Unrivaled, p.26

Unrivaled, page 26

 

Unrivaled
 


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  She counted her money—it was all there. She flipped through her jewelry bag—it was just as she’d left it.

  Still, someone had been there.

  Someone had gone through her things.

  She stashed the DVD in her bag. As soon as Javen left, she’d find a better hiding place.

  Her luxury pad might seem sweet like he’d said, but one thing was sure—she knew it never had been.

  FIFTY-SIX

  GOODBYE TO YOU

  Mateo and Layla wandered through the gallery, checking out her dad’s exhibit. It was his best work yet—vibrant, full of life, the vivid forms seeming to jump off the canvas—so why wasn’t anyone buying?

  “It’s a good turnout.” Mateo entwined his fingers with hers. “Maybe your dad can start to relax.”

  Layla frowned. “Forget the turnout, what we need are buyers.”

  She leaned against Mateo’s shoulder, enjoying the dependable solidity of him. They needed more moments like this. Between the contest and all the drama surrounding Madison, they’d barely seen each other, and when they did, they acted overly cautious. Like the slightest misstep might derail their already fragile relationship. Even if it was just a date at her dad’s show, Layla was happy to be with him.

  She snuck a peek at her father. On the surface, he looked good, handsome as ever. But having recently come across some disturbing statements from banks and other unpaid creditors, Layla knew the stress he was under. If this show didn’t result in the sale of at least one major piece, journalism school would have to wait. She’d need to stick around, use the money she’d earned from her blog to help save their house until they could figure something out. She was more than willing to do it—she’d do anything for him—but she hoped it wouldn’t come to that. It would delay her dream and make him feel like a failure.

  Her phone chimed with an incoming text, and Mateo’s fingers instantly tensed. He’d tried his best to be patient, but he was reaching his limits. Still, she wasn’t yet free of the contest, which meant she really needed to check it.

  She clicked on the link Trena had sent and inhaled a quick breath as the words appeared on the screen:

  Blood Found on the Night for Night Terrace!

  Possibly Belonging to Madison Brooks?

  Beneath the headline was a picture of Ryan Hawthorne surrounded by suits, his hand raised, shielding his face from the cameras, as he was escorted inside the police station.

  Mateo peered over her shoulder, snaking an arm around her waist as he pulled her closer and said, “Good. It’s over.” He tried to nuzzle her neck, but Layla batted him away. “And yet, you’re still at it. . . .”

  “Just—” She hated to upset him, but if he’d give her a second, she could give him her complete attention. “I just need to—”

  Before she could finish, Mateo was shaking his head and heading for the bar. “I’m going to get us some drinks,” he called. “When I return, maybe you can try ignoring that thing.”

  Layla frowned and skimmed the article again. Apparently Trena had nudged the police, and now, thanks to her, she, Tommy, and Aster were all off the hook. She could actually feel the weight of the burden melting away.

  “Looks like you’re not the only one receiving interesting texts.”

  Mateo held his phone before her as Layla squinted at a picture of her and Tommy kissing in the middle of the Jewel dance floor. It was time and date stamped.

  She closed her eyes, wishing she could rewind time. When she opened them again, it was worse than before. Mateo looked as crushed as she felt. Difference was, he was the victim. She was the perpetrator. Their pain was hardly equal.

  “I’m sorry,” she said, cringing at the inadequacy of the words. She owed him far more than a shrug of the shoulders and an inept, though heartfelt, apology. “I don’t even know what to say.” Her mind swam with possibilities, centering on the horrifying truth that someone was spying on her. Someone had hated her enough to take a picture of her most regrettable mistake and use it against her.

  She reached for Mateo, pressed her fingers to his flesh, but she’d already lost him.

  “Who sent that?” She gripped so hard she was leaving red marks.

  “Is that what you’re worried about?” He pulled away. “I mean, that is you, isn’t it?”

  She closed her eyes and nodded. There was no point in lying.

  “And the guy?”

