Authors: Ginger Voight
He chuckled as he reached for his glass. “What’s the matter, Carly? Not an adventurous eater?”
“Not when it comes to bugs, no,” I replied.
“So what kind of exotic things do you put in your mouth?” he pondered softly with that same daring look in his eye.
I rolled my eyes in response. “Can we knock off the Don Juan crap, please? It’s not like it’s a real date.”
“Why not?” he countered. “We’re here. A man and a woman in a romantic setting, with sensual foods and the heartbeat of the ocean nearby. Sounds like a date to me.”
“You don’t like me, for one,” I told him.
He shook his head. “That’s where you’re wrong. I like you more every single day. And you like me too, even if you won’t admit it.”
“Please,” I snorted.
“Fine. Be stubborn. It just makes the game more fun.”
Finally it dawned on me. “I see. Because you finally found a woman who doesn’t want you, you’re now on a mission to make me change my mind.”
“A guy’s gotta have a hobby,” he shrugged with that same arrogant smirk.
“Going to be a long year for you.”
He sat back in his chair. “Is that a dare, Miss Reynolds?”
“Consider it a warning.”
“Why?” he wanted to know. “What would be so awful about fully enjoying our year together?”
I busied myself by putting my napkin in my lap, so that I wouldn’t punch him right in the nose. Did he really think I was going to hop into his bed? After everything? “One, I don’t sleep with men who don’t respect me. I’m a tool for you, not a person. And sorry, but that just doesn’t get me going.”
He acquiesced with a nod. “Fair enough.” He leaned forward. “So what does get you going?”
I shook my head. “We’re not having this conversation.”
“Here I’ll make it easy for you by telling you something about me.” He spoke slow, running his finger lightly along my hand. “My turn-ons are long walks on the beach, back scratches and slow, open-mouthed kisses.”
I leveled my gaze on him as I withdrew my hand, again before I punched him right in his smug little face. “And your turn-offs are fat chicks.”
“Not true,” he corrected at once. “Seeing you today got me hard as hell.” I sighed and looked away. “You really want to know what turns me off? A broken record. People who can’t change. And bitchy women.”
I cocked an eyebrow. “Is that what you think I am?”
His voice was soft. “Prove me wrong.”
“By sleeping with you, you mean.”
He shrugged. “You’re going to do that either way.”
My laughter was cut short by the arrival of our first course, which he too gleefully announced was egg caviar. Both Eli and I got one, served in the shell, held steady by its own little stand. Inside, a spoonful of black pearls set atop the soft boiled egg and crème fraiche. I could barely contain my revulsion as Eli dug right in, spooning it out and letting it linger on his tongue as he watched me. “
,” he murmured. “Go ahead. Try it.”
I shook my head. “No way.”
He scooted his chair closer to mine. “Come on, Carly. You have the amazing opportunity to live one year in someone else’s skin. Take advantage of it.” He scooped out a small bit of the delicacy onto a spoon and held it up to my lips. “Be brave. The whole world is watching,” he added, nodding his head ever so subtly toward the sand, where a beachcomber had suddenly appeared—and just so happened to be holding a camera.
PING was everywhere.
I glared at him as I opened my mouth just a sliver, enough for him to spoon a bit of the food inside. It was creamy and salty all at once, with an explosion of texture as I finished the bite. I reached for my wine immediately, which made him chuckle.
“Good girl,” he murmured as he continued to crowd me. Those eyes landed on my lips and stayed there. When he bent for a kiss, I didn’t stop him. He had paid very well for the privilege—in public at least.
True to his word, it was a lazy, open-mouthed kiss, where he savored the flavors of our appetizer on my lips. It lasted so long that I almost believed he meant it. I was breathless when he finally pulled away, which made his smile even more victorious.
“Yummy,” he murmured as he ran his thumb along my lips.
He kept up the routine throughout our second course and main entrée. Then he decided we needed to dance, so he pulled me from our table and out onto the sand.
The second we left the heated terrace, I immediately felt the chill of the air dancing next to the ocean. I shivered as he pulled me tighter, which he probably took as sexual desire, like the goose bumps springing up all over my skin. He molded my body to his as we swayed to the live music from inside the restaurant, which carried out to us like an echo onto the private beach.
