By the time Grayson arrived in Malibu, the party was in full swing. Even though the sun had barely commenced setting, streaking the sky with purple. He was clean-shaven and wearing an oatmeal-colored linen suit that was light and airy and draped him beautifully.
Not even five minutes in he was looking at his watch. He hadn’t heard a thing from Dale yet, which was unusual. He was a billionaire, but he relied on his wingman, pathetic as it seemed to him to admit that.
He went to the bar that was on a deck overlooking the beach. The decor was sleek to match the profile level of all the attendees. Clean and modern with a black and white scheme, the strings of outdoor lights and other rustic touches there to add a degree of casual intimacy to the atmosphere. The level of celebrity there was excessive enough to shrink the entertainment world down to its actual size. Peppered among that crowd were beautiful plastic blonde nobodies, looking to snag a somebody. No one was bothering him.
Today though he was off his game and he could feel it.
Was he even in the mood? He was most definitely overdue, but he couldn’t place the source of the frustration.
Surely this isn’t her doing, he said to himself.
But then, when he thought of Amara, he felt the sudden flow of blood beyond his belt, and he knew he had a serious, serious problem.
After their online chat, he’d decided to try and truly scrap this Amara thing.
He couldn’t sit around messaging her like a pedo. Besides, what would he say, what could he say that wouldn’t cause her to leap to conclusions?
Once it seemed like she was beating him to the punch and typing him something, but she must’ve changed her mind because nothing was ever sent.
Probably for the best.
Then the knowledge that she was now an ex-employee and free to be openly pursued had only caused anxiety to bubble up in him, one that he instinctively knew to heed. It would be exchanging one kind of freedom to lose another. He thought about asking her where she was going, trying to help her in some way. He didn’t know why he felt responsible for her at all, but he did.
Then he thought surely she must be a Rules girl because last night he discovered that she’d up and blocked him.
Had she meant to send his hunting instincts into overdrive? Because he nearly made it his life’s ambition to make her beg for it.
And that was scary. Because any woman that could make him consider putting aside his rationale was dangerous indeed.
Yet part of him was in denial because he was pretty confident that Amara was incapable of sexcapades-level mind games.
He knew for a fact that Amara was painfully innocent and loyal, and deep down he was a stubborn, cantankerous smartass, impossible to live with.
She deserved a relationship, but he certainly wouldn’t be the one to foist a trauma like that on her. He would make a terrible boyfriend. A terrible husband. Terrible dad. So why bother? It was the basis for his 80/20 compromise.
Grayson never considered having children. Working for the NSA had made him cynical about the world he ultimately couldn’t help trying to improve.
Why bring kids into this world and give them tons of money until they’re useless, ultimately adding to the misery? He made a great fearless leader, but romance-wise he could never unleash himself on a girl like Amara Riley. His conscience wouldn’t allow it. Better to leave her to her overblown perceptions than to—
“There he is,” Dale’s familiar drawl interrupted his thoughts.
“It’s about time,” Grayson began. “I was starting to—”
Grayson turned from the bar, and his heart nearly jumped out of his chest.
There standing before him was Amara, fucking, Riley.
Her locs were unleashed from their demure updo she maintained in the office and were now cascading down her bare shoulders as they did in her Webster profile pictures. She was wearing a simple black halter top dress and, sweet mother of mercy her cleavage… he nervously forced his eyes to meet hers. Was she even wearing makeup? He hoped he was managing a smile. A slender bronze arm was tightly coiled around Dale’s dress shirt sleeve, and he could tell she was nervous because she was holding on to Dale for dear life…
She was holding on to Dale…
Amara suddenly turned her head to one side, behind Dale’s shoulder, revealing that beautiful ligament in her neck that was more pronounced in certain women when they turned. Grayson’s pulse quickened as he studied the two of them.
What the fuck was going on?
“Grayson… how’s the party buddy?” Dale started as if trying to pretend something wasn’t happening when it was. He gently shrugged the shoulder Amara was hiding behind and she faced forward, smiling shyly and looking around.
“You remember Amara,” Dale began again since Grayson seemed to be speechless.
“How could I forget,” Grayson managed smoothly. “Are you…did you guys—”
“I flew her in this afternoon. Turns out we have quite a few things in common,” Dale continued, looking into Amara’s eyes. Amara took her free hand and moved it to her mouth. She made a jerking movement forward with her head, as though summoning her locs to cover the side of her face, and they complied, shielding her expression from Grayson like a beaded curtain.
“You’re not… you’re cool with it right?” Dale said almost daring him to find fault with it.
Grayson was lost in a battle fending off despair but didn’t let it show. He began to say “of course,” but he could only manage a laugh and a slow shaking of his head as he eyed the two of them.
