Read an excerpt from this new historical ... In a Far-Off Land by Stephanie Landsem @tyndalehouse #christianfiction #newbook

I'm excited to share an excerpt with you today for this new release! Read it below...

In a Far-Off Land
By Stephanie Landsem
Christian Historical Fiction, Romance
Hardcover, Paperback, Audiobook & ebook, 378 Pages
May 4, 2021 by Tyndale House Publishers


A story about the price of fame, the truth sacrificed on its altar, and the love that brings a prodigal daughter home.

As the Great Depression hits the Midwest, Minerva Sinclaire runs away to Hollywood, determined to make it big and save the family farm. But beauty and moxie don’t pay the bills in Tinseltown, and she’s caught in a downward spiral of poverty, desperation, and compromise. Finally, she’s about to sign with a major studio and make up for it all. Instead, she wakes up next to a dead film star and is on the run for a murder she didn’t commit.

Only two unwilling men—Oscar, a Mexican gardener in danger of deportation, and Max, a too-handsome agent battling his own demons—can help Mina escape corrupt police on the take and the studio big shots trying to frame her. But even her quick thinking and grit can't protect her from herself. Alone, penniless, and carrying a shameful secret, Mina faces the consequences of the heartbreaking choices that brought her to ruin . . . and just might bring her back to where she belongs.

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C H A PT E R 1

Los Angeles, California


Roy Lester’s mansion was as ritzy a place as I’d ever seen. I had to pinch myself to make sure I was really there—me, Minerva Sinclaire—at one of the most glamorous parties in Hollywood. This was the moment I’d been waiting for. The part of the story right before the happy ending.

At least that’s what I thought at the time.

When the towering mahogany doors swung open, it was like stepping into The Hollywood Revue. The high-ceilinged great room sparkled, lit by a chandelier as bright as any studio set. Women in jewel-toned silk took their places with men in midnight-blue evening jackets, all in glorious Technicolor. In the center of the room, a grand piano provided the score, accompanied by the swell of conversation and the clink of ice against glasses. Toward the back of the room, a champagne cork popped, and a woman shrieked a laugh. I half expected to see a cameraman on a moving platform or hear a director with a megaphone call, “Cut!”

Max joined me at the top of three marble steps that led down into the room filled with music and color. “Mark my words, Mina. This is a mistake.”

“Don’t start.”

Max had been grousing since he picked me up at my boarding- house an hour ago. “You’re still my agent,” I’d told him on the telephone, “and a girl can’t show up at the door alone.” With how things were between us, I couldn’t tell him the truth that I needed him beside me. The thing that had happened between us over a month ago—what I called the New Year’s Day Incident—had been a mistake and best forgotten. If only Max were more forgetful. But if Max wanted his 20 percent of the contract I was signing tomorrow, he’d help me out tonight.

Earlier, he’d helped me into his lemon-yellow LaSalle roadster like we were on our way to San Quentin instead of the gladdest party in Los Angeles. He drove into the hills like a madman—as if driving faster could get the party over with. He twitched a cigarette in one hand as we chased the half moon, headlights dancing ahead of us, the roadster spitting gravel behind. When we pulled through the gated entrance to Roy Lester’s place, it was too unbelievable. Like one of those English estates had dropped out of the sky and onto the brown foothills of the Santa Monica mountains.

Max threw the stub of his smoke out the window and shifted to low gear on the smooth, winding driveway. He stopped sulking long enough to tell me about the place. “Twenty bedrooms, a theater that seats thirty, and a walk-in fur vault. There’s a for- mal English rose garden and greenhouses, and behind there—” he motioned past an unnaturally perfect lake lit by an illuminated fountain—“is a maze you could get lost in for days.”

We sped past sculpted box hedges, giant rabbits, and teapots casting moon shadows on a vast manicured lawn. Sodium lights blazed over two red-clay tennis courts.

“Your friend Roy has a cellar filled with real whisky and gin— the good stuff from Scotland and England. And champagne imported from France. He’s got a switch upstairs that locks it up tight if the feds come calling.” Max snorted. “As if the law would raid Roy Lester’s little haven. They’re paid off too well for that.”

Max’s glum take was starting to rub me the wrong way. “Since when is bankroll and booze a problem for you?” In the four months I’d known Max, he’d never taken offense at other people’s cash—or turned down their liquor.

I watched his profile as he maneuvered the roadster around the circular driveway and came to a rolling stop. His scowl really did mar that handsome face. His hair was neatly combed back and his black fedora set at an angle. A dark lock curled over his forehead, giving him a touch of boyish charm, which he used plenty well. He had a jaw worthy of any leading man and a nose with a hint of a crook, as if he’d broken it years ago. His amber eyes, with lashes that would make Greta Garbo jealous, were guarded as he turned to me. “I don’t like Roy Lester.”