It occurred to me in that moment how many women would kill to be right where I was. According to the media he was one of the sexiest men alive. I had certainly seen the proof of that with the concert Meet & Greets and the fan mail. Women practically swooned at his feet if he spared them his trademarked smirk. Yet there he was, in my arms, holding me close to that body, with all the promises that entailed, and there I was—counting the seconds till the whole thing was over.
(Eleven months, twenty-seven days and two hours.)
(Give or take.)
As if he could feel me disengage, his hands trailed down my back and over my hips, pressing me further into him. “Come on, Carly,” he crooned against my ear, as if whispering sweet nothings. And that was exactly what they were worth. “It’s not all bad, is it? A beautiful clear night. Lovely music. Wonderful food. A flesh-and-blood man right in your arms.”
I glared at him. “Because all the men I’d have to settle for are imaginary, right?”
He refused to rise to the bait, grazing his lips against my ear lobe instead. “None are like me. And you know it.”
“Thank God,” I muttered, but I didn’t resist when he turned me into another kiss. We were on the clock, after all.
I didn’t protest when his tongue pushed through my closed lips, taking instant possession of my mouth. He wasn’t a bad kisser. In fact, he was pretty skilled at that too. I imagined myself as an Olympic judge, holding up a score for each tactic. Tongue usage: 9.4. Appropriate amount of moisture: 9.2. Lip-nibbling on the ‘dismount’ – 9.7.
He smiled down at me, tangling his fingers with mine, before leading me back to our table where we could enjoy dessert, a tropical pineapple soufflé served with a coconut sorbet. It reminded me of sun-swept beaches under a blazing sun, and helped take the chill off of the night air.
“I’ll have to take you to the Bahamas,” he said as he fed me, at his insistence, each decadent spoonful.
“Not necessary,” I dismissed at once. I was exhausted faking a date with the man, much less a vacation.
“What a boring life,” he murmured. “Doing just those things that are necessary.” He let the comment linger for a moment. “If nothing else, Carly Reynolds, I hope to teach you how to embrace new possibilities. The bigger the better,” he added with a wink.
By then I was too exhausted to protest or retort. I was ready for our night to be over, which I made all too clear when we finally made it back to his car.
“Feigning a headache to get away from me already, my pet?” he teased as he pulled out into the street.
I placed my fingers on my pounding temple. “I wish I were faking.” Between the wine, the rich food and the pretense of the evening, I was courting a serious migraine.
“Fine,” he agreed, taking mercy on me at last, probably because no one was around to take a photo of us. “You’ll need your rest for tomorrow, I’m sure.”
I chuckled. “Actually,
need your rest for tomorrow.”
“I can’t wait to see what you have up your sleeve for me,” he smiled, and his gaze danced momentarily on my chest. “So aside from the cup, what else should I wear?”
It was my turn to be amused. “Something you’re not afraid to get dirty.”
He slid me a curious glance. “It’s a little early in our relationship for mud-wrestling, but I’m game if you are.”
I laughed in spite of myself. “Noted.”
He pulled to a stop in front of my apartment, and of course, some recognizable PING photo-Nazis were waiting in the restaurant just across the street. “I’ll walk you upstairs,” he said, and I knew better than to argue.
As much as I hated to admit it, he was right. I was going to have to find a much more secure place to live.
He followed me up the narrow stairs to my apartment, where he could hear Unit B’s TV blaring
right through the wall. I shut the noise as best I could behind us when I closed the door.
My Southern manners compelled me to at least try and be a good hostess. “You want something to drink?” I asked. “I’ve got some ginger ale.”
“Sounds great,” he said as he stepped into my tiny studio flat. He took it all in, from the art on the walls to the fabric I used to spruce up my secondhand furniture. He made himself comfortable on the sofa while I poured him a glass.
“No TV?” he asked when I brought it to him.
I gestured to the faint sound of Colonel Klink from the other side of the wall. “No need.”
He laughed as I joined him on the sofa. “I suppose not.” He spotted my print of
on the wall. “God, I love Hopper,” he said, gesturing to the piece. “Makes you feel like you are there, doesn’t it?”
