Gentlemen Inc. Series

Man about Town—Excerpt

Chapter 1: ALEX

“Preppy looking,” I tell the woman sitting across the boardroom table from me. “Preferably blond with blue eyes, as white-Anglo-Saxon Protestant as possible. It’s not that I have anything against anyone who isn’t a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant,” I hasten to assure her. “I’m Irish-Italian Catholic myself. It’s just that I need a particular type for this event.”

“I understand completely.” Cassandra smiles graciously. She probably deals with excitable women with crazy requests all the time. I’m sure I’m not her wackiest client.

I hope, anyway.

I plunge ahead. “He should be tall, but not too tall, maybe around six feet, six foot one or two? Taller would be fine too. Blond—oh, right, I said that. Athletic, like he plays golf or tennis, but not overly muscled like he lifts weights eight hours a day—I don’t want a Neanderthal. He needs to look smart, like he went to a really good college, preferably Ivy League, and he should have really good table manners. Excellent manners in general. He should be able to pass himself off as something other than an actor or a male escort or whatever he is in real life. And he should have an old-money kind of name. Like … I don’t know, Prescott Bradford-Cabot III.”

Cassandra is a very attractive woman in her early thirties, slim and poised with light brown hair, curled perfectly at the ends the way I can never get my own hair to do. She’s impeccably dressed and made up, and she gives off an aura of gracious calm that says nothing fazes her. Nonetheless, I think her smile might grow just a little bit forced.

I decide to give myself the benefit of the doubt, and I smile back brightly.

“If you’d like him to assume a false identity, that’s fine,” she tells me. “Though I’m not sure about that particular name.”

“Oh, well, you know …” I wave my hand, trying to look carelessly dismissive but probably looking like I’m being swarmed by fruit flies, “that was just an example. As long as it says ‘old money.’”

“Old money, of course.” Cassandra, who has the most intimidating posture of any woman I’ve ever met, somehow manages to sit up a bit straighter. “As it happens, I think I have the perfect Gentleman for you, based on the questionnaire you filled out last week.”

Right. Of course. I’m here in the offices of Gentlemen, Inc., where attractive men can be rented for special occasions, to meet the guy she’s already chosen. My babbled wish list is irrelevant at this point.

“He’s in the lobby right now,” Cassandra continues. “Shall I have Emily send him in?”

I nod sharply, trying to look confident. “Absolutely! Send him in.”

I sit up straighter myself and run my tongue over my teeth, wishing I’d checked a mirror before I came in here, to make sure that none of the salad from my hastily eaten lunch is stuck between them.

Cassandra speaks into an intercom, my heart rate picks up a notch, and my hands start to sweat. Underneath the table, I wipe them on my lap.

The door to the conference room opens, and a man walks in. I stand up and take a step away from the table, careful not to trip over my chair. (It’s been known to happen).

Cassandra, who has probably never tripped over a chair in her life, glides over to my side of the table. “Alex, I’d like you to meet Marcus Hollingsworth. He’s been working with us for almost nine months now, and I think he’ll be a very good fit for your event. Marcus, Miss Johnston would like you to be her companion for a holiday party at her office a week from Saturday.”

Marcus cocks his head and gives me a raffish smile. “A pleasure to meet you, Miss Johnston.”

I don’t answer immediately.  For one thing, his voice throws me. I expected your standard, well-articulated tenor, but instead, it’s a deep, smooth, bass-baritone that makes me think of black coffee, the kind that’s so smooth and rich, you’re not even tempted to add sugar and cream.

It’s also because I’ve seen him before. A lot of the guys who work for Gentlemen, Inc. are models or actors, so it’s possible he’s been on TV or in magazines, but that’s not how I know him. He probably doesn’t remember me. Guys like him don’t. My face warms a little at the memory of our first encounter. I didn’t ask for him specifically, but given that he was pretty much who I was picturing when I filled out the “ideal companion” section of Cassandra’s application form, well … I couldn’t really have been asking for anyone else.

Anyway, I’m too busy appraising him to say anything. I stand back and stare, taking in the sight.

