Unrivaled, p.15

Unrivaled, page 15

 

Unrivaled
 


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  He knelt beside her, that face, those lips just inches from hers. “You’re killing me, Aster!” He reached for her cheek, ran the tip of his finger around the curve of her ear.

  “So you tell me.” She pushed him away, overcome with relief when he smiled good-naturedly and leaped out of her way.

  She closed the door between them and pulled onto the street, glancing into her rearview mirror to see he was still standing right where she’d left him, watching her go.

  How much longer would he be willing to wait?

  Would he last the summer?

  Or would he burn out in a week and never return?

  The choice was his. All she could do was wait and see.

  TWENTY-EIGHT

  WORK B**CH

  Layla parked Mateo’s Jeep just behind Aster’s Mercedes, scrolling through the comments left on her blog, as she waited for Aster to finish admiring herself in her rearview mirror.

  Just as expected, the story she’d written, based on one of Heather’s photos of Madison’s face hovering suspiciously close to a tabletop, was a hit. The comments section almost evenly divided between Madison worshippers who refused to believe it, and Madison haters who’d suspected all along. Though it was starting to lean toward the latter.

  In the end, it didn’t matter what the majority thought. The seed had been planted, and Madison deserved nothing less.

  BEAUTIFUL IDOLS

  Snow Angel

  I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of anything sadder than the picture that follows. Either that tabletop is rocking an irresistible winter-fresh scent—Madison Brooks has a serious case of undiagnosed narcolepsy—or, more likely, America’s sweetheart has just hoovered up a nostril full of nose candy. . . .

  Aster’s door closed with a thunk, prompting Layla to shove her phone in her bag and scramble out of the Jeep to catch up. Determined to reach Aster before she went inside Jewel, Layla called for her to stop, only to watch Aster roll her eyes and keep going.

  “Heard you had a good night last night.” Layla moved alongside her, knowing she’d clinched it when Aster paused, waiting for Tommy, Karly, and Brittany to wander inside before facing her.

  “What do you want?” She placed a hand on her hip, tapped her foot against the sidewalk. Trying to come off as haughty and cool, but there was a crack in the veneer, and it was about to get worse.

  “I’m ready to collect.” Layla kept her tone friendly. No need to alarm her just yet. Watching as Aster shifted from cool to irritated in a handful of seconds. “Don’t tell me you’ve already forgotten our deal. The one where you sold your soul for a chance to promote Night for Night.”

  “So you’re confirming you really are Satan. I’m sure that will come as a surprise to absolutely no one.” Aster shook her head and waited for Zion and Sydney to go in before she continued. “Look, can we settle this later?”

  “I’m sure Ira won’t mind if his prize pony’s late.” Layla studied Aster’s perfectly made-up face, her shiny hair, her ridiculously long legs spilling out of a pair of pink shorts. She had that wealthy, privileged, well-tended look that Layla could never achieve even if she tried. And she wouldn’t. But still.

  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

  It wasn’t meant to mean much of anything. But the way Aster’s mouth twitched told Layla she’d hit a nerve she’d be sure to explore. “It means you’re everyone’s favorite, Ira included.”

  “Yeah, well, guess you wouldn’t know about that. Seeing as how you have a gift for making enemies.”

  Layla grinned, deciding to humor her. It was one of the perks of having the upper hand. “Not everyone can be as popular and sought after as you.”

  Aster fiddled with the strap on her Louis Vuitton purse and gazed toward the door leading to Jewel. “Your point is?”

  “I want you to bring Ryan Hawthorne to Jewel along with all his celebrity friends. And I want you to do it under my name.”

  “Um, okay.” Aster tossed her hair over her shoulder and made for the club. “I’ll get right on that!” She laughed as though Layla was joking.

  “You can laugh, or you can consider.”

  “Reasonable requests will be considered. That request is beyond pathetic, even for you.”

  “Your choice.” Layla shrugged, watching her go. “Guess I’ll just have to send this pic of you and Ryan kissing to Perez Hilton, TMZ, Page Six, Gawker, Popsugar, Just Jared—have I missed anyone?”