Dale wasn’t quite sure if he was taking the bait, so he went on to make sure.
“I just figured, you know after our conversation and all and…. Now she’s not technically an employee so—”
“It’s fine, Dale. Just, leave it. You’re making Amara uncomfortable.”
Dale stared back at him blankly for a long while.
Grayson looked over at Amara who was also staring at him with two giant, endlessly dark orbs. She looked a bit apologetic.
Was he missing something else? Was something else coming??
Dale’s poker face dissolved into an ever-increasing satisfied smile, and he began that sickening silent chuckle of his, which had often caused physical confrontations between them in adolescence.
“Oh my gosh… that was horrible, Dale,” Amara broke in sweetly in Dale’s direction.
They’d clearly already had a rapport. Hot jealousy slinked around Grayson’s middle and choked his lungs.
“No, that was… worth seven years of Christmas bonuses.” Dale laughed outwardly this time, wrapping an arm around Grayson’s shoulders, his laughter increasing with every humorless second Grayson was eyeing him. Grayson looked as though he could easily punch him, and for some reason it only made Dale crack up even more.
Amara could clearly see the years between them now, and it was a priceless moment. Suddenly they were not two of the wealthiest men in the world, just two bros at a party engaged in the numbskull things bros did.
Dale turned to Amara, grabbed her wrist with one hand and reached into his jacket pocket with the other. A wad of cash emerged, and he put it in her open hand.
“I can’t take this blood money,” Amara whined.
“Take it,” Dale laughingly groaned. “Best money I’ve ever spent.” He put his hand on each of their backs, standing between them and shoved. “Go be young, you two.”
They bumped into each other slightly when Dale did that, shattering the awkward workplace tension between them. A new kind of tension formed to take its place.
As they lazily drew apart again, Amara grabbed his arm and drew herself close to it. He could feel the warm tenderness of her breast through his suit jacket, painfully aware of the bra she was not wearing. One mere layer of clothing away from being completely naked— was she wearing underwear? He was theorizing what kind when she spoke.
“You have to know that this was entirely his idea. I only agreed because Dale assured me you would think it was hilarious.”
“He just said that so you’d do it,” Grayson answered flatly.
“I feel so used!” Amara laughed.
Her laughter softened him. He changed the subject. “Your hair looks—”
“Looks like worms?” Amara volunteered.
“What? No. I was gonna say you look different when it’s down.”
“Oh,” she said, somewhat surprised. “Different good?”
He nodded sweetly, and her wobbling legs were no closer to recovering.
“But also it looks like worms.” she assumed.
“Hear that a lot, do you?” he inquired.
“Once a week, at least.”
“Even in the city?” he wondered. “Where do you live?”
“Ah,” he said as if that explained things. “I’m paying you well enough to live there?” he quipped.
“Not even, no offense,” she said. He took none, and she continued as they walked.
“Mya’s aunt owns the house. She’s had it for like, thirty years. Mya’s my roommate. We wanted to be in Oakland, but we basically moved here with nothing, so it would’ve been stupid not to take her aunt’s offer. It’s much cheaper, even with the hellish commute.”
“Well, I think it’s beautiful,” he said, returning the subject to her hair.
“Thanks,” she said, as her eyes went skyward.
He smiled. “So…what do you think?”
“…Meh,” Amara simply said sarcastically.
“Not impressed?” He grinned.
“Five of my adolescent obsessions are here,” she replied.
“At least five, yes.”
He looked down at her as they walked arm in arm and frankly, was overwhelmed.
She smelled floral but he couldn’t quite place it. Lavender? Vanilla? He was close enough to her bare shoulders to kiss them. She was wearing hoop earrings and a modest gold necklace with a cross. So she did wear jewelry.
The top half of her back was exposed and either that was her ass, or she was smuggling something. The drape of her dress accentuated the drama of her figure and her graceful movements that were almost feline. The sight of so much of her glowing brown skin nearly hypnotized him. She literally made his mouth water.
“You look gorgeous,” he finally said.
This. is. happening, she thought.
She was wearing her roommate’s dress, the fanciest thing between them, arm in arm with him, and he was saying all the right things.
“I feel underdressed,” she confessed.
“You probably spent a fraction of what these women spent on their outfits, but I can’t take my eyes off you.”
Holy hell! This guy is trying to get laid, she thought.
Not that her body knew the difference, because she could feel it reacting to his every word and movement with all kinds of zings and spontaneous bursts.
Mya and Kim had tried to coach her as much as they could in 2 hours.
“He’s going to say whatever he needs to say to sleep with you,” Kim predicted.
“He literally doesn’t need to say anything,” Amara protested.
“DO NOT give it up to him on the first night, Amara! Unless you never want to see him again,” Mya said.
