Unrivaled, page 8
It could work.
It could absolutely, 100 percent work.
For the first time since he’d secured the gig, he had an actual working plan and a damn good one at that.
Of course he couldn’t go it alone. He’d need Ira’s consent. But what better way to impress the old man than coming up with an idea that just might save them both from failure?
Aster Amirpour sat at the formal dining room table, pushing her food around on her plate and ignoring the incessant chiming of her phone like the good, well-mannered, obedient girl Nanny Mitra raised her to be. Eighteen years old and she was still watched over by the same nanny who’d changed her diapers as a baby. It was so beyond ridiculous it ventured into preposterous, outrageous, absurd, ludicrous—
“You gonna answer that?” Her younger brother, Javen, who looked very much like the boy version of Aster except, damn him, his eyelashes were even longer and thicker, tilted his fork toward her iPhone.
“Of course not. We’re eating and that would be rude.” Aster returned his look with one of her own, before letting her gaze drift among the display of fine Irish linens, gleaming silver flatware, and her mother’s finest china place settings—fussy didn’t even begin to describe it. Even in her parents’ absence, her family’s more stodgy traditions raged on.
“Then can you at least silence it?” Javen bit off the tip of his asparagus spear and closed his eyes while he chewed. When Nanny Mitra decided to cook, a task that was usually left to the family’s personal chef, it was a rare and precious treat.
Aster silenced her phone and returned to the business of eating, or at least she pretended to eat. Her stomach was so jumpy with nerves and excitement it left no room for anything else. It was her first night on the job, and she had a plan that could put her in the lead. If Ira wanted the club packed with hot young bodies, then Aster would deliver everyone from her contacts list (and their contacts lists, and so on). Of course she didn’t have a shot in hell of getting Madison Brooks, much less anyone else on Ira’s list, but none of them did. It might have been premature, but she considered herself way ahead of the game.
Compared to the other contestants, she was the closest thing to Madison among them. They had so much in common, it was eerie. They were both girly girls, which meant people often overlooked their brains and ambition, they both had a healthy appreciation for the finer things in life (namely designer clothes and accessories), they both knew how to command the full attention of a room simply by entering, and they were both severely underestimated by people who refused to see them as anything more than a pretty face, and Aster couldn’t help but wonder if Ira had underestimated her too.
During the interview he’d blatantly assessed her like she was a piece of fine art he hoped to sell for a steep return. Which was fine since it clinched the job, but Aster was determined to prove she was more than a pretty face to be used as Night for Night bait. She wasn’t just playing to win—she was there to meet the kind of people who could boost her career, and yeah, as long as she was there, why not obliterate the rest of her competitors and leave her mark on the world?
“Aster, please—eat!” Nanny Mitra’s voice nudged Aster away from her thoughts and back to the table. She motioned toward Aster’s nearly full plate, her dark eyes narrowed, her perfectly lined and colored lips drooping into a frown. “You’re too skinny,” she scolded.
This again. Nanny wouldn’t be happy until Aster had dimpled thighs and a major muffin top. According to Nanny, not only did Aster not eat enough—too skinny!—but her weekly routine of tennis lessons and dance classes were doing more harm than good—too many muscles aren’t good for a girl! It was a never-ending battle Aster had no hope of winning.
Aster looked to Javen for support, but the smirk on his face made it worse. So she focused on picking at her lamb chops and pushing her potatoes around, but Nanny wasn’t fooled.
“Nice Persian boys don’t like skinny girls. You need to put some meat on your bones and fill out your curves.”
Aster warned herself to keep quiet, to humor Nanny and take a few bites—what could it hurt? But something inside her, something so weary of being lectured on all the ways she needed to change in order to be more appealing to Persian boys, wouldn’t be muzzled.
“So, let me get this straight—you’re asking me to eat even though I’m not hungry, so some random boy I don’t even know will find me pleasingly plump? And then what? He asks me to marry him, and I immediately say yes and forfeit all my dreams so I can produce a litter of babies and stay fat for him?” Her eyes met Nanny’s. She loved her, loved her like she loved her own mother, but sometimes her ideas were beyond comprehension, and they needed to be challenged. “Seriously, Nanny.” She tried to soften her voice and rein in her annoyance. “This isn’t the old country. People in LA covet a whole other look, a whole other life. Girls don’t eat to be more appealing to boys.”
“Though sometimes they refuse to eat to be more appealing to boys,” Javen piped in, causing Aster to laugh in spite of herself, and Nanny Mitra to fiddle with the gold locket at her neck that contained a picture of her long-deceased husband as she mumbled in Farsi under her breath.
“Too much skinny—too much skin always on display.” Nanny Mitra’s command of English, which was usually flawless, always faltered whenever she was confronted by a world moving too fast for her liking.
Aster rose from her seat. “We will agree to disagree, because I love you dearly despite all your crazy outdated ideas.” She circled to her side of the table and bent to kiss the top of Nanny’s head.
“Where are you going?” Nanny grasped her hand.
