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The lovers secret, p.10
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       The Lover's Secret, p.10

           J. C. Reed
 
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  I shook my head grimly.

  Fifty thousand dollars was almost the price of a brand new car, something I desperately needed to replace my beloved Volvo, which had served me well, but it was now becoming a bit too unpredictable.

  It was almost as much as Jett had paid with a single swipe of his card for a weekend at the TRIO hotel.

  Dread threatened to choke me as I opened the second letter with shaking hands. Then the third and then another one. They were all reminders of my debts and student loans, accumulating to a whopping...

  Ninety…

  What!?

  Ninety thousand dollars of debt.

  My mind froze, and for a moment, I thought I might just throw up all over the floor.

  What did you think, stupid? That your money problems would go away just because you have a well-paying job now? That not picking up the mail would make the bills vanish?

  I felt physically sick, as if someone had just punched me twice in the stomach and left me lying on a cold floor, only to return with a truck, ready to run me over.

  I had worked so hard all my life. Why couldn’t life just give me a break?

  In one angry motion, I balled the letters up, and pushed them across the table, as far away from me as possible. Even with my new promotion and the great bonus package, it’d take me forever to repay all of those loans while I struggled to keep my head above water. I buried my head in my hands and took deep breaths, but they didn’t do much to calm me.

  There were some possibilities, a few other options, like asking Jett for help. Or trying to find a way to change Alessandro Lucazzone’s will and sell the property I had inherited in Italy. According to Jett’s lawyers, the estate would begin to incur annual property costs and taxes, starting the following year. Only—even if I managed to find a clause that allowed me to sell the property—I didn’t want to touch money that didn’t really belong to me.

  But the worst part was that Jett had no idea about my money problems. No one knew, because I was too ashamed to admit it even to myself, let alone to those who cared about me.

  The sinking hole wasn’t getting smaller. If anything, I felt as though it was about to swallow me up whole. No matter what, I had to find a feasible solution.

  Maybe start my own business?

  I groaned inwardly at the thought. That would require another, bigger loan for starting capital, and my credit score was already scary as hell. Sell some personal items?

  Maybe…but what?

  I had nothing valuable, except for a few pairs of boots and some business attire that had seen more work than a lumberjack.

  I snorted at my brain-dead ideas.

  It wasn’t just that most my clothes were old. I had been borrowing clothes from Sylvie for years and couldn’t possibly sell the few new items I had bought with my last paycheck.

  Asking my mother, who had debts of her own to pay off, was out of the question. Asking Sylvie, after she had been covering a larger portion of the rent for years (she always insisted) to help me out, was unacceptable. I realized that asking Jett for help was out of the question, too, even though ninety thousand dollars would have probably been like ninety bucks for him. He might be the rich boyfriend, who wouldn’t even notice that kind of money missing from his account, but asking him would be like admitting that I was poor, and that I didn’t fit into his world. Besides, I refused to be dependent on Jett; the only thing worse than being single or desperate was to owe a man. I couldn’t live with the guilt and the shame, and especially not with the knowledge that, at some point, he might start to resent me or to look down on me. I didn’t want money or lack thereof to define me.

  The icy knot in my stomach intensified at the thought of having no means to fully provide for my child while I kept pretending to everyone that life couldn’t be better. Sooner or later, with all the expensive trips Jett insisted on taking and his need for a lavish lifestyle, he was bound to notice that I couldn’t keep up with him. And what would his rich and famous friends and clients think of me? Probably that I was a gold-digger, using him for his money.

  I shuddered at the idea of anyone thinking that. It had been hard pretending to Jett that in my free time, I was going shopping when all the while I spent my time with things I could afford, like reading the free newspapers, talking free walks, and chatting for free with Sylvie via Skype. Basically, all things that were free. Sooner or later, he was bound to notice.

  There was no question whether I wanted to grow up. I literally had to, and quick, if I was going to solve my problems. If I just knew how.

