Unrivaled, page 19
She pulled the elastic from her hair and shook out the strands. After casting one last searing glance at her pathetic image in the mirror, she heaved herself off her bed and started to make for the bathroom, when her bedroom door sprang open, and her mother and father stood in the doorway.
BLOW ME (ONE LAST KISS)
The last thing Layla wanted to do was attend Ira’s Sunday meeting, but short of dropping out of the contest, what choice did she have? She made a list of things that were markedly worse. Things like: alligator wrestling, skydiving without a parachute, crime-scene cleanup—but compared to the prospect of facing Tommy, Aster, Ira, and the undeniable chaos she’d unleashed by posting their pics on her blog, suddenly all those things seemed not only more favorable but also maybe even downright pleasurable if she’d only give them a try.
The second she’d sent her post into the world, she was overcome with the dueling emotions of absolute triumph and overwhelming regret. Reader response was immediate—the number of hits escalated in a way Layla had never seen, and the comments section was overflowing. But once the reality of coming face-to-face with two of the people she’d turned into unsuspecting internet celebrities began to sink in, she couldn’t help but wonder if she should’ve eased up on the tone.
Then again, as a Hollywood blogger, wasn’t it her duty to report those kinds of stories?
She backed her bike from the garage, nearly jumping out of her skin when someone snuck up beside her and said, “Hey.”
“Mateo! Omigod, you scared the crap out of me.” She pressed her hand to her heart as though to keep it from breaking free of her chest.
He shoved his hands in the front pockets of his jeans and looked her over. “You’re pretty jumpy.”
“I had a late night. And a lot of caffeine.” She cringed under the intensity of his gaze.
“Is that why you didn’t answer my texts?”
She sighed and closed her eyes, wishing she could stay that way, block the world out. He was going to make her late, but mentioning that wouldn’t go over well.
“I’m sorry. I was busy, and—” She directed the words to a spot just past his shoulder to avoid looking at him.
“Your blog. I know. Trust me, I read it.” He continued to study her, as though daring her to meet his eyes.
His voice hinted at something she was sure she didn’t want to know, and yet she couldn’t keep from asking, “And—what did you think?”
His features sharpened, as he gazed out at the house across the street—a recent remodel that resembled a two-story gift box with windows. “I think it’s unlike you to be cruel,” he finally said.
“It’s not cruel if it’s true,” she snapped.
“But these are people you know—not public figures. There’s a difference.”
Inside she fumed. Mateo didn’t know what he was talking about, but she wasn’t going to stick around and enlighten him. “Listen,” she said, trying to keep the edge from her voice. No matter how angry he made her, she hated when they fought, and lately it seemed like fighting had taken the place of everything else. “I have to go. We can discuss this later.” She rolled her bike onto the street, trying to ignore the hurt look on Mateo’s face.
She’d make it up to him later. But for now, she had a meeting to attend, and it had to come first.
She forced her mind to go blank as she made her way to the Vesper, but it was no use. Her hands were shaky, her heart was racing, and she knew it wasn’t just the result of too much caffeine and too little sleep. This was about Mateo, and Mateo was wrong. The moment Aster had decided to steal Madison’s boyfriend (not that Layla actually believed a person could be stolen, short of being kidnapped; people either went willingly or they didn’t go at all—they weren’t property one could swipe when no one was looking), she’d thrown herself into the ring. Same went for Tommy when he decided to rescue everyone’s favorite celebrity. Layla had only done what any good journalist would do by reporting the story.
And yet, no matter how many times she replayed the words in her head, in the quiet of her soul she knew it wasn’t entirely true. She’d acted from a dense, dark, and shadowy place. Forfeited her neutrality, the last remaining shreds of her journalistic integrity, and picked sides by choosing herself over everyone else. Anyone with a smidgen of insight could see Layla Harrison was far from innocent.
