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The lovers game, p.5
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       The Lover's Game, p.5

           J. C. Reed
 
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  “Why are you crying?” I asked stunned.

  “I’m not.” She wiped a hand over her eyes to get rid of the telltale moisture at the corners.

  “You’re lying.”

  “Really, I’m not. It’s just...” A muffled sob escaped her chest.

  “Please don’t,” I said with enough determination to get her attention, afraid that her breakdown might tug at my own emotions.

  “It just hurts me so much to see you in pain.”

  I had no reply for that. “It’s okay. I’m fine. I got a job, and it pays well,” I said at last, changing the subject.

  “It’s not okay, Brooke.” She looked up at me sternly. “Don’t do that. Don’t just brush it all under the rug and pretend it’s not there.” She pulled a tissue from a Kleenex box and began to crumple it. “How could he cheat on you? You’re perfect, Brooke. What the fuck is he doing with her when you’re carrying his child? He was supposed to propose and marry you, not fuck the next girl. That isn’t just a low blow.” She inhaled a sharp breath, her eyes shimmering with the fury of a scorned woman. “It’s the lowest thing any man could do. This is so fucking upsetting I feel like hurting him.”

  I smiled, touched by her loyalty. Luckily for the both of us, Sylvie was all talk, but not exactly a believer in violence. It was just the wine speaking. I could hear the liquid courage in the slur of her voice.

  “Shit happens, Sylvie. You know that.” I stroked her back in a soothing manner, but was only rewarded with a few tears trickling down her face.

  “But you don’t deserve it.”

  “I know,” I murmured. “No one ever does.” Seeing her crying and caring so much about me, even when drunk, made me realize just how much I had missed her in the weeks since I moved out. I could almost feel the intensity of her pain—as though she was more hurt than me. My vision blurred, but I didn’t want to cry. My head was already throbbing so hard I was afraid it might burst.

  Another tear rolled down her cheek, and she sniffled.

  “Stop,” I whispered. As hard as I tried to keep my own tears at bay, I failed.

  “I can’t help it,” Sylvie said. “I hate what he did to you. I hate that he lied. He could have at least had the balls to tell the truth.” She took another sip from her glass.

  “That’s what bothers me the most, too.” I grabbed the glass of wine and pushed it across the table before she could take another sip, and squeezed her hands, forcing her to look at me. “I’ll be okay. My heart will heal...eventually. It always does. Don’t worry about me.”

  “But how can I not? You’re my best friend, my sister, the kindest person I know,” Sylvie said. “I saw how much that guy meant to you. You told me he was your first love. He didn’t have to go and give it away like that.”

  I shrugged. “I’ll get over him, Sylvie.”

  “It’s all my fault.”

  “How is that all your fault?” I asked, frowning, unable to follow her train of thought.

  She moistened her lips and shook her head with a crazy look in her eyes. “It was my job to keep him away from you.” She squeezed my hand so tight it almost hurt. “Brooke, I promise that I’ll kick his door in and cut off his fucking dick. I’ll make sure he’ll never, ever use it again.”

  She looked so dead serious, I laughed out loud.

  “No, you won’t.”

  “Oh, I will,” she said with a deadpan face. “And you know what else?”

  I shook my head and regarded her, amused.

  “I’ll hook you up with a real guy. Someone sexy. Somebody who’ll make him eat his heart out. Together we’ll find you a new boyfriend, somebody much better than what’s-his-name.” She leaned forward. “You have to take charge, Brooke. You have to hurt him the way he’s hurt you, a leg for a leg.”

  “You mean, an eye for an eye?” In spite of the gravity of the situation, I found myself smiling.

  “Yeah, that’s it. Chick for a guy. Kiss for good sex. Whatever. By the time you’re done with him, he’ll be begging to get you back. Just promise me one thing.” Her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “Don’t ever let him into your panties again.”

  I nodded, confident that I could keep that promise. “I won’t. I won’t even think about it.”

  I was sure that would never happen again. But what about my dreams, my hopes, my wishes? My heart sank. Jett had cheated on me, and it hurt like hell, but sure as heaven, our time together hadn’t been bad. He had made me feel good—most of the time.

