Manipulated: a Rockstar Romantic Comedy (Hammered Book 3), page 8
There wasn’t any rancor in my voice. No reason for a cloud to get mad at the sun simply for shining. Better to bask in its warmth.
Besides, if not for Ava, I wouldn’t even be sitting here. I wouldn’t have attended the Halloween party, and Owen wouldn’t have attended to me. Just not quite enough, unfortunately.
“She’s a very talented writer. Witty, personable. It can be difficult knowing how to relate to the public if you’re not naturally a people person. You and me, we know all about that, don’t we?”
I swallowed. “That obvious, huh?”
“Only because I’m the same. It took me a while to be able to easily slip on a mask to deal with clients. And to some extent, you need to because it’s far too easy to be crushed.”
One part of me couldn’t believe this beautiful creature could ever understand my social issues. On the other hand, I knew I wasn’t unattractive. Making myself up when I took the time wasn’t a horrible task, and I enjoyed clothes and girl paint. My issues were internal, and sometimes they bled through to affect what I felt about my outside.
Perhaps Lila was similar.
“I wasn’t always like this. It’s too easy to blame my ex-husband, so I won’t. I blame myself for needing his approval and love more than I needed my own. I lost some of myself, but I’m getting back to who I am. This is part of it.” I picked up my portfolio from where I’d been clutching it on my lap and laid it on the table. “I’m not sure why I’m here, or how I ended up in the scope of Ripper Records, but I’m going to do my damnedest to prove I deserve whatever opportunity I’m offered.”
I almost tacked on if I’m offered one, but I didn’t. I just held my breath.
“Donovan obtained some of your incredible shots from Music Life’s spread on the charity gala. Somehow you made a huge party seem intimate, and you humanized rock stars. Not an easy thing to do, but nowadays, it’s so important. Everyone is over the untouchable star routine. What the public wants now is a rocker who might be a bit unattainable, but ultimately is someone they’d enjoy sitting down to coffee with. You accomplished that.”
While my heart chugged like an ailing furnace in my ears, Lila shuffled through folders and glossy photos. Pictures I’d taken.
Me. My work was being scrutinized again, and instead of having to beg for attention among a sea of equally talented photographers, somehow I stood out.
Yet again, all thanks to my sister. I owed that girl sushi. And possibly a Lear jet.
“These pictures were particularly inspiring. You captured the gorgeous jaded rockstar at the end of the night, excess spread out around him, with still that little flicker of innocent hope in his eyes.” Lila slid a shot of Owen seated in the chair beside the pool, with the murky lights beneath the water highlighting slashes of his skin.
Beneath my chair, my toes curled against the rounded toes of my Mary Janes.
His expression was neutral, his eyes seeking. She saw the innocence of hope in them, while I saw hunger. Maybe sometimes they were the same thing. After all, wasn’t even daring to want a form of hope? That there was a chance to find satiety. An opportunity to make all your dreams come true.
I was sitting here because of hope. Yes, I was desperate too. Always hungry for more. But I had hope that perhaps this chance could be a gateway to more.
More with Owen too?
Pushing the picture back toward Lila, I smiled. “Thank you. I really appreciate that.”
It would be harder to banish my thoughts about the man Lila was studying, but I would. I was nothing if not a master at self-denial.
The grooves on your vibrator would say otherwise, Kemosabe.
I smiled again. “It helps when you have an easy subject.”
“That it does. But still, you have an eye. A way of pulling out the emotions of your subject. How long have you been a photographer?” I reached for my portfolio, but she shook her head. “I don’t want to see a CV. We’ve already done our research, and there will be time to look at the rest of your photos later. Tell me more about yourself. What being a photographer means to you. Why you chose your art.”
Rolling my shoulders, I nodded. This wasn’t hard. I could talk about photography all day long. It had been my favorite thing since I was a child. Just because I’d lost my way for a while didn’t mean I wasn’t comfortable talking about what it meant to me.
