Authors: Dona Sarkar
stared longingly at the side salad Shazan picked at as the two girls ate lunch at Riverside Mall on Friday afternoon. Salad had never looked so good. Her mood was still foul from what had happened at school.
Jay asked that skinny bitch right in front of her! He knew how much it would hurt her and he
still did it!
Jackass! She caught a glimpse of him that morning getting into his Mustang. It wasn't just her imagination; he had definitely glanced at her bedroom window before squealing out of the driveway. He knew.
Her reaction must have totally given her away.
Today she'd been in no mood to sit through an hour of geometry. Staring at the back of Jennifer's silky black hair. Wishing for the universe to pull a
and switch her body with the tiny junior's. Then
would be the one kissing Jay by his Mustang for all the school to see.
Luckily, Shazan had insisted Leah cut class and hit the mall for some good old-fashioned retail therapy to celebrate her slim new body.
Not slim enough for Jay, though.
“I need a dress that says, âI'm sexy, but not a slut,' you know what I mean?”
Whack, whack, whack,
went Shazan's fork. She speared a piece of carrot, then set down the fork without taking a bite of the mouthwatering sliver of orange. “It's going to be mine and Bill's six-month anniversary, so I want the night to be really special.”
“Huh.” Leah rested her chin on her now-empty water glass.
“What about you? Who are you gonna go with?”
“I don't know.” Leah was too busy watching Shazan's fork. “Maybe one of the guys on the team.”
“Don't worry, Li. We'll find someone for you. Someone tall. And hot. He has to be hot.”
Already found him.
Leah felt a twinge of sadness. How stupid she'd been to think that just because Jay had complimented her on her weight loss, he'd be interested in her as a girl.
She was just another buddy.
She had to just come out and tell him how she felt. She couldn't keep it inside anymore. As soon as possible. In her dreams, he would confess that he felt the same way and had only asked Jennifer out because he didn't think Leah was at all interested in him
“I want Bill to want more.” Shazan was still talking. “But not so much that he goes and gets it somewhere else.”
Leah laughed. “And where would that be, Shazan?”
Bill Collins was good-looking, sweet and, above all, smart. He wasn't about to cheat on one of the hottest girls in school with some random chick who was ready to put out. How could beautiful girls like Shazan be so insecure? If Leah looked anything like her, she would never question herself.
“Oh, there are a lot of possibilities, Leahie.” Shazan wrinkled her pert nose, the diamond in her right nostril glinting in the fluorescent lighting. “Those goth junk sluts. Emo-types, you know? They'd screw anyone.”
Leah rolled her eyes. “I don't think you need to worry about people who believe they can levitate or turn each other into vampires.”
“I know this, and you know this. Butâ¦men! You never know what they want, right?”
“That's true.” Leah was the last person who was going to claim she knew how the average man's mind worked. She barely even understood the brain of her so-called best friend. He loved Leah for her mind, but Jennifer for her body.
“I'm done,” Shazan announced as she dropped her fork, pushing back her tray. More than half the salad remained.
“Me, too.” Leah looked down at her empty watermelon container. She'd felt like a loser toting a container of watermelon to the mall, but she wasn't about to go off her diet. Especially not for a shopping trip for a dress for a dance she had no date for.
She scraped the sides of the container with her fork. An entire chunk of watermelon gone, just like that. She felt full of water, yet her stomach still growled angrily.
The diet was working. This morning, three days of watermelon and only watermelon later, she was five pounds lighter.
Her stomach gurgled, loudly enough that Shazan looked up from where she was rummaging in her purse. “You sure you're done? Your stomach seems to be sayin' something else.”
Leah laughed, realizing how hollow her voice sounded. “The first thirty weren't bad, but nowâ¦I can't stop feeling hungry all the time. I don't know how you can just get by on salads alone. I've never seen you eat anything else.”
Shazan plunked down her pill bottle. “I'm telling you. These work.”
Leah scrutinized the clear bottle, half-full with shimmery pink pills.
EZ Loze. Fills your stomach so you don't feel hungry! Includes caffeine to give you just enough of an energy boost!
Leah sighed. She hated the idea of popping pills. It just felt soâ¦addictive.
