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golden thing

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I was stuck in traffic.

Again.

It was so hot outside I could see the heat shimmer against the black tar road. It certainly made me thankful for the cool air conditioning that made the loose hairs that had already fallen out of my messy bun tickle against my skin. I turned up Lorde’s latest release and stared at the red tail lights in front of me. My fingers tapped against the steering wheel to the beat of the music, and my mind travelled to where it had barely left the past few weeks.

Valentina.

After our late-night chat in my hotel room over a week ago, things had begun to steadily improve between us. I was trying to be more open-minded and she was focusing on improving her performance. It was still a little awkward each time she looked up and caught my eye, the curious lift of her brow informing me that I had been caught staring a little too long to be considered appropriate.

Interestingly, I wasn’t the only one who was busted daydreaming. I couldn’t help the smirk from creeping onto my face each time I felt a certain pair of blue eyes hovering close by, my skin burning under her attention. Her skin would flush a fascinating pink when I’d catch her, and she’d look down and drag her hand through her hair distractedly, acting as though she’d never been looking in the first place.

The frustration I felt towards her previously dwindled like a prick of light in the rear-vision mirror. Now we’d found an amicable common ground, I felt more comfortable to let go and be myself around my co-stars. I was also pleased to observe Valentina clearly feeling more secure in her place, happily slipping more purposefully into the group dynamics. The five of us were working 10 hour days close together, so it was inevitable that we bonded under the circumstances. I didn’t quite realise how much I was holding back, and how my outwardly bitchy attitude towards Valentina really hindered her ability to get along with the rest of the cast.

The others clearly noticed the shift, joyously including Valentina in their jokes and stories. Every chance he got between takes, Sergio would sit her down and tell her about the newest car release. To Sergio’s great satisfaction, Valentina actually sat and listened, making small comments and asking questions every now and then. Anna would fling an arm around her when Valentina said something particularly funny, their joint laughter one of the greatest sounds I think i’d ever heard. Lucho even continued his advances, and Valentina continuously knocked him back lightly, demonstrating more patience than I knew I had.

It was a delight to sit back and watch Valentina interact with the cast and crew. Now that my perception had shifted, I watched her through a new set of eyes. And what I found was perhaps what I was afraid of seeing since I first laid eyes on her.

She was charming and carefree, infectiously so. People seemed to gravitate towards her, and she treated everyone, no matter who they were, with dignity and respect. I’d come across plenty of people in the movie business who thought they were better than everyone else. It was excruciating to watch them belittle their colleagues and act like divas. I was pleasantly surprised to realise Valentina wasn’t like that. In fact, she often went out of her way to compliment others and converse with crew members that didn’t dare approach the cast. Her charisma and charm affected nearly everyone she interacted with, and I could almost see the stars in their eyes as she waved them goodbye with a friendly smile.

She also seemed to be taking things more seriously. The lacklustre approach to her performance quickly vanished, replaced with an eagerness to learn and a passion to improve. She listened attentively to Adrian when he directed her, effortlessly tweaking her performance in line with the constructive feedback he gave her. Whenever we blocked out or discussed a scene as a group, the crease in Valentina’s brow deepened in concentration. She was often the first to ask questions and even occasionally suggested a unique alternate way to approach a scene. She became more confident in her delivery and the execution of her lines was almost flawless.

Valentina managed it with such natural ease that it was almost as if it ran in her blood.

A blaring horn pulled me out of my daze. I jumped in my seat and smashed my foot on the accelerator when I realised the traffic was finally moving. I refrained from flipping the car behind me the bird as I quickly caught up to the car in front of me.

I lived in this city for 7 years now, and it still shocked me how impatient drivers were in this part of the world.

I settled into the slow moving traffic and after a few mumbled expletives and another ten minutes, I arrived at my destination. Sergio’s flashy convertible was parked two bays down, and I sighed in relief that I'd found the right place. I turned off my relatively modest Volkswagen, grabbed my gym bag and stepped out into the exceptionally warm morning. My car beeped as I clicked the key to lock it, slung my gym bag over my body and made my way through the cars towards the large building ahead of me.

As I approached the warehouse looking structure, I became aware of a commotion to my right. I stepped around a black SUV and saw a large group of people swarming around an unknown individual. It was immediately obvious it was the paparazzi. The distinct clicking of cameras and pathetically invasive and pointed questions being shouted at the person in the middle of the storm giving them away. I rolled my eyes and clicked my tongue at the blood-thirsty vultures pushing the boundaries of personal space and basic human decency. For the thousandth time in my relatively short experience in this business, I was grateful I wasn’t the one being harassed. My profile wasn’t important enough to warrant that kind of attention, and that was fine by me.

I stepped up a few of the wide concrete steps and took another look back, a little curious as to who was causing such a stir.

My foot hovered mid-step when I spotted chestnut hair glinting in the sunlight. She was alone amongst the clamour of large, sweaty men and young fans screaming for an autograph.

Valentina had her phone up to her ear and was almost spinning around in circles in the middle of the swarm of hungry celebrity chasers. The sunglasses on her face were doing little to hide the anxiety she was currently experiencing. It was clear she couldn’t see where she was going and no-one was getting out of her way.

She was trapped.

Without a second thought, I clenched my teeth and stormed down the steps, pushing the beefy men out of the way as if they were mosquitos. With absolutely no grace, I yelled “MOVE”, brusquely shoving at the throng of people. Within seconds I became engulfed in the hot mess that was warm bodies surging to get closer to the model. My arms and shoulders were relentless, barging and bumping at anyone in front of me without a care for anyone’s safety. Finally, I managed to slip through a tiny gap and reach her. She was in a flustered state, her skin flushed red and she looked as if she might just burst into tears.

