Trashed, p.7
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       Trashed, p.7

         Part #2 of Stripped series by Jasinda Wilder
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And then I wonder why I care.

  The ride from my dorm to the hotel is quick, which doesn’t leave me a lot of time to mentally prepare. We’re pulling up under the covered portico, and there are two lines of uniformed hotel employees forming an umbrella tunnel from the carriage up to the famous covered porch.

  My heart is suddenly hammering. Above, where I know the porch to be, cameras flash like nonstop lightning. The carriage door opens, and the wind buffets against me, carrying the sound of a thousand voices all raised at once. A white-gloved hand appears in front of my face, and I take it, stepping out onto the red carpet leading up the stairs to the porch and then into the hotel parlor. The line of umbrellas protects me from the rain, and I take a step away from the carriage to make room for Adam. He descends, tugs his tux jacket straight, and then his eyes fix on me.

  He offers me a smile, and I see nerves in his eyes. If he’s nervous, I should be terrified.

  And I am.

  “Ready?” he asks, extending his elbow to me.

  I wrap my fingers around his arm. “No?”

  He laughs. “Yeah, me neither. I hate these things. ” He glances past me, up the stairs to where the flashes pop endlessly, and then back down to me. “Listen. This might be…crazy. They’re not expecting you, so they’ll have a million questions. Don’t answer, okay? Just smile, give them a few poses, and don’t let them see your fear. They’re like sharks, you know, they can smell it. ”

  “They?”

  He frowns. “The paparazzi? Photographers, journalists. ”

  My knees quiver. “Paparazzi?” I’d either forgotten or hadn’t realized there would be media at this thing. What the hell did I get myself into?

  He rolls his shoulders, lets out a quick breath, and smiles at me. “You know what? Don’t worry about it. All you need to do is be you. You’ll be the most beautiful woman in the room, guaranteed. Just be confident, okay?”

  Confident. I can do that. He asked me to go with him. He wouldn’t have done that if he didn’t want me here. He thinks I’m the most beautiful woman in the room.

  I stiffen my spine, straighten my shoulders, lift my chin, and smile back at him. “Let’s go. ”

  His grin widens, and his eyes roam my face, and then down my body. He leans in, touches his lips to my ear. “That’s my girl. ”

  His girl? I should be so lucky.

  He moves forward and I go with him, watching the steps. I’m not used to high heels, so the steps present a challenge, requiring focus. I hear cameras clicking and flashes popping, voices clamoring louder and louder, and then the stairs level off and I’m surrounded by a wall of humanity behind red velvet ropes, and all of them are shouting at me, at Adam.

  “Adam! Adam! Where’s Emma Hayes?”

  “Who’s your date, Adam?”

  “Who is she?”

  “What’s your name? Tell us your name!”

  “How tall are you?”

  “Over here, Adam!”

  “Give us a smile, beautiful!”

  My heart isn’t beating. It’s not even in my chest anymore, it’s somehow simultaneously in my stomach and my throat. I force my lips to form a smile. Adam’s hand descends to my opposite hip, resting on my waist, his thick arm a supportive bar at my back. He takes three steps through the barricaded crowd, then stops, guides me into a pivot so we’re facing one bank of the journalists.

  His arm remains around me, and he is actually holding me upright for a few moments. There are so many of them. The flashes blind me, illuminate me.

  Page 19

 

  And suddenly, it hits me: What the FUCK am I doing here? I did my own makeup, my own hair. This dress came from the fucking bargain rack at Kohl’s.

  I feel a panic attack coming on; I force the smile to remain on my face, force myself to breathe slowly.

  Adam pulls me closer, so I’m molded to his side, so I don’t fall over. He leans down, whispers in my ear. “You’re doing great. Smile. Stop thinking. It’s fine. ”

  The questions are a nonstop barrage, coming as hard and fast as the flashes, but I’ve stopped hearing them. I’m not sure I could answer anyway. I’m not sure I have a voice right now. I’m not sure of anything, except that I’ve gotten myself into something huge, and I’m in no way prepared.

  Adam turns with me, presents us to the opposite rank of photographers. He seems totally oblivious, at ease, as if this is totally normal, an every day occurrence. He’s a natural. Loose, smiling, shifting his gaze from one camera to another. I try to mimic him, try to focus on making my smile seem more natural and less deer-in-the-headlights. I stand taller, turn into Adam slightly, shake my hair and turn my head. The cameras go nuts when I do that, and the shouted questions become a repeated refrain:

  “Who is she?”