She paused before the ugly metal door and wondered if it wasn’t too late to turn back. She could leave now, climb back in bed, and for a few blissful hours forget she’d ever allowed herself to get caught in this mess. She could—
“Layla?” The door opened before her as Ira Redman loomed on the threshold. “You joining us?”
She ducked her head low and slipped inside. The Vesper was the darkest of all Ira’s clubs. Even with the lights turned up, it still resembled someone’s hip, gritty dungeon.
“So, now that everyone’s here—” Ira began.
Before he could finish, someone called from the back, “What about Aster?”
Ira lifted his gaze from his clipboard. His features sharpening, he said, “Aster won’t be joining us. Though I advise you to worry about your own survival, not hers.”
From somewhere in back, someone snickered. Loudly, unmistakably, intended for Ira to hear.
Ira’s steely gaze swept the room, though Layla sensed he knew exactly where it had come from. Ira claimed to know everything. Not to mention there were only eight suspects to choose from.
“If any of you have something to say, I suggest you do so. Passive-aggressive snickers, groans, eye rolls, and the like will not be tolerated.”
The words were barely out before he had a taker. “Yeah, I have a comment.”
Layla watched as Brittney rose from her seat, face flushed with anger. “How am I—how are any of us expected to compete when Aster and Tommy choose to pimp themselves out to the top names on your list?” She tucked her blond hair behind her ear and glared hard at Tommy, who sank lower in his seat. “Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.” She folded her arms beneath her abundant chest and turned her focus to Ira. “Thanks to Layla, the whole freaking world read it. It’s all anyone’s talking about!”
Layla cringed and slipped toward the edge of her chair until she was hanging off the edge, wishing she could bend herself into tiny, unnoticeable, origami-like folds. The words she’d always dreamed of hearing—the whole freaking world read it, it’s all anyone’s talking about—were finally being applied to her, only it was for all the wrong reasons. Hardly the victory she’d dreamed it would be.
“We either need a new list, or . . .”
“Or?” Ira cocked his head, regarding her closely.
Brittney stood uncertainly before him, questioning her own convictions as she searched the room, desperate for takers to join her one-woman meltdown. But with everyone shifting uncomfortably, intent on avoiding her gaze, she was all on her own. Having talked herself into a hole, there was only one way out, continue or fold.
“I just—” Her voice cracked. She took a moment to clear it, harden her reserve. “I just don’t see the point in continuing if the whole thing is rigged against me.”
“So you’re saying the contest is rigged against you?” Ira rubbed his chin in his usual theatrical way.
“I’m saying that it feels like it’s rigged against me.” Brittney’s bottom lip trembled, her breath quickened.
“Interesting.” Ira squinted, clearly finding it anything but. “Tell me—” His gaze moved among them. “At the start of this contest, did any of you have even the slightest connection to Madison Brooks or Ryan Hawthorne?”
Layla looked around and found herself shaking her head with the rest of them.
“Well, to my knowledge, which is quite extensive, I assure you, neither did Aster or Tommy. You all began with an equal chance to claim victory. How you’ve decided to go about that was up to you.”
“Well, excuse me for not prostituting myself.
“And not once did anyone suggest that you do.” He nodded to one of his assistants, then turned back to the group and called Layla’s name.
Layla’s head snapped up. There’d been so much drama surrounding Brittney’s accusations, she hadn’t been expecting him to call on her.
Her throat was parched, her tongue felt like a dried stump of wood shoved in her mouth, and her entire body had gone leaden with dread.
“Today’s your lucky day.”
She squinted, sure she’d misunderstood.
“Be sure to thank Brittney on her way out. Turns out she’ll be leaving today instead of you.”
Layla’s eyes widened as she watched, as they all watched, Brittney mutter under her breath, gather her stuff, and storm out, with Ira’s assistants close on her heels.
“But—” Finally able to access her voice, Layla glanced between the closed door and Ira. It had never once occurred to her she’d get cut. Her numbers were nowhere near Aster’s or Tommy’s, but she’d been holding her own—hadn’t she?