But as she watched Shazan take a swallow of water followed by two of the pills, she couldn't help but marvel at Shazan's tiny waist and defined cheekbones.
Shazan had a boyfriend who was crazy about her. She had tons of friends and always fit in anywhere she went. She could slip on any outfit in the whole mall and have it look fantastic on her. Leah wanted all that. One of the coolest girls at school did this stuff, Leah argued with herself.
Why not me?
“Okay, gimme. A few please. I need to get through the rest of this day without eating everything in sight.”
Shazan looked amused as Leah carefully popped one pill and tucked the other five away into the pockets of her oversize cargo pants. “Fine. But make sure you eat before the game tomorrow, okay? You look great now, and we're all proud of you, but if you lose this game, I'll personally kick your ass.”
Leah playfully punched Shazan in the shoulder. “Don't worry your pretty little head, girl. I know what I'm doing. I'm not going to screw our only chance at the finals.”
The girls cleared away their trays and Leah shoved her empty watermelon container into her leather bag. She'd never carried a purse in her life, but the hot-pink crocodile tote had been her first purchase of the day. Shazan had insisted the purse was “so her.”
How could Leah argue with something that was “so her”? The modeling gig better pay well, though. She'd paid more for the purse than her wardrobe for a year. “I need a bathing suit, too. Mama's dragging me to L.A. next weekend for some modeling shoot.”
“Yeah, have you seen my stomach?” Leah patted her lower belly. Definitely better, but still not flat.
“Whatever. Take those pills. By next weekend, you'll be a stick.”
“More like a tree stump.”
“No more negativity!”
Negativity? It was the truth!
Leah suddenly missed Jay. His friendship. His one-liners. He would be making fun of the whole situation with her by now. Instead, she wanted to be a “girl” and had to act like it.
“Come on, let's go to Forever 21. They always have the cutest dresses around this time.” Shazan led the way into the clear-glass store with mannequins wearing sheer, slouchy clothes in the window. Leah had always walked by and glanced in curiously, but had always felt too self-conscious of going in. Seemed that only skinny Asian women frequented the store.
“Ahh, I don't know about this,” Leah muttered as Shazan smiled at the greeter and headed toward the back of the store. “Isn't everything a bitâ¦sparkly in here?”
“Oh my God, strapless is totally back!” Shazan ignored Leah and fingered a slinky, fitted dress.
“Oh, goody. Bra fat.”
“Shut up, Leah! God. This is adorable! You have to try it on.”
“Look at this!”
“Look. You need a dress. Now just do what I say!”
Within twenty minutes, Leah's arms were piled high with shimmery, floaty dresses, eyes rolling toward the ceiling. Shazan had a similar pile.
“You're so lucky the dressing-room line is short today. Come on!”
The girls got rooms next door to each other and both pulled the curtains closed.
Leah tried on the first dress, a shimmery black straight up-and-down number. It highlighted her newly toned arms nicely, but the narrow, straight cut seemed to make her hips even wider. Leah frowned. Pass.
“Let me see!” Shazan's singsong voice was insistent.
Leah shyly pushed back the curtain and noticed Shazan was wearing a similar dress but in a snowy white. She looked like a goddess with her chocolatey curls piled atop her head.
“Hmmâ¦” Shazan frowned.
Leah could practically hear her thoughts.
The dress is cute, too bad her butt's so damn big.
“Try the pink one. I think the flare will balance you out more.”
Leah practically tore the skinny dress off, the tight fabric suffocating her. God, she hated this. How could she have felt so confident and beautiful the night of the benefit? She had had so much more to lose.
She slipped on the “pink one,” a strapless lavender dress with a ballerina skirt. She couldn't even get the dress zipped up the back, and the flimsy skirt made her legs look like wooden blocks.
Tears welled in her eyes as she pried the dress off.
The next dress, a pale green one-shoulder thing, wouldn't even fit around her thighs.
“I think I need a bigger size. For all of these.” Leah heard the dejection in her own voice.
“Oh.” Leah could hear Shazan's tone change. “Really? Let me see what I can find.”