  Aster froze.

  “Oh, of course!” Layla gave a cartoon slap to her forehead. “Madison Brooks! I bet she’d just love to know about this latest development.”

  Aster slowly faced Layla.

  “Or, you can bring Ryan and his crew into Jewel and I’ll forget I ever saw it.”

  “Where’d you get that?” Her face paled as she squinted at the image on Layla’s phone. Starting to reach for it, when Layla yanked it away.

  “Doesn’t matter where I got it. Question is, what are you going to do about it?”

  “This is blackmail.” Aster’s lips thinned into a tight, grim line.

  Layla shrugged, watched as a group of tourists with a selfie stick posed with some old dude impersonating Marilyn Monroe in a swingy white dress.

  “And blackmail is illegal.”

  Layla grinned. “So sue me.”

  Aster rubbed her lips together, glanced longingly toward the door.

  “You are a terrible person, you know that?”

  Layla made for the door as Aster grabbed hold of her arm.

  “Fine. I’ll do what I can. But there’s no guarantee.”

  “For your sake, there better be.” Layla left the threat to dangle as she went inside and parked herself in the Vault next to Karly. She was relieved that Aster had fallen for the threat. Taking Madison down was one thing—she deserved it. And while Aster undoubtedly deserved it too, Layla felt queasy at the thought of going through with it.

  Everyone was spread out among the white leather sofas, either napping or on their phones, though they all shared the same tired, stressed look. Two weeks into the competition and it was already taking a toll.

  “Where’s Ira?” Sydney got up from her seat and looked all around. “This is bullshit keeping us waiting.”

  “Shhh!” Brittney grimaced, as though Ira was listening, while Tommy remained with his eyes closed, catching some z’s.

  Annoyed, paranoid, and exhausted—Layla could relate to all three.

  A moment later, when everyone’s phones started to beep, Jin was the first to say, “It’s Ira. He sent a video link.”

  “So now he fires us by video?” Sydney rolled her eyes.

  “Fires you, not me.” Karly smirked and hit Play the same time as Layla, watching Ira’s face fill up the screen.

  “I warned you I like to mix it up, which means today, two of you will get cut.”

  “But that’ll cut the competition short!” Zion shouted, leaving Layla to wonder if he realized the video was prerecorded.

  “If you impress me next week, then maybe I’ll make up for it by not firing anyone. Or maybe I’ll fire three. Up to you whether or not you decide to impress me.”

  “Is he on a yacht?” Taylor brought her phone closer to her face, as Aster stared at her screen with a conflicted expression.

  “I’m in a hurry, so let’s make this quick,” Ira said, his sunglasses reflecting a bikini-clad girl wielding the camera. “Vesper, you’re in first place.”

  The Vesper crowd started to cheer, but they were quickly shut down by everyone else who wanted to hear.

  “Night for Night second, which makes Jewel last. Again.” He shook his head and frowned.

  “No thanks to you,” Karly muttered under her breath, glaring at Layla.

  “Hey, I brought in Heather Rollins and her crew,” Layla said in her defense.

  “Did you bring her in, or hang by the door so you could claim her as yours?”

  Layla rolled her eyes and focused on the video. “Diego, yo
u scored Madison Brooks, well done.”

  “What?” Aster spun on her seat, shooting eye daggers at Diego, who looked momentarily stunned.

  “Tommy, you too.”

  Aster looked like she was about to implode.

  “Brandon and Jin—don’t bother coming back. I doubt Jewel and the Vesper will miss you.”

  A second later, the screen went black.

  No good-bye.

  No enjoy the rest of your weekend.

  Not even a gradual fade.

  Layla had no idea why she had to show up for that, other than Ira was an asshole with serious control issues.

  Still, he hadn’t fired her, and now with Aster soon to deliver Ryan and his crew, she’d last another week for sure. After that, she’d have to come up with some other Hail Mary to save herself.

  TWENTY-NINE

  GOLD ON THE CEILING

  “Hey—” Tommy raced to catch up with Layla, who’d fled Jewel like the place was on fire. “Remember how you owe me that favor?”

