Stripped, p.11
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       Stripped, p.11

         Part #1 of Stripped series by Jasinda Wilder
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I seem to spend a lot of time terrified around this man.

  He squeezes the car between lanes, fitting into spaces I wouldn’t have believed a car could go. Having just navigated the streets of L. A. myself, I realize the mastery he has over his vehicle. He makes it look effortless, as if hurtling through the congested traffic of Hollywood at sixty miles an hour is totally normal.

  His phone chimes and he pulls it out, tosses it to me. “Can you see who that is?”

  I hold the unfamiliar phone in my hand and stare at it. I don’t have a cell phone, since I can’t afford one and don’t have anyone to call. I have an iPad that I use for the internship, though, and it’s just like that. I slide the little green icon across the screen. “It’s from…Ashley M. ” I start reading the text aloud. “She says, ‘You should come over tonight. I have an eight-ball and some Blue Label. ’”

  His faces contorts. “Shit. I thought it was from Jeremy. ”

  “Who’s Ashley M?” A thought strikes me. “And why just the first letter of her last name? Do you know so many Ashleys that you have to differentiate between them?”

  “Shit,” he says again. “She’s…a friend of mine. ”

  “A friend. ” It’s not really a question.

  He grabs the phone without looking at me and shoves it between his thighs. “Yeah. A friend. And yeah, I know lots of Ashleys. And lots of Jens. Last names…aren’t usually necessary. ”

  “So should I answer her for you?” I know exactly what the message meant. Well, maybe I don’t know what an eight-ball is, but Blue Label is high-end whiskey. I’m guessing an eight-ball is drugs of some kind, which means sex. Ashley M is probably glamorously beautiful and sophisticated and knows how to please him in ways I don’t.

  My heart clenches. I force myself to remember that he’s my boss. I work for him. He can do drugs and drink and have sex with anyone he wants. This has nothing to do with me.

  He shifts gears, and grabs the phone, spinning it idly between thumb and forefinger. Then he tosses it to me. “Yeah. Answer her for me. ”

  Page 30

 

  I take the phone and bring up the message from Ashley M. “What do you want me to say?”

  “Just tell her no, thanks, that I already have plans. ”

  I type the message into his phone and send it, and within seconds, a response pops up in the gray bubble. “She says, ‘Awww, are you sure?’” I choke a little and set the phone on his lap. “I’m not reading the rest. ”

  My heart clenches, and my stomach flips. It’s none of my business. I don’t care. I don’t care. But…as much as I tell myself not to care, I do. I shouldn’t, and I don’t have any place feeling possessive over Dawson, but I do. The rest of the message said, If you come over, you can put it in my ass again.

  My eyes blur. Dawson pulls the car to a stop at a red light, and on impulse I throw off my seat belt, shove the door open, and get out. I’m wearing heels, so I can’t run, but I slam the door behind me and start walking as fast as my precarious sense of balance will allow. I’m not looking where I’m going, and I don’t know where I am. It doesn’t matter. I hear Dawson’s angry voice behind me, calling my name. I don’t know what I’m feeling. Angry, sick to my stomach, jealous, confused. Lost. Loss, like some sense of possibility has been taken away. He likes anal sex. He has random women, whose last names he doesn’t even care about or know, texting him for a night of meaningless sex, drugs, and booze.

  He’s a star. A celebrity. He lives a celebrity life, and I know nothing about that.

  I hear honks and shouts from behind me, and I ignore it. I keep walking, fighting the stupid tears and losing. I don’t even know why I’m so upset about this.

  I’m lifted off the ground, spun in place, and pinned against the plate-glass window of a storefront. Dawson’s arms are around me, under my backside. One of his hands is on my cheek, forcing my face to his. He’s breathing hard, sweat dotting his forehead and upper lip. His eyes are blue-gray, the color of his anger.

  “Damn it, Grey. It’s not what you think. ”

  I writhe in his grip. It’s too much, like this. I’m wrapped up in him, held in place by him. I can’t get away, can’t move, can’t breathe anything but his scent and his power. “Let me go. ”

  “No. ”

  “Why?”