  “What’s her name?”

  “How long have you been dating?”

  “Where is Emma Hayes?”

  Emma Hayes? Adam’s ex-girlfriend. Oscar-nominated for Margo and Me. Golden Globe winner. Three-time Emmy nominee for Garden of Evil.

  Jesus. I’m so out of my league, out of my element. I’m a fish out of water; I’m drowning, unable to breathe.

  I toss my hair again and focus on a single camera, stare into the black lens; focus on the lens rather than the face above it. Another lens, to the left. Another, and another.

  And then we’re moving and I have to focus on each step, because I can’t feel my feet. The sheer terror and overwhelmed panic has made me numb, I think.

  Now we’re stopped again, this time in front of one of those checkered backdrops plastered with logos of companies I’ve never heard of. Adam steps away from me, gesturing to me as if silently saying to the cameras, here she is. The questions still come in shouted rolling waves, and the flashes have me seeing stars, but I dig deep, dig down into my reservoir of strength, that place I go when I’ve got nothing left but can’t give up. It’s where I went when LeShawn would get drunk and angry and I’d be the only target, when Frank would come into my room late at night —

  I viciously shove those thoughts down. I smile. I pose. I don’t know what I’m doing, why I’m here, why Adam dragged me into this, but I’m here and there’s no escape, so I have to keep going. I turn, smile, toss my hair and look in another direction, and then Adam has my hand in his and he’s pulling me through the doors and into the parlor of the Grand Hotel. The flashes and the questions are left behind, but now I’m faced with an all-new crisis.

  Rose Garret is standing directly in front of me. Gareth Thomas, one of the most well-known directors and producers in the world, with over a dozen films to his name, all of them blockbusters, is standing next to her. Lawrence Bradford is there, an older supporting-role actor, one of those guys you’ve seen in dozens of roles but never in the lead. Amy Jones, as stunningly resplendent now as when she was a fresh-faced actress in the late sixties and early seventies. I see other faces I recognize, even more I don’t.

  And they’re all staring at me.

  Conversation stops. Drinks pause in mid-air.

  Rose Garret is the first to step forward. She smiles at me, but it doesn’t quite reach her curious hazel eyes. “Hi. I’m Rose. ”

  I take her hand and shake it briefly. “It’s an honor to meet you, Rose. I’m Des. ”

  “Des. ” She says this as if judging me by my name alone. She eyes me, examines me, and then shifts her eyes to Adam. “I thought you were bringing Em. ”

  “I was. But she couldn’t make it. They shut down the ferries. ”

  Rose grins. “I bet you’re devastated. ”

  Adam nods. “Completely. I cried. ”

  I’m missing something, obviously. I know Adam and Emma broke up a while ago, which I suppose could be awkward if they were supposed to attend a gala as a couple.

  “So, Des. You’re a model, I take it?” Rose asks.

  A server drifts up to us, a silver tray balanced on his pa
lm, and offers us each a glass of champagne. Adam takes two, hands one to me, and I sip it delicately, slowly. The last thing I can afford in this situation is to let alcohol cloud my judgment or loosen my tongue.

  “I—” I have no clue how to answer that. She thinks I’m a model?

  “Des is a college student. An intern. ” Adam answers for me.

  Which is true enough, but probably not in the way Rose is assuming. Maybe that’s Adam’s intent, though. I don’t know.

  Gareth Thomas moves into the circle beside Rose, and Adam introduces us. “Des, hmm? A unique name for a uniquely beautiful young woman. ” He shakes my hand vigorously, and his eyes cut speculatively to Adam. “You’ve been holding out on me, Adam. ”

  “Man’s gotta have a few secrets, Gareth,” Adam says, nudging the director with his elbow. It’s a joke, but it’s not. I’m a secret? Not so much anymore, obviously.

  Lawrence and Amy join the circle next, and now I’m suddenly surrounded by Hollywood royalty, and it’s hard to breathe. I try not to stare at each of the people surrounding me, people I’ve seen in movies and on the covers of People and OK! and Time and US Weekly, and on Entertainment Tonight or TMZ.

  Again, the thought hits me like a ten-pound sledge: What am I DOING here?