Max played his cards close, and usually I let him keep his secrets, but this time I pushed. “Then how do you know so much about him?” I waved a hand. “And about his place?”

“I just do.” The roadster sputtered and went silent. “Be careful with these people, you got me?”

I got him, all right. What was good for the gander and all that applesauce. But my time was running out. I’d learned plenty in the ten months I’d been in Hollywood—to dance, to act, to pretend I fit in. I’d even learned to drink bootlegged whisky—not legally, of course, but nobody cared about that. And I’d learned to take my breaks where I found them—with or without Max’s blessing.

Now, faced with a roomful of Hollywood’s elite, I wasn’t so nervy. My knees wobbled and my palms went damp. A Chinese butler in an embroidered silk robe and satin-tasseled hat greeted us with, “Good evening.” I’d heard Oriental butlers were all the rage, but I’d never actually seen one.

I slipped off my fox wrap as if it were a full-length mink. Act like you belong, that’s what everybody else is doing. I took a deep breath and passed the fur to Max. Acting had got me this far, and it would have to take me the rest of the way.

“I’m not the coat-check girl,” Max muttered, but he took my fur just the same.

“Be careful—it’s rented,” I whispered.

Max took off his crisp fedora and leaned closer. “At least prom- ise me you’ll follow the rules.”

That was rich, and I wasn’t so nervous that I couldn’t fire back at him. “Maybe you should try following them yourself, Max.”

At least he had the grace to flush. He turned away, giving his fedora and my fox to the celestial butler, whose expression didn’t flicker a jot.

With or without Max’s help, this night was going my way. Granted, my plan since I left Odessa hadn’t come off without a hitch. I’d stepped off the bus at Central Station as green and innocent as a South Dakota spring. Well, I wasn’t green anymore, and I sure as sugar wasn’t innocent. But I was at the end of my rope.

I glanced into the ceiling-to-floor mirrors that flanked the entrance. If mirrors told the truth, I would have seen a small-town girl with her knees knocking and stomach churning. But—thank the stars above—mirrors lie, too. The woman looking back at me wasn’t a nervous Nelly but a sophisticated Hollywood ingénue. And with any luck at all, Cosmopolitan Productions’ next leading lady.

My hair was somewhere between a brunette and redhead—in Hollywood they called it auburn. Bobbed, waved, and as smooth as glass, it was absolutely the thing. Garnet lipstick set off my blue eyes and milk-white skin—no freckles, thank you very much.

Then there was the dress that had cost me my last nickel.

It was an emerald-green sheath, sleeveless and cut on the bias. Pearl beads weighted the cowl neckline and set off my ivory skin— and plenty of it. The slim cut skimmed over my hips and clung to my legs, all the way down to my matching satin heels. An armband of gold wire and pearls—cultured, of course—wrapped above my elbow, and a matching spray gleamed behind my ear. I turned slightly and looked over my shoulder. The back plunged indecently low. Penny would be shocked. In fact, all of Odessa would be shocked.

Max gave me a look that said exactly what he thought of the dress. He knew how much a frock like this cost, and he knew my situation as well as I did. But it wasn’t an extravagance. It was an investment. Max was sore because I’d got to this party—the one that would make me a star—without his help. Not only that, but I’d been invited by Louella Parsons herself. The Queen of Gossip, they called her. If she gave a girl the nod in one of her Examiner columns or on her radio show, that girl was on her way up. But if Louella took a dislike to a new actress—didn’t matter why—she might as well go back to Kansas.

You could have knocked me over with a horsefeather this morning at the Brown Derby, where I made about enough to keep my cockroaches alive. I brought Louella her breakfast of oatmeal and cream, and she gave me her usual scowl. I won’t go into that whole story right now; let’s just say Louella and I had got off on the wrong foot.

I poured coffee all around and tried not to look like I was listening to Louella and William Randolph Hearst talking about a party at Roy Lester’s that night. I pretended not to notice Louella’s husband, Docky Martin, slip a flask from his pocket and dose his coffee. Suddenly, Louella turned on me like she was seeing me for the first time. “Minerva! My dear. Aren’t you just the cat’s pajamas?” She looked me up and down. “And that hair. Such a pretty shade.” “Thank you, Mrs. Parsons,” I managed, clutching the coffeepot. “Dearest Minerva, how long have you been working here?” she

asked, almost like she cared.

I told her four months and waited for her other size-ten T-strap to drop.

