Unrivaled, p.7

Unrivaled, page 7

 

Unrivaled
 



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  “When were you going to tell me? Or were you ever going to tell me?”

  “Tonight.” She lifted her gaze to meet his, needing him to believe it.

  “And how long have you known?”

  She hung her head, if for no other reason than to avoid the hurt look on his face. He’d always been so open and honest with her. Layla was the shady one—the dealer of secrets and lies.

  “Couple days,” she said, voice barely audible.

  He exhaled long and deep. If disappointment had a sound, Mateo’s sigh would be it. He willingly forfeited the envelope. Her fingers reluctantly seized it. As much as she’d wanted the job, in the face of betraying Mateo, it no longer seemed worth it.

  “You already know how I feel about that scene. But if this is what you want, it’s not my place to stop you,” he said.

  “But it’s not like that!” Layla gripped the envelope so tightly it crinkled in protest. “I’m doing it to honor Carlos, to shine a light on that dark, murky world, and so I—” She stalled. Finishing the thought meant revealing another secret, and she absolutely was not ready for that.

  Though she’d had no problem revealing that secret to Ira. As soon as he’d asked why she wanted to win, she blurted out the truth about needing to find a way to pay for journalism school. The interview ended shortly after, and out of all the questions he’d asked, and there’d been quite a few, she knew that was the answer that clinched it.

  But this was Mateo, and there was no good way to say: Oh, and by the way, I have my heart set on journalism school in New York, and I’m hoping this job will cough up enough cash so I can move far away. And just so you know—you’re not invited.

  How could she convey that to Mateo, of all people?

  But from the length of her silence, she already had. Or at least she’d alarmed him enough to prompt him to ask, “So you can what, Layla?” His voice carried an edge, but his shoulders sank in defeat. “Is this about the prize money? Because you know I’d gladly give you whatever I have.”

  She gazed around her room, taking in the dark wood floors and white beach-board walls that matched the rest of the remodeled Venice Beach bungalow, the jumble of freshly laundered clothes in need of sorting, the stack of books she’d been meaning to get to as soon as she found some free time. She paused on the portrait her father had painted of her at age five. Her head thrown back, eyes shut tight, mouth stretched wide as she laughed at something she could no longer remember. It was probably the last time her life felt so uncomplicated, the last time she’d felt like a kid. Within a year her mom would be gone, and she and her dad would take the first tentative steps toward forging a new life without her.

  Maybe her mom’s abandonment had affected her more than she’d thought. Maybe a therapist would say it had something to do with her becoming the sort of perfectionist who couldn’t bear to disappoint anyone, lest they leave. All she knew for sure was she never wanted to disappoint Mateo—and yet, she knew she eventually would.

  She gnawed her bottom lip, pulled the towel tighter around her. A quick glimpse of his face told her anything she said would be met with suspicion.

  “The only reason I didn’t tell you is because I knew you wouldn’t approve, and I can’t stand to upset you. . . .”

  “I’m not upset.” He shook his head, started again. “Okay, I’m upset that you hid it. But mostly I’m worried about you getting involved in that scene.”

  “You don’t have to worry.”

  “Of course I do. I love you.” He spoke as though it was really that simple—like there was no other way to reply. He shoved his hands deep into his pockets, causing his jeans to slip enticingly low. “And when will we see each other? You’ll be working every night of the week.”

  “Just Thursday through Saturday. Oh, and we have a meeting every Sunday. And I’ll need to work on strategy during the week, but otherwise, I’m totally yours. And you can always stop by the club to see me, you know.”

  He made a face, prompting her to say, “Or not. Just—” She forced herself to meet his gaze. “Just trust me. I promise there’s no need to worry. You’ll see.”

  He pulled his lips in and glanced out her bedroom window at the small yard beyond. “You sure this is what you want?”

  What she really wanted was to rewind the morning, pull Mateo onto those soft rumpled sheets, and repeat all the delicious things they’d done to each other just a few hours before. But they needed to deal with this, so she nodded instead.