  I drew a long breath and let it out slowly, but my heart continued to slam into my ribs. My stomach was still a frozen mess, and my brain frantically searched for a solution. Maybe I could discard all the letters and pretend I never received them for the sake of calming myself, because obviously stress wasn’t good for the baby. Come to think of it, it wasn’t such a bad idea. I could leave them on the table or trash them outside. Once they were gone, it would be like they never existed, and I could pretend for once that I didn’t have the problems I had. That would give me both the clarity and the time needed to figure out my next move.

  Or maybe, if I prayed hard enough, the banks might just make a mistake and transfer a huge sum of money from someone else’s account into mine, which would help me gain more time to repay them, say in fifty years.

  I sighed inwardly.

  God, that would be so cool…but immensely unlikely. As in entirely impossible.

  From the periphery of my eyes, I noticed the barista inching closer to my table. I looked up and found her gazing at me with a worried expression on her face. She wasn’t much older than me. Her glossy black hair was held together by a girly red flower clip, and her nametag read “Thalia.”

  “Everything okay?” she asked.

  I hated that question. More often than not, it required the need to lie, and I didn’t want to. Not today. Not when I was hormonal.

  Biting my lip, I smiled, even though I doubted I could fool anyone.

  “The coffee’s great. Thanks.”

  “I wasn’t talking about the coffee,” Thalia said, definitely not fooled.

  Instant shame burned through me at the thought that she presumed I was on the verge of having a mental breakdown and might be about to cause her trouble in her place of work. I wondered how scary it must be to encounter an apparently mentally unstable customer who liked to crumple letters and throw them across the table. She clearly feared she might have to kick me out, or that I’d throw a hissy fit—or worse.

  “I’ve seen better days.” I smiled again and waved my hand dismissively, as though almost one hundred grand in debt wasn’t a big deal. “But don’t worry. I’ll be gone in a minute.” I stuffed the letters inside my bag and reached for my coat.

  Only, too late.

  “Look, I don’t mean to pry, but I just thought…if you need work, we can always use an extra hand around here during the week from one to five.” She pointed at the cashier. “She’s the manager. I’m sure she’ll give you the job if you tell her you’re in trouble.”

  I stared at Thalia, open-mouthed. “How did you know?”

  She pointed at my bag. “It wasn’t hard to guess. I have experience with that kind of mail, and the red ‘final notice’ warnings on the paper made it pretty clear, even from across the room.” She paused to watch my expression.

  I just nodded, too shocked and embarrassed to say anything.

  She took a deep breath and continued, “What I’m trying to say is I know how plain annoying banks can be. A job here might help.”

  For a few seconds, I remained stunned. My smile turned bitter as I realized that even a second job as a barista or waitress wouldn’t solve my problems.

  “I really appreciate the offer. It’s just…” I moistened my lips, carefully considering my words so I wouldn’t offend her kindness. “Well, I’m already working full-time with more unpaid hours than I can count. Even if I had the extra time to work a seco
nd job, it wouldn’t pay enough to repay my student loans.”

  “I see.” She scanned our surroundings quickly, as though to make sure no one was sitting close enough to hear us, and then she turned back to me with a facial expression I couldn’t decipher. “You need more money? I know how you could repay your loan quickly, without having to quit your job.”

  I narrowed my eyes at the word “quickly.” I didn’t like quick. Quick was never good because, for some reason, I associated it with danger and illegal activities, such as robbing a bank. Unfortunately, my curiosity was piqued, if only to know what she was getting at.

  “How?”

  “You’re a pretty girl, and I know someone who needs a pretty face.” Her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper, which didn’t help diminish my suspicion at all. “It’s a good job. All you have to do is pose for photo shoots.”

  I frowned. “Shoots?” I asked in disbelief. “Are you talking about modeling?”

  “Yeah.” She smiled. After another quick glance behind her, she slid into the seat opposite from mine and leaned forward. “Sexy, provocative photo shoots. All you have to do is pose and look pretty. Consider it freelance work; basically a bonus that pays as much as three jobs would here,” she said, pointing around her.