“You’re not a junior or a third, are you, by any chance?” I ask.

Confusion flashes across his face—Keep up, pretty boy!—then understanding dawns. “No, I’m afraid that honor belongs to my older brother, G. Spencer Hollingsworth, Jr.”

“Hm.”

Too bad; it would have been fun to introduce him as Hollingsworth, Jr. Still could, I guess, but it’s probably not worth it.

Hands clasped behind my back, I begin to pace slowly around Hollingsworth Not Junior, studying him from every angle.

Sure enough, he’s blond and blue-eyed and tall, probably around six foot three or four.

Check.

His hair is cut stylishly, a little longer on the top than the sides, and his skin has the golden glow of someone who spends enough time outside to look healthy, but not enough to look like a surfer dude or a construction worker.

Double check.

He has perfectly straight, white teeth that probably put some orthodontist’s kid through a year’s worth of private school. A full, cherry-colored mouth that verges on being pretty, but in combination with a strong jaw, perfectly chiseled cheekbones, and surprisingly sharp blue eyes, it’s unquestionably masculine.

Check, check, check.

He’s wearing a navy-blue blazer, a white shirt, khaki pants, and a yellow tie with tiny fleurs de lis all over it. He looks like he’s just walked out of a Brooks Brothers catalog.

Be still, my beating heart.

He appears to be in good shape under the blazer and khakis; he has broad shoulders, a trim waist and, although the khakis don’t show off too much, that butt looks nice and tight.

The butt isn’t a dealbreaker, but a nice one doesn’t hurt.

He submits to my perusal with a condescending chuckle and puts his hands in his pockets, his movements graceful and confident. He looks casual and relaxed, as if women routinely circle him, looking for flaws.

Well, he’s probably used to women circling him, but I doubt they’re looking for flaws. All told, he looks pretty flaw-less—clear skin, full lips, bone structure like a Roman statue, good clothes, nice bod.

Best of all, he has the smug, lazy, self-satisfied aura of a rich-boy asshole.

I hate him already.

I smile and turn to Cassandra. “He’s perfect,” I tell her. “I’ll take him.”

Chapter 2: MARCUS

Miss Noseypants Johnston circles me, her hands clasped behind her back as if she’s a judge at a county fair and I’m a prize bull. And yes, I recognized her the moment I walked in, but I don’t see why I should give her the satisfaction of letting her know I remember her.

As she walks behind me, I tilt my head just slightly and raise my eyebrows at Cassandra.

Seriously? I ask her with my eyes.

Cassandra’s lips tighten, and she raises her eyebrows back at me.

You have no one to blame but yourself, is her silent reply.

Fine.

I school my expression back into a neutral smile as Noseypants finishes her walkabout and stands in front of me again.

“He’s perfect,” she says, talking to Cassandra as if I’m not even there. Her eyes gleam with satisfaction.

Not lust, or hope, or even simple interest, which are the types of gleaming most often directed at me, but pure, acquisitive satisfaction, like she’s just found the perfect purse to go with her outfit.

I glance again at the pleather monstrosity she’s left on the table. Fat chance.

Okay. Two can play at that game. I study her back without being as obnoxiously obvious about it.

Aside from the left turn into Crazyville, she’s not at all bad herself, something that didn’t go unnoticed the first time I saw her. She’s probably in her mid-twenties, around the same age as me, and she has large, expressive brown eyes that tilt a little, reminding me of a cat. They’re lined with a thick fringe of lashes which stand out in her oval face against porcelain skin. She has one of those intriguing mouths with a top lip that’s just as full and lush as the bottom one. Under other circumstances, I wouldn’t mind examining both of them at a closer range. Her hair, the same glossy brown as chocolate syrup, falls, perfectly straight and very shiny, halfway down her back. She’s medium height, long in the leg and generous in the chest, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the perfect combination.

But her clothes make me wince.

She’s wearing a knit dress in an unflattering shade of grey, a few inches too short and a few inches too tight. She wobbles slightly in stiletto heels that are too high for the daytime. The purse on the table is fake leather; I can spot it a mile off.