  He frowned, swiped his shirt from the back of a chair, and pulled it over his head. The sight made her simultaneously panicked and relieved. Relieved for this to be over, and panicked at the thought he might never return.

  “Listen, I’m not gonna lie, I really wish you’d rethink this. Doesn’t change how I feel about you, but I need some time to process.” He flipped a hand through his hair, grabbed his sunglasses and keys from the dresser, and made for the door.

  “I’m sorry,” she whispered, forcing the words past the lump in her throat, but Mateo was already gone, and her phone was chiming again.

  TEN

  MR. BRIGHTSIDE

  When Layla walked into Lemonade, despite the trendy lunch crowd, Tommy spotted her immediately. He’d been 98 percent sure she wouldn’t show. Now that she was here, he was nervous in a way he couldn’t explain.

  She slung her bag over the back of her chair and settled before him. “What’s this about?” Her expression was as annoyed as her voice.

  He fixed his gaze on hers and leaned closer. A move that had never failed him back home, but Layla was immune to his charms.

  “Now that we’re working together, I thought we could try to get to know each other.”

  She sighed, reached for her bag, and started to stand. “You are seriously wasting my time.”

  “Or—we could skip all that and go straight to talking strategy.”

  “Tommy—” She shot him a look like she was about to explain the truth about Santa and the Tooth Fairy all at once. “I know you’re not from here, so I’m going to do you a favor and—”

  “How do you know I’m not from here?” Tommy cut in.

  “For one thing, you have an accent, even though you’re convinced you don’t. For another, you’re way too languid to ever be confused for a native.”

  “What? Everyone knows Angelenos are laid-back.”

  She rolled her eyes. “It’s all PR. You want to see the soul of the city, take your chance on the 405 freeway during rush hour and see how long it takes you to merge into the far left lane, and how many times they flip you the bird along the way.”

  Tommy fought back a grin. She was sarcastic and cute, but it was better to keep the thought to himself. “Okay, so it’s a tough town, friends are in short supply—kind of remedial stuff, seeing as we covered all that at the interview. Clearly you mistake me for some dumb country hick with a clump of horseshit stuck to my boots.”

  Layla bit her lip, looking surprisingly chagrined.

  “I know you’re small-talk averse, but let’s get one thing clear—yes, I’m from Tulsa, or more accurately, a small town just outside Tulsa that no one’s ever heard of, so it’s easier to say I’m from Tulsa. But, contrary to what you might think, I did not grow up drinking milk from my very own cow. I didn’t do my business in an outhouse, and I do not make out with my cousins. My life so far has been normal, maybe a slightly different normal from yours, but that’s more about geography than anything else. I’m not a stereotype. So please don’t treat me like one.”

  She frowned and settled back in her seat.

  “And I wasn’t kidding about talking strategy.” He rubbed a hand across a swath of carefully cultivated chin stubble. “I think we can help each other.”

  She folded her arms across her chest and glanced longingly toward the door. “We’re on different teams. I’m meeting mine in an hour.”

  “Well, I just came from my second meeting with mine, and it was a total waste of time.”

&n
bsp; “So now you’re trying to get back at them by wasting mine?”

  He shook his head, refusing to acknowledge her words. “Way I see it, this entire contest is rigged to help Ira, not us.”

  “Um, yeah,” Layla snapped, which was pretty much the verbal equivalent of rolling her eyes. “Everything’s about Ira. The winner is a well-compensated afterthought.”

  “And yet one of us will be eliminated each week for not pulling our weight or whatever excuse Ira comes up with.”

  She allowed a cautious nod of her head. She was still with him, which was the most he could ask for.

  “So, I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a lot of faith in my crew. And there’s no way I’ll share my better ideas so they can use them against me.”

  Layla squinted in confusion, which only made her look cuter. “So . . . you want to give me your better ideas so I can use them against you?”

  “Yes.” He grinned. “But not entirely . . .” He swiveled in his seat, surveyed the line at the counter, and without another word, got up and took his place at the end.

  It was a trick he sometimes employed when he needed a moment to gather his thoughts. It also offered the added benefit of keeping the other person completely off balance, too busy wondering what was going on to build an argument against him.