“I’m not sure I chose it. I think I was born with a camera in my hand. At least that’s what my mom used to say.”
“Yes. She didn’t like some of my chosen subject matter.” And just like with Steven, I’d let her opinions sway me.
Not anymore. The time had come for me to live for myself.
To really fucking live.
Lila sat back in her chair and crossed her long legs. “Tell me about it.”
Her expression was friendly. Inviting. She made it easy for me to pretend we were just two friends chatting.
So I did. I told her about my early days, how I’d gotten into boudoir photography, even the story about Raven and my mom. She laughed at all the appropriate parts, and listened attentively as I recounted my different jobs. And when I mentioned in passing how I’d given up boudoir photography not long after my marriage and turned mostly to graphic design jobs to bring in money, she narrowed her eyes.
I sensed a kindred spirit in her, and it made it so much less difficult to share those parts of me I’d tucked away for so long.
“You have a gift.” She finished scanning the portfolio I’d slid her way during our conversation and passed it back to me. “If it were up to me, I’d hire you on the spot.”
“I…I don’t know what to say except thank you.”
“Not necessary. You know what is? For you not to forget that.” Her voice was soft, but steely. “Whether or not you end up taking a job working for Ripper Records, if you ever need a reminder, call me. I’ll tell you as many times as you need.”
God, there went the prickling in my eyes again. “Thank you,” I said again.
“Don’t thank me yet.” Her lips curved. “You still have to talk to Lord Lewis.”
I covered my face with my hands and prayed for oblivion. “Oh God. He told you about that?” He’d only had a moment away from me after our ill-fated meeting before he’d led me to the conference room, but it could’ve been enough time for him to laugh his ass off at my expense.
“No, I was on the opposite side of the reception area. Don’t worry. Secretly, I think he enjoys that kind of talk.”
I snorted and closed my portfolio. “Or not so secretly?”
She grinned. “I like you.”
A wrinkle formed between her wispy brows as a loud static-filled squawk filled the room. She pulled out the mini white device from her pocket and sighed. “Charlie again. That child is going to turn me white before my time.” She rose and tucked in her chair.
“Bonus is it’s harder to see with blond hair.” I stood and slid my own chair back into place, then followed her into the hallway.
“Truth. I’m thinking of dyeing mine blue to hide the change anyway. Here, come with me.” She motioned me in the opposite direction down the hall from where I’d come from the lobby.
We turned at the corner, taking one hall after another until I was sure Ripper was actually a maze rather than an office building. Along the way, we passed an assortment of interesting types, usually heavily tattooed and pierced, with wild hair colors and styles of dress. Living in WeHo for the past year and a half, I wasn’t a stranger to all the different kinds of people there were in the world. My finger itched for the shutter of my camera to capture some of what I was seeing, though I knew I would never do them justice.
“That giant guy with the rainbow Mohawk we just passed,” I whispered to Lila. “He’s a musician, right? I mean, he has to be, since he’s here—”
“Actually, no, that’s Kellan, our new junior account rep.”
“Oh. Oh wow. Do you think he
“The gorgeous type?”
“No. I’m absolutely allergic to those. If I was looking for a man—which I’m not—I’d want a nice, mild-mannered, non-threatening kind. My height, maybe with a little bit of a beer belly. Someone relatable. No abs of steel. Buns, on the other hand…” I sighed. “No. None of them either.”
She laughed and turned down yet another hall. “We’ll see if we can set something up. Come on. My office is down here.”
We’d made it halfway down the hall when I heard a husky male voice singing more than a little off-key. Cooing, really. The voice seemed to be coming from the open door Lila had indicated we were aiming toward. While we watched, a guy with messy blond hair and wiry arms covered in tattoos popped out of the door, a baby under his arm like a blanket-encased football.
I grabbed Lila’s arm as he disappeared around the corner. The message on the back of his T-shirt had momentarily silenced my tongue. “Did that man just steal your baby?”
