Juliet, I think we should go over the rules one more time,” my best friend, Shelby, said to me while anxiously wringing her hands. I wanted to remind her that we were wearing gorgeous formal gowns and standing backstage in a massive theater filled with some of the most famous people in the world. This was the kind of moment we’d dreamed about having when she’d been sick. I wanted her to live in the moment with me.
But I knew why she couldn’t, so instead I nodded. “Tell me again.”
“When the cameras are on, make sure that you don’t do anything that will draw attention to yourself, or else you’ll get kicked out and then Allan’s mom will hate me forever.”
I reached over to squeeze her hand. Even while Shelby had been going through the worst parts of fighting leukemia, she was always so serene and calm. A year after she was officially declared to be in remission, she’d met Allan Standish, and they’d both fallen quickly and hard. I hadn’t been the least bit surprised when he proposed to her two weeks ago, even though they’d only been dating for about three months.
Apparently Allan had an idiot for a mother (and I was supposed to call her by her actual name, Harmony, and not Satan’s Evilest Minion like I wanted to) and she didn’t like Shelby or the engagement. She had declared it was all happening “too fast.”
She’d even gone so far as to offer Allan a vacation to Hawaii and a new sports car if he’d end things.
Which led to Shelby twisting herself into knots trying to impress Harmony. I truly did not get it. Allan told Shelby that his mom’s opinion didn’t matter, that he loved her and chose her no matter what his mom thought. Which made me like him and respect him even more, but Shelby apparently didn’t believe him. She was determined to win Harmony over.
Harmony ran a company, SeatFiller Nation, which provided volunteers to dress up and attend the biggest Hollywood and music award shows to fill in empty seats. Producers didn’t want any vacant chairs during a broadcast, because it would give the impression that their show was boring (it was) and that even the celebrities didn’t care (they didn’t). People in the audience would get up to go to the bathroom, hang out at the bar, accept and/or present awards. Allan had told us that sometimes nominees who hadn’t won would leave after their category was announced (which was why they always saved the big awards until the end). But nobody wanted the people watching at home to see that the big stars had taken off, so they used seat fillers.
A couple of the volunteers and one of Harmony’s staff members had canceled on her this morning, leaving Harmony in a (deserved) tizzy. She’d called on Allan to help her out. Shelby had overheard their conversation and had volunteered the two of us to fill in the remaining slots. Shelby had done it to be kind and to suck up; personally, I was impressed by the inherent brilliance of the offer, given that Harmony couldn’t decline without coming across as, well, Satan’s Evilest Minion. Or the pettiest one, at the very least.
I would have preferred to leave Allan’s snobby mother high and dry, but Shelby was a much better person than me and didn’t share my general disdain for People Like Harmony.
So she and I had run out and rented a couple of nondescript black gowns (another rule—we couldn’t be too glitzy or sparkly, so as to not draw attention away from the celebrities). It was a great color on Shelby—her soft blonde hair, blue eyes, and bright-red lips looked perfect with her dress. I, on the other hand, felt a little like I was wearing a Morticia Addams costume as we waited backstage while Allan, working as a spotter, told the seat fillers where to go.
We’d been here since early in the morning, standing around in our gowns, waiting. The awards show had officially been going on for about an hour and a half, but since Shelby and I had the least experience, Allan was keeping us backstage. Which meant more waiting. I’d naively assumed being a seat filler meant more filling seats and less standing.
But Allan had said he needed us, so Shelby’s way of preparing was to go over the strict rules that I’d already heard four times that day.
“Okay,” Shelby said. “The next rule? Do not speak unless you’re spoken to. You can’t start a conversation with anyone, no matter who it is.”
“Right! Otherwise it’s off with our heads!” I paused before continuing. “But what if I’m a big fan and I’m compelled to share that with them?”
She did not look pleased with my joke. “Don’t. You’re only supposed to be seen and not heard.”
I nodded back in what I hoped was a serious way.
“When you move down the row to get to your seat, be sure that you’re facing the people sitting down.”
