“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods…”
Sixteen years ago…
Katniss’s father roused her from bed early, pressing his finger to his lips as he lifted her from her big-girl bed. She nodded and mimicked him, stealing a glance at the baby sleeping peacefully in Katniss’s old crib just a few feet away. She was excited to dress herself, and after Papa helped her into her thermal underwear, she slipped both arms through the sleeves of her cable-knit sweater and after fumbling with the buttons, she gleefully managed to fasten each one and in the right order too. She tugged on a pair of jeans and jammed her small feet into her boots.
Papa had prepared two thermoses, one brimming with hot chocolate for her and the other with coffee for him. He waited to twist on the lid before he allowed Katniss to take a deep breath of his steaming beverage. She loved the smell of coffee.
This morning her father had an extra treat for her; a white bag with its top neatly folded over sat in the center of the kitchen table. The swirling blue script was foreign to her, as she had only just learned to write her own name in shaky manuscript. But when her father nodded his head and she pulled open the bag, a delicious aroma filled her nostrils and caused her stomach to growl in response. It was earthy and doughy and Katniss automatically licked her lips, her mouth watering as she took another deep breath. She reached down and her fingers found purchase with a flaky roll that she eagerly withdrew and held in her palm. It was still warm.
She handed the roll to Papa before reaching back into the bag and grabbing the second roll. They shared a secretive smile, and Katniss watched Papa bite into the bun. She lifted her own roll to her mouth and took a tentative bite. Warmth filled her mouth first, but as Katniss chewed thoughtfully, her taste buds came alive as they sensed the sweet, nutty flavor of cheese. She peered at the roll in her hand and saw the white substance oozing over the edges of the roll where she had just bitten. Lifting the bun to her mouth again, she darted out her tongue to lap up the melted cheese.
Katniss loved the cheese buns from the bakery in town more than anything; it was a rare occasion that she got to indulge in such treats. Until Mama could go back to work, there wasn’t much extra money, and even at her young age, Katniss knew this.
The baker’s youngest son was in Katniss’s kindergarten class, and she often found herself salivating over the array of goodies that Peeta Mellark unpacked at snack time. The blueberry muffins. The sugar cookie shaped like a maple leaf. Some kind of pastry in the shape of a triangle. Katniss often chewed her own banana and wished it was moist, sweet bread instead. Her mother hadn’t baked anything since Primrose was born.
“Finish up, Kitten. We should get going.”
Katniss wrinkled her nose. “I don’t want to be a kitten anymore, Papa. They’re not fierce hunters. I want to be a tiger.”
“Well, okay, Tiger,” he laughed. “Let’s go then.” He ruffled her bangs before handing Katniss her favorite knit stocking cap. She shoved the hat on her head, her braids sticking out on either side. After locating her mittens in the pocket of her coat, she wiggled her fingers into the warm wool and gave their mangy tabby cat, Buttercup, a little wave as she followed her father out the back door.
He reached for her hand as they began the short walk to the dense forest behind the Everdeens’ house. The chilly autumn sun was just brushing the horizon, streaks of crimson and violet leeching through the lightening sky. Katniss’s eyes followed the rows of evergreens that dominated their woods. The few birch, oak and maple trees scattered among the firs and pines had just started to drop their leaves, and the kaleidoscope of reds, oranges and golds laid a path like a royal carpet, welcoming her to their sylvan kingdom.
They passed the little lake where her father had taught her to swim when she turned three; its surface rippled serenely in the peaceful morning air. The cat-o-nine tails and katniss flowers for which she was named swayed gently in the slight autumn breeze. Katniss listened for the croaks of the bullfrogs that were so loud on summer mornings, but the air was still and quiet. The crunching of the leaves under their feet was the only sound she heard.
Her father circled around the pond to the little shed where he kept his tools and his hunting weapons. He struggled with the padlock for a few moments before it clicked open and he was able to swing the door ajar.
Katniss bounced on the balls of her feet, her stomach tight with excitement and anticipation. Her father was beaming as he reemerged from the cabin.
“Here, Tiger. I think this will be just perfect for you.” He presented the object to Katniss, and she gasped in awe as her small fingers caressed the smoothly sanded wood of the bow.
“Papa, it’s beautiful,” she breathed.
“I thought you’d like it,” he winked, stepping inside the shed again to retrieve his own bow and two quivers of arrows. Katniss was delighted to see the miniature quiver so like her father’s. She accepted it and hoisted the tiny bundle over her own shoulder.
They trod to the deepest part of the woods, sunlight filtering down through the sparse branches.
“I want to do something before we start,” he smiled, gesturing to a large oak tree where he had hung a large bulls-eye. “Stand against that tree trunk, just beneath the target.”
Katniss nodded and obediently walked to the tree, Papa close behind her. She straightened her back along the rough bark, watching intently as Papa took the shaft of the arrow and laid it flat, carefully scratching a mark into the tree where her head reached.
“There. We’ll do that every few months and see how much you’ve grown,” he smiled again. Katniss beamed back.
Papa was a patient teacher. They spent hours that first morning with him gently coaching her in the best way to hold the bow before he even allowed her to place an arrow into the bowstring. Her father had marked a small nocking point to help her guide the arrow’s placement.
“You want to keep your hands as steady as possible, Katniss,” he murmured softy, angling her body to face the large oak tree where the bulls-eye was. “Steady hands give you the best chance for an accurate shot.”
Katniss frowned as her slight fingers trembled with the effort of drawing back the string.
“I’m not making them shake, Papa,” she pouted. “They’re doing it all on their own.” Papa laughed.
“It will get easier, Tiger. I promise. That’s why you practice.” He guided her right arm to straighten itself as he coaxed her left arm to draw itself back, her fingers wrapped tightly around the grip.
“Good,” he whispered. “I’m going to let go now, Katniss. Keep that stance and don’t move your hands yet.” She nodded and tried to stand like a statue. It was just like playing freeze tag after recess, she told herself. She was good at freeze tag.
“Okay, pull your left arm back a tiny bit more and then let go of the string. Keep aiming right at the center of the bulls-eye.”
Katniss took a deep breath and followed her father’s instructions. Her fingers loosened and released the bowstring, but her heart sank when she watched the arrow wobble and tumble harmlessly to the forest floor just a few feet away.
She never did manage to get an arrow anywhere near the tree that morning. It took several more Saturday mornings before one of her arrows lodged itself into the bark of the oak tree well below the target.
By the time she turned six, no arrow ever landed beyond the center of the bulls-eye.
Over the years, the etchings on that maple tree climbed steadily up the trunk. Katniss’s father raised the target in tandem with her increasing height. They also added little touches to their wood: from a low-slung branch of a gnarled oak, Katniss strung a tangle of wind chimes she made in middle school metal shop; her father planted a row of evening primrose along the border of the tiny shed, his small gesture a means to have both his daughters immortalized in their sacred forest.
And just a week before the accident, her father carved all four of their initials inside a crude heart before replacing the felt target atop it.
Two days after they lowered his casket -along with her mother’s -into the soggy, late-summer soil, Katniss felled that same oak tree with an ax and hacked it to kindling.
She swore never to set foot in their forest again without him.
New York City, Present Day
It’s the oldest cliché in the book, but Katniss Everdeen has butterflies in her stomach.
With each measured step, she feels the nausea from her nerves cresting, threatening to expel itself right onto the sidewalk. She is surprised that a job she wasn’t entirely sure she had wanted in the first place is creating such anxiety in her. Of course she wants this more than she is willing to admit to herself, and that is the real source of her nervousness.
She quickens her pace and tightens her scarf around her neck, tugging up the soft wool to shield her chin and mouth from the howling December winds. The sky swells with bulging grey clouds and the air smells of snow. Store windows display Christmas decorations and the ringing bells from the Salvation Army Santas pierce the air.
This is it, she thinks as she arrives at her destination.
She has never been more nervous.
For the past three months, Katniss has been tending bar while she tries to figure out what she wants to do with her life. She’s a few months away from finishing her senior year of college at SUNY Stony Brook and plans to graduate with a degree in music, though what she wants to do with that degree is still a mystery to her. When she had met with her senior advisor a few weeks earlier, he had strongly urged her to consider music education. Katniss bluntly replied that the thought of spending her days teaching scales and introducing the recorder to runny-nosed kindergartners terrified her, as did the idea of taking the additional classes necessary to complete the education degree. She is ready to be done with school.
Music is the only thing Katniss has really thought herself particularly good at, though she's recently learned she is fairly proficient at predicting the drinks her customers will order at the bar. She has always been exceptional at hunting, a skill she had honed many a winter morning traipsing through the woods behind her house with her father. But it wasn't as if she could have majored in archery or rifle shooting.
In actuality, Katniss probably could have done something with her skills at a young age with more demanding parents. She might have even been cajoled to train for Olympic glory. But the Everdeens were hardly pushy when it came to their daughters, nor was Katniss ever particularly motivated when it came to advocating for herself.
Instead it’s her younger sister who is the ambitious one. Prim is about to finish her senior year of high school. When the girls’ parents had been killed in a car accident almost four years ago, Katniss had been hell-bent on getting out of the small town that would now hold nothing but memories. It was fortuitous that Prim began pleading to enroll at a specialized magnet high school in Brooklyn for students who excelled in math and science. Their parents’ meager life insurance funded Prim’s high school tuition, but Prim now has visions of attending Harvard and eventually applying to med school, both exorbitantly expensive and a very long shot.
Unless, that is, Katniss’s prowess with a bow and arrow can make Prim’s dream become a reality. It’s the reason that she’s here today, and it has the potential to change both their lives.
Katniss strides through the ostentatious lobby, wishing she had time to drop in to the office where Johanna worked as a receptionist for a prestigious law firm. Her sharp-tongued college roommate is always good for a pep talk and some blunt words of advice.
Don’t fuck this up, she imagines her friend’s voice ordering.
It brings a smile to her face as she pushes the elevator button and steps inside. She rides in silence, avoiding eye contact with the other riders, instead watching the ascending numbers flashing amber as the car approaches the seventy-fourth floor
The studio offices look exactly as they did when she was here for her callbacks four days ago. The auburn-haired receptionist with the pinched face that reminds Katniss of a fox glances up from her desk and manages a terse smile. “May I help you?”
“Um, yes. I’m Katniss Everdeen. I’m here for my screen test with Seneca Crane. Ten a.m.”
“They’re already waiting for you,” the girl replies tightly, depressing a button on her phone. “Mr. Crane, I have Miss Everdeen here for you. Uh, huh. Yes, sir.” She releases the button. “You can go right in.”
“Thank you,” Katniss exhales, trying to remember that stupid yogic breathing she learned from occasionally tagging along to classes with Jo. She bites her lip, straightens the sweater dress over her leggings-Prim assured her it was cute and casual and would look like a teenager, as Katniss’s character is, even if the show is set a few centuries ago-and reaches for the door.
“Katniss, hello again,” Seneca smiles toothily from the center of the large semi-circular leather couch. She returns the director’s smile and recalls the first time she found herself in his presence, nearly as edgy then as she is now.
She had been pacing in the lobby, waiting for Johanna to take her lunch break. Katniss’s phone had buzzed and at the exact second she glanced down to retrieve the text message, she plowed right into a tall man who was just coming up the corridor from the elevators.
Red-faced, she began apologizing profusely, babbling about how she never walks and texts. When she met the eyes of the stranger she slammed into, she noticed his irises were like smoldering coal, and he was staring at her with what appeared to be fascination.
A normal girl probably would have blushed under his intense gaze. Katniss, however, had been mildly irritated by his gawking. And she had told him so.
The man was clearly amused by her reproach, and he had told her she was feisty. Then he told her she was beautiful. And then he asked her if she had ever done any acting. It sounded like an awful pick-up line.
Katniss had never even remotely contemplated acting. She didn’t even really enjoy going to the movies or watching television that much. And the only time she had been to the theater had been to placate Prim; not long after the sisters had moved to New York, Katniss had scrimped and saved and gotten tickets to Mamma Mia! for Prim’s fifteenth birthday. She had been begging to see the show for years. And while Prim bounced along in her seat happily, humming along quietly to the songs she knew by heart, Katniss had dozed off.
So no, she had never given any thought to acting. Not once had she ever thought about what it would be like to become another person day after day, to throw herself into fantasy worlds and live under a microscope, having her every move scrutinized and splashed across the tabloids.
Standing before the strangely alluring man in the lobby that afternoon, she replied with an emphatic no, she had never done any acting. She wasn’t even a good liar. What kind of actress could she possibly be?
The man had then proceeded to feed her some line about having the perfect look for his next television series. When he reached up to stroke his oddly-groomed beard, Katniss finally recognized him.
Seneca Crane was some kind of bizarre genius. At least that’s what Rolling Stone had proclaimed him several years earlier. His television series ran the gamut from fantasy to science-fiction to musical-comedy, and there was always an incredible amount of buzz around them until they lost their luster a few seasons in. Prim had been thoroughly addicted to his reimagining of the old sitcom Gilligan’s Island with zombies as the castaways. Katniss saw absolutely no point to the campy gore, but it was wildly popular for its initial run.
She cringed to think what this new series could possibly encompass or how her very simple, very unglamorous self could have any relevance to Seneca Crane.
But he was so persistent that she wound up listening to his fevered pitch. She refused, however, to follow him to his office and thus, they sat on the plush couch in the lobby as Seneca launched into an animated presentation of his vision.
When he finished, he begged her to audition for him, and Katniss stunned herself by agreeing to do so. The proposal had just been so impassioned and so intriguing. And though she was unsure why he was so enamored with her, he could not have known how completely perfect it was for her.
Rowan Hood, as Seneca Crane was planning to call the show, is Robin Hood’s teenaged daughter. She’s feisty and headstrong and determined to revive her father’s legacy in Sherwood Forest. But when no one takes her seriously being that she is a girl, the character disguises herself as a boy as she plots raids and heists throughout Nottingham.
She had devoured Robin Hood stories as a young girl and watched the old Disney VHS tape her parents owned so many times she broke it and could subsequently only watch the film at Madge Undersee’s house on her DVD player. And when Katniss and Gale Hawthorne ventured into the forest together to play make believe, she fought him tooth and nail to be the outlaw. Gale always insisted she be Maid Marian because she was a girl. Once Katniss pinned his sleeve to a tree with perfectly placed arrow before he finally relented and let her have a turn being Robin.