Her shoes, too, now that I look at them again—all man-made materials, probably manufactured in China. That dress is the real sin, though… The color doesn’t flatter her, and the fabric is cheap.

She’s shelling out several hundred dollars to rent me for her office party, but she dresses like she shops at Target. Interesting.

But not my concern.

My only concern here is that I make some money, and to do that, I need to be Noseypants’s date for an evening. I need to live up to her expectations so that she gives me a good review so that I can get back in Cassandra’s good graces so that I keep getting gigs like this and earn more money so that I can continue to eat and keep a roof over my head so that I don’t have to go crawling back to my parents in Boston.

Simple.

I give Noseypants my best smile, the slow, sexy one that says I’m a guy who knows how to take his time. The one that has chicks swooning for me within minutes of meeting me.

“I’m glad you approve,” I tell her.

Noseypants turns her back on me. “Do you give him the details, or do I?” she asks Cassandra.

Cassandra, ever the soul of grace and tact—unless she’s reaming you out for supposedly committing an indiscretion with a client, in which case she’s actually a little scary—steps toward the door. “I’ll leave you two to get acquainted. You can let Marcus know your expectations for the evening, how and when you’ll arrive at the party, and so forth. I’ll send Emily in with some coffee.”

She glides out the door, leaving me alone with Noseypants.

Now that the nickname is in my head, I can’t let it go. I smile at her again, as much in amusement as from politeness, and wave toward the chairs at the table. “Shall we sit?”

“Let’s.” She promptly sits in the closest chair, and I make my way around the table to sit opposite her.

“Tell me about this event we’ll be going to,” I suggest.

She clears her throat. “I work for Unity Bank & Trust as an assistant to one of the vice presidents. I’ve been working there for about three months now,” she says. “Like Cassandra said, their holiday party is coming up. This will be my first time going, obviously, but from what I understand, it’s a big deal. Very swanky, black tie, champagne and caviar, that sort of thing. Your job is to make me look good.”

“Of course.” I put as much reassurance as I can into my voice. I’ve been to a few holiday office soirees in my time; I can meet and greet with the best of them. I’m a little surprised to hear she’s a Unity employee, though. It’s one of the oldest banks in California, and one of the very few privately owned banks left on the West Coast. It has a reputation for conservative management and old-money clients. She doesn’t look like their type.

But again, not my concern.

“Black tie, you said?”

She nods. “Can you get a tuxedo?”

“I own one.” My parents bought an Armani tuxedo for me a few years ago when I was the best man at Spencer’s wedding. I’d love to see their faces if they found out I was using my $3000 tux in my role as rent-a-date to the desperate.

Noseypants wrinkles her eyebrows. “Huh, I thought most of you just made do with a black suit or something.”

“I’m lucky enough to own the real thing. I think you’ll be pleased with my ability to look the part.”

Emily, Cassandra’s assistant, chooses that moment to enter with a tray of coffee, which she puts down on the table between us before gliding away.

“Coffee?” I ask. Cassandra has trained all her Gentlemen to serve coffee and tea to our clients.

Noseypants shakes her head. “Nah, I’m good.”

I leave the coffee untouched. “Tell me a bit more about how you’d like to play this date. How do we know each other?”

I wait, wondering if she’ll acknowledge the fact that we’ve been in the same room before, even if we didn’t exactly meet, but instead, she looks thoughtfully at the ceiling. She taps her lower lip with one slender finger, drawing my attention again to that fascinating mouth.

“Where would I know a guy like you from?” she murmurs to herself. “Maybe we took tennis lessons together last summer?”

“Do you play tennis?”

“No.”

I do a masterful job of not rolling my eyes. “Let’s think of something else, then. Where did you go to college?”

“UMass Boston,” she replies.

“Perfect. I went to college in the Boston area myself. We had friends in common or we met on a bar crawl or a party … your call.”

“Harvard?” she asks, her expression a mix of hope and contempt.