I took one look at her and grabbed her free hand. She flinched away from me, but I held onto her hand tight, willing her to look at me. Her shoulders slumped as she looked up and realised who I was - a familiar face amongst this craziness.

“Come on, let’s get out of here.” I called with a flick of my head in the direction I'd come.

It was so loud I had to yell, and even then I wasn’t sure she heard me.

She nodded her head at me in acknowledgement and squeezed my hand, indicating she was ready to follow.

“Please.” She mimed desperately.

It was all I needed. I held onto her hand tight and turned around, my face almost smacking into a broad, hairy chest.

“You’re Juliana, right?” The unknown man yelled at me. “One of the other actresses?”

I could almost feel the excitement buzz around the group as my identity became known. I shuddered to think that my presence here might make this worse, so I held on tighter to the sweating hand in my grip. I gritted my teeth and refused to respond, looking for another way forward.

“Juliana, what’s it like to work with Valentina?”

“Juliana, how is Valentina coping with her first acting role?”

“Juliana, do you think Valentina is dealing well with the pressure to perform?”

“Juliana, do you think Valentina is going to be as talented in this field as her mother?”

The questions came at me in quick succession, fast and furious like a hurricane. The voices began to blend into one persistent torrent, and it was instantly suffocating. I swallowed my fears of mild claustrophobia and put my head down. We needed to get out. Now.

Like a battering ram, I pushed forwards. My arm, elbows and shoulders became my weapons, assisting me as I forced my way through the crowd, all while I tugged at Valentina behind me.

The yelling of voices, sickly smell of sweat, rapid clicking of camera shutters and mass of bodies around me would not deter me from my goal. With fierce determination I ambled forwards, hoping I was heading in the right direction. I couldn’t see above the towering men around me, and when my feet stumbled at the first step, I almost cheered.

We were almost there.

Until a tall man with unruly hair and disgusting breath stopped me in my tracks.

“Juliana, are you Valentina’s next love interest?”

“Juliana, how does it feel to be on Valentina’s long list of conquests?”

“Are you two dating?”

“Juliana, are you gay too?”

My blood boiled at the audacity of these men. These unknown men with absolutely no right to be asking these kinds of personal questions.

I almost tackled the burly man in front of me as I steamrolled forward. We needed to get out of the chaos and into safety before I started throwing punches. My breathing techniques weren’t going to work here, so I clenched my teeth harder to restrain myself, desperate to get away.

I could almost smell freedom as we stumbled up the steps blindly. I thought we might just make it unscathed.

Just as I allowed that glimmer of hope to blossom, I heard a whimper from behind me. A whimper that had me spinning so fast my stomach couldn’t even keep up.

Valentina’s other arm was being pulled by a man with a dirty beard and crooked teeth. He had a maniacal look in his dark eyes as he pulled at her, almost toppling us both as I held on tight. Valentina looked terrified, her lip wobbling as her slim arm was tugged by large, unwelcome hands.

I’d had enough. I saw red, and a part of me that I did my best to hide came roaring to life.

I lunged down at the stranger, pushing him square in the chest with the heel of my palm. He was so unprepared for the force of the attack that he released his grip on Valentina’s arm and lost his balance. With one simple shove, I had sent him tumbling into the crowd of people below him.

Wide eyes turned to me, and for a moment, everyone was stunned into a strange kind of silence.

“Don’t you ever touch her again.” I screamed at him, my finger pointing aggressively at his chest.

As I stared down at the disgusting man who had dared lay his hands on Valentina, it dawned on me that this could turn very ugly, very quickly. We were two women surrounded by a mass of men who were all bigger and stronger than the both of us. I didn’t particularly want to stick around and find out if they were going to retaliate to my sudden burst of anger.

I whirled around and thundered up the steps, pulling Valentina behind me as I burst through the shocked crowd. Five more quick steps and my palm smacked at the glass door entrance, almost throwing it off its hinges as we practically fell into the building.

I sucked in a quick breath as I looked around the enormous foyer. The floors were polished concrete and the ceiling was high, pendant lights dropping in an irregular pattern to light up the already naturally bright space. White couches that looked like they’d squeak if you sat in them were dotted around the place, a glass wrapped conference room at one end of the cavernous space. Even with adrenaline still thumping through my body, I couldn’t help but think the space was way too large for a lobby.

I heard a gasp and a cough, pulling my attention to the front of the room. The long desk was made of the same material as the floor, LED lights illuminating the entire length of the structure. Three sets of eyes from behind the desk were wide and unblinking as they took in the sight of Valentina and I.

Valentina’s hand was still encased in my own, warm and trembling. I turned and looked at her, my heart clenching in my chest at the sight of her.

Her bottom lip was still quivering, her hair was disheveled and her thin white shirt had been tugged down over one shoulder, exposing a bright pink bra strap. She looked like she’d just been mugged, which wasn’t too far off what had just happened. I wasn’t aware of how long she’d been stuck in there, but the estimated two minutes I'd spent in the middle of it felt more like twenty. I couldn’t imagine what she’d experienced or felt being stuck in there for longer on her own.

“Are you okay?” I asked, legitimately concerned.

