Authors: Mia Carson
I could see the struggle to maintain some measure of composure and dignity, but her hands trembled and her expression was a mixture of fury, frustration, and perhaps a hint of embarrassment. I wasn’t sure what she had to be embarrassed about, unless it was that the people who walked by us on the sidewalk might overhear our conversation.
With a long, indignant sigh, Lexi turned, continued to walk down the sidewalk, and ignored my question about where she was parked. I walked next to her and looked over at her every now and then.
“Look,” she said in a low tone without breaking her stride or glancing my way. “I appreciate your apology for what you said to me last winter, but I know your reputation from the media. I just don’t think I can work with someone who demonstrates such womanizing tendencies.”
As she spoke, Lexi seemed to be reasoning with herself as she tried to figure out what to do about the job offer. I completely understood why she was torn about whether or not to work with me. I hadn’t exactly made a good first impression, and there were a lot of articles and news clips about my playboy reputation.
“I understand your reservations,” I said in an earnest tone. “But if you work with me, I’ll always be the perfect gentleman, I promise. No suggestive remarks or flirting, just my utmost professional respect.”
Lexi eyed me warily from the corner of her eye as she turned to walk down a side street. She opened her mouth to respond, but lurched forward as one of her heels caught in a crack in the sidewalk. My arms shot out to keep her from falling flat on the pavement and held her elbow with one hand and her side with the other. As I helped her stand upright and extract her heel from the crack, I could feel her body shiver at my touch.
I held onto her arm and waist a little longer than necessary as she turned to look at me with wide eyes. For several seconds, we stood with our bodies inches from each other, staring silently as the air crackled with tension.
Then Lexi blinked and drew away quickly, as if coming out of a trance. She continued to march down the sidewalk, turned towards an older sedan halfway down the street, and went to the driver’s side door with keys in hand. As she opened the car and sat behind the wheel, I leaned on the open door with a hand and looked down.
I racked my brain for something to say before she left, some way to convince her I was truly sorry and to seriously consider taking the position. “Look, Lexi… I get why you’re not sure about working with me, though like I said, I swear to be respectful and professional. All I ask is that you please just think about it over the next few days. I hope to see you Friday.”
With a smile, I closed the door firmly and didn’t wait for a response. Lexi looked at me through the window, then started her car. I moved back and watched her drive away until her car had disappeared down the street.
Minutes later, I sat up in my office, gazing pensively out the window. It was a relief to at least have the initial re-meeting with Lexi and apology done. I felt it had gone as well as it could have for such a hard situation. Despite Lexi’s understandable reservations, I’d made sure the job offer was so good, so amazingly enticing, that she wouldn’t be able to refuse. I was confident once the initial surprise of finding out I’d be her boss had dissipated and she’d had time to weigh her options, Lexi would take the position.
“Nice selection tonight, huh?” Keith, in all his playboy glory, said to me in a low voice. We were at a celebrity charity auction to raise money for children’s cancer research, and all guests were currently having post-dinner drinks as the silent bidding began. I’d already bid on a set of private cooking classes with a well-regarded L.A. chef, Henri, which I hoped to win.
Keith, of course, used the term selection in reference to the array of hot actresses, models, and various other celebrity women attending the auction tonight. My media-image best friend with his discerning, coal-black eyes surveyed the room from where we stood with our martini glasses.
Keith’s mom was Japanese, his dad of Scottish descent, and the combination had created a strikingly handsome man. His jet-black hair matched his intense dark eyes, and he was tall, lean but muscular, and had strong cheekbones and full lips. Women always commented on these features.
Keith knew exactly how good-looking he was, how charming his smile was, and the effect he had on women. They simply loved Keith, and he loved them right back. I swear he’d already slept with half of the women here at the auction, but he had spotted a new conquest.