She knew the audition was a long shot in spite of Seneca’s interest; she was a newbie among a crowded field of young actresses who were all vying for the role of Rowan. She was shocked when she made it through the first round.
At callbacks, she nervously studied the faces of her competition. There were six other actresses in the green room that morning, each sizing her up with curious glares and snide smiles. Every one of them had experience, and one, Katniss knew, had a recurring part on Seneca’s last show.
She had a vague recollection of hearing her name called, and when she had entered the room, Seneca had welcomed her and gestured to a bow and arrow on the glass table before him. He had asked her to please pick up the weapon. Rowan would be firing arrows frequently, and according to Seneca, the actress who would be cast should at least appear convincing when handling the weapon. This was Katniss’s ace in the hole.
Fueled with confidence, she retrieved the bow-it was a poor imitation, nowhere near the finely-crafted one she used for years when hunting with her father-and assumed the proper stance to mimic aiming the weapon at a target. She knew she looked flawless when doing so; she was so at ease with the familiar object in her hands.
The casting team had studied her with restrained awe and posed questions about handling the bow and firing the arrow. Katniss had politely informed them if they would give her a real bow and arrow, she would gladly show them what she could do with it. And she would gladly do her own stunts if cast, she added boldly.
Seneca’s sly smile had told her everything she needed to know. She had survived another round.
That was four days ago. Today is the morning of the final hurdle, the screen test, and as badly as Katniss wants this role, this opportunity, she refuses to get her hopes up. She doesn’t want to allow herself to consider the kinds of changes this would bring to her life and to Prim’s future.
She smiles again at Seneca before glancing around the spacious room. She notices most of the same casting people who were at her first two auditions. But then her gaze lands on a sight that renders her completely speechless. Even Katniss can identify the incredibly handsome, incredibly charismatic young actor who stands before her. He has most teenagers’ and older women’s hearts equally aflutter. Prim even had a poster of him on her bedroom wall at one point. (She took it down shortly after she began dating Rory Hawthorne.)
But Katniss has never really understood the young man’s allure until this moment. She is struck by just how turquoise his eyes are up close and how deep his dimples are when he flashes two rows of gleaming white teeth at her.
Seneca flashes her another broad smile. “May I introduce you to Finnick Odair? He has been cast as Will Scarlet.”
The bronze-haired man seems to have no concept of personal space, and as Katniss extends her arm to shake his hand, he steps so close to her she can smell the wintergreen of his mouthwash and feels his warm breath when he leans down.
“You going to make this worth my time?” he whispers huskily, taking her hand and slowly pumping it up and down twice.
“I’ll try,” she replies, her voice bearing more confidence than she actually has.
“Okay, then. Let’s see how you pretty people do together,” Seneca instructs, reclining against the couch. “I think we’ll probably need you to run a scene or two to test how you play off each other, but might as well see first if you can generate any chemistry. Why don’t you kiss for me?”
Seneca had emphasized that he eventually planned on a romance for Rowan and Will, should the show be picked up and make it through a first season. There would be plenty of what he called “unresolved sexual tension”-and he had used the air quotes-between the two characters.
Even so, Seneca’s command catches her by surprise, and Katniss is beyond flustered at the thought of kissing Finnick Odair. She is woefully under-experienced in that department, having had just one serious boyfriend in high school and a few casual relationships in college, none that made it past the third or fourth date. And she knows Finnick is a notorious playboy. His face is always plastered across those gossip magazines at the checkout lane of the grocery store. She dimly recollects a recent headline bemoaning his breakup with pop-princess Annie Cresta.
Finnick’s mouth captures her lips without warning, and instinctively, she pushes him away. He laughs airily and turns to Seneca.
“Oh, I like this one, Seneca. She’s delightfully pure. A perfect Rowan.”
Katniss frowns and places her hands on her hips. “I wasn’t expecting you to kiss me so suddenly.”
“You were thinking too much,” he says softly. “I could see it in those mesmerizing eyes of yours. It’s acting. Relax and don’t think so much.” He lowers his mouth to hers again and she tilts her head as her eyes flutter shut. His lips slant over hers and move eagerly and expertly.
She has always been curious as to how it was possible actors could have such intimate scenes and not get emotionally tangled with each other. Her second kiss with Finnick Odair quiets that curiosity.
Thought it is a relatively enjoyable experience and Finnick is definitely a good kisser, she is surprised that she feels nothing beyond the soft press of his lips against her. There is no fire kindled in her veins, no pleasant thrill in her belly.
“That’s good, very good,” Seneca applauds, his lips lifting into a feline smile. Katniss opens her eyes as Finnick draws back, grinning down at her seductively. She smiles wryly and tucks a lock of hair behind her ear.
Seneca then asks that they run through two scenes. The first is a short scene that their characters share in the woods in the pilot, when Rowan is complaining to Will that no one takes her seriously and she was denied entry into the archery competition being held on Midsummer Eve. The second is dialogue from an elaborate party scene, also in the pilot, that is being given by Rowan’s mother, the former Maid Marian, as a medieval version of a debutante ball. Seneca commands them to dance, which freezes Katniss in place. She has always been a terrible dancer.
But Finnick takes the lead and guides her in a flawless waltz around the room, her small hands gripped tightly in his larger ones, and she finds it startlingly easy to follow his steps.
Within the hour, the screen test is over, and Seneca and the casting department all shake her hand, commending her and telling her they will be in touch.
As she pivots on her heel to leave, Finnick catches her arm and leans his lips close to her ear. “I like you, Katniss Everdeen. I think we’ll be seeing a lot of each other in the future.”
And indeed, when her phone rings the next morning, she knows she must have done something right because Seneca’s voice is clear and gleeful, even in her drowsy haze of sleep, when he offers her the part. He also lets it slip near the end of their conversation that Finnick Odair had all but demanded Katniss be cast as Rowan.
Within a week, Seneca assembles the cast for their first read-through. Katniss learns things must move quickly with a pilot; a director has to be ready to present it at the network up-fronts in the hopes that one will give it a green-light-or better yet, that several networks will vie over the rights to it.
She arrives thirty minutes early and winds up seated around the massive oval table alone with Seneca. Actors, as it seems, don’t run on the same time as the rest of the world. By ten a.m., Finnick is the only other cast member who has joined them. He engages her in a lively conversation about his English sheepdog, who he blames for his tardiness, while they wait for the rest of the cast. Fifteen minutes later, most of them have trickled in, and Katniss feels slightly overwhelmed by all the introductions and the dubious glances thrown in her direction from the actress playing Maid Marian. Finnick quietly assures Katniss that Maysilee Donner’s icy demeanor is nothing personal; the aging actress thinks she’s above television, but the movie roles have dried up of late.
The actor who is portraying her father-the legendary Robin Hood-finally saunters into the room an hour late, like nothing is amiss.
If Katniss had been even slightly smitten by Finnick Odair, she is truly star-struck by Haymitch Abernathy. He’s always been one of Prim’s favorite actors. Katniss has listened to her sister gush, on many occasions, about the man’s penchant for method acting, immersing himself wholly into whichever role he is playing at the moment. And once Katniss sat down and watched several of his films with Prim, she had to admit he was amazing.
But he’s also had more second chances than Hollywood typically grants. He was a child star, the son of a moderately successful actress and an even more successful actor and producer. By the time he was fourteen, Haymitch had appeared in over thirty films, and although he wasn’t a heartthrob by Finnick Odair standards, his films were always well-received and he never lacked for female companionship. He began to pile up the critical accolades and the awards nominations, not to mention the notches on his bedposts courtesy of more than one of his leading ladies.
As with many other child stars, the sinuous web of drugs and alcohol snared Haymitch. He’d had three stays in rehab by the time he was thirty and twice as many DUI arrests. He turned things around for a brief period of time in his late thirties, but just weeks after winning his Oscar for Best Actor in a Motion Picture, he was arrested for felony possession and ordered into rehab for a fourth stint.
It wasn’t until paparazzi found him passed out in one of those inflatable Moon Bounce jumping houses at his agent’s daughter’s fourth birthday party he was finally humiliated into getting sober.
Now, three years later, Rowan Hood is his chance at a comeback, probably his last if he doesn’t pull this one off. He was a nostalgic choice, of course, given that his Oscar-winning role was for portraying Errol Flynn, the most famous of Robin Hoods, in a biopic of the late actor.
As Haymitch shakes her hand and takes the seat to her left, Katniss realizes why Seneca was so enthralled with her looks that day. Even she cannot deny the strong resemblance she bears to Haymitch; they share the same stormy grey eyes, the same tawny olive skin, the same bow-shaped mouths. She could definitely pass as his daughter.
Seneca begins by announcing that the pilot will not be shot in order, something Katniss did not know was common in television shows and films. She’s relieved at first because the ball scene that will be shot first is far less dialogue-heavy. Memorizing all that dialogue, pages and pages of lines, intimidates her. The script that Seneca passes her is a thick tome. And that is just one episode.
But then while browsing the pages she learns her character spends a good portion of the first scene waltzing with Will Scarlet. This makes Katniss exceedingly anxious thanks to her profound disdain for dancing and her mediocre ability to do it well.
Fortunately once the actual rehearsals begin, Finnick is nothing but patient with her. They work tirelessly with the choreographer that Seneca brought in to get all the actors’ movements to perfectly mimic the medieval dances that would have been typical of that time period. He continues to flash those dimples and tease her about not needing the toes on his left toe each time she tromps over his foot in their sweeping motions.
There is something so endearing about him that Katniss understands why he elicits the reaction he does from his fans. The more time she spends around Finnick, the more she realizes the boyish charm and rakish appeal that he channels into his role as Will comes naturally. Acting is effortless for Finnick Odair because he’s not actually acting. He truly is that charismatic and amiable.
About two weeks into rehearsals, Katniss starts for the craft service table-her favorite discovery about being an actress-after Seneca calls for a brief lunch break. But she doesn’t get there because Haymitch grabs her arm and pulls her to the side into a narrow corridor.
“Listen, sweetheart, I heard Crane has Effie Trinket lurking around here looking for you.”
Katniss dips her brows and frowns slightly. “Who’s Effie Trinket?”
Haymitch laughs a short, caustic laugh. “I’ve forgotten how naïve some of you newbies are. It’s refreshing actually.” He grins, the left side of his mouth tugging upward a bit higher than the right. “Effie Trinket is one of the shrewdest, and also one of the most irritating, publicists on the planet. She’s loud, she’s eccentric, and she’s intimidating as hell.”
Seneca had secured Katniss an agent just hours after he cast her as Rowan. Katniss liked the heavy-set man with the booming voice and gentle spirit who had pumped her hand enthusiastically and introduced himself as Plutarch Heavensbee. She knew he also represented Haymitch and had been instrumental in getting the recovering alcoholic back into many studios’ good graces.
But she had never considered she would need a publicist. There was that damned naïveté again.
“Yes, a publicist. Finnick is one of her biggest clients, and I’m sure he probably has something to do with why Effie is sniffing around here.” He smirks. “She hates me though. Probably still hasn’t forgiven me for blowing her off after we spent that night together at the Chateau Marmont.”
“Well, thanks for the warning,” she grimaces, wrinkling her nose at the thought of Haymitch having sex with anyone.
“What are dads for, right? I’ll be napping in my trailer for the next hour if you need me, sweetheart. Watch out for that Effie.”
“You don’t have a trailer!” she calls after his retreating figure. He doesn’t answer. She smiles to herself. It’s flattering to her that he cares enough to look out for her. Haymitch is fast becoming a valuable resource for her as she acquaints herself with the strange world of showbiz.
She makes a beeline for the mouth-watering spread of food laid out on several tables near the changing areas when she spies Seneca speaking to a petite woman with a mass of blonde curls piled on her head. She wears a bright magenta blazer and a matching pencil skirt, her black stilettos adding a good five inches to her natural height. By the animated manner in which she is talking with her hands, Katniss deduces this is the infamous Effie Trinket.
At that moment, both heads turn in her direction, and Seneca gestures to Katniss, crooking his finger and beckoning her toward him. Katniss hesitates, takes a deep breath and tries to appear calm as she walks over to them.
“Katniss, my dear girl, have you met Effie Trinket yet?”
She smiles politely, extending a hand to Effie. “Hello.”
The woman raises her arm in a breezy little wave. “Charmed, darling. Seneca, let’s take her to your office, shall we?” she chirps, spinning on her heel and flouncing down the hall.
Katniss frowns as her stomach grumbles in protest. She gives the craft service table a wistful glance and obediently follows her director and the bubbly little blonde around a corner to Seneca’s office.
When Seneca opens his door, Finnick is already seated on the couch. He flashes her that winsome grin and Katniss manages to return a meek smile before nervously taking a seat in a leather wingback chair opposite the couch.
Finnick shoots her a playful pout and pats the cushion beside him. “You don’t want to sit next to me? I won’t bite unless you ask.”
“I’m okay over here,” she replies.
There is no way Katniss could have anticipated what Seneca and Effie want to discuss with her. As Effie trills and gesticulates wildly with her hands, talking a mile a minute, Seneca sits stoically, his eyes fixed on Katniss, his mouth quirked into a coy smile.
Katniss tries to keep her composure at the pronouncement Effie has just made. She is too stunned to form words, but as she slides her eyes in Finnick’s direction, he is openly smirking at her.
“So what do you say?” he grins wolfishly.
“You want to date me?” she says incredulously.
“Don’t look so surprised. You’re a beautiful girl,” Effie interjects.
“I wasn’t aware that this is the way things worked.” She coughs, trying to loosen the tightness in her throat and she’s vaguely aware that the scenario Effie just described sounds like a business arrangement or some kind of antiquated courting ritual rather than any kind of genuine interest Finnick Odair could have in her. Yes, he has been flirtatious with her, but she questions what he could see in her when he’s dated supermodels!
“It’s the way much of Hollywood works,” Finnick replies smoothly. “I can count on my fingers the number of real relationships I’ve had.” He holds up his palm, wiggles a few digits and winks at her.
