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The lovers game, p.2
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       The Lover's Game, p.2

           J. C. Reed
 
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  “What the hell is this?” I whispered. “If I had something like this in my home, I wouldn’t be able to close my eyes at night.”

  Thalia laughed quietly in my ear. “He calls it his ‘mandrake.’ Scary as shit. Now, that’s the art I was talking about. He is kind of obsessed with it.” She pulled at my arm gently. “Like I said, pop over a few times, and you won’t even notice it anymore. But if he asks, tell him you love it.”

  I nodded and Thalia led me through yet another door into a well-lit space with floor-to-ceiling mirrors and various places to sit.

  “This is the dressing room.”

  Compared to the entrance hall, this room felt oppressing and tight. Maybe it wasn’t the lack of space as much as the fact that it was littered with clothes and carrier bags, and shoes strewn across the floor.

  “From the sight of it, Grayson’s busy.” Thalia pointed to the ceiling.

  I was just about to point out that I had no idea what she was talking about when soft thudding sounds carried down from above. People rushing around. Jumping. Perhaps even dancing.

  Moving past the mirrors, I caught my reflection and winced. My hair looked presentable enough. Being curly and wavy, it never needed a brush. But my face was a mess: my skin pale from exhaustion, the bags under my eyes swollen and dark. There was no doubt I looked as though I had attended a funeral. I laughed inwardly at my morbid thoughts. It some way, I had been at one. While sitting in Central Park, I had mourned my old self and all those things I’d never have: a family with Jett, a father for my child.

  Thalia glanced at her watch.

  “We’re late. We have to hurry.” She retrieved a blue Donna Morgan print dress from her bag and pushed it into my hands. “Try this on. It should fit you.”

  I changed quickly, aware of her eyes on me, and then followed her silent command to sit down when she pointed to a chair. Her hands immediately began to busy themselves with my hair and makeup. My curls were pulled up and twisted with bobby pins, then, with a precision and ease I had never possessed, Thalia started to transform my face into flawlessness, complete with porcelain skin and huge, hazel eyes, framed by dark green eyeliner. She paused to inspect her work before resuming with the confidence of a professional artist.

  “Where did you learn to do this?” I asked.

  “I’m self-taught,” she said with justified pride. “As a teen, I wanted to be a makeup artist, so I used to spend my time reading fashion magazines and blogs. Even though I couldn’t afford school, the knowledge has come in handy.” She applied a touch of mascara and stepped back to regard me, apparently satisfied with the result. “There you go! You have stunning eyes. You should wear more green and gray.”

  “Thank you.”

  She pointed at the mirror and began to put away her brushes.

  For a moment I hesitated, afraid of what I might see. Taking a deep breath, I lifted my gaze and almost didn’t recognize myself. “Wow. You’re good.” I stared at myself, unable to look away. “Really good.” And I meant every bit of praise.

  The woman standing in front of me didn’t look like Brooke Stewart at all. She didn’t look hurt and broken. She looked confident and sexy.

  The kind of woman no one would ever dare to cheat on.

  Self-doubt passed over me. What if I had never really been sexy enough for Jett? What if my insecurities and my inability to trust him completely had pushed him away? Maybe he had missed the excitement and the confidence women of his social status often exuded. Maybe he started cheating on me because I wasn’t like them?

  I turned back to Thalia, glad she didn’t seem to notice the sudden drop in my mood, and watched her change into a peach-colored dress with fishnet stockings. I had to admit, not only did she have a gorgeous body with toned legs and hips to die for, but the attire seemed to be her thing, as though she never wore anything else.

  “Do you like your job?” I resumed the conversation as she began to paint her lips a bright shade of red.

  “I do.” She nodded, and with a glance in the mirror she smacked her lips. “I’m a big fan of anything burlesque because it’s so feminine. You snap a picture, and you can be sure it’s going to be perfect. There’s nothing ugly about being a pin-up girl, Jenna.”

