no, and someone else will do it." She sat back. "No one else will be able to do it justice the way we can."

Gabe was silent, and Victoria let him be. She'd said what she had to say, and now it was up to him to think it over.

"That's a lot of trust you're putting in me."

"It was never your acting ability I doubted," Victoria said.

Gabe actually winced, and Victoria thought, for a moment, about taking it back or softening it, but it was true, and they'd never lied to each other.

Gabe was always fearless, and he met her eyes again. "You think this can be good?"

Just because she didn't lie to him didn't mean she had to tell him the whole truth. She stuck with the professional angle. "I think this can win us both Oscars."

Gabe smiled faintly. "That's a bold prediction."

"It's a good script. Crush and Pete are both gaining names for themselves, which means we can get the cast and crew we need for this. It's a risk," Victoria admitted, "but so is every other project."

"I think," Gabe said, steepling his fingers and looking deep into her eyes, "the real risk is you and me working together."

Victoria looked away before she could stop herself from reacting. She took in a deep breath and met his gaze again. "I think," she echoed, "that we're both adults and we can make this work."

There was something bitter in his look, and she wasn't sure if it was directed at her or himself. "So," he said with false brightness, "if I don't sleep with my costar you won't throw drinks at me?"

Victoria could feel her shoulders tense and her stomach go tight with remembered hurt. She forced her shoulders back down. "How about," she said, "you don't keep bringing it up and we make a fucking movie?"

That same something bitter was back on his face, but he nodded sharply. "Okay." He pulled out his phone and sent a text, probably to Alex. "Who else are you going to try to get for this? Nate, obviously."

Victoria nodded. "Kevin Jonas, Ryan Ross, maybe Patrick Stump if I can sweet talk him into it."

Gabe shook his head. "You won't have any problem with that one."

Victoria was equal parts flattered and annoyed. Before she could make up her mind about which one to go with, the door opened and everyone else filed back in and came back to their seats.

"So what's the decision?" Bob asked.

Gabe leaned back in his chair. "Three mil is insultingly low," he said, and the negotiations got underway.

*

Nate always gave good hugs, whether it was in her office on set or in the middle of a restaurant at the peak of the lunch hour.

They caught up for a while, Victoria offering stories about Gizmo and Nate telling her about being second AD for a teen movie full of stars in their thirties.

"I've got a script," Victoria said almost off-handedly at the end of one of Nate's stories.

"A good one?"

Victoria nodded. "Really good. Writer is Pete Wentz. He and Crush are producing."

Nate looked at her as suspiciously as Nate ever looked. "So what's the catch?"

"What makes you think there's a catch?"

"If there wasn't, you wouldn't have invited me to lunch. You would've just asked me on the phone."

He had a point. "Gabe's the lead."

Nate paused with his fork halfway to his mouth and set it down instead of completing its journey. "That's a really shitty idea."

Victoria put her fork down too. "He's a great actor."

"This has nothing to do with that." Nate's stare was as intense as he ever got. "You're not ready for this."

"Sure I am," Victoria lied.

"You're not." Nate drummed his fingers on the table, picking out a rhythm she couldn't quite follow. "I'm not sure I am."

In the middle of her own turmoil over working with Gabe again, she hadn't stopped to think how Nate would feel about it. He'd gotten almost as close to Gabe as she had, and she'd heard tales - from both of them - about the adventures they had when they went out drinking together. But Nate had chosen her, in the end. He'd been the one to hold her together after she threw the glass at Gabe, when she thought her sobs and the pain of her heart breaking would tear her apart.

Victoria sighed. "Just read the script, okay? It's good. Good enough that I don't care that it's Gabe." That wasn't quite true. "You'll see. It can only be Gabe." That was.

"It can only be Gabe because you're in love with him."

Victoria could feel herself blanch, and Nate winced.

"Shit," he muttered.

Victoria's hand shook when she reached for her wine glass.

"Sorry," Nate offered.

Victoria sipped carefully, and then put her glass back down exactly where it had been before. "He's a good actor." She was enough in control that her voice didn't shake.

"Yeah," Nate agreed, "but someone else could do it."

"It's too late anyway. We've both signed contracts. I'll get another AD if I have to, but I'd rather have you." She pulled the extra copy of the script out of her bag and put it on the table. "Read the script."

Nate sighed and tugged it toward him. "No promises," he warned.

Victoria nodded. "Okay. Just let me know soon so I can find someone else if I need to."

*

Nate called not four hours after they'd parted ways outside the restaurant. "Fuck you," he said, but he was half laughing.

Victoria grinned. "Does that mean you're in?"

"Fuck yes, I'm in. This is the best script I've read in years."

Victoria grinned even harder. "Is this the part where I get to say 'I told you so'?"

"No, this is: Gabe's perfect for Jasper."

Victoria stopped grinning. "I know."

"Fucking shit, Victoria." Nate's laughter had trailed off, and she could hear his exhale loud over the phone. "If he pulls the same kind of shit again."

"I don't think he will." Gizmo always seemed to know when Victoria wasn't at her best; he jumped up into her lap and nosed at her chin. It made her smile despite the conversation. "When I talked to him-" She shrugged. "I think we can act like adults."

Nate snorted. "Yeah, because that's what you're both known for."

"Oh, shut up," Victoria shot back. "You draw dicks on any surface that'll stay still for it." She rubbed behind Gizmo's ears, his small weight on her lap keeping her steady.

"My dicks are art." Nate was silent for a moment, and then he said, "Gabe Saporta. Fuck."

Victoria had to swallow against the lump in her throat. She had to get herself under control. She couldn't make a movie with the guy if she kept letting herself get swept away by everything she felt every time she heard his name.

"You don't- You know you don't have to hate him." It hurt a little bit to say it, but maybe it was time they all stopped suffering for the past. "You were there for me when I really needed it, but I'm okay." Mostly. "You can be friends with him again."

"Maybe." Nate sounded doubtful. "We'll see."

"Just don't be too much of a dick to him. I'm going to need him to listen to you, and he won't if you piss him off to start with."

"Yes, mom," Nate drawled. "I'll play nice with the other kids."

Victoria smiled. "Good. I have a list of people to talk to, and then I'm going to want you in on a bunch of meetings."

"Meetings," Nate groaned. "The thing I hate most about this business."

"Necessary evil. Anyone you want on this project?"

"The people you hire have to be better than the last crew I worked with. Oh, except for this one guy, Brendon Urie. If you don't already have an editor, he's good."

Victoria reached over Gizmo for her notepad and pen to write it down. "Send me his details. I'll check him out."

*

Assistant director secured, Victoria felt a lot more confident about contacting the other people she wanted involved. It took her two weeks and numerous calls to Bob to use his clout, but she eventually managed to get her supervising crew together around her dining room table for a meeting.

"Introductions, for those of you who don't know each other," she said when she had everyone settled in with drinks and trays of munchies. "Nate's our AD, Ryan's art direction, Kevin's sets, Spencer's wardrobe, Brendon's editing, Jon's DP, Patrick's music, and Pete is our scriptwriter-slash-producer." They each raised a hand as she said their names.

"We're going to be seeing a lot of each other over the next couple of months, so get used to it. Don't be dicks to each other. If you have problems, you can come to Nate or to me, unless it's a problem with one of our stars, then you come straight to me." Victoria looked around the table to make sure they were all paying close attention. "And there will be problems with our stars. There always are." That brought a chuckle. "As I'm sure most of you have heard, our lead is Gabe Saporta. He can be an ass, but he's serious about the work. He and Crush are on board, but other than that, you're the only people attached to this project. If you have ideas about who else we should look at, let me know. I'm going to count on you to hire some of your own crews." Victoria glanced down at her notes to make sure she was covering everything she wanted to in her introductory spiel. "Any questions?"

Ryan raised his hand and asked, "Budget?"

Victoria pulled out the stack of papers below her notepad. "Here's the projected budget." She split the stack of budgets in two and send them around the table in either direction, keeping one for herself. "We know this is going to change a little as we go on, but we want to stick pretty close to it."

Her supervising crew bent over the budgets, some of them taking notes, some of them grumbling about the numbers, all of them taking it seriously.

*

The first thing Victoria noticed about Greta Salpeter was that she had a face that would look lovely on film. It was framed by a riot of blonde curls that would pick up the lights if Victoria could get them right. She had a mobile mouth that stretched into a smile as she introduced herself to each of them.

"We'd like to hear you read first," Victoria said.

"Of course." Greta took her place in the center of the room and became Caroline as she launched into the monologue from scene twelve.

Victoria fought to keep the grin off her face. This movie was going to be so good.

"Now we're going to have you read with Gabe. He's playing Jasper."

Gabe joined Greta in the middle of the room. He towered over her, which could work. Victoria started mentally composing shots and trying to think of what would need to be readjusted to fit them in a frame together.

Their chemistry was good, the two of them falling easily into Jasper and Caroline's roles. Greta moved around him as she delivered her lines, and he turned to watch her with the right mix of interest and wariness.

They grinned at each other when they got to the end of the scene, and Victoria knew they were seeing this all come together just as much as she was.

"How'd I do?" Greta asked, and Victoria hadn't already had a good feeling about her, that would have done it. She liked her actors to be direct.

"Good," she answered. She gestured at the camera. "We'll have to see how it plays on film, but that was good." She thought for a moment, and then said, "Can you do it again? This time I want you to remember that Caroline wants Jasper to find her interesting, but she's not about to let him know that. Gabe, Jasper desperately wants to be able to trust Caroline, but doesn't know if he can. She has to earn his trust. Let her start to pull you in."

They did the scene again, and Victoria could feel her heart beat faster. Greta could take direction, and their second take was even better than the first. From the corner of her eye, she could see Nate grinning. He knew what he was seeing just as much as she did, the magic that happened when two actors just worked.

Greta pushed her hair back from her face. "Whew! This is going to take a lot, isn't it?" She was smiling as she said it. "It's a good thing my boyfriend's band is on hiatus right now. He'll be making me dinner all through shooting."

Victoria found herself admiring how casually she'd managed to slip that into the conversation.

"If only I could get my dog to make me dinner," she said, and Greta laughed. "You did a great job today. We'll take a look at the film and call you by the end of the week."

Greta picked up her bag, a large canvas tote that she slung over her shoulder with practiced ease. "Thank you." She came over to shake Victoria's hand. "I would love to work with you." She shook Nate and Pete's hands, and then turned back to Gabe. "You too."

Gabe pulled her into a hug that Greta seemed perfectly comfortable returning. "I'd be happy to let you seduce me," he said with a grin and a patently false eyebrow waggle. Greta laughed and waved at them all on her way out.

"You liked her," Nate said.

Victoria nodded. "If she looks good on film, she'll be a great Caroline."

"She looked good through the lens," Jon said from behind the camera.

"I've heard good things about her," Pete said. "She's responsible, doesn't cause trouble." He shrugged. "Not a diva type."

"I'm the only diva on this set," Gabe said with a toss of his head.

"You said it, not me." Victoria smirked at him for a moment, then asked, "You think you can work with her?"

He shrugged. "Sure. She's a good actress, she took direction." He tapped his fingers against the back of the chair he was straddling. "I particularly liked the way she said wasn't going to sleep with me."

Trust Gabe to notice that. Victoria felt her shoulders tense and her mouth thin out into a flat line. She would have liked to delay any variation on this conversation, or skipped it altogether.

Pete looked back and forth between them, but Gabe and Nate were both looking at her. She couldn't see Jon, but she would bet his gaze mirrored Pete's.

"Don't," she said.

"It's a valid concern," Gabe said, "considering my past history."

Victoria was a professional with a job to do. She couldn't scream at him or dissolve into tears.

"Gabe!" she snapped, and Nate's face went from watchful to worried. She didn't look at Gabe.

"I just thought I would bring it up," Gabe said. "Since I know the producers are worried about that kind of thing."

"I'm not one of the producers," Victoria said. Every word felt like glass scraping its way out of her throat. "And I am not talking about this." She slammed her notebook shut. "If you have something of substance to contribute to this process, I'll listen, but not this." She was very proud of the way her voice didn't shake, even if her hands did. She stared at the blank cover of her notebook and waited to see if he had anything to say.

It was Nate who finally broke the silence. "I think we're done for the day."

Gabe, Pete, and Jon left while she was packing up her things. Nate stayed.

"Want to talk about it?" he asked after the door had closed behind the others.

"What is there to talk about?" Victoria finally looked up. "He's always been like that, and I just have to get over it."

"It's not too late," Nate said slowly, "to change your mind. Get rid of him or give it to another director."

Victoria shook her head fiercely. She wasn't giving up on this movie. Pete's script deserved the best they had to give. "I want this. This feels like the movie I've been waiting for."

Nate actually caught her wrist and held onto it until she stopped her fussing with her bag. "I know this sounds crazy, but the movie isn't everything."

Victoria took a deep breath and pushed everything Gabe had brought up back down. "I can do this." Even she wasn't sure if she was telling the truth.

*

Gabe came in the next day wearing his trademark sunglasses and clutching a Starbucks cup. He was the last one to arrive, Pete, Victoria, and Nate already in a row at the table and Jon behind the camera. When Gabe took off his sunglasses, his eyes were red and there were circles under them. He stood in front of Victoria and shoved his sunglasses into a pocket, then brought his hand to join the other in almost clinging to his cup.