“Katniss, it’s simple,” Seneca begins, tenting his fingers and smiling easily at her. “You are an unknown. Finnick is a teen heartthrob. We want this show in the headlines; we want the networks to drool over getting us on their schedule and go to war for us. What better way to do that than have you two together? You land a few magazine covers, you attend some screenings hand in hand, and you appear adorably in love. You’re both actors. It should be easy.”
“I’m not really good with men,” she says, flushing. She doesn’t know what else to say; she holds back from reminding him that she’s not really much of an actor yet either. “I haven’t had that many relationships.”
“Oh pish,” Effie sniffs. “There’s not much to it. Do you see this man? Act like you like him. All the rest of the women in the world do!”
Katniss bites her lip. She knows she’s never been in love, and she may not have dreams of Prince Charming galloping in on a white horse anytime soon. But she does believe relationships should be based on some principles, the least of which is attraction. If the attraction isn’t there, what’s the point?
It may be crazy and teenage girls may think her insane, but Katniss is simply not attracted to Finnick Odair in spite of how comfortable she has grown around him and how easily they get along. She can’t see that changing any time soon.
She now wonders cynically how many Hollywood romances are real and how many, as Effie so bluntly put it, are just an act. She also wonders how quickly she can be replaced if she rejects this calculated proposal. There’s little else she can do if she wants to stay in Seneca’s good graces. And the more she weighs it in her mind, the less it sounds like a proposal; it sounds more like an order.
The three of them stare at her expectantly, and Finnick gives her a sympathetic smile.
Katniss sighs and agrees.
She will be Finnick Odair’s new girlfriend.
Katniss thought she had been nervous the day of her screen test. She thought she had been nervous at that initial table read and through the rehearsals that followed. But that anxiety was nothing like what she feels now on the first day of filming.
There is just so much riding on this opportunity. If the pilot goes well and is picked up by a network, Katniss knows it means a myriad of things. The more success Rowan Hood has, the more life improves for the Everdeen sisters.
Prim’s acceptance letter to Harvard arrived three days after Katniss was cast. It was accompanied by news of a partial scholarship, but the remainder of the tuition, as well as room and board, will not be cheap. Katniss will receive a modest salary for shooting the pilot, but she is all too aware that networks have recast parts after the up-fronts. The cast is largely comprised of established, respected actors. She understands as an unknown, she is the most likely target for replacement, and therefore she needs to own this performance. She must be Rowan Hood so that the studio heads and the network executives will fall in love with her.
Seneca and Effie’s carefully calculated plan to thrust Katniss into the public eye has kicked into overdrive the past two months. She realizes there are few places Finnick can go without a camera following him when she meets him for coffee one morning at a Starbucks in the West Village, and there are several paparazzi lingering outside the store, waiting for them to exit. She accompanies him to a few movie premieres too; walking a red carpet is an entirely surreal experience. Finnick basks in the spotlight, answering reporters’ questions smoothly, sometimes cheekily, and he introduces Katniss with the same adoring grin each time. Most reporters ask her a few polite questions at first, but as she is seen more steadily on Finnick’s arm and as the buzz of pilot season swarms in early spring, Katniss finds herself peppered with almost as many inquiries as Finnick.
One thing she can’t deny is there are perks to being Finnick Odair’s significant other: VIP passes to Dave Matthews Band and Muse shows, court-side seats for the Knicks, (Katniss actually enjoys the unlimited food and beverage service more than the actual game) a club-level suite for a Rangers game-hockey, she finds, is far more interesting to watch than basketball, but again, it’s the food in the suite that enthralls her most-and various designers sending clothes and jewelry and accessories for her to be seen in at all these places.
Other than a few kisses that are clearly staged for the paparazzi, there is virtually no physical contact initiated by Finnick. They always part at the end of an evening, and there are no invitations back to his trendy SoHo loft or trysts in fancy hotels. His lack of interest is largely a relief to Katniss, as the increased time they’ve spent together has not stirred any romantic feelings in her. The whole thing continues to feel more like a business arrangement than anything else, but it’s not unpleasant spending so much time with Finnick.
As she turns the corner, Chelsea Piers looms before her. Until a few months ago, Katniss was unaware that the sprawling set of quays was anything other than a sports complex. She fondly remembers skating here once with Prim and Gale and his siblings on a visit into the city when they were teenagers. When Seneca informed the cast where they would be filming, Katniss had been surprised to learn that there are several soundstages and many television shows and movies have been shot here in recent years, a Will Ferrell movie and one of the Law and Order spin-offs among them.
After speaking with a security guard who kindly redirects her in the vicinity of the correct stage, Katniss feels those damn butterflies swarming again.
She locates the soundstage and shows her driver’s license to the security guard posted at the entrance, and she gives him a curt smile as he waves her under the large door marked with the bold 12.
Katniss has never been on an actual soundstage before, and she is a bit overwhelmed by the labyrinth of doors and corridors that greets her as she wanders into the massive space. A few stray racks of costumes are draped with massive sheets of plastic, and a large plywood wall on wheels juts at an odd angle beside them.
“Excuse me, are you supposed to be on this set?”
She turns and sees a skinny young man with red hair and a smattering of freckles across the bridge of his nose glaring at her. She doesn’t recognize him.
“Uh, yeah,” she replies, straightening her shoulders and returning the guy’s stare. “I’m here for the Rowan Hood pilot shoot.”
“Oh!” The ginger-haired guy suddenly smiles brightly and relaxes his shoulders. “You must be Katniss. I’m Darius. I’m Seneca Crane’s new assistant.” Katniss raises an eyebrow. At the table reads and most recent rehearsals, Seneca’s assistant had been a petite, bossy brunette named Clove, who would have been prettier if her face hadn’t constantly looked as if she was sucking on a lemon.
“Hi.” She gives the guy a shy smile. “What, uh, happened to Clove?” she asks hesitantly.
Darius shrugs. “Don’t know. Didn’t ask. Happens all the time, actually. But it’s her loss and my gain, right?” He winks at her. “So you’re scheduled to head to wardrobe first. Cinna wants you in costume before he lets Octavia anywhere near you with her makeup palette.”
“Uh, thanks.” She hoists her messenger bag higher on her shoulder. “Which direction is wardrobe?” Darius smiles and gestures behind him to the left. She nods and thanks him.
Katniss met the costume supervisor, Cinna, and his team of costumers when they took her measurements one day after rehearsals several weeks ago. She’s relieved the crew members-stylists and lighting technicians and grips among them-that she has encountered so far have all been so friendly and personable. She came into this foreign world with a lot of preconceived notions, most of them negative, and she’s been pleasantly surprised that so far, everyone seems wholly normal.
She enters the wardrobe and her eyes widen as they sweep the lofty space. It is nothing like what she expected. There are no dressing rooms here; a number of paneled curtains on large, wheeled platforms create what appear to be changing spaces. Mannequins stand sentry sporadically throughout the space, and Katniss is in awe of the intricately detailed attire the dummies are clad in. A wall of lighted mirrors dominates the far rear wall. There are racks and racks of costumes everywhere.
“Katniss, there you are!” Cinna appears before her, a warm smile on his handsome face. He is dressed in simple black clothing with multiple gold hoops in his ears. His eyeliner mesmerizes her; the bold gold lines make his amber-green eyes flicker mystically. He takes her hands in his, and the welcoming touch dissipates some of her anxiety. His is a calming presence.
“You ready to be transformed?” he asks, those eyes glinting in the bright overhead lights.
“Sure,” she replies. Cinna smiles and leads her to a cordoned-off space.
Her heart skips a beat when she sees the fluorescent piece of paper tacked to the panel that reads in bold block letters: KATNISS EVERDEEN. Beneath them, in smaller letters, it says ROWAN.
This is really happening, she thinks giddily.
The small rectangular area is sparsely decorated. There is a small table and two stools, and a several plastic sheaths hang from a metal rack.
But it a small white bag on the table that grabs her attention.
The warm, yeasty smell reaches her as she shuffles towards the table, entranced by the hazy memory of Saturday mornings hunting with her father that suddenly overcomes her.
Katniss takes a deep breath and the aroma further fills her senses. In a fog, she reaches for the bag and finds herself holding a piece of her childhood. The cheese bun is identical to the ones she enjoyed on those hunting mornings, at least by appearance. She brings the roll to her nose and inhales, her eyes fluttering closed instinctively. She takes a bite and chews thoughtfully, savoring the burst of nutty warmth on her tongue from the melted cheese. It tastes exactly as she remembers, and she stifles a moan of pleasure.
She swallows and shakes her head, placing the rest of the bun back in its bag. She can feel Cinna’s eyes on her.
“A gift from someone special?” he asks, a playful smile on his face. Katniss shakes her head again.
“I have no idea,” she replies truthfully. She can’t reconcile who, other than her father and her mother, would know the little sacred breakfast ritual of cheese buns from Mellarks’ Bakery that Katniss and her father shared.
Prim? Perhaps. As Prim got older and clamored incessantly to go along with them, their father often placated the pouting toddler with a decadent, intricately-decorated sugar cookie from the bakery. Prim had to have eventually realized that her sweet treats always coincided with the hunting trips.
But this is not an imitation from one of the local bakeries. Katniss has sampled numerous buns and Danishes since moving to New York years ago from Pennsylvania, and no one has gotten their cheese buns even close to the ones she enjoyed as a child. There is something about this flaky roll that leaves Katniss bewildered. This has to be a Mellarks’ cheese bun, and she can’t logically wrap her head around how even Prim could have managed that.
“Huh?” She realizes she has been daydreaming and Cinna is patiently waiting for her to get on with things. “Sorry,” she apologizes, sliding her eyes at the white sack again.
Cinna moves towards the rack and begins unwrapping the plastic on a garment bag. He holds up the costume, a coy smile on his lips. “What do you think, Miss Rowan Hood?”
“Cinna, you did this,” she says in awe, reaching for the outfit.
“Yes,” he beams. “And this.” He pulls the plastic off another costume with a flourish and thrusts it towards her.
She will don the first outfit most often in her character. In spite of the fact that Rowan will frequently dress as a boy and thus, the costume is decidedly masculine, it’s exquisite. She runs her hand along the soft, buttery suede of the dark green jacket that will be cinched at the waist with a wide leather belt. Her fingers rub over the thin muslin of the blouse. The tights will leave nothing to the imagination, she worries, but they too feel wondrously silky under her touch.
“You’ll have boots for that one,” Cinna says, nodding towards a pair of tall, gleaming brown leather boots beside the rack.
It’s the second outfit, though, that utterly enchants her. It’s for the ball scene, and Katniss is astonished by what Cinna has created for her.
The crimson-orange gown reminds her of the sunset. The fabric is lustrous and smooth, and between her fingers, the silken velvet feels luxurious. The dress is slack on its hanger, but Katniss remembers from Cinna’s sketches that the bodice will be tight, a corset forcing her modest breasts up to give the illusion of ample cleavage. The neckline will bow out slightly, flaring subtly at the shoulders. At the narrow waist, the gown spills into yards of the supple fabric before ending in a small train.
“You like,” Cinna muses, his eyes glittering in amusement.
“It’s that obvious?” she laughs, hugging the gown to her. Katniss has never had a penchant for dresses, and she had to force herself to wear a gown to go to Gale’s prom with him-she eschewed her own-but that dress pales in comparison to the one she holds now.
“Well let’s get you into it, my girl. The ball is first, yes?”
She nods, biting her lip. She is grateful that this first scene has a host of extras and most of Katniss’s interactions will be with Finnick or Haymitch. She expects both men will help to put her at ease and shoo away those butterflies that have been pestering her all day.
Her breath hitches in her throat as Cinna wraps the old-fashioned corset around her middle, the scratchy lace just grazing her nipples as he shifts and adjusts the garment. The swells of her breasts spill over the binding cups as he tightens the boning and begins the arduous task of lacing it up.
“You okay?” he laughs gently as she emits another painful gasp.
“Yeah,” she hisses. “I guess I’m just glad we live in a time where these torture devices are not necessary. I’ll try and remember that the next time I’m complaining about the underwire of a bra.”
“That’s a positive way of looking at things,” Cinna laughs again. He steps back and cocks his head, studying her critically. He nods his approval and motions to a pair of stockings draped over the chair. Katniss understands the request and reaches for them, working the delicate sheer fabric downward to make it easier to slip her foot into it.
Cinna shakes his head just as she gently slips the toe of the stocking over her right foot. “You’ll need to take those off.” He motions to her underwear.
Katniss’s cheeks flood with color. “I’m sorry?”
“No modesty in this business, girl. Besides, I only get the finest stockings and there is paneling in them. I promise you won’t even notice you’re not wearing anything else. And I’m the only one other than you who will know.” He winks at her conspiratorially, relaxing her slightly.
“Um, okay,” she stammers, tugging off the stockings and chewing on her lip as she slides her panties down her legs, trying not to think about how Cinna has now, for all effective purposes, seen her fully naked. It only somewhat assuages her when she considers in his line of work he has probably seen a thousand naked bodies, male and female, though she figures most of those have been far better than hers.
She shimmies into the binding stockings. Katniss is slender, but even she feels pinched and constricted by the combination of the corset and the hose.
“Arms up,” Cinna orders. Katniss obliges, and she feels a heavenly fabric drape over her head and settle on her slim frame weightlessly. For such a cumbersome gown, it is surprisingly light and airy; the panne material that Cinna used only gives the illusion of heavy velvet. She can’t resist the urge to twirl about in it and she giggles-she never giggles-as the train gets tangled around her legs on the third spin.
“Easy there, Girl on Fire,” Cinna laughs. “You look like a flame come to life when you spin like that, and I don’t think Seneca will be too happy if you spontaneously combust before he gets this pilot in the can.”
“It’s so beautiful, Cinna. Thank you,” she gushes. Then she adds shyly, “It’s not too often that I feel pretty.”
“That’s foolish. You’re gorgeous, and you, Katniss Everdeen, are going to captivate America. I’m betting on it.”
She blushes as he hands her a dainty pair of crimson ballet slippers. Katniss’s eyes widen, a smile playing on her lips as she takes the shoes from him.