  When he returned a few minutes later with a cup of lemonade in each hand, he gave her first dibs. “Blood orange or mint?”

  Layla flipped her hands on the table like she didn’t care either way. “You want to get on my good side, always default to coffee. But fine, blood orange, whatever. Is there a point to all this?”

  “Here’s the thing—” He circled his hands at the base of his cup and leaned toward her. “Ira needs us more than we need him. After selling his Sunset Boulevard clubs last year, he’s determined to make his mark on Hollywood Boulevard. Sunset was a no-brainer. It’s been an established hangout for pretty much ever.” He looked pointedly at Layla. “I may not be a native, but I did do my research. Anyway, Ira’s sunk a ton of money into his attempt to revitalize the area and make it the new Sunset, money he can probably afford to lose if the whole thing blows up, since we all know Ira’s richer than God, but Ira doesn’t play to lose. Failure isn’t an option. He’s in it for the win. Always. And he’ll do anything to get it.”

  “Sounds like you know an awful lot about Ira. What’s that about?” Her brow rose as she did this adorable thing with her mouth that Tommy tried not to focus on.

  He shrugged in reply. No use alerting her to just how obsessed he’d become. “I like to know who I work for. Anyway, from what I gather, the clubs are struggling. Sure, some industry players have dropped in, but Hollywood Boulevard’s a tougher sell than Sunset, so they haven’t gained any traction. That’s where we come in. We’re there to elevate his brand, make it sexy, exclusive, and most important in Hollywood—young. In the end it will come down to three of us. Well, ultimately one of us, but before that, three, since there’s no way Ira will eliminate an entire club from the competition when there’s money to be made. He’ll pick us off one by one, just like he promised, but he’ll be far more strategic than he lets on. Then he’ll make us battle to the death, probably for his own amusement, because that’s how Ira rolls.”

  Layla took a moment to consider. “Okay,” she ventured. “So why me? Out of all the other contestants, why me, as opposed to, oh, I don’t know, Gamer Boy, Goth Boy, Cowgirl, hell, even Queen Bitch Aster.” Reading Tommy’s expression, she explained, “I prefer nicknames to real names, and that last one is from an old David Bowie song.”

  “Hunky Dory album.” He nodded appreciatively, enjoying her look of surprise. “What—you mistook me for a Directioner or a Belieber?”

  “No—I—” She shook her head, gazed down at her drink. She was completely off balance, just how he wanted her.

  “Listen—” He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial tone. “You seem like you have little tolerance for bullshit, and you don’t seem overly starry-eyed where Ira’s concerned.”

  She nodded. So far they agreed.

  “But that’s also what’s going to cause most of your problems.”

  She narrowed her gaze, clearly not liking the sudden shift from flattery to problems she probably wasn’t even aware that she had.

  “From what I’ve seen, the locals tend to be a little needy. They work hard, putting as much effort into working out and looking good as they do at making money. They live for flattery, praise, and feeling important. They want to claim their place in the spotlight, and top every VIP list.”

  “Talk about stereotypes.” Layla frowned. “There’s over four million people living in this city. Clearly not everyone’s the way you describe. . . .”

  “Maybe not, but the ones who frequent Ira’s nightclubs—”

  She waited a beat before conceding. “Yeah, okay, guilty as charged.”

  “And correct me if I’m wrong, but you don’t strike me as the group-hug-positive-affirmation-attaboy-go-get-’em-tiger-ass-kisser type.”

  She gnawed her lip, then immediately made herself stop.

  “So, I’m offering to help you with your social skills, and in return, you’re going to help me brainstorm some ideas. Everyone wins.”

  He hadn’t even reached the end when Layla pushed away from the table, looking like she was seriously considering dumping the rest of her lemonade onto his head, but settled for grabbing her bag instead.

  “Are you crazy?” She glared, not even attempting to lower her voice, as all the other tables turned briefly to look at them before returning to their own conversations.

