The Ex Factor

By: Cate Masters

A 1Night Stand Story

Chapter One

A scream rose in her throat, so constricted with rage the sound strangled to an indecipherable gurgle. “Idiot!” Susan Ainsley clutched the laptop so tightly, her arms shook. She fought the urge to hurl it against the wall, even if the resulting explosion of plastic and circuitry would act like a release valve on her frustration.

No point. Destroying her computer wouldn’t kill the gossip sites splashing her ex’s digs at her all over the Web and all over the world. Wouldn’t heal the sting of his underhanded comments. Wouldn’t make her feel better. Not even time helped that. Especially not when Brett Pratt, the other half of their former it couple, kept dredging up the past. His embellishments and exaggerations dragged her through the mud, again and again.

Her cell buzzed. After setting down the laptop, she checked the display. Ugh. Brett.

She let it go to voice mail. Despite ranking as one of the highest paid actresses in the business, she could disguise only so much of her real emotion. A chime signaled he’d left a message. A touch retrieved it.

I know you’re angry, but ignoring me won’t help. I’ll try again.

Sure enough, the phone buzzed in her hand. Immature asshole. “Hey. I was in the bathroom.”

“Dying your hair a new shade?”

She blinked once, like an extra heartbeat, a method she’d developed of slowing her reaction. Which, at the moment, was to rip out his hair plugs. “No. What’s up?” Let him think she hadn’t seen the articles.

“There’s a new round of dirt in the news. Ignore it. I can’t believe the stupid reporter twisted my words again. I’m sorry they hauled you into it, Susan.”

“Twisted. Your. Words?” What other meaning could one attach to, my life was so boring, I tried any way I could to escape? Or, ending my marriage to Susan helped me move to the next stage? The next stage of…finding new avenues of publicity? Assholedom?

With the effort to remain stoic, her lip trembled. While he droned out a lame explanation, she blocked his voice by envisioning a strong, sexy, intelligent man—the ideal she hoped would be her 1Night Stand date tonight.

“You know I would never hurt you.” The old Brett slipped in, all sugary sweetness, with that slight slur she used to find adorable but now triggered nothing but annoyance.

“Ditto.” To keep mum through these “media misunderstandings,” it took steely resolve—no, stronger than steel. Titanium? Adamantine? But she refused to react. She wouldn’t let him rob her of her dignity on top of everything else.

Unfortunately, dating other actors spawned new streams of probing articles, recounting in painful detail what she wore, ate, said, how she walked, whether another actress looked better in the same outfit, and always, always wrapping with something about Brett.

Worst of all, the reporter’s preposterous speculations about whether she’d marry again. Not likely, after the husband she’d idolized cheated on her with his goddess-wannabe co-star Anita Hellerton during a movie shoot and lied about it. Then, after returning home from the shoot, teary about his need to grow and move in new directions, stuffed as many possessions as he could fit into his Expedition. He moved, all right…straight in with Anita.

New direction? Oh, I don’t know. Down wasn’t such a new direction for Brett. She wouldn’t even mock him when he found out first-hand why Anita’s nickname was ‘Hellkitten’.

Was it any wonder she went out on the town with a different actor whenever possible? The more guys she dated, the more she moved forward with her life. Well, that was the plan, anyway. Speed dating merely proved what she’d long suspected—spending time with other performers made her yearn for solitude. And yearn for someone less concerned with his appearance, posing for paparazzi, and who else might steal the spotlight.

Someone real.

No matter how hard she tried to get away from the subject, Brett always factored into most conversations. Into too much of her life, really. Susan dubbed his unwanted influence on her existence The Ex Factor, and vowed to exterminate it once and for all.

Tonight would be the beginning. Right this moment, in fact. Adios, asshole.

“Give my best to Anita and the kids.” Her thumb pressed off without hesitation, and held it. The cell shut down with a whoosh, like a virtual toilet flushing away all the emotional baggage he’d attempted to dump on her. She wasn’t about to haul it around.

Especially not tonight. How long had it been since she’d gotten excited about a date? A blind date—how perfect was that? With a real man, someone who had a regular job, who worked nine to five. Someone with logical expectations, not pumped up on melodrama and creative angst.