“You poor thing,” she cooed. “What you need is someone to take you under her wing, like a mother hen.” She smoothed a hand over her tan tweed suit. With her matching cloche hat and a spray of crim- son feathers, she did resemble a hen I’d known back at the farm—one who’d kept the other hens in line with her sharp beak. “Tell me now, do you know Roy Lester?”

Every red-blooded citizen in America knew Roy Lester. America’s Hero, they called him. And everyone in Hollywood knew he was the highest-paid actor in history. “I can’t say I’ve met him, Mrs. Parsons.”

“Call me Lolly, darling. And that’s going to change tonight. Isn’t that right, Docky?” She went on without an answer from her husband. “A soirée at Roy’s estate, and you, my dearest, are going to be. My. Guest.” She tapped the table with each of the last three words like it was a headline on one of her columns.

I stammered something; I don’t even know what. I scooted around the table before Docky could pinch my bottom, while Louella put cream and two sugars in her coffee. Me, Louella Parsons’s guest?

She shifted to a stage whisper. “Roy himself told me he’s look- ing for a fresh face for his next leading lady.” Her gaze slipped to Docky, who had tipped slightly to eye my backside. He grunted as her foot connected with his ankle. “He’ll love you. Leave it to me.” I was speechless. This was what I’d been waiting for. Across the room, Norb, the owner of the joint, was staring at me. He didn’t like the help hanging around the guests, especially the big names.

I took a cloth out of my apron and wiped an invisible spill. “Terrific, Lolly,” I managed as if I were invited to a millionaire

actor’s house every day of the week. “I’ll be there with bells on.” Now Norb was weaving through the tables, his eyes on me, his brow furrowed.

Louella smiled, her bright eyes narrowing to slits. She scribbled the address on a scrap of paper and tucked it into my apron with a plump, jeweled hand. “Trust me, dearest, you won’t regret it.”

The minute my shift ended, I’d hightailed it back to the boardinghouse I called home. My roommate, Lana, was putting in an early shift at the dance hall so I had the place to myself. Rent was due, and my cupboard held nothing but mouse droppings and a can of sardines, but it didn’t matter, not this time.

I changed into my best street dress, a cardinal-red wool number that hugged my figure and fell exactly between my knees and ankles. With a dove-gray roll brim dipped over one eye and suede shoes trimmed in lizard, I looked the part. I pulled my rent money out of the tea tin marked Do Not Spend!, tugged on my gloves, and hopped the streetcar for Bullock’s on Seventh and Broadway.

Two hours later, I left Bullock’s with the emerald dress, boxed and wrapped in tissue. Smaller packages held the matching kitten heels, the pearl armband, and the hair comb. It’s an investment, I said to Max as if he were there. I talked a lot to Max in my head. Those days, they were the only civil conversations we had.

I’d made a final stop in Bullock’s discreetly placed lingerie department. If Penny could see the rose silk panties with the ruffled petal hem and the new-fashioned brassiere, she’d pitch a fit, but white cotton bloomers and a modest camisole wouldn’t do under this gown. And besides, pretty underthings give you confidence—that’s what all the magazines said—and I needed all I could get.

I had about enough change for a sandwich and a cup of coffee if I walked home instead of taking the tram, and by the time I got to Broadway and First, my feet were killing me. I didn’t give a hoot. I tip-tapped down the street, humming one of those sappy songs I’d heard on the radio.

At the corner, a handful of the down-on-their-luck men stepped to the side, lifting their hats to me. Hand-lettered signs around their necks or propped beside them on the curb told their sad stories.

Will Work for Food.
My Family Is Starving.

My gown and shoes suddenly felt heavier in my arms. Since the crash and what came after, men got off the bus in LA every day to find the same hard truth I’d learned ten months ago: jobs were as hard to come by in the Golden State as they were in the rest of the country. From what the headlines said, it was only getting worse. The lucky men sold apples for two cents each. The unlucky men—and their families—slowly starved to death.

I should have moved on, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. An old man, his face creased like a well-read newspaper and his pale eyes desperate, stood in the hard sun, a barrel of apples at his feet. He looked like a farmer. Like Papa.

He picked through his bin of apples and chose one, polishing it on his sleeve before offering it to me. “Please, miss.”

I looked at the packages in my arms. This man had nothing and would probably have nothing again tomorrow. One more day with an empty stomach wouldn’t kill me. Not anymore.

I dumped the entire contents of my purse in his cup. Two bits and a couple of dimes would get him a square meal. I took the apple and turned away as quick as I could, but not fast enough. Eyes bright with tears and a whispered “bless you” gave me a stab of homesickness. Was Papa hungry tonight? Was Penny making ends meet?