I shake my head. “Tufts.”

Disappointment flits across her face.

Honestly, sweetheart, how many Harvard grads do you expect to find working as “companions” to needy women? I think.

… Not that people go to Tufts with the goal of renting themselves out by the hour either, I concede to myself.

“Tufts’ll work,” Alex concedes. “It’s got that same old-boy-network vibe, right?

“Yes, chock full of old boys,” I assure her.

If our client turns down our offer of coffee, we’re not supposed to take any ourselves, but screw it. If I’m going to sit here talking to a social climber in an acrylic dress, I’m having coffee. I pour myself a cup. “Sure I can’t offer you some?”

She gives me a shrewd look, like she knows something I don’t, but shakes her head. “So, what do you do? Besides work here, I mean?”

I pour a spoonful of sugar into my coffee cup and stir. “I’m a model, and I’m trying to break into acting.”

“Of course you are.” Noseypants sighs, a little furrow appearing between her eyebrows. “I need you to be like, a stockbroker or a doctor or something.”

I suppress another eye roll. Stockbroker, doctor… completely interchangeable, easily faked professions. “Something respectable, you mean.”

“Exactly.”

Most women I meet through this job are quite happy to have a model on their arms for an evening, but I can see Noseypants’s point; aspiring professionals who work at Unity socialize with Serious People with Serious Careers.

“How about I worked for a financial firm as a junior analyst for a couple of years, then I decided to leave to pursue an acting career?” This has the advantage of being the truth. More or less.

Noseypants looks dubious.

“Look, I can’t pass myself off as a doctor or even a med school student,” I point out. “But I actually did work in a financial firm for a little while, so I understand the basics of the industry. But the people you work with do too, and if I say I’m working somewhere that I’m not, they’ll catch on.”

She makes a thoughtful little moue with that mouth, drawing my eyes like a magnet to those pretty, plump lips again. A shame they’re attached to someone who shows every sign of being seriously annoying.

Or maybe not a shame. Clients are off-limits, as Cassandra has made very clear to me.

“You’re a junior analyst who quit to backpack around the world for a year,” she declares. “Now you’re back and considering what to do next. You have a trust fund that lets you do that kind of thing, if anyone asks.”

I concede, glad to have that question settled. On to the next one. “And what’s our relationship to each other? Are we an item, first date, friends going to a party together …?”

“Just friends is fine. In fact …” Here she drops her eyes to the table. “In fact, would you mind if we kind of, um, implied you were gay?”

I study her over another sip of coffee. I don’t care if her co-workers think I’m gay or not, but why on earth is she going to all the trouble, not to mention expense, of renting me if she’s just going to make it clear to everyone that I’m not a real date?

Her gaze slides up from the table to meet mine again, and I take another, closer look at her. Her chin is pointed at a defiant angle and her mouth is set, but it’s taking an enormous effort on her part to hold her gaze steady with mine. Those large brown eyes no longer gleam with satisfaction so much as radiate insecurity.

She looks … vulnerable.

On the one hand, she’s trying to fit in with the old-money crowd by bringing along a prep-school date; on the other, she doesn’t want anyone to think she’s actually involved with anyone. Why? My guess is that she has a thing for one of her co-workers, and she’s hedging her bets.

She’s not just a tacky little social climber with more bravado than brains. She’s a girl with a crush on someone she thinks is out of her league.

There’s silence for a moment. The smart thing to do would be to finalize the details of our cover story and wrap up the interview. Put on my best face, work the gig, get back in Cassandra’s good graces, and pay my bills. I tell myself one more time that Noseypants’s motivations aren’t my concern … and then I cave.

“If you want to let people think I’m gay, that’s fine.” I keep my voice nonchalant. I doubt very much it’s a good strategy on her part, but one thing at a time. “Now, can I ask what you’ll be wearing?”

She looks surprised. “A black cocktail dress. Why?”

Legit question. It’s none of my business—except that it’s my job to make her evening a success, and if her evening clothes are anything like her day clothes, she’ll be a disaster.