"I was being a dick yesterday," he said, subdued and quiet, and that was the other Gabe Victoria knew, the one who was serious, the one who cared. The briefest of smiles flitted across his face. "Cassadee yelled at me for like twenty minutes about it."

That meant he'd told her about it. Maybe he was just open with his assistant. Maybe he was sleeping with her.

"And then I felt like shit and got drunk and she yelled at me about that too."

Victoria wasn't surprised by that; she remembered what Gabe with a hangover looked like. She'd yelled at him about it herself once or twice, when he was supposed to not look like shit on camera.

Gabe was completely earnest when he said, "I'm sorry," and Victoria knew him well enough - had known him well enough, anyway, and she didn't think he'd changed all that much - to know he was telling the truth.

She nodded. "Maybe you could give me some warning next time you're going to be a dick."

Pete made a choked noise, and both Victoria and Gabe turned to look at him. It was like a spell breaking, Pete intruding on a conversation that had felt private, no matter how many witnesses they had.

"Are you going to do press together?" Pete asked. "Because this is gold. They would eat it up."

If she hadn't read his script, she would never have guessed he was anything other than a shrewd businessman.

Victoria tapped her pen against her notebook. "We should probably make a movie before we start worrying about press."

"It's never too early to start worrying about press," Pete said.

When Victoria glanced at Gabe, he was almost smiling. "Man has a point," he said, gesturing meaninglessly with his coffee cup.

Victoria shook her head. "Don't help." She looked down at her notes to try to get them back on schedule. "We're trying to cast Mark this morning." Mark was the third principle character, and if she could find someone to play him, and if he and Gabe and Greta could all work together, everything else would fall into place around them. "Guy we're seeing is named Ryland. He's one of Alex's too."

Gabe didn't even need her to ask before he was answering her question. "I've never worked with him, but I've met him. He's funny. He and Alex go way back." Gabe shrugged. "Good guy, for all I can tell."

Victoria surprised herself with how much she still trusted Gabe's instincts about people; if he said Ryland was a good guy, then she believed it.

"Same process as yesterday." She looked at Gabe. "Without the acting like a dick."

Gabe saluted her with his coffee cup. "Yes ma'am."

Victoria ignored it in favor of the woman poking her head in the door to tell them Ryland had arrived.

Ryland was even taller than Gabe with a mobile face and a sharp nose that was going to be a bitch to light properly.

They went through the same process as the day before with similar results. Ryland slipped right into Mark as he delivered his lines. When Victoria had him read with Gabe, their chemistry was good, and she liked the way Gabe had to look up to look him in the eye. It would make both of them tower over Greta; she could do something with that.

"Let's do that one more time," she said. "Ryland, you think he's making a bad decision, but he's your friend. Let's see a little more of that this time. Gabe, no going over the top, but don't underplay quite that much."

Gabe responded to her direction the way he always did, by doing exactly what she asked and sharpening his performance into something amazing. Ryland looked thoughtful for a moment, but when he played the scene, he shifted the whole tone of it from Mark's disapproval of Jasper's choice to his concern for his friend.

"Thank you," Victoria said when they'd finished the scene. "That was great."

"That felt great," Ryland said. He clasped Gabe's hand. "Nice to have a chance to work with you."

Gabe nodded. "You too. Alex says good things about you."

"He says you're a pain in the ass but worth it."

Gabe laughed, and Victoria wondered if Ryland had known he would find that funny instead of getting offended. If he was a good judge of character or knew enough from Alex's stories, that was one thing, but she didn't want someone on her set who was likely to say shit that would cause problems.

Ryland turned to her. "He says you're a wonderful director and I should suck up as much as possible." He said it as cheesily as possible, and Victoria found herself smiling at him.

"I don't know how Alex figures out you people can act with how completely unsubtle you are."

"He has a sense for talent," Ryland said, "if I do say so myself."

"You do have talent," Victoria said. "We'll let you know by the end of the week."

Ryland shook hands all around, doing some sort of complicated handshake with Gabe that Victoria supposed was an invention of Alex's.

"He's in," Nate said, almost before the door closed behind Ryland. "That means we only have to audition for the minor characters now." He looked up from where he was making notes on his laptop. "Do you want everyone in on those or just us?"

"I thought Victoria made the decisions."

Victoria was seated in the middle and facing Nate, so she had to turn almost all the way around to see the bemused look on Pete's face. "I do. I already did." She studied his face for a moment, trying to figure out if he had an objection to Nate or just didn't understand. "You'll figure out how we work." She turned back to Nate. "I'd like to do it with everyone. It's a little overwhelming for them, but I want to see how they work with the principles." She asked Gabe, "You can free your schedule for a week or so, right?"

Gabe had pulled up a chair on the other side of the table. He nodded. "Just tell me when, or tell Cassadee. She keeps my schedule."

Victoria was pretty sure that Gabe had an exact copy of any schedule Cassadee was keeping for him, and that he was just as, if not more, diligent about keeping his appointments.

"Good. That means we're on track." Victoria smiled at all three of them. "Want to look at the film?"

One of the other offices had a screen large enough to make watching film worth it. Victoria cued up both Greta and Ryland's screen tests and then turned out the lights. It was a room with a conference table, and Victoria sat at the far end, where she could watch the others' reactions as well as the film.

Nate had his laptop open to make notes. Jon leaned back in his chair and seemed perfectly at ease. Pete rested his elbows on the table, chin on his hands, and watched with an intensity that Victoria wouldn't have guessed at. Gabe nodded at some things and grimaced at others. The places he didn't like were the same places Victoria could see needed to be smoothed out.

She hadn't loved working with him just because she'd been in love with him.

"We're going to need someone really good on lights," Nate said when Ryland's screen test ended and Victoria turned on the room's lights.

"I know a guy," Pete said. "He gets fired up about things and has this whole thing about the downfall of society, but," he shrugged, "he's really good with lighting. He did that trippy video for Animal Vegetable."

Victoria remembered that video, and "trippy" really was the best word to describe it. The lighting had been very creative.

"I'm not sure trippy is the look we're going for," Victoria said very diplomatically.

Pete waved a hand. "He can do other stuff. That's just the most interesting." He pulled out his phone. "I'll send you his info."

Nate and Victoria exchanged looks over Pete's head. The last thing she wanted from her producers was to have them foist an untalented friend on her.

Pete must have caught their looks, because he said, "You don't have to use him. Just check him out."

Since she didn't have any other ideas, Victoria agreed to at least check out his work. If that didn't work out, she knew plenty of other directors who could make recommendations.

"So screen tests look good, Nate and I will make a schedule for auditions, and we have a lead on a lighting guy." Victoria looked around the table. "Anything else we need to take care of today?"

No one had anything, so Nate and Victoria packed up their things, and Pete tucked his notebook into his pocket. Gabe hovered around them without getting in the way, and he lingered in the parking lot while Nate walked Victoria to her car and talked scheduling.

"You want me to stick around?" Nate asked, cutting his eyes toward Gabe but not making any other movement that would let Gabe know they were talking about him.

Victoria shook her head. "No. I can handle it." She squeezed his arm. "Thanks, though."

"Any time. I'll call you later." Nate nodded at Gabe and waved at Victoria over his shoulder as he went to his own car.

Victoria tossed her bag into the Mini's passenger seat and waited for Gabe to come to her. He stopped a few feet away, outside of her personal space and with the car door between them.

Despite the sun shining down on them, he hadn't put his sunglasses back on, so she could see his eyes.

"There's a Starbucks down the street," Gabe said. "Want to get a cup of coffee?"

Victoria wished he'd put his shades back on so she couldn't see the cautious hope in his eyes. She steeled herself against it, though, and shook her head. "I don't think so. This isn't going to be like last time."

Without his sunglasses covering it up, she had to watch that hope die, too.

"No," he said, "it's not," and there was something about his determination that made her wonder what he was thinking but not saying. "I guess I'll see you for the next round of auditions."

Victoria nodded and got into the car. There were lines across her palms where she'd been gripping the top of the door without noticing.

*

Setting up a movie always took longer than Victoria expected. From auditions to meetings with producers, the process dragged on until Victoria was impatient to just start filming already. Having a supervising crew she could trust to hire their own crew made it easier, but it also meant she had more downtime than she otherwise might.

She tried to stay busy - she spent a couple of nights a week with her parents, called up old friends, took Gizmo on long walks - but the movie was all she really wanted to be doing. And she found it hard to stop thinking about Gabe, and what it was going to be like to work with him again, to have to see him every day.

The time between, when auditions were done but administrative details were still being worked out, gave Victoria a reprieve from him, but it also gave her time to worry about it.

She spent one afternoon in front of the large monitor in her office pulling up the folder of pictures taken during filming for First Date. She didn't let herself look at them very often - it hurt too much - and she didn't look at the ones of Leighton at all.

She ended up in the kitchen, doing shots of tequila at the counter, and then sinking down to the floor to cry. Gizmo whined and crawled into her lap. He was a comfort - at least some creature in the world loved her and wouldn't leave her - but he wasn't Gabe.

Victoria dragged herself off to bed, even though it was barely five and she hadn't eaten, and woke up in the morning feeling sick to her stomach. She promised herself, as she showered away the worst of the grimy feeling, that she wasn't going to let this do that to her again. She was going to be a professional about this, and work with Gabe without letting this happen to her again.

It was almost easier, after that, to settle herself into planning for the movie and steel herself for working with Gabe.

And after all of that, it was a relief to walk into their first full table read and have Gabe act like a professional. Her heart still ached for him - one of the things she'd always loved about him was his commitment to film - but she could handle it better when he wasn't pushing things.

*

Alex DeLeon waited patiently, which Victoria didn't know he could do, until she finished talking out the camera angle with Jon. Then he said, "Patrick said he wanted to talk to you. He's in your office," and sounded a little awed by the very prospect. "That guy is amazing. Like JT."

Victoria reminded herself it was not a good idea to laugh at her PAs. They had a way of getting revenge. "Thank you," she said instead. "You know, Gabe's a big Timberlake fan too."

Alex's eyes lit up. "Really?"

Victoria nodded, and Alex scurried off. She almost felt bad for setting him on Gabe, but knowing Gabe's fondness for younger members of the crew, it would probably work out for the better.

Patrick was indeed in her office, pacing the scant length of it with a scowl on his face and his fedora jammed low on his forehead.

"You have to do something about Pete," he said without even waiting for her greeting.

"Pete's kind of a force of nature. What's he done now?"

"He won't leave me alone!" Patrick actually waved his arms around a little. "He's always there, looking over my shoulder and grinning at me. Victoria, I need some space to work."

That did sound like Pete. Victoria always forgot how much managing went into directing. Nate was good about doing a lot of it, but of course he couldn't be the one to talk to Pete.

"I can talk to him," she said. "He is an executive producer, so I don't know how much good it'll do. If he keeps bothering you, let me know and we can talk to Bob and Jonathan."

Patrick nodded crisply. "Thank you."

"Other than Pete, how's it going?"

Patrick's shoulders had come down about a thousand feet, and he was a lot calmer when he said, "Pretty good. I want you to listen to some stuff soon."

Victoria pulled her phone out of her pocket and pulled up her calendar. "How soon?"

"Maybe the next day you're not filming?"

That was Saturday. She'd hoped to take Gizmo to the park and at least have a few hours without thinking too much about the movie. "Sure." She created a new event. "Here?"

Patrick shook his head. "Come to my house. I have a studio; you can listen to everything and we can play around with stuff if you want."

Victoria added his address to her calendar.

*

Pete was almost always hanging around the set, except when he had to go do "producery things," so it was easy enough for Victoria to run into him and say, "Hey, Pete, you got a minute?"

Pete pushed his sunglasses up onto the top of his head and said, "For you, of course."

They went to her office, and she let him sit down on the couch before settling into her usual chair. "I need to talk to you about Patrick."

Pete's face lit up. "Dude. Dude. That guy is amazing. Have you heard what he's doing with my words and the music? It's, like, genius."

"Dude," Victoria echoed back, "you need to chill."

Pete laughed. "I can't chill. It's too good."

"Don't you have a wife?"

Pete nodded vigorously. "She's going to love him. I keep trying to get Patrick to come over for dinner, but he hasn't said yes yet."

He was like an overeager puppy, and Victoria almost didn't have the heart to take that away from him, but she was an adult and she needed Patrick on her movie. "You need to dial it down a little," she said. "Patrick needs some space to work."

Pete's face fell. "Did he say that?"

Victoria felt horribly guilty in the face of the way Pete looked, but she soldiered on anyway. "You come on a little strong, and Patrick needs some space. I'm not saying you can't talk to him, just let him work, okay?"

Pete nodded, but it was slow and his shoulders had rounded over. "Okay." Then he smiled, and Victoria had worked with enough actors of varying skill levels to detect a fake when she saw one. "Hey, I should go do some other producery things." His hands waved about indeterminately. "I'll see you later." He pushed his sunglasses back down onto his face and yanked the door open a little too hard.

*

Victoria looked up when the door of her office banged open without even a knock. She hadn't eaten since before she'd gotten to set and she was out of cigarettes. Gabe was not a welcome interruption.

"I think Pete's trying to steal my assistant," Gabe announced.

