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The lovers game, p.3
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       The Lover's Game, p.3

           J. C. Reed
 
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  Heat began to pour through me, not from sexual attraction but from the disturbing thoughts I harbored about my possible future boss. As if sensing my sudden shame, Grayson broke our eye contact.

  “There was a time when I owed $400,000,” he said and removed the tape, his voice quiet.

  “Four?”

  He nodded. “I was a struggling artist and photographer for ages, working on commission, waiting to be picked for jobs from among incredible competition, all while drowning in debt.”

  “What happened?” I asked when he fell silent. He had shown interest in my problems, and it was only natural to inquire about his. I had sensed the moment I saw those girls talking that they had a good working relationship with him, and I had been right.

  Grayson leaned back against the desk and began to rub his chin as he exhaled slowly, his eyes reminiscent of the past. “I figured I could either continue on that path that would eventually lead to complete self-destruction and self-hatred, or I could do something about it. There weren’t many options left.” He looked up again, his eyes sparkling with defiance. “I borrowed more money and started my own business, focusing on finding diamonds in the rough while relying on rich benefactors, working on appearance. I poured all the money I earned into advertising and hosting parties, building connections, until I found one rich investor who helped me put together a client list, one at a time.” He smiled, his face relaxing slightly. “I worked my ass off day and night, but taking out a bigger loan was a risk worth taking. To make a business successful, you have to invest in it.” His pale blue eyes assessed me, and his lips twitched, though whether it was with amusement or sarcasm I couldn’t tell. “What? You thought it was all given to me?”

  I hesitated. Considering that Grayson was so young, I actually had thought so, but I wasn’t going to admit that to him. Instead, I said, “Surely it must have cost a fortune to set up a studio and build a reputation.”

  He rolled up the measuring tape and jotted the numbers down, taking his time to answer. “It wasn’t cheap, and there were times when I doubted my decision.”

  “Why?”

  Grayson hesitated again, as though he was unsure as to whether or not to reveal the truth. “I’m a school dropout. My family was poor, so I had no other choice than to start working. Everything I’ve built is the result of my struggles and learning from mistakes—lots and lots of mistakes, by me and others.” He turned to me, narrowing his eyes in thought. “The most important thing I’ve learned along the way is that it’s okay to quit when something isn’t working out, because continuing is a waste of my time and energy. You have to put faith in your abilities. Most people make the mistake of focusing on too many things at a time, making too many plans that are impossible to follow through on. I focused on what I was good at and listened to people’s wishes and demands.” He put the measuring tape away and returned with a camera. “You know what I always say to young artists who ask me for advice?”

  I shook my head because I had no idea.

  “Hope is the nightingale that still sings while the night is young. It’s my favorite quote, a reminder that a bad situation, a bad experience, should never stop you from having faith. Eventually, you’ll find the right path.”

  He pointed to the white wall, and I walked over, waiting for instructions. From the corner of my eyes, I scanned the far side of the wall, which was covered with pictures of beautiful models, some in lingerie, others wearing clothes. Even among so many beautiful faces, Thalia stood out straight away.

  I almost flinched when Grayson touched my chin with surprisingly warm fingers. My skin started to tingle as he gently turned my face to the right, then down.

  “Perfect,” he muttered and stepped back. A flash blinded me, and within seconds, a Polaroid photo emerged. He waved it in the air until the white space turned into a colored image of my face. He wrote my fake name on the picture and attached it to the questionnaire with a clip.

  “We’re done. You can sit down.” With the file in his hand, he walked over to his desk and slumped into his seat.

  “Will you give me a chance?” I asked after a pause.

  He began to tap his pen against his lips. I tried to read his expression, but his eyes remained expressionless. Eventually he said, “It depends.” He leaned back with an expression I couldn’t decipher. “Will you go nude?”

  I stared at him, perplexed. All the positive thoughts I had harbored about him, were now gone, disappearing like bubbles in the air.

