Unrivaled, p.17

Unrivaled, page 17

 

Unrivaled
 


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  When Madison had claimed Layla would be hearing from her lawyers, Layla assumed she was bluffing.

  What kind of spoiled, entitled princess goes after someone for accidentally spilling some coffee?

  You are not to go within fifty feet of Madison, he’d said. Like Madison got to dictate where Layla went. She shook her head and reached for her cell, about to call Mateo, if for no other reason than to share her outrage, only to press End before the call could go through. Last time she’d told him about her run-in with Madison, he was completely lacking in sympathy. She wouldn’t give him a reason to say I told you so.

  She climbed on her bike and headed down the boulevard to Night for Night. With the warm summer-night air rushing over her skin, she was tempted to keep going, maybe never return. She wondered if anyone would miss her besides her dad. Mateo would—at least in the beginning. But things had grown so tense between them it wouldn’t take long before he realized he was better off without her.

  But Layla wasn’t a quitter. And so she left her bike at the curb and nodded at James as he unhooked the velvet rope and ushered her in.

  The plan was to swing by Ira’s table long enough to show her face and say a quick hello, then get the hell out of there. She was in no mood to party. All she wanted to do was climb into bed, pull the covers over her head, and never emerge.

  She moved through the club, making her way toward Ira, when a fight broke out on the dance floor, scattering the crowd and leaving Layla to stare in disbelief to find Ryan Hawthorne, Madison Brooks, and Aster Amirpour at the center of the fight.

  “How could you?” Madison cried, her lips trembling, cheeks glistening under the glow of the copper lanterns, as Aster gaped in shock, Ryan wiped his lips with the back of his hand, and Layla instinctively reached for her cell, set it to video, and edged closer.

  Screw the restraining order. Layla was a professional, and this was too good to pass up.

  Aster reached for Madison, attempting to calm her, only to have Madison lash out like an injured animal.

  “Get away from me!” Madison yelled. “Don’t you dare touch me!”

  Ryan jumped between them, hands raised in surrender. “Mad—what are you doing?” His voice was incredulous, his gaze darting wildly, taking in the number of witnesses, before returning to his enraged A-list girlfriend.

  “I stopped by, hoping to surprise you. It’s been weeks since we’ve seen each other, and now I know why!” She pointed an accusing finger at Aster, as Aster cringed behind Ryan, and Ryan moved to placate Madison, looking angry for sure, but not necessarily surprised.

  Layla snuck closer, viewing the scene via her cell phone. Hardly able to believe she’d scored a front-row seat to what would be the most talked-about story for weeks—months if it turned out to be a slow summer for scandal. She centered her focus on Madison’s eyes spilling fast tears, repeatedly asking Ryan why, as Aster stood awkwardly behind him.

  It was the performance of a lifetime, that much was sure, and Layla continued to record it, following Madison as she raced for the door. Her head bent, arms wrapped tightly around her waist, she darted through a crowd that strangely allowed her to pass without incident, until she reached the place where Layla stood, lifted her chin, and looked right at her, almost as though Madison had expected to see Layla standing in that very spot.

  Then again, it happened so fast, Layla couldn’t be sure how much she’d made up in her head, thanks to her own panic at being discovered less than fifty feet away from the person who’d recently brought stalking charges against her.

  When Ira stepped in to say a few words, Layla strained to hear, but the music muffled his voice. She was just about to stop recording when Madison reached the entrance at the same moment Tommy arrived. And Layla watched in shock as Tommy tossed a protective arm around Madison’s shoulder, whispered into her ear, and led her out the door and into the night.

  THIRTY-THREE

  HOW TO SAVE A LIFE

  Madison was shaking.

  She also looked upset, like someone who’d just experienced something they wouldn’t recover from anytime soon.