  “Because you don’t understand. ”

  “There’s nothing to understand,” I whisper. “You can do what you want, with who you want. And it’s exactly what I think. ”

  “She’s—”

  “She wanted you to come over for sex. It’s simple. ” I suck in a deep breath, close my eyes to block him out. He sets me down and I shove him, hard. “I’m an intern. That’s all. You don’t owe me any explanations. ”

  “But what if I want—”

  “It doesn’t matter!” I’m yelling, and I’m still crying through it, for some reason. I strive for calm, especially because a crowd is gathering. “Just…God, just stop, Dawson. Just stop. ”

  “I can’t. I’m sorry you read that, but…look, you’re right, it doesn’t matter. I’m done with her. I have been. She was a one-time thing. That’s it. ”

  I start walking again, and he catches up with me. We’re being followed by clicking and flashing cameras. “I don’t know what you’re trying to convince me of. It doesn’t matter. ”

  “You keep saying that, but you’re the one crying. ” His hand catches mine and his other goes around my waist, drawing me to him. Once again, with a mere touch, I feel as if I belong to him. It’s wrong, and it’s right, and it’s confusing. “Stop running. ”

  “I’m not. ”

  He chuckles. “You’re a shitty liar, Grey. ”

  I push him away and struggle out of his hold. I’m struggling against myself as well, since I like how it feels to be held by him. I’m lost, disoriented. Why am I fighting this? He clearly wants me in some sense. But I don’t know what he wants, and I don’t know what to do with his desire, or how to feel, or what I feel. All I know is survival, work, and school. I don’t know men.

  I turn away and walk back the way we came, but I’m stopped dead in my tracks by the crowd of paparazzi. There’s dozens of them, and they’re photographing me.

  “Miss Amundsen, are you and Dawson an item? How long have you been together? Did you catch him with another woman?” A middle-aged man with thick brown hair and square-framed glasses thrusts a voice recorder at me and shouts a train of questions.

  How do they know my name? That scares me more than anything else.

  A stick-thin woman with gaunt features and frizzy dishwater-blonde hair speaks over him. “Miss Amundsen, why did Dawson carry you to your dorm yesterday? Are you a USC student? Is it true you and Dawson walked in on your roommate having sex? What’s Dawson like in bed?”

  My mouth opens and closes. I feel compelled to answer their questions. I was raised to be polite, to speak when spoken to. I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to be news. “I—I—we’re not, um…I don’t—”

  “Can you comment on your relationship with Dawson Kellor?”

  “How old are you? Do you have a husband?”

  “Grey, have you ever thought about modeling?”

  “Look this way, Grey!”

  “Grey, over here!”

  “Grey, has Dawson ever asked you to do anything in bed you didn’t want to?”

  I’m looking from one voice to another, flapping my mouth open and closed, blinking at the flashes. I feel Dawson’s arm go around my waist, pull me back, and then he’s standing in front me, shielding me.

  “Grey has no comment at this time, guys. ” He steps forward a bit, and I feel him shift, feel him become stiff and formal, as if he’s putting on a suit of armor. “How about I take a few questions about the film?”

  The man who asked the first question pushes forward, jostling for position. “Dawson, we’ve all heard that you’re rumored to be in a remake of
Gone With the Wind. Can you confirm this?”

  Dawson shifts his attention to the man. “Hey, Bill, how are you? Yeah, I can confirm. I’m playing Rhett. We’re about to begin filming next month. We’re almost done with pre-production and development. ”

  “Is Grey part of the project?” I can’t see who asks this.

  “She’s an intern working for John Kazantzidis at Fourth Dimension. ”

  Page 31

 

  “What were you arguing about? That didn’t sound like a work-related argument to me. Are you two involved?”

  Dawson’s shoulders flex and tense. “I’m not going to comment on that, other than to say, no, we’re not involved, and we never have been. She’s an intern on the project. It was a business-related discussion. ”

  The same voice speaks up, a young-sounding male voice. “It sure didn’t sound like it to me, Dawson, and we all know your history with interns and assistants. Come on, man, give us something. ”

  Dawson’s voice turns hard. “I am giving you something. Don’t be a douchebag, Tom. Leave Grey out of it. I’ll comment on the film, but that’s it. Any more questions about Grey, and this is over. ”

  All I can see is Dawson’s broad back, the orange T-shirt stretching over his shoulders, and the back of his head, the hair curling around the base of his neck. He needs a trim around his neck. I want to run my hands over the expanse of his shoulders, but I don’t.

  “Why are you protecting her, if you’re not involved?” The same voice, whom Dawson had called Tom.