“They didn’t wear heels much in medieval times. I think you’ll find these more than comfortable for dancing. Now get yourself over to hair and makeup before Venia comes looking for you and chews me out for hogging you.”
She nods and gathers her skirt in her hands, giving Cinna another smile before slipping out of the dressing space. Her stomach rumbles loudly, and she wishes she had thought to grab the rest of that mysterious cheese bun on her way out.
Venia and Octavia-Katniss has difficulty telling the two striking women apart-fawn and fuss over her for the better part of the next hour. Katniss grimaces as her hair is straightened and sprayed and tugged into an intricate knot of braids that circle her head like a crown. Her head throbs dully when the pulling and plaiting is finally done. She can taste the hairspray from the cloud of it that lingers around her.
Makeup is an equally laborious production. It takes an excruciating amount of cosmetics to make her appear dewy and innocent. It doesn’t help matters that she fidgets uncomfortably when Venia applies a myriad of false eyelashes and Katniss nearly gets the glue in her eye.
Finally, she is ready for call.
But Haymitch, as usual, is late. He strides onto the set forty-five minutes after he was due to arrive, earning a withering look from Seneca, but not a word of reprimand.
The delay amps Katniss’s anxiety, and when filming finally begins, her nerves get the best of her. She visibly trembles during the first take, and she flubs her lines multiple times throughout the morning, causing Seneca to shout “cut” amidst her profuse apologies. Both Haymitch and Finnick are patient with her, though Maysilee Donner doesn’t seem to be as forgiving, shooting Katniss several scornful glares each time filming stops, and she swears she hears the word “amateur” muttered at least once.
Her confidence rises a bit when she nails a short take where Rowan dances with Robin, and Haymitch winks at her, a silent nod of approval.
In spite of the buttery soft ballet slippers, Katniss is thoroughly exhausted by the time Seneca calls for lunch. Her feet throb and her calves ache and her stomach is still a swirling mass of nerves. And she is starving. The cheese bun is a distant memory.
She’s famished, but the unmistakable shriek of Effie Trinket’s voice stops Katniss in her tracks. She catches sight of the publicist, approaching Finnick, triumphantly waving some sort of glossy magazine, and Katniss has the sudden urge to make herself scarce until she’s due back on set to finish the day’s scheduled ball scenes. She doesn’t feel much like talking or dealing with Effie and her fake relationship with Finnick at the moment.
What she really feels is the need to be alone to collect her thoughts before the afternoon’s filming.
So she slips behind a row of panels and pauses near the back of the soundstage, struck again by just how massive a space it encompasses. Another area seems to be cordoned off and Katniss’s curiosity gets the best of her. She peers inside the darkened space and inhales briefly before pushing the sliding door all the way to the right.
Her jaw drops, and she struggles to find her breath as her eyes sweep over the sylvan wonderland that has been painstakingly recreated before her. This must be Rowan’s forest. An odd sense of déjà vu envelops her, and she shudders from the strange sensation.
I know this place.
Her heart beats a wild tattoo against her rib cage, her throat constricting with the effort of remembering as she takes a tentative step onto the soundstage, the train of her gown dragging behind her. She has to remind herself that this is not real. This is a stage in New York, not her beloved forest in the woods of eastern Pennsylvania.
Not real. Not real.
But it looks so real. And she knows that, of course, is the point. And she also knows that a forest is a forest, and the faux woodlands enveloping her could be any forest in the United States, in the world, really.
She can’t shake the vision that this stunning set looks exactly like her forest. The forest she shared with her father all those years ago as a carefree child.
The strangest feeling settles over her again, a sensation of serenity and freedom and though she can’t fully explain it, she suddenly is more at ease than she has been all day. It is as if being in this fictional forest comforts her. It grounds her. It feels like she is home, and she hadn’t realized just how much she missed that until now.
And then she feels light-headed, and the woods around her begin to tilt and spin. She staggers backward, her hand desperately seeking purchase with anything she can find to steady herself.
“Whoa,” a voice announces softly from behind as her palm lands on something warm and solid. A large hand covers her own, trapping it in place against what she infers is a chest. A very broad, very muscular chest.
She spins around, and she blinks several times to reconcile the sight before her. “Peeta? Peeta Mellark?”
“Hi, Katniss,” he replies quietly, releasing her hand and stepping away from her.
She has not seen him since high school graduation. He is more handsome than she remembers; she doesn’t ever recall being this close to him before. His blond waves are stylishly mussed, and his eyes are a shade of blue that she didn’t think was possible to recreate outside a crayon box.
She suddenly feels shy, his eyes locked on her so intently. He’s gazing at her almost reverently, and the intensity of his stare so unnerves her that without giving it a second thought, she bolts from the set and stumbles into the hallway.
Before she has a chance to consider the implications of Peeta Mellark being on this set, her set, a shrill voice interrupts.
“Here she is, Seneca!”
Katniss turns and meets the overly made-up face of Effie Trinket, Seneca and Finnick close behind her.
“Katniss, there you are! What were you doing in there?” Seneca asks.
“I, uh, I was curious,” she admits quietly.
“It’s exquisite, isn’t it?” he marvels. “The set decorator and his crew did a fabulous job. But you’ll be spending plenty of time there over the next few days. Now we have a few more pressing things to discuss. Effie has your schedule for the rest of the week and she wants to go over it with you and Finnick.” He ushers them away the forest set, hauling the door closes, and Katniss feels an instinctive urge to be back in the sylvan wonderland and study it more carefully. She needs answers, the least of which is why Peeta Mellark is on this set.
“Finnick is getting the May cover of GQ and they’re throwing him a wonderful party at the Met this Saturday!” Effie squeals. “This is the perfect opportunity to really get the public invested in you two as the next ‘It’ couple.”
“Congratulations, Finnick.” She smiles at him, and he winds an arm around her waist, setting on her hip and drawing her into his side.
“You’re going to have to smile pretty a lot this week. Think you’re ready for it?”
“Uh, sure,” she mumbles.
“You don’t seem very excited,” Effie says irritably. “May I remind you what a big, big, big opportunity this is for you, Katniss? People adore Finnick. We have to make them like you.”
Katniss bristles at Effie’s harsh statement, and Finnick rubs her back reassuringly.
“They’re going to love you. I promise,” he says.
The afternoon’s scenes go far more smoothly than the morning ones did. Katniss can’t fully explain it, but when she had arrived back on the ballroom set after lunch, having been in that fictional forest for even that short time had a therapeutic effect on her. She had not realized how much she had missed the woods behind her house, and being in such similar surroundings-real or not real-melted away all her stress and anxiety.
Filming concludes for the day, and rather than head to her changing space, she looks around to be sure she’s not being watched and dashes off still clad in her ball gown. She knows she shouldn’t be sneaking onto the forest set for the second time that day, but she can’t help it. Her curiosity is overwhelming, and she needs to see the forest-her forest-again.
Her breath catches in her throat as she tugs back the massive, paneled sliding door a fraction and slips her tiny frame through the gap. The lights are dim, bathing the entire set in a mystical glow. Katniss inhales sharply and moves forward as if in a trance.
A soft carpet of lush grass cushions each movement she makes onto the soundstage. She looks around, taking time to drink in the sights she didn’t fully get to appreciate earlier in the day when she ran away from Peeta Mellark.
Clusters of slender fir trees reach their limbs to the fictional sky, yielding to stands of more dominant pines. There are a smattering of oaks and maples among the evergreens too.
Her eyes flit over to the shimmering surface of a small pond. She is dumbstruck. That can’t be real water. She gathers the skirt of her gown in her fists and dashes across the set, pausing near the pond’s edge. She kneels down gently and skims her fingers across the water.
Real. She shakes her head and straightens her body.
It’s then she sees the little shack on the other side of the pond. It is an exact replica of her father’s shed where he kept his bows and rifles and tools.
Who could have possibly known about that? A frisson slithers down her spine and raises the hair on the back of her neck.
She wanders over to the stand of trees and touches the bark, surprised to feel how light and papery it actually is to the touch. It reminds her of paper-mache. She pushes on the tree, but it does not yield against her hand. It is firmly rooted to the stage somehow.
Her eyes land on a series of notched marks in the faux bark. She gasps and her fingers climb the carved lines, set apart at random intervals from each other. Her heart begins to race and a lump forms in her throat as she remembers her father measuring her on so many mornings.
The intimate details of this recreation can’t be a coincidence.
She glances up and her heart knocks against her ribs when she sees a cluster of wind chimes suspended from a branch. With no breeze, they hang listless and Katniss impulsively reaches up and drags her fingers through them, a sharp, lilting tinkle cutting through the silence.
She sucks in a breath and considers Peeta Mellark again. Did he do this? How could he know my woods so well?
Katniss whirls about and meets the scowling face of an older man in a worn work-shirt and jeans. “Uh, hi?”
“What are you doing on this set this late? Filming is over for the day.”
“I, uh, sorry, I was just curious.” She offers her apology but she can’t say she is genuinely sorry. She feels possessive about this space, as irrational as it may be.
“You’re Rowan?” The man squints at her.
“Yes, I am,” she smiles. “I’m Katniss Everdeen.”
“Well, you’re not due on this set until tomorrow. I’ve got some final touches to do from this afternoon’s inspections, so if you’d kindly get back to wherever you’re supposed to be, I can get back to work.”
“I-I I’m sorry,” she stammers again, embarrassed she’s been reprimanded by some strange man. “But can I ask you something?”
“Are you the one who designed this set?”
“I’m the scenic designer in charge, but this particular set was actually designed by one of our college interns. Nice kid. Great artist. Had a really clear vision of what he wanted the forest to look like. It’s incredible, isn’t it?”
Her pulse quickens. “Is his name Peeta Mellark?”
The man looks surprised. “Uh, yeah. Yeah, it is. You know him?”
She nods. “I went to high school with him. Is he, ah, still here? I’d like to say hi.”
The man shakes his head. “Most of them probably went home for the night. His work is mostly done now that filming has begun. My regular designers will be in charge of this production.”
“Oh,” she replies, disappointed. It’s starting to make sense now, and she wants nothing more than to talk to Peeta and figure out how he knew all the details of her woods that are painstakingly recreated on this set. Moreover, she has the strong suspicion that knows where the cheese bun in her dressing space came from.
But why did he do these things? She barely spoke to Peeta Mellark in high school. She tries to think back to the few interactions that she had with him through the years.
She remembers that he was a wrestler. She often saw him at his locker, his varsity jacket hanging inside the small space, as if he was too modest about his multiple letters to wear it. Most of the other jocks never took theirs off.
She remembers that he worked in his father’s bakery. Prim never outgrew her love for Mellarks’ sugar cookies, and Katniss stopped in from time to time, spending her little extra money whenever her sister needed a pick-me-up. Peeta was always there, a shy smile on his face when he handed Katniss her purchase.
But if he’s an aspiring set designer, he must have some talent for art, and she searches the depths of her mind for any memory of that. She remembers a Christmas pageant in third grade. Katniss reluctantly played an elf in her class’s retelling of The Polar Express. She recalls the beautiful steam engine that her classmates pushed across the stage and the brightly colored panels that slid into place to create the North Pole, and she hears her teacher’s voice, clear in her memory, praising Peeta for the beautiful job he did.
“Do you know how I could get in touch with him?” she asks.
The older man crooks an eyebrow at her and rubs his stubbled jaw thoughtfully. “He should still be on set tomorrow morning. I reckon you can talk to him then.”
“Thanks,” she breathes, glancing around her one more time. She doesn’t want to leave this place, but the designer gives her such an impatient look that she scampers away to her dressing space and finally changes out of her costume.
She’s too thoroughly exhausted to walk home, so she flags down a taxi and rides in silence to her apartment. Prim is waiting up for her, bursting with excitement to hear all about Katniss’s first day on the set. Katniss slips into her pajamas and while she brushes and braids her sister’s hair, she tells Prim everything about her day.
Except her encounter with Peeta Mellark.
She has difficulty falling asleep that night. Tossing and turning, she can’t stop thinking about the vivid realism of the sylvan set and she eventually falls asleep to the happy memories of hunting with her father.
The next morning, Katniss gets to the soundstage early, hoping to go right to the forest set and with any luck, see Peeta before she has to get into costume. She is dismayed to learn he hasn’t arrived yet, and she is further discouraged when she learns from Darius that Seneca has altered the day’s planned scenes. He wants Katniss back in her ball gown to reshoot her waltz with Finnick. The rest of the cast has been given the morning off; the scene will be spliced in editing.
She will not be in her forest this morning.
But the lure of it is too strong, and when Cinna gets her into costume, and Venia and Octavia reapply her makeup and style her hair to perfectly match yesterday’s efforts, Katniss wanders off in search of Peeta.
She falters when she finds him outside the stage that houses the forest, sitting on a large crate, head bent over an open binder.
“Thanks for the cheese bun,” she says quietly.
He glances up, surprise evident in his wide, blue eyes. “Hey. You’re welcome,” he replies, shutting the binder quickly. “You, ah, figured out that was me?” He gives her a sheepish smile and rakes a hand through his blond hair, which is far more disheveled today than it was yesterday.
“Well, at first I was confused,” she admits. I didn’t know who else but my sister would have known how much I loved those as a kid.” She coughs and picks at a thread on the sleeve of her gown. “I probably wouldn’t have figured it out if I hadn’t seen you. How did you know?”
“Saturday mornings,” he says, setting the binder down and rising up to stand before her. “When I was really young, I always woke up early and helped my father in the bakery on Saturdays. And I remember the morning your father came in and ordered two cheese buns. He told my father he was taking his little girl hunting for the first time, and the cheese buns were his Katniss’s favorite thing at our bakery.”
“So you made it just for me?”
“Well, yeah,” he flushes and then looks away quickly. “I thought you might be nervous on your first day. It was the only thing I could think of to bring you a little piece of home.”
Katniss’s throat is suddenly dry; his small gesture of kindness overwhelms her. Why would he do such a thing? They were barely acquaintances in school, much less friends.
“I wanted to talk to you about the forest,” she says, and his eyes flicker with an emotion that Katniss can’t quite place. Suspicion? Panic?
Boldly, she strides to the sliding door and pushes it open. She steps inside and waits to sense Peeta behind her. “The head designer told me this was your idea?”