  I flinched at hearing the sound of my sister’s name, and realized I had forgotten that I had adopted a false identity. Oblivious to my reaction, Thalia began to apply some of her lipstick on my lips and then snapped the cap shut. “What we are doing is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s not porn, but art, and that makes all the difference.”

  She flashed me a smile, revealing two beautiful rows of pearly white teeth and slight dimples that gave her character. “The way I see it, it’s an honor,” she continued, her hazel eyes regarding me warmly, “to help a man dream of his perfect girl—one who’s out of his reach. We’re what I’d call a fantasy, a dream, something most men will never have.” She grabbed my hand, infusing some chirpiness in her voice. “Come on. Time to meet Grayson.”

  By the time we returned to the hall and ascended a staircase, I was beginning to think it was all a mistake. My heart was pounding so hard I could feel the blood rushing in my ears, threatening to burst my veins. What had I been thinking? I didn’t have Thalia’s confidence. I didn’t have her gorgeous looks. In no way would I be suitable for working as a model. I could call myself lucky if this Grayson guy didn’t laugh. I was better off finding a job in real estate and waiting tables in the evening.

  Don’t be stupid, Stewart. You can’t afford to live off just one income, and topping it off with tips certainly wouldn’t make a difference.

  My heart sank in my chest as I realized that not only did I need a second job, but if I was to avoid Jett for the rest of his life, I’d have to stop working for him. That meant I’d have to look for a new job, all without health insurance and probably no references. And then there was the matter of my ever-growing loan problems.

  Ninety thousand dollars debt!

  I still had trouble wrapping my head around that part.

  You’ll be repaying loans for the rest of your life, Stewart. That is, unless you start taking risks.

  And this was indeed a risk, not just for my finances, but also for my confidence.

  Confidence or not, I had no choice but to go through with the interview. If I didn’t try, I might end up living in a small, rented apartment forever, with no opportunity to offer my child the best life he or she could possibly have.

  “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” Thalia’s voice, meant to reassure, only managed to make me more nervous.

  “I know.” I sighed, biting my thumbnail.

  We took a left turn through yet another corridor and entered a door that led into a large hall. Pretty girls stood in clusters, waiting. Some were talking on their cell phones; some were sitting on the floor, all dressed in peach-colored, knee-length burlesque dresses and black high heels. For a waiting area, it was surprisingly silent.

  Thalia waved to a few, then headed straight for a door and knocked. When a male voice called out, ordering her to enter, Thalia mouthed, “Wait here,” and slipped inside, then closed the door behind her. I pressed my back against the wall and tried hard not to overhear the hushed voices carrying through from inside. The seconds stretched into minutes. Finally, the door opened again and Thalia returned, looking slightly flushed.

  “He’s waiting for you,” she whispered to me. “Good luck.”

  I watched her join the other women, a part of me hoping someone would go in with me.

  Get a grip, Stewart. You’re an adult. There’s nothing to be scared of.

  Taking a deep breath, I started to count backwards.

  Three.

  Two.

  One.

  The door flew open, and I stepped back in shock.

  “Aren’t you coming in?” he asked, knitting his eyebrows together.

  I had been so immersed in my thoughts and worries that I had left my potential future boss waiting. For a moment,
I stared into his eyes.

  Holy cow.

  Another arrogant guy.

  Could my day get any worse?

  I sounded bitter in my thoughts, I realized, already hating the whole male population when dating would soon become a perquisite—even a necessity—to distract me and help get me over my feelings for Jett.

  “Sorry,” I muttered and rushed in, closing the door behind me.

  “You still want to do the interview, right?” Grayson turned to regard me with an amused expression.

  I stared at him, perplexed. “Yeah. Of course I do.”