Lila’s lips twitched. “Yes, but she’s his, so he’s allowed. He’s the only one who can make her stop wailing. Daddy’s girl.”
“Wait.” I came to a stop. “I didn’t get a good look at him, but his T-shirt said Fuck you. And his jeans were ripped all down the sides, and the tats, and the crazy hair…really?”
She shrugged. “What can I say? Opposites attract and all that.”
“I guess so. He’s a rock star. I mean, he’s gotta be a rock star.”
“Oh, he is. Have you heard of Oblivion?”
I sorted through my mental data banks. “Nineties cover band, maybe?”
Her completely unladylike snort made my eyebrows lift. “He’d love that one. Sorry, gotta tell him.” She whipped out her phone and had sent a text and motioned me into her office before I’d realized that yet again, I’d left my dignity on the floor.
Must be a permanent condition.
When I entered her office, Lila was bent over a pink bassinette filled with a peacefully sleeping baby with approximately one tuft of white blond hair. “See? Avery is perfectly behaved. Charlie? Tiny menace.” Lila pressed a kiss to her daughter’s forehead and moved back as her phone trilled. She pulled it out, smiled at whatever the text was, and tapped out a response. Just as soon as she’d sent one message, another came through.
“Donovan is off his conference call and would like to see you now. His office is two flights up.”
“Oh goodie.” I clasped my portfolio to my chest. “Penthouse?”
“No. Donovan’s not like that, in spite of how it may seem.”
I glanced at the baby she kept touching even while she spoke to me. “Yeah, I guess he’s gotta be pretty cool if he lets you bring the twins to work.”
“Yes. And it works out, because Nick is here when I’m in a meeting if they need something. He’s recording down the hall. Special five song EP for the next—”
“Cover band special?”
That smoke-tinged low voice made me bite my lip and turn around. Said rock star was looming in the doorway, arms stretched above his head to show off his tattoos and the slice of skin that peeked above his waistband. More ink there too. But at least he was smiling, which lessened my mortification.
“Sorry. My decades are the eighties and nineties. I’m not up on current bands.” Much to Owen’s disgust, I was sure, had he been there to weigh in.
“Seriously? You mean that euro pop trash?”
“No. I mean like hair bands, and yes, some pop. New Kids on the Block.”
At his groan, Lila gripped my arm. “Stop harassing her, Nicholas. Where is Charlotte?”
“Simon’s giving her a bottle and she’s pulling on his false eyelashes. New Kids? Really? How can you even say those words?”
I frowned. “Very easily. It was the music I listened to as a baby.”
“Dear God, your parents had no taste. At least tell me you like GnR.”
“Is that a Goo Goo Dolls abbreviation or something?”
Lila’s husband shook his head in disgust and left.
“Sorry about that. He’s a little snarky about his music.”
“I can tell.” Gripping my portfolio in one hand, I rubbed the back of my neck. It was clammy. Today was a series of tests, and I seemed to be failing more than I passed.
I tended to spew the more I got nervous, and my default was snark. That it was merely a protective measure more often than not didn’t keep the unsuspecting people I met from being jabbed from my usually unintentional barbs.
Lila didn’t reply, and I hurried to fill the silence. “Are they all like that?” I asked, proving that my nerves-based spewfest had not ended.
“Rock stars. Do they all have that chip on their shoulder? I met another one who did too.” Though to be fair, Owen had taken most of my remarks with good humor.
Not like Lila’s dude.
Even so, it was just more proof that I fit as well with a rockstar as peanut butter went with chili peppers. Unless that rockstar was one of the members of New Kids, then we’d probably get on just fine.
“He takes his art seriously. As do you. If I told you my favorite photographer was Ansel Adams, I bet you’d have plenty to say.”
“Ansel Adams is fine. Just a bit too commercial for my taste.”
“Then you understand. Hard not to take it personally when you’re an artist too.”