When I got home, I wrote to Penny.

Maybe my luck is changing, Penny. Maybe this story will have a happy ending after all. Even if I don’t deserve it.

I sealed up the letter and told myself it wouldn’t be long now before I could go home to Odessa. First thing, I’d pay off the mort- gage and the taxes so Papa would never have to worry again. Then I’d get one of those newfangled tractors that practically planted the corn for you. Maybe I’d buy a closetful of dowdy dresses and the sensible shoes Penny liked. We’d have steak every night of the week and twice on Sundays. That’s what I’d do. I’d make everything up to Papa. Even Penny would have to admit I’d come through.

And it would all start tonight—right now—at Roy Lester’s party.

Max waited at the top of the marble steps, looking like he was about to get a tooth pulled. The piano swelled to the chorus of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and a trio of men began to sing off-key. I took a deep breath and lifted my chin.

This was it, what I’d been waiting for. So why were my legs wobbling like a soused sailor?

Max looked down at me with what could have been a hint of compassion and tucked my hand in the crook of his arm. “Let’s get this over with.”

We stepped down, entering the whirl of color and sound. Max’s arm under his midnight-blue evening jacket was rigid, his jaw set as if he were going into battle. Was he sore because of what happened between us, or was it something else? You never could tell with Max.

He guided me smoothly through the crowd. The women, all beautiful, moved as gracefully as if they were choreographed dancers. The men made elegance look effortless. Everyone held a glass—dainty bowls of champagne, tumblers of dark whisky, martini glasses of clear gin with the occasional olive. Like everywhere else in the country, the Eighteenth Amendment had not only failed to curb the consumption of liquor, it had made drinking a national pastime.

A maid, a lovely Mexican girl probably no more than eighteen in a black below-the-knee dress and a shapeless white apron, stopped short in front of us, glasses teetering on her tray. She stared at Max. I was used to it—women ogled him wherever we went—but the way her mouth dropped open looked like astonishment. Max took two champagnes and said something to her in a low voice.

She hurried away as if she were being chased.

“What was that about?” I asked.

He gave me one of the glasses and shrugged. “This joint is a waste of time, Mina.”

“A waste of—” Changing the subject was one of his specialties, but I fell for it. “Says you.” I turned on him, whispering furiously and jerking a nod at the piano. “That’s John Gilbert over there.” Gilbert, dubbed the Great Lover, earned more in one picture than my father’s farm was worth.

Max downed his champagne in one gulp, then put a hand at the small of my back, guiding me toward the center of the room. “Gilbert’s a liability. The drinking’s one thing, but the women . . . He’s probably traded pajama bottoms with every Jane in this room, except maybe your dear friend Louella.” Max didn’t hide his disdain. “Not to mention his voice. Gilbert’s first talkie was his last.”

I’d seen Gilbert’s debut in talkies and couldn’t help but laugh at his high, effeminate voice like the rest of the people in the picture house. I took a sip of my champagne, letting the bubbles dis- solve on my tongue. “But look! John Barrymore.” My voice fairly squeaked. Me, in the same room as an icon.

Max harrumphed as if the man leaning against the crowded bar wasn’t Hollywood royalty. “Barrymore’s downed enough gin to sink the Titanic, and it’s starting to show. The suits in New York—the ones who hold the purse strings—they don’t want that kind of trouble, not anymore. If they could break his contract, believe me, they would.”

I looked closer at the man they called the Great Profile. Yes, there was a telltale slackening around his jaw. The eyes thousands of women had fallen in love with were bloodshot and puffy. But Max didn’t need to be such a sourpuss.

Max guided me around the throng at the bar, to an alcove where we could see most of the room. “See those birds?” He jerked his head toward a trio of women dancing next to a crackling phono- graph. Billie Dove, known by every filmgoer as the American Beauty, leaned against Colleen Moore, who had transformed girls’ hair across the country with her Dutch boy bob. I’d seen every film either of them had made, sitting in the tiny Odessa Picture House, so caught up in the films I hardly noticed my beaus trying to hold my hand or sneak a kiss. Beside Billie, Norma Talmadge—the most glamorous flapper of all—whispered in the ear of a kid half her age. “Between the crash, budget cuts, and talkies, they’re washed up.” Max kept at his lecture. “Rumor has it none of them will work again, unless it’s at the Macy’s perfume counter.”

That brought me up short. Could Max be right? I watched them over the rim of my champagne glass. Their laughs were a bit overloud. And yes, their eyes under the heavy liner and fake lashes held a desperate cheerfulness I knew too well.

