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updated 10/4/2010 3:57:01 PM ET 2010-10-04T19:57:01

"Starlit," by actress Lisa Rinna, is a novel about soap star Tally Jones, set in Los Angeles and filled with glamorous parties, red carpets and Hollywood drama. An excerpt.

Oscar night was breezy and starlit, both outside the Sunset Tower in Beverly Hills, where the Vanity Fair party was in full swing, and inside as well.

Even before the Academy Awards broadcast began, an endless procession of limousines had been arriving at the hotel for the invitation-only dinner that took place before the magazine’s renowned after party. All evening long, as stars, auteurs, moguls, trendsetters, and celebutants hit the VF red carpet, an army of paparazzi surged against the black velvet rope. Granted, the photographers knew better than to cross it, but that didn’t stop them from begging for those laser-bright smiles from J Lo, Stiller or Meryl, or either Gyllenhaal.

The shout-outs from ’razzis and the thunderous clicks of camera shutters were maddening. Those less practiced at being in the public eye — Oscar first-timers, agents, plus ones, or the errant producers whose previous or current films rated a golden ticket to the party — either scowled or blinked like deer caught in headlights. But for those who really mattered, delivering the money shot was a cakewalk. Their customized red-carpet pap struts had been drilled into them by years of practice with image consultants. For the men,

it was a relaxed stance with one hand in a pocket, a sly grin, and a casual wave. The starlets knew to come to a complete stop over the VF logo stamped dead center on the candy-apple red carpet, then do a half-turn, with breasts thrust forward and lips poised in a come-hither smile. Even as their Bluetoothed handlers hustled them inside, the photos were uplinked to the Internet so that the rest of the world could drool over the ultimate Hollywood experience.

And tonight Tally Jones was right in the middle of it all.

The fact that she was wearing not a designer gown but a crisp white shirt and black slacks like all the other waiters didn’t matter. Nor did it bother her that every other actor in the room had a more successful career than hers.

OK, so maybe it was making her feel a little insecure. “We just have to remind ourselves that this is only a temporary gig,” she murmured under her breath, as much to herself as to her friends, Sadie Fletcher and Mandy Hogan, who stood beside her there in the center of the massive ballroom. “Positive thinking, right? Otherwise, we’ll never be here again. Unless it’s to pass cheeseburgers to the stars.”

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When Sadie’s boss, the hotel’s owner, Jeff Klein, had announced that additional cater-waiters would be needed for the event, Sadie had seen to it that Tally and Mandy were hired on. All night long, Sadie and Mandy had circulated with trays of crystal flutes filled with champagne, whereas Tally’s job was to pass around cheeseburgers from the platter she carried. But amid the pulsating strobe lights, the loud thumping music, the hustle and flow of the crowd (not to mention the fact that Yes, omigod, that is Tom Hanks, standing right there within spitting distance, can you believe it?), every hour or so, the girls sought one another out not only to catch their breath but to pinch themselves at their great luck to be there.

Inevitably, though, one of them would sigh and ask, “When will it be our turn?” This time, it was Mandy. “I hope you’re right, Tally. But I’ve been in Hollywood for three years now. Sadie’s been auditioning for five. I’d say we’re all due for a break, don’t you think?”

From the scowl on Sadie’s face, Tally knew that nothing she could say would make her friend feel any less anxious about their immediate situation. Since having met in acting class two years ago, none of them had scored more than a walk-on or a crowd shot in an indie flick.

“Let’s face facts, Tally,” Sadie said flatly. “Kate Winslet had already made Titanic by the time she was our age, and Jessica Alba was starring in Dark Angel! By those standards, we’re already has-beens.”

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“Don’t be silly,” Tally murmured, and smiled sweetly as Russell Crowe and some cute nobody with a scruffy beard grabbed two burgers off her tray. She waited until the men moved on before resuming scolding her pal. “No pity parties, Sadie. Look, how can we be has-beens? Really, we’re never-beens.” Seeing the alarm in Mandy’s eyes, she quickly added, “No, make that haven’t-been-yets. We have talent, now we just need a little luck.”

“OK, now I need a drink.” Mandy glanced around quickly. Noting that Jeff was nowhere in sight, she ducked behind a pillar and gulped two quick swigs of champagne from one of the glasses on her tray. But any comfort she got from it was gone a second later, when she spied a trio of starlets making their way over to the ladies’ room. “Oh my God! Did you get a good look at Scarlett Johansson’s dress? If they gave out an Oscar for Best Cleavage, she’d win, hands down.” Mandy glared down at her own meager chest. At home in Cleveland, her sunny smile and pencil-slim golden-girl-next-door looks had gotten her every role she’d ever gone out for. But here in LA, “pretty” hadn’t landed her one walk-on in a commercial, let alone a movie or a TV series.