  “She’s never dealt with you guys before. You guys are f**king barracudas. ”

  Tom again. “Sure you won’t comment on her? She’s hot, Dawson. You guys look great together. ”

  Dawson wraps his arm around my shoulders, pulls me close as we push through the crowd, ignoring the blinding camera flashes and barrage of questions. He doesn’t speak, and all I can do is trot in my high heels to keep up with him. His arm is a platonic vise around my shoulder, a show for the journalists, paparazzi, whatever they are. My heart is pounding. They’ve already caught on to the fact that there’s something going on. They know who I am. They’re going to find out I’m a stripper. Kaz will find out, and he’ll fire me. Everyone will know I’m a stripper, and it’s all I’ll be to anyone. A chick who’s willing to take her clothes off.

  We’ve gone three blocks and we’re still not back to the intersection where I jumped out of Dawson’s car. I had no idea that I had run so far. After another half a block, we see a crowd gathered around a policeman, and a flat-bed tow truck preparing to load Dawson’s car. Dawson curses under his breath.

  “Hey, you don’t need to tow it. ”

  The cop turns around, recognizes Dawson and then looks intimidated. “Sorry, Mr. Kellor. You can’t leave your car parked in the middle of the street like that. ”

  “No shit. But I’m here now, so it’s fine. ”

  “But—” The cop seems flustered.

  Dawson steps closer to the policeman, who is an older man with a rounded belly and salt-and-pepper hair. “You have a daughter, Officer…O’Hare?”

  “I…yeah, but—”

  Dawson takes the officer’s ticket pad from him, and pulls a thick black Sharpie from the cargo pocket of his shorts. “What’s her name, Officer O’Hare?”

  “Jill, but that won’t—”

  Dawson shoots the man a gentle, disarming smile, and writes horizontally across the pad. I read what he writes: To Jill, because your Dad is a hero. Your friend, Dawson Kellor. The name is written in a dramatic slanting scrawl, the inscription printed neatly. He hands the pad back to the policeman and re-pockets the marker, then claps the older man on the shoulder.

  “Listen, Officer O’Hare. It was a bit of an emergency. It won’t happen again. I’m sure you understand. ” Dawson is striding into the street, pulling me by the hand. The officer is drawn along as if by a magnet, spluttering and blustering.

  “Mr. Kellor, I appreciate the autograph, because my daughter is a huge fan, but I can’t just let you drive away. ”

  Dawson opens the passenger door and hands me in, then crosses around to the driver’s side, sliding in, pushing the keyless starter button so the engine roars to life. He guns the gas pedal so the motor revs. “Then write me a ticket. There’s no point in trying to tow it, since I’m here now. Write me a ticket for whatever you want. Just make it quick, if you could. I have an important meeting with my producers in an hour. ”

  Officer O’Hare is clearly befuddled. His eyes are flicking to the huge crowd, to Dawson, to me, to the car—which is worth more than he’ll make in his whole life. He’s hesitating, and Dawson is giving off an air of disarming impatience. He digs a card out of his wallet and hands it to the officer. “How about this? I really have to go. Here’s my attorney’s card. You can send a ticket or a fine or whatever to him if you want. ” I’m shocked at his gall.

  “I guess I could—I mean…” Officer O’Hare glances at the crowd, and then back to me for some reason.

  I’m sitting quietly in passenger seat, buckled, waiting, trying to be invisible.

  “Good. Glad we got that figured out. ” Dawson slams his door closed, reverses the Bugatti to within an inch of the police cruiser parked diagonally behind him, and then peels out into traffic around the tow truck, cutting off a white convertible Bentley. He blows through a yellow light and has the car doing fifty-five within seconds, zipping around slower-moving traffic, stomping on the brakes when he can’t find a path around. At one point he even crosses the center double yellow lines and swerves around a semi into oncoming traffic. I’m breathless, clutching the armrest with white-knuckled fingers as Dawson floors it, pressing me back into the seat as the powerful car rockets to over a hundred miles per hour, and then I’m thrown to the left as Dawson cuts back into the proper lane, braking and doing something with the gears to make the car slow drastically.

  The scene of the incident with the police officer is already several miles behind us, and we only left the curb minutes before. My heart is drumming in my chest, and not just from Dawson’s skillfully insane driving. In between shifting the gears, his hand rests on my leg, his finger tracing idle patterns on my knee. I stare at his hand. It’s huge and tan, strong, the pads of his fingers callused and rough on my skin.