I nodded. That was why I loved it.
He pulled out his phone and queued up some music. “No disrespect to Captain Hogan,” he said, “but it doesn’t really set the mood.”
I arched an eyebrow. “I have a headache, remember?”
“I know,” he said as he turned back to face me. “But what kind of boyfriend would I be if I didn’t do something to make you feel better?”
I peered at him suspiciously as he leaned closer. I thought for sure he would try to kiss me again, although it was pointless. No one could see.
Instead he let his hand slide down my shoulder, along my hip and down my calf until he was tugging off my shoe. He took my foot in both hands and brought it into his lap, where he proceeded to massage it. I flinched immediately, as I had always been particularly ticklish on my feet. “Eli,” I tried to warn, but he just secured a tighter hold.
“Trust me,” he said with that damnable smirk.
“I never trust a man who says ‘Trust me.’”
He grinned. “I knew I liked you.” He glanced around my humble digs. “But you should seriously ask Frank for a raise.”
“That’s why I have you, honey dumplin’,” I said sweetly, which made him laugh.
“You think we’re so far apart, but we’re not. Not really. You saw an opportunity and you took it. No crime in that.” For once I had nothing to say, so he kept going. “They say that success is when opportunity meets preparation. If you’ve spent your life preparing for your dream, and the opportunity comes along to make it happen, you should take it. No guilt. No apology.” His eyes met mine. “What’s your dream, Carly?”
“I don’t have one,” I shrugged.
“Bullshit,” he murmured. Our eyes met. “You wouldn’t be slugging around Frank’s office, taking care of my career, if you didn’t have the long game in mind. So what is it?”
I sighed. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“Try me,” he said softly. I hesitated so long that he added, “Don’t make me tickle it out of you.”
To prove his point, he gently brushed a finger on the underside of my foot, making me jump and squeal.
“Fine!” I conceded at once. With a sigh, I admitted, “I want to change how the world sees things.”
“Things?” he repeated.
“People,” I amended. Off his look, I said, “People like me.”
He cocked his head and waited for me to continue. “I took the job with Frank because the media is where the power is. The power of the message. You get the right message to the people and the people create change. It’s how cultures evolve.”
“And what do you think needs changing?” he asked.
I hesitated again, and he poised his finger along my foot as a threat. “You wouldn’t understand it even if I told you. The system works for you. You’re straight. You’re white. You’re a guy. You have money. Your greatest challenge is standing out. My biggest challenge has always been fitting in.”
He stopped rubbing my foot as he listened. I struggled to find a way to make him understand. Why this was important, I had no idea.
“You ever bought a new car? The minute you drive it off the lot, it depreciates, right? That’s kind of what it’s like to be born a woman in this culture. Born a girl? Immediately your worth depends on the kind of boxes you can check off. Pretty? Thin? White? Wealthy? Young? A virgin?” I added, making invisible checks with my finger after each word. “There’s a reason why I’m here in this apartment at twenty-four and Rhonda is a superstar at nineteen, Eli.”
For once he had nothing to say, so I kept going.
“You keep talking about all these opportunities. Girls like me don’t get as many, and that’s just the truth. That’s why Jordi was such a game-changer. People like her change the message. People like Graham Baxter. Like Giovanni or Jace.” I thought about FFF. “I want to be a part of that. So that the next time a girl’s a little chubby when she’s eight or ten or twelve, she doesn’t feel like she has to starve herself because it would be better to be dead than fat.”
I stopped talking suddenly, as if I had said too much. I had totally said too much. But he was quiet as he listened. Finally he said, “Then why hate me? I’m changing the message, too.”
“But you don’t mean it,” I told him. “You give us all crumbs and expect us to be grateful for it, just because you’re too thick to see what might be standing right in front of you. Do you realize that I’ve worked as Frank’s assistant for seven whole months, and you paid more attention to the mail girl than you did to me? At least until I could do something for you she couldn’t. Then all of a sudden you shine your light upon me and I’m supposed to do a fucking jig in appreciation? You’re a phony, Eli.”
It had taken me seven months to tell him all of this, and finally I had. Oddly, it didn’t make me feel much better, any more than my bloated bank account.