“Mitchell? You talked to him?” Peeta pauses beside her but does not look in her direction. “Well, yeah, I mean, I designed it. I hope to be a set designer when I graduate in a few months.” He hesitates and then continues, “This is basically my senior project.”
“How did you know all these things about the woods behind my house?” She takes a step towards him and he instinctively backs away.
“Don’t play dumb with me,” she accuses. “You did this because of me.”
He flushes further and shifts his weight on the balls of his feet. “Did what?”
Her eyes narrow and in spite of the comfort she found in those details yesterday, she now feels like her privacy has been invaded.
“Lots of people have woods behind their houses where we grew up, Katniss,” he says defensively, and she thinks she sees a gleam of hurt in those big blue eyes.
“Yes,” she agrees, stalking over to the tree with the notches. “I could buy the little pond with the katniss flowers as coincidence, Peeta. Even the wind chimes and the little wooden shed-”
“I was told the set should have a kind of cabin,” he interrupts. “Something about a hideaway your character uses.”
“Fine. Whatever. But this!” She gestures wildly at the markings in the bark. “How could anyone else know this little detail? How?”
“Katniss,” he begins but stops almost immediately. He sighs and sits down on a large rock that easily bears his weight. “I’m sorry if I’ve upset you. It was never my intention.”
“What was your intention, Peeta?” She crosses her arms across her chest and juts one leg out.
“When I got this assignment, I, uh, I saw your name on the casting sheet and I just couldn’t believe it. I mean, you were the last person from school that I’d have expected to have gone into acting.”
Katniss chews on the inside of her bottom lip and studies the man before her. “What do you know about me?” she challenges, tossing her head. “How could you have any expectations about me? We never said two words to each other in high school.”
He rises from the rock and takes a few tentative steps towards her. “I know more than you think, Katniss,” he begins, and there is something sincere in his voice that fixes her in place. Her cheeks flush when she realizes he hasn’t blinked once while staring at her. “I remember everything about you.”
She coughs and looks away when he takes another step in her direction. Her pulse falters into a syncopated rhythm, thrumming erratically. She draws her bottom lip between her teeth and gnaws on it as he begins to speak.
“I know you have a voice like an angel and that you know every word to the Valley Song.”
She snorts disdainfully. “Please. Like anyone growing up in our town didn’t know that stupid song.”
“I remember the first time I heard you sing. It was our first day of kindergarten, and we were at that music assembly. You were wearing a red dress and your hair was in two braids.”
She remembers too.
“I had never heard a more beautiful voice before. There wasn’t any music in my house growing up,” he continues. “My mother said it was a distraction. She didn’t even want my father to play the radio in the bakery.
“And I know you have a sister who you would do anything for. One time in freshman English class, we had to write a bunch of those poems like John Keats, odes, remember? I remember yours was all about your sister, Primrose.”
“Lots of people love their siblings,” she scoffs.
“Not usually teenagers. I was a punching bag to my brothers for years til I grew a few inches and gained a few pounds.”
“You were a wrestler,” she shoots back. “I hardly believe you couldn’t fend for yourself.”
“Dillon and Rye were wrestlers, too.” He presses his lips together, and it appears to Katniss that he is trying to contain another smile. “You know I wrestled?” The smile creeps across his lips. “Did you ever come watch me?” he asks hopefully.
“Don’t change the subject, Peeta. Get to the point. How did you do this? How do you know all these things about my woods?” She places her hands on her hips and narrows her eyes at him, her silver irises glinting like steel.
He reaches out and traces his index finger along the notched marks on the trunk. “When I got old enough, I was expected to work in the bakery on weekends. It was no longer just hanging around and helping my dad. It was my job; my mother expected it of all of us. She always said it must have been the reason she was stuck with three sons.
“So when your father would come in and leave with those buns almost every Saturday during hunting season, my dad, he got it, and he would let me sneak off and go into the woods-”
“You followed us?” she asks, too dumbstruck by his candid confession to be properly angry by his, for lack of a better word, stalking.
He nods, lowering his eyes as he touches the tree again.
She shakes her head, still reeling from his revelation. “Do you even know how creepy that sounds?” she asks when she finds her voice.
He shrugs and nods and rakes his hand through his blond waves nervously. “No. I mean, uh, yeah, maybe.” He is clearly flustered by her accusation. “I never meant to be creepy. I just wanted to see you. I’m sorry. God, it does sound so bad when you put it that way.”
“How old were you?”
“Twelve,” he replies quickly.
She raises an eyebrow at him, but he avoids her eyes. “Why did you follow us?”
He finally looks back to her and smiles sadly. “It was the closest I could get to you, and once I saw you with your father, so happy, so carefree, so different from the quiet, sullen girl you were at school…” He stops, as if to collect his thoughts before he can continue. “I liked seeing you that way. I liked you, Katniss.”
The last sentence seems to tumble off his lips without him intending for it to do so.
Katniss remains rooted to the same spot she has been standing in since he began speaking. She finds her feet are unable, or perhaps unwilling, to move, and she swallows reflexively when he starts to cross the set, taking slow, measured steps to where she is still as a statue.
“I’d watch you fire arrows at that target for hours. You never missed. Not once. And when you and your father would finally go home, I always stayed behind longer, just enjoying those woods that brought you so much joy. I memorized every detail. I wanted to be able to close my eyes and always see that place, even when I wasn’t there with you.”
“You weren’t really there with me,” she argues. “God, Peeta, you say you liked me, but you never once talked to me at school. Did you ever try?”
“I was never really good with words.”
“That’s not true!” she cries. “I remember the poems you would read in English class. I remember your salutatorian speech at graduation. You were plenty good with words.”
He smiles wanly. “So you remember something about me,”
She swallows and considers the thought.
“There you are. I had a feeling I’d find you here.”
Finnick strides confidently onto the set, clad in his own costume for the reshoot. He smiles widely and reaches for her hand. Katniss glances at Peeta, who has lowered his eyes and clears his throat quietly.
“Who’s this?” Finnick asks, nodding towards Peeta.
“Uh, this is Peeta Mellark. He worked on the sets. We went to high school together,” she supplies. Finnick grins and thrusts a hand at Peeta as he introduces himself.
“Nice to meet you,” Peeta says, shaking Finnick’s hand. “I loved Medal of Honor.”
Katniss has never seen the blockbuster Peeta refers to, but Finnick’s grin widens. “Thanks, man. Hoping to hear that a sequel is in the works soon.” He turns to Katniss and taps the tip of her nose with a finger. “Seneca is ready for us.”
She hesitates to follow him, lingering in front of Peeta for a moment.
He smiles gently. “It was good to see you again. And you look really beautiful. That color…it’s my favorite.”
He doesn’t give her the chance to reply, stalking past Finnick and disappearing through the gaping door. They both watch him go, and Finnick looks down at her. “An old boyfriend?”
“What? No!” she yelps, protesting immediately. “No, Finnick, I told you. We went to high school together. I barely knew him.”
“Oh. Because the way you were looking at each other, I just assumed you had some sort of history together.”
Katniss wrinkles her nose. How was he looking at her? How was she looking at him?
Finnick releases his hold on Katniss and sits down on a large crate. He leans forward and rests his elbows on his knees. “I like you, Katniss. I told you that before. And I think we’re getting along really nicely so far, don’t you?”
Katniss tugs her lower lip between her teeth and bites down.
“But I can tell you’re still not really at ease with this whole relationship thing, am I right?”
“Do you like secrets, Katniss?”
She shrugs and worries her lip more.
“I’m going to tell you a secret. Can you keep a secret?”
“I think so.” She couldn’t be more puzzled as to where Finnick is going with this.
“You remember that first day when you and I talked with Effie Trinket, and she convinced you it would be in your best interest to date me?”
“Yes,” she replies haltingly. He stands and shuffles his feet, and Katniss thinks that she hasn’t ever seen Finnick apprehensive like this. He paces about in front of her before ultimately settling on the crate again.
“Well the reason that I need Effie to help me get girls like you is because I don’t actually like women that much, Katniss. I mean, I’ve been with them, and I can certainly enjoy myself. Maybe some people would call me bisexual. But truth is, I much prefer men.”
She stops gnawing her lip, her jaw dropping away as she gapes at Finnick. He gives her a wry smile and for the first time she can recall, his aqua eyes are weighted with sorrow.
“But all those beautiful actresses. The models. Annie Cresta!”
“Yeah. All fake relationships, all carefully selected and arranged by Effie and their publicists. Most of them knew what they were getting into. It benefited their careers as much as it did my image.” He takes a deep breath. “But none of them ever knew what I just told you.”
She studies Finnick carefully and for the first time, she doesn’t see the affable, happy man she is so used to seeing. Instead, there is a sadness palpable there, and her sympathy for him swells. She recalls thinking months ago that everything Finnick did was flawless and natural, and acting was hardly work for him.
She now realizes that the poor man never stops acting. “Why?” she whispers.
“Sex sells, Katniss. And no young girls are going to be swooning over a man they know likely won’t give a second glance in their direction.” He wrings his hands in front of him and sighs. “I told you I’ve only had a few real relationships. That’s true. I’m in one now. His name is Marvel, and he’s a fashion designer.”
“And he’s okay with you going around dating all these young girls?”
“It’s not real, Katniss. And he knows that. He’s the one I go home to at night.”
It dawns on her why Finnick has never had Katniss back to his loft before. If he’s sharing his living space with another man, it would have raised too many questions. She also realizes that Finnick’s confession means something more for their relationship. He trusts her implicitly. She can’t help but be flattered, more so than if he genuinely had feelings for her, she thinks.
Finnick rises from the crate and crosses to where she stands. He reaches down and takes her hands in his. “The guy that was just in here, Katniss. He likes you. I can see it.”
“No,” she blushes, looking down at where their hands are clasped together. He’s wrong. Peeta doesn’t see her in that way. He may have liked her in high school, but not anymore. “I told you, we barely knew each other, and you know I’m not that good with men.”
“You don’t have any idea the effect you have on people, Katniss. You’re innocent and sweet. And that’s very appealing to the general public. America is going to love you.”
She smiles. “I hope so. And your secret, Finnick, it’s safe with me. I promise.”
“I know. And I promise as long as we keep up this charade I’ll continue treating you like a princess.” He raises her hand to his lips and presses a kiss to it. “We can be great allies, Katniss. You’ll see.”
The next few weeks are a blur. She doesn’t see Peeta again; the head set designer, Mitchell, lingers around for most of filming, but as he predicted, none of the interns are present.
Katniss accompanies Finnick to the GQ party, in awe by the number of young actresses and models that come up to him and brazenly flirt with him right in front of her. Finnick is his usual charming self and placates most of them with polite conversation and toothy smiles, but he keeps his right arm possessively around Katniss and presses the occasional tender kiss to her temple.
Filming on the pilot wraps. Now it’s a waiting game to present it to the network and studio executives and hope for news of it being picked up and production resuming with a half or full season order.
It doesn’t take long. And as expected, there is a bidding war over the show, and when the dust settles, CBS comes out on top. A full season of Rowan Hood is green-lit for production.
Katniss and Finnick are in the middle of an interview with Caesar Flickerman for Hollywood Tonight when Seneca interrupts and gives them the good news. He introduces Katniss to Cory Snow, the president of CBS, who coolly commends her on her performance and seems more interested in her relationship with Finnick than Katniss herself.
Finnick has all the right answers for Snow’s questions, and Katniss plays her part by gazing adoringly-at least she hopes at comes across as such-at Finnick and smiling demurely when Snow hints their romance will only increase interest in the series. He also frankly states that there are things about the pilot that need tweaking and thus, he and Seneca launch into a fervent discussion about Snow’s preferred changes.
Recasting Rowan is not among them, much to Katniss’s relief.
One late April morning, Katniss ducks into a Starbucks after leaving Finnick’s loft. Now that she knows the truth, he has insisted that she stay the night occasionally to amp up the authenticity of their romance. She sleeps in the spare room; Katniss kind of prefers the lush king-size bed to her own. She definitely enjoys spending time with Finnick and Marvel. Finnick’s boyfriend is an excellent cook, and he has the same irreverent taste in movies that Katniss does.
She is next in line and fumbles in her wallet to fish out several dollar bills when she hears a voice in her ear.
She whirls about and meets those mesmerizing eyes of Peeta’s.
“Oh, hey,” she smiles, but the barista impatiently asks her what she wants so she orders her latte. Impulsively, she turns to Peeta. “What are you getting? It’s on me.”
“No, no. That’s okay. I can get my own.”
“C’mon Peeta. You made me a cheese bun. I can buy you a coffee.”
He hesitates then tells the girl he’ll take a grande Americano, and Katniss beams triumphantly when she digs out a five-dollar bill and adds it to the singles she places in the barista’s outstretched hand.
They wait for their coffees in a pregnant silence, and when another barista slides the two cups across the counter, Katniss reaches for Peeta’s at the same time he does, their hands meeting on the lid of the steaming beverage. They both react instantly, Katniss pulling back her arm, allowing Peeta to claim his own drink as she grabs her own.
“Thanks, Katniss. It was good to see you again.”
“Wait!” she calls, stopping him as he begins to walk away.
“Are you in a hurry? Did you want to sit down and, uh, catch up?”
“Really?” He sounds almost incredulous.
“Sure.” She motions to a cozy table for two in the front window. They settle into the chairs, setting their drinks down on the table, and Peeta rewards her with a brilliant smile.
Katniss takes a moment to study him carefully. How did she never notice how good-looking he was? It’s not even just those incredible eyes; all of his features are perfectly proportioned. Her eyes are drawn to his mouth as he takes a sip of his coffee, and from there, they drift to the defined line of his jaw.
A subtle swirling sensation curls through her.
“So, how did the rest of filming go?” Peeta asks.
Katniss sips her latte. “It was good, I think.”
“Are you nervous about it getting picked up?”
“It actually got picked up a few days ago. A lot of networks wanted it. Seneca is such a wild card, but they love the attention he’ll bring. But I still worry a little.”
“The network executives have the final say in the casting, right up until the series production actually begins. I could easily be replaced with a bigger name, a prettier face.”
“Not possible,” he murmurs under his breath, but she catches his words nevertheless.