She sucked in a stuttered breath and using the grip on my hand, pulled me into her. Her long arms were flung over my shoulders as she wrapped me into a tight hug. I automatically slid my hands around her waist, returning the embrace. Straight away I could feel her body begin to shake against me. I wasn’t sure if it was a result of the rush of adrenaline in her system, or if she was crying into my shoulder.

Either way, I stood and held her, offering her the comfort she so clearly needed. I rubbed her back soothingly, shocked by the ferocity of her hug.

“Is everything okay?”

I looked up at the three people standing behind the desk. They were almost all identical, even though two were female and one male. They all had blonde hair, blue eyes and looked like they could lift me with one arm. It made sense considering this was a gym, after-all. I didn’t know which one had spoken, but they all looked a little skittish and unsure if they should approach us.

I quickly flicked them the thumbs up and that seemed to be enough. They exchanged looks between them and, apparently satisfied with my response, went back to their tasks, answering the phones and clacking away at their computer keyboards.

Once I gained control of my own heavy breathing, and with Valentina still shaking in my arms, I snuck a look to my right. The crowd that was gathered outside the building had dispersed. A dark blue SUV that hadn’t been there previously was parked askew at the base of the steps, as if they’d screeched to a sudden stop. Two muscular men wearing all black were manhandling the few paparazzi who were hanging around, still hoping to catch a glimpse of the famous model.

“It’s okay. They’re gone.” I whispered as I watched the two men clear out the crowd.

Valentina’s breathing began to calm down and her shaking eased, but her hold on me never loosened. The two men entered the building, clearly satisfied they’d removed the hounding press. They lifted their identical aviator style sunglasses and walked briskly towards us. Although I'd just seen them remove the people who had caused the mayhem outside, I still had no idea who they were and what their intentions were. I twisted Valentina so I was between her and the approaching men.

“Who are you?” I asked, perhaps a little hostile.

One of the men frowned at me, sidestepping around us and placing his hand gently on Valentina’s back. She flinched at the contact, holding tighter against me.

“Hey, leave us alone.” I hissed.

“Miss Carvajal. They’re all gone now.” The man said calmly, ignoring my comment.

I glared at him over Valentina’s shoulder, but he continued to pretend I didn’t exist.

“Felix?” Valentina’s feeble voice could only just be heard from the place in my neck she’d hunkered down in.

“Yes, Miss. It’s Felix. Damian is here too.”

“We’re here, Miss. No-one will harm you now.” The other man, Damian, spoke from behind me.

Valentina slowly pulled away from me. I reluctantly released my hold, watching her carefully as she stood in front of me, her hand running down my arm and slipping into my own. I was a little surprised at the action, but I squeezed our grip tighter to let her know it was okay.

Her eyes were red and puffy, confirming what I suspected - that she’d been crying. I was struck with how tortured her blue eyes looked, panic still evident in the tightness of her brows. She concentrated her gaze at me, an earnest sensitivity and flicker of awe prominent in the insecure blue. It was over, but it was clear the woman in front of me was still feeling the effects.

“Miss Valentina, are you okay?” Felix asked with a softness I was not expecting from a man as large and muscular as him.

Valentina licked her lips and swallowed, turning to address the man who had spoken.

“I’m okay, Felix. Thank you.”

Valentina’s voice was rough when she spoke, thick with emotion. She cleared her throat and blew out a slow breath, her body still managing and overcoming the effects of the ordeal outside.

“We’re sorry we arrived late. Mr Guille asked us to hurry but the traffic made it difficult.”

Valentina shook her head and wiped at her face with her hand, removing the wet residue of the tears that had streaked the skin of her cheeks.

“No, it’s fine. It’s not your fault. Thank you for coming, but Juliana helped me.”

All three eyes turned to me, and I gulped under the sudden attention.

“What happened?” Damian asked.

I wasn’t sure if the question was directed at me, so I answered anyway.

“I don’t really know. There were all these people surrounding her and she looked like she was struggling, so I tried to help. That crowd was horrible, yelling questions and not allowing us to move past easily. I don’t even really know how we got in here.” I said, a little dumbfounded.

“I was having coffee with Guille around the corner.” Valentina added, her hand still clutched tightly around my own. She moved closer to me, the lengths of our arms also touching. “Guille got called into the office so I told him I’d walk. I sat for a while and finished my coffee, but when I left they just surrounded me. Someone at the cafe must have tipped them off. They just came out of nowhere.” Valentina’s shaking hand threaded through her long hair. “They were in my face the entire time, yelling at me and taking photos. By the time I got here I was so flustered and confused that Juliana seriously saved me from a meltdown.”

Three pairs of eyes looked at me again. Valentina’s face was full of gratitude and amazement. The two men just looked mildly impressed.

“It was no big deal. I’m just glad you’re okay.” I said with a self-conscious shrug of my shoulders.

You’d think as an actress, who gets paid to deliver lines professionally for a living, I’d react more composed under that kind of attention. Apparently not.

A shrill phone rang and broke the staring contest I hadn’t realised I’d entered. The man I now knew as Damian stepped away to answer it.

“Thank you for stepping in and helping.” Felix said, offering me his hand.

I still wasn’t entirely sure of the connection between Valentina and these men, but I could connect the dots easily enough. The Carvajal’s were important and rich enough to hire bodyguards.

“Oh. You’re welcome.” I replied as I shook his hand.

“Mr Leon wants to speak with you. We’ll take you to his office.” Damian said as he returned, and Felix thankfully dropped his tight grip on my hand. Both men straightened and snapped their sunglasses back on their face.