“These people aren’t who you want to rub elbows with, Mina. The ones who do—” he dipped his head at a set of walleyed young things stumbling through the Charleston—“crash and burn before they get anywhere.”

I wanted to ask him how he knew so much, but the hoofers started singing along with the phonograph, and the piano player raised the ante, pounding the keys like he was trying to win a con- test. Max leaned closer so I could hear him over the din. “Mina, you need to wise up. Tell me something. Who isn’t here?”

He was close enough for me to smell the cologne he always used, clean and lemony. I pushed the memory of the New Year’s Incident away and tried to follow. “Mary Pickford,” I answered. America’s Sweetheart, they called her, and she wasn’t here. If she were, she’d be the center of attention.

He nodded. “And?”

I shook my head. What was he getting at? “Douglas Fairbanks?” Pickford’s husband. They went everywhere together and unlike some film couples, they were mad about each other.

He acted like I was a schoolgirl finally understanding her les- son. “Buster Keaton, Carole Lombard.” He looked at me, his dark brows raised. “The real high-hats, Mina.” His eyes ran over the crowd as if assessing them. “Gable and Crawford wouldn’t set foot in this place. Not that they don’t drink or sleep around—they all do—but not with people like Lester. And your heartthrob, Mr. Chaplin? Wild horses couldn’t drag him here.”

That was low. I’d only confessed to him my infatuation with Charlie Chaplin in a moment of weakness. It was ungentlemanly to use it against me, but Max always dug deep to make his point. Max kept at it. “They stay away for good reason, Mina. Nothing but trouble waiting to happen here. And your friend Louella, waiting to jam somebody up on tomorrow’s radio show while her hus- band supplies pills to most of the men in the room and abortions to half the women.”

I flushed. Max was worked up, and maybe he was right. But his way hadn’t panned out and I was desperate. And desperation put me in a fighting mood. That’s when my winning argument perched her famous backside on top of the bar in front of us. “What about Clara?”

Clara Bow, vamped up in thick black eyeliner and a clingy scarlet dress, the three-inch fringe well above her knees. Pencil-thin eyebrows gave her a sad-eyed look, and her hair, a bobbed halo of dark-red curls, caught the glow of the lights. She crossed her shapely legs and raised a highball glass to a gaggle of adoring men. I’d seen every one of her pictures, from The Daring Years, when I was barely fourteen, to The Wild Party, Clara’s first talkie. She was the cat’s meow. The It Girl. The woman who not only made her own choices but made more coin in one picture than I’d seen in three years of working at the diner in Odessa. Even Max couldn’t argue with fame like hers.

Max followed my gaze, saw Clara, and quickly turned his back to the bar, as if he didn’t want to look at her. “Do you even read the news rags?” he whispered.

Well, yes. I’d seen the photos of her in court with her current boyfriend, Rex Bell, at her side. “But she’s not on trial, her secretary is.” Her secretary, Daisy DeVoe, had tried to blackmail her for over a hundred thousand dollars.

“Sure, but it’s Clara being raked over the coals.” Max kept his head turned away, but his expression was grim and a little sad.

What came out at trial was shocking, even for Hollywood. Drunken parties, cocaine, plenty of men—Gary Cooper, Victor Fleming, the entire USC football team, or so they said—all of it written in letters so explicit, they couldn’t be printed even in the seediest tabloid. The newspapers jumped on Clara Bow like hyenas ripping up a carcass. IT Girl Exposed! Singed Starlet in Ruins!

Max went on. “Paramount can’t handle her mess of a personal life, especially now that it’s no longer personal. Not to mention she’s the last word in self-destruction. Between the men, booze, and drugs, they won’t put up with much more of her, not when she can’t even remember her lines.” Max snorted. “For the life, I can’t understand why these people have to write it all down. They keep letters and diaries like trophies, then they’re shocked when some mug finds them and wants a payoff.”

Max was a lot of things—stubborn, overbearing, bossy . . . I could go on. But he was rarely wrong about the business. Could the It Girl really be finished? Then I heard her. She’d only been in one talkie, but I’d recognize her voice anywhere. Throaty, with a tinge of a Brooklyn accent.

“Maximilian. Are you going to hide out over there all night, or are you going to come on over and say hello?”

My mouth dropped open. Was she talking to my Max?

Max let out a long breath and gave me what seemed to be an apologetic look. He turned toward the bar. “Clara. It’s been a long time.” He sounded none too pleased.

Max, on a first-name basis with Clara Bow?