Kim was a little more pragmatic.
“Girl, GET IT. And try to get pregnant.”
Amara snapped herself back to the present.
“Well, since this dress is borrowed, I’d say you’re right, Mr. Davis,” she answered.
“Amara… you can call me Grayson, you know that.”
“People are looking at me, Grayson.”
The sound of his name coming out of her wide feminine mouth triggered a pang of hunger he’d never known before, to hear his name out of her again at least one million more times, and in all its infinite combinations.
“They’re trying to figure out who you are and why you’re with me,” he finally said.
“And who am I?” she smoothly countered.
“Who do you want to be?” he answered back, not to be outdone.
“Hmmm…” she replied.
Your next meal, she thought in her head. She was so achingly close to him, and only after a few minutes she was beginning to get used to it.
She smiled and looked away at something, anything to keep her soul inside her body. She surveyed the plum-colored sunset, marveling. “God, it’s beautiful here.”
Grayson watched her watching the sunset and studied her expression.
She was taking it in. This was not her life, and he knew she was counting the hours when she would have to return to it.
He had done the same thing at her age. It had driven him to live among this world, but he got the distinct feeling Amara had no intention of counting herself a part of it.
“Do you want to meet them?” he suddenly said.
“Your adolescent obsessions.”
Amara lit up, slightly apprehensive, and then a heart-melting smile. “Yes, I think I would.”
Grayson didn’t do a lot of mingling, and he’d built up quite a mystique from the practice. He enjoyed little anonymity and relished it when he could get the chance to blend into a crowd. Even if someone was ignorant enough not to know they were in a room with the man responsible for their life’s greatest modern distraction, he was often mistaken for some handsome leading man or another, and many times had the unfortunate task of being grilled by strangers to tell them who he was.
But to observe Amara’s doe-eyed excitement, Grayson could make an exception.
Grayson and Amara made the rounds, and everyone she met was warm and spoke cordially to her. Amara was her unassumingly delightful self, a pitch-perfect blend of reverent and respectful. A few times she was indeed asked what or where they knew her from, and each time she had replied, “I’m nobody,” quickly turning the conversation back to them with some intriguing, genuine question about their work or their process. Her fascination was fascinating, and she pulled some great industry stories out of them while they were loose with liquor and the abandon that came with a safe place of peers.
The party buzzed as Amara reminded her heroes of their prior greatness. Everyone loved it, especially the DJ who called her on the platform to play a request. She, of course, picked the perfect 90’s throwback song that sent the party into the stratosphere where it stayed for the rest of the night.
As the evening wore on, Grayson’s touch had moved from friendly to flirty to possessive. Amara was aware of each transition. That and the overall surreal nature of the night kept her body on high alert. She was a potent cocktail of anxious, turned on, and completely alive. Grayson handed her a flute of champagne, and they found a gorgeous, white satin draped cabana near the beach. It was one of three others facing a large infinity pool where there were a few swimmers, but mostly everyone was congregated along the edge sipping drinks, which struck Amara as a bit dangerous.
“I can’t believe I just met Clarisse Brooke and Noah Taylor.”
“Pretty amazing,” Grayson admitted.
“They are totally hot together and beautiful. I want them to adopt me.”
A random group of people was eyeing them, and Grayson raised his glass to acknowledge them. They did the same.
“So, it seems you were right. Perhaps I have missed my calling,” Amara began.
“What’s that?” Grayson asked, looking as though he would kiss her.
“I’m not sure how to get paid for it, but it involves going to celebrity parties and generally being awesome,” she answered, not looking at him.
“You’re good at schmoozing; I’ll give you that.”
“The secret is just to pretend like you’re dreaming,” she revealed. “There’s a lot of interesting people here.”
Amara ignored his comment as she took a sip.
“So where is this Palm Hotel I’m supposed to be staying at?”
“Look behind you.”
Amara’s mouth gaped open “…Holy shit.”
“What, did you think Dale would put you up at the Beaver Lodge Truck Stop?”
“Sort of, I mean he already gave me a thousand dollars.”
Grayson laughed. “You’re drinking a thousand dollars.”
She took another sip. “Funny, it doesn’t taste like my first car,” Amara replied.
“You haven’t spent that much time around the affluent have you?”
“The truly affluent are only those who do not want more than they have,” Amara quoted.
“Erich Fromm,” he cited, inching a single slender digit down her bare shoulder.
Amara shuddered. She took in a sharp breath as she looked past him, hiding a trembling smile.
As she tried and failed to hide her reaction to him, he got even more of the sense that she was horribly inexperienced. That perhaps her mind had been sharpened to within an inch of its life, and in all that schooling she’d left her body behind.