“Because if you shop for cocktail dresses at the same place you bought that rag you’re wearing now, it won’t matter how rich, hot, and handsome your date is; everyone will know you’re a fraud.”

Her jaw drops. I’ve pretty much just signed my termination papers. Gentlemen are, above all things, polite, and if Cassandra gets wind that I’ve just told a client her dress is a rag, there won’t be a third chance. Being this blunt is a risk, and probably a stupid one, but something tells me Noseypants isn’t the type to respond to subtlety.

And hell, letting her spend this kind of money on me without doing everything I can to ensure her success wouldn’t be fair. I take another casual sip of coffee.

Alex collects herself, the vulnerability that was clear on her face rearranging itself into the showy bravado that was on display when I first walked in. “All right, hotshot … do you have any suggestions?”

Her snotty tone of voice tells me I’ve hurt her feelings (which I regret; believe it or not, insulting women I don’t even know isn’t my favorite past time), but beneath it, I hear insecurity, and that tells me she already knows there’s a problem.

“I’ll give you my number. Send me a photo of you wearing your dress. If I don’t like it, I can suggest some places where you can buy something better.”

“If you don’t like it?” The snottiness is morphing into sarcasm.

Fair enough. What makes me the arbiter of fashion? I mean, I am, but she doesn’t know that.

“You know us gay guys—we have amazing taste in clothes,” I reply drily.

She narrows her eyes, unsure whether I’m joking or not. I lean closer and drop my voice. I’ve learned over the past several months that I am, in fact, a lousy actor, but I’m not acting now.

“Look, I don’t know much, but I do know clothes. I know colors, I know styles, I know how to flatter different body types, and I know what’s appropriate for the occasion. You, for example, would look better in bright blue or emerald green. That grey just washes you out, that neckline makes you look top-heavy. A scoop neck would be much more flattering.”

Now that I’ve got the picture in my head, I’m warming up to the image of that pin-up girl figure in clothes that do it justice. She’s already very attractive, but in the right outfit, she could be a knock-out.

I can see I’ve sparked her interest.

She studies me. “You sound like you know what you’re talking about.”

“I do,” I assure her.

“I might have a photo of the dress with me,” she mutters, digging into her fake-leather purse and pulling out a phone. She scrolls through it for a moment, then hands it to me.

I see a picture of her, arm in arm with three girlfriends, all in formal dresses. Hers is black, with a trapeze-style halter top that shows off well-toned arms and long legs, but doesn’t do a damn thing for what I suspect is a very nice figure underneath it all. I study it. “What was the occasion?”

“College formal.”

“How long ago?”

“Four years.”

It’s probably been her go-to dress for every fancy occasion from New Year’s parties to weddings. Aside from being four years out of date, it’s too short for a professional black-tie affair like her holiday party.

I shake my head as I hand the phone back. “You need something new. Something designer and up to date that doesn’t look like it was bought by a college student.”

That little furrow between her eyebrows deepens. “I don’t have that much of a budget for new clothes,” she admits, her voice a little quieter.

Not with what you’re spending on me, I think, but I don’t say as much. “I can recommend some good discount designer places. Don’t worry. It won’t bankrupt you. Ready?”

I’m about to list off a handful of my favorite places when she shakes her head. “I need you to come with me.”

“What?”

She gives me a challenging look. “You’re so good at picking out clothes, come with me and help.” Now it’s her turn to lean closer. “Look, you’re right, okay? My old job was jeans and t-shirts, and that was fine, but where I’m working now? Everyone there looks like they stepped out of a fashion magazine, always. It’s like every single one of them has a personal stylist.”

“They probably do.”

“Well, now you’re mine.”

I’m starting to regret my impulse to help her out. “I’m not your personal stylist. I’m just your paid date for an evening. All I’m going to do is suggest a couple of good shops where you can get a nice dress at a reasonable price.”