  I almost choked on my coffee at the word “provocative.”

  Okay. Not a dangerous job—just…indecent.

  It was almost as bad as I thought.

  I couldn’t possibly pose naked. For one thing, I didn’t possess that kind of confidence, and for another, my body was currently going through major changes. I figured no one wanted to see those.

  “I’m not really comfortable going nude,” I said.

  “Heard that one before.” Thalia laughed out loud before her voice dropped to a whisper again. “I’ll be honest with you. Obviously, nude shoots will make the most money in this profession, but that wasn’t what I meant. I’m talking more along the lines of working as a pin-up girl.”

  “Oh.” My mind conjured up pretty girls dressed in fifties garb, dangling on a swing, maybe even leaning against a vintage car.

  Thalia nodded again, and a glimmer of enthusiasm flickered in her eyes. “It’s really great. The photographer picks the costumes. You get to wear them, and all you have to do is pose and have fun. In a way, you become art. With your looks, you could easily pull it off.”

  Unconsciously, I smoothed the hem of my dress. It didn’t sound bad at all, but her compliments made me a bit self-conscious. “Why would you think that?”

  “You’re sexy and young, without being obtrusive. You have curves in all the right places. My boss goes for that feminine shape, sometimes even big.”

  Big?

  Had she just called me fat? I stared at her, both impressed and intimidated by her honesty.

  “The official casting was last Monday, but maybe Grayson will consider giving you a test shoot if I talk to him and explain your situation. If he hires you, he’ll pay between two and five hundred dollars an hour. And if you’re really good and in high demand, you can make up to two grand per shoot, maybe even more.”

  My eyes popped wide open.

  Holy shit.

  I had always thought models weren’t paid well. Two thousand dollars an hour was insane.

  “That much?” It was more a statement than a question.

  “I know! It’s awesome, right?” Thalia’s face lit up with enthusiasm.

  I had no clue if her euphoria was because she loved her job that much or if the idea of helping me appealed to her. That just brought up the question as to why she wanted to help me and if the job was really as simple as she made it out to be. Regarding her for a moment, I took in her flawless, light brown skin, perfect makeup, young facial features with brown, almond-shaped eyes, and the way she had professionally styled her hair. She wasn’t just a beautiful woman with a curvy body and dimples whenever she smiled; she was also someone who cared a great deal about her appearance. I wondered if I could be like her, not just to feel better about my pregnancy, but also to solve my financial problems in the process.

  “If you don’t mind me asking,” I began, smoothing my hair back slowly, “why are you still working here if modeling pays so well?”

  For a moment, she looked away, as though she was considering whether to tell me the truth. “Quitting here isn’t an option. My youngest brother has leukemia. We need every extra dollar for his bone marrow transplant. Besides, there’s also the health insurance I get here.”

  “I’m sorry about your brother. I had no idea,” I said, feeling awful for prying into her personal business.

  Thalia shrugged. “I don’t mind working two jobs. I like it here. I get to meet interesting people, like you.” She smiled gently. “Two years ago, I never thought I’d be a pin-up girl, but I was miles in debt and had a hard time finding a job that would allow me to take care of my family. Then I met Grayson, and he asked if he could photograph me. It was either that or…” She trailed off, leaving the rest to my imagination. “I had no choice but to take it. The offers come irregularly, but when they do, the pay is better than anything else I could be doing, because Grayson is well known in the industry, and his photos are always in high demand. Is modeling something you can envision yourself doing?”

  I blinked at the sudden question addressed at me.

  “To be honest, I’m not sure,” I said, my thoughts running wild. “I’ve never considered it.”

  Not least because I most certainly didn’t have model measurements. In fact, I was far from it. Besides, I didn’t really know what pin-up girls did, and I had never posed for art.