Victoria squeezed her eyes shut. "Please don't tell me I have to have another talk with him about not sleeping with someone." When she opened her eyes again, the look Gabe was giving her didn't make any sense. It was almost like he was waiting for her to laugh.

"Wait," he said after a moment where she just stared at him, not knowing what he wanted from her. "You don't know? Cassadee's a lesbian. She has a huge crush on you."

Victoria's first thought was that she knew for sure now that Gabe wasn't sleeping with her. It took a moment for the rest of it to sink in.

"That's just what I need," she muttered.

Gabe shrugged. "What can I say? She has a type. She likes smart and bitchy. You, me, and Pete."

Victoria closed her eyes again and rubbed at her temples. "Gabe," she said, "I am really not in the mood for this. Did you have a reason for coming in here?"

Gabe's voice, when it came, was a lot closer. "I thought Pete stealing my assistant was a good enough reason." His hands settled onto her shoulders. She tensed at the touch, but then he started rubbing at the tight spots and she let her head drop forward so he could dig his thumbs into the knots at the base of her skull.

It felt so good, and he clearly remembered what he'd learned before about where she got tense.

Thinking about before jerked her out of her complacency, and she shifted forward, just out of his grip. "Shouldn't you be in makeup or wardrobe right now?"

Gabe's hands slid off of her shoulders, and he came around in front of her again. "I'm already all pretty. It's Greta's turn."

"Maybe you could go bug her instead."

"She's not as forgiving as you."

Victoria exhaled and reminded herself that they were too far along for her to fire him and recast someone else as Jasper. "Then go talk to Nate. Or read a book. Or call someone. Just get out of my office." It wasn't a particularly forceful command, more tired than anything else, but it got him to leave.

Victoria turned back to the papers spread out across her desk. She'd been staring at them for so long that they'd started to lose meaning, and she wasn't even sure why she was looking at them in the first place.

The second interruption was at least preceded by a knock. Victoria put on a pleasant face and called, "Come in."

Alex Johnson pushed the door open with one hand, and had a plate balanced on top of a Diet Coke can in the other. He somehow found the single clear spot on her desk and put the plate and the soda down on it. "Gabe said I should offer you a smoke, too, but only after you eat." He was already halfway back to the door. "I'll be hanging around."

Victoria blinked at the sandwich, fruit salad, and cookie on the plate in front of her. "Thanks," she managed to call before Alex was all the way out the door. His hand waved at her before it shut.

She should have been annoyed; Gabe was acting awfully presumptuous, and this wasn't before, when he'd had the right to. But he'd made sure she had something to eat and the promise of a cigarette, and he'd sent the quietest of the PAs to do it. She bit into the sandwich and couldn't be anything other than grateful.

*

Patrick's house was located at the end of a long driveway, behind a gate where she had to wait for him to buzz her in. It wasn't quite as garishly large as some of the places she'd seen, but he could probably fit a movie crew, its stars' entourages, and a handful of extraneous celebrities with room to spare.

Patrick himself was waiting in the open door, looking surprisingly like he belonged there, even in his jeans, faded t-shirt, and trucker hat.

"Hi," he called when she climbed out of the car.

"Hi," she called back. She slung her bag over her shoulder. "Nice place."

"Thanks." Patrick took a couple of steps back so she could come in. "It's home." The inside of the house was laid out in large, open spaces, all windows, white walls, and sparse but comfortable looking furniture. "You want something to drink?"

Victoria held up her Starbucks cup. "I'm good." There was a bottle of water in her bag too.

"Studio's this way." There was a wall in one of the rooms off the entryway with awards and photos of Patrick with famous people, but that dropped off as they went deeper into the house.

The studio was a real studio, with a large recording booth full of instruments and a control booth overlooking it. The control booth had framed Prince and David Bowie posters over another comfortable looking couch.

Victoria whistled in appreciation. "This is nice."

Patrick flashed her a grin. "I do a lot of work here. It means I can just get straight into recording if I wake up with an idea, instead of having to book studio time somewhere."

Victoria nodded. She had editing equipment in her office at home for the same reason.

Patrick sat down in one of the chairs at the soundboard, and she took the other and put her coffee down while she rummaged through her bag for her notebook and pen.

"I talked to Pete," she said while she was looking for them. She glanced up at Patrick. "It was kind of like kicking a puppy. He thinks you're amazing and brilliant."

Patrick took off his hat, ran his hand through his hair, and resettled his hat over it. "He's just there all the time, and it's like he's two seconds away from propositioning me." Patrick's fair skin turned faintly pink.

"He's married." Victoria pulled out her notebook and put her bag on the floor. "If that helps at all."

Patrick looked equal parts guilty and disgruntled. "I'll try to be nice to him. I just need a little space to work."

Victoria patted his arm. "I told him that. I think he'll tone it down." She flipped her notebook open to an empty page. "Let's hear what you've got."

He really was good. He had much of the instrumental music complete, even though he insisted they were rough cuts, and a couple of demos of two songs with lyrics. "It's just me singing," he said when he played her those two. "I have some ideas about vocalists."

Patrick's voice was good, but he was right that those two songs needed something else.

"And this one needs a female vocalist. All of my demos sound all wrong." Patrick handed her a sheaf of music and hit play. Years of childhood piano lessons meant she could follow it, although her sight-reading abilities weren't quite as good as they had once been.

"Play it again," she said when they got to the end, and Patrick let it play again. This time, Victoria sang along, trying to get a feel for how the words and the music fit together.

When she looked up from the lyrics at the end of the song, Patrick was looking at her with an alarmingly speculative look on his face.

"You should sing it."

Victoria laughed.

"I'm serious," Patrick insisted. "Your voice is good, and it works for the song."

Victoria put the music down. "I'm the director, not a singer."

"But you can sing." Patrick started doing something with the soundboard, adjusting sliders and dials. "And I know who your dad is. I'm sure you've been around a studio before. All you have to do is go in there," he pointed through the window into the booth, "put on some headphones, and sing into the mic."

"I grew up in studios," Victoria said, "but I was always just playing. I'm not that good a singer." Her dad was the singer, and she'd been in a couple of bands as a teenager - who hadn't? - before she decided she was better off in film school.

"You're good enough, and you have the right kind of voice." Patrick abandoned his fiddling to look at her. "Trust me. I can coach you through this, and you'll come out sounding better than you ever imagined you could."

One or two of those bands had taped themselves playing. "I've heard myself recorded, and it's not that great."

"Just a demo," Patrick said. "Hop in the booth, do one take, see how you feel about it. If you don't like it, we'll use it to get someone else interested in recording it."

Victoria was impressed with his ability to make it sound completely reasonable and as if she'd already agreed to it. She picked up the music to read through the lyrics again. A higher note there, and there, she would have to emphasize it differently than she had the first time. She realized what she was doing, but she couldn't bring herself to put it down. Patrick really had done amazing things with Pete's words.

"I'll show you what you need to do." Patrick stood up and opened the door into the studio itself.

Victoria still wasn't sure this was a good idea, but she followed him in anyway.

"You're going to put these on." Patrick took the music from her and handed her a pair of headphones. "And you sing into here." He pointed at the mic. "You have to get right up to it." He stepped up so his mouth was bare inches away from the mic. "And then you just sing." He put the music on a stand in front of the mic and glanced between it and her before adjusting the height a bit. "I'll cue you in."

Victoria put the headphones over her ears and took a deep breath as she settled them into place. This was crazy. She wasn't a singer.

"Okay," Patrick said, and she looked through the window to see him leaning forward to speak into a mic of his own. "This is just a demo, so don't worry about how you sound or anything. Just sing."

Victoria took another deep breath. If she could direct Gabe in a second movie, she could sing one song on tape once through.

She read through the lyrics one more time, and then she looked up and nodded at Patrick. "Okay," Patrick's voice said through her headphones. "I'm going to cue up the music, and you just sing."

Victoria nodded again, and there was a minute of silence and then the music started to play.

She took in a deep breath and stopped thinking about it. She opened her mouth and just sang, glancing down every few words to make sure she was getting the lyrics right. It felt surprisingly good to sing, to feel the song coming out of her and resonating through her body.

Maybe it had been too long since she'd done something like this, something she could just do without having to think too hard about it.

She got to the end of the song in no time at all, and the sudden silence that followed it snapped her back to reality with an almost physical blow.

She blinked at the mic and lyrics sheet before her, and then looked through the window where Patrick was looking particularly self-satisfied.

Victoria's legs were a little shaky when she walked out of the booth and back into the control room.

"That was great," Patrick said, and she was pretty sure he wasn't the kind of guy to hand out empty compliments. "The mix is going to be a little rough, but." He hit play.

The mix was a little rough, her voice not quite syncing right with the music. But it wasn't bad. It was better than she'd expected. She didn't hit any wrong notes, and if she didn't know, she wouldn't be able to tell where she'd had to look back down at the lyrics.

"I think we should use it."

When she looked up, Patrick was staring straight at her, like that was a completely reasonable thing for him to say.

It wasn't that good.

"I think we should find a real singer to do it, and you can use this to show her what she needs to be better than."

Patrick frowned at her, and she knew he had a reputation for being fierce, but that was the first time it had been directed at her.

"Let's use it," he said. "At least try it. Film with it, and if it doesn't work, you can replace it later."

He'd said it would be just a demo, too.

She had a sinking feeling of inevitability even as she agreed. "But only if you keep looking for someone else."

"I talk to musicians all day long," Patrick told her. "I'll see if anyone will work for it."

*

"I think you've been replaced." Gabe's voice came from too close to her ear.

Victoria looked up from the notes around the edges of her script.

"There." Gabe leaned in close enough that she could smell the pancake makeup on his face as he pointed across the set.

She followed the direction he was pointing and saw Cassadee talking to Spencer's new intern Serena? Celine? Whatever her name was, she had her arms crossed over her chest and a coolly disinterested look on her face.

"I don't think she's having much luck."

"No," Gabe said, "watch. She's looking every time Cassadee looks away."

He leaned in closer again, and his breath brushed against her cheek as they watched. Celine? Selena? was looking. Every time Cassadee looked somewhere else, Selena's - Victoria was pretty sure her name was Selena - face became unguarded and there was a spark of interest there. Someone eventually called Cassadee away, and Selena watched her go with an almost wistful look on her face.

"I'm rooting for them," Gabe said.

Victoria turned to look at him. He was really close. Close enough that it would be nothing at all to kiss him.

Gabe seemed to take her silence for something other than what it was. "I'm a romantic," he said, as if she'd been doubting him.

"Aren't you worried she'll steal her away?"

"No." Gabe put his hand on the arm of her chair. With the way he was standing, it was like he was curving around her. "Pete could steal her away, but love isn't like that." He shrugged. "Love will make her more herself, if Selena's worth anything at all."

Victoria almost couldn't breathe. She had never felt so much herself as she did when she was working with Gabe the first time.

"You are a romantic," she said, and if her voice shook, at least it wasn't enough to make him notice; he was still staring after Cassadee and Selena.

*

"We're shooting with music today," Nate told everyone as Gabe and Greta finally took their marks. "Maybe the final thing, maybe not."

Victoria had forgotten that was today. Or not forgotten, really, just let herself not think about it.

Alex Marshall clapped the boards. "Scene 23, take 1."

Victoria called "Action," and the music started to play.

Gabe was supposed to be three-quarters to the camera, but he turned all the way to stare at Victoria. "That's your voice."

Victoria called, "Cut!" and then sighed. "Yes, it's my voice. That was not your line."

"But that was your voice." Gabe kept staring at her, his eyes wide and surprised.

"Gabe," Victoria said, "we have a movie to make. Could you please at least pretend to be a professional and take your place and say your lines?"

He went back to his mark, and Greta wasn't turned so far away that Victoria couldn't see the face she made at him.

It took three takes before Gabe was fully back in character, and two more before he was doing what Victoria actually wanted him to.

When she called cut for the last time, Gabe beat a determined path to her. "So you sing."

"Not really. Patrick has this way of making you think everything he suggests is a good idea."

"No," Gabe said, "you sing. You're good."

Behind him, Spencer, Kevin, and Ryan were all waiting for her attention. "I'm good enough for a demo," she corrected. She pushed out of her chair, forcing him to take a step back to make room for her. "That's all."

"I think you underestimate yourself."

Victoria looked at him instead of past him, and found herself caught by the intensity of the look on his face.

"You," he said, and then he shook his head. "You're amazing," he said softly, and she wanted to step forward and lean into him, feel the force of that belief against her body.

She didn't trust herself to touch him, or speak, so she just nodded and stepped around him to see what her designers needed.

*

Victoria answered the knock on her office door with a called, "Come in."

"Hey, so," Gabe said, and he should have been out of makeup and gone already, "a bunch of us are going out. Ryland says he knows a karaoke bar that's the shit. You should come with us."

Victoria couldn't help smiling at his enthusiasm, even as she shook her head. "I don't think so, but you have a good time." She rearranged her face into a stern look. "Not so good that you look like shit on camera tomorrow."

"I never look like shit on camera," Gabe shot back. "You should come. It'll be fun."

Victoria was still shaking her head, and then he said, "Nate's coming," and she paused.

"He is?"

Gabe nodded. "I had to promise to buy him as many beers as he wants, but he's coming."