  “Tommy. Tommy Phillips.” Her knees felt floppy, weak, as she struggled to steady herself. “He’s one of the competitors, and that’s the first, last, and only time that ever happened. I swear.”

  “This happened weeks ago, and I’m just now finding out about it? What else have you been hiding?”

  She shook her head, gazed around the gallery. The timing couldn’t have been worse. Not that there was ever a good time for something like that, but it was an important event for her father. She couldn’t afford to make a scene.

  “Mateo,” she whispered, “I haven’t been hiding anything. I swear. I think someone’s setting me up!”

  Mateo averted his gaze like he could no longer stand looking at her. After the whole thing with Madison, he was sick of her conspiracy theories. But for the first time, she realized it might not end there. Maybe he was finally sick of her too.

  “Doesn’t look coerced to me.” His gaze bore into hers.

  She yanked the phone from his hand, but the number was blocked, probably sent from a burner.

  “I don’t understand. Why would someone do this?” she muttered to herself. Unfortunately, Mateo heard.

  “Do you even hear yourself?” He was outraged. Well, outraged for someone who never got outraged. “This is all about what someone did to you? Never mind what you did to me, to us. Layla—”

  She looked at him. Usually she loved the sound of her name on his lips. The way his voice lifted when he’d call to her after too long an absence—the way it dipped low and gravelly when he was caught by desire. She’d never once heard him address her like she was little more than a stranger, even back when she was.

  Unlike most guys she’d dated, Mateo never hid behind a facade of forced manliness, never pretended the heart was just an overlooked muscle in an otherwise well-honed body. He was totally authentic. Mateo approached the world in such a genuine way, it left her in awe. But now, well, she couldn’t help but wish he’d been better at stuffing his feelings like everyone else. If for no other reason than to spare her the sight of seeing him squinting in confusion, as though he was trying to find the best way to ingest a revelation that would inevitably upend everything he once thought he knew about her, about them.

  Maybe he loved her too purely.

  Maybe he loved her in a way she clearly didn’t deserve.

  And maybe his love for her had blinded him to the truth that Layla wasn’t the wonderful person he believed her to be.

  “I feel like I don’t even know you anymore.”

  A single tear coursed down her cheek. She did nothing to stop it.

  “I think we should take a break.”

  Her bottom lip trembled, her eyes burned; still, her gaze met his and she nodded in reply. There wasn’t a single thing she could say that wouldn’t just make it worse. She’d lied, withheld information, and no matter how much she loved him, and she did, probably always would, truth was, she’d had one foot out the door since the first night she’d met him.

  Mateo could do better.

  With any luck, she’d get what she deserved.

  She watched him leave. Slipping away like a ghost.

  Intangible.

  Indiscernible.

  No longer hers to hold.

  She mashed the back of her hand against her cheeks, refusing to cry, or at least not in public. Her feelings could wait. Her dad needed this night to be a success.

  She headed for the bar, grabbed a glass of red wine, and went in search of her dad. Her heart nearly stopped in her chest when she found him in a corner talking to Ira.

 
I was just telling your father how much I admire his work.” Ira grinned.

  Layla forced a half smile and glanced all around. The gallery owner was making the rounds, talking up the work, but no one was biting.

  “I’m thinking about expanding the Vesper. Adding a private VIP space. One of your dad’s murals would really liven up the place. We were just negotiating the terms when you walked up.”

  Layla looked at her dad. He was playing it cool, but it was clear he really wanted the deal.

  “My dad does great work. You won’t be disappointed.” She swallowed hard, shifted her gaze between them, feeling slightly dazed. As though she’d wandered inside one of her dad’s paintings. Then, hugging her dad tightly, she said, “I’ll leave you to it.” Wishing she could say more—warn him not to go through with it—that there was most likely a whole web of strings attached to the project he wouldn’t see coming until it was too late and he was completely entangled. But they were desperately in need of a savior, and if Ira was willing to step in and deliver her dad from mounting debt and the prospect of homelessness, who was she to stop him?