She crosses her arms over her chest. “I don’t just need a place where I can buy a decent dress. I need someone who can help me pick out the right thing.” She uncrosses her arms and sweeps her hands alongside her torso, drawing my attention to her breasts. It’s a crime to keep a rack like that hidden under cheap fabric and a crewneck. “I have lousy taste, okay? I admit it. I see something in the store and think it’ll look great, then when I get to work, I realize it’s all wrong somehow. I need someone who knows what they’re doing to go with me and help me choose the right thing.”

I lift one eyebrow as I consider my next words. I don’t want to be rude (or at least not more rude), but there’s only so far I’m willing to go for what I’m being paid. “You’re renting me for one night and one night only, sweetheart. I’m not your errand boy or your personal stylist or your shopping buddy.”

Alex stares at me and slowly shakes her head. “You’re whatever I want you to be.” Something about the way she smiles at me raises my respect for her by a few degrees and makes me deeply uneasy. She lowers her voice. “You know you’re not supposed to offer your personal number to a client. You’re not supposed to call her cutesy names like ‘sweetheart.’ You’re not even supposed to drink the coffee if she says she doesn’t want any. And you’re definitely not supposed to tell her that what she’s wearing looks like a ‘rag.’”

Noseypants crosses her arms in front of her, triumph gleaming in those deceptively soft brown eyes. “Wouldn’t it be a shame if Cassandra heard about any of this?”

I blink, both horrified and impressed.

She’s blackmailing me.

Chapter 3: ALEX

Hollingsworth walks me out to the reception area, where I give Emily a discreet wink.

He glances between Emily and me and frowns. “I met you at Liam and Brianna’s wedding party, didn’t I?”

Heat blooms in my cheeks again. I’d half hoped that he’d forgotten me completely, and I’m half disappointed that I didn’t make enough of an impression to register with him until he saw me again with Emily. Emily and I, against all odds, have become friends, but Em, with her preppy good looks and social graces, is the type of girl that guys like Hollingsworth usually go for.

I ignore him and make a little shooing motion with my hand. “Thank you for all your help, Mr. Hollingsworth. You run along now. I need to check in with Emily about a few things.”

Despite the little twinge of awkwardness now that I’m thinking about the party, I’m still buzzing with excitement—both that I’ve got the perfect date and that I’m going to get him to help me look amazing for it. We’ve exchanged numbers and have made a plan to meet up for our shopping trip on Saturday morning.

Hollingsworth maintains his pleasant smile, but it’s definitely more forced than it was before. I love ordering guys like him around.

Actually, I’ve never ordered any guys around, except maybe for my younger brother, Danny. But I could definitely get used to it.

Hollingsworth gives Emily a more genuine smile and a nod, then walks out the door, off to do whatever struggling actor/models do during the day.

As soon as he’s gone, Emily scoots her chair closer. Em is beautiful in that popular-girl, prom-queen kind of way—she actually was a prom queen; I asked—but underneath it, she’s very normal.

“How did it go?” Her face is lit with anticipation.

I lean over the counter in front of her desk. “Went great. He’s perfect.” I’m not going to tell Em that I’ve just blackmailed one of her co-workers into being my personal stylist. She’d get a kick out of it, but it would put her in an awkward spot if Cassandra ever found out, and I don’t want to do that to her.

She squeals. “Excellent! I’m so glad it worked out. I wasn’t sure how you were going to react when you found out it was him. I just found out myself when he came in, and I didn’t have a chance to tell you.”

Em and I first met when she was working for Brianna, the woman who got me the job at Unity, then we met again at that party a couple of weeks later and hit it off. Turned out, we’d both had some major disappointments in our love lives, so we formed a very small support group that involves complaining about men and drinking cocktails.

“Oh, you mean from Brianna’s party?” I keep my voice extra casual as if I don’t remember that I totally blew him off for no actual reason.

Well, I had a reason. He was hot, and the smug, arrogant cockiness pretty much rolled off him. I was acting in the interests of self-preservation.

Emily rolls her eyes at me. “Yes. You said he was a snob, even though it turned out you’d never actually met him.”

“Oh, come on! You can tell just by looking at him. And now that I’ve met him, gotta say—I was right. Dude’s a snob.”