  It had all happened so fast there was no time to think. One moment Tommy was entering the club, figuring he’d hang long enough for Ira to notice his presence, and the next Madison was barreling toward him, her face covered in tears. So Tommy did the only thing he could: he shouted at everyone to back the hell off, tossed his jacket over her shoulders, then walked her to her car, climbed behind the wheel, and drove around until he was sure they hadn’t been tailed, before stopping at the Vesper and hiding her in one of the back rooms while waiting for the club to clear and it was safe for her to be there.

  The most surprising thing was Madison’s willingness to go along with his half-baked plan without a single word of protest. Then again, she’d barely spoken. It was like she was lost in her own little world, happy to let someone else take charge.

  “You okay?” Tommy asked, once she was settled. Casting an anxious gaze at her beautiful face, noting how small and vulnerable she looked wearing his leather jacket. All the while repeating in his head, She’s just a girl—a girl in crisis. She needs peace, comfort, quiet, and a little support. You can handle it.

  Madison tugged the sleeves over her fingers and pressed them tightly to her lips for a moment, before dropping her hands to her lap as though surrendering a burden she’d carried too long. “God, I probably look terrible.” She drew her shoulders in, gazing at him through bright, glossy eyes.

  “Not possible.” He claimed the seat across from her and offered a beer. He hoped she liked beer. From all the pictures he’d ever seen, she normally drank champagne. But the Vesper didn’t serve champagne, and from the first day they’d met, he’d had the feeling Madison could kick back a cold one as good as any girl back home. From the way her fingers clutched at the frosty bottle, pressing it first to her cheek, then to her forehead, before taking a sip, he’d been right about that much at least.

  “Thanks for getting me out of there.” The look she gave him was far more grateful than such a small act deserved. “Very gallant of you.” She tapped the neck of her bottle to his and took another sip.

  “I do what I can.” Tommy shrugged, wishing he’d said something cooler, not that he could think of anything cooler.

  “How much did you see?” She set her bottle on the table, ran her index finger around the rim.

  “Nothing.” He picked at the label on his beer, though he had a good guess. “I’d just rolled up when I ran into you.”

  She lifted her chin, peered at him down the length of her elegant nose. “Doesn’t seem like your kind of club.”

  “It’s not. But I needed to make an appearance.” Madison nodded, and Tommy was sure he’d never seen anything more heartbreakingly beautiful. With her mascara-smudged eyes, she seemed fragile, haunted, in need of protecting. He swallowed hard, fought to keep himself steady, even.

  Madison blinked and gazed down at her hands, splaying her pale, delicate fingers against the scarred wood table. “I wonder if Aster will get credit for getting both me and Ryan to the club?”

  It was Tommy’s turn to blink. He didn’t know Madison had heard the rumors swirling around about Aster and Ryan. Though he should’ve guessed. Madison seemed like the kind of girl who didn’t allow much to slip past.

  “What do you know about her?” She lifted her gaze and studied him closely. She’d know if he lied.

  He tipped his head back and stared at the acoustically sound ceiling for a long, thoughtful moment. “Not much.” He shrugged. It was the truth.

  Madison nodded, took another sip of her beer, and sighed the sigh of someone grown weary beyond their years. What she needed most was a place to lay her head, and the promise of a new day. The refuge Tommy offered was temporary at best.

  Still, despite the tears, she didn’t come off as someone who’d just caught her guy with another girl. Tommy should know. He’d once had a girl dump an entire Big Gulp Slurpee on his hea
d for flirting with her best friend. Though he didn’t know her well, there was nothing about Madison that struck Tommy as docile, and yet she’d handled the news too easily, too matter-of-factly.

  Then again, maybe Madison was just that good of an actress, able to keep her emotions in check.

  If it didn’t concern her, then it shouldn’t concern him. He was better off shutting down his thoughts and focusing on finishing his beer.

  “By tomorrow morning, the whole world will know—if they don’t already.” Her voice was distant, gaze far away. “But do me a favor, please don’t ask for any of the details. Not that you have, and I appreciate that. It’s just so nice to be with someone who’s not necessarily a fan. Who probably doesn’t know the first thing about me, and doesn’t much care.”

