The lights chasing around the marquee lit up Mr. McCorkle’s smirk, although Mr. Brentwood’s face was shadowed as he strode toward Robbie.
“Shall we go?” Mr. Brentwood was close enough now for Robbie to see him clearly in the yellow glow of the streetlamp. Jehoshaphat, there’d been more emotion in those still photographs than in his expression now.
“Go?” Robbie glanced between his shuttered face and Mr. McCorkle’s smirk. “If it’s because they don’t have a ticket for me, I don’t mind. I can come back—”
“Apparently there was a miscommunication somewhere.” Mr. Brentwood’s tone was languid, almost bored. “I find I don’t wish to see this picture tonight after all.”
But Robbie had absorbed more in Dottie’s cutting room than just the mechanics of motion pictures. She’d given him his first lessons in studio politics too. Mr. Brentwood’s stoic expression, Mr. McCorkle’s smirk, the lack of fans clamoring for their favorite stars told the story.
They didn’t expect him.
Robbie would give a lot to know whether Martin had been excluded on purpose, but studio gossip and intrigue weren’t Robbie’s business. Taking care of Mr. Brentwood, though? Robbie might only be the driver, and a new one at that, but he’d make Mr. Brentwood’s welfare his business. Somebody needed to, and the studio was sure making a hash of it.
He tightened his grip on the door handle so he wouldn’t be tempted to touch Mr. Brentwood’s sleeve. “I know you’re not exactly dressed for it, but if you don’t have any other plans, how would you like me to take you to my favorite diner? You’d definitely class up the place, and they’ve got the best doughnuts in town. My treat.”
Mr. Brentwood brushed the back of Robbie’s hand with the tips of his fingers, his smile a little sad. “That’s incredibly sweet of you, Robbie, however—”
“Of course.” Robbie dropped his gaze to stare at the reflection of the marquee in the Flyer’s window. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have overstepped. I’ll take you—”
“What I was going to say is that I’m incredibly flattered by the invitation, but”—he leaned closer and lowered his voice—“I can pay for my own doughnut.”
Robbie jerked his chin up in time to catch Mr. Brentwood’s more heartfelt smile. And was that an actual twinkle in his eye? Don’t be stupid. It’s probably just more reflections from the marquee chaser lights. “You mean it? You’ll come with me?”
“I’d be honored.”
“Hot dog! I mean, very good, sir.”
Mr. Brentwood threw back his head and laughed. “Oh, don’t start ‘sir-ing’ me now. In fact, since we’re about to share Hollywood’s finest doughnuts, I think you should call me Martin, don’t you?”
A thrill spiraled up Robbie’s spine. He’d been using Martin’s given name in his secret thoughts for weeks, but he never imagined he might be able to actually say it. “M-Martin, then. The place is near the studio. We should be able to get there—”
“Let me in, damn you!”
The shout, strident yet slurred, startled both of them. Directly under the marquee, a young man in evening dress, his tie askew and his hair flopping across his forehead, was swaying in front of Leo, poking his chest with a finger.
“Shite,” Martin murmured. “Wesley.”
“Mr. Thornhill?” Robbie looked closer. Yes, it was him, all right, but in all the stills Robbie had seen of Wesley in his college-boy adventures, he’d never looked so… debauched.
“I’m the biggest star this studio’s got,” Wesley shouted. “I wanna go see this piece of shit Fairbanks thinks is so damn wonderful. I can do the same stunts he does. I have done ’em. You show me what he’s doing in this one, and I’ll do the same thing by next Tuesday.”
“I’m afraid the doughnuts will have to wait for another time,” Martin said. “We’d better get Wesley out of here before he does any more damage.”
Robbie kept pace with Martin as he strode down the sidewalk. “You think he’ll hit Mr. McCorkle?”
“I meant damage to himself, to his reputation. He’s supposed to be a clean-cut American college boy, not somebody who’s clearly spent the last few hours in a speakeasy. Thank goodness the press has either left or gone inside.”
Martin lunged the last two steps and caught Wesley’s cocked elbow before he could throw a punch at Mr. McCorkle. “Wesley, my boy. Just the man I wanted to see. Come along with me, there’s a good chap, lest you forget yourself.”
“Leggo.” Wesley jerked his arm out of Martin’s grip. “I don’t forget me. I don’t forget you. I don’t forget nothing. You think they’ll”—he swung his arm wide and nearly smacked Robbie in the chest—“stand behind you if you don’t do what they want? They won’t. In fact….” Wesley’s grimace turned sly. “They’re doing it already, aren’t they? That’s why you’re out here instead of in there.”
“That’s enough. Robbie, if you wouldn’t mind taking Wesley’s other arm.” Martin nodded to Mr. McCorkle. “We’ll straighten him out.”
Leo snorted. “Good luck with that.”
“Wait! I wanna see the picture!” Wesley struggled in their grip, but Robbie had been plowing fields and pitching hay his whole life, and Martin was apparently stronger than he looked. Wesley was no match for the two of them.
But as they marched him toward the car, a flash popped in their faces. Wesley shrieked, attempting to cover his eyes with his hands.
“Drat,” Martin muttered. “Get the door, please, Robbie.”
Robbie sprang forward to obey, and they managed to wrestle Wesley into the back seat. He tried to scramble out again, which the photographer also caught, but Martin shoved him inside and climbed in next to him.
Robbie raced around the car, fully expecting he’d have to chase Wesley down the street if he escaped out the other door. But by the time Robbie slid behind the wheel, Wesley was slumped in the corner, weeping quietly.
“Where to, Mart—Mr. Brentwood?”
Martin sighed and smoothed his own hair, which had gotten rumpled in the struggle. “We’d best take him to my place and pour a gallon or two of coffee into him. Let us fervently hope he doesn’t spew all over the automobile before we get there.”
Robbie was tempted to push the Flyer harder than usual, not because he was worried about the upchucking—he’d cleaned up worse messes back home after Pa’d slaughtered a pig—but Wesley was worrying him. By the time they left downtown Los Angeles, he had stopped crying, but he’d started a rhythmic tapping against the window, coupled with low-voiced swearing that made the hairs on Robbie’s neck stand up. He couldn’t get to Alvarado fast enough.