“Yeah, but they’re all cocky bastards.” Yep, I was babbling. Still letting it all hang out. “Think the world revolves around them.”
Or so I kept telling myself when thoughts of Owen and what might have been tried to intrude.
It had just been one hot night. Nothing more would’ve come of it. If I’d had sex with him, come morning—or hell, the middle of the night—he probably would’ve rolled off me and bounced on to the next. Wasn’t that usually how it went? He was a charmer. Everything from the lilt in his voice to his choice of words to how he touched me had been part of a skillful seduction, and I’d been willing prey.
Until self-preservation snapped in, almost too late.
Too late for what? So what if he’d cruised on to the next? You would’ve had awesome memories and a string of Os, and you haven’t had nearly enough of either.
“You’re not cocky about your talent? Down deep, underneath all the bullshit caused by your ex. You can’t tell me there’s not a part of you that’s damned confident in what you’re bringing to the table and expects to be compensated for it. It’s just hidden under the after-effects from recent events, not gone completely.”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, I do. Nick’s an asshole, but his talent is in equal measure. You’re a snob, but I don’t doubt yours is as well. Just be careful about keeping the balance, Callie. It’s easy to get out of whack and lose a chance at something great. I should know. I was just like you once, until I pulled my head out of my ass.”
“Wait a second—”
“Donovan’s expecting you.” Lila glanced at the slim gold bangle encircling her wrist. “He doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”
I nodded, feeling more than a little chastised. There was truth in her words, no matter how forcefully they’d been delivered.
I walked to the doorway, then turned back. “You’re his champion. Nick’s. But you weren’t always.”
“God, no. We hated each other on sight. I thought he was a cocky jerk. And he is, but he’s my cocky jerk now.”
Despite the churning emotions in my gut, I managed to smile. “That’s sweet.”
“It’s fact. And Callie? Trust me when I say this—I wish nothing more for you than to get a cocky jerk of your own just like him. He’s obnoxious about his own abilities, and positively rabid about mine.” She smiled warmly enough that I knew our momentary tiff had been set aside. “Good luck with Donovan
The word made me grip the doorframe. Holy fuck, what if I did? What if somehow I’d nailed this job interview, and I ended up trapped on a bus with the man who’d dominated my thoughts for months?
I could still say no. Run out the door and go back to work. Pretend none of this had ever happened.
Love life advice about dating rockstars from a rockstar’s wife. I mean, come on. This was me, Callie Mae Templeton, queen of Batman underwear when I was just dressing for myself. Which was always. Because I was single, and I liked it.
At least I had until I’d begun to wonder what I was missing. Meeting someone like Owen could do that to a girl.
I nodded. “Thanks, Lila. I appreciate everything. And I’m sorry about a minute ago. No disrespect meant.”
She waved it off. “No apologies needed, except for mine. I’m afraid Nick’s blunt speech is rubbing off on me. Let me know what happens, okay?”
I frowned. “Donovan will tell you, right?”
“Yes, but you can tell me too.” Quickly, she scrawled her number on a piece of paper and passed it to me. “Text me. I want the true deets, not Lord Lewis sanctioned ones,” she added with a wink.
“Oh. Okay. All right then. Um, bye.”
I fled before anything else could happen to throw me off balance. At this point, an errant ray of sunshine through open blinds might do the trick.
Instead of taking the elevator, I searched for the stairs. Once I found them, I took them two at a time until I made it upstairs to the floor Lila had mentioned. Dammit, she hadn’t told me which office was his.
The instant I stepped into the hallway, I realized why not.
Lord Lew—ahh, fuck it, I didn’t have to censor myself in my own head—Lord Lewis was standing in the doorway at the end of the hall, backlit by sunshine. I walked toward him slowly, wondering if he had a scythe hidden behind his back.
TARYN ELLIOTT SERIES:
Other author's books:
- Manipulated: a Rockstar Romantic Comedy (Hammered Book 3)Rocked
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