  “Thalia said I wouldn’t have to take off my clothes.”

  “That’s true.” He nodded, and for the first time, he genuinely smiled as though something amused him. “But there’s this thing with your height.”

  What the heck was wrong with my height—or the lack thereof?

  I frowned, unsure where the conversation was heading.

  “What’s wrong with it?” I asked.

  “I’ll be honest with you, Jenna. You have good proportions, though not model perfect, and a good face, which I’m sure will appeal to some of my clients,” Grayson continued, “but you’re a few inches too short to work as a model.”

  My temper flared.

  “I’m as tall as Thalia.” I jutted my chin out.

  He smiled again, then moved over to me and leaned against the desk again, regarding me coolly. “That might be true, but Thalia’s exotic. Her heritage, part Creole/American and Indian/Italian, is very popular with my clients, so she’s in high demand. You, in turn...I don’t know how to put this nicely...you’re common.”

  Ouch.

  Enough insults for a day. It had been a bad idea to come. Obviously, I was wasting my time.

  “You might as well have told me straight away that I’m not fit for the job before you wasted my time and yours with all those questions,” I said.

  Holding my head high, I stood up and headed for the door. Grayson’s fingers curled around my upper arm, stopping me in my tracks. “I’m not finished.”

  I snapped my head back in annoyance, and Grayson let go of my arm. As he caught my glance, his smile vanished, and he returned to his previous reserved self.

  “I never said you aren’t a good fit,” he said quietly. “The job is yours, as long as you’re willing to go along with my clients’ demands, and go nude.”

  I would never pose nude. Never. The thought was absurd. “What if I don’t agree with something they want?”

  He shrugged. “Then you won’t get the job. Given your situation, if you want to earn good money, nude shoots are exactly what you need. Flexibility and the willingness to go nude is how I secure a working contract with a client, not just for a single job but for future work as well. If a client likes working with a particular model, they’ll want to book her again.”

  “I work with clients, and am aware of the importance of customer satisfaction,” I remarked dryly. I certainly didn’t need a lecture on that. Sighing, I leaned back and crossed my arms.

  He wet his lips carefully in thought, his glance moving from my eyes to my lips, and for an instant, I felt another pang of shame burning through me.

  “Look, all I’m saying is that I need you to be flexible.” He spread his hands out. “Your options are limited, not least because you’re not exactly the right height. So, the only option is to offer them more, including a great personality and a little bit of skin.” He paused to take in my reaction. When I remained quiet, he continued. ”I’m not saying you absolutely have to go nude. I’m also not saying you’ll have to go nude for every single work contract. All I’m saying is that you should keep the option open rather than being so judgmental about it, because I have many different clients with many different needs.”

  He was probably right, but I wasn’t convinced just yet. “How do you define nude?” I asked.

  He leaned forward, so close I could see the little flecks in his blue iris. “Nude can mean a lot of things, Jenna. It can be topless, bikini, or panty. It can even be implied nude, where you cover certain body
parts. Many of my clients want that. In this kind of job, as long as you are willing to go nude, you can choose the limit, what you are comfortable with, but some of my clients want to see skin.”

  I shook my head. “I don’t want to be topless, even if I can cover up,” I explained.

  “I understand.” He leaned back again and regarded me with an expression I couldn’t place.

  For a moment, silence ensued between us.

  Awkward silence.

  His expression showed hesitation, as though he was considering whether I was really worth the trouble. Or maybe he thought I was an idiot for not taking him up on his offer when he was generous enough to give me a chance. Suddenly, I was reminded of the fact that I was pregnant and had no money. Terrified that I might not find another well-paying job anytime soon. After college, I had been unemployed for nine months, only to land a poor-paying job. What if I had to wait another nine months to secure my next position? Besides, who would hire a mother-to-be with a child on the way?