If Nate was going, then that meant he'd decided that he could handle hanging out with Gabe, at least in a group of people. That meant he either wasn't mad anymore or Gabe had won him over again.

"Greta's mysterious boyfriend is going to come and I sent Spencer a text letting him know he should casually let Selena know Cassadee's going to be there." Gabe grinned. "Plus Patrick said he'd do a song, and Pete's trying to get his wife to come, so you know that's going to be worth seeing."

That would be worth seeing, although Victoria wasn't sure she wanted to witness it if it went badly enough that it resulted in Patrick pulling out of the project.

"Come on. You don't have to stay all night." Gabe stopped just short of grabbing her arm, which was one of the smarter decisions he'd ever made. "Just hang out for a while."

Victoria had already planned for it to be a long day, which meant Gizmo was safe with her parents, and she could call them to let them know he would have to stay later or overnight. Nothing on her desk was absolutely pressing. They weren't scheduled to shoot until noon tomorrow.

Victoria gave in. "Only for a while."

Gabe beamed at her like she'd given him the moon. "This is gonna rock."

Victoria smiled back at him. "I have a couple of things I need to finish up before I can leave. Where are we going?"

"I don't actually know where it is," Gabe admitted. "Cassadee got directions from Ryland. I'll have one of them text you." He grinned at her again and then ducked out the door.

Victoria couldn't stop smiling as she did the last few things that needed to be dealt with before she could leave. Ryland texted her directions, and she called her parents as she walked to her car.

She spent the drive telling herself she was doing the right thing. She mostly believed it by the time she reached the bar. She recognized most of the cars in the lot, which told her it was the right place.

It was also, she found when she walked in, empty of nearly anyone but her cast and crew. A handful of PAs huddled around the songbook. Ryland and a group of the crew were lining up shots at a table in the middle of the room. The rest of their group was at tables in orbit around that one.

Greta was at the outside edge, leaning against a guy who had an arm draped casually over her shoulder and onto her chest.

"You made it!" She smiled at Victoria, looking absolutely beatific. "This is Mike."

Victoria shook his hand. "Nice to meet you."

"You too." Mike squeezed Greta closer. "Greta says good things about you."

"She says you cook for her," Victoria said. "I have to admit I'm jealous."

Mike grinned and pressed his lips to Greta's temple. "You should come over for dinner sometime."

"Then you'll really be jealous," Greta added.

Victoria laughed. "I might have to."

She moved on past a handful of crew at the next table until she could pull up a chair and sit down next to Nate at the central table. He already had a beer in front of him and a shot in his hand.

"Hey," he said, looking surprised to see her. He downed his shot. "You came."

"Gabe's very persuasive," Victoria said, keeping her voice low.

Nate matched her volume as he said, "Whenever you want to get out of here, I'll go with you if you want."

Victoria put her arm around his shoulders and hugged him. "Thanks." She let go and raised her voice to carry across the table. "What are we drinking?"

"Vodka!" Ryland grinned. "You in?"

"Just one." Victoria took the shot he poured for her and tossed it back to the accompaniment of a lot of cheering. She grinned at her crew.

"Victoria's hardcore," Gabe announced. He'd appeared at her side when she wasn't looking and handed her a glass. He leaned down to say, "Cherry Coke with rum, extra cherries," into her ear, and then clapped his hands. "Who's going to get this party started and sing first?"

Victoria stared at her drink. Gabe used to tease her about it, and sometimes she'd ordered it just to see the look on his face, but she'd always liked the sweetness of the cherry.

"I think you just volunteered yourself, my friend," Ryland said.

Gabe laughed. "Oh, no. I'm waiting for the right moment." He called across the room, "Alexes! You singing or just browsing?"

Alex DeLeon flipped him off, which meant that Victoria's strategy of pushing him off onto Gabe had gone well.

"We need two more to do an NSync song," Alex called back, and Victoria started laughing as Gabe grabbed one of the other PAs and pushed him toward them. He corralled a second unoccupied PA, until the Alexes had become a group of five.

Most of them were terrible, although DeLeon was fairly good and made a passable Timberlake. The cheering was just dying down when Pete's voice carried across the room.

"I didn't miss Patrick singing, did I?"

Victoria turned to look, and Pete was bouncing on his toes but carefully holding the elbow of his wife. Victoria read as much entertainment news as anyone in Hollywood, but she hadn't realized quite how pregnant Ashlee was.

She turned the other way and looked for Patrick. He was at a table at the edge of their crowd, tugging his hat further down onto his head as if that would keep him from Pete's notice.

"That's Victoria," Pete said, as he and Ashlee walked past. Ashlee gave a wave that Victoria returned, but they didn't stop.

Victoria wasn't close enough to hear what Ashlee said to Patrick when she and Pete joined his table, but whatever it was had him tugging at his hat and blushing again.

Brendon took the stage, and he had a surprisingly well-trained, deep voice, and the stage presence to go with it.

"He's good," Gabe said into Victoria's ear.

She startled a little; she hadn't noticed him dragging a chair up close to her.

"He is," she answered. She sipped at her drink, which proved to be a mistake. Every burst of cherry over her tongue made her think of Gabe.

Gabe nudged at her arm. "Look what I did."

Victoria glanced at him to gauge the direction of his gaze, then followed it to where Cassadee and Selena had their heads bent over the songbook.

"And how is that about you?"

Gabe spread his arms wide. "This whole evening is about me." He let his arms drop. "And I told Cassadee that Selena can sing."

Victoria had long ago stopped wondering how Gabe always seemed to know everything about everyone.

"I bet they go for Joan Jett," she hazarded.

Gabe shook his head. "Britney."

"That would go well with the PAs' NSync."

Gabe grinned at her. "They are the right age for it." Then he looked thoughtful. "I wonder if I can get them to do a Backstreet song, for symmetry's sake."

They stopped talking to cheer for Brendon, and then Cassadee and Selena took the stage. If they'd been placing bets, Gabe and Victoria both would have lost, but Gabe was closer: Cassadee and Selena sang "Beautiful," trading verses and harmonizing on the chorus. They turned in to sing to each other at the end, and Victoria was at just the right angle to see both of their faces. Cassadee was a generally upbeat girl, but Victoria had never seen her look that ecstatically happy, and there was an answering softness on Selena's face. Looking at them made Victoria's heart ache, and her filmmaker mind wish for a camera.

She turned toward Gabe and found he was watching her instead of them. Victoria stared at him, breathless, for a moment, before saying, "Make her more herself, huh?"

A smile spread across Gabe's face. "Why, Miss Asher, are you a romantic too?"

Victoria bumped her shoulder companionably against his. "I guess it's catching." She moved away again, really because she couldn't be that close to him right then, but ostensibly so they could both clap and cheer for Cassadee and Selena.

Victoria pitied whoever had to follow them, but Ryland took the stage and did a version of "What's New Pussycat?" that made her laugh so hard she could barely breathe.

She was still gasping when Mike and Greta made their way onto the stage and Gabe leaned over into her space.

"When are you going to get up there?"

Victoria shook her head and fished a cherry out of her drink. "Everyone's already heard me sing."

"Which just means we know you're good." Gabe put his hand on her arm. "Come on. I'll sing with you."

Greta made a pretty good Sonny, but Mike would not have been Victoria's first choice for Cher. Victoria smiled at their duet anyway, because they were plainly in love and playing it up.

"I don't think we have any shortage of singers." Victoria glanced at Gabe. "I'm sure you can find someone else to fill up the evening."

"I don't want someone else to fill it up." Gabe's expression was firmly set on "stubborn." "Come on, we'll pick something ridiculous. It's karaoke; you should sing."

Victoria gestured at the stage with her drink. "They already took the best duet anyway."

Gabe glanced up at Mike and Greta beaming at each other. "I'm sure we can find something." He grinned. "We could do a two-person Backstreet variation."

Victoria laughed. "Yeah, that's not happening."

"Then come pick a song with me, or that's what I'm signing us up for."

"You can sign us up for whatever you want; that doesn't mean I'm going to get up there and sing it." Victoria sipped at her drink and turned her attention back to the stage just in time to cheer for the end of Mike and Greta's "I Got You Babe." It didn't work to get Gabe off of the subject.

"You can't disappoint your adoring fans."

Victoria raised her eyebrows and looked at him. "They're my employees, not my fans."

"Well," Gabe said, his voice dropping low enough that she had to lean in to hear him, "I'm a fan. You don't want to disappoint me, do you?"

The thing was that she didn't. With Gabe leaning in toward her and looking so earnest, she wanted to give him whatever he asked for.

As far as things he could ask for went, one karaoke duet didn't seem like that much.

"All right, all right!" She stood up and waved her drink toward the songbook. "Let's go choose a song."

"You're all my witnesses," Gabe announced to the room at large as he stood too. "Victoria has agreed to sing." He grinned at her. "No backing out now."

Victoria rolled her eyes. "I'm not backing out." She led the way to the songbook and started flipping through it.

There was enough room for them to stand side by side, but Gabe stood close against her back and looked over her shoulder. He was close enough that she could smell him. She hadn't had enough to drink to blame the way she wanted to turn into him on the alcohol.

"Don't You Want Me" was listed in the duets section. Victoria couldn't remember all the lyrics, but it was synthpop, which would appeal to Gabe, and it was better than "Summer Nights."

Victoria pointed at it. "Eighties synthesizer?"

"You know the way to my heart." Gabe grinned at her when she turned to look at him, and put their names on the list.

It put them next, so Victoria didn't have time to get nervous. She took her drink with her onto the stage and let Gabe introduce them as, "Your director and your star, here for a one-night only eighties music engagement," and then the music started.

"Summer Nights," she realized at the end of the first verse, might have been a better choice. She'd forgotten, or never known, that "Don't You Want Me" was actually not that fun, or light.

She nearly froze when she had to sing, "I still love you," but she sang it to the audience and didn't look at Gabe.

She gulped at the end of her drink when the song was over, and carefully made her way down the steps and back to her place next to Nate. The roaring of her heart in her ears drowned out the clapping.

Nate put his arm around her shoulders and leaned in close. "Are you okay?"

Victoria shook her head and put her glass down on the table so the clinking of the ice wouldn't betray her shaking hands.

"Do you want to leave? I'm pretty drunk so you'd have to drive, but I'll go with you."

Gabe had come down from the stage with her, but commandeered the DJ's mic instead of coming back to the table. "Ladies and gentlemen," he said into it, "our cast and crew karaoke extravaganza is coming to an end."

Victoria leaned against Nate's shoulder. Everyone else was looking at Gabe, so it wasn't strange for her to do it too.

"But we have one last song. Give it up for our composer, the one, the only, the incredible Patrick Stump!"

"Victoria?" Nate asked, low under the cover of everyone's cheering. Pete and Ashlee were as loud as the rest of them put together.

"I want to hear this," she said. She also wanted a moment to sit because she was still shaken enough that she thought her knees might buckle if she tried to stand up.

Gabe came back as Patrick took the stage, and he sat in the chair next to her again, but he didn't try to lean into her space. She looked determinedly forward at the stage, and ignored Nate's shifting closer that probably meant there was something going on between him and Gabe.

Patrick covered Prince. His body language was closed in and awkward, but his voice more than made up for it. He belted it out like he was made to sing about wanting "your extra time and your kiss."

Victoria found herself breathless, and she could hear Nate's breathing stutter. She looked past him to see how Pete was taking it. He and Ashlee were both riveted to the stage and clinging to each other's hands.

She thought, briefly, that perhaps Patrick had made a tactical error if he wanted Pete to give him space, but Patrick opened his eyes at just that moment and seemed to sing straight at Pete and Ashlee.

"Holy fuck," Gabe said when Patrick reached the end of the song, in the moment of silence that hung in the air before the cheering of their crowd swooped up and carried it away.

Victoria made herself look at him. His eyes were wide, and there was a flush high along his cheekbones. She wanted to attribute it to alcohol, but although he'd had a drink in his hand all night, she was pretty sure it had been the same one.

"Well," he said, turning to her when the cheering started to die down. "If that doesn't encourage romance, nothing will."

"I'm not sure it's romance he's encouraging."

Gabe shrugged. "Look around you. No one in here close to hooking up is doing it for any reason other than love."

Victoria didn't look at anyone but him. Everything about him said he was sincere. He believed in love. That made his betrayal even worse.

There were people around her, her cast and crew still chatting and drinking and laughing, and she didn't care. It felt like her heart was breaking all over again.

"Hey," Nate said, close in her ear, and even with his arm around her shoulder, she'd forgotten he was there. "You okay?"

She wasn't, but she couldn't make herself say that to him with Gabe watching her.

Cassadee came up to them, with Selena hovering two steps behind her. "Gabe, is it cool if I take off?"

Victoria felt like she could breathe again when Gabe's attention went to Cassadee.

"Sure thing, chickadee."

Cassadee made a face at the nickname but didn't protest it. "Drunk driving is bad. Give me your keys," she demanded, hand held out.

Gabe held up both hands, both empty. "Totally sober," he told her. "Promise."

Cassadee stared at him, and it was funny, even in the midst of an evening that might not have been a good idea. Gabe had at least a foot and ten years on her, and she was staring him down like it was nothing.

Gabe finally threw up his hands. "I'm getting you a breathalyzer for your birthday. I'll get a ride if you really want to take my car."