“Well, maybe a little,” Emily concedes. “But he’s not that bad when you get to know him. And you can’t deny he’s hot.”

I nod. “He is that. I don’t know how you do it. I’d go crazy working in an office full of beefcake.”

Em gives a sad shake of her head. “They only come in to meet clients or get briefed by Cassandra on a role. Most of the time, it’s just me and her here.”

“Bummer. I kind of picture you surrounded by ultra-buff underwear models feeding you grapes.”

She laughs. “I wish. Cassandra wouldn’t even have to pay me. Anyway, I’m sure you’ll have a good time with Marcus. Sounds like he’s what you’re looking for.”

“Yeah. Thanks for squeezing me in and helping me get him, by the way. I know there’s a waiting list.”

Emily scoots closer and lowers her voice even more. “Well, Marcus is sort of on probation at the moment,” she confesses. “Cassandra can’t bring men on board fast enough to meet demand, or she probably would have fired him by now. She wasn’t going to risk him on anyone who might be a repeat client.”

I frown, not sure how much I like being Hollingsworth’s probationary test. “What did he do?”

“I’m not exactly sure. Whatever it was, pissed Cassandra off pretty badly, though. I heard her yelling at him.”

Naturally, I’m curious now. My roommate, Archer, lost his job at Gentlemen, Inc. several months ago for what I thought was a pretty minor infraction, so if Marcus is still working here, whatever he did probably wasn’t terrible.  Of course, I’m already aware that Hollingsworth isn’t big on following the rules. So far, it’s worked to my advantage, though, so I can’t complain.

“Listen, I’d better get back to work.” Em looks embarrassed that she’s let so much slip. “I’ve got a bunch of calls I need to make. Let’s catch up soon, okay?”

I glance at my watch. It’s high time I headed back to the office, so I give Emily a little wave and head back to my car.

The adrenaline is still singing through my veins when I sit back down at my desk at Unity a few minutes after one o’clock. I’ve never blackmailed anyone before, and in a guilt-inducing kind of way, it was pretty exciting.

Half-consciously, I toy with a logline for a potential screenplay: Working-class girl blackmails rich kid into helping her upgrade her image in order to impress her snooty coworkers. Of course, in my movie, the hero would have to be really rich, not working as a rent-a-date. Maybe he could be a lawyer or a stockbroker—

I shut down that train of thought as I toggle my computer back on. Old Alex had delusions of screenwriting fame and fortune. New and Improved Alex is stable, responsible, and mature, focused solely on her serious job at her serious company.

But even New and Improved Alex can’t suppress a snort as I remember the look on Hollingsworth’s face.

Hope you’ve learned your lesson, Mr. Prep School: never piss off a Johnston.

Would I actually have ratted Marcus Hollingsworth Not Junior out to Cassandra? Well, no—partly because I’d have felt bad, and mostly because I would have lost my chance at the perfect holiday party date.

Did it give me a certain satisfaction to see the look on his face when I told him I would?

Yes. Yes, it did.

I did it because he was a snotbucket about my dress … but also because he was right. I bought it because it was similar to something my boss wore a couple of weeks ago. It looked amazing on her—sophisticated and flattering—but hers was the real deal; mine’s a cheap knock off, and it shows. I’ve felt self-conscious in it ever since I got to the office this morning.

But frankly, it’s Hollingsworth Not Junior’s very snotbucket-ness that makes me want his help; he might be a jerk, but he’s an honest jerk, and he has good taste—at least, if his own clothes are anything to go by—and I don’t really have anywhere else to turn.

Most of my writer friends dress like, well, writers—they’re either going for cheap and practical or artsy and overblown. Emily always looks nice but she hates shopping; she buys everything online, and somehow, it just works for her. Archer, my roommate, has good taste in men’s clothing, but he’s not super helpful when it comes to what women wear. His girlfriend, Annabelle, dresses like the graduate student she is, most of the time. When she dresses up, she leans toward retro, vintage-y styles that don’t exactly scream corporate competence. And I haven’t exactly bonded with the trust-fund babies who staff Unity to the point that I can ask them for fashion tips.