  This pregnancy would change my body, and not for the better. What if there was no job at all for me in the near future, unless I agreed to taking off my clothes or...worse?

  My God.

  My heart slumped in my chest.

  As much as I hated the idea of being half-nude or naked, I figured I could tolerate it for the time being—as long as I could use my arms and hands to cover up and I still had the confidence, no stretch marks, good skin, and felt more or less human, without the urge to throw up or pee.

  “You know, those strict morals won’t get you far in this industry,” Grayson remarked. “I did worse to build up my career and get it going. The girls you saw out there use their jobs as a backup, to get started.”

  What the heck did he mean by “strict morals?” Was it such a bad thing that I preferred not to show my private business to the entire world? I swallowed the lump in my throat, suddenly afraid that Grayson might find me too difficult to work with, that he had the impression I was too proud.

  “As long as I’m not butt naked, I’ll be okay with it,” I said and raised my head defiantly. “Obviously, I prefer clothes, but if there are really no other options, then I’ll do it. But I won’t do more than that, and it has to be tasteful and classy at all times.” I was about to add, “Take it or leave it,” then decided against it. He seemed like a nice guy; there was no need to alienate or insult him and his line of work.

  Grayson unscrewed his pen and scribbled something on the paper. Eventually, he dropped his pen on the desk and crossed his ankles in front of him, staring at the floor.

  “Jenna, it’s not about me. It’s about them—my clients.” He sighed. “This is a supply-and-demand business, and my clientele can be very specific in their demands. They often come to me with certain expectations and demand that my models follow through with them. No exceptions. I can’t afford to hire models who refuse to comply with the requests. It would be bad for my reputation, not to mention unprofessional. Do you understand?”

  “I understand, however—” Leaving the rest unspoken, I drew a sharp breath, ready to stand my ground. “So where does this leave me?”

  Grayson clasped his hands together and began to tap his thumbs in thought. “What I can do for you is add you to our model catalog today and see how my clients react,” he said. “I’ll let them know your limits. We might get some interest at some point, but I can’t promise you anything. Most want models who are...open. I cannot state the importance of that. It all depends on my clients and your willingness to do what they expect of you.”

  “So until then, there’ll be no work contract for me?” I couldn’t hide the disappointment in my voice. No contracts equaled no job offers, which, in turn, equaled no money. “At some point” could mean anything. It could be the next week or next month. It could even be the next year. I had no time for waiting. Besides, patience had never been my thing.

  “On the contrary, Jenna.” He stood up, all six-foot-something of him, and his blue eyes penetrated me with amusement. My skin tingled with anticipation. “Five weeks.”

  “Five weeks what?” I asked, confused.

  “Five weeks is all I can give you. After that, we’ll see what happens.”

  In the distance, I could hear a clock ticking, reminding me that time was running out. I had to make a decision.

  “I won’t disappoint you,” I said at last.

  “Good.”

  Grayson returned to his seat and folded his arms. “Send Thalia back in on your way out.”

  I nodded, realizing this was my cue to leave. For some reason, I could sense that Grayson was irritated. I didn’t know whether it was because I wasn’t excited to do nude jobs or because he wasn’t pleased with my answers. For all I knew, the interview had taken more time than he had intended to give it. Whatever the case, I decided not to analyze the situation too much.

  I sat up and straightened my dress. “Thank you for taking a chance on me. It means a lot to me.” I smiled and headed for the door, not waiting for his reply. From the corner of my eyes, I caught Grayson looking at my profile, his fingers rubbing his chin in thought. I wondered about his true impression of me, but even more so, I wondered what Jett would have said about my new job—if we were still together.

  “Woo-hoo,” Thalia shouted the moment we were alone. “You’re in.”

  As I stepped out of the building, the cold air whipped my hair into my face. I had no clue how late it was, but after Thalia’s repeated, if not desperate, attempts to convince me to let her drive me home rather than take a taxi, I gave in. There was no sense in wasting money I didn’t have or in hurting her feelings after she had done so much for me already.

