Now, faced with a roomful of Hollywood's elite, I wasn't so nervy. My knees wobbled and my palms went damp. A Chinese butler in an embroidered silk robe and satin-tasseled hat greeted us with, "Good evening." I'd heard Oriental butlers were all the rage, but I'd never actually seen one.
I slipped off my fox wrap as if it were a full-length mink. Act like you belong, that's what everybody else is doing. I took a deep breath and passed the fur to Max. Acting had got me this far, and it would have to take me the rest of the way.
"I'm not the coat-check girl," Max muttered, but he took my fur just the same.
"Be careful—it's rented," I whispered.
Max took off his crisp fedora and leaned closer. "At least promise me you'll follow the rules."
That was rich, and I wasn't so nervous that I couldn't fire back at him. "Maybe you should try following them yourself, Max."
At least he had the grace to flush. He turned away, giving his fedora and my fox to the celestial butler, whose expression didn't flicker a jot.
With or without Max's help, this night was going my way. Granted, my plan since I left Odessa hadn't come off without a hitch. I'd stepped off the bus at Central Station as green and innocent as a South Dakota spring. Well, I wasn't green anymore, and I sure as sugar wasn't innocent. But I was at the end of my rope.
I glanced into the ceiling-to-floor mirrors that flanked the entrance. If mirrors told the truth, I would have seen a small-town girl with her knees knocking and stomach churning. But—thank the stars above—mirrors lie, too. The woman looking back at me wasn't a nervous Nelly but a sophisticated Hollywood ingénue. And with any luck at all, Cosmopolitan Productions' next leading lady.
My hair was somewhere between a brunette and redhead—in Hollywood they called it auburn. Bobbed, waved, and as smooth as glass, it was absolutely the thing. Garnet lipstick set off my blue eyes and milk-white skin—no freckles, thank you very much.
Then there was the dress that had cost me my last nickel.
It was an emerald-green sheath, sleeveless and cut on the bias. Pearl beads weighted the cowl neckline and set off my ivory skin— and plenty of it. The slim cut skimmed over my hips and clung to my legs, all the way down to my matching satin heels. An armband of gold wire and pearls—cultured, of course—wrapped above my elbow, and a matching spray gleamed behind my ear. I turned slightly and looked over my shoulder. The back plunged indecently low. Penny would be shocked. In fact, all of Odessa would be shocked.
Max gave me a look that said exactly what he thought of the dress. He knew how much a frock like this cost, and he knew my situation as well as I did. But it wasn't an extravagance. It was an investment. Max was sore because I'd got to this party—the one that would make me a star—without his help. Not only that, but I'd been invited by Louella Parsons herself. The Queen of Gossip, they called her. If she gave a girl the nod in one of her Examiner columns or on her radio show, that girl was on her way up. But if Louella took a dislike to a new actress—didn't matter why—she might as well go back to Kansas.
You could have knocked me over with a horsefeather this morning at the Brown Derby, where I made about enough to keep my cockroaches alive. I brought Louella her breakfast of oatmeal and cream, and she gave me her usual scowl. I won't go into that whole story right now; let's just say Louella and I had got off on the wrong foot.
I poured coffee all around and tried not to look like I was listening to Louella and William Randolph Hearst talking about a party at Roy Lester's that night. I pretended not to notice Louella's husband, Docky Martin, slip a flask from his pocket and dose his coffee. Suddenly, Louella turned on me like she was seeing me for the first time. "Minerva! My dear. Aren't you just the cat's pajamas?" She looked me up and down. "And that hair. Such a pretty shade."
"Thank you, Mrs. Parsons," I managed, clutching the coffeepot.
"Dearest Minerva, how long have you been working here?" she asked, almost like she cared.
I told her four months and waited for her other size-ten T-strap to drop.
"You poor thing," she cooed. "What you need is someone to take you under her wing, like a mother hen." She smoothed a hand over her tan tweed suit. With her matching cloche hat and a spray of crimson feathers, she did resemble a hen I'd known back at the farm—one who'd kept the other hens in line with her sharp beak. "Tell me now, do you know Roy Lester?"