“No, I have to stay here. I’m here for work, remember?” Valentina appealed, her thumb pointing towards the large gym doors behind us.

“Miss Valentina.” Felix warned, his voice firm.

Valentina pursed her lips and her shoulders sagged slightly. It was as if she’d already accepted defeat, but she tried again anyway.

“Felix, I'm fine. I’ve got work to do here.”

“You’re coming with us, Miss Valentina.”

Valentina closed her eyes and took in a deep breath, her fingers squeezing at the bridge of her nose. The scared, slightly traumatised woman was gone. She now just seemed frustrated and a little pissed off.

“I don’t have a choice, do I?” She snapped.

“No, Miss. Mr Carvajal requested we bring you to him.”

“Fucking hell.” Valenina muttered under her breath. “Fine.”

Valentina spun and pulled me into another brief hug, whispered a thank you into my ear, and was out the door in a matter of seconds, flanked by the two black-cladded men.

 

~ ~ ~

 

When I walked into the large warehouse style gym the next morning, I was greeted with a round of raucous applause.

The small group of stunt directors, choreographers and other crew members were joined by my co-stars in cheering, whistling and clapping. I looked behind me, but no-one was there. I felt that familiar internal cringe as I realised the ridiculous celebration had to be directed at me.

Sergio laughed as he approached me, his white teeth shining from behind a thickening beard. He threw a strong arm around my shoulder and joined me as I walked further into the space.

“That was epic! The way that guy flew.” Sergio ranted in what seemed like admiration. “I didn’t know you were so badass, girl.”

I pushed Sergio away with a mocking laugh, finally clicking on to what was happening.

“Whatever, Serg. You know I've always been amazing.” I said with a wink.

I slowed in my tracks and scolded myself at what I'd done. I panicked at the positive attention focused on me and somehow ended up flirting with the man who really didn’t need the encouragement. He looked like a puppy dog who was about to be given a bone, so I moved away from him immediately. I threw my gym bag on top of the pile of everyone else’s and joined the group, the applause thankfully fading.

“Let’s use that kind of energy for this training now, Juli.” Called Oscar, a tall, muscular man with a fearsome energy.

I threw the stunt director a panicked thumbs up, once again mortified by my actions.

A double thumbs up? Really?

Before I could dwell on how ridiculous I was being, I was wrapped up in a hug from Anna.

“Told you everyone would go mental over it.” She whispered in my ear.

Anna called me that night after I’d arrived home. She was so surprised it took her almost five minutes to explain what was going on. One of the video’s of me pushing over the man from that morning’s swarm of paparazzi had gone viral, with a variety of headlines ranging from how I was a raging lunatic, to how I'd become Valentina’s knight in shining armour. Most people had preferred the stance of the latter, with other celebrities and regular people retweeting and resharing the video, commenting on the strength shown against these people who crossed a line by grabbing at the model.

“Jesus, Juli. You kept that one quiet today.” Anna had exclaimed on the phone. “This is blowing up!”

Little did I know just how viral the video would become.

Anna gave me one more squeeze and released me.

“Three point six million views as of 20 minutes ago, Juli. Crazy.” Anna beamed. “Beyonce and Bieber even shared it.”

“Really?” I stuttered, my eyebrows almost reaching my hairline at the idea that Beyonce and Justin Bieber knew who I was.

Aside from that slightly overwhelming thought, I took the opportunity to sweep the room for Valentina. I hadn’t seen her as I entered the gym, and I hadn’t seen or heard anything about her since the incident the day before.

“She isn’t here yet.” Anna whispered, correctly guessing what my reconnaissance was for.

“Ladies.” Oscar called, sharp and authoritative.

We both straightened automatically and ducked our heads as we realised everyone was ready and waiting for us. We threw meek apologies at the instructor as we quickly joined the rest of the group. I sat cross legged on the blue gym mat that covered the entire floor, right behind Sergio and Lucho, with Anna folding into an elegant position beside me.

“Right.” Oscar started with a sharp clap of his hands. He looked around the group as if doing a head-count, his expression forming a grimace. He considered one of the crew members with an unyielding stare. I learned pretty quickly the previous day that I wouldn’t want to be on Oscar’s bad side.

“Where is she?”

As soon as the words left his lips, the clunky metal door of the gym crashed open. We all swiveled around to look at who had caused the commotion, and I felt my heart skip a beat when I spotted her. Her hair was pulled back in flawless french braids, and she was dressed similarly to yesterday, in a loose fitting white shirt and black full length tights. She breezed in with her trademark sunglasses on her face and an oversized bag slung over one shoulder. Once I was done ogling, I noticed she wasn’t alone.

I recognised Felix and Damian easily. They were dressed identically again, clad in black with burly chests and bulging arms. They flanked Valentina closely, and she looked comically tiny sandwiched between them.

She faltered in her step as she realised everyone was looking at her. She quickly pulled her sunglasses off her face, threw them carelessly into her bag, and tossed it in the growing pile of people’s possessions in one corner of the room. A wordless goodbye was said between Valentina and her bodyguards, and she hurried over towards us, her white sneakers squeaking against the gym mat as she walked.

“Valentina, nice of you to join us.” Oscar said admonishingly.

“Sorry I’m late.” She replied sheepishly. “Traffic.”

Blue eyes found mine and there was no mistaking the lift of her lips. Without hesitating, she sat down right beside me, her knee millimetres away from touching my own. I held my breath for a second as I took in her proximity, my unabashed gaze focused on her for a moment too long.