  Even though he was the owner of GR Photography and, according to Thalia, had been successful for a number of years, he didn’t look much older than thirty. His dirty blond hair was cropped short and messy in a sexy way, and he was dressed in jeans and a dark blue polo T-shirt that fit his tan body. Unlike Jett, he wasn’t all muscles and dark hair and green eyes, but he compensated in height. His blue eyes and scruffy beard gave him a stylish rock-star appearance and made him look rugged and masculine—and absolutely not the way I had envisioned him.

  What the heck are you doing comparing this guy to Jett?

  I groaned inwardly. At the rate I was going, I’d never get over Jett.

  Never.

  Because, apparently, I couldn’t stop fawning over Jett’s pair of sinfully sexy eyes and the kind of body that keeps you hot and sweaty at night.

  Focus, Stewart. Focus. First, the job interview. Then the self-loathing.

  His brows shot up. “Well?”

  Damn.

  Had I been so absorbed that I didn’t notice he had been waiting for me to introduce myself? Suppressing the urge to turn on my heels and run out the door to get back to my dark thoughts and dwell in the aftermath of the recent discoveries, I cleared my throat.

  “Yes. I’m Br—” I took a deep breath, realizing my mistake. “Jenna.”

  He shook my extended hand and sat down at his desk.

  “Please take a seat.” He pointed to a chair that faced his desk and his blue eyes began to measure me up and down with the air of a professional.

  I forced my legs to move, though all I managed was to stumble forward and plop into the chair with the grace of a grizzly bear. “Thank you.”

  I swallowed past the lump in my throat as I settled into the chair. His penetrating presence did nothing to calm down the frantic beating of my heart. Now I knew why I had never liked job interviews: They always made you feel inferior, as if I had messed up and had just been given a tiny chance to prove in less than ten seconds that I was worth the hassle. Smiling at Grayson, I realized this felt even worse because I wasn’t just applying for any job. I also had to prove I had what it took in the looks and sex appeal department while, under Grayson’s scrutinizing eyes, I felt completely exposed—even more so because, even though he was a bit too lean for my taste, he was still good-looking.

  I expected him to sit back and start the usual interrogation, but he stood and walked around the desk, then stopped just inches away from me, his leg almost brushing mine in the process.

  “All right.” He sighed and folded his arms over his chest as he leaned back against the desk. “So... Jenna, right?”

  I nodded.

  “Thalia tells me you’re interested in working for me. Have you modeled before?”

  “No.” I forced the word past my lips in a hesitant huff. I had expected the question, but not straight away, and it unsettled me. “I don’t have any experience in modeling at all.”

  “It’s okay,” Grayson said, as though reading my mind. “A lot of girls start here with nil experience. I like to see them as diamonds in the rough that only have to be cut and polished into priceless gems.”

  Wow. No modesty there.

  For some reason, the analogy made him instantly likeable. I smiled, and he pushed a clipboard toward me, inclining his head in the process, silently urging me to take a look. I peered at the questionnaire and then back at him.

  “Let’s start with a few basic questions to see if you’re suitable for the job,” Grayson said.

  “Great.” I watched him unscrew the lid of his pen and grab the clipboard out of my hand.

  “Full name?”

  “Jenna Stewart,” I said carefully.

  “Age?”

  “Twenty-three.”

  “Status?”

  I stared at him, but it wasn’t him I was seeing; rather, it was the image of Jett kissing Tiffany, her arms around him, her body pressed against his. I wondered if he had slept with her after that kiss. Probably. That led to the next question: How often had they met behind my back? Jett had had plenty of opportunities to see her all those times when he had pretended to work late while I was stuck at home, clueless and under the impression he really loved me.

  “Status?” Grayson repeated and slowly looked up from his clipboard, his blue eyes piercing through me with such an intensity that it felt like a breeze was touching my soul.

  Status? Stupid.

  Apparently, I had failed at yet another relationship and it was all my fault. Some things about human evolution never changed, and that included hard-to-get players like Jett and morons like me, who were quick to love and even quicker to lose. The whole time I had been with Jett, I had been under the impression he would surmount his urge to be free and settle down with me, maybe even get married. I had pictured it all—the white fence, the nursery, we as a family sitting at the dinner table—all the while forgetting the most important fact: Jett didn’t believe in rules, restrictions, and boundaries.