Leah sat on the floor of the dressing room, wiping at the tears on her cheeks. She was a mess. What had she been thinking? Sitting in geometry staring at Jennifer's head was better than this torture.
“Hey.” Shazan slid a pile of satin and lace through the curtain. “I got all the larges I could find. Try these on. I know one of them will fit you.”
One of them. That was her. The largest of the large.
Leah finally settled on a corseted red dress with a halter neck and a flared skirt in the largest size the store carried. She slowly exited the dressing room, wishing she had come alone. Why did she bring someone to witness her humiliation? And Shazan of all people. Perfect Shazan.
Shazan, meanwhile, had purchased half the store. Leah watched enviously as her friend threw one tiny top after another onto the cashier's table, followed by the white goddess dress.
As the cashier rang up the purchases, Shazan turned to Leah. “Did you hear about Jennifer and Jay?”
“Yeah.” Leah busied herself by sifting through her bag for a tube of lip gloss. “He asked her to the ball.”
Shazan giggled, dark eyes flashing. “And that's not all! She really likes him a lot. So much that she's considering asking him to get a room at the hotel for afterward. Can you believe that? Miss Goody Two-shoes herself!”
Leah froze. Jennifer and Jay having sex? If that happened, all of this was for nothing.
Suddenly Leah felt very nauseated. She couldn't lose him. He was the one stable force in her life. She had to lose this weight, she had to look fabulous at the dance. She had to get him. No matter what.
“Hey, Shaz. Could I get a few more of those pills?”
She's All That
could you please move a bit to the left, me love? You're blockin' the light,” Cillian, the photographer's assistant, shielded his eyes and called in his heavy Irish accent. “Roald needs to get one last shot. Then I'm all yours,” he said in a much softer voice.
“My bad.” Leah ducked to the left, trying not to laugh, and nearly toppled into a sand dune. She'd been stupid to wear three-inch heels at the beach, but all the other models were doing it. “Sorry about your light. Can I make it better?”
“I'll haveta show ya how later, love,” he replied, glancing over to see if his boss could hear them. Apparently he could, from the smirk on his lips.
That was the third time she'd blocked the photographer's light. The first time was when she'd snuck up to see if Cillian was as hot up close as he was from a distance.
The second time was pretty much for the same reason. Except he had most definitely noticed what she was up to and had made sure to check her out, too, head to toe, with a very apparent smirk.
Amazing what a pink leopard-printed bikini, perfect blowout, and a see-through sarong could do for an otherwise ordinary girl.
“Leah, you better be paying attention!” Victoria called from where she was perched on a beach chair, her golden skin glistening from the half bottle of baby oil and shimmer powder the makeup artist had sprayed her with. “Come closer and see how the light works.”
“Don't go far.” Cillian took his eyes off the models and winked at her. “I'm not close to done with you yet.”
Tan, Irish and eighteen, Cillian had worked for Roald and Alfreddo for about a month. From the way he'd been flirting with her, she guessed this wasn't the first time he'd help shoot models.
“You've had plenty of chances,” Leah flirted back. He'd been taking pictures of her with his own camera in between breaks and making suggestive comments all afternoon. In turn, she'd been very dramatically spreading out a beach towel, applying sunblock, pulling her shades over her eyes and pretending to gaze into the distance while leaning back on her elbows. All the while, she'd kept a pouty-lipped, “half eyes closed” expression on her face. All tricks she'd picked up from the Brazilian bombshells down by the waterfront.
The crew had at least ten lights trained on the small group of models lounging on towels, under umbrellas and on beach chairs while makeup artists stood by breathlessly, powder puffs ready to do their thing in between shots. Out-of-date hip-hop music blasting from a centralized iPod assured the modeling staff that they were still young and cool.
Leah recognized Alfreddo by his perfectly pedicured toenails.
“Yeah.” She verified her sarong was still knotted around her waist before glancing over at him. She was comfortable revealing her body in front of Cillian's admiring eyes. Alfreddo just gave her a creepy feeling, like dribbling ice-cold oil down her back.