“How are you? We are aware that you had an interesting morning yesterday. We missed you here.” Oscar remarked, his tone losing a bit of its regular ferocity.

Valentina’s jaw clenched briefly before she shrugged her shoulders dismissively.

“I’m fine now. Thanks for asking.”

Oscar bowed his head and then clapped his hands again, clearly ready to move on with the day’s events. I wondered if anyone else was going to say anything to her, but other than a few lingering glances, no-one said a word.

“Today, we’ll be building on some of the hand combat moves we started yesterday. Remember, you’ll be required to film these over the coming weeks, so it’s in your best interests to pay attention and work hard. Adrian has communicated extensively with me what he needs you prepared for, and he is expecting absolute competency. You know how tight filming schedules are, so we can’t waste time re-teaching moves you should already have grasped.”

Oscar’s eyes were wide and full of high expectations, and I felt myself kick into the next gear. There was nothing I enjoyed more than proving someone wrong, and I got the impression Oscar lacked faith in us. I loved a challenge.

“I will be teaching you some basic combat techniques, and Antonio will be going through your choreography.” Oscar explained. “Unfortunately, I can’t work directly with each of you, so I will be setting you all up with a sparring partner.”

My heart thumped at the thought.

“You’ll be paired up with one of my very capable instructors.” He continued as he motioned towards a group of very fit looking men, all with well defined arms, and my shoulders slumped in disappointment. “They will be guiding you through the movements.”

We all nodded in acknowledgement at Oscar as he stared at us expectantly. When he was satisfied we all understood, he moved towards his instructors and began pairing us up. Lucho stood as a man twice the size of him stood before him. There was no stopping the snicker of amusement from the rest of us as Lucho paled.

A younger, less masculine man approached Anna. I snorted in amusement when Sergio wolf-whistled as the man held out his hand to her, assisting her to stand. Anna’s scolding look back at him only encouraged the laughter.

A warm hand on my knee pulled my attention to the woman sitting on the other side of me.

“Hey. Are you okay?” She asked quietly. “I didn’t mean to just run off like that yesterday. I realised afterwards I didn’t really check in with you and that was really shitty of me.”

I shook my head with a smile, trying to ease the anxiety I could see in the furrow of her brow. I fought the urge to reach out and smooth the lines there.

“Don’t worry about it. I’m fine.” I said, but Valentina didn’t seem convinced. I ducked towards her slightly, trying to reassure her. “Really. I’m good.”

Valentina seemed to relax a little, her expression softening as her intelligent blue eyes recognised my sincerity. She sucked at her bottom lip and bobbed her head in acceptance. There was no stopping the slip of my gaze, entranced as her teeth nibbled at the pink flesh of her full lips. They glistened, and I wondered what flavour of lip gloss she had applied.

“How are you?” I asked, a little breathless, dragging my eyes back up to meet hers.

Valentina huffed out a quiet laugh, her smile lighting up her eyes. I don’t know if she meant to do it, but her thumb rubbed across the inside of my knee. It was just once, most likely a mindless action, but I felt like I could combust on the spot.

“I’m okay.” She murmured, blinking slowly through long eyelashes.

“Good.” I uttered in response, biting the inside of my cheek to hold back the stupid smile that was trying to break free.

“Miss Valdes, you’re with me.”

My head snapped up to spot a tall man standing over me, his hand outstretched.

“Oh.” I croaked, remembering where I was and what I was supposed to be doing. “Great.”

I felt Valentina’s hand fall from my knee as I took the unfamiliar man’s offered hand and stood. He was about a foot taller than me, with thick dark hair and a five o’clock shadow.

“I’m Ruben. It’s nice to meet you.”

He smiled at me, two dimples forming in his cheeks, and shook my hand. I immediately detected his friendly nature and I returned an easy-going grin.

“Juliana.”

No matter how handsome or friendly the man was, my internal radar was still very much centered elsewhere. I engaged in distracted small-talk with Ruben for a minute as my attention focused on Valentina. I held my breath and watched on as she was matched with a very trim, very fit looking female.

God, why?

I heard snippets of their conversation as Ruben attempted to explain what we were going to start with. The woman with large brown eyes and tanned skin introduced herself to Valentina as Luna. I tried not to be too obvious as I watched Luna basically eat Valentina with her eyes, my teeth grinding as Valentina giggled at what I was sure was a terribly lame joke.

“You ready?” Ruben asked, his dark eyes twinkling.

Poor guy. I hoped he didn’t think he was in with a chance.

“Let’s do this.” I said with a clap.

Nothing better to distract myself than physically throwing myself around with a strapping young man.

“Okay.” Oscar called out, his hands in the air to gain our attention. The chatter amongst the group ceased as we focused on the lead instructor. “The first move we will learn is a simple block. Find some space on the mat, standing approximately one metre away from your partner.”

 

The day was long and physical, and I was exhausted by the time Oscar dismissed us later that afternoon. We had sparred with our partners for hours, learning all kinds of offensive and defensive moves that we would implement in some upcoming fight scenes. And that was how the next few days were structured. We spent hours upon hours in that huge warehouse gym, learning fight moves and then rehearsing them under strict choreographed guidance.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. I loved the physicality of the role. It was part of the reason I’d accepted the job in the first place (aside from the fact it was the biggest job of my career thus far). I considered myself relatively fit, but there were times in that gym, with Ruben swinging jabs and kicks at me, that I felt like collapsing in a heap.