Now I have Hot Stuff’s phone number and an appointment to go shopping with him Saturday morning. Maybe Mr. Former Junior Analyst can point me in the direction of some good office clothes as well as help me pick out the perfect ballgown.

I grin a little at the thought of my having my own personal Gucci fairy godmother, and that of course makes me wonder if he really is gay.

It would be a loss for womankind if he is, all that masculine beauty wasted on other men. Then again, I’m not sure if I’d wish that attitude on any of my fellow females.

“Alex, how’re the choppers?”

I look up, and the adrenaline rush sort of seizes up and turns into a quivery lump in my chest. I make a pointless movement with my hand and knock over a small container of paperclips that makes a surprising clatter. Heat rushes to my cheeks as I set it upright.

“Hey, Logan.” I wasn’t sure how late my meeting at Gentlemen Inc. would run, so to cover my bases, I told my coworkers I had a dentist appointment. “Teeth are fine, thanks. No cavities!” I give him an overly wide smile to prove it, and Logan laughs, his own teeth sparkly white against his perfectly tan face.

Logan Hemsley doesn’t know it yet, but he’s my next serious boyfriend.

Up until now, all the guys I’ve dated have been losers of one kind or another. I fall, hard and fast and without exception, for flashy guys who score high on charisma and low on maturity. Sexy, sweet-talking charmers who dropped out of college, can’t hold a job, sponge off people who do (i.e., me), or, in the most humiliating and recent example, turn out to be married and pretending to be single under an assumed name.

Big spoiled man-babies, that’s my type.

Or rather, it was. Because Alex 2.0 doesn’t fall for losers, just like she doesn’t work drudgy, minimum wage jobs anymore, or take crap from rich boys who insult her clothes (even if they had a point).

New Alex stands up for herself and dates men like Logan.

He’s smart and ambitious (because with the exception of me, who got this job through a bizarre fluke of the universe, everyone who works here is), he’s got a stable job, he’s serious about his career, and he’s not married (I made discreet inquiries). Even better, he worked his way up to where he is now after starting in the mailroom while he was putting himself through college, or so the story goes. In other words, he’s not just another entitled rich kid like most of the people who work here.

He’s a couple years older than I am, good looking and well dressed, charming, and very definitely a grown-up.

All of which might be why I get a little nervous around him.

“Excellent.” Logan flashes a broad smile at me. “Listen, did you have a chance to type up those notes from that meeting this morning? Could you cc me on them when you send them to Sheila?”

“I actually sent them to Sheila before lunch, but I’ll send you a copy right now.” I actually wish he was asking for something more difficult, something that would give me a chance to show off more, but I’m happy to be able to do even this much.

“Atta girl!” He leans over my desk and drops his voice. “Don’t say I said this, but you are so much better at this than Sheila’s last girl. I hope Sheila appreciates what an asset she has with you.”

My heart, which had stopped beating altogether the moment Logan appeared, suddenly goes into overdrive. “Wow, thanks, Logan.” My smile is genuine now. “That’s really … encouraging.”

After three months, you’d think I’d be able to relax a little, but every day I still feel like a fraud. The only reason I’m here is because Brianna, who’s my roommate’s girlfriend’s sister, put in a good word for me with someone way high up in the food chain, and they somehow shoehorned me into a job as Shelia’s assistant. And I suspect that was because Sheila herself is relatively new here and didn’t get much say in the matter.

And while Sheila is quick to tell me when she isn’t happy with me, she’s not exactly the type to tell me that she is. Hearing that I’m doing a good job is a relief … and coming from Logan, it’s positively validating.

Logan gives me a sympathetic smile. “Well, you probably don’t hear it enough—” he tilts his dark, curly head toward the closed door to Sheila’s office and gives it a significant look, “but you’re doing great. Keep it up.” He stands and winks at me. “And keep flossing.”

I give a simpering little laugh as he walks away, then dive into my email program, scrambling to send him those notes as quickly as I can.

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