“Graduation is soon, huh?” she asks.
Peeta smiles and nods. “Yeah, a few weeks. Starting to get worried about what comes next, you know?”
“You mean it’s not guaranteed you’d be working on Rowan Hood?”
He laughs softly. “Katniss, I’m an intern, remember. I have to get membership in the Art Directors Guild before a production company can even hire me. I know Mitchell will put in a good word for me, but it’s no slam dunk.”
“You’re so talented,” she shakes her head. “They’d be foolish not to want you.”
“Thanks,” he says quietly, fixing his eyes on hers. They stare at each other in stony silence, and Katniss scarcely dares to breathe. Her heart suddenly thuds heavily in her chest.
“So, uh, what else is going on in your life?”
“Not a whole lot,” he replies. “I have an apartment near the NYU campus that I share with two roommates, and I kind of wish I could afford to go out on my own. They’re good guys, but after the last three years of rooming together, I’m ready for some privacy.”
“Privacy is something I’m trying to get used to not having much of anymore,” she muses, and he gives her a puzzled look. She sips her latte again and plays with the end of her braid absently.
They talk for another few minutes. Katniss wants desperately to ask him if he has a girlfriend, but she can’t find a way to casually work it into the conversation. Peeta doesn’t pry at all about her relationship with Finnick, and they wind up discussing the best movies each has seen recently.
Eventually Peeta glances down at his phone and sighs. “I should go, Katniss. I have some designs to finish before my class on Friday.”
“Oh, okay.” Disappointment seeps through her, and she realizes she doesn’t want him to go. “Did you, um, did you want my number?"
“What?” The empty coffee cup tumbles from his hand and he quickly leans down to retrieve it and toss it into the trash receptacle behind them.
“Sorry,” she apologizes. “I shouldn’t have asked. You probably-”
He taps his phone screen and opens his contact page. “What is it?” he murmurs, finger poised above the keyboard, his eyes never leaving hers. She feels a fluttering in her stomach as she tries to remember her own number. He saves it with a smile and taps a few more buttons; seconds later, her phone chirps.
“That’s mine. This was nice, Katniss. Thanks again.”
Neither makes a move to leave, but Peeta does step forward and envelop her in a brief hug.
“Bye,” he murmurs in her ear, his breath skating over the sensitive skin, causing her to shudder involuntarily. She manages a weak smile and a wave as he grins and exits the store.
It doesn’t register with her that she did anything wrong until her phone rings the next morning and she finds herself summoned to the studio. As she’s pulling on her flats and looking for a light sweater to throw on, her phone rings again, and she sees Finnick’s name on the screen.
“Katniss, what did you do?” he asks gently when she answers.
She furrows her brow and yanks on her sweater. “What do you mean?”
“Effie is livid. Told me to watch my little girlfriend closer and tighten the leash.”
Katniss grabs her keys and slams her apartment door, running down the steps, balancing her phone between her shoulder and her ear as she jams her keys into her bag. Effie’s words infuriate her, if she did indeed say them.
“I didn’t do anything, Finnick. I have no idea why she’s so angry with me!”
But when she arrives at the studio and the fox-faced receptionist ushers Katniss into Seneca’s office, her eyes land on a webpage being displayed on the massive computer screen. She is stunned to see Cory Snow sitting beside Effie on the leather couch. Seneca is behind his desk. All three give her pointed looks.
The image of her and Peeta embracing at the Starbucks dominates the screen. It was an innocent hug, but the angle perfectly suggests a more intimate moment, his lips inches from her ear, a coy smile on her face.
“How could you be so stupid!” Effie shrieks. “What were you thinking?”
Heart knocking and eyes wide, Katniss shakes her head. “It was nothing!” She chokes on the words, because they’re not entirely true, but they don’t need to know how much a simple conversation with Peeta Mellark over coffee meant to her. “We ran into each other in line! I went to high school with him…he designed one of our sets. We were just catching up, that’s all!”
“You have a reputation to consider. You have Finnick’s reputation to consider. Cheating allegations are the worst possible rumors to have to squash, you stupid girl!”
“I’m not cheating on him,” Katniss yells. “There would have to be a relationship for me to be cheating, and you know damn well what this arrangement is all about. I don’t feel bad about it, Seneca,” she argues, turning to her director, who she thinks is far more rational and reasonable than the screeching publicist. “It was just coffee, and we are just friends.”
Seneca stares at the screen, then his eyes flit to Katniss, then they dart back to the screen. Katniss assumes the website is some innocuous gossip blog that has nothing better to do than speculate and drum up controversy.
“Be more careful, okay?” he says gently. “You know how much I like you, Katniss.”
“Miss Everdeen,” Snow intones, rising from his seat to cross the room. He hovers above her, so closely she can smell his sour breath. “I like you. I told you that you were a perfect Rowan the first day I met you. You have a lot riding on this show, do you not?”
“Yes,” she whispers, dread curdling in her blood.
“You may not be as taken with Finnick Odair as the rest of the women in this country, but keep your indifference to yourself, Miss Everdeen. Watch your step. Everyone else will be.”
“Yes, sir,” she stammers, cutting her eyes to meet Seneca’s. His mouth curves up in a compassionate smile, and she manages to return it before Snow dismisses her soundly.
Her visit with Cory Snow weighs heavily on Katniss’s mind for the next several days, as do the burgeoning feelings that she is having for Peeta Mellark. She cannot stop thinking about him, try as she might, and more than a few times she picks up her phone to call him only to slam it down in frustration. She doesn’t know how to go about seeing him without causing controversy.
The day after a small photograph of her and Finnick at another Knicks game appears in People’s “Star Tracks,” her cell phone pings with a text message. A smile graces her lips when she sees it’s from Peeta.
Peeta Mellark: So now we’re a NY girl and we forget the home team?
Her smile grows as she grabs her phone and quickly texts back.
Katniss: I go for the food, not for the hoops. Basketball bores me.
His reply is almost instantaneous, joking about being seen courtside and not getting in Spike Lee’s way. They text back and forth for a bit before Katniss takes a deep breath and types out an invitation.
Katniss: Prim is staying at a friend’s house tonight. Did you want to come watch a movie with me?
She draws another shaky breath and holds it, awaiting his answer.
Peeta Mellark: What time? Give me your address and I’ll be there. :)
A giddy feeling floods her with warmth as she suggests seven and enters her address before hitting send.
As the evening approaches, she changes her clothes three times and tries to assure herself that she’s not nervous. This isn’t a date; this is just two friends hanging out, enjoying each other’s company. She finally settles on the outfit she wore when she screen-tested for Seneca. It was cute and casual and innocent, or so Prim had said.
At five minutes to seven, the intercom buzzes and Katniss eagerly presses the button, unlocking the door before she even remembers to ask who it is. Within minutes, there is a gentle knock on her apartment door, and a quick peek through the peephole confirms it’s Peeta. Katniss hesitates, tugs the rubber band off the tail of her braid and hastily combs loose the waves with her fingers, letting them tumble over her shoulders and down her back. She throws open the door.
Her stomach pitches with excitement at the sight of him.
“Hi,” he grins, offering a bottle of red wine. His other hand holds a six-pack of Smithwick’s. “Wasn’t sure if you were a wine girl or a beer lover.”
“Thank you.” She’s not really much of a drinker, actually, but his thoughtfulness to consider both options flatters her. “Come on in.”
Peeta steps over the threshold and shrugs off his jacket, which Katniss takes and drapes over a kitchen chair.
“Which do you prefer?” she asks.
“I’m trying to acquire a taste for wine, but I’m definitely happier to drink beer.” Katniss grabs a bottle opener from a drawer and cracks open two of the bottles.
“This is a cute place,” Peeta appraises, looking around as they both take seats on opposite ends of the couch.
“It’s not much. It’s all I could afford when Prim and I moved here from Panem.”
She tells him again about having to get out of Panem after her parents’ accident and Prim’s academic ambitions being the perfect excuse to leave their hometown behind and not look back. Peeta is a good listener; he has a way of gazing at her with such attentiveness that she again feels shy under his stare.
Katniss turns on the television a little later, and they come to an agreement on Dumb and Dumber with surprising ease. Peeta can quote large chunks of the movie verbatim, and Katniss’s ribs ache from repeated laughter by the time the credits roll two beers later. She’s feeling a little light-headed from the alcohol, but she is definitely not drunk.
She bites her lip anxiously as she contemplates what they will do now that the movie is over. They’ve drifted a little closer to each other on the couch over the last hour, and she wishes she could close the remaining distance to find out what his arms might feel like wrapped around her. His biceps strain when he shifts his position on the cushion; the muscles rippling causes her to swallow involuntarily.
“So what’s it like being famous?” he asks, draining the last of his beer and setting it on the small end table. She lets her fingers wander aimlessly over the seams of the couch.
“I’m not really famous yet. I’m famous by default, right now. Being seen with Finnick, the network wants me visible. Trying to create buzz, you know?”
“What’s it like dating a celebrity then?”
The question hangs between them, pregnant with more implications than she knows he could possibly anticipate.
“It’s okay,” she replies.
She wonders if he was expecting a more thorough response than those two words, but she can’t think of anything coherent at the moment; she’s too distracted by the light playing off his golden eyelashes and the strong line of his jaw and what it might be like to feel his full lips on hers.
A knot tightens in her stomach, and the realization hits her: she’s attracted to Peeta Mellark.
“It’s just okay?” he teases, his eyes sparkling. “I know I’ve never been courtside at a Knicks game. Tell me is Spike Lee really that short as he looks on television?”
She’s so caught up in trying to push down the irrational things she is starting to think about what she’d like to do to him, what she’d like him to do to her, that she doesn’t even place the name “Spike Lee.”
“Katniss?” Peeta waves his palm in front of her face gently, his voice etched with concern. “Hey, what’s wrong?”
She knows she must be staring at him vacantly, but she’s made the mistake of looking right into those enchanting eyes of his. And she’s lost.
She finds herself longing for him to kiss her, but she can’t very well ask him to do so. She knows he wouldn’t. The Peeta Mellark that Katniss remembers is likely far too noble to kiss another man’s girlfriend. Fake girlfriend, she thinks somewhat bitterly. For the first time, she resents the whole calculated scheme.
So instead, she winds her hand around Peeta’s neck, cradling the nape to draw his face down to hers. She tentatively touches her lips to his before pressing her mouth to his more insistently.
The brief embrace rouses a warmth in her veins, a fire in her belly that is entirely new and wholly thrilling. This is what chemistry feels like, she thinks.
She moves to claim his mouth again, but Peeta inches back, shock palpable in his blue eyes. A wave of humiliation crests in her. She covers her mouth with a quavering hand.
“What was that?” he asks, his breathing labored. Katniss looks away, unwilling to meet his gaze. “You kissed me?”
“I’m sorry,” she sputters, jumping off the couch, wanting the floor to open up into a gaping chasm and suck her in.
“Why did you kiss me?” he demands, rising to stand before her. He grabs her elbow to stop her frenetic pacing, and she shakes her head, tears pricking at her eyes. “Why would you do that? You’re with someone, Katniss! You have a boyfriend! God, as much as I wanted you to do it, I really wish you hadn’t.”
Her heart ceases its mad tattoo, and her mouth is a desert. “What did you just say?” she whispers. “You wanted me to do it?”
Peeta licks his lips. He studies her carefully for several moments before speaking. “Can I tell you something?” The raw tone of his voice sends a shiver racing down her spine.
She can’t find her voice, so she just nods.
“Seeing you again, Katniss, getting to know you better, I can’t help but be a little sad we didn’t reconnect under different circumstances.” He hesitates. “I can honestly say that I don’t think that the feelings I had for you in high school have ever entirely gone away.”
Her stomach twists with a strange miasma of trepidation and anticipation, and the air between them is suddenly charged with electricity. But she still can’t manage to utter any response.
“And I have another confession to make. I designed that set for you, Katniss. I thought it would be a comfort, a reassurance of something real, something that made you happy, so that if you got nervous in your scenes, you could go to your happy place. You know, the place that brought you such joy as a kid.” He exhales and releases her hand, wiping his palms on his jeans. “God, damn, I’m sorry. That sounds so cheesy.”
“No, it doesn’t,” she replies quietly, finally able to speak, surprising herself when she grabs for his hand again.
“It doesn’t?” he echoes. She smiles and shakes her head.
“It’s the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me,” she whispers. The knot in her stomach uncoils and meanders through her belly. Peeta’s blue eyes rake over her, and she is shy again under his reverent stare.
“I had this crazy fantasy the whole time I was sketching it out, working to bring it to life, that you’d step onto the set the first day, you’d see me, and it would be like some stupid romantic movie where you realized after all these years that you were in love with me too.”
She freezes at his last five words.
“I’ve had a crush on you for sixteen years, Katniss Everdeen. I still feel like a gawky teenage boy sitting beside you right now. My palms are sweaty.” He reaches out for her hand again and links his fingers through hers; she feels the dampness against her own skin, but she is caught up in the little flashes of heat racing up her arm from where their hands are laced together.
“And I guess I’m just a little jealous that Finnick Odair beat me to you,” he finishes.
For a brief moment, she thinks he might lower his lips to hers, but the trance is broken when he clears his throat and looks away. “So forgive me for being completely confused as to why you kissed me. And, I guess, also for enjoying it so much.”
“I’m sor-” But she doesn’t get to finish her own apology.
His mouth engulfs the last syllable, lips slanting over hers, moving urgently as he draws her flush against his firm body. Katniss feels her limbs melting like butter as he embraces her and their mouths connect feverishly. He is an amazing kisser, and her entire body alights, craving more as his tongue gently traces the seam of her lips and slips inside her mouth to probe its wet heat. An insistent throb begins to pulse between her legs, and she moans softly with each stroke of his tongue.
He releases her a moment later, but not before she feels the prominent bulge in his jeans against her thigh. A thrill curls through her that he wants her as much as she wants him.
He apologizes first this time. “I’m sorry, Katniss. Shit, I shouldn’t have done that.” His eyes are glazed with lust, his brilliant blue eyes nearly black with desire.
“Why not?” she pants, her breathing coming in ragged gasps.
His eyes narrow in confusion and he rubs his fingers over his lips absently. “Finnick Odair? Your boyfriend?”