  Throughout the drive to Brooklyn Heights, I absent-mindedly listened to Thalia’s recollection of all the jobs she had been booked for. I was physically present, but my mind was elsewhere.

  It was clear to me that Jett’s home was no longer mine and that I had to break off our relationship as soon as possible. Lots of people end relationships over the phone these days, don’t they? To make sure he wouldn’t reply, I figured I could call at four a.m. or during the day when he was at the office. I had no idea what I’d say, but I figured being short and blunt—without causing any more unnecessary drama—was the best way to go. Something like, “It’s over. Don’t contact me again. Bye and good luck screwing the next idiot. Oh, and by the way, I quit.”

  Scratch the last couple parts.

  I had to make sure to let him know I was completely over him—without sounding spiteful or accusatory. To make sure, he didn’t come back for answers, I would simply proclaim, “It’s not you. It’s me,” in my most convincing tone, even though that wasn’t entirely true. Of course it was always about them.

  But what about the gifts?

  Unintentionally, I touched the diamond pendant around my neck, realizing that it wasn’t quite over until I returned the few gifts he had given me during our time together. Obviously, I couldn’t keep them from a moral standpoint, as well as due to the fact that they’d always act as painful reminders of all the good times we had spent together. Happy times that had been nothing but illusions, cobwebs of dreams and lies.

  Leaving a phone message wasn’t good enough. I’d have to write him a brief note and include it in a parcel I’d send together with the necklace. And maybe—sometime in the future, when I felt stronger and over him—I’d leave him a message on his answering machine to ask for my meager belongings, maybe tell him to FedEx them to me.

  Eventually, we reached Brooklyn Heights, and I asked Thalia to drop me off around the corner and farther down the street from where I used to live.

  Although I would have liked to consider Thalia as a new friend, there was no need to let her know my exact address. Trust wasn’t easily built. While I liked her, I still had to build trust, not only to her but also to myself and to everyone around me. In the past few months, I had been more gullible than ever before. It had all been too easy to fall in love with Jett, to f
reely give my heart away, hoping for the best. I had been too quick to invite him into my bed and even quicker in my hopes to marry him.

  Now I could see how stupid I had been and I wasn’t ready yet—if ever—to return to my old life, to be the old, naïve Brooke who believed in fairy tales. If anything, the whole lesson taught me to never again trust a sexy guy in a tailored suit, and particularly not one with eyes as smoldering as fire, a body that could turn on the heat, and a voice that would melt away any woman’s last inhibition.

  As soon as we arrived, Thalia stopped the car. I said goodbye, then watched her drive away. For a few seconds, I stood under the street lamp, aware that I was alone on a deserted street in the middle of the night. I dreaded the imminent conversation with Sylvie almost as much I dreaded returning to an empty room in a tiny apartment, the meager surroundings I had lived in for many years before moving in with Jett. Deep down, I was afraid of returning to my old, lonely life.

  My heart sank at the thought of that unknown future. Touching my stomach, I imagined my life without Jett. It was depressing to realize that I’d have to give birth alone to a child and raise her without a father. And how would I answer my baby’s questions about her father was when I couldn’t bear to ever see him again? Would I be able to cope? Work would keep me busy, but what would happen when I was alone—at home—in bed with nothing but my dark thoughts to keep me company? I could control those thoughts during the day, when I was busy, but I feared those moments of complete depression and utter humiliation at night, when my solitude would result in obsession and isolation, and all the questions and fears would come circling back. There was no doubt about the fact that, sooner or later, Jett would want to see me, if only to demand an explanation for my sudden disappearance and my avoidance of him—not because he cared, but because of his gigantic ego. I feared the moment when he’d appear in front of Sylvie’s door. What if I wasn’t strong enough to resist him? What if his words drew me back to him, because I was still not over him, and I allowed him to deceive me all over again?

 
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