Due to the five of us having our own instructors and choreographers teaching us exactly how our individual fight scene would be filmed, we didn’t get the opportunity to spend much time together. I was too exhausted to even bother looking for the others, too focused on practising my own movements to bother exerting more brain power on them and how they were doing.

The final two days of training, however, we were all together. There was an upcoming scene in which during our fights against the zombies, we had been backed to a section of the forest that fell away into a deep crevice. The script writers and location scouts worked together to orchestrate the scene, ensuring the only way to get across was to jump. In order to film this scene safely, Oscar and the rest of the trainers were in charge of teaching us how to properly jump with a wire which was hooked up to an elaborate pulley system. For some reason, Adrian didn’t want any of this filmed on a green screen, yabbering on about the integrity of the project and making it as realistic as possible. So every scene would be shot on location, in the middle of the forest, where there was an actual ravine.

My problem was not coordinating what I assumed was a ridiculous amount of planning and construction to execute the stunt. My problem was ensuring I could make the jump as realistically as possible. So that’s what I worked hard at, desperate to prove my worth.

We were all feeling the effects of the previous days of physical training. I could barely lift my arms above my head, and my legs felt like lead. But I pushed through it, taking advice and feedback from Ruben on ways I could make it look like I was jumping without assistance, and getting used to being winched up in the air for considerable amounts of time. After a few hours, we were all grumbling about the harness that was cutting uncomfortably into our skin. The boys especially did not hold back on voicing their complaints.

Despite this, the thing that irritated me the most was the female trainer, Luna, and the way she was so pathetically drooling over Valentina. I wasn’t sure if it was exacerbated due to how tired and tetchy I was feeling, but the woman stood beneath us, clapping her hands and squealing every time Valentina managed to execute a movement to Oscars high standards. Which, unfortunately for her, wasn’t often.

Valentina seemed to be struggling the most out of all of us. The skin beneath her eyes were puffy and dark, and her legs visibly shook each time she attempted a jump. She was quiet, barely conversing with any of us throughout our time at the gym. It took her the longest to nail the practice jump, and she required more one-on-one practice with Oscar and Luna than anyone else.

“This is a stitch up. How did Valentina manage to get the hot female trainer?” Sergio asked, his arm shooting out towards them.

Sergio, Lucho, Anna and I were standing on a platform, hooked up to our individual wires, ready to attempt another practice jump together. The trainers all milled about below us talking, most of their hard work already done. Valentina stood on the large blue mat, nodding along as Luna gave her direction on elements of her performance she needed to work on.

I did my best to not scowl at the scene below me. Luna was clearly taking advantage of the situation, her hands on Valentina’s body at any chance she got. She shamelessly flirted with the woman for the entirety of our time in that place. The smile never left her lips, and her eyes never left Valentina’s slim form.

As much as I hated to see it, I also couldn’t really blame her for that. Valentina was a sight to behold. The sweat on her hairline and the determined look on her face somehow made her look even more attractive than she already was. Her crop and high waisted leggings combo made it difficult to not gawk as her stomach flexed and clenched with each duck or weave. I thought the woman placing her hands on the flat plane of Valentina’s abdomen was crossing some sort of professional line, but who was I to make judgement? I forced myself to look away so I didn’t have to subject myself to the sight.

“I’m not complaining.” Anna replied, her eyes lingering on the scene below us.

Lucho nudged her with his elbow, her eyes lifting to frown at him.

“You like what you see, huh?” Lucho asked with a teasing arch to his thick brow.

Anna narrowed her eyes at him and slapped his shoulder.

“I was talking about my trainer, you perv.” She looked down at the other trainers and smiled. “David is very sexy.”

Sergio threw his hands in the air like a child throwing a tantrum.

“Lucho, the women all get paired up with someone they might actually be interested in. And here we are, being thrown around by men with huge egos, as if they’re out here trying to prove something.”

“My guy hasn’t taken his eyes off Juliana this entire time.” Lucho remarked, and three sets of eyes landed on me.

I shook my head and wagged my finger in the air.

“Not interested.”

The three of them gaped at me as if I were insane. I looked down at Lucho’s training partner, taking in his huge form and gigantic muscles, then back at my co-stars.

“Come on, look at him. He’d crush me. That’s not exactly something I’d like to experience.”

Anna giggled and nodded her head in agreement.

“Yeah, imagine that on top of you.” She added.

I joined Anna in her laughter as Lucho and Sergio both made gagging sounds.

“Alright, are we ready?” Oscar’s commanding voice immediately silenced the room.

With everyone’s attention on Oscar below us, I scanned the room for Valentina. She’d disappeared from where I saw her last, and I spotted Luna standing back with the rest of the trainers. All I had to do was follow Luna’s eyeline to find what I was looking for.

I spotted Valentina slowly climbing the ladder we’d already scaled, well on her way to the platform to join us. Her movements were slow and jolty, but she ascended the high scaffold as Oscar continued to shout his direction. Valentina dragged herself to the top, straightened and walked to stand beside me, her expression weary but sharp in concentration.

“You alright?” I whispered to her, my eyes on Oscar as if I were paying attention.

Out of my peripheral vision, I could see her nod her head slowly.

“Yeah. Just a little tired.” She replied quietly. “I haven’t been sleeping well.”

I wanted to ask her what was keeping her up at night. I was curious to know what was going on in her life to the point that it disturbed her sleep. Instead, I leaned slightly closer to her.