"I don't need your car. I just don't want you to die or go to jail. That happens, and I'm out of a job." She turned to Nate and Victoria. "You won't let him drive if he's drunk, will you?"

Gabe laughed. "Stop haranguing the bosses and get out of here. I promise not to drive drunk, so go enjoy yourself." He reached out to tuck her hair behind her ear, and it was the kind of thing that would make Victoria think, if she didn't know better now, that he was sleeping with her.

It worked on Cassadee; she ducked in to hug Gabe. He said something to her too softly for Victoria to hear. Whatever it was made Cassadee smile, and she reached for Selena's hand when she turned away from them.

"My baby's growing up," Gabe said with over-exaggerated theatricality. There was something underneath his overacting, though, that was real.

Victoria was too weary to try to puzzle it out. She closed her eyes for a moment, against the sight of him.

"Vic?" Nate asked.

Victoria turned to him as she opened her eyes. "Yeah, I'm good." She gave him a wavery smile. "But I think it's time for me to call it a night." She stood up before anyone could try to talk her out of it. "I don't care how drunk you all are now," she said, raising her voice to carry across the crowd, "I still expect you on set on time tomorrow."

"Slave driver!" Ryland accused, complete with a dramatically pointed finger.

"You know it," she shot back. "And I'd like it if my actors weren't so hungover they can't be made to look pretty enough for film."

"Us too," one of the women from the makeup department called.

Ryland tossed his head back. "I'm always pretty."

Someone from makeup said, "Sure, when we're done with you."

Victoria thought they probably didn't need her for this conversation, and she pulled her bag off the back of her chair.

"I think I'm out too," Gabe said. "I'll walk out with you."

Nate stood up. "I'll walk with you too." Nate could hold his liquor, but he'd had enough that he was swaying a little on his feet.

"You'll never make it back inside," Victoria predicted. "You have a ride home?"

"Yeah, yeah. Plenty of volunteers willing to suck up to the AD." He looked past her to Gabe. "I just didn't want you to have to be alone with him."

Victoria didn't turn to see what that did to Gabe.

"How about we both walk her out," Gabe said, "and I'll give you a ride home."

Nate nodded, and he was drunk enough that it went on for a long time. "Yeah. Yeah, okay. You won't be alone with him, and I probably need to go home. And he bought my drinks all night."

Victoria slipped her arm around Nate. "I heard he was going to do that." Gabe hovered on the other side of Nate, but let Victoria take most of him. "But that doesn't mean you have to sleep with him," she teased.

"No, no, no," Nate said. "He wouldn't anyway, you know. Because he likes girls."

"Yes, he does," Victoria answered absently. She thought she'd probably underestimated just how drunk Nate was, but she was more concerned with getting Nate out to the parking lot without either of them falling down than she was with what he was saying.

"We can walk you to your car," Gabe said, "and I'll get Nate from there."

"That's a good idea," Nate said. "We should go to your car." He turned almost all the way to face Victoria, and she shifted her grip so they didn't fall.

"Then you need to walk." She got him turned around again, and they made it to her car without anyone falling over.

"You need to go with Gabe now," Victoria said, but Nate turned into her and wrapped both arms around her. She stumbled back under his weight, but managed to keep them both upright.

"I love you," Nate mumbled into her neck. "You're the best director."

"Thank you," Victoria said. She pressed a kiss to Nate's temple. "I love you too." She considered the way he was clinging to her and Gabe standing behind him. "Do you want me to take you home instead of Gabe?"

Nate pushed away from her, and Gabe stepped up to put a hand on his shoulder before she could do it herself.

"No," Nate declared. "Gabe and I have things to talk about."

He sounded so serious that Victoria bit back her smile. "Okay. Then I'll see you tomorrow." She spared half a smile for Gabe. "Thanks for inviting me."

Gabe reached around Nate to touch her arm. She forced down a shiver.

"Thanks for coming. I didn't know if you would." Gabe didn't wait for her answer before wrapping his arm more firmly around Nate's shoulders. "Come on, Nasty Nate. Let's get you home so you can be only mostly hungover when Victoria starts yelling at us tomorrow."

*

Victoria was skimming through the pages for the day to see if there was anything she needed to change or check on when there was a light tap on her office door. It opened before she could say anything, and Nate's head poked around the edge of it.

"Come on in," she said, softly.

Nate shuffled through the door and dropped down onto her couch without taking off his sunglasses. "I'm too old for this shit," he mumbled.

"You just have to limit it to nights when you don't have to be at work the next day." Victoria crouched in front of him and tugged his sunglasses down far enough that she could see his eyes. "Are you good to work?"

Nate grimaced and pushed his shades back up. "Yeah. I just need some coffee. Or a lot of coffee."

Victoria sat back on her heels. "Catering's open, and yet you came here first."

"Yeah," Nate said. "That's the other thing. I can't remember everything, but I think I might have said a lot of dumb shit to Gabe last night."

Victoria tugged his sunglasses down again so he couldn't hide from her. "What kind of dumb shit?"

Nate made a face, scrunching up his features and looking chagrined. "The kind of dumb shit where I told him not to break your heart again."

Victoria's heart dropped to somewhere in the vicinity of her stomach. She let go of Nate's shades and sat back again, away from him.

"I know," he said, looking as miserable as Victoria had ever seen him. "If it helps, I think I also told him not to break mine." He smiled without looking like he meant it at all.

Victoria scrubbed her hands over her eyes. If Gabe hadn't already known he was getting to her, he did now. She let her hands drop and decided to start with the second part first.

"How in love with him were you?" She hadn't recognized it before, when she was in so deep she couldn't see anything but Gabe. She might not have recognized it now, except for the way Nate looked so miserable confessing to her.

Nate jerked back as if she'd slapped him, but said, after a moment, "Not as much as you were."

"And you chose me."

"How could I not?" Nate slid forward on the couch and drew her into a hug that was just as awkward for the angle as for the moment. "You're my director."

"You shouldn't let that keep you from," she started, but Nate interrupted her.

"He was in love with you too, and I made my choice." Nate pulled back and pushed his sunglasses up again. "I should go get some coffee before I have to deal with this day." He stood and held out a hand to help Victoria off the floor.

She didn't let go once she was standing, and instead pulled him toward her for a real hug. "You're a good friend," she said.

"Don't say that yet. You don't know how this day is going to go." Nate sounded like he was trying for joking, but it came out mostly tired. "You want me to bring you anything from catering?"

Victoria shook her head. "I already got my coffee, and I'm not hungover." She went back to her desk, but when Nate closed the door, she dropped her head down onto her forearms.

Maybe everyone who said making a movie with Gabe again was a mistake was right.

Victoria drew in a shaky breath. It was too late to change her mind about that. And too late to hope things could be like any other movie.

At the knock on her door, she sat up, brushed her hair back, and said, "Come in."

"I've been to makeup already, so don't yell at me," Gabe said, even before he was all the way into the room.

"I'm the director," Victoria said more calmly than she felt. "I don't need a reason to yell at you."

"Ouch." Gabe half smiled at her as he said it, and then he just looked at her for an uncomfortably long moment.

"What did you come in here for?" Victoria wasn't actually sure she wanted to hear the answer, but she knew she didn't want him just looking at her like that, like he was pleased to see her and she was something he wanted to look at. She was feeling too raw for that.

"Last night," Gabe said. "I was glad you came." His smile broadened into a grin. "My assistant is running late, and so is Spencer's intern."

Victoria couldn't help smiling back at him. "You're really invested in this relationship for someone who isn't actually in it."

Gabe shrugged lightly. "It's love. I'm a lot more invested in it these days."

Victoria drew in a breath, but she didn't have a chance to say anything before Gabe kept going. She wasn't sure what she would have said anyway.

"Love matters." Gabe shrugged. "Sometimes I think it's the only thing that does."

"Do you?" The words slipped out of her. "I wouldn't expect you to think that way."

"Two years is a long time," Gabe said. He came closer. Victoria took a step back, and he stopped just within touching distance. He touched the back of his hand to her cheek. "I have no intention of breaking your heart."

It felt so good to have Gabe touching her that Victoria leaned into his hand. Then she remembered that it was a bad idea, that whatever he said now, he'd broken her heart once, and she stepped back again, out of his reach.

"I'd appreciate it if you didn't." She turned away from him, not caring that it meant he would know how much of an effect he had on her. "You should be on set. Go rehearse with Greta or something."

"I know my lines." Gabe was too close to her again, his voice coming from just behind her.

Victoria exhaled, gathered herself together, and turned around. "Then go make sure Greta knows hers. Or check on your assistant. Or get yourself a bagel. Just go do it somewhere that is not my office."

Gabe touched her again, a brief pressure of his hand against her arm. "You should come out with us again." He stepped away and left her office.

"Fuck," Victoria breathed. The last thing she needed was to let herself believe she could have something with Gabe. She only wanted it if it was everything, love and sex and forever all tied up together. Gabe wasn't like that, no matter how much he said he believed in love.

She could do this. She could go out and watch Jasper and Caroline grow closer. She could tell Gabe and Greta how to make that work.

She wasn't going to believe she could have Gabe. She'd seen Greta and Mike together, and was pretty sure even Gabe couldn't tempt Greta away from that relationship. It wasn't going to be like last time.

She left her office and arrived on the set just in time to see Cassadee slide in between two PAs, a cup of coffee in her hands, looking for all the world as if she'd been there the whole time.

Gabe noticed her about the same time Victoria did, and left his conversation with one of the other PAs. He was only halfway to her when he asked, with a grin, "Good night, chickadee?"

"It's Cassadee, you dumbass." Cassadee smiled as she said it, and she slid out from between the PAs on either side of her to meet Gabe in the middle of the set. Victoria, at the camera in the middle, was close enough to hear her say, "I'm late for work. That's all you're hearing about it."

Gabe tucked Cassadee's hair back, and leaned in to kiss her forehead. "I'm happy for you, kid."

Cassadee ducked away from him. "I'm not a kid, and you're getting lipstick all over me." Victoria knew her well enough to know she wasn't actually mad about it, and she was still kind of smiling over the edge of her coffee cup.

"He's hard to resist," Nate murmured. Victoria hadn't even noticed him approaching.

"He is," she agreed, "but anything's possible." She glanced around and realized everyone who needed to be there was on set. "Okay, people," she called to the room at large, "places. Let's see how well we can do with an approximate hangover rate of fifty percent."

There were a few laughs and some groans, but her crew settled into where they were supposed to be.

*

"Come in." Sometimes it seemed like every time Victoria sat down to get something done, someone knocked on her door. Part and parcel of being the director, she supposed, but sometimes she wished she could do away with the interruptions.

"I thought you'd still be here." Gabe was back in his own clothes, and he'd taken his makeup off, although there was a spot of it still there against his hairline. Of course, this far into filming, the actors never quite got it all off.

"Director's work is never done."

"It would be if you could let someone else do some of it. How much of what you're working on could Nate take care of?"

"I'm sure you didn't come in here just to harangue me about delegating."

"No." Gabe leaned against the wall.

Victoria was pretty sure a photographer - or more than one - had clued him in to how well the pose suited him.

"I came to see if you wanted to get dinner."

"Gabe," Victoria said, and Gabe held up a hand.

"Just dinner," he said. "You have to eat, and I miss being friends with you."

Some of the crew were probably still hanging around, doing last-minute things before they left for the day, but for all intents and purposes, they were alone and they had time.

"I didn't end that."

"I know." Gabe didn't look any happier about it than she was. "Let me buy you dinner. We'll go someplace quiet where we can just talk. I'm not always an asshole."

"I do actually know that." Even if she didn't remember what he'd been like before, she'd seen the way he was with Cassadee and Greta, and the way he and Nate had become friends again. "I trust you to do what I tell you on the set, but I don't trust you with me."

At that, Gabe looked downright sad. "I know," he said, "and I don't know if I'll ever be able to convince you that you can. I want to try, though, if you'll let me."

Victoria wanted that too. She wanted to just trust him, but the memory of how much it hurt when he betrayed that trust kept her from giving in to that.

"I don't know if you can either." Victoria glanced at her desk. It would be better to get some of it done, but none of it had to be done right then. "But you can buy me dinner." She had to turn away from the hopeful look on his face; gathering up the things she needed to take with her provided a convenient excuse.

"Do you mind driving?" Gabe asked. "I gave Cassadee my car keys."

Victoria couldn't control the laugh that bubbled up out of her. "What would you have done if I'd said no?"

"Caught a ride with one of the crew, or called a cab."

Victoria looked around the office to make sure she had everything she needed. "Don't you have a car for a reason?"

"Sure, but Cassadee and Selena were going out to the pier, and that's always more fun in the convertible." Gabe held the door for her.

Victoria shook her head. "You're like the most indulgent dad ever. How'd you get Cassadee to stick around, anyway? You went through, what? Three assistants on First Date."

"Four," Gabe corrected. "You're forgetting about Frank the flake who never even showed up for work. Cassadee's smart. She told me straight up when I interviewed her that she's not staying. She wants to produce. She's only working for me to get the insider view of the whole process and make contacts."

"I never would have guessed," Victoria admitted. "She seems very committed to her job."

"She's smart," Gabe said again. "She knows what it takes to make it, and she's willing to work for it. And she doesn't take any shit." He shrugged. "There are some people she could work for who wouldn't like that."