He plunked down a six-pack of beer and a tub of sunblock and, uninvited, took a seat next to her on the dune. “What an amazing view,” he said as he uncapped a light beer, his Bermuda shorts riding up his legs to almost a vulgar point. “That'll be you pretty soon, babe. Lights, camera, action. The whole shebang.”
The whole shebang? People still said
Leah rolled her eyes. She hated when old people tried to use phrases they thought were cool. Groovy, foxy and, worse yet,
Alfreddo liberally applied robin's eggâblue sunblock to his legs. “You're lucky. You never have to worry about looking washed out or pale in winter.”
God, he was like a girl. She could imagine this comment coming from one of the cheerleaders. She rolled her eyes. “I'm black. It comes with the package.”
“Sure.” Leah grabbed the light beer he held out to her. Only two hundred calories. She could burn that off in twenty minutes on the treadmill that night.
“Your mama is really something else,” Alfreddo said, touching his bottle to hers. “I can't believe she's thirty-six. She looks ten years younger.”
Again, Leah had to stifle a laugh with a hefty gulp of the bitter dark beer. Thirty-six! Was that what her mother was telling people now? Please. Victoria had celebrated her forty-fifth birthday that May. Of course no one else knew that information. Apparently in the modeling world, post-thirty was retirement age, but post-forty? You might as well be dead.
“When did your father leave?” Alfreddo drained his beer and buried the bottle in the sand, shaded eyes turning to Leah. The slight curve of his lips dipped lower.
Leah stiffened, all sense of humor gone. “Before I was born,” she said. That was a topic her mother refused to ever talk about. And Leah understood why. Her father had apparently left one day in the middle of the night. No note, no explanation. Nothing. Leaving behind his pregnant girlfriend.
Leah's cheeks started to burn, but before she could give Alfreddo a piece of her mind, Cillian saved her.
“That's all for today, everyone! Roald says to wrap this deal up,” he called to the crew. “Leah, me love. Could you come here a sec? I need an opinion.”
Leah glared at Alfreddo before burying her half-empty beer in the sand and standing up. “Cillian wants me.”
“I see that.” Alfreddo didn't take his eyes off her as she ran over to the photographer.
“Thanks,” she muttered under her breath as she peeked into the viewfinder. It was a picture of a seagull dipping into the ocean. The ordinary act seemed liked art when captured in a photograph. She'd been flipping through his negatives the whole afternoon. Every shot was creative, with the movement captured perfectly.
“Roald's great but that Alfreddo's a goddamn prick. He's the only reason I feel like quittin' this job and hightailin' it back to Ireland.”
Leah laughed. “I wish I had that option. My mom loves him.”
“Well, she's insane to let her daughter near a guy like that.” Cillian rubbed her bare back, letting his fingers linger. “I'm here with you, you know that, right?”
Her breath shortened when his hands didn't budge after the comforting touch. Up until now, she had assumed this was just innocent flirting, what he did with all the models.
His sea-green eyes said differently. “Pose for me one last time. Lose the sarong.”
Leah hesitated. Her stomach was flattish and she wasn't too self-conscious showing it off. Her thighs were a different story. And this guy seemed to like her. She didn't want to turn him off with the sight of her trunklike legs.
“No one else is around, look. I think you're stunning. I promise.”
In sixteen years, no one had referred to her as stunning. The guy Leah wanted most in the world had never looked at her with the kind of hungry expression this absolute stranger had.
Why the hell not? Wasn't this why she had wanted to lose weight? Attention like what the other girls got? And everyone else had hightailed it back to the hotel for cocktail hour. Alfreddo had bolted like lightning the second Victoria had shaken the sand off her body.
She unknotted the sarong and winced as it hit the sand.
“Come closer,” he said.
Leah obliged with one teeny step forward.
“Closer.” He lowered his eyes to the viewfinder. “Perfect. Hold it.”
Leah held her breath as he snapped a series of shots.
“These are amazing. You are truly the only woman here today who deserves to be in the catalog. Look at those curves. That's how a real lady is supposed to look.”
Leah blushed as she looked at the preview. She lookedâ¦okay. Not bad. As she'd thought before, Cillian could make anything look good. Even her.
Cillian was still shaking his head. “Amazing. I am absolutely going to insist to Roald that we use some o' these.”