Ira studied her. “But your numbers are decent? Is that what you were going to say?”
She rubbed her lips together. It was what she’d been thinking, but saying it was no longer an option.
“This competition is about numbers, you’re right. It’s always been about numbers. But it’s also about having what it takes to succeed, and how you go about answering the question: Just how far will you go to get what you want?” He held her gaze for a long, uncomfortable moment, leaving her to wonder if she was expected to answer. Before she could try, he went on to add, “Looks like you just got another week to determine that for yourself. And so—” He returned his attention to the rest of the group. “About that new list . . .” He motioned to his assistants, who passed around new lists containing a mix of some old names along with some new. Though it was interesting to see Heather Rollins had moved to one of the top five spots.
“Think of this as a guideline. What really interests me is how aggressive you are in building your numbers. Impress me. Dazzle me. Wow me. But whatever you do, do not disappoint me.”
With that, he slipped out the back. Layla watched him go, wondering how the hell one went about wowing Ira Redman. She didn’t even know where to begin.
She made her way outside, had just barely straddled her bike when Tommy appeared. “We need to talk.”
Layla started her bike, refused to acknowledge him.
“I read your blog.”
She studied him behind mirrored lenses, not saying a word.
“What I can’t understand is why you would do that to me.” He crossed his arms at his chest, looking truly perplexed.
Her fingers gripped the throttle. Running him over suddenly seemed like a viable option. Was he for real? How could she do that to him? Like she owed him special treatment because of one drunken kiss? Tommy Phillips seriously needed to get over himself.
She removed her glasses, wanting him to see the look in her eyes when she explained. “You made the choice to insert yourself in the drama. You chose to become part of the story. It was never about you, Tommy. Believe it or not, you are not the center of my universe.”
“Is that what you tell yourself?”
She held his gaze, refusing to be the first to look away. “No, not just myself. I’m telling you too.” She’d told him once not to mess with her. Not her fault he hadn’t listened.
“I don’t know what I did to piss you off, but clearly I must’ve done something for you to punish me for helping a traumatized girl who had no one else to look after her.”
Layla’s eyes widened, her jaw dropped, like some cartoon version of a shocked face. “Do you even hear yourself?” Her voice rang louder than intended. “You’re completely delusional. Madison Brooks had no one else to look after her? Is that the story you tell yourself?” She rolled her eyes and lowered her glasses back onto her nose. “Don’t act like you don’t like the attention,” she said, going for one final dig. “Isn’t this exactly why you moved to LA—so people would talk about you? So your face would be in every tabloid, every blog? So you’d be inundated with interview requests? You should be thanking me, but I won’t hold my breath.”
She pushed her bike onto the street, a satisfied smirk sneaking to her lips when he scrambled out of her path.
“You don’t get it, do you?” He followed alongside her. “Your blog’s a hit, you’re still in the contest, but none of that’s a coincidence.”
She should’ve moved on. Should’ve gunned her bike and gotten the hell out of there. But instead she stayed put, looking at Tommy, unsure what he meant.
“Ira Redman’s a lot of things, but he’s not an idiot. His fake attempts to ax you are all a big show. It was never gonna be you. What happened in there—” He hooked a thumb toward the Vesper, flicked his hair from his eyes. “That was Ira’s way of challenging you to escalate the drama. The only question is: Will you? Will you throw us all under the bus for the win? Just how far will you go, Layla, to get what you want?”
The question hung heavy between them. Dissolving the moment, Layla gripped the throttle and said, “I came here to win, same as you. And that’s exactly what I intend to do.” Then she sped onto the street without once looking back.
THE HAND THAT FEEDS
Tommy watched Layla speed away, his hands involuntarily clenched by his sides. She was smart, shrewd, and capable of reading people in a way that often surprised him. And yet, when it came to Ira Redman and the game he’d conned them all into playing, she was like a blind man slipping behind the wheel of a Ferrari, too caught up in the power and excitement to see the danger looming ahead.