Max’s grip on my elbow tightened as the circle of men reluctantly parted for us. Clara didn’t spare me a glance as she handed Max her empty glass. “Fill that for me, will ya, Maxi?” She turned to the men lounging beside her. “Fellas, this is Max Clark. His father was Dusty Clark, the Kissing Cowboy.” She smiled and swayed a bit. “As fine a man as you chumps could ever hope to meet.”

Max refilled her glass with a splash from the bottle on the bar. His jaw was rigid, and he didn’t even try to look like he was glad to see the most famous woman in Hollywood. “How you holding up, Clara?” He held the glass out of her reach, forcing her to look at him.

She gave him a sultry smile instead of an answer. “So this is who you’re spending your time with now?” She kept her eyes on Max. “Isn’t she a pretty little thing.” It sure didn’t sound like a compliment, so I didn’t thank her.

Max introduced me with precious little enthusiasm. Close up, I could see what he’d meant. Clara looked worn, like a dollar bill that had passed through too many hands. Her heavy makeup couldn’t conceal the bruised circles under her notorious bedroom eyes.

“It’s a pleasure, Miss Bow,” I got out before she turned away, bellowing for more glasses.

She filled them herself, almost to the rim, and passed one to Max and one to me. “Any friend of Max’s” was all she said before raising her glass. “To Dusty Clark.” All the men followed suit. “He could drink any of you cake-eaters straight under the table. Didn’t matter what there was, gin, whisky, or moonshine.” She clinked her glass with Max’s and gave him a slow wink. “Down the hatch,” she said, throwing back the glass in one go.

I took a gulp from mine. It burned all the way down and made my eyes water.

Max set down his empty glass and took Clara’s hand. It was small and pale in his. “Take care of yourself, will you, Clara?”

She looked at him blearily. “I’d rather if you took care of me, Maxi,” she whispered with a look that could melt steel.

My cheeks burned as hot as my throat. Was Max one of the long line of Clara’s men? I was hardly as pure as the driven snow, but the notion of Clara and Max together made a little fire flare up in the back of my brain.

Without another word, Max moved me through the crowded room.

“You know her?” I whispered, staring up at his tight jaw. Max kept a lot to himself, but when he did talk, he told it straight. I liked that about him, even if sometimes I didn’t want to hear it. But at the moment he was looking anywhere but at me.

“My father was part of this crowd.” That answer was bushwah, but he had that look on his face that told me not to push it. “Mina, please. Let’s go.”

Max didn’t beg, so I must have misheard that plea in his voice. Besides, I’d just met Clara Bow, and I still hadn’t found Louella or Roy Lester. “Max, I’m not leaving here until I do what I came to do, and that’s get this part.”

Max turned, grabbing my elbow just below my faux pearls and whispering furiously, “Mina, listen to me for once. These people—” he jerked his head at the whole room—“people like Clara, like Barrymore. They’re looking for something—happiness, meaning, I don’t know what. They think they can find it in the bottom of a bottle, or with dope, or in somebody else’s bed.” His honey-gold eyes were bright and close. “They keep looking and looking.” His voice hardened. “And then they end up destroying themselves.” He put his hands on my bare shoulders. “I’m telling you, Mina, this is a bad idea.”

I stared up at him. Honestly, where had this come from? Was this about his father? What happened to Dusty Clark—star roper and rider and in at least a hundred films—had been a tragedy. “Max.” I swallowed hard. “I’m not like your father. I can handle this.”

Max shook his head, blowing a frustrated breath. “No,” he said firmly. “You can’t.”

Max knew plenty about the business, but he didn’t know beans about me. He thought I wanted to make it big, live in a fancy mansion like Lester’s, wear furs and designer dresses. But he was wrong.

I had no intention of staying in Hollywood any longer than I had to.

The studios loved new faces and they paid them well. Why, Joan Crawford, the most elegant of all the flappers, had started at seventy-five dollars a week at MGM. My plan was to make my money then get out. A six-month contract as Roy Lester’s leading lady would make me enough coin to leave California with ten times what I’d taken from Papa. Enough to make up for everything and keep Papa in peaches and pipe tobacco for the rest of his life. I’d left the farm almost a year ago, and by now the mortgage and taxes were past due. If I didn’t make it soon . . . I’d never be able to go home.

But I wasn’t about to tell Max that.

My name, sung out in a familiar bleating voice, broke through the tension wrapped around us. Max’s hands dropped from my shoulders. Louella Parsons’s stout frame pushed through the slim women and swellegant men like a freighter through frothy waves.

“Minerva, my dearest! You came. I knew you would.” She was wearing a flowing gown of burgundy silk trimmed in black marabou. Her cheeks were pink, her eyes overbright. She fluttered her lashes at Max. “It’s been a long time, Maximilian.”

“Louella.” The look on his face said not long enough.