  Okay, that was a lie.

  He had always made me feel good, that is until he cheated on me. And he also made me feel safe like no other man had before. As much as I wanted to push him away, there was no guarantee that, sooner or later, my body wouldn’t yearn for his. It would start subtly, in my dreams, but as time progressed, it would get worse, until I’d see a little of him in every man who crossed my path. My subconscious mind would crave that time when I felt happy, safe, and in love. I prayed that before my subconscious took control, I’d meet someone new—someone who would replace him and would never let me down. And I hoped that special someone would give me the ability to control my sappy heart so that when I fell in love, I wouldn’t drown in feelings.

  “Let’s go out.” Sylvie’s voice brought me back to reality.

  “Maybe some other time,” I said. “Right now, all I want is some rest.” I smiled at her in the hope she’d understand. The day had left me exhausted, eager to find solitude in the confined space of my previous room.

  “Sure, sweetie. Whatever you want,” Sylvie said, “but you owe me a girls’ night out.”

  My smile widened at the idea of it: eating takeout, watching television, and laughing like schoolgirls until we couldn’t breathe. I hadn’t had one of those nights in ages and realized just I much I had missed it.

  “Sounds great.” Following Sylvie’s advice, I headed for my room and collapsed into bed, ignoring the cell phone beckoning me from the nightstand.

  The next morning, to my surprise, Thalia called to tell me I needed to drop by Grayson’s studio. I stepped into the kitchen and prepared myself a cup of coffee. Rain splattered against the windows, mirroring the way I felt: battered and depressed. Deciding what to wear from Sylvie’s closet and preparing my makeup took forever. It took just as long to assure Sylvie that I was good enough to work on Sunday. By the time I reached Grayson’s place, my hair was a mess and my back slick with sweat, but I had never been more excited. It was my way to cope with my nervousness over Jett’s call; Sylvie had told him in her most nonchalant voice that I was going to stay with her for a few days because she needed me, hence buying me time to think about what I really wanted to say to him.

  Like the day before, Thalia helped me change and did my makeup and hair; apparently, I wasn’t fit to see Grayson the way I looked, and then I finally got to see the real studio. One minute I was chatting to the other girls, and the next Grayson came in and demanded our full attention.

  “Watch and learn,” Grayson called out to me, jerking me out of my thoughts.

  I did as he said, albeit with apprehension at the thought of becoming one of his models. I sat in a swivel chair, with a bottle of water in my hand, and observed in silence, my attention once again returning from Jett to the task at hand.

  On the west side, huge birch branches and plastic trees were decorated with white garland and pomanders in front of a backdrop support and lots of lighting gear. Grayson snapped picture after picture while communicating short but clear instructions on how each model was to pose.

  I decided it wasn’t going to be such a bad job, though it wouldn’t be easy. Thalia had made an understatement in saying I’d just have to stand around and look sexy. Grayson’s instructions were as varied as I thought they would be, and he kept each girl busy and on her toes—in all possible positions—albeit not nearly as dirty as I had imagined.

  A tall woman, who looked as though she could walk the runway in underwear, sat down on a broad flower swi
ng, her hands holding on the ropes, while she crossed one leg over the other—harboring a dreamy look in her eyes. It looked sensual but not cheap or dirty. There was something elegant and almost classy about the way Grayson took the pictures, but even more fascinating was the way the girls posed in their colorful polka-dot dresses. I couldn’t help but wonder if the pictures would be as beautiful as the models looked that instant.

  “Jenna, hop in there,” Grayson shouted, beckoning me over as he ushered the tall model off the set.

  I almost fell out of my seat. “Me?” I asked incredulously. My gaze moved to Thalia, who smiled encouragingly at me.

  “Who else? You know anyone else in here by that name?” Grayson’s voice dripped with impatience.

  Figuring he might decide to change his mind if I didn’t move my ass, I rushed over to the girl on the swing. Grayson nodded, satisfied, and began to take charge.