  Layla did a double take. It was like déjà vu, only this time she was on the receiving end. “Have you been talking to Aster?”

  “What?” He squinted into the sun and walked alongside her.

  She shook her head, slid on her sunglasses, and kept walking.

  “I’m ready to collect.”

  She continued to ignore him.

  “You know, this is how rumors get started,” Tommy said. “Notice how no one’s talking to each other anymore? Freaks them out that we still are.”

  “You’re the one talking. I’m just trying to get to my ride.” Layla shook her head and made for the Jeep.

  “Can’t believe you already forgot about the time I saved your ass.” Tommy looked at her.

  “Can’t believe you’ve forgotten you’re not exactly innocent.”

  “Maybe so, but I handle it better.” He regretted it the instant he said it, and quickly tried to recover. “Besides, you don’t strike me as the type to go back on your word.”

  “I don’t remember giving my word. You said, ‘You owe me,’ and I said nothing.”

  “You are seriously harsh.”

  “And this is news?”

  “What does a guy have to do to get a ride home?”

  “Well, for starters, you could just come out and ask as opposed to all this cryptic nonsense about deals we never struck.” She propped open her door.

  He laughed and climbed in beside her. “What happened to your bike?”

  “My boyfriend and I made a trade.”

  So, she had a boyfriend. Not necessarily good news, but not exactly a roadblock either, considering the way she’d kissed him.

  “He a surfer?”

  “Why?” Layla pulled onto the street.

  “’Cause the floorboards are coated in two feet of sand.”

  Layla shrugged and glanced in the rearview mirror. “So kick off your shoes and dream of Malibu. Meanwhile, where to?”

  “Los Feliz.” He dropped his backpack between his feet. “Though I warn you, my place is a dump.”

  “Well, it’s not like I’m moving in.”

  He shook his head. She was feisty as hell, which was exactly why he liked her.

  “So, will you play me your demo tape?”

  Tommy looked at her in shock. He didn’t remember mentioning his music.

  “You are a musician, right?”

  He nodded slowly.

  Did he really look like some kind of wannabe rocker cliché?

  Was he that pathetic?

  “Can I hear it?”

  Tommy hesitated. If she hated it, she’d tell him. But if she didn’t hate it, the compliment would mean more than most.

  “Just because I’m bad at charming people, as you say, doesn’t mean I’m bad at reading them.”

  “I never said you—”

  She waved it away. “The tape. I want to hear it. If for no other reason than it will save us from the slow, burning torture of small talk.”

  He slid the disc from his backpack and inserted it into the stereo. Holding his breath as the first strains of a six-string guitar filled the car. When his vocals kicked in, he thought he’d keel over from anxiety. Layla said nothing. And the few times he peeked, her expression was blank.

  When the first song ended, she still hadn’t spoken. Same went for the second and third. He was just about to beg her to put him out of his misery and give him the verdict—good or bad, either way he could take it—when she finally lowered the volume and said, “Your lyrics are amazing. Your voice is strong and distinctive. Your guitar playing—I’m assuming that’s you on guitar?”

  He nodded, barely able to breathe.

  “You really slam that thing, which, I hope you take that as a compliment because it’s meant as one.”

  “But . . .” There was always a but.

  “But nothing.” She shrugged, that simple statement bringing some of the sweetest relief he’d ever known. “It’s all there. You’ve got a really strong foundation. It’s like that car you drive. It’s got all the makings of a classic; it just needs a little spit and polish and a fat wad of cash to push it over the edge.”

  He looked at her in wonder. It was a compliment delivered like a fact. Nothing effusive about it. No, Ohmigod, Tommy—you are the most awesomeness! like all the other girls had said, if only to get on his good side.

  For that reason alone, Layla’s compliment meant more to him than the opinions of anyone else who’d heard his music so far.

  Ever since the contest began, his rock-star dream had taken a backseat as he became more and more determined to impress Ira through his business savvy. But as soon as it was over, he’d get back in the studio. Layla’s comments confirmed it was a dream worth pursuing.