So Max knew Louella as well as Clara Bow, and hadn’t even told me? He was a dark horse, but this was the clincher. How else had he been holding out on me?

Louella lifted one of my hands, twirling me around. “You. Look. Divine.” She linked her arm through mine. “You don’t mind if I steal your little friend for a bit, do you, Maximilian?”

Max held out his hand to me, as if giving me one last chance to change my mind. I shook my head. Ever since the New Year’s Incident, he’d been in a mood. Sure, he’d got me some auditions, even the promise of a contract with Cosmo, but everything he’d done had fallen through. Sometimes he acted like he didn’t even want me to make it in Hollywood.

I let Louella turn me away from him, a lump in my throat. Max was my agent and he wasn’t doing his job. That’s all there was to it. The crowd closed around me, and the last I saw of Max was his worried eyes watching me walk away.

Louella steered me toward the back of the house like a force of nature, her fingers digging into my arm like talons. “Minerva, dearest,” Louella said, “I can put you right up on the screen. You know that, don’t you?” I didn’t know what to say, but it didn’t matter because she went on. “I just need you to do a little thing for me.”

“But, what—?” A little thing?

“It’s nothing. Just keep Roy Lester busy tonight. And by tomorrow, you’ll be signing a contract with Cosmo. I guarantee it.”

“But doesn’t Mr. Lester make the decisions about his leading ladies? And Mr. Hearst?”

She stopped midstride and turned to me, her voice sticky-sweet. “Don’t you worry. I have Mr. Hearst right in my pocket.” She pat- ted her breast as if she had a pocket with a miniature William Randolph Hearst trapped inside.

I tried to clear my muddled head. I do this for her, and she gets me a contract with Cosmo? With Louella’s help, I could be bringing in hundreds of dollars a week in no time at all. Enough to wire to Papa and keep him in the clear. And what was the harm in keeping Roy Lester company, anyway?

Then, through a tall double door, we entered a party that was far more intimate than the crush in the other room. Half a dozen people lounged on red velvet divans and tufted chairs in front of a massive stone fireplace. The lights were dim, the music muted. A white bearskin lay on the floor, the mouth gaping open to show enormous ivory teeth.

A shiver ran over my bare back.

Louella turned to me, her eyes bright with more than the gin I smelled on her breath. “Here we are, Minerva. I’m telling you, Roy is just going to eat you up.”

I ignored the herd of butterflies stampeding in my stomach and plucked up my courage. Roy Lester, get ready to meet your next leading lady.

The murmur of conversation fell silent as we approached, the music and wild laughter of the other room muted and distant. Louella gushed like a little girl, “Minerva, dearest, you remember my friends, William and Marion?”

How could I not? Hearst was propped in one corner of the plush red divan, a full tumbler of whisky in hand. He was forty if he was a day, and Marion had left her twenties behind long ago. Marion was draped over him like a blanket, her famous blonde bob mussed and her lids at half-mast. A champagne bottle dangled from one dainty hand.

I stammered my hello, trying not to gape at how Marion’s sapphire dress, with a plunging V-neck and plenty of spangles, had slipped up her thigh, followed closely by Hearst’s hand. Marion murmured a greeting, took a swig from her bottle, and hiccupped. Hearst raised his glass to me and winked broadly at Louella’s husband, who moved over to make room on the divan. Louella’s eyes narrowed and I hoped to heaven she wasn’t thinking of the Docky Disaster at this moment.

Louella took my arm in her clawlike grasp and turned me to the man seated on the other end of the divan. Roy Lester wore a white dinner jacket, unbuttoned, and his bow tie was already undone. His classic features blurred behind the smoke of a fat cigar. “Roy, I’d like you to meet Minerva Sinclaire,” Louella simpered. “I think you two will just adore each other.”

Let me tell you something. Back at the farm, we had a rooster I’d named Blackie the Pirate, on account of the way he strutted around, his red gobbles wobbling, his swordlike beak ready to strike at any out-of-line hen. Roy Lester made me think of him right off. Roy’s dark hair was combed over a thinning crown, and a narrow mustache outlined razor-thin lips. He even had a fold of red-flushed skin inching over his collar. But mostly, it was his eyes. They were sharp and quick, as if looking for a weak spot.

I held out my hand. I didn’t have to like him; I just had to keep him company, like Louella said. Roy didn’t stand for the introduction, but I guess someone under contract for a million bills a year doesn’t have to stand if he doesn’t want to. He took my hand and jerked me down into his lap. I yelped in surprise and struggled a bit. He laughed, his hand snaking around my waist as I awkwardly rearranged myself to sit beside him and put my dress back to rights while avoiding the hot ash of his cigar. “Pleased to meet you.” I found my voice and gave him a look from under my lashes.