Leah snorted. “Yeah, with Paula and my mother's rolling in the sand pictures, I don't think these stand much of a chance.”
“We'll see, won't we?” he said as he started to pack his camera bag.
She started to wrap the sarong around her again.
“Leave it.” He grabbed her hand.
Leah started to pull away, but he had a pretty good grip as he wrangled the sarong out of her hand and tossed it behind them.
“Hey! How am I supposed toâ”
His lips were on hers before she knew it. She held her breath during the entire kiss and was left, literally, breathless.
“I'm sorry,” he murmured after a second. “I couldn't help it.”
Leah's pulse was thudding. This, she hadn't expected. She'd always thought that the first guy she hooked up with after she became thin would be Jay. Cillian was an unexpected surprise. She'd been sending him clear signals all day, but didn't expect that a hot, older guy would be interested in her. Make that a hot, older photographer who saw nearly naked models all day and night. And he really did seem to be into her.
“That wasn't the most professional thing, I suppose, right?” Cillian made no effort to move away from her, despite all the nonprofessionalism. Instead he wound his fingers through the ends of her hair.
“You seemed like a professional to me,” Leah managed to say.
Cillian's hand traced down her spine, sending chills all the way to her hairline. He lingered on her lower back as his green eyes tangled with her hazel ones. “I don't do this all the time. With all the models. If that's what you were wondering.”
Leah shrugged. “You don't owe me an explanation,” she said as nonchalantly as possible, although she was secretly thrilled. Maybe he was lying. Maybe he wasn't. The point was that he felt the need to reassure her.
“I feel like I do.”
Leah suddenly saw vulnerability in those eyes. She liked it. She liked being able to make a guy feel like that.
“Then.” Leah ran a finger down his hairless chest and stopped at the waistband of his board shorts. “Let's argue about it later.”
His camera bag slipped to the sand as his other hand cupped the back of her neck and roughly pulled her closer. “I'm pretty sure this is illegal.”
“I like illegal.” This time she kissed him first, pressing her pelvis against his. It had been almost two years since she'd been with a guy. Her freshman year homecoming date had kissed her good-night at the doorâ¦and she'd invited him in for the night. Victoria had been out of town and they had the house to themselves. He'd been slobbery and gropy.
Cillian was not.
His lips nibbled gently on hers, then kissed her with more intensity, then went back to a gentle nibble. His hands stayed busy, cupping and touching her in ways her body had been craving.
Six weeks ago, she was the constant “best friend.” Now this gorgeous man who would never have looked at Fat Leah in the first place couldn't keep his hands off her.
“Is everyone gone?” he whispered as his kisses led them into the sand dune.
“Long gone,” Leah whispered, enjoying the silence. No more cheesy hip-hop music, no more photography director screaming instructions. Just the two of them on the partly cloudy day, seagulls crying overhead. The distant roar of a waterfall. Like no one else existed. This felt like a dream.
“Do you have somewhere to be?” With a slight shove, Leah flipped him on his back. Her powerful forearms and shoulders pinned him to the ground as she straddled his thighs.
Those startlingly bright eyes widened in surprise. “You sure about this?”
“You afraid of me?”
“It's not every day a beautiful woman tackles me into the sand and insists on having her way with me.”
So this was how it felt to be a “beautiful woman.” All of her friends, her mother, everyone else knew how it felt, and today she did, too.
This was worth every minute on the treadmill and every skipped meal.
A surge of power compelled Leah to reach behind her and untie her bikini top.
“Wow.” Cillian watched as she raised her arms and threw the top into the sand dune behind them. “You're even more spectacular than I've been fantasizing about.”
Leah laughed. A guy was fantasizing about her. Her, Leah Mandeville, best friends to all the guys, but never fantasy material, was being fantasized about.
Victoria had been right. This trip would do her good.
Cillian pulled her down on top of him and cupped her breasts in his hands before rolling over on top of her. She could feel exactly how much he'd been fantasizing against her thigh.
His lips were pressed firmly against hers as his hand slipped inside her bikini bottom. She moaned as his fingertips found a good spot.
“We don't have to rush this, you know.”