  He could finally exhale.

  When she cranked the volume and hit Repeat, choosing to spend the rest of the ride listening to his music, the compliment became even sweeter.

  “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Tommy paused before his front door, watching Layla roll her eyes in response. He was surprised she’d even agreed to come in. And though he wasn’t sure what it meant, at the very least, he hoped they could find a way to be friends.

  “I guarantee I’ve seen worse.”

  “Doubtful.” He laughed but opened the door anyway. Trying to see his shithole apartment through Layla’s eyes and cringing on her behalf.

  She crossed the worn carpet to the other side of the room, aiming straight for his collection of vinyl stacked against the wall, where she promptly pulled Led Zeppelin IV from its sleeve, placed it on the turntable, and lowered the needle. She turned to Tommy with a grin when the opening strains of “Going to California” filled the small space.

  “You a Zeppelin fan?” Tommy handed her a beer.

  “Thanks to my dad, I was raised on this stuff.” She clinked the neck of her bottle against his and took a sip. “Your music is reminiscent of Jimmy Page, and the lyrics remind me of you.”

  Tommy stood before her, rendered temporarily speechless. “Jimmy Page is one of my idols,” he finally said. “As for the rest, well, thanks.”

  She lifted the beer to her lips, took a long swig, and glanced around his small but mostly tidy den. “It’s not as bad as you pretend.” She nodded. “I mean, there’s no weird smell, you have an impressive collection of much-loved, well-read, waterlogged paperbacks, and who doesn’t love a popcorn ceiling inexplicably speckled with gold bits?”

  She flashed a wicked grin, then turned and headed straight for his bedroom as Tommy followed. It was his house, but she was in charge.

  She stood next to the mattress on the floor and looked all around. “Candles. Decent sheets . . . how many girls have you brought here, Tommy?”

  He opened his mouth to reply, then promptly shut it again. He wasn’t sure how to answer. He wasn’t sure he was willing to answer.

  “Surely I’m not the first?”

  “What if I said you were?” He watched her carefully, unsure where
this was leading.

  “Then I’d have no choice but to accuse you of lying.”

  “Well, okay then.” He was more than willing to drop it.

  The sight of Layla in his bedroom was way too tempting. Their kiss had been brief, but he wouldn’t forget it anytime soon. As much as he wanted to repeat it, he needed to focus on winning the contest, not chase after a girl who was constantly giving him mixed signals, despite having a boyfriend. Eager to return to more neutral ground, he led her out of his room and over to the couch.

  “So how’d you score Madison Brooks?” She pulled her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. “It doesn’t seem like her kind of club.”

  Tommy sipped his beer. Layla ignored hers. “She just showed up,” he said, unwilling to share anything more.

  “But what was she like? I mean, you talked to her, right?”

  The question was simple, but when Tommy started messing with his hair and scratching at his cheek, he knew she suspected him of hiding something. Like she said, she was good at reading people.

  “She was nice.” Tommy’s voice was tentative. He wanted to say more but wasn’t sure it was safe. His fingers played at the rim of his beer, as his gaze grew increasingly distant, lost in the memory of the night one of the most celebrated girls in the world decided to drop into his club. “I mean, we didn’t really talk all that much, but she wasn’t anything like I expected. She was almost like—” His voice faded, he shook his head, unable to put a word to it.

  Layla leaned forward, urging him to continue.

  He searched the room as though he expected to find the answer written on the wall with peeling paint, the carpet with the creepy dark stain, or maybe even the torn cover of the Hunter S. Thompson paperback. “Like some of the girls I used to know back home,” he finally said.

  Layla squinted, but he soon went on to explain.

  “Not the kind I usually dated.” A small smile broke onto his face. “She just seemed really normal. Uncomplicated. Not spoiled. Like she didn’t belong in the glamorous life she’d found herself in. Like there was a part of her that was better suited to a much simpler existence in a much smaller place . . .”

  His voice halted. From the incredulous look on Layla’s face, he’d revealed far more than he should have.

 
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