Having met a lot of people in the business, Victoria could only agree with that. "You know, she can always come ask me questions if there are things she wants to know. Directors see a lot of what producers do."

Gabe's smile was both pleased and surprised. "Thanks. I'll let her know."

"Just because I'm not singing JT with the PAs doesn't mean I don't care about helping people who are new to the business. Besides, anyone who can put up with you is someone worth knowing."

"Come on, you know you love me." Gabe seemed to catch what he'd said at the same moment it slammed into Victoria and made everything, which had been so easy, awkward again. "I didn't mean-"

"Shut up," Victoria said, a little harsher than she intended. She pressed the unlock button on her key fob harder than necessary. "Just get in the car."

Victoria threw her bag in the back while Gabe folded himself into the passenger seat.

"I don't understand how you still have this tiny thing," he said. "You're actually tall, you know."

Victoria rubbed her hand over the dashboard. "This car is my baby, and Gizmo fits in the passenger seat just fine." She started the car, and sound blasted out of the speakers. She turned it down enough that she and Gabe could hear each other. "Where are we going?"

Gabe shrugged. "Anywhere you want that has something I can eat and is quiet."

Victoria considered that as she pulled out of her parking space and Gabe picked up the binder of CDs near his feet. There was El Burrito, the place they used to go to when they were filming First Date, but even though she'd eaten there since then, she thought it would hold too many memories. There was another burrito place, though, closer to her house, that was almost as good.

"Still listening to the collected works of Weezer," Gabe said.

"Always." Victoria glanced over at the open binder on Gabe's lap. "You can change it if you want."

"Are you sure? I'm actually cool with Weezer."

"They're my CDs. It's not like you can pick something I don't like."

Gabe flipped through a few more pages and then pushed the eject button on the stereo. The silence while he switched CDs echoed loudly. It was a relief when Chromeo started blasting out of the speakers.

"I can't believe you still don't have an iPod hookup for this thing."

When Victoria glanced over, Gabe was half leaning against the window and looking at her.

"Habit. And this way I'm not fiddling with it all the time."

"How very safety conscious of you."

Victoria glanced in the mirror and looked over her shoulder as she merged onto the freeway. "Safety first. Can't be too careful in my little car."

"I can't believe your parents don't freak out about this. My dad keeps telling me to buy something more sensible."

"It's British. Well, the original was." Victoria shrugged. "I think they think it'll keep me close to my roots or something."

Gabe laughed. "Yeah, I can see how you'd need that, what with living in the colonies and all."

Victoria didn't want to let it be that easy, didn't want to just laugh, but the smile spread across her face anyway. "Apparently we're all too emotional here in the States. We can't all be first-generation immigrants straight from the motherland. And what about you, Mr. convertible and Hollywood lifestyle? What do you know about staying close to your roots?"

"I think this was my pops' dream, though, for us to have a better life." Gabe had stopped laughing and his voice turned thoughtful. "It wasn't like your dad just choosing to come here."

When they were on set, and she could compartmentalize Gabe into being just one of her actors, she could sometimes forget that he knew so much about her. She didn't answer him, and he let her drive the rest of the way with only Chromeo to accompany them.

When they got there, Gabe held the door and followed her into the restaurant. "Classy," he said. "I offer to buy you dinner and you bring me to a cheap burrito joint."

"It's an awesome burrito joint, and it's quiet," Victoria retorted. She stopped in front of the menu board. She didn't really need to read the menu, but Gabe did, and she needed to focus on something other than him. He tended to consume every bit of her attention when she let him.

"I'm ready," he announced after a moment, and she moved forward to the counter to order.

Before, they would have ordered a couple of beers and sat in a booth laughing and drinking them slowly until way too late. This time they both ordered water with their burritos and sat at a table that had straight-backed chairs. It didn't seem to matter; a booth might have invited more comfortable lounging, but Victoria still felt like they were the only people in the world who mattered.

She slid her glass back and forth across the table, looking at it instead of Gabe.

"So this is weird," Gabe said.

"It was your idea," Victoria reminded him. She looked up and found him studying her.

"I want to know you."

The words "You already do" were on the tip of her tongue, but she didn't say them.

"Two years," he said, still looking at her.

"Two years," she echoed. "You're more famous."

"You're more beautiful."

Victoria closed her eyes so she wouldn't have to look at him. "You said this was just dinner." She opened her eyes again, and he looked like he hadn't so much as blinked.

"It is," he said. "But I forgot what I see when I look at you."

"You see me every day."

"I see the director every day. I don't think I've seen Victoria in a long time."

"Victoria hasn't been ready for you to see her."

She hadn't meant it to hurt, but Gabe's nod was jerky.

"Tell me," he said, "what Victoria is like now."

"Not as trusting. Not willing to be charmed. Really fucking glad you know how to be a professional." She hadn't meant that to hurt either, but she'd never lied to him.

Gabe grimaced. "I suppose I deserve that."

Victoria nodded and didn't soften it. "Tell me what Gabe is like now."

"More trustworthy. Starting to think nothing's as important as love. Willing to work for what he wants. Really fucking glad you hired him."

"You were always willing to work for it."

"For some stuff, but not the important things. There are a lot of things I've never worked for." He smiled wryly. "Most people are willing to be charmed."

The waitress came by with their burritos, and Victoria watched Gabe smile at her and thank her in Spanish. She smiled back and asked if they wanted anything else without ever looking at Victoria.

"Case in point," Victoria said when the waitress was out of earshot.

Gabe laughed ruefully. "Yeah, yeah, I know. I can't help it."

"That's a lie," Victoria said. "You're one of the best actors I know. You can make yourself into anyone."

Gabe looked actually surprised by the compliment. "Thank you. Then I guess I'm just not used to turning off the charm."

"I suppose it's a useful skill in Hollywood." Victoria bit into her burrito. As the flavor of it exploded across her tongue, she realized just how long it had been since she last ate.

"You still do that."

"Do what?" Victoria looked up as she spoke, and the naked affection on Gabe's face made her breath catch.

"Go too long without eating, and then devour something when someone reminds you."

She did have a tendency to do that. "I get busy. We can't all have assistants taking care of us as a way to climb the ladder."

Gabe shook his head. "If you think Cassadee's taking care of me, you have entirely the wrong idea about our relationship. She refuses to make coffee for me, and she'll only go buy it if she wants some too."

Victoria grinned at him. "That's probably good for you. Keeps the ego in check."

"Ouch." Gabe smiled at her around the edge of his burrito.

Victoria really was hungry, and she devoted most of her attention to her burrito for long minutes. Gabe let her, but every time she looked up, she could see his attention was still on her.

"How is it?"

"Good. Lots of avocado." After a moment, he added, "Not as good as El Burrito."

The land mines of the past hiding in every possible conversational topic were what made Victoria think spending time with Gabe might not be a good idea.

"No," she agreed, "but more bearable right now."

Gabe put his burrito down. "Sometimes," he said, "I wish you would lie to me."

"Do you really? I thought there were enough people in your life who lie to you." It was something he'd told her before, and she didn't think, until after she'd said it, about the way her repeating it would tell him she remembered that.

"Okay," Gabe conceded, "maybe not really. I guess I wish the truth were easier to take."

"That's one of those things you have to work for."

"I'm willing to do that."

Victoria wanted him to work for it, to work for her, so much it made her heart ache.

*

Victoria came into her office in the morning to find Nate leaning over her desk, sifting through the papers she'd left scattered across it.

"Sorry. I was going to take care of all of that last night," she said.

Nate waved away her apology. "I don't mind."

Victoria put her bag down and dug out the things she'd taken with her, which she hadn't actually done anything with. "Gabe talked me into having dinner instead of working." She said it without looking at him, but she could still hear the sudden silence as he stopped what he was doing. She couldn't hide in her bag all day, so she looked up at him. He was watching her carefully.

"How was that?" It was a neutral enough question, but Victoria knew it was only the tip of an iceberg of conversation and worry.

"It was okay." She sat down on the couch, facing him. "It was weird, but okay." She leaned forward and said, "I missed him," softly, even though there was no one there to overhear them.

Nate came over to sit next to her and put his arm around her shoulders. "I know. Me too. I just don't want you to get hurt again."

"I don't think I can help it," she confessed. "It was awkward at first, but then it was like before." She leaned against Nate's shoulder. "I still love him."

Nate put his other arm around her too. "I know."

Victoria raised her head to look at him. "What about you? Are you okay with this?"

Nate smiled, and there was a secret twist to the edges of it. "Yeah, I'm okay." He pressed his lips to her temple. "Besides, I have a date tomorrow."

Victoria sat all the way up and stared at him. She hadn't noticed anything that would let her in on that. "With who?"

"Brendon." He shrugged under her regard. "We've been getting to know each other better on this project."

Victoria leaned back in and hugged him. "Good for you."

*

Cassadee found her not long after that, after she'd made her way onto the set, while the actors were still in makeup and everyone else was still running around getting set up for the day. She waited patiently for Victoria to finish talking to Jon, and only stepped forward when they were finished.

"Gabe said you would talk to me," Cassadee said.

That hadn't taken long. Gabe must have told her first thing in the morning.

"Sure." Victoria thought for a moment about all of the things still sitting undone on her desk. She could hand at least half of them over to Nate, even with the ones he'd already taken. "Come find me at lunch and we'll sit down."

Cassadee smiled and squeezed Victoria's arm. "Thank you." She didn't hang around to get in the way, but left, presumably to do whatever it was she was supposed to be doing.

Victoria didn't see her again until she was picking her way through catering after they broke for lunch. Victoria finished piling food onto her plate and said, "Let's go to my office. We'll be slightly less likely to get interrupted there."

Cassadee followed her, and took the couch when Victoria gestured her onto it. Victoria pulled her desk chair over to the other side of the coffee table and lowered it so she wasn't quite towering over Cassadee.

"Thank you again," Cassadee said. "I really appreciate this."

"Not everyone in Hollywood is out to get everyone else," Victoria said. "There's a lot of clawing to the top, but there are also people willing to help you along the way."

Cassadee nodded. "I know. I was lucky to find Gabe."

Victoria considered that for a moment, then said, "You were. The truth is that most people in this business don't make it. People who don't make connections never do, and Gabe's a good connection to have. He's pretty much a household name at this point, and he has a lot of connections that can help you."

Cassadee seemed wholly focused on the conversation. "How much harder is it to be a woman in the business?"

Victoria smiled wryly. "As much as you've ever imagined. You're going to have to fight to be recognized as a professional in your own right, and there will be people who will never take your calls, even as they spout off rhetoric about equality."

If anything, Cassadee only looked more determined. "That's not going to stop me."

Victoria could see what Gabe liked about her. She almost wished she could steal Cassadee away to be her own assistant.

"Good. Not everyone is going to be like that - Crush isn't - but you're going to run into it." Victoria took a bite of her sandwich and watched Cassadee think for a moment.

"When you do get someone to take you seriously, what do you want out of a producer you're working with?"

It was a good question, and one that made Victoria think. "Mostly the same things anyone wants out of a boss: support when I need it and staying out of my way when I don't."

Cassadee grinned at her. "I wouldn't know anything about that. Gabe never stays out of my way."

Victoria laughed. Cassadee, she thought, with that combination of determination and training under Gabe, had a chance at making her dreams come true.

*

Gabe found her the next morning, just before they were ready to set up the first shot of the day, and said, "Thanks for talking to Cassadee. She was over the moon about it."

Victoria looked at him for a long moment. "I didn't do it for you." It wasn't a lie; she'd done it because of him, because he'd brought Cassadee up in their conversation, but she hadn't done it for him. She'd done it for herself, because she truly did believe in nurturing and encouraging the next generation, and for Cassadee, because she knew how much it would have meant to her to have someone sit down and talk to her about the realities of the business when she was just starting out.

Gabe's mouth twitched in what might have been the beginning of a smile. "I know that," he said. "Thanks anyway. You didn't blow her off because she's my assistant, and you made her feel like she mattered."

"She does matter," Victoria said more forcefully than she meant to.

"She does." Gabe's face had settled into a soft fondness, and Victoria followed his gaze across the set to where Cassadee and Selena were leaning in close to each other.

She'd called him "indulgent," but that didn't even begin to cover it. It wasn't, Victoria thought, strictly Cassadee's ambition that made their professional relationship work. Gabe truly cared about her, and Victoria had seen enough to know that it was mutual.

She didn't want to let it make her soften toward Gabe, but she could feel that it was having that effect despite her wishes.

*

"You should come over sometime" was one of those things people said but didn't necessarily mean. Mike and Greta, it turned out, meant it.

"We also invited Ryland, Gabe, and Cassadee," Greta said when she extended an actual invitation, with a time and date attached, to Victoria. Now that she knew Greta, Victoria knew that her ability to drop important information in a completely casual manner was actually a skill of hers, and not something she'd planned out for her audition.

Victoria wasn't going to decline just because Gabe was going to be there - if she could have dinner with just him, she could have dinner with him and other people - and she both genuinely liked Greta and was deeply curious about Mike's cooking abilities.

Mike and Greta lived in a small house on a block of similar houses. Theirs was painted a soothing green and the yard, like the others on the street, was neatly kept. Victoria parked on the street, behind Gabe's convertible and across the street from Ryland's sensible Camry.