  “Do you always drive like this?” I manage to ask.

  “Yes. ” He glances at me with a quick grin. “Why?”

  “It’s scary. What if we wreck?”

  “We won’t. ”

  “But how do you know?”

  “Because I know what I’m doing. I’m not just a rich dickhead with a fast car. ”

  “Then what are you?” I ask.

  Page 32

 

  “Um. A lot of things. Before I got serious about acting, I was a street racer. You ever see Fast and Furious? Kind of like that. Except we weren’t gangs and street kids. We were rich and privileged brats with too much money and no one to tell us not to be stupid. We’d drag up and down Sunset at midnight, or in the poorer areas where cops don’t like to go. We’d take our dads’ Ferraris and Lamborghinis out into the desert and race. We’d go up and race the curves in the mountains. So driving was what I did anyway. And then I got the role of Anderson in Redlight Gods, and they wanted me to take, like, actual race-car driving lessons. Like, with government defensive and offensive-driving course instructors and NASCAR guys and shit. The funniest part was when they wanted to have me take this tutorial on street racing with some supposedly reformed racer who decided to become a Hollywood consultant or something. And it turns out it was a guy I’d raced—and beaten—half a dozen times over the years. ” He’s talking as he drives, and I notice he’s slowed down and is driving more sanely. For my sake? “So yeah, I know how to drive. You don’t have to worry. ”

  “Have you ever been in a wreck?”

  Dawson laughs. “Of course. You don’t street race and
not crash. I totaled this NSX I had. I mean, totaled. It was the kind of wreck you don’t expect anyone to live through, but I walked away without a scratch. I was dragging on the edges of South Central against this cat named Johnny Liu. I think his dad was Triad, actually, but I never knew for sure. It was like, three in the morning and we had pink slips riding on the race. It was a preset thing, a big four-mile circuit. I was in the lead, about to make this wide left. I had her drifting right in the groove, you know? Tires smoking, engine howling. Johnny was behind me and closing in fast. He had this killer f**king black and red ’68 Charger with a fat-ass blown Hemi. It was so backward. Here I was driving this Acura NSX, which is a Japanese car, and this Asian kid is driving a classic American muscle car. So anyway, I was drifting through a left onto Washington. I don’t even know what happened, except that suddenly my car was in the air, flipping. Like, I must’ve flipped thirty times. I think I got T-boned from the passenger side. God, that hurt so f**king bad. I rolled and rolled and rolled, and I guess I was lucky that I didn’t hit a streetlight or a building or something. I was lucky any way you slice it, really. I have no clue how I didn’t get hurt. I mean, the car was a crumpled ball of shit, and I just crawled out of it, bruised but unhurt. ”

  “You said, before you got serious about acting. What’s that mean?”

  He checks his mirrors, and then, without warning, cuts across traffic and down a side street, zipping left and right, suddenly back to the crazy-fast and erratic driving. I’m clutching the armrest again and holding my breath as he barrels down side streets at fifty miles an hour, then out onto the main road again, carving across all lanes of traffic and onto the freeway. We’re doing ninety on the shoulder, narrowly avoiding wreck after wreck, and then exiting at a more normal pace.

  “What was that?” I breathe.

  Dawson grins at me. “Had fuzz after me. Lost ’em. ”

  “Fuzz?”

  “Police? Traffic cop?”

  I frown at him. “Who actually says fuzz?”

  “Me, it would seem. ”

  “So you just evaded a policeman?”

  “Yep. ” He’s glancing behind us as he drives, but seems confident he lost the cop. His eyes lock on me as we sit at a red light. “So. What did you think about your first encounter with the pop?”

  “Pop?” I ask.

  “Paparazzi. ”

  “Oh,” I say. “It was…scary. They’re not afraid to ask anything, are they?”

  He laughs. “No. And they’re relentless. You realize, even though we didn’t answer any of their questions about you, and that we said we aren’t together, they’re still gonna print whatever they think will sell copy. This is probably one of those ‘don’t look down’ things, but I wouldn’t recommend reading any gossip rags. You won’t like it. ”

  I’m not sure what to think or say. I probably will go and look my name up online now. I sit in silence for long minutes, avoiding his eyes, keeping my knees to the side so he can’t touch me. His touch makes me lose my sense. I can’t keep getting sucked into his orbit.

 
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