  “You don’t really need to have a talent for it, but you do need to be natural. Like I said, you’re basically paid to stand around looking sexy. Makeup and clothes will take care of the rest,” Thalia said. “I’m heading over to meet with Grayson after my shift. Why don’t you join me? I suggest you have a look around, see what I do, if you like it. Then you can make up your mind.”

  I had to admit: a modeling job that could pay so much without me having to take my clothes off was tempting. It wasn’t a bad idea at all, especially if I just had to stand around while being paid for it. I figured whatever I made could go toward my loan repayments. In my position—what with me working long hours for Jett’s company while being pregnant—I didn’t have a lot of choices. Besides, the sooner I got out of debt, the faster I could reach my independence. Feel and be free.

  But was I really model material?

  Even as I asked myself the question, my heart lurched with fright. I hated being on display, and even more being the center of attention. The job was probably not even half as good as Thalia made it out to be. And even if this Grayson guy offered me the job, how would Jett react? Then again, what if it was the solution to all my problems?

  My mind was spinning with options, and my heart thumped harder at the prospect of leaving all my financial troubles behind me, of breaking free from the chains of debt. Thalia’s enthusiasm was definitely contagious, and as she said, I had time to decide. I could accompany her and see where it took me. But Jett could be back any minute, and if I wasn’t there, he’d start asking questions. The modeling gig had to wait, at least for the time being.

  “Do you mind if I give it some thought?” I asked. “Today’s just not a good day.”

  “Sure. Take your time.” Thalia retrieved a pen from her pocket, and wrote down some numbers on the note along with her name, then passed it to me.

  “Call me whenever you’re ready.” She got up and reached out her hand. “I’m Thalia, by the way. What’s your name?”

  After everything that had happened in my life, I didn’t like questions. They felt personal as if answers demanded to give up pieces of oneself; as if revealing the hidden parts of oneself, handing over the key to one’s world, giving people permission to take what wasn’t theirs. They were an invasion of personal space, and as such had to be avoided at all costs.

  “Jenna,” I lied, choos
ing my sister’s name. The moment the word left my lips, I wished I could take it back. Only, it was too late to admit that I had chosen to pretend I was someone else.

  She shook my hand. “Jenna, I know we don’t know each other, but I know this. If you decide to work with Grayson, you won’t regret it. I can promise you that.”

  I wasn’t so sure about that as I watched her depart with the same steady steps, ready to serve the next customer.

  Jenna kept echoing in my head. From all the forenames I could have chosen, why the hell did I go with my dearly departed sister’s name? As I gathered the remaining letters and stuffed them into my bag, I realized giving Jenna’s name had seemed like a good idea in order to protect my own identity. But not so when her face still haunted my dreams. My sister was the one thing that had kept me going all these past years, when the journey had become rough. Her memory had also been the one thing that had kept me caged and frightened, wary and alone…until I met Jett. But it was that one simple wish—a thought, a need—to bring her killer to justice that would eventually release my soul from the pain of losing her, and set me free.

  Then, finally, the healing could start.

  Thalia barely paid me another glance when I grabbed my coat and handbag, and headed out into the cold to make my way back to the hotel. As the chilly air seeped under my coat and cooled my head, my wits slowly returned.

  Seriously, what had I been thinking?

  Modeling to solve my debt problems?

  Really?

  The longer I walked, the more the idea seemed ludicrous, conjuring all kinds of images in my head, like creepy men and money scams. By the time I reached the hotel, I was convinced that Thalia received a commission for finding gullible girls and reeling them in. People didn’t just help others unless they had a heart of gold—and let’s face it, the world wasn’t exactly full of those. Most people had ulterior motives or selfish agendas, and Thalia was probably one of them. I had read about one of the dirty sides of the modeling business; the one that operated under the pretense of offering great jobs, right after one paid for having an expensive portfolio created. Once the money was paid, the jobs would never roll in. Thalia had been as convincing as a trained salesperson, but I wasn’t about to fall for any tricks. When something sounded too good to be true, it probably was.

 
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