  Tommy started to speak, about to protest the part about not being a fan, but then he thought better. He couldn’t think of a single movie of hers that he’d watched. Then again, he wasn’t much of a movie guy. Music pretty much ruled his life.

  “Another beer?” He tipped his bottle toward hers.

  She nodded, slid the empty toward him, and when he leaned in to take it, she clutched the front of his gray plaid shirt and kissed him with a need that surprised him. When she finally pulled away, Tommy had the distinctive feeling that a switch had been flipped—he’d been officially initiated into something he couldn’t quite grasp, and yet there was no denying that from that point forward, there was no going back.

  THIRTY-FOUR

  LIKE A VIRGIN

  After the awful scene between her, Ryan, and Madison, Aster was sure Ira would call a halt to the party. But Ira, always game to capitalize on a scandal, wasted no time escorting Aster and Ryan back to the Riad, ignoring Ryan when he told him they should probably call it a night.

  “Don’t be ridiculous.” His tone was nonnegotiable. “Until things cool down, you’re better off here than out there. When you’re ready to leave, you can use the side door. I’ll tell James to look after you. Trust me, no one will bother you with James around.”

  Aster remained silent, more than happy to let them work out the logistics. She needed to sort through her feelings. In light of what had happened, she figured she should be steeped in deep shame, or at the very least feel bad about all the upset she’d caused. She’d done the unthinkable, traumatized an A-list celebrity by stealing her boyfriend. Or at least that was how the press would play it, despite the fact that it was nowhere close to the truth.

  Was she the only one who noticed how the whole scene seemed staged? When Madison had just appeared out of nowhere and started screaming, Aster had the distinct impression she’d spent the last week rehearsing the moment in front of her mirror. It was as though she’d purposely laid out a trap, and Aster, naive fool that she was, had blindly stepped in.

  Only, she hadn’t been all that naive. Or at least not entirely.

  “One thing’s sure . . .”

  The sound of Ryan’s voice pulled her away from her thoughts and back to the present. At some point Ira had left, leaving them with two flutes of champagne.

  “You just took your first step toward making a name for yourself.” Ryan looked her over appreciatively, while Aster picked at the hem of her dress. “Don’t act so scandalized,” he said. “It’s the quickest route to fame I can think of, other than a sex tape.”

  She pulled away, ignoring the flute he pressed on her. “You act like I should be happy about it. Like you’re happy about it.”

  He raised his glass and studied the bubbles. “Happy to get my life back? Sure. Happy to be yelled at in a crowded nightclub while she cried adorably for her audience? Not in the least.” He shrugged, took a sip, then quickly chased it with another. “But it’s out there, Aster. For better or worse. Which means I have no choice but to find a way to play it to my advantage. And my advice to you, if you want to make it in this business, is to find your own angle to make sure it elevates you.”

  He abandoned his glass and leaned toward her, his hand returning to the place on her thigh that started the mess, even though it hadn’t really started the mess. The mess got started that day in the Neiman Marcus shoe department, when Aster decided to flirt with another girl’s guy in hopes of getting famous.

  She swallowed hard, forced her gaze to meet his. His fingers were inching up her leg, her pulse quickening the higher they climbed.

  “I guarantee by tomorrow your agent will be calling with all kinds of interview requests.” He rubbed his lips together as though preparing to kiss her—a kiss that, despite everything, she still wanted.

  “And I won’t accept them.” Her voice was indignant, angry, the logic of her mind completely at war with her heart. On the one hand, his touch was driving her mad. On the other, it was impossible to accept how glib he was acting after all that had happened.

  “Good call. Don’t talk to the press. Don’t talk to anyone, not even your friends. You’d be amazed how quick they’ll sell you out for a little cash and a few seconds of fame. Just go about your business, and when you do get ambushed, say, ‘No comment,’ and be on your way.”

  “When I get ambushed?” She pressed her legs together in an act of incredible will meant to keep his wandering fingers at bay.