  At first, I felt out of place, but it wasn’t as bad as I imagined it would be. He snapped a few pictures of us, then turned the focus on me. Following Grayson’s clear instructions, I sat under one of the plastic trees, with my legs stretched out in a sexy pose, holding a closed, old book as if in thought. Another model peeked from behind the tree, as if trying to get my attention.

  I had barely taken the position and gotten comfortable when Grayson called out, “Good work, everyone.” He set the camera aside and began to clap, which I assumed was a sign that we were done. His applause was rewarded with more clapping from the models.

  “As you all know, tomorrow we’ll be hosting a big event, and the studio will be turned into a gallery,” Grayson said. “I need each and every one of you here on time, so you can get ready.” Grayson’s blue eyes turned to me. “You too, Jenna. Thalia will fill you in.” He turned back toward the group. “Gina, Sarah, and Thalia, you will pose for our guests. The rest of you will entertain, serve cocktails, and generally be your usual gorgeous selves. Make sure you give it your best. Whoever books a job gets a bonus. The checks will be in the mail. Do you have any questions?”

  My heart began to race. I couldn’t believe that Grayson was already inviting me to a huge event. For a second, I felt like hugging him, grateful that he had thought of me when I really had given him no reason to. Maybe me posing had changed his mind that I was worth taking a chance on, or maybe he was short of one girl. Either way, I was grateful for any hours he was willing to give me. Serving cocktails and talking to new people didn’t sound so bad, particularly since I’d also be paid for it.

  One of the sixteen models, a woman with short, platinum-blonde hair, raised her hand to get his attention.

  “Yes, Sarah?” Grayson said.

  “Sorry, I can’t be here tomorrow. I have acting lessons.”

  Grayson ran his fingers through his hair, wearing an exasperated expression on his face. “Sarah, I counted on you. You knew I’ve been planning this event for weeks, so there’s no excuse for your absence.”

  “I know.” She shrugged. “I’m really sorry, but tomorrow’s impossible. I tried to cancel, but the class is mandatory. The fee’s already been paid, and I have to attend.” She shot him an apologetic smile, the kind that would melt anyone’s heart.

  Grayson’s expression didn’t soften, and for a moment, I held my breath, anticipating his disapproving reaction. With his brows drawn and his eyes shimmering dangerously, I almost expected him to start shouting and throwing a tantrum, but his mouth just tightened into a thin line. Slowly, he turned his back to her, and his blue gaze scanned the group. Finally, those baby blues focused on me.

  I could almost sense his intentions, yet I didn’t dare hope. Instead, I just held my breath and waited.

  “Jenna,” he said sharply, “you asked for a chance, and this is it. You’ll fill in for Sarah, but it’s half-nude. Are you in?”

  My heart jumped in my throat. The sudden silence was oppressing. Under Grayson’s scrutiny, I peered from his face to Sarah’s hopeful expression, then back to him, and I found myself nodding. He was right; it was my chance. Whatever he wanted from me, I’d do it. I had to. Even though, to be honest, I had no idea what half-nude meant, but it sounded better than being completely nude

  “Yes, count me in,” I said, my voice alien to my ears.

  “Good. Then it’s sorted.” Grayson’s grim expression barely shifted as he pointed to me, Thalia, and a girl with bright red hair the color of chili peppers. “You three will be posing and presenting. Don’t disappoint me. I’m counting on you.”

  He expected us to do a great job, meet prospective clients, and earn him some new contracts. Given my retail background, I figured I could pull that off, even half-dressed.

  ***

  “That was awesome!” Thalia shouted the moment we were back in the dressing room. She high-fived me and for the first time in what seemed like forever, I actually felt happy—as hard to believe as that was.

  Before meeting Thalia, the thought of posing or modeling had never occurred to me. Now I couldn’t wait to do it again. Things had gone so well. Not only did I earn my first real working assignment, but Grayson was extremely confident that he’d be able to place the pictures with one of his clients—in fact so confident that he had agreed to pay each of us $1,000.

  A thousand dollars, which would go a long way toward paying the rent for the month.