Light spilled out of the windows, and Greta answered the door haloed in the same warm glow.

Victoria remembered both Greta and Mike drinking when they went to karaoke, so she'd brought a bottle of wine, which she handed over to Greta as she came into the entryway. Greta thanked her, and led the way into the heart of the house.

The kitchen seemed to be the very center of it, with only its counters separating it from a dining room on one side and the living room on the other. Mike was in the middle of it, stirring something on the stove. Gabe was also in the kitchen, leaning against a counter with a drink in one hand and a carrot stick in the other. Ryland and Cassadee were on the outsides of the counters, their drinks between plates of appetizers that had once been neatly arranged but now had spaces where people had eaten from them.

"Victoria brought wine," Greta announced.

"Our fearless leader." Ryland raised his glass in a toast.

Gabe turned and smiled at her while Mike took the wine from Greta.

"Good choice," he declared. "We can have this with dinner."

"That's high praise," Greta said. "Mike's band likes to pretend they're hardcore, but secretly they're a bunch of wine geeks."

"Oenophiles," Mike corrected. "And we're getting older. It's allowed."

Greta laughed. "They think that since William has a baby and half of them have mortgages they're all grownups now. Anyway," she said to Victoria, "what do you want to drink? Gabe said you like Cherry Coke and rum, so we have that. Or we have pretty much anything else you can think of, as long as it's not too exotic."

Victoria didn't know what to think about Gabe telling that to people. She would have had a beer, or plain old rum and coke, or whatever people were drinking.

"Cherry Coke and rum sounds good," she said.

"Here," Greta said, pulling things out and putting them on a counter. "I'll let you fix it yourself." She even had cherries for Victoria to put in it.

Once she was in the kitchen, it seemed silly to go around the counters again, especially when she wasn't in the way, so Victoria leaned back against the counter next to Gabe.

"You should try these," Cassadee said, pointing at one of the plates of appetizers. "They're amazing." She picked up the plate and brought it around to Victoria's side of the kitchen.

The appetizers were some kind of pastry with a mushroom filling that seemed to melt on Victoria's tongue.

"These are amazing," she said. She glanced at Gabe. "Did you try them?"

While he reached across her to take one, Greta said, "Mike made them totally from scratch."

Mike nodded. "You can't get good vegan puff pastry unless you make it yourself."

"Well, I'm impressed," Victoria said.

"Me too." Gabe reached past her to get another one. In the process, he ended up close enough that Victoria could feel the warmth of his body all along her side.

"Me three," Ryland said. "Did you know Alex went to culinary school? He's tried to teach me how to cook a couple of times, but he always has to end up saving my ass."

"I think maybe actors just shouldn't cook," Cassadee said. "You should see some of the disasters I've had to clean up in Gabe's kitchen."

"None of those were because I can't cook," Gabe protested. "I had a good excuse for every one of them."

"Forgetting what you were doing is not a good excuse." Cassadee had the stern look down; Victoria guessed she probably wore it a lot.

As much as Victoria liked watching them spar, it really wasn't fair. "Gabe can cook." She looked at him, tilting her head up so she could see his face. "I think I dream about your mole sometimes."

Gabe's smile was soft around the edges.

"Now you're just a confused cook," Ryland said. "Mole's Mexican."

Gabe's smile turned brash again as he looked past Victoria to Ryland. "Uruguay isn't big on vegan food. I've had to expand my reach."

"And it's really that good?"

"It really was," Victoria said. "I think I've had sex that wasn't as good as that mole."

"Then you're doing it wrong," Greta said.

While everyone else was still laughing, Cassadee said, "You can't compare them. That's like comparing apples and oranges."

Ryland didn't miss a beat in saying, "Oranges are the far superior fruit."

Cassadee made a face at him. "You know what I mean."

"Sure," Ryland said, "but you're wrong. Food, sex." He held up his hands in a weighing gesture. "Totally comparable items."

"He's right," Mike said. "They're both about feeding the desires of the body." He handed a plate to Cassadee and another to Ryland. "And if you'll all help me carry things into the dining room, you can see how this food compares to sex."

Victoria relaxed and took a plate from him. The evening was going to be fine.

*

"Take five, everyone," Victoria called. "Gabe, over here."

Gabe made a face and trudged across the set to her. She knew how he felt; they'd done twelve takes already, and it still wasn't right. He had to be annoyed with himself. She was annoyed with him.

"I don't know," he said, as soon as he got close. "I don't know what I'm doing wrong, or why I just can't get this one."

"You're not letting yourself," Victoria snapped.

Gabe jerked back.

"This is it," she said. "This is what this whole story is building up to, and you're too fucking scared to let yourself go where Jasper is."

Gabe opened his mouth, but Victoria kept talking before he could say anything.

"This is a tough scene, but I need you to be inside it. Jasper is in love with Caroline, totally and completely. He's more himself because of it. You say you believe in love, so I need you to show me that. Be in love, and be devastated because of it. That's what's happening to Jasper, and this half-assed effort you're giving me isn't cutting it." Victoria pointed at the set. "You need to give this everything you've got."

Gabe's jaw set into tight lines as she spoke, but that was okay. Maybe if he was angry, he would get it.

"If you've ever been in love, I need you to use that. If you haven't, think about what Cassadee's been like, and what she'd be like if Selena did to her what Caroline did to Jasper." Victoria glanced at the clock counting down the break. "You have three minutes. Get it together."

Gabe went back to his mark without saying anything to her.

"Think that's going to work?" Nate handed her a coffee cup. It was hot, so he must have gotten her a refill while she was talking to Gabe.

"It better," Victoria said grimly. She sipped the coffee and tried not to look like she was watching Gabe pull himself into Jasper. "If it is, this is it. We're only going to get one take." She turned so her back was to the set. "I need you to make sure no one fucks it up."

"Already on it."

That was why she liked working with Nate, aside from the part where he was her friend. He had things under control, and usually knew exactly what she wanted.

By the time the clock counted all the way down, Gabe had managed to make himself wholly Jasper.

"Places, everyone," Nate called. "Quiet on the set."

Everything settled. "You ready?" Victoria asked Jon. He gave her a thumbs up, and she nodded at the PA with the clapper to snap it in front of the camera.

Victoria didn't need to worry about anyone interrupting the take; the moment Gabe started speaking, everyone on set stilled and turned toward him to watch. He'd gone even deeper into it than Victoria had expected. Jasper's despair was going to bleed off the screen.

When Ryland walked off through the door, Victoria gestured to Jon to keep the camera on Gabe. That shot was the one the entire movie hinged on, and she wanted to make sure she had enough of it that she didn't have to quick cut to the next thing. She wanted to do Pete's script justice.

Victoria's voice, when she finally spoke, was loud in the silence of the set. "Cut. That's a wrap for today." She pulled off her headset and started moving as she gave the order. She knew what was going to happen before it did.

Gabe crumbled to floor as if in slow motion. He wrapped his arms over the top of his head like a child, his shoulders shaking.

Victoria crouched down in front of him. "Gabe." Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Cassadee starting toward them. "Gabe, look at me."

He shook his head. She could hear his breath heaving.

"I can't do this," he said, his voice raw.

"You already did." Victoria put her arms around him. "I pushed you really hard and you did everything I wanted you to."

Gabe's hands moved to clutch at her shoulders. "I can't do that again."

"You don't have to." Victoria stroked her hands up and down his back. "We got it. You don't have to do that again."

His eyes were wide when he looked at her. "Victoria." She could hear that his voice was on the verge of breaking.

"Gabe." She kept her voice even. "It's okay. We're not filming tomorrow. Cassadee's going to take you home. Get some sleep and do something relaxing. Okay?"

Gabe nodded and pressed his forehead against her cheek. She let him rest there for a moment without caring that he was probably sweating makeup and hair product onto her skin. She loved him, and she was proud of him, and a little secondhand product was small price to pay for what he'd just done.

They stood together, Gabe leaning heavily on Victoria for a moment and Cassadee hovering beside them. Victoria handed Gabe over to Cassadee and stayed where she was, just breathing, as she watched them go.

*

Victoria had an editor. She had a whole team of people whose job it was to make her movie fit together. There was no reason she had to spend her day off holed up in her office watching footage and splicing it together to see how it would work best.

She'd always liked doing that, though. She liked putting it together herself. She liked coming to her editors with an idea they only had to make better. She wouldn't have gone into movie making if she didn't want to spend as much time as possible working on movies.

She'd been working long enough that Gizmo had given up on getting her to play and gone off to another part of the house when the doorbell rang. Victoria considered ignoring it, but just the sound had already broken her concentration.

Gabe was not what she expected when she looked through the peephole. She unlocked the deadbolt and opened the door.

Gabe held out a Starbucks cup. "Venti nonfat mocha valencia."

Victoria took it from him. "Thank you." He remembered that was her favorite.

"I brought you a cookie too." He had two paper bags clutched against the other cup, and he shifted to hand her one of them. "Can I come in?"

Victoria glanced down at the coffee and cookie in her hands. "Sure. Since you bribed me and all."

Gizmo came skittering around the corner as she closed the door. She turned around to see Gabe dropping to one knee and scratching at Gizmo's ears with the hand not holding his coffee.

Victoria walked past them to the kitchen. She set her coffee and cookie down on the counter and opened the jar of doggie treats.

"Gizmo," she called. "Do you want a treat?"

Gizmo came into the kitchen with Gabe trailing behind him sipping at his coffee. Gizmo jumped for the treat Victoria held up for him. Gabe and Victoria watched him eat it in silence.

"I thought I told you to do something relaxing today," Victoria said without looking away from Gizmo.

Gabe was silent for a long moment. "Can I see it?"

Victoria looked up at him. He didn't try to evade it. His gaze was clear, he'd shaved, and he didn't have dark circles under his eyes. She judged the likelihood that he would freak out again to be low.

"I have it up in the office."

He knew the way, and she let him go first. He took her office chair, and she leaned over him to cue it up to the last, perfect take.

She'd watched it three times today already, so she didn't watch it this time. Just being here like this brought back the best of her memories of First Date. They'd made a ritual out of watching the dailies together in the beginning, before everything else had happened.

She sipped her coffee and watched Gabe put his down on the desk and fold his hands in his lap as the scene played. He exhaled as if he'd been holding his breath when it was over. His head dropped, and he reached out to turn the monitor off.

Then he swiveled the chair around and looked up at her. "That's going to win you an Oscar."

"That's going to win you an Oscar," she told him.

Gabe shook his head. "That." He pointed at the screen. "That's all you. I didn't even know I could do any of that. Shit, Victoria, you get me to do stuff I would never do for any other director."

"It's because I don't let you get away with any of the crap you try to pull."

"No," Gabe met her eyes and held her gaze. "It's because you're the best director I've ever worked with, and I trust you."

*

When Gabe invited Victoria over for dinner, she almost said no. For all that they'd gotten closer again and that being near him all day every day no longer reminded her of how he'd broken her heart, it seemed like too much. It seemed like crossing a line she was trying to keep drawn. But he was Gabe, and she was still in love with him, and filming was almost over.

Gabe answered the door when she rang the bell, and Victoria was greeted not only by the sight of him dressed neatly with an apron over his slacks and button down, but also by the mixed scents of chocolate and spice wafting out of his house.

"You look lovely," he said. "Come in."

"Thank you." Victoria stepped past him into the house. She'd dressed carefully - black dress that flowed softly around her, strappy heels, chunky purple jewelry - and left her hair down over her shoulders. Gabe had always liked her hair. "I like the dressy look you're rocking. The apron really makes the outfit."

"The apron protects the outfit."

Victoria laughed, as she was meant to. "This is for you." She handed him the bottle of tequila she'd thought an appropriate contribution.

"I don't know what it is about you and providing alcohol, but I appreciate it." Gabe led her into the house.

"Just being a good guest."

Gabe had moved since First Date, and this was the first time Victoria had been in his new place. Everything was very open, and the whole back wall of the house, or at least the parts of it bordering the public spaces, was made up of windows. There was a patio outside, with a combination of vines and fairy lights winding around the overhang. Beyond that was a view of the hills, houses that looked like pale blobs standing out against the landscape.

"Wrong direction for the sunset," Gabe said, as Victoria took in the view, "but nice in the morning. My bedroom faces that way too."

Victoria tried to imagine Gabe getting up for the sunrise. "Do you have blackout curtains?"

He grinned at her. "Not quite that heavy duty, but yeah. Mostly I see the sunrise when I'm still up."

The kitchen was fairly neat for a place that he'd been cooking, which meant Gabe was still the type to clean as he went, not that Victoria was surprised. The pictures in the entryway were neatly lined up, the blanket over the back of the couch was folded evenly in half and placed directly in the middle, and she'd heard enough gossip from wardrobe about how well he treated their clothes.

Gabe put the tequila on the counter and lifted the lid off of one of the pots on the stove. "Dinner's almost ready." He stirred what must be the mole, and turned back to Victoria. "I thought we could eat on the patio, since it's nice outside."

It was warm out, so Victoria shrugged. "Sure."

Gabe nodded. "Next question: drinks. Margaritas?"

"They are traditional." They'd had margaritas last time Gabe had made her mole, and the lime and tequila had blended perfectly with the chocolate and spice.