  Adam deflects all the questions directed at me, introducing me without explaining who I am in relation to him, or what I do. I’m an impostor, surely? I don’t belong here: I’m a trash collector.

  I smile and nod and take tiny sips of champagne, and do my best to keep my emotions buried and off my features. Rose drifts away from the circle, but I see her eyes go to me more than once as she joins a different conversation. Eventually Adam pulls me away from Lawrence, Amy, and Gareth, and moves me through the crowd, waving to one person or another, pausing to chat with this person or that, and he always introduces me politely but neutrally, and leaves no room for probing questions. But I can sense, in every new person we meet, every conversation Adam steers us away from, that everyone is curious. Everyone wants to know who I am, where I came from, and why I’m here so unexpectedly at Adam’s side.

  Page 20

 

  I ask myself the same questions, and find about as many answers as the journalists are getting…i. e. , none.

  I keep smiling until my face hurts, and I shake dozens of hands. Either Adam’s arm is around my waist or he’s holding my hand. I meet so many people I’m dizzy and have no hope of remembering anyone’s name except those whom I already recognized. I manage to make a single glass of champagne last over an hour, and even then I feel disconnected in my head, but that may be as much from the surreal experience as the alcohol.

  At last, people begin to filter into the dining room, each couple greeted by the maître d’ and passed off to a server who leads them to a table. The Grand Hotel dining room is almost as famous as the porch, so I’ve seen pictures of it, but I’ve never been here for a meal. I know, though, that it’s been transformed for this event. Usually, there are small, rectangular two-top tables in three rows on either side of the main aisle, with big round tables for larger parties interspersed throughout the room. Now, however, the usual setup has been replaced by twenty or so of the large round tables, all centered around a raised dais placed against the wall of windows overlooking the famous porch. There’s a podium and a microphone, and a long rectangular table on either side of the podium, each one set with six places.

  Adam and I are directed to the dais, sitting in the middle two places at the table to the left of the dais. Rose sits beside me, and a ridiculously hot guy sits in turn beside her, closest to the stage. I recognize the guy with Rose, but it takes me a few minutes of thinking to place him. He’s tall and lean with messy brown hair and sharp features. Dylan Vale, that’s his name. He’s a newer actor, from an edgy new cable show about a feud between two rival clans of shape-shifters. I haven’t seen the show, but Ruthie likes it, and she’s always raving about how hot Dylan Vale is. Now that I see him in real life, I can see that Ruthie has, if anything, understated how absurdly beautiful Dylan is.

  He’s not Adam, though, and he’s clearly enamored with Rose, leaning in and nuzzling her neck, saying something that has her laughing and blushing.

  On the other side of Adam are Gareth and a striking, middle-aged woman who must be his wife, judging by the easy, comfortable way they interact with each other. The table on the other side has Lawrence and his wife, Amy and her husband, and a man with salt-and-pepper hair and vivid blue eyes, who I assume is a producer or something, and his date.

  The rest of the tables are seated quickly, and servers appear bearing bowls of soup and trays of water and silver pitchers and bottles of wine. A dozen young men and women in white coats with a towel over one arm move from table to table, listening and taking orders, and then return with a bottle of wine, which he or she then opens with elaborate formality, pouring a tiny amount into a glass and waiting for approval.

  As we wait, Adam leans into me, and I hear his voice buzz in my ear. “You’re amazing. You’re a natural at this, Des, for real. Everyone is absolutely nuts over you. ”

  I turn to look at him. “What the hell were you thinking, bringing me here? I’m so out of place it’d be funny if I weren’t terrified. ” I say this in a tiny, tight whisper, pitched so low he has to put his ear to my mouth to hear me.

  He laughs as if I’ve said something funny. “I know you feel out of place, Des. I get it. I feel the same way, every time. Just keep faking it. No one will ever be the wiser. ”

  “That I’m a fucking janitor, you mean?”

  He frowns at me. “Does that really matter?”