“If we make this jump, we can go home.” I said out of the side of my mouth. “I find it easier to propel my legs in the air mid jump. It helps with the momentum.”

Valentina released an exhausted breath and nodded her head again.

“Okay. I’ll give it a go.”

“On the wall, and wait for my call.” Oscar called out.

I hadn’t listened to a single thing Oscar had said up to this point, so I followed the lead of the others. The idea of getting out of this harness and going home to a hot bath and a glass of vino was enough motivation for me to really dig deep for this jump.

The five of us walked backwards until we hit the wall behind us. My fingers reached for the cool concrete wall as I hunched into a starter's running position. My eyes were almost burning a hole through the opposite platform, the voice in my head telling me not to stuff this one up.

“Let’s nail this one. I have a six pack of beer at home that’s calling out to me.” Sergio grumbled.

I sniggered as Oscar began his countdown.

“Three. Two. ONE.”

The five of us launched ourselves off the wall, our legs stretching towards the edge. I grunted as I pushed off as hard as I could, my right leg tense with power. I flew through the air, my muscles screaming at me, the wires tugging achingly at my harness. I landed on the other platform gracelessly, stumbling and falling onto the squeaky gym mat.

There were cheers from below us as I gradually pushed myself onto my heels and up into a standing position. I looked to my left to find the three others with me on the platform, each of them in different stages of exhaustion on the mat. Sergio was flat on his back, his arms and legs outstretched like a starfish. Lucho was on his hands and knees, while Anna sat beside him on her backside, legs bent up and arms stretched behind her to keep her upright.

When I turned to my right, it was Valentina who surprised me. She was still standing, her hands on her hips as she sucked in air as if she’d just run a marathon. She was looking down at the trainers, a triumphant smile on her face.

She made it. I felt the compulsion to walk over to her, pick her up and whirl her around in celebration. It was the first time she’d made it all day, and I felt my heart swell in satisfaction for her.

But I was stopped in my tracks, discouraged by a high-pitched female voice.

“You did it, Vale! You made it. That was so amazing!” Luna screamed and cheered and clapped, jumping up and down on the spot.

I rolled my eyes, breathed out deeply, and fell into a heap beside Anna.

 

~ ~ ~

 

The obvious downside to filming outdoors was the weather.

I cursed at the sky as I stood in the rain, the familiar tug of the harness and its wires causing a red rash to flame on the inside of my thighs. These harnesses were less bulky than the ones we practiced in at the gym over a week ago. Unfortunately, but for obvious reasons, we had to wear these ones underneath our clothes.

After our intense gym training, we had three days off before arriving back on location. The past three days back on location were spent filming our fight scenes, and the weather had been hot and humid. I don’t think I'd ever sweat so much in my entire life. When the clouds came rolling over that morning, I thought Adrian would call off the scheduled jump. Instead, his eyes lit up like a kid in a candy shop.

“This is perfect!” He proclaimed. “The rain will add another touch of drama to the already tense situation.”

The script supervisors and producers eagerly agreed, their headsets buzzing with new instructions.

So here we stood, soaked to the bone, waiting for Adrian’s call.

“Right. You five have had days of practice for this moment. We don’t want to be out in this weather for any longer than we have to.” Adrian shouted excitedly over the sound of the rain. He stood underneath an umbrella, a young blonde intern holding the shelter for him. “Everything is set. It would be really great if we could land it in one shot.”

I bit back my sarcastic remark, but Sergio was clearly less impressed than I was.

“Obviously, Adrian. We’re not here to purposely fuck up this scene.” Drops of rain flicked from Sergio’s fingers as he waved his hand in the air. “This is really uncomfortable so if you could just hurry this up?”

Apparently nothing was going to ruin Adrian’s mood today. He simply nodded his head with a smile and scurried off, the intern struggling to keep up. He disappeared under the row of tents and behind the cameras that were wrapped in their own little ponchos.

“This is like torture.” Lucho complained.

“Stop being such a sook.” Anna said. “There are worse things than rain.”

“Yeah, like watching Sergio flirt.”

Our heads all swivelled to gape at Valentina. She stood to my right, book ending the five of us. She shot us all a sheepish smile and a shrug of her shoulders. The joke was so well timed and perfectly delivered that there was no stopping the delayed laughter that burst from Lucho, Anna and I. Lucho slapped Sergio on the back as his friend stood with his mouth open in dismay at the model poking fun at him.

“She’s got a point, mate.” He roared around his howling laugh.

Anna and I almost doubled over in laughter, Valentina even joining in with her own delightful chuckle. And just like that, the tension between us, the frustration of standing out in the pouring rain, was broken.

“How would you know?” Sergio asked, clearly entertained but still trying to defend his wounded ego.

Valentina bit her lip and tilted her head at him.

“I’ve seen you try to flirt with Juliana, Serg. It’s been painful to watch.”

Valentina’s expression flicked from gentle teasing to obvious concern as the words spooled out and then sunk in. She looked at me as the other three continued with their raucous laughter, searching my face for recognition of her slip up. I couldn’t hide it, a small smile stretching my lips as I processed the accidental confession.

Valentina had been watching me.

“Sorry.” She mumbled, her eyes shifting and uncertain.

She didn’t even try to explain it, or make an excuse to cover it up. It was out there, my brain not quite processing the implication of what that meant. Valentina was looking awkward and mortified with herself, and I couldn’t let her continue to feel as though it were wrong. Because to me, there was nothing wrong about it. In fact, I was flattered and intrigued.