  “Single,” I said, because I couldn’t share my true thoughts. My voice sounded choked, but Grayson didn’t seem to notice.

  “Good.” He nodded. “One of the secrets to success is no distractions whatsoever. Nothing that interferes with the job.”

  I laughed bitterly. “Yeah, that’s so true.”

  And it was. If I had never been in love with Jett, I would have been more focused. I would have known that something was wrong with him and our relationship as a whole.

  “Any health problems or conditions I should know of?”

  Sighing, I fiddled with the hem of the dress. This was the perfect time to tell him about the pregnancy, but I decided against it. First of all, it was none of his business. Second, he might decide it was a distraction. Third, he could have very well been one of those men who thought pregnancy was something ugly, and I couldn’t afford another blow to my ego.

  I shook my head and replied, “None that I know of.”

  “Height and weight?”

  I answered his questions patiently. At last, after what seemed like an eternity, he put the clipboard away, signaling that he was about to finish his interrogation, and retrieved a measuring tape from one of the drawers.

  “Bra size?”

  I stared at him, then moistened my lips, uncomfortable with the inquiry.

  He noticed my reaction. “It’s for my clients,” he explained.

  “I know. Sorry.”

  I swallowed the lump in my throat and answered his question, and then he motioned for me to stand, the measuring tape dangling from his hand.

  Surely, he wasn’t going to...A shiver moved through me at the thought of him touching me or expecting me to undress. Until recently, it had never occurred to me that any man other than Jett would ever roam his hands over my body. Granted, it was never intended to be a sexual situation, but it still felt intimate. Unexpected. Strange. And I was still bleeding from Jett’s betrayal. I wouldn’t have been surprised to look under my clothes and find my body broken, bloody, and shattered for the whole world to see.

  “Do you mind if I take your measurements?” Grayson asked. “My clients are very specific.”

  Actually, I did care, but I could hardly refuse—not when he was kind enough to ask.

  Shaking my head with trepidation, I said, “Of course not.”

  He motioned for me to stand up again, and this time I did as he expected of me. I held my breath a
s his hand went around my waist gently. He stopped in midair, his face mere inches away from mine as he looked at me amused.

  “You don’t have to hold your breath, Jenna.”

  With my gaze glued to the floor, I forced my breath out. He was standing so close, I was sure he could feel the nervous pounding of my heart. I could feel his hot breath on my skin and, for some reason, it felt odd and slightly unsettling. Almost forbidden, as if no other man should be allowed to touch me after Jett.

  “Why do you want this job?” he asked gently as he continued to measure me: first my hips, then my waist, his hand close to my skin without really touching me. I figured it was a means to divert my attention and make me feel more comfortable. To my surprise, it worked because, gradually, I began to relax. Maybe because deep down I knew he was a professional and probably used to touching all types of women, used to beauty, perfection, and human flaws.

  “I have debts,” I heard myself say even though I had no idea why I was being so honest.

  “How much do you owe?”

  His candidness startled me. I stared at him, surprised at the fact that I wanted to confide in him. “Almost a hundred grand.”

  His blue gaze pierced me, but there was no judgment in his eyes. “That’s a lot.”

  I nodded and took a long breath, then let it out slowly. “I know.”

  For a moment, we remained quiet. Our eyes connected and my heart began to thump just a little bit harder—not because I wanted him, but because he seemed to understand. His measuring tape was around my shoulder, and for a moment, the unwelcome image of him kissing me popped into my mind, and how much that would hurt Jett. How much that would give me the satisfaction of knowing I might actually be able to hurt him as much as he had hurt me. But that wasn’t me. I couldn’t stoop so low. Besides, I knew I wouldn’t be able to deal with the shame and self-loathing.

 
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