He nudged me with his shoulder and gave a subtle nod to our right, where two women stood and chatted. One had platinum-blonde hair that shimmered and wore a low-cut, skin-tight silver dress, and the other woman had flame-red hair that cascaded down her back and wore a sparkly lavender dress that came to mid-thigh. The two women cast their gazes in our direction.
Keith pretended to look straight ahead and not notice our admirers, then leaned toward me and said out of the side of his mouth, “Okay, you want to move in first, or let them come to us?”
I sighed inwardly, not in the mood to flirt or pick up chicks. But I didn’t want to wreck Keith’s plans for the night and had my image to uphold, so I said, “Let them come to us. I bet you a bottle of single malt scotch they’ll be over here in less than a minute.”
Keith grinned and replied, “You’re on.” I suppressed a grin and popped the olive from the martini in my mouth as we waited.
Sure enough, a moment later, I watched as the two women sashayed towards us. The blonde smiled from me to Keith. “You’re Keith McCullough, right? I loved you in
Last Man Standing
—you were amazing,” she gushed as she touched his forearm casually. She wasn’t wasting any time.
After we made introductions and discovered that both the blonde, Meg, and the redhead, Brittany, were high-fashion models for magazines like
, we all headed for the bar for more drinks. Meg clearly had honed in on Keith, which was perfect since he preferred blondes, so Brittany and I were automatically paired up.
I ordered sparkling wine for Brittany and turned towards her with one elbow propped up on the bar. I tried to get into a fun, playful mood with smiles and banter, but my heart wasn’t in it. My mind kept drifting to the image of Lexi’s face with her opalescent skin, lively green eyes, and wavy black hair.
A touch on my shoulder caused me to blink myself out of the Lexi daydream and focus on Brittany, who gave me a coy smile. “So, Braden,” she breathed in a low voice. “What are your plans for the rest of the night?” Her tone was suggestive, and her smoky eyes glittered like a hungry tigress ready to pounce.
I lifted an eyebrow as I turned to retrieve our drinks. I handed one glass to her and shifted subtly away from her fingers touching my shoulder. All I could think about was how Lexi didn’t need all the smoky eye makeup and lipstick Brittany had caked on to look gorgeous. She was naturally beautiful.
I didn’t want to be rude, though, and smiled at Brittany, sipped my drink, and answered, “Actually, I have an early business meeting, so I’ll be leaving pretty soon.”
Her face fell with disappointment, and she took a hurried sip of sparkling wine to cover it. “You know,” Brittany said with a forced laugh, “I have this big shoot early tomorrow morning, so I’ll be calling it a night soon, too.” I nodded with a smile, and we stood in awkward silence for a moment until she said, “Would you excuse me a moment? Ladies’ room.”
Brittany placed her drink on the bar, whispered something to Meg, who was practically glued to Keith, and the two of them walked to the restroom. Keith turned and cocked his head at me. “Bro, an early business meeting, really? I couldn’t help but overhear. What’s going on with you—are you sick or something?”
I heaved a sigh, shook my head, and placed my glass on the bar. “No, just not feeling it tonight, I guess,” I said with a shrug. “But looks like you and Meg are hitting it off. Have fun, bro. Tell Brittany I’m sorry.” I settled up quickly with the bartender, feeling Keith’s dumbstruck stare the whole time, gave him a half-smile, and walked away.
A few hours later, I lay in my king-sized bed on the second floor of my Malibu estate and stared up at the high ceiling. Maybe I was sick, like Keith said, after my uncharacteristic behavior tonight, but it was more like love-sickness.
Since I’d met Lexi, I’d felt a slow shift inside, like I wanted to be more of my true self and shrug off the fake media-image identity I’d built over the years. For some reason, Lexi made me want to ditch the façade and show my real, non-womanizing colors. I hoped she’d show Friday, and from there, I could work on an actual relationship with her, one where I could feel free to be myself.
The gentle roar of the surf should have calmed me, especially after surfing for an hour on Wednesday evening with Clara, but neither had helped much. Clara and I sat on our surfboards in the sand, leaning back on our elbows to rest and watch the golden light fill the sky.