  He sipped his drink and continued to observe her. “I’m sorry if that seemed insulting. I only meant that I can help you smooth over some of your . . . rougher bits, and in turn—”

  “And in turn I can give you all my ideas. Yeah, I’d say that’s a really fair trade, a truly fantastic offer, and not the least bit insulting. Nope, not at all.” She hitched her bag onto her shoulder and made to leave.

  “Layla!” In a flash, he was up and racing behind her. “I like your no-bullshit attitude. Lets me know where I stand, which at the moment is clearly too close for your comfort.”

  She was already outside, squinting into the sun as she fumbled for her sunglasses.

  “Look—I’m sorry . . .”

  Her glasses firmly in place, she turned on her heel, narrowly dodging a yoga mom pushing twin boys in a stroller—one screaming, one placidly observing the world—and made her way down Abbot Kinney with Tommy rushing behind her.

  “Layla—”

  She whirled on him, nearly crashing into a girl in a bikini cradling a cat in her arms. “What, Tommy? What is it you’re trying to say?”

  “I’m assuming you’ve received Ira’s list.” He tried to peer past her lenses, but they were too dark to reveal much of anything. “You seem like the least likely person to fawn over a celebrity, which is pretty much a job requirement.”

  She swallowed, but otherwise stood perfectly still.

  “And that’s going to make it even harder to score Madison Brooks and Ryan Hawthorne, never mind Heather Rollins and Sugar Mills.”

  She was shaking, actually shaking with rage—a reaction that seemed entirely disproportionate to the circumstances. Then again, he had no idea what had inspired her to join the contest in the first place. Clearly she had something at stake. He assumed all of them did. But he was only trying to help. And in helping her, he could help himself.

  “Tommy—” Her voice was strained.

  He sank his hands into his pockets, adopting a loose, easy stance, ready for whatever she threw at him.

  “Do yourself a favor and delete my number.” Her lips thinned, her back stiffened, her hands clenched—even her hair seemed to react. She was the most openly reactive girl Tommy had ever met.

  “Guess it’s not a good time to ask you what nickname you gave me?” he called after her, watching as she muttered an insult under her breath and shot a
cross the street. So eager to put some distance between them she risked getting run over by some old dude in a Bentley making an illegal U-turn.

  Their meeting had gone even worse than he’d feared, and yet, he couldn’t help but grin when he replayed the memory loop in his head.

  Layla wasn’t his usual type. She could never be described as busty, and yet, every girl should be so lucky to rock a tank top like her. She was blond, which was a plus. But it wasn’t the kind of blond Tommy usually liked. It wasn’t the glossy golden California blond the girls back home tried so hard to emulate. Funny to think he’d driven all the way to LA to be interested in a girl with hair the color of an Oklahoma wheat field.

  Even though she clearly hated him, something about their meeting left him excited in a way he hadn’t felt for a while.

  Delete my number, she’d said. Not a chance. He’d back off for now. Give her some space. Though he was serious about them helping each other. He just hoped she’d make it through the first cut.

  He thought about contacting Aster. She and Layla were the only ones he’d connected with at the interview, but he doubted he’d get very far. She had too much of that high-maintenance Madison Brooks vibe. She’d probably just laugh in his face. Besides, Tommy had nothing to offer a girl like Aster, and he doubted she had anything to offer him other than a fat contacts list filled with spoiled rich preps who wouldn’t deign to step foot inside the Vesper.

  Or would they?

  Tommy watched as the male star of one of cable TVs biggest hits climbed out of a black convertible Porsche and ducked inside an organic café without notice. In Oklahoma, an actor of that caliber would’ve been mobbed. Yet in Venice, people were too cool to even acknowledge his presence.

  LA operated on a whole other frequency, and if Tommy had any hope of making his mark, he’d have to find a way to tune in.

  What if instead of trying to outwardly woo Madison—a task that was impossible at best—he concentrated on making the Vesper so hip, so illicit, so talked about, those rich preps got just curious enough to clamor for a walk on the wild side, Madison included. Kind of like the Los Feliz lifestyle tourists who used to come into Farrington’s.

 

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