Without really realising what I was doing, my hand stretched out towards her. I needed to get her full attention, and she was clearly embarrassed that she’d caught herself out. My fingers wrapped gently around her wrist and we both trembled at the contact. The action worked exactly how I intended, her blue eyes firmly settling on mine.

“Please, don’t apologise.” I murmured. “There’s no need.”

She blinked at me dumbly for a moment, perhaps shocked at my quiet plea. Then, realising I wasn’t at all concerned or repelled by the idea of her watching me, she softened and awarded me with a silly, lopsided grin.

ROLLING!

My hand fell from Valentina’s wrist as Adrian’s booming voice snapped me back to reality. I swallowed hard and shook my head, focusing on the task ahead.

“Let’s do it!” Sergio yelled emphatically.

I dug my feet into the wet ground, my shoes slipping slightly in what was quickly becoming mud. I tensed my muscles and waited.

And ACTION!

The five of us sprinted, our ripped clothes sticking to our wet bodies, the fake blood smearing as we ran in the rain. As if in unison, we all skidded to a stop, the wires attached to our harnesses helping to keep us upright as we slid in the wet.

“Shit!” Lucho yelled, his brown hair stuck to his forehead.

“What do we do?” Valentina called out, turning to look behind us. “They’re coming.”

The anguish and panic in her voice was perfect, and I was impressed at how effortlessly she just nailed her lines. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to waste thinking about that.

I looked down, my eyes surveying the scene before us. The crevice in the forest before us was deep, the rain pouring off the edges and down into the darkness.

I silently thanked the harness and ignored the thumping of my heart at what we were about to do.

“We have to jump it.” I stated, my voice shaking slightly.

“Are you crazy?” Anna replied incredulously. “There has to be another way.”

“There’s no way around this, Veronica.” I spat at Anna. “Do you have a better plan?”

“Unless you want to get eaten, Veronica, this is it.” Sergio screamed as he stepped back, giving himself enough space to get a run up.

“This is crazy.” Anna whined in defeat.

We all stepped back in line with Sergio, our eyes wide in fear. I looked behind my shoulder and watched as at least 100 extras, all made up to look like very realistic zombies, advanced towards us in the rain. Their collective groaning was very disconcerting, and my pulse raced with adrenaline.

“As one.” I bellowed, fighting to be heard over the rain and approaching zombies.

“On three.” Sergio shouted.

I took one look at Valentina beside me. She looked right back at me, her jaw set and a fierce spark of tenacity in her eyes.

“One.”

Valentina gave me one resolute nod and turned towards the jump.

“Two.”

I followed her lead, stooping into a strong starting position.

“THREE.”

I took the cue and ran as fast as I could towards the lip of the crevice. The rain hit my face harshly, making it difficult to see. I trusted the wires to help me out and with all the confidence in the world, I pushed off my dominant leg and jumped, just as I had practiced so many times in that huge warehouse gym.

For a few moments, it felt like I was flying. My legs propelled mid-air, and I urged my body forwards, towards the other side of the gaping hole.

My feet hit the other side and I stumbled slightly, my hands clawing at the muddy ground to help me find my balance. I crawled on my hands and feet for a few metres before I was able to use my momentum to push my body upright and keep running. My lungs burned and my eyes watered, but as I reached the point beyond the jump that indicated the end of where the cameras could reach, I could hear Adrian yell CUT through his microphone.

As I slowed to a stop, I could hear the loud cheering begin. From out under the tents spilled out the stunt coordinators, production assistants, grips and all other kinds of crew members. They whooped and cheered in the rain, circling us and hugging us triumphantly.

One of the stunt coordinators, Andreas, ran over and unclipped my harness. The wires disappeared upwards, assumedly to the high-tec scaffold that had been purpose built for this stunt. He offered me a high-five and a brief hug.

“Smashed it.” He called in his charming French accent, squeezing lightly before releasing me and reaching for Anna.

I was quickly swept up in the atmosphere of euphoria. It was a difficult scene for the actors to execute, but it had been an extremely difficult stunt to organise and coordinate. So much planning had gone into ensuring the safety of all involved, while maintaining the quality of the filming. Dozens of people had been involved in the set up and delivery of the scene, and I was quickly understanding that it had gone smoothly, precisely how everyone had planned.

I was surrounded and given many more high-fives and fist bumps by crew members, their teeth on show through wide smiles, no-one so much as caring about getting wet.

Sergio, Anna and Lucho were enjoying the attention, their faces lit up as they whooped along with the crew. I searched for Valentina, realising for this kind of reaction, she must have made the jump first take with the rest of us. I spun in a whole 360 degrees before I found the blue eyes I’d been searching for.

She was standing off to my right, her black shirt clinging to her skin and hair that had fallen out of her ponytail stuck to her face. She had mud splattered all up her legs, her shoes no longer the navy blue they were at the start of the day. Despite all that, the smile on her face was jubilant. She was shining, her whole body vibrating with victory. And she was gazing right back at me, her outward joy at nailing the scene in first go directed right at me.

Even with the chaos swirling around us and the adrenaline still hurtling through my veins, my mind remembered a late night in my hotel room where a promise of doing better was made. Valentina’s quiet yet determined voice echoed around my brain.

The product of hard work and dedication stood in front of me, and I couldn’t have felt happier to be proven wrong.

Her blue eyes shined knowingly, her eyes crinkling at the edges as she smiled even wider. I tipped my head back and laughed.