“It’s a quote from one of your SPEC conferences,” Amara finally said when she was composed enough.
Grayson stood and held out his hand for her to take.
“Where are we going?”
“Just for a walk. It’s a beautiful night.”
They walked arm in arm wordlessly on the beach in the direction of the high rise hotel. The ocean was barely lit by moonlight and distant tiki lamps. The crashing waves were unusually loud.
“I’ve been here a few years now, and I never go to the beach.”
“Well…more than once, less than thrice.”
“You’re a virgin aren’t you, Amara,” Grayson suddenly said.
Amara gave him an eye roll and looked out at the water as though it were endlessly fascinating. “Is it that obvious?”
“Only if you’re paying attention,” he said. “But I would expect nothing less from you,” he continued, smiling. “Saving yourself for the man of your dreams, somewhere out there in the world, the only man that would ever make you feel like a woman.”
He was saying it not only in jest but also with the clear indication that he was not nor would ever strive to be that man.
The illusion of the night shattered around her with great force, and her heart was pierced with one of the shards. Even with all her fail-safes in place, hope had slipped through her armor, and she was bleeding between its plates.
She smiled through it.
“You’re actually incorrect, Grayson Davis, but please, keep trying and failing to read me, it’s starting to become amusing.”
He stared at her and smiled, the two continued walking.
“It seems I’ve hit a nerve,” he said.
“Not at all,” Amara lied. “I just find it funny when guys assume that my lack of experience is a conscious choice. Like I have a gentleman caller waiting list.”
“Surely, I can’t be your first gentleman caller,” he replied.
“No, not the first. But by far the best.”
“Don’t talk like that,” he insisted as they walked.
“Like… I’m a catch,” he said sounding mystified.
“Umm… you are,” she replied, mimicking his mystified tone.
“No, I’m not. I don’t do relationships because I’m no good with them.”
“Why, what happened?” Amara queried.
“Nothing. And it never will,” he said.
“Well if you’ve never had one, how do you know?”
“Isn’t there something in your life you don’t need to try to know that you’d be terrible at it?”
“Pretty sure I’ll be terrible at sex, but like anything else, I’ll get better with practice.”
Was she baiting him? Flirty little Amara.
“The thought of you being terrible at sex is endearing. Failing at love is not.”
Amara was silent, and he continued.
“I’m enthralled with women,” he said, “but I can only give them what they want, not what they need.”
“That sounds… kind of sad.” Amara replied.
“Well that’s where you and I differ because it works for me,” he asserted, convinced. “If Dale hadn’t brought you here I’d probably be elbow deep in a random blonde right now.”
“Gross,” Amara deadpanned.
“Well, it’s true. I should be shattering your illusion of me, not encouraging it.”
“I’m under no illusions,” she informed him, the breeze subtly blowing her hair.
“You’re a playboy, I get that. Most people know that.”
Grayson never thought of himself as such. Sex was a need to be fulfilled. And a habit was formed typically after 21 days. So he had to change them out every few weeks, naturally. With periods of solitude in between to, you know, recharge. Women were generally very tiring to him. Like kryptonite he couldn’t resist.
But he had very few one night stands. One night certainly wouldn’t be enough with Amara, whom he was starting to realize he would never have.
“Not a playboy, just a pragmatist,” he corrected.
“Don’t you want love?” Amara probed.
Grayson merely shrugged. He tried to remember the last time anyone had asked him that. Dale had asked in a roundabout way. It was the only thing he’d ever wanted, but he’d learned to stop letting that desire rule his life. It was what drove him to fits of blackout rage in his youth, drove him to spiraling depressions that didn’t seem to plague other children, what kept him choking down antipsychotic pills for years, and what made him hide them under his tongue years later. The desire for love practically killed him.
“I imagine if I were in your shoes, I’d give up on the idea of anyone loving me for me too,” she continued.
Grayson’s heart skipped a beat and couldn’t seem to recover.
Had she known about his past?
What did she and Dale talk about on the way there?
Did he tell her about the relentless bullying and isolation and the crippling hopelessness it caused? Did he tell her about that macabre Christmas, when his cries for help culminated in what was to be his final grand gesture?
He waited for her elaborate.
When she didn’t, he prompted her.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because… you’re a billionaire?” Amara said as though she assumed it was obvious.
Oh right, the money.
He smiled, “I’ve long given up on the idea of permanent companionship, before the money, but yes, it certainly doesn’t help.”
Amara looked at him then, square in the eyes as though she’d had an epiphany.
She wasn’t shy anymore, and she had that same look she’d had in the conference room, and it made him feel the same way.
“I have a very wicked, very naughty idea, Grayson Davis.”
“Those are my favorite,” he smiled.
“Let me be your gold digger.”