  Besides, there was a good chance she was being completely irrational. After what had just happened with Mateo, it was entirely possible.

  She exited the gallery and made her way down the crowded summer sidewalk, making a mental list of all the reasons she should be happy.

  The temperature was a balmy seventy-five degrees, just how she liked it!

  But tomorrow would be hot, sunny, nearing triple digits.

  Her blog had surpassed her wildest expectations, had put her on the map, and was making her money!

  But all that would end as soon as she got booted from the contest and lost the access needed to keep it going.

  Ira commissioning a mural from her dad freed her up for journalism school in the fall!

  But she worried about her dad getting caught up in Ira’s world.

  With Mateo now out of the picture, she no longer had to feel guilty about moving to New York!

  Mateo was out of the picture.

  Who was she kidding? She sucked at positive thinking. For every good thought, she could easily find its much darker opposite.

  It was only when she let herself into her room that she thought of one positive that didn’t come with a dark side: Thanks to her friendship with Trena, she was no longer a suspect in Madison’s disappearance!

  And yet, without Mateo, even that failed to feel like a win.

  FIFTY-SEVEN

  BANG BANG

  Tommy stood on the pink-and-gold-star-studded sidewalk just outside the Vesper, shielding his face from the relentless summer sun blazing high overhead like a cruel judging eye. It was another scorching-hot, zero-humidity day, and thanks to the drought and the Santa Ana winds, it seemed the whole city was burning. Griffith Park, La Cañada Flintridge, Angeles National Forest, and most recently, a brushfire was raging in Malibu. The air turned more acrid than usual and the sky darkened as though singed by flames, sending flecks of ash raining down, covering the city in a blanket of soot.

  So far the expensive beachfront homes had been spared, but everyone knew if the fires didn’t get ’em, the earthquakes eventually would.

  Maybe it was the constant threat of impending Armageddon that gave Californians the reputation of being so open and friendly. Perhaps living on the edge of destruction and knowing the dream could end at any second gave their lives the kind of intensity other places lacked.

  All Tommy knew for sure was that despite the grim faces on the local news channel, on Hollywood Boulevard it was business as usual. A stream of double-decker tour buses cruised past, as out-of-work actors dressed as Shrek, R2D2, and Superman hustled the tourists for pictures, and Aster reeled on Layla, her eyes blazing, body trembling, as she shook her phone in Layla’s face.

  “You did this, didn’t you?”

  Layla nodded, not so much as flinching at the sight of an enraged Aster looming before her, oblivious to the usual Hollywood Boulevard circus bustling all around.

  “Even though you promised you wouldn’t, you went straight to Trena Moretti and spilled all my secrets.” Aster seethed, her anger so palpable Tommy was sure it was just a matter of seconds before he’d be forced to break them apart, and he wasn’t entirely sure he was up for the task. The heat sapped his energy, made him lethargic, and the smoke-choked air made it a struggle to breath. Maybe the Hulk would be willing to help?

  “Not exactly.” Layla remained completely unfazed, which only added to Aster’s rage. “I didn’t divulge any personal details. I never told her how I got the info.”

  To Tommy’s ears, it seemed sincere enough to end the fight. Which was good, since he was eager to escape the blistering heat and head inside the dark, windowless, air-conditioned club. But judging by Aster’s clenched jaw and hate-filled stare, it didn’t work. But then, just when he was about to intervene, he watched in astonishment as Aster seemed to melt right before him.

  “I’m not sure whether I should thank you or curse you.” She uncrossed her arms as the beginnings of a smile brightened her face. Leaving Tommy to question if he’d maybe imagined the whole thing. Surely what he’d witnessed had been no less than a brawl in the making?

  One thing was sure, he was no closer to understanding the female species, and sincerely doubted he ever would. Though being a dedicated pacifist, he was mostly relieved he’d been spared a potentially violent scene between two people he was beginning to care about.