Her heart deflates and she realizes he must think she’s some kind of slut who’s more than willing to cheat on her boyfriend. She tugs at her bottom lip, which is swollen from the pleasurable assault from Peeta’s able mouth, and she decides this spark between them, this fire that has been kindled in her by Peeta Mellark, is not something she wants extinguished.
She wants more.
She wants him.
And she needs to tell him the truth.
“Peeta,” she lunges for his hand and pulls him to her again. “Now it’s my turn to confess something.”
His lips part and tremble slightly, and she wants to kiss him again so badly. She resists the urge and steels her nerves to tell him about her and Finnick.
The truth about her relationship pours from her like a dam springing a leak, weakening before bursting fully at its seams. She tells Peeta everything but the lone detail about Finnick’s sexual preference, vaguely alluding to a significant other who isn’t comfortable with the limelight. She doesn’t want to betray her promise to Finnick, but she also needs to be sure Peeta knows there is nothing genuinely romantic going on between them. When she finishes, he releases a breath and brushes a lock of her hair away from her left eye, tucking it behind her ear. His fingers traverse the curve of her lobe and she leans into his touch.
“So what does this mean?” he asks huskily, and she sees his throat bob as he swallows.
“This means I want you,” she replies, levering up on her toes and hovering inches from his lips. “If you’ll have me.”
"Like you’d even have to ask.” His lips finds hers again, and then he is guiding her to the couch, lowering her onto her back, covering her with the weight of his own body. She moans as his tongue plunders her mouth, and she clutches at his shoulders as he kisses her hungrily. His hands find purchase on her hips when his lips leave hers and begin to press a heated trail along her neck. Katniss whimpers and arches her body up, seeking friction to ease the ache mounting between her thighs.
Feeling emboldened, she struggles to sit up, pushing him back against the couch cushions before straddling him, knees on either side of his hips. His pupils are hazy, and she traces her thumb over his swollen lips. He purses them at her, a silent invitation, and she crushes her mouth to his, molding them together again.
Peeta groans when she begins to rock above him. Katniss feels her entire body go taut at the feral growl he releases into her mouth as they kiss. She has never felt this alive, this completely in sync with someone, and she doesn’t want this night to ever end.
But of course, it does. Peeta valiantly keeps his hands to himself, much to her dismay. She yearns for his touch, wants him to explore every inch of her.
“Katniss, we need to stop,” he rasps, chest heaving when he gently nudges her off his lap.
“Why?” she protests, her body instantly lamenting the absence of his.
“I may not be a Hollywood superstar who can whisk you away to fancy parties and expensive dinners,” he whispers, kissing the shell of her ear. “But I’d like the chance to do this the right way."
She frowns and thrusts her lower lip out. “Dating me, you mean? You know this isn’t going to be normal, Peeta. We won’t be able to go out in public and do the things couples should get to do.”
“So, I’ll get creative. I am an artist, Katniss. I can be very creative, I assure you of that.”
His words sent a jolt of excitement through her, and she wishes there was an imminent way to relieve the wet heat still pooling between her legs. She wishes he didn’t have to be such a gentleman.
After a lingering kiss goodnight, Peeta leaves and Katniss gets ready for bed. When she dims the lights and nestles under the covers, she closes her eyes and slides a hand inside her panties to relieve the sweet tension that still torments her. She imagines it’s his fingers bringing her to a swift and blissful climax, allowing sleep to finally pull her under.
Katniss decides to confide in Finnick the next day during a break from rehearsals for the show. Filming on the series resumes in two weeks; it doesn’t provide much time for memorizing scripts and running lines, but Katniss is ready for the second episode, which they’ll be shooting next.
Finnick gives her a sympathetic grin when she blushes furiously describing how Peeta professed his crush on her. “I told you that you had no idea the effect you can have on people,” he laughs, tugging at her braid affectionately. “That’s really great, Katniss. I’m happy for you.”
She smiles. “Thanks, Finnick.”
“We won’t have to carry on our charade forever, you know,” he adds quietly. “I won’t let you miss out on a chance at real happiness if you think you’ve found it with this guy.”
She blushes again when she thinks of Peeta, the feelings he’s stirred in her, and she thinks that, yes, it could be possible to be very happy with him for a long time.
“How do you do it, Finnick? How do you manage to keep what you have with Marvel under wraps so well?”
He shrugs. “We’ve learned a lot over the last two years. You have to remember, Katniss, we spend a fair amount of time apart simply with the nature of our jobs. He’s all over the world with his designs and his shows, and if I’m not filming something, I’m in L.A. as much as I am here. He’s a homebody anyway, so he doesn’t mind staying in a lot of the time we are together.”
“And he’s really okay with all the secrecy, not being able to be seen with you?”
Again, Finnick shrugs. “He’s never said otherwise. I definitely worry sometimes that he will get fed up with the whole thing and move on to someone who doesn’t have to hide in the closet.”
Katniss gazes at him. “Do you ever think about coming out?”
He laughs ruefully. “I’ve entertained the idea. But it’s not only my decision, Katniss. Mine is carefully crafted reputation. My image is part of who I am, the roles I get. I guess what it comes down to is I’m just too afraid that it would all crumble and people wouldn’t see past my personal life and accept me as what I am-a damn good actor who can pretend he likes pussy as much as the next straight guy.”
His crass comment and cheeky grin earn a gasp and a laugh from her, and Finnick gives her arm a reassuring squeeze.
“I could tell from the way he was looking at you the day I interrupted you two on the forest set that he had it bad for you. But I think I’d better have a talk with him and be sure he knows if he ever thinks about hurting you, he’ll have to answer to me.”
Seneca Crane doesn’t do anything small. He’s bucking tradition, and along with Cory Snow and the rest of the network executives, they have opted to air the pilot of Rowan Hood at the end of the regular television season in late May. It’s a bold strategy and a risky one, but at test screenings, it was so well-received that the involved parties all decided to roll the dice.
The screening of the pilot is being held, appropriately enough, at Chelsea Piers, with a vacant soundstage transformed to resemble a medieval castle for the viewing and after-party. It will be the first red carpet that Katniss walks that is not just for Finnick.
With the brief lull in filming, she does manage to work out a compromise with her senior advisor, and each of the professors from her spring classes-the ones she has effectively ditched for her sudden jaunt into show business, having only attended a handful of classes when it fit her filming schedule-offer her various ways to make up the course work so she can attain her degree in August. She’s not really disappointed that she won’t graduate in May; she wasn’t planning to walk anyway. She has a flight scheduled that same morning to L.A. to appear on The Tonight Show before taking a red-eye back to do Letterman the next night.
Katniss and Peeta actually don’t have many chances to be together in the weeks leading up to the premiere. They can’t go to Peeta’s apartment on account of his roommates, and their time at Katniss’s place has to be carefully arranged around Prim’s schedule, as Katniss has yet to tell her sister the truth about her fake relationship with Finnick and the real one with Peeta.
Her biggest regret with all the secrecy is that she can’t be with Peeta when he receives his diploma two nights before the Rowan premiere. She considers wearing oversized sunglasses and tucking her hair into a baseball cap to lurk outside Yankee Stadium, where the ceremony is being held. But she knows she wouldn’t get past the gates without a ticket, and she’d likely cause more of a scene in doing so.
She is further dismayed that she can’t celebrate with him later that night. His parents and brothers are in town, and they insist on taking him out to dinner. The few texts he sends profusely apologize for the fact that he can’t effectively ditch them without raising a few eyebrows. If it weren’t for his roommates, she’d let herself into his apartment and wait for him. In his bed. Naked.
When they have been alone together, they cannot keep their hands off each other. A lot of fevered kissing and eager touches led to clothes being shed, and the first time his talented tongue brought her to orgasm, she had thought her body was going to shatter under his mouth’s erotic assault. Prim had gone to her after-school job at Dean & Deluca’s, and the door had barely closed before she had texted Peeta, pleading with him to come over. Under the pretense of delivering a pizza-she has no idea where he got the convincing jacket and hat-he had been at her door in thirty minutes, hungry for nothing but her. She had to muffle her screams into the couch’s throw pillows to keep from alarming the neighbors.
Then there was the time where, unbeknownst to her, Finnick had tipped off Peeta to a West SoHo club opening that he and Katniss were obligated to attend. When she went to the restroom an hour into the appearance, two strong hands had grabbed her and pulled her inside one of the opulent private lounges. He had gone down on her while she writhed atop the marble counter, her back against the mirror, and after, she returned the favor. She had never given much consideration to pleasuring a guy that way; but watching Peeta’s handsome face contort in ecstasy as he thrust in and out of her mouth was possibly the sexiest fucking thing she had ever seen.
They haven’t slept together yet, but Katniss thinks they are more than ready to take that step. She wants all of him, and she wants him soon.
By the night of the premiere, five weeks after she and Peeta first started seeing each other, she’s a nervous wreck.
Cinna’s presence calms her a little. Katniss had been pleasantly surprised by his kind offer to design a gown for her for the premiere-it took some convincing to shut Effie up about wearing Dior or Marchesa instead-and to help her get ready. She eagerly accepted the offer. She’s not sure her hands would have stopped trembling long enough to apply her mascara without accidentally gouging out her eye with the wand.
Cinna arrives a little before five o’clock to begin Katniss’s transformation. Prim reluctantly leaves for her evening shift at the coffee shop shortly after, grumbling something about always missing out on the fun stuff.
This time, Cinna orders her to wait to put on her gown until her makeup is applied and her hair is styled. Once he is done, he motions to the garment bag hanging from the shower rod.
“I hope you like it.” He slides the zipper down, revealing a stunning evening gown in a striking shade of hunter green. The silky fabric tumbles in cascades to the floor, and Katniss gasps when she slides the material through her fingers.
“Cinna, it’s gorgeous.”
“Let’s get it on you then.”
He helps her step into the gown and adjusts the straps onto her slender shoulders. The neckline plunges down to a deep vee near her breastbone, and Katniss swallows at the brazen sexiness of the dress. It settles onto her slender frame like a second skin. Cinna hands her a pair of nude heels. She slips her feet into them, cringing at the thought of spending all night in the torture devices.
“Okay. Turn around.”
Katniss obliges and gasps again at her reflection. The woman in the mirror is a virtual stranger.
“You like?” he murmurs quietly.
“I do.” She nods. “It’s just not me. I mean, it’s not what I’m used to.”
Cinna smiles. “I was told to make you look unforgettable.”
“I think you’ve accomplished that.” She stares into the mirror again. The earthy tones that sweep up her eyes from lash to brow sparkle and shimmer and when she turns, the light catches the golden lines that Cinna has carefully traced at the edge of her eyelashes. Her cheeks glow, and her skin is dewy and radiant. He has also managed to coat her lips in such a lush, glossy sheen they appear twice their size, but not in an unnatural way. Her hair tumbles in romantic curls, pinned back subtly on both sides, a few stray waves framing her face.
“You look beautiful. Finnick’s heart might stop when he sees you.”
“Yes,” she replies absently, thinking that it’s not Finnick whose heart she wants to stop.
Katniss thanks Cinna profusely for his time and his kindness, and she ushers him out of the apartment, bidding him a temporary farewell until she sees him at the premiere in a few hours.
She stares at her reflection in the mirror again and frowns sullenly. This is supposed to the biggest night of her life, and she wishes she could enjoy it more.
She wishes she could share every moment of it with Peeta.
Pacing anxiously through the apartment, she waits for the intercom to announce Finnick’s arrival. The limousine is due to pick her up around six-thirty for the seven o’clock red carpet arrival.
But twenty minutes later, a loud buzz startles her, and she realizes Finnick is nearly an hour early. She clicks the button and unlocks the building’s door, again cursing herself for forgetting to ask who is there. She sighs and nervously tugs the silky material over her hips again, adjusts the neckline of the dress and takes a deep breath as she opens the apartment door before a knock can even be issued.
To her shock, Peeta stands before her, clad in a tuxedo. He greets her with a sweet smile that reaches his eyes, which instantly darken with lust as he studies her.
“God, Katniss, you look incredible.” The husky tone of his voice coupled with his heated gaze sends a blush rising on her cheeks.
“Peeta,” she breathes, her nerves zinging with electricity at the sight of him. “What are you doing here?”
He steps into the room and draws her flush against him, and she can feel exactly how much he approves of her appearance. His lips nuzzle her neck before his teeth graze her earlobe. “I needed to see you. I wanted to see you. Do you know how much it kills me that I don’t get to have you on my arm tonight?”
“Yes,” she hisses, exhaling a breath between her teeth as his hands skim up her waist and one palm finds her breast, kneading it through the flimsy fabric. “I wish things could be different, Peeta. I’m sorry.” She gasps as his fingers pluck at her nipple, sending a jolt of pleasure directly to her core, ripples of warmth radiating outward in rapid succession. She is still getting used to just how good it feels to have a man touch her like this. Her eyes flutter closed, waiting for his mouth to claim hers.
“No bra tonight?” he whispers, his lips pressing chaste kisses along her collarbone. She shakes her head and mewls when his hand slips under the loose draping of the gown’s neckline and covers her bare breast.
She opens her eyes and purses her lips impatiently. “Aren’t you going to kiss me?”
He laughs and shakes his head, his mouth searching the soft skin of her neck.
“I wouldn’t want to ruin Cinna’s careful work.” His hand moves to her other breast, and her eyes slip shut again, reveling in the rush of pleasure that floods her senses.
“I kind of want to stay here and let you have your way with me,” she murmurs, tilting her neck back as he licks and nibbles the column of her throat.
“Can I hold you to that? Letting me have my way with you, that is? Once the premiere is over and you’ve posed for enough pictures with Finnick?”
“Mmm-hmm. I promise you that I’ll find a way to be alone with you somehow.”
“Good,” he purrs, tugging at her earlobe with his teeth again. “Because as gorgeous as that dress is, I want nothing more than to tear it off you and make love to you tonight, Katniss.”
She shudders and grinds her body against his erection, the silk of her dress offering little resistance to feel him through his pants.
“I’m not going to be able to focus at all now.” She sighs when he steps back and holds her at arm’s length.