“I told you,” Aster said, knowing she hadn’t. “I’m going to Safi’s to help her prepare for her party.” She smiled brightly, made herself blink. Hadn’t she read something about liars not blinking enough and it was a dead giveaway? Or was it that they blinked too much? Crap. She couldn’t remember. Though it wasn’t like she was actually lying; she was stopping by Safi’s, and Safi really was preparing for a party. It just happened to be Aster’s Night for Night Full Moon party. The idea was genius. Foolproof. Now if she could get past Nanny Mitra, she could put it in motion.
“And she promised to drop me off at the mall on her way to Safi’s.” Javen flashed Aster his most dazzling grin. “I’m meeting some friends.”
Aster glared at Javen. Driving him to the mall was never part of the plan. Clearly he was onto her, though she had no choice but to go along.
“Um, yeah,” Aster said. “I mean, yes.” She was quick to correct. Nanny had a major intolerance for slang, and Aster couldn’t afford to take any chances. “I’m dropping Javen at the mall. But he’s getting his own ride home, right, Javen?”
The look that passed between them—triumph on Javen’s part, disbelief on Aster’s—well, she couldn’t believe Nanny missed it.
“You grow up too fast.” Nanny removed the linen napkin from her lap and struggled to rise as Aster rushed to help, and Javen alerted the maid to start clearing the plates. “That’s exactly what I will tell your parents when they call tonight and you are not here to speak with them.”
Aster balked, fearing Nanny might say exactly that, with that same incriminating tone. But just as quickly it was over, and Nanny was good-humored again. “Now go. Live your lives. Enjoy. But I want you both home by eleven.”
Now they both balked. “Nanny, Safi has a lot of planning to do, it might run later—”
“But not too much later?” Nanny’s look was final, her tone nonnegotiable, leaving Aster no choice but to agree.
Then, as soon as Nanny was out of earshot, Aster grabbed hold of Javen’s sleeve and said, “We need to talk.”
Aster peered into her rearview mirror as she backed her Mercedes out of the subterranean twelve-car garage. “Not cool.” She glanced at her brother.
“You lied to Nanny.” He playfully wagged a finger. “Besides, I know all about your party a
Aster frowned. She should’ve known he’d find out. Most of her friends had younger brothers and sisters around Javen’s age.
“I can’t wait to check it out. You know, as a reward for not telling Nanny.”
“You’re underage.” She pulled up to the big iron gate at the end of the drive, hit the remote, and watched it swing open.
“We have fake IDs.”
“Yeah?” Aster stole a look at him. “Twenty-one or eighteen?”
“What do you think?”
She pulled onto the street, passing a succession of mansions tucked behind big gates and taller hedges as she drove in the direction of Santa Monica Boulevard. “I think there’s a big difference between fifteen and eighteen. Don’t even get me started on twenty-one.”
“I’ll just show up then. It’s not like you can stop me.”
“And how are you getting there?”
“I have friends, Aster.”
“Trust me, I know all about your friends.” She stared through the windshield at the perfectly manicured streets, aware of her brother cringing beside her.
“I know about your male friends. I know you like boys better than girls. And I’m pretty sure that’s not something you’re willing to go public with. . . .”
She didn’t have any real proof of what she was saying, but when she saw his eyes widen in fear as the color drained from his face, she felt like the worst sister ever for using her brother’s sexuality as a bargaining tool.
“Javen, I’m sorry.” She rushed to undo the damage. She couldn’t care less if Javen was gay. But unfortunately, her parents and Nanny wouldn’t see it that way. “You know I want you to live the life you’re meant to, and I’m willing to help you do that—but you cannot bribe me in front of Nanny. We’re a lot better off working together instead of outing each other.”
Slowly the color returned to Javen’s cheeks. “Does this mean you’ll reconsider sneaking me into your club?”
“No.” She frowned. “I’m new at this. I can’t take any chances.”
“Everything’s negotiable,” she said, knowing in that particular case it most certainly wasn’t.
They drove the rest of the way in silence until she pulled into the Grove parking lot, where his friend waited. “You’ll cover for me tonight, right?” She needed a verbal so she’d have one less thing to worry about.
Javen nodded distractedly, his attention drawn to the cute boy waiting for him. “You know, when Mom and Dad told us they were spending the summer in Dubai, I knew it was destined to be the best summer ever. But then when they said Nanny was coming to stay, I thought my life was officially over.”
Aster laughed. She’d felt the same way.
“But now that I know we’ve got each other’s back, I’m pretty sure it’s gonna be epic.” He grinned in a way that left him looking so beautiful, so young and hopeful, Aster’s heart clenched in response. Her brother was standing on the cusp of his life, about to experience all the undiluted joy and heartbreak the world had to offer, and there was nothing she could do to protect him from the darker moments that would surely find him. Though she’d do her best to protect him from Nanny Mitra and her parents.
He slid from his seat and loped toward his friend, while Aster, overcome by a surge of love and protectiveness, tapped the gold-and-diamond hamsa pendant that hung from her neck, said a silent prayer for Javen, and made her way to Safi’s.