  Layla nodded, seeming to take Aster’s change of heart in stride. The Teflon expression she wore on her face gave nothing away. Tommy had seen that look before. It was the mask she wore when she was determined to deflect whatever chaos surrounded her. It was a shame things had gotten so weird between them. But with the contest winding down, and with the cops focusing on Ryan Hawthorne, maybe she’d learn to forgive him for pointing Larsen in her direction.

  He looked at her with a hopeful expression, only to be met by a pair of rolling eyes and smirking lips that instantly reminded him exactly who he was dealing with. His chances of earning a pardon were slim. Though that wasn’t to say he planned to give up. Even when she was hot, bothered, smelling of smoke, and misted with sweat he found her appealing in a way he couldn’t shake.

  “On the one hand”—Aster bent toward them, her voice lowered to a level that forced Tommy and Layla to lean in—“Ryan’s involvement will undoubtedly result in more questions for me. I may even be considered an accessory for not admitting he left. But if Ryan really did harm Madison, then he deserves to be locked behind bars. But now that the mystery’s solved, I have another, potentially worse one. Or at least worse for me.” Her voice dropped even lower until it was just barely audible. “Remember that DVD I told you about?”

  Tommy tensed, glancing between Aster and Layla, but before Aster could continue, the door swung open and Ira called them inside.

  “Change of plans.” His expression was as sharp as his tone, the opposite of what Tommy expected. Usually, Ira approached the Sunday meetings like a piece of performance art, all too happy to ramble and pontificate and waste their sweet time before finally getting to the point and firing the worst-performing contestant. But this time, after casting a wary gaze around the premises, scrutinizing the trash cans as though he expected to see someone leap out from behind them, he ushered them inside and motioned for them to sit at one of the tables. When he closed the door, it was like he’d shut out the world—leaving them at the mercy of Ira’s agenda.

  “I’m sure you’ve seen the headlines.”

  Ira’s voice shook Tommy away from his thoughts and back to the present. There was no podium, no team of smokin’-hot nubile assistants, no formalities or hierarchy of any kind. The usual show was pared down to a casually dressed Ira, his shirtsleeves rolled to his elbows, his muscular forearms resting on the scarred wood table. It was a side of Ira Tommy hadn’t seen, and it left him uneasy.

  “Night for Night is shut down.” His jaw tensed
, his fingers drummed the worn wooden tabletop. “It’s swarming with cops—been designated a crime scene until further notice—and there’s no telling how long it will last. It’s not like the LAPD is in the mood to cooperate.” His face darkened, his gaze grew distant, hooded, effectively shielding his thoughts. “That said—” He splayed his hands on the table, taking a moment to study them, before returning his focus to them. “I think it’s only fair we end the competition.”

  Beside him, Aster gasped, as Layla shrugged, not seeming to care either way, while Tommy felt the beginnings of dread. He needed the extra time to secure the top spot. Thanks to the drama surrounding Madison, he’d been knocked off his game. Though their combined numbers were better than ever, after all they’d been through, it was like a limp to the finish. May the least wounded win.

  “What about Zion, Sydney, and Diego?” Aster asked, glancing around the club as though she might’ve somehow missed them.

  “I told them not to bother,” Ira said, without further explanation. “I’d originally planned for an impressive celebration to mark the end, but we’ll save it for another time.” Ira’s regret seemed genuine, but then he loved to put on a show, which made it hard to determine what was real and what was not. “You’ve all managed to surpass my expectations. The lengths you’ve gone to were impressive. I knew you had it in you—that’s why I hired you. And yet you never know what someone is truly capable of until they’re put to the test. All three of you have been tested in ways you never could’ve foreseen, and you managed to stay focused, relentless, and willing to break a few rules along the way.”

  Tommy cringed beneath the lens of Ira’s gaze. So he’d known about the black wristbands and did nothing to stop it? Pretty risky, considering the kind of trouble that could’ve caused. But then Ira was never one to shy away from a gamble, and neither was Tommy. Seems they had more in common than he’d originally thought.

 
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