  I give him an incredulous expression. “Um…yeah? If these people find out you brought a garbage collector as your date to a Hollywood A-list fundraiser gala…I don’t even know what would happen, but nothing good. For me, or you. ”

  He shakes his head. “Des, you’re overthinking this. It’s going to be fine. Just be you. You’re beautiful. None of the guys can take their eyes off of you. ” His hand, resting on the table, lifts and a finger inscribes a small arc to indicate the dining room. “Look around you. ”

  I sip at the glass of wine that appeared in front of me at some point, and try to unobtrusively scrutinize the room. When I do, my heart rate skyrockets. Adam is right. Everyone is looking at me. Everyone. Not just the men, but women, too. The men are more obvious about it, glancing at me, and then away, around the room, and then back to me. But the women are watching me too, and that’s almost more frightening. They’re more judgmental. I can feel their scrutiny. I can feel them examining my hair, my makeup, my dress, the cheap silver bangle around my wrist, and the cheap cubic zirconium earrings in my ears. At least I’m sitting down, so my height and shape are mostly hidden by the table.

  “Thanks,” I tell Adam, darting a quick glance at him. “I’m even more self-conscious now that I’m aware that everyone in the room is wondering who I am and why the hell I’m here. ”

  “They’re wondering how I managed to get someone as sexy as you to come with me on such short notice. ”

  “Bullshit,” I say, but it lacks venom.

  The fact that Adam seems to honestly think I’m sexy does something to me, makes my brain and my stomach and my heart all quiver with a weird, restless energy.

  The eyes in the room eventually stop staring at me as the dinner progresses, and I find a measure of comfort. I’m still hyper-aware that I’m out of place, that I’m a nobody in a room full of famous people, but Adam engages me in conversation.

  By the time the main course is done, I’m stuffed full and my bladder is screaming. “Adam? Where’s the restroom?”

  Rose overhears my question and stands up. “I have to go, too. I’ll show you. ”

  I’m hesitant, but I can’t very well get out of it now. I glance at Adam, who is half-standing, watching me, concerned. I can’t look scared just to go to the bathroom, and everyone is wat
ching, so I let out a small breath and shake my head at him subtly, then I follow Rose out of the dining room and down a short, wide set of stairs to a narrow hallway. There’s a gift shop opposite, closed and dark now, and then an opening leading to the front desk. A velvet rope blocks the stairway, guarded additionally by a pair of hotel doormen and another pair of huge, black-suited bodyguard types. They nod respectfully at Rose, and the rope is pulled aside to let us through. The bodyguard steps in front of us, opens the door to the women’s bathroom, and calls out to see if it’s occupied. A woman’s voice calls back, and she comes out a moment later, staring at the hulking bodyguard and then at Rose, and then at me. Her eyes go wide, and she opens her mouth, but a hotel employee is adroitly escorting her away, and Rose pulls me into the bathroom after her. The door closes slowly, and I see the bodyguard take up position in front of the doorway, massive arms crossed over a broad chest.

  Page 21

 

  Rose and I take care of business, and then wash our hands, and then Rose plucks at a strand of platinum blond hair, tucking it back into position, adjusts her breasts in the bodice of her Valentino gown, wiggles a foot in her Jimmy Choo heels. And then she fixes her hazel eyes on me.

  “So. Des. ” She turns to face me and props one slim, perfect hip against the counter. “What do you think about your first event?”

  I swallow hard and try to smile. “Is it that obvious?”

  Rose laughs, but it doesn’t feel mocking. “Yeah, it kind of is. You haven’t said two words to anyone but Adam, for one thing. ”

  I shrug. “I don’t know anyone but Adam. ”

  “Clearly. ” She waves a hand. “The men probably aren’t as aware as I am, though. They’re all too hypnotized by that cleavage of yours. ”

  I laugh with her, but I’m not entirely sure she’s kidding. “Is it too much?”

  Rose makes an incredulous face. “Des, honey, if I had your tits, I’d have them on display too. But no, it’s not too much. ” She trails a finger through my hair. “Who did your hair and makeup? It’s simple and understated. It really works for you. ”

  My cheeks heat and I want to look away from her in embarrassment. “I did,” I say.

  She nods. “Well, you did an amazing job. I’m not sure I’d have the balls to do my own hair and makeup for an event like this. ”

  “It was kind of last minute,” I say, which is true enough, but doesn’t really address the fact that there was no one to do it for me, as she’s obviously used to.

  “Adam did explain what he was bringing you to, didn’t he?”

  “Sort of?”

  Rose’s eyes go wide and concerned. “Look, sweetie, you’re really beautiful, and I can see why Adam’s attracted to you. But, just between you and me, it’s pretty obvious you’re not…in the industry, so to speak. And now you’re telling me he brought you to this event without preparing you for what you’d face?”

 
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