I couldn’t help myself, even though I knew better. “So, you’re saying I shouldn’t put my butt in Chris Evans’s face when I scoot past him? That just seems like a missed opportunity.”
Her death glare, one I had very rarely been the object of, was enough to make me knock it off and not ask her if I was allowed to make eye contact with anyone around me or if that had been forbidden, too. Seeing as how I was about to become the lowliest of peasants.
“And most important of all, the number one rule to rule all other rules: all seat fillers must be in a seat or backstage when the lights come on.”
“Like the world’s worst and stupidest game of musical chairs.”
“I’m serious. If you’re out there in the aisles or in front of the stage when they start broadcasting again, Harmony will murder all of us.”
“I wonder who would play me in the Netflix documentary about it.”
“Juliet!” Shelby protested. “Please!”
I took both of her hands in mine. It was just so ridiculous to me that Harmony didn’t adore Shelby that I had to make fun of the entire situation. But it was past time to be serious to make my best friend feel better. “I promise I will behave and be a shining example to all seat fillers across this great land of ours. But I hope that you know that you do not have to kiss up to this crazy lady. You’re marrying Allan, not Harmony.”
She shrugged, and I saw the tears glistening in her eyes, which made me want to hunt Harmony down and punch her in her stupid face. “I want everyone to get along, and maybe if I can show her that I’m . . .”
When she trailed off, I filled in the blanks for her. “That you’re what? Amazing? A survivor? One of the best people I know?”
“That maybe if she gets to know the real me, things will get better.”
I felt like this was all a lost cause, but now was not the time to tell Shelby that. Her relentless optimism had gotten her through her cancer, and who was I to argue with success?
Shelby turned to look at one of the monitors, and my stomach grumbled. As if an answer to my hungry gut, a waiter walked by with a tray of tiny sandwiches. I reached for one as he got close, and he slowed down slightly to let me grab one.
But somebody slapped my hand as I got hold of the toothpick. I managed to hold on to my prize and glared at the woman staring at me. If this was Allan’s mother, very bad things were about to happen. Like, body bags might be necessary. Sensing this, the waiter fled.
“Are you new here? You must be, because anybody that’s been to more than one of these events as a seat filler knows that the food is for the invited attendees only. Throw it away.” She narrowed her eyes at me and got that judgy look some women had, as if they were assessing you based solely on your appearance and immediately dismissing you.
She took in my dark-brown hair and pale skin, and then her gaze lingered on the scars on the right side of my neck. Usually I wore my hair down, like a shield against this kind of attention, but Shelby had convinced me that my dress called for a good updo. That no one would pay any attention to or care about my scars, which had faded to a light silver color. And somehow I’d both believed her and convinced myself that they weren’t that noticeable.
“Did you hear me? I said, throw it away!”
I hated that I let people make me feel self-conscious about the scars, and it made me angry. So after carefully removing the toothpick, I popped the food into my mouth, maintaining eye contact while I chewed. There were only two people in my life who got to tell me what to do, and she was neither one of them.
She made a sound of outrage when I ate my pilfered mini-sandwich (which was not all that great, but I was not about to let her know that) and stalked off to join another group of women, where she kept pointing at me and shaking her head.
I should have grabbed the entire tray. I was certainly hungry enough for it, and as an added bonus, it might have made Sandwich Monitor’s head explode.
Harmony would have really been upset then.
Allan waved us over. He had light-brown hair and was as tall as I was, six feet. He had dark-brown eyes that were always smiling. I wondered for the millionth time if there had been an as-yet-undiscovered mix-up at the hospital, because I had no idea how he could be related to his mother. He had on a headset and was holding a clipboard. “Okay, Shelby? You’re in row fifteen, seat J. You’ll be climbing over some people. Don’t run away with some movie star while you’re out there.”
“I’ll try not to,” she said with a giggle and kissed Allan quickly before going out to join the crowd.
“Reporting for my first official assignment,” I told him, saluting.