  The prospect of making money and meeting potential new clients excited me, even though I didn’t have a clue as to what the job really entailed, except to be charming and help Grayson generate more business. Surely, compared to the nightmarish scenarios I had encountered in the past, Grayson’s offering seemed like the Holy Grail on the path to improvement. Thalia had already shown me the sexy outfits wrapped in plastic, stuffed inside a huge box: brand new clothes that we were allowed to keep after the event. While they weren’t exactly my style, the fabric was long enough to cover my private parts, and I was grateful for that.

  “We should celebrate,” Thalia said, interlocking her arms with Gina’s and mine. “Tomorrow’s going to be so awesome.” Even she sounded like Sylvie—untroubled and free of the emotional baggage that came with a hot guy who turned out to be a cheater.

  “I’m not sure we should get drunk before the big day,” Gina muttered, squeezing out of her pink polka-dot dress and changing into a shirt and black jeans that did nothing to hide her beauty. With her porcelain skin and her bright red hair that fit her scowl, she kind of reminded me of a heated version of Arielle, the little mermaid.

  “You’re a sourpuss, Gina.” Thalia nudged her playfully, then turned to me. “She’s such a buzz-kill. Jenna, what do you think? Are you up for finding a bar and having a couple drinks?”

  I laughed with unease. Now was the time to reveal my pregnancy, but I couldn’t tell them and risk Grayson finding out when I had barely started the job.

  “Maybe another time,” I said. “I’m kind of tired.”

  “You guys are all so boring.” Thalia scrunched up her face. “Another time, then. I’ll call you up on it and then I’ll have to insist we’ll hit not one, not two—” She lifted three fingers as she counted “—but three bars. And I get to choose where and how we celebrate. Deal? But today—” Her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper as the corners of her smile twitched. “Today, I will dare you for one drink at the La Rue Bar, just one.”

  Gina and I exchanged glances.

  “You’re so bad,” Gina said, laughing. “One drink, and that’s it.”

  “Atta girl.” Thalia’s sharp gaze focused on me, and for a moment I could almost feel it penetrating the barriers of my mind, as though she could see right through me.

  Just one drink.

  I wouldn’t even have to take more than a sip, and no one would notice.

  Gina shot me a “trust me” look.

  I had never really been much of a drinker anyway, no more than a glass or two of wine, but the idea of spending the evening with new friends brightened my gloomy mood. Besides, my obstetrician had even recommen
ded one glass of wine every now and then. “Okay,” I found myself saying and lifted one finger, “but one drink only.”

  “Absolutely.” Thalia laughed out loud as she locked her arms with ours again. “That’s totally the plan. Come on, girls. First round’s on me.”

  It was supposed to be one drink—just one single drink to celebrate the fact that I had found a new job. What’s a night out without colorful cocktails or a cold glass of martini with a green olive on a stick? Ever since becoming pregnant, I had felt I had been missing out on the fun: New York City’s nightlife screaming of light pleasures and dark chaos, quick dates, and drawn-out dramas—all the excitement and disasters that came with going out and not knowing how a particular night would end. At that moment, I hoped it would end in meeting new people, making new friends, and maybe finding the beginnings of a new life—a new path without Jett. Maybe even a new guy, someone who would take my mind off the past and help me move on.

  I had worked hard all my life, but finding a new date, a new lover, someone to replace my past love, was harder—particularly in a city like New York that was full of people who had no time for relationships. The only available men for dating were those who worked at night: single, successful, driven, and eager to win and get ahead. Those who loved to work hard but fucked harder. They reminded me of my old self—eager to build a career, never looking for love or a relationship. If I wanted to get Jett out of my head, all I had to do was explore New York at night and meet new people. And all that started with a drink, albeit the nonalcoholic kind, whether I wanted it or not.

  As we entered La Rue, the buzz of people and music immediately made my mind spin in a good way; the laughter and excitement all around me were surprisingly captivating.

  “Let’s sit at the bar,” Gina yelled in my ear, “so we don’t have to walk too far for drinks.”

  The bar area was so crammed, I doubted we’d find one vacant stool, let alone three. “There’s a table over there,” I said, ready to push my way through. For once, all the shoving and invasion of my space didn’t bother me.

 
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