She groaned. “I just realized why that casting director last week called me ‘boyishly trim.’ That’s got to be ‘flat-chested’ in Hollywood-speak. I guess I should start saving for a boob job.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself.” Tally patted her on the shoulder. “Some of the best actresses in the world are thin. Look at Nicole and Renée.”

“That’s easy for you to say.” Mandy sniffed.

Unlike Mandy’s, Tally’s breasts were generous. She was also slender and broad-shouldered, with well-chiseled cheekbones, a pert nose, and thick auburn hair that curled down to her shoulders. And, like most of the women in the restaurant, Mandy and Sadie would have given anything to have Tally’s perfect cupid bow of a mouth, something their friend was too modest to appreciate. Whenever Tally smiled, the happiness on her naturally full lips seemed to light up her almond-shaped, caramel-hued eyes.

“She’s right.” Sadie sighed. “Tally, if I were you, I would have been discovered at, like, age two.” Despite having grown up in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley, Sadie was the antithesis of the proverbial Valley girl. She was plump, with frizzy red hair, freckles, and a nose with a tiny bump that the other girls assured her gave her face character.

Tally smiled as George Lucas plucked a burger off her platter. She was about to ask him if it was true that he was in preproduction with Star Wars VII, VIII, and IX, but she came to her senses and stopped herself. Like every other waiter hired for the event, she had been forewarned not to gawk and to keep circulating with her tray of appetizers. Having a shot at being listed in the credits as the third Ewok on the right wasn’t worth risking the best gig she’d gotten in LA thus far.

While she hadn’t yet been discovered by someone who could help her career, tonight she was getting up close and personal with many of her favorite stars. And, professional demeanor aside, she kept her eyes open for any possible souvenirs to put in her “My Life in Hollywood” scrapbook. Like the Kleenex Halle Berry had used to blot her lipstick (was it really Revlon Super Lustrous Mulled Wine? Tally made herself a promise to compare it with the samples at the makeup counter at CVS) and the empty Tic Tacs box Robert Downey Jr. had placed on her tray with an apologetic shrug.

But it was Sadie who landed the big prize of the night. “Don’t say I never gave you anything,” she muttered as she slipped a swizzle stick onto Tally’s platter.

Tally looked down at it, puzzled. “OK, why did you just do that?”

“Because it just came out of George Clooney’s mouth! It was stuck in the olive that was in his martini.”

Tally was so excited she almost dropped her tray.

“And don’t look now, but Johnny Depp is headed outside for a smoke with Sean Penn.” Sadie jerked her head toward the restaurant’s rooftop deck. “They might leave behind a matchbook. Do yourself a favor, and see if they’re into cheeseburgers.”

Tally shook her head. “If they’re smoking, they won’t want to eat.”

“You’re right.” Mandy pushed her tray forward. “But they might want a drink. Here, swap with me.”

Tally shot her friend a grateful smile. Balancing the tray precariously on her arm, she made her way gingerly through the crowd and out the door.

“Every beautiful woman in the world is right here, but you’ve been staring at that cute little waitress all night.” Josh Gold snapped his fingers in front of his friend’s eyes. “What, does she remind you of your very first girlfriend or something? I’m guessing you haven’t heard a word I’ve said in the past ten minutes.”

“Huh? Oh ... yeah, sorry,” Mac Carlton said apologetically.

Josh might have been one of the most powerful agents in Hollywood, but whatever he was harping about wasn’t so important that Mac felt he had to stop admiring the view. Josh was right about one thing, though: of all the beautiful girls at the party, the only one he wanted to meet was lugging around a tray of cheeseburgers.

Already, he’d eaten three of them. But had she even noticed him? Nah, he doubted it. Sure, she’d tossed off one of those dazzling smiles and made polite chitchat while handing him a napkin, but he could see she’d been too busy trying not to stare at all the stars to register his presence. Not that he could blame her. Toned, buffed up, and dressed in a tux, even the surliest actor was guy candy to a starstruck civilian.

A regular guy like me doesn’t have much of a chance, Mac thought, figuring it’d be better just to bide his time. Tomorrow he would stop by and coerce Jeff into giving him her number.