“Thanks!” I told him. I shot one final glance of annoyance at that know-it-all veteran seat filler before I headed into the auditorium. Glamorous and formal-clad people talked all around me; some were sitting, others standing. Lots of air kisses and handshakes as I made my way carefully through the crowd. I recognized a number of actors and actresses but remembered that I was not allowed to stop and gape at them with an open mouth.
Seats A and B in row two were both empty. I sat down in the B seat, wondering who had been sitting here before me. Shelby had mentioned that the award nominees and their dates sat on the ends of the first few rows. So probably somebody very famous.
There was a woman to my left who I almost bumped with my elbow as I removed my badge. The badge was attached to the front of my dress and said, “I’m temporarily filling this seat for camera purposes.” I hadn’t wanted to run afoul of another rule—I had to take the badge off so that it wouldn’t be seen on camera. I put it in my small clutch, which also held my cell phone, my keys, and an emergency Snickers bar.
A Snickers bar I was seriously considering eating, given that I was still hungry and still annoyed.
Since I was tempted to observe everyone around me, I stuck to staring straight ahead. Like I was wearing blinders. I figured that was safest, considering that I was the kind of woman who lived for celebrity gossip. I had subscriptions to, like, three different tabloids. Fortunately Shelby shared my obsession, and we had spent many hours of her chemo poring over trashy magazines. I’d signed a very serious and very thick nondisclosure agreement for this event, and because I was already poor, I didn’t need to make things worse by having Harmony sue me.
A man sat down next to me in seat A. I noticed that he was tall, as he was forced to turn his legs toward the aisle because he didn’t quite fit. His hands were large and he was wearing an expensive watch that somehow seemed vaguely familiar.
“You’re in the wrong seat.” His voice was deep and, again, familiar. I was tempted to glance at him, but I fought off the urge. But that meant I wasn’t sure whether he was talking to me or someone else. For all I knew, he might have been on his cell phone. I kept my eyes pointed toward the stage as the lights came back up and everyone hurried back to their own seats.
“The security is terrible at this venue,” he mumbled as he shifted in his seat. “This should be one of the few places where I’m safe from stalkers.”
Wait. Did he think I was stalking him? By sitting here and not interacting with him at all, carefully following Harmony’s stupid rules?
Again, I was jumping to conclusions. He might have been talking to someone else. Maybe even himself. Out loud, where I could hear it.
They were presenting an award, but I couldn’t hear what it was for, because the tall man in a black suit next to me was still muttering under his breath.
A winner was announced and a tiny actress I recognized from a TV show I used to watch went up to the stage to accept. The last thing I could remember reading about her was that she was bearding for a director in order to advance her career.
Huh. Looks like that worked out for her.
She started tearily thanking a long list of people for helping her win the award. That was some industrial-strength waterproof mascara she had on. I was kind of fascinated by how tears could stream down her face without marring any of her makeup. I would have looked like an oversize, drunk raccoon if it had been me up onstage.
“Are you seriously going to sit there and ignore me?” the man asked me.
“I’m trying real hard to,” I finally responded, mostly because this actress was going on and on, despite the fact that they were playing music to get her offstage and she was in the midst of thanking every person she’d ever known, including her eighth-grade PE teacher, I kid you not. “So please be quiet.”
“Did you . . .” His voice trailed off in disbelief. “I can’t believe you just told me to be quiet. You stole my date’s chair and I’m the one who should be quiet?”
I’d reached the end of my douchebag rope. The cameras were still pointed at the stage, where the hosts were now tugging on the actress’s arm to get her to leave. I figured I could risk it. I turned to glare at him.
And my mouth dropped open.
It was him. The man who had played Felix Morrison.
And Malec Shadowfire.
He was the actor Noah Douglas, star of my favorite TV show growing up, and he had recently starred as the villain in a billion-dollar fantasy franchise about fairies. He was at this awards show for his most recent role as a young husband and father whose wife was dying of cancer in a film that aired exclusively on InstaFlicks. The movie was really good, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember his character’s name. Toby? Charlie? Phillip?