“Miss Sinclaire,” he crowed, his eyes swiveling over me. “Louella’s told me all about you.” His whisky-and-tobacco breath made my eyes water.

I inched away, but Louella settled her bulky form on my other side, trapping me.

“You’re dry,” Lester bellowed, as if it were a crime. “This won’t do at all.” He signaled to a waiter—a kid bearing a striking resemblance to the girl Max had spoken to—who proffered a tray of martinis. I tried to remember how many drinks I’d had. Clara’s whisky, two glasses of champagne, or was it three? Then I reminded myself I wasn’t following Max’s rules tonight, accepted a martini, and took a sip. The gin slipped down my throat like a sharp knife, but I figured it would give me courage. Roy settled back, and Louella started in on who we’d seen in the other room, who they were with, and what they said.

I made small talk and took Roy’s hand in mine so it couldn’t go any further up my thigh. He wasn’t so bad, I told myself, if slurred words and cigar breath were your thing.

Louella leaned into our conversation. “Didn’t I tell you? Couldn’t you just eat her up?” She laughed as if it weren’t the tenth time tonight she’d used the phrase.

Roy buried his face in my neck. I tried to wiggle away as he traced a moist path toward my ear. A flicker of panic started in my chest and I pushed at him. This was too much. Roy leaned back, eyeing me with a hint of disappointment. “Come on, sweet thing, you know the game.” He snagged another martini from a passing tray and put it in my hands. His look gave me the heebie-jeebies. Yes, I knew the game. I wished to heaven I didn’t. I took a sip, even though I didn’t want it.

The party in the other room was getting louder, the singing more off-key, the laughter rowdier. The music on the phonograph competed with the pounding piano. A gal who seemed to be wearing only her underslip scampered past, letting out a small scream and laughing uncontrollably as a man chased her. He caught her up in his arms and carried her out, shouting about the pool.

The room closed in on me, thick with smoke and unnamed expectations. I was definitely in over my head. Oh, how I hated when Max was right. I needed to think, and I couldn’t think with Roy so close, with Louella watching me with those bright eyes. “I need to powder my nose.” I pasted on a sweet smile and got to my feet. The floor swayed in an alarming way.

Roy grabbed my hand and eyed me suspiciously. “You aren’t running out on me, are you, doll?”

“Oh, believe me, Roy, she’ll be back.” Louella jumped in. She gave me a look that said I better be back.

“In two shakes,” I assured Roy, my voice wobbling.

“Lucky man,” Docky slurred, and Louella gave him a glare.

I lurched away, my satin heels sinking into the sprawling bearskin. I imagined the bear’s glassy eyes watching me as I stumbled out of the room. Panic crept up my throat as I veered around a swarm of dancers. I could hear Max’s “I told you so,” but I wasn’t about to accept defeat. I needed air, then I’d come up with some way to see this through.

Once, when I was a kid, Penny and I dared each other to swim across the lake behind the back forty. Whoever lost had to clean the chicken coop. Penny was older but I was the better swimmer and itching to prove it. I started out strong and was soon yards ahead. By the time I reached the middle of the lake, I was exhausted. Penny turned back, but I pushed on. I made it, but only barely. Penny—the tattletale—told Papa the whole story that night, and I had to clean the chicken coop for a month, even though I’d won the bet. With every shovelful, I reminded myself I’d done what I had set out to do—and I’d do it again.

Sink or swim, isn’t that how the saying goes? But how far would I have to swim with Roy Lester? All the way? It wasn’t like this was my first time, I reminded myself. It wasn’t even my first time with someone I’d just met. I’d thought—and hoped and prayed and promised myself— those days and ways were behind me, but I’d come too far and was in too deep to give up now.

I pushed through the crowd, making a beeline for a set of French doors draped in heavy damask. I could leave now and lose my chance or stay and see this thing through. Papa and Penny were fast running out of time.

Sink or swim? I didn’t have a choice anymore.

Excerpted from In a Far-Off Land by Stephanie Landsem, Copyright © 2021 by Stephanie Landsem. Published by Tyndale House Publishers.

About the Author

Stephanie Landsem writes historical fiction because she loves adventure in faroff times and places. In real life, she's explored ruins, castles, and cathedrals on four continents and has met fascinating characters who sometimes find their way into her fiction. Stephanie is just as happy at home in Minnesota with her husband, four adult children, two cats, and a dog. When she's not reading, researching, or writing, she's avoiding housework and dreaming about her next adventure—whether it be in person or on the page.

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