“Just smile pretty and let Finnick do all the talking. He’s a natural at it.” He smiles shyly at her as he reaches into the inside pocket of his tuxedo jacket. “I brought you something.”
He holds out a narrow black box, and Katniss notices his hand trembling slightly. He gestures for her to open the case. She snaps back the lid and emits a tiny gasp at the delicate strand of tiny pearls resting on the bed of red velvet.
“Oh, Peeta,” she breathes, her throat closing over a lump and tears pricking at the corners of her eyes.
“It’s not much,” he whispers, lifting the necklace and motioning for her to turn around. She sweeps her hair up off her neck as he fastens the pearls into place, placing a kiss at the nape where the clasp rests.
“It’s beautiful. Thank you.” She can’t manage much more than that; she is so touched by the gift.
“You’re beautiful.” His lips ghost over hers in the slightest of kisses. She could freeze this moment and stay in it forever.
“I’ll see you later tonight, okay?”
She nods and traces her thumb over his lips, kissing him briefly again, careful not to muss her lip-gloss. “It’s a date.”
Peeta is right, of course. Finnick thrives in the spotlight. He deftly handles the screaming girls as they step out of the limousine when it pulls up to the Piers. She smiles and waves from his side, but she knows none of these teenage girls are looking at her, at least not with any degree of admiration. Finnick places a strong hand on the small of her back and ushers her down onto the red carpet. They stop and pose for photographers at least a dozen times before the line of entertainment reporters begins and a smattering of mostly harmless questions are fired in their direction.
“Katniss, who are you wearing?"
“Are you worried about working together causing a strain on your relationship?”
“What is Seneca Crane like?”
Finnick takes the lead on most of the responses, and Katniss continues to smile brightly at his side, her cheeks definitely feeling the strain after so many minutes of constant beaming. She tries to appear loving and devoted when she gazes up at Finnick; fortunately, he is so glowing in his praise of her that her blushes are completely natural.
She never sees Peeta arrive. She knows the rest of the cast makes their way up the red carpet, but she doesn’t see any of the crew. Many of them don’t bother to attend these things, Seneca had informed her, and those that do go right into the screening or arrive only for the party.
By the time the screening ends and the crowd meanders onto the vast soundstage, Katniss is beyond anxious to just make eye contact with him. She marvels at the intricately recreated medieval ballroom, so much like the set from their pilot episode, but far more lavish and grander. She obediently keeps to Finnick’s side, laughing when he regales various celebrities in attendance with his humorous stories. At one point, she can feel the suspicious eyes of Finnick’s former paramour, Annie Cresta, on her.
She hears the voice before she sees Finnick get jostled a little, a bit of champagne splashing from the flute in his hand. Her heart lifts and her pulse begins to hum.
Finnick winks at Katniss.
“No worries, man. Finnick Odair.” He smiles easily, removing his arm from Katniss’s waist and thrusting it in Peeta’s direction as he feigns introductions.
“Peeta Mellark.” He returns the smile before shifting his attention to Katniss.
“Katniss Everdeen,” she says breathily, biting back a wider smile when Peeta brings her hand to his lips to kiss it lightly. Finnick winks at her again and draws her tighter against him when Peeta drops her hand.
“He’s very hot,” he murmurs in her ear.
Katniss grins. “Yes, he is. Back off,” she adds teasingly, and Finnick chuckles.
He surprises her by engaging Peeta in a lengthy conversation about the forest set, and she knows he does it for her benefit so that Peeta can remain in their company inconspicuously. The two men eventually turn their attention to sports, and Finnick launches into an animated discussion about soccer when he learns Peeta played in high school and is a huge fan of the English Premier League. They also engage in a healthy debate when Peeta mentions he generally supports Arsenal whereas Finnick pledges his undying allegiance to Norwich City.
“Wait about five minutes and make your way to our soundstage.”
Katniss’s eyes widen imperceptibly at Peeta’s sudden command. Finnick smirks at her and gives her a subtle nod of his head.
“Our sound-” she begins.
“The forest. Be there.” And then Peeta winds his way back into the crowd, and she loses sight of him in the throngs of revelers.
“Finnick, what the…” She searches Finnick’s turquoise eyes. He smiles knowingly and presses his lips to hers.
“Go. Be with him.”
“You heard him. Go to your forest.”
“The set…won’t it-” He cuts her off with another swift kiss.
“You ask too many questions. Just go.”
He gives her a playfully reproachful look, and she inhales, trying to steady her breathing as she kisses Finnick goodbye and tries to be casual about moving steadily towards the rear of the soundstage.
Security is everywhere, and Katniss is still perplexed as to how Peeta thinks she will so easily be able to sneak onto their set. The night air is chilly against her mostly-bare skin, and she feels her nipples pebble against the thin silk. She rubs her palms up and down her arms as she skulks across the lot, squinting in the bright lights of the Piers. Her heart races when she spies the large “12” that indicates Rowan’s soundstage. It’s deserted.
She finds the main door unlocked, and she pushes it open, the shadowy depths of the stage yawning ahead of her. Emergency lights glow dully as she presses on, making a beeline for Peeta’s set.
The huge sliding door gapes open, and she proceeds through it. The dim lighting basks the set in a muted glow, and as she steps forward, the darkness compromises her vision and heightens the rest of her senses. A soft rustling just behind her causes her to pause, listening acutely. She feels an arm snake around her waist, coaxing her back a step until a firm body cradles her from behind.
His other hand clutches at her breast, kneading it through the silk, and his hot breath at her ear elicits both a shudder and a moan from her.
“Did you know sometimes when I’d see you in the forest hunting with your father, I’d imagine him heading back home and you staying behind in the woods?”
He spins her around so that she faces him, and the voracious look in his darkened eyes traps her breath in her lungs. One hand climbs the curve of her spine, the other molds to her hip as he walks them backward, stopping when he has her pressed up against the faux oak tree with the notches.
“And then I’d imagine myself getting up enough nerve to venture out from my hiding place and tell you how I felt about you.”
Katniss’s chest rises and falls rapidly with the quick, shallow breaths she has to take.
“And in my fantasy, you’d tell me you felt the same way about me, and you’d kiss me.” He lifts her chin with his index finger, lowering his lips to hover just inches from hers. “Like this,” he whispers, covering her mouth with his, sweeping his tongue along the roof of her mouth. She gasps and swirls her own tongue to meet his before he draws back.
“Once I got older, my fantasies got a little wilder,” he murmurs, mapping the line of her jaw with his mouth, licking a path down to her throat. “And that’s when I started dreaming about taking you against one of the trees, losing myself inside you.”
Katniss moans loudly, grabbing at his hair, guiding his mouth back to her lips. Peeta gropes at her breast again, fingers slipping inside the fabric to tease her nipple. Her stomach twists as she grows wetter with every movement of his hand.
She angles his head so her mouth is in line with his ear, whispering throatily, “Did you ever think your fantasy would come true?”
She feels him twitch against her thigh. He groans, a deep, reverberating growl of approval.
He gathers the hem of her gown in his hands and kneels down before her, eyeing her hungrily again as he tugs her stockings down her slender legs, pressing a kiss to the narrow strip of curls covering her sex. The heat of his mouth creates an intoxicating sensation each time he exhales, and she bucks her hips eagerly. He fists the material in one hand and steadies himself with the other palm cupping her ass.
She cries out and arches her back at the first greedy lap of his tongue, the coil in her stomach tightening with every subsequent stroke. He latches onto her clit, alternating slow circles and insistent sucks around the bundle of nerves. God, she can’t imagine how he got so good at this.
Seconds later she falls apart above him, her body spasming as the intensity of her orgasm overwhelms her. Her legs tremble, and he holds her in place, continuing to lick up and down her slit as she squirms and begs him to stop once the sensations become too much.
Her hands fumble with the zipper of his fly as his fingers hook in the delicate straps of her gown, roughly dragging the dress down to pool at her feet. He smiles at her wolfishly as she stands naked before him wearing only her heels and the pearls he gave her.
“This is much better than any fantasy I ever had,” he murmurs, capturing her mouth. She can taste herself on him and it’s strangely erotic. She finally undoes his pants and tugs them down, along with his boxer briefs, biting her lip when his cock springs free. The coil begins to wind anew, and she grips him in her hand, pumping him impatiently. Peeta groans and thrusts into her hand, bracing one hand against the fake tree above her head. She revels of the feel of him in her palm, velvety soft skin encasing the firm shaft.
“Fuck,” he whispers, brushing a damp curl off her forehead. “You have to stop that if you want me to last.” In response, she slides her hand up and down more emphatically. He lowers his mouth to her breast and laves his tongue around her nipple, drawing it into his mouth and suckling at the tight bud to mute his own moans of pleasure.
He reaches down to raise her left leg, hooking it around his hip, shifting their bodies so that his cock pushes insistently at her entrance. Katniss sucks in a breath, her entire being taut with anticipation, and when Peeta locks his eyes on hers, smiling at her with complete adoration, she plants her hands on his ass and begins to guide him inside her.
“Wait,” he pants, withdrawing from her, his eyes clouded with desire. “Condom.” He bends down and searches the pocket of his pants for the foil-square, which he rips open impatiently. She stills his hand on his cock, gazing at him as he allows her to unroll the condom down over the length of him.
“Okay?” she asks softly. He nods.
“Yeah, good.” He kisses her fervently, swallowing her keening cries as he sheathes himself in her fully.
“Oh, God, Peeta,” she whimpers, closing her eyes as she allows the exquisite tension begin to mount as he steadily thrusts into her.
“You feel amazing,” he breathes. An errant bead of sweat rolls down his temple to his cheek and along his jaw before meandering onto her flushed chest.
She finds it increasingly difficult to hold back. The angle at which Peeta fucks her allows him to go so deep, and with each thrust, he manages to catch the hood of her clit, spiraling her to a dizzying climax. Seconds later, he too shudders and grunts, her walls rhythmically clenching and releasing him until he collapses against her, pinning her body to the tree while they both struggle to catch their breath.
“Yep, that pretty much outdoes any fantasy I ever had,” he murmurs, nipping at her earlobe and nuzzling her sweaty neck, taking a pearl between his teeth teasingly. She smiles up at him through lust-glazed eyes.
“Yeah, that was…you were…I’m at a loss for words.”
“Katniss? You don’t know how much you mean to me.”
She rakes her fingers through his damp curls. “Thank you for being patient with all of this. I hope I’m worth the wait.”
He smiles and threads their fingers together, kissing her knuckles one by one. “I’d wait forever for you.”
Eight months later…
Peeta sighs and closes the lid of the pizza box, too tired to get up and wrap the remaining slices in foil and toss them in the fridge. He pushes the box across the end table and glances at the clock.
He’s never tuned in to one of those red-carpet awards shows. Overly bubbly reporters asking inane questions about who’s wearing what has never even remotely interested him. But he’d do anything for her, and it’s been four days since he saw her last, since he last buried himself in her and fucked her senseless, knowing it would be at least a week before they could be together again. He misses her like crazy when she’s gone, even if they still can’t be together as often as he’d like.
Katniss has been in Los Angeles for the past few days; the People’s Choice Awards are tonight. Katniss has been nominated as Favorite New Comedic TV actress, in spite of her impassioned arguments to Peeta that Rowan Hood is not really a comedy.
He has to check the guide to find where the pre-show is airing, and he suffers through nearly an hour of prattling interviews and commercials before the camera pans to Katniss and Finnick holding hands, beaming for the cameras.
It never gets any easier to see his girlfriend on the arm of another man, he thinks with some disdain. Peeta genuinely likes Finnick, and he trusts the charismatic actor with Katniss implicitly. But he yearns to be the one whose hand Katniss clasps as she walks the red carpet. He wants to be the one by her side, supporting her, smiling at her when her picture flashes on the screen during her category, kissing her in celebration if she does win.
She looks gorgeous, as usual. Cinna has dressed her in a figure-hugging red dress that clings to her curves and accentuates her lithe body. Peeta feels his cock pulse at the sight of her and what he could have done to her in the limousine on the way to the show.
Now that he’s seen Katniss, he mutes the television, changing the channel to CBS, where the awards will air momentarily, and he turns his attention to his iPad, where he bides his time watching a match between Chelsea and Swansea that actually ended hours earlier. He makes sure to look up from the game every few minutes so as not to miss her category.
He finally sees her category displayed on the screen behind the presenters and clicks off the iPad, pressing the television’s volume button repeatedly, his stomach flipping nervously for her. After a clip of her is shown, the camera lingers on Katniss, smiling somewhat demurely, as Finnick clutches her hand and whispers something to her, grinning.
And then Hugh Jackman-how cool is it that Wolverine is presenting her category?-calls Katniss’s name, The camera catches her shocked expression, and Finnick excitedly hauls her to her feet, hugging her and kissing her and urging her to go up on the stage. She smoothes her dress over her hips and walks to the stage. Peeta thinks she looks slightly dazed.
His heart pounds for her, and he couldn’t be prouder. He smiles broadly as her beautiful face fills the screen, her glittery silver eyes staring in awe at the award in her hands.
“Wow. I-ah-I so did not expect this,” she starts and giggles nervously. Peeta smiles again. Katniss is not a giggler.
He listens as she begins to list the people she needs to thank, rattling off names that Peeta has heard a dozen times: Seneca Crane, Effie Trinket, Cory Snow, the network, Cinna, the crew, Haymitch Abernathy, Finnick Odair. Then her expression alters slightly, and she takes a deep breath.
“And to the wonderful, amazing man who has been by my side as I’ve been on this crazy ride, thank you. You make me a better person, and I could live a thousand lifetimes and not deserve you. And I love you.” She smiles directly into the camera, which immediately bounces to a shot of a beaming Finnick.
Peeta’s jaw drops, and his heart hammers in his chest. Only he knows her words were not meant for Finnick. Most people won’t catch that she subtly thanked Finnick with the rest of her castmates, and he is not the man to whom Katniss was speaking.
He collapses back against the couch cushions, a goofy smile spreading on his face.
Her profession of love may have been spoken in front of hundreds of people and millions of viewers, but it was the most intimate moment they’ve shared yet.
She loves him.
And Peeta knows, without a doubt, that whenever he finally has Katniss Everdeen all to himself, she will be worth the wait.