I was staring at him. In a very stalkery way, so maybe he’d had a point earlier. My heart was beating so fast I was afraid it might break free from all the veins and arteries that were (I think?) currently trying to tether it in place.
“You’re . . . you’re . . .” My mind had turned completely off. Of course, when I was twelve years old I had daydreamed more than once about what I would say to Noah Douglas when we met. Of how I’d win him over with my wit and natural charm.
That was not happening. I was floundering badly and couldn’t even figure out a way to finish the sentence I’d started.
This was in large part because he was ridiculously, almost . . . animalistically attractive. He wasn’t conventionally handsome; his nose was a little too big, his lips a tad too full. It shouldn’t have worked, but for some reason on him his features came together in a way that made it hard to look away. He had dark-brown hair like mine, nearly black, and these intense, hooded light-brown eyes that made my stomach flip over and over.
What was I supposed to say to the man who had played Felix? And Malec? And that other guy whose name I still couldn’t remember?
“Whatever you do,” he said, his deep voice now so recognizable that I felt stupid for not having realized that it was him sooner, “do not call me Felix. Or Malec Shadowfire.”
OMG, Noah Douglas was a freaking mind reader, too. This was bad. Very bad. I tried to banish every impure thought I was currently having about him.
Then, that flare of annoyance was back. Just because I was female and of a certain age, did that automatically mean I should recognize him? That I totally did was beside the point. He shouldn’t have been egotistical enough to assume it. For all he knew, I could have been like . . . my mom. Who loved the theater and didn’t watch television or movies because they were “less than.” She wouldn’t have known who Noah Douglas was.
So why was he so certain that I did?
“Why do you think I’d call you by those names?” I asked.
He gave me a look of weariness bordering on contempt. “Because that’s what people always call me. But I do have an actual name. Use that.”
That devilish little imp inside me—the one who was still mad at Harmony for stressing Shelby out and at that woman who’d tried to stop me from eating and then stared at my scars—broke free, triggered into a frenzy by Noah’s very large ego.
And I told the biggest lie I’d ever told in my entire life.
“I’m sorry, I can’t do that, because I don’t even know who you are.”
Excerpted from The Seat Filler by Sariah Wilson with permission from the publisher, Montlake. Copyright © 2021 by Sariah Wilson.
The movie star and the dog groomer are one kiss away from the perfect love story. That’s the hiccup in a warm and witty romance by the bestselling author of Roommaid.
The meet-cute award goes to dog groomer Juliet Nolan. It’s one of Hollywood’s biggest nights when she volunteers as a seat filler and winds up next to movie heartthrob Noah freaking Douglas. Tongue tied and toes curling in her pink Converse, she pretends that she doesn’t have a clue who he is. It’s the only way to keep from swooning.
She’s pretty and unpretentious, loves his dog, and is not a worshipping fan. No way Noah’s giving up on her, even if his affectionate pursuit comes with a bump: Juliet has a pathological fear of kissing and the disappointments that follow. What odds does romance have without that momentous, stupendous, once-in-a-lifetime first smooch? Patient, empathetic, and carrying personal burdens of his own, Noah suggests a remedy: they rehearse.
The lessons begin. The guards come down. But there’s another hitch they weren’t betting on. As for that cue-the-orchestra-and-roll-credits happy ending? It might take more than practice to make it perfect.
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About Sariah Wilson
Funny, Flirty, Feel-Good Romance
Bestselling author Sariah Wilson has never jumped out of an airplane or climbed Mount Everest, and she is not a former CIA operative. She has, however, been madly, passionately in love with her soul mate and is a fervent believer in happily ever afters—which is why she writes romances like The Royals of Monterra series. After growing up in Southern California as the oldest of nine (yes, nine) children, she graduated from Brigham Young University with a semiuseless degree in history. She currently lives with the aforementioned soul mate and their four children in Utah, along with three tiger barb fish, a cat named Tiger, and a recently departed hamster who is buried in the backyard (and has nothing at all to do with tigers).