I WANNA BE SEDATED
Layla gazed around the nearly empty club and sighed. It was closing time at Jewel, but it was only slightly less crowded than it had been before. The crowd on the dance floor had been so sparse, even the DJ looked bored. Her first night on the job was a flop. And despite Karly’s claim that her good friend’s cousin’s boyfriend’s brother had once styled Madison’s hair on a movie set so she’d probably be the first to snag her, Madison never appeared. Still, they had managed to pull in enough people to save the night from being a total disaster, no thanks to Layla.
While Layla had plenty of friends, none of them were big on clubbing. Had she been in charge of the Vesper, they might’ve shown, but soon as they heard she was promoting the slick, glitzy, upscale Jewel, they were quick to turn up their noses in that totally hypocritical, indie snobbery way that always amused and amazed her. When it came down to it, her friends’ disdain of the mainstream and moneyed made them just as big snobs as the mainstream and moneyed snobs they disdained. Yet they could never quite see it that way. Whatever. She loved her friends. Loved them for the very reasons they wouldn’t be caught dead at Jewel. But that didn’t mean she didn’t feel they’d abandoned her.
Hoping to secure some gets for the weekend, she made for a group of girls whose slinky, barely there dresses told her they were into being noticed.
“Hey!” She rushed toward them, ignoring their withering glares. “I was wondering if you wanted me to take your picture.” She waved her cell phone in front of them, pegging them as way too vain to pass up the offer.
“Um, no, thanks.” The tall blonde sneered as though Layla was some pathetic last-call letch.
“It’s not for me,” Layla raced to explain. For better or worse she’d started this mess, and she was determined to finish. “It’s for the club. I’m one of the promoters.” She paused, giving them ample time to act impressed, but they remained before her, arms crossed, brows raised. “I was going to post it on Twitter and Instagram. You know, under the Jewel account.” She rubbed her lips together, hoping they were too clueless to know the club didn’t have social network accounts. Ira thought his brand was too cool for all that, a major misstep she intended to fix.
She waited while they conferred with one another, acting like it was a much bigger deal than it was. Making Layla feel as weird and obtrusive as she had on her first day of junior high, when the popular girls physically ejected her when she’d accidentally sat at their lunch table.
“Okay,” the blonde finally said. Every group had a leader, and she’d clearly been crowned. “But only if we get to approve the picture before you post it and you promise to tag us.”
Layla blinked. This was one high-maintenance crowd. “Maybe I should run it by your agents first,” she joked.
They stared blankly in return.
“Deal,” she agreed, taking a series of shots and trying not to laugh as they all huddled together, making that bizarre this is my sexy face duck-lips expression she’d never understood. After collecting all of their Twitter and Insta handles, which she planned to use to lure them back, she called, “Bye!” as they made for the exit. She immediately regretted it when they all burst out laughing.
God. She was such a colossal dork. Mateo had no reason to worry. There was no way she’d get sucked into this world. Stupid Tommy was right—if she couldn’t even get her friends to show up, and the duck-lips girls had taken her for a joke, then how in hell was she supposed to appeal to Madison Brooks? She needed to do something quick if she didn’t want to be the first to flame out.
She climbed on her bike and made her way down the boulevard, vowing not to look when she passed Night for Night and the Vesper. It would only make her feel worse, yet the fierce competitor in her couldn’t keep from sneaking a peek.
The LA private-school crowd lingered outside Night for Night, leaving Layla to wonder how many were regulars, and how many Aster and her team had lured in.
When she reached the Vesper, she revved the throttle, desperate to make it past the intersection before the light turned. Then she cursed her crummy luck when the car in front of her hit the brakes, forcing her to skid to a stop just a few feet from Tommy and some platinum blonde wearing fishnets, sky-high ankle boots, and a tiny black dress that just barely contained her.
Fortunately he was too busy flirting to notice she was there.
Crap. She commanded the light to change, but it remained a frustrating shade of red, as Tommy stood in the middle of the boulevard, tugging on the sleeve of her black leather jacket.
“What did I tell you last time I saw you?”
“You came to my hood. How rude would I be if I didn’t say hey?” He grinned when he said it, as though he’d just recited a lovely bit of poetry.
“Do you think you could let go of my sleeve?” It was lame. But it was the best she could do now that she’d made the mistake of meeting his gaze.
His hand dropped to his side, but that dazzling grin remained fixed, along with those deep blue eyes.
The light changed, horns honked, and still she sat frozen, hating herself for every second that passed.
“How was your first night?” Tommy seemed immune to the chaos around them.
“Apparently not as good as yours.” Layla nodded toward the girl, taking a series of cleavage-centric selfies as she waited for Tommy’s return.
“Nothing to worry about,” Tommy said. “She’s just a friend.”
“Worried?” Layla shot him her best you need to wither and die now face. “Don’t flatter yourself.”
He didn’t react. Didn’t even flinch. Just remained infuriatingly, sedately before her.
Layla glanced between the girl and Tommy. The sight left her incensed.
Must be because she missed Mateo. They rarely argued, and when they did, she always regretted it. Mostly because she was usually the one who started it.
“Let me know if you change your mind,” Tommy said. Responding to her confusion, he added, “About sharing strategies.”
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