Okay, maybe conned was an overstatement. They’d all gone into the interview with the clear goal of landing the job, and it wasn’t that Ira hadn’t made good on his word. But after observing him for the last several weeks, Tommy had learned Ira Redman was no altruist. He never invested in anyone or anything without expecting a sizable return.
He was challenging Layla to keep up the dirty work—to continue writing about the more salacious events at his club without fear of repercussions, or at least not from him.
No such thing as bad publicity—and in the world of nightclubs, the more scandalous and sordid the story the better.
Of course Tommy had no way to prove his suspicions, but then he didn’t have to. It was Ira Freaking Redman—always scheming, always angling—an expert when it came to maneuvering every person, every situation, in a way that served him. Just like he’d done with Tommy’s mom and the child he insisted she abort. He didn’t want to be tied down, so he gave the order, moved on, and never looked back.
He treated life like a giant game of chess and the rest of the players were pawns. Where the contest was concerned, they were all puppets in his twisted theater, with Ira yanking the strings. There was virtually no limit to the metaphors Tommy could use to describe the situation he’d found himself in, and yet, clear as it was to him, Layla refused to see the truth.
“Tommy? Tommy Phillips?”
Tommy ducked his head low, shoved his hands deep in his pockets, and made for his car.
“Hey, Tommy—we were wondering if you might give us a word. . . .”
If nothing else, his brief experience in the spotlight had taught him the paps always started off more or less pleasant, like potential friends in the making just looking to connect, only to turn in an instant. Dissing Madison, hurling insults—he’d learned that the hard way on his earlier foray into Starbucks.
“Go away.” He glanced over his shoulder just in time to see a telephoto lens inches from his face. “I said fuck off!” He advanced on the guy, blocking the lens. He was over photogs, gossips, tabloids, and the rest of those bottom-feeding, low-life scumbags who made a living documenting other people’s misery. Still the guy refused to give up.
“How’s Madison?” he shouted. “Have you talked t
Tommy narrowed his focus on the guy’s nose, imagining how it might look smashed against his right cheek.
Deciding he might as well punch him to see whether the end result looked anything like the mental picture, he raised a fist, about to make contact, only to watch the asshole grin with the anticipation of filming the assault.
Fuck it. Tommy shook his head. It’s not worth it. Without a word, he turned, aware of the photog chasing behind him, shouting insinuations, insults about his hookup with Madison, while Tommy struggled to maintain his cool, reminding himself he’d be out of there soon.
He stood beside his car, staring in disbelief at the four flattened tires—all of them slashed.
“What the—” Tommy whirled on the pap, who was busy photographing the damage. “You responsible for this?” He rushed him, fully committed to punching him in the nose after all, when a shiny, chauffeur-driven black Cadillac SUV pulled up alongside him, and Ira lowered the window and barked, “Get in.”
Tommy shook his head. He wasn’t interested in Ira. He had a trashed car and a photog inexplicably taking pictures of the damage. This was his mess to handle, and he would, if Ira would stay the hell out of his business.
“It wasn’t a question.” The door sprang open.
Tommy cursed under his breath, took one last lunge at the photog, if only to scare him, then reluctantly slid onto the seat beside Ira. He listened in stunned silence as Ira gave the driver Tommy’s home address, reciting it from memory, before turning to him and handing over a fat envelope stuffed with what could only be cash.
“What’s this?” Tommy glanced between the envelope and Ira.
“Originally, it was my way of thanking you for a job well done. Now it looks like you should think of it as payment toward a new set of wheels.”
“You didn’t have anything to do with that, did you?” Tommy turned to study Ira’s profile. The words had come out before he’d had a chance to vet them, though he didn’t necessarily regret them. For one thing, he wouldn’t put it past Ira. For another, Tommy was in no mood to play games. The press was on his tail, his car had been vandalized, and despite the moments they’d shared, Madison Brooks had failed to reply to a single one of his texts.
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