“To be honest, Lexi, I think you should just suck it up and take the job,” Clara advised as she eyed me from her relaxed position.
I let out a long breath, closed my eyes with a frown, and tried uselessly to sort through my thoughts. Since the moment I’d seen Braden in the elevator after the interview, my mind had tossed and turned endlessly. When he’d apologized and promised to be a perfect gentleman if we worked together, I’d felt an onslaught of mixed emotions. Our surprise reunion had brought back not only the humiliation and anger over what he’d said to me in his Malibu mansion, but it also triggered the same intense feelings as before.
Clearly, a strong physical attraction existed between Braden and me, one that had caused delightful shivers through my body when he’d caught me after I’d tripped on the sidewalk. The simple act of looking at him or being in his vicinity caused my stomach to twist and heat to flood my body.
On top of the physical attraction was how my emotions became heightened when I was around Braden, a fact that both thrilled and terrified me all at once. Even if his apology was sincere and he kept his promise to treat me with respect and professionalism, how was I supposed to deal with my magnified feelings around him?
Also, in the back of my mind, I was scared I’d actually start falling for Braden, my animosity turning to love and passion. With his playboy reputation, I’d be head-over-heels for a rich, gorgeous womanizer, which could only end in heartbreak. While the attraction I felt for Braden was unwanted, it undeniably existed, and that’s what I was most afraid of, more than any disrespectful behavior.
I’d tried to explain my fears and torn emotions to Clara, but she thought I should push them down and work for Braden Huntington anyway. I opened my eyes after a moment and replied, “I know, it’s an amazing offer with unbelievable benefits, and it’s at a production company—everything I’ve been looking for and more.” I sighed and paused as I watched an older woman and her dog jog by, close to the water. “But I just don’t know. Is it worth dealing with possible chauvinistic behavior from my boss and a potential broken heart?” I smiled half-heartedly, knowing how melodramatic I sounded.
Before Clara could respond, I added, “And don’t you think it’s a little strange that out of all the people and all the film-related companies in L.A., I’d get Braden Huntington as a potential boss?”
Clara shook her head with a smile. “Lexi, you have a seriously over-active imagination. You think he tracked you down after meeting you at his place last winter? It’s just a coincidence. Besides, he’s the owner of a huge production company, so it makes sense they’d find your resume, which states you want to work in the film industry.” She shrugged and sat up straighter to stretch out her arms before she added, “I think you should look at this job as a stepping stone. If you can make it through six months or a year and get your foot in the door, you can move on as quickly as possible to screenwriting. It would only be temporary, you know?”
I pursed my lips as I thought about Clara’s points, which were valid, and sat up to stretch as well. “I know, and what you’re saying makes a lot of sense. I just need to think about it a little more. I’ll decide by tomorrow so I can give notice to the cleaning service if I choose to take the position.”
“Mr. Montgomery, we’re ready for you.” The medical aide at the MS clinic in Glen Dale motioned for my dad to follow him. I’d driven Dad on Thursday morning to his annual MRI appointment, where they’d check for any new brain lesions. It had been almost two years since the last lesion had attacked his nervous system, so we were hopeful the MRI would come up clean.
I rose to wheel him back, but he reached his hand back to touch mine and said, “That’s okay. I got this, Lexi.” With a small smile at me, he pushed the wheels himself to go through the door that the medical assistant held open. I returned to sit in the waiting room chair. He could be stubbornly independent sometimes, but he didn’t really need me to baby him.
Almost an hour later, after I’d read every magazine in the waiting room, my dad wheeled himself back out. He was quiet, as usual, while we took the elevator to the lobby and walked to the car. I helped him into the passenger seat, but his silence felt heavier than normal. I waited until we were halfway home to ask questions.
“So,” I said in a casual tone, “how’d it go?” I was answered by more silence at first, which made my pulse pick up. This couldn’t be good. It probably meant they’d seen something on the MRI image.