Victoria leaned back against the counter and watched Gabe as he pulled out triple sec, a shaker, and a pair of margarita glasses from the bar area and got limes out of the fridge. Victoria found herself watching his hands as he sliced one lime for garnish and cut another to squeeze into the shaker. He knew what he was doing, and she remembered the way he'd brushed those hands over her hair last time he'd cooked for her, the way one of them had cupped the back of her neck when he kissed her.

She watched him twist the lime around the rim of each glass and swirl them in salt. He wasn't showing off, the way he did on set or on screen, and his quiet competence was all the more attractive.

He looked up at her, and his eyes seemed to catch and linger on her face. "What are you thinking?"

Victoria didn't lie to him, and she chose not to evade the question either. "I like you when you're just being you."

"Well, Miss Asher," Gabe said, "I always like you."

Victoria smiled at him, and she knew it was too soft, was giving away too much. Gabe only smiled back and poured the drinks without disturbing the salt on the rim. He gave her one and then returned to the food, scooping rice and mole from their pots into a pair of serving dishes.

"I think that's it," Gabe said, glancing around the kitchen. He pulled the apron over his head and opened the pantry to hang it up. Without it, Victoria could see just how well his shirt and slacks fit him. She didn't let herself do more than notice it.

"Want some help?"

"If you'll just get the door," Gabe said.

Victoria held it open for him, and he brought out the serving dishes, one balanced in each hand. Victoria picked his margarita up off the counter and followed him out onto the patio.

She'd noticed the tables scattered across it, and hadn't been surprised. Gabe liked having people around, and the patio would make a good place for a party. She hadn't noticed that one of the smaller tables was set for two with bright dishes and white napkins.

There were no candles, and the sun hadn't gone down yet, but the soft glow of the fairy lights and the lamps dangling from the overhang lent the whole scene a romantic glow. Victoria tried not to think about how the evening would end if it were a movie. Instead, she focused on the practicalities of dishing up rice and mole onto her plate.

It was just as good as she remembered.

"Better than sex?" Gabe asked.

"I didn't say it was better than all sex," Victoria said. "Just some." She let that dangle in the air for a moment, then said, "But yes."

Gabe was watching her eat, his gaze too intense for her to hold for long.

"So if you're really good at this," Victoria asked, hoping to deflect some of his attention, "how did you end up with messes Cassadee had to clean up?"

Gabe launched into a story involving one neighbor's cat and another's somewhat famous stepdaughter that made Victoria laugh so hard she had to stop eating just to breathe.

"You're making that up," she accused.

"Whole truth and nothing but the truth," Gabe said, hand over his heart. "Swear to God. Of course, then I came back and there was Cassadee with her hands on her hips glaring at me because the soup boiled over and the bread burning set off the smoke alarm."

"Did she make you clean it up?"

"She couldn't, because I had an interview, which was the whole reason she came to find me anyway. She glared at me for three days, though."

Victoria had to laugh at that too. "She's pretty tough."

Gabe smiled and leaned across the table conspiratorially. "You should see her talk about Selena. You'd change your mind about that pretty quickly."

Victoria twisted the stem of her glass between her fingers. "True love?"

Gabe sat back. "Oh, yeah. Head over heels, and better for it. She used to hang out with me off the clock, but now it's all 'Meeting Selena. See you tomorrow.'"

"Poor you," Victoria said, without even bothering to pretend sympathy.

"I know," Gabe said mournfully. "The life of a young actor is a tragic one."

"It's nothing compared to the life of a director," Victoria said. "I don't even have an assistant."

Gabe waved his hand. "You don't need one. You have the whole set at your beck and call, except maybe the producers."

"Definitely not the producers. It could be worse. Pete's a handful, but not anything like some of the stories I've heard."

"Well, Bob and Jonathan aren't exactly the Weinsteins," Gabe said.

Victoria laughed. "Not at all. Did you know I met them once?"

"Really? You don't seem like their kind of director."

"I'm not. They thought I was the coat check girl."

Gabe started laughing and almost choked on his food. When he stopped coughing, he said, "They would."

Spending time with Gabe was so easy, so comfortable. It was like nothing had ever changed, like they'd been doing this regularly for the last two years. Victoria couldn't bring herself to even think about the reasons why they hadn't.

"There's dessert," Gabe said when Victoria was contemplating a second helping of mole.

Victoria decided against seconds. "Did you make that too?"

"Part of it." Gabe started gathering dishes into a stack.

Victoria folded her napkin onto the table and helped carry things back to the kitchen. While Gabe was putting things away, she followed his directions down the hall to the bathroom.

She peeked into doors as she passed them, taking in an office and a guest room, and going so far as to peer into his room before she went back toward the public areas of the house. Everything was very much Gabe; she couldn't see the influence of anyone else.

There were photos lining the hall, and Victoria stopped to look at them. "Are these your brother's?" she called to Gabe.

He came around the corner from the kitchen to see what she was looking at. "They are. They're all Uruguay on this side, and the U.S. on the other."

Victoria stood so she could see both sides of the hallway and realized that they were deliberately matched: nature photographs on one side faced urban photos on the other, with each set taking turns at showing landscape and cityscape, and people at on both sides at either end of the hall.

"They're good. How's he doing?"

"Good." Gabe went back to the kitchen, and Victoria went with him. "Still can't decide if he wants to live here or there so he does both."

"And how about the rest of your family?"

"Really good." Gabe smiled, bright and happy. "Sarah's pregnant. We're all stoked about that."

"I'll bet." Victoria leaned against the counter and watched Gabe put the last of the dishes in the dishwasher. "Uncle Gabe, huh?"

"Yeah." Gabe grinned at her. "I can't wait. I keep telling her she has to have the baby while I'm there on the interview circuit so I can visit right away."

Victoria laughed. "I'm not sure you understand how babies work."

"Maybe not, but wouldn't that be cool?" Gabe turned around and leaned on the counter across the kitchen from her. "How's your family?"

"Good. The same, mostly." Victoria shrugged. "You know. Not much changes with my parents these days. They're taking a ballroom dance class now. Two months ago it was Indian cooking."

"Your parents," Gabe said, "they did it right somehow. Managed to stay married and in love and now they're going dancing together."

"Yeah," Victoria said. She tended to take it for granted because they were her parents, but it really was amazing in a world where so many relationships didn't work. "I don't know what their secret is."

"Do you think there are secrets? Or is it all just finding your way through uncharted territory?"

Gabe's question made Victoria feel as if she were suddenly navigating uncharted territory herself. Although it was probably a mark of how far they'd come that she stopped to think about the question instead of saying something about before.

"I don't know," she finally answered. "I saw them kiss a lot when I was growing up, and they talk all the time, but I don't know if that's enough to sustain a marriage for thirty years. It seems like the same things wouldn't work for different people, but maybe trust and love and talking to each other is all you really need."

"Navigating the uncharted territory together." Gabe was watching her intently, but it wasn't uncomfortable. It felt like he was really truly listening.

"Maybe. Maybe that's what it's all about."

"Well," Gabe said, "at least it means there's hope. Not all relationships end terribly." Then, before she could think too much about relationships ending terribly, he asked, "Are you ready for dessert?"

Dessert turned out to be a chocolate cake Gabe hadn't made and a raspberry sauce he had. He put two large slices onto plates and drizzled the sauce onto them with a spoon.

"We could have had chocolate martinis," Victoria said as she took one of the plates from him. "Then the entire meal would have been chocolate."

"That would have been overkill." Gabe held the door for her, and they settled back at the table on the patio. The sun had gone down, and while the lights of L.A. meant it was too bright to see many stars, there was still a sense of the night sky stretching out above them.

"I think this might be overkill," Victoria said after she tasted the cake. It was dense and rich, and she would never have guessed it was vegan if she didn't know Gabe would never buy anything else. "This is just about the richest cake I've ever eaten."

"They're a good bakery," Gabe agreed.

They ate in slow silence. Victoria could hear the distant traffic sounds that never really stopped, but there was no noise closer than the occasional barking of a dog somewhere nearby and the scrape of their forks against the plates.

It was just as comfortable and easy as the rest of the evening, and she was sorry to finish her cake because it brought her closer to the end of it.

"It's nice out here."

"I'm a city boy at heart, but I actually like living out here with all this." Gabe swept his arm out, gesturing at the view that, in the dark, was just the shape of hills against the lights of the city with a few spots of light where the houses were. "It's like an escape, but I can be right in the city in no time at all."

As lovely as it was, it was starting to get chilly, and when Victoria shivered, Gabe picked up their plates. "Come on inside."

It was more comfortable in the house, with the heat from Gabe's cooking still bathing the kitchen in warmth.

Victoria watched Gabe rinse their plates and put them in the dishwasher, and realized that now that dinner was over, she didn't have any reason to stay longer. She didn't trust herself to stay much longer. She wasn't supposed to be comfortable. She was supposed to remember that he'd broken her heart. She couldn't, though, when the whole evening had been so perfect, when it was clear there wasn't anyone else in his life now.

Gabe turned around and smiled at her across the kitchen.

Victoria smiled back automatically and said, "I should probably get going."

Gabe's smile dimmed a bit, but he said, "Okay," and walked her to the door. He seemed reluctant to let her go, and part of her didn't want to ever leave. "Only another week of filming."

Victoria nodded. "I know." In her heels, she barely had to look up to meet his eyes. "It's been-" She stopped. "I was going to say 'fun,' but I'm not sure that's right."

"Good, though," Gabe said, "right? A growth experience. Healing." He waved a hand. "All that jazz."

Victoria smiled. "That, yes."

Gabe seemed to hesitate, more uncertain than Victoria was used to seeing him. "Can I hug you?"

Victoria stepped forward and hugged him in answer, and his arms wrapped tight around her. She realized that for as much as they'd gotten closer again, they'd barely touched, and everything about it flooded her senses. She could smell his cologne and the hint of chocolate still on his breath, and he was warm and solid against her.

"If I promise not to do anything stupid," Gabe asked, his voice soft in her ear, "can we stay friends this time?"

Victoria nodded against his shoulder. "Please."

*

The last week of filming flew by in a flurry of activity, and before she knew it, Victoria was standing on a chair in front of her entire cast and crew at the wrap party telling them entirely truthfully how wonderful they all were. There was a general cheer and a toast, and then she was off the hook and got to just enjoy herself.

It wasn't much later that she slipped out of the party. There was an alcove outside where she could take a moment away and smoke. Someone had even left behind an ashtray.

Gabe found her there and sat on the other end of the small bench. "You're missing your own party."

Victoria turned her head to look at him. "So are you."

Gabe nodded. They sat in silence while Victoria smoked.

"I'm sorry," Gabe said, the words seeming to spill out of him, "about Leighton."

Victoria winced and didn't look at him.

Gabe kept talking. "I fucked up. I chose her because she was easy. I didn't have to work for her, and it was never going to be anything more than a fling. You push me. You make me work for everything. You're forever." Gabe was silent for three very long seconds. "I know I fucked up and it's too late, but I wanted to tell you before this was all over. I love you like I've never loved anybody."

Victoria turned to look at his bowed head. When he raised it, his face was as open and vulnerable as anything she'd ever gotten him to do on camera.

She stubbed out her cigarette even though it was only half-finished. "It's not too late."

Gabe inhaled sharply. "No?"

"No." Victoria reached across the scant space between them. Gabe stayed perfectly still, as if he were afraid moving would make her stop. "I never stopped loving you." Their kiss, when she pressed her lips to his, was perfect, and she wasn't even thinking how to frame it.

*

Asher and Saporta: Clandestine No More
posted by Trixie in Confirmations

Rumors have been swirling for months about director Victoria Asher and actor Gabe Saporta. They've been seen out together and seem to have repaired whatever damage was done during the filming of First Date, the first movie they worked on together. Both camps have staunchly refused to comment, and the rumors have been just that. At least until last night's Academy Awards.

Although they each walked the red carpet alone, Asher and Saporta were seated together. When Saporta won for best actor for his performance as Jasper in Clandestine Hearts, they shared a kiss that was almost too racy to be shown on TV, and Saporta followed it up with a speech further confirming their relationship:

Thank you. Thank you to everyone who made this possible. To the family, friends, and fans who've believed in and supported me over the years, to Pete for an amazing script, to the most wonderful cast and crew for making this movie happen. Most of all, thank you to my friend, my director, the love of my life Victoria Asher. You make me more myself. I wouldn't be here without you.

Asher won for best director, and the two were again nearly too hot for TV. (Thank God for TiVo and YouTube so you can watch it over and over again.) Asher was, as she usually is, more subdued than Saporta:

Wow. Thank you so much. I knew when I read Pete's script that with the right combination of cast and crew, we could make it here. Thank you to Pete for that script, to our producers for getting us what we needed to make this happen. Thank you to a crew that worked so hard to make this movie everything it could be. And thank you to my cast. Good direction depends on a cast that can make it happen. Thank you to Ryland, Greta, Gabe - especially Gabe. You made this happen.

Will we be hearing wedding bells for Asher and Saporta any time soon? At this point, we can only speculate; they continue to refuse to comment on their relationship. We here at Trixie's Gossip Blog certainly wish them well.

Have inside information? Don't forget that you can always email me at tips@trixiesblog.com or use our anonymous reporting form to tell me all about it.