  “It’s possible. But, babe, don’t worry. I’ll be with you the entire way.”

  He slid closer, pressed his thigh against hers. She wanted to believe him, but she needed to hear it again, needed to have it confirmed, leaving no doubt of the promise he’d made. “Will you?” She looked at him. “Will you really?”

  “Only if you want me to.”

  His gaze bore into hers, leaving no doubt his word was good. Ryan offered everything she’d ever wanted—fame, fortune, nonstop media attention. Hers would be the name on everyone’s lips, and all the cameras would be aimed at her face. Though she never dreamed it would happen like this.

  He pressed a thumb to the underside of her chin, lifted her lips to meet his. His fingers gently eased her legs apart, reminding her of where they’d left off, and the places they still had to visit. “It’s all good, Aster.” He kissed her nose, her cheek, her forehead, her neck, before finding her lips once again. “You have no idea how good it’s about to get. Will you trust me?”

  She was alone in the Riad with Ryan Hawthorne.

  By tomorrow morning she’d be famous, if she wasn’t already.

  It was pretty much everything she’d ever dreamed delivered straight to her door.

  And there was no doubt that Ryan was entirely responsible for getting her there.

  Ryan was rich, famous, connected, and more importantly, no longer Madison’s boyfriend.

  There was no reason for her to feel guilty.

  Besides, she’d traveled so far from being a Perfect Persian Princess she might as well complete the journey.

  She reached for her champagne, washed it down, and kissed him right back.

  Her lips brushing against his ear, she said, “I just need to run to the restroom—meet me by the door?”

  She kissed him fully, deeply, then pushed away and made her way through the club.

  THIRTY-FIVE

  JUST A GIRL

  “Wow.”

  Tommy searched Madison’s gaze and traced a finger across the curve of her cheek. The pulse of her kiss still alive on his lips, he was unaware he’d even spoken, until she smiled softly and repeated the word.

  “Wow, indeed.” She sighed contentedly and curled her fingers at the nape of his neck. “Country boys sure know how to kiss. I can’t believe I’d forgotten that.”

  Tommy narrowed his gaze, detecting the slightest twang in her voice—something he’d never expected. So that was her secret, or at least one of them. Clearly Madison wasn’t quite the East Coast prodigy she’d claimed to be, not that Tommy had ever believed that particular story.

  There was something so accessible about her, which seemed like such a ridiculous thing to say about a star of her caliber. Still, Tommy sensed she’d be more comfort
able running across a freshly mowed lawn in bare feet than she was crossing a red carpet in designer heels.

  The way she drank a beer, the way she kissed, the way her whole body relaxed when she was sure he was the only one looking, convinced him that if nothing else, he’d found a kindred spirit in the most unlikely of persons. It was like every other moment of her life was an act, while the moments they’d shared together were the real deal.

  He wanted to ask her about the accent, really get in there and listen to every story she was willing to share, but he couldn’t think of a single good way to approach it. Clearly it was something she’d worked hard to keep well under wraps; losing an accent like that was no easy feat.

  “Madison—” He figured he’d start with a simple question and build from there. But before he could finish, her phone vibrated with an incoming text that had her face darkening the moment she read it.

  “I have to go.” She sprang to her feet and ran a hand through her hair, glancing around frantically for the purse Tommy handed her.

  “You okay?” He stood beside her, sorry to see her go. She’d probably forget all about him. He knew he’d never forget about her.

  “Yeah—I just—” She pressed her bag to her chest and raced for the door, pausing on the threshold long enough to slip off his jacket and toss it to him. “Thanks.” She looked at him as though there was so much more she wanted to say but no time to say it. She shook her head, blinked a few times, and the next thing he knew, she’d shot into the night.

  “Madison!” He raced after her, his voice hoarse, breathless. “At least let me walk you to your car,” he offered, anything to prolong his time with her.

  But she was already gone.

  Already running away from his life and back to her world of secrets and lies.

 
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