As if reading his mind, Josh let out a loud snort. “Come on, already, you and I both know that power is the greatest aphrodisiac.” Josh pointed to Mac’s Oscar, which had been placed prominently on the shelf behind their banquette. “Dude, just show her this, and game over.”

“What would be the fun in that?” Mac smiled and thoughtfully scratched his beard. It was a souvenir from Alaska, where he’d spent the last month holding the hands of the first-time director and the temperamental lead actress who were shooting the current project he had in production. He’d landed back in Los Angeles just a few hours before the ceremony. He wished he’d had a few minutes to shave, but he’d barely had time to throw on a tux and make it to the Kodak Theater in time to receive his award. “I’m a romantic. For once, I want a woman to love me for my wit, charm, and good looks as opposed to who I am. Not another starlet who dates me because she thinks I’ll put her in my next picture, but a normal, everyday girl. Like her.” He nodded toward Tally. “She seems ... perfect.”

Josh laughed so hard at this that he almost choked on his drink.

“Well, if she’s going to fall for your looks, then you’d better go into the men’s room and shave. Beards haven’t been sexy since the Bee Gees had a disco hit. Hey, speaking of hit-making foreigners we all adore, it looked like Russell was all ears just now when you two were talking. So, does he want to do that movie you’re shooting in Paris next summer? Because Angelina and I have been feeling each other out since she walked from her agency. If Russell’s a go, I could use that as leverage with her —”

“Actually, I was talking to Russell about something else. He’s been approached by Scorsese to star in the remake of Double Indemnity, and as much as he’d like to consider the role, he was grousing about my father’s treatment of him on his last film — and from what he says, he means his very last film — with Royalton, so he might turn it down.”

Josh smirked knowingly. Mac’s father, Richard, was the chairman of Royalton Studios and its largest stockholder as well. The movies it produced were big-budget blockbusters — although these days, Royalton was spending more on its movies than the returns it was seeing at the box office. “Well, your dad has always been a ball-busting son of a bitch. That’s why you flew the coop in the first place, right? And Crowe certainly isn’t known to back down from a fight, particularly when he believes in something.”

“Russell is interested in the part and in working with Marty. He asked me to have a word with dear old Dad, and I was trying to explain to him that it probably wouldn’t help. After all, if Richard and I saw eye-to-eye on this business, I’d be sharing this hunk of brass with Royalton.”

Josh grabbed the Oscar statuette and lifted it like a barbell. “Boy, after tonight, I’ll bet your old man wishes you’d stayed put as the president of his studio’s movie division.” He put a napkin to his nose and sneezed. Periodically throughout the night, Josh had been making pit stops in the john. He was a renowned cokehead, but he was also one of the town’s biggest agents, so, like everyone else, Mac put up with Josh’s bad habits.

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Mac shrugged and took the statue. Yes, its weight was impressive, but he was more in awe of what it symbolized. Having just had the project he’d been babying for the past three years win the Best Picture Oscar, he had every reason to be crowing tonight and not giving his father’s troubles a second thought. But that was hard to do when his mentor — in Mac’s case, Richard — hadn’t even had the decency to rise from his seat and clap him on the back as he’d made his way onto the stage. He hadn’t sought him out at the party, to tell him how proud he was of his son, either. Instead, Richard and Mac’s mother, Elizabeth — one of Royalton’s last contract players and still considered a Hollywood grande dame — had made it a point to keep out of their only child’s way all evening long.

That was fine with Mac. His father was a dinosaur who had long needed a reality check, and the sooner that happened, the better, though not necessarily tonight. For the next hour or so, Mac planned on enjoying this glittering fairy tale he knew too well, as viewed through the large, limpid eyes of a girl who hungered to be a part of it. That is, if he could find her again. Tuning out Josh’s babbling, he scanned the crowded room, but the lighting was so soft he couldn’t find the waitress with the luscious lips anywhere. Finally, he spotted her, switching trays with one of the other waitresses and heading out to the rooftop deck.

Mac shoved the Oscar at Josh. “Here, stash this somewhere. I need some fresh air.”

With that, Mac weaved his way through the thick throng of back slappers, well-wishers, and envious peers who, he knew, swore under their breath that, at least tonight, he was the luckiest bastard in Hollywood.

We’ll see about that, he thought.

Excerpted from "Starlit" by Lisa Rinna. Copyright (c) 2010, reprinted with permission from Simon and Schuster.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive

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