Ivy listened to her handler’s high-pitched, whiny voice over the phone and tried hard not to sigh out loud. But because she was on the phone, she rolled her eyes for good measure as she touched up her make-up in the bathroom mirror of her Koreatown apartment.
She wasn’t quite sure how she was going to let Angelica down nicely, and quite frankly she didn’t really care. It was a Friday night; worse, it was the first Friday night she’d taken off in months. Literally. She’d spent the last eight weeks working ten to twelve hours at her day job and then dedicating every Friday, Saturday, and even the occasional Wednesday evening to the Antoinette Rupetta Agency. She spoke to Angie more than she spoke to her own roommate.
“Just let me tell you how much he’s offering?” Angelica asked, her voice rising in the exact pitch and frequency that made Ivy’s skin crawl.
She closed her eyes, fought to remain calm, and started counting to ten in her head so that she didn’t say something cruel. If Angelica didn’t give her a number by the time she reached ten, she’d just hang up.
“It’s seven thousand dollars, Ivy. For four hours.”
Ivy moved the phone away from her ear so she could frown down at it in her palm. She must have heard that wrong.
Seven thousand dollars?
For four hours?
Raising the phone quickly, she said, “Repeat that.” She didn’t bother with niceties; if Angelica was going to make her work on her night off, she could at least make it known that she wasn’t happy about it. Not. One. Bit.
“You heard me,” Angelica countered. Ivy could tell by her smug tone that she was smiling on the other end of the line.
“Why me?” She asked the same question that she did every time that she was asked to escort a new client for the Antoinette Rupetta Agency. What did he want from her? Why was he willing to pay well-earned money to have her on his arm for a single evening?
In her experience, the answer varied. Drastically. She had learned early on that the less you knew about the client, the safer you were. She had also learned, very early on, exactly how big a role she was prepared to play in a strange man’s life. Oh, she wouldn’t do herself the injustice of denying she had sex with clients, but only when the chemistry was right and she actually wanted to, not because he thought that his bill included the favor—because it didn’t. Legally. The way Ivy saw it was simple; she dated more than normal girls and as a direct result, she had more sex.
She had worked for long enough now that she only accepted new clients under three conditions: If he needed a date for a formal, above-the-table function; if he wanted to stock his business, be it a bar, club, or restaurant, with attractive women who, naturally, drew men with money to spend; or, she thought she could personally benefit from the experience, which, if she were honest with herself, didn’t happen very often.
“He was very specific,” Angelica was saying. Her high-pitched voice distracted Ivy, bringing her out of her reverie. “Down to height, appearance, mannerisms…” Angelica paused, deliberately drawing out her next point in that particular way that Ivy had learned to ignore. “…college education.”
Ivy sighed and plopped her chin in her hand. She looked at herself in the mirror. All that effort put into getting ready. Wasted.
“What’s his background?” As much as she didn’t want Angelica to think that she’d accepted the offer, she was curious as to who was prepared to throw away seven thousand dollars for a single date.
“Let me see,” Angelica said as she pretended to rifle through paperwork on her desk. Ivy rolled her eyes again, familiar with the routine. Not that Angie didn’t deal with a lot of paperwork; the Antoinette Rupetta Agency only used paper contracts, which were one hundred percent legal, but printed and FedExed to clients overnight priority with paid return shipping. Nothing digital except the client’s profiles. Even payments were made to a bank account that was simply named ARPEA.
“Ah! Mmm, interesting.”
As if sensing that she was losing valuable ground, Angelic switched to her no-nonsense business tone without missing a beat. “His background check came back squeaky clean. He’s been a repeat client of ours for about five years with no complaints filed by any of the girls.” She paused, took one breathy sigh and added, “My my, he is—”
“Angelica.” Taking a deep breath, Ivy swallowed her impatience. “What does he do? More importantly, what will I have to do? Does he know that sex isn’t in my contract? These are the questions I want answers to.”
Angelica gave a small half-sigh and Ivy could hear her tapping her nails on her black, lacquered desk over the line. “He’s in banking,” she said.
“What kind?” Ivy prompted. “Investment? Retail? Credit risk?”
“You’re sure?” she countered, summing all of her patience to regulate her tone.
“Yes.” The answer was immediate. “He’s a managing director at Black Finch Capital’s office in Downtown LA. He isn’t married, never has been. No criminal record. Needs a casual date for a formal, work event.”
“He specifically requested an educated date. It was his only non-negotiable. And to be quite honest, Ivy, you’re the only one available who fits the master’s degree requirement. Jessica fit the profile to a T and had even been out with him before, but she left us a few weeks ago…found herself a boyfriend worth losing the cash money over. Apparently.”
Ivy raised her eyebrows in surprise but remained silent. She knew Jessica; they had worked a few bar and nightclub openings together. Jessica was a six-foot blonde who literally could have been a Victoria’s Secret model. In fact, Ivy was pretty sure that the only reason Jessica wasn’t a Victoria’s Secret model was because she was in LA, trying to become an actress instead.
So, the takeaway was that the client had requested a tall blonde with baby-blues. A textbook 34-24-34. Typical. She wondered if he’d be disappointed that he ended up with her when he saw her. No, if he saw her.
And why was she procrastinating? Both she and Angelica knew that she wouldn’t say no to seven thousand dollars. Even if she only took home four of it after Antoinette took her cut, the money was worth it for a few hours of work. “Send me the file.”
She tried not to wince when Angelica’s chirpy voice squeaked, “Yas! I’ll send it over now, along with the non-disclosure. Stay fabulous, Darling!”
When the phone disconnected, Ivy felt a vague urge to throw it against the wall, and she gripped it tightly in her hand to counter the impulse. You could have said no.
She closed her eyes for a moment and took a few deep breaths. This would be good for her. Four thousand dollars in a lump sum would take a chunk out of her credit card debt; it would even reduce her monthly interest. Fractionally.
She opened her eyes and found herself staring at her reflection in the mirror again. She tried to erase the fatigue reflected in her wide, emerald eyes, practiced a flirtatious but unassuming smile back at herself, grimaced, tilted her head, and tried again with marginally better results.
Damien was going to be pissed.
She’d been promising him that they’d make plans to go out for months now. But, between her day job and, well, her work, she’d just been too busy. And now she was going to cancel. Again. Great. Nothing like a pissed-off best friend to get the night off to a good start.
She sighed and rubbed her temples to try and ease the fatigue that had settled there before hopping down from her perch on the bathroom sink. With one last resigned shrug, she slipped out of her spiked, black heels and stretched behind herself to unzip the short, red dress that she’d specifically bought for the occasion.
Damn it. She had looked great—not just good—great. Which was not something that came easy to her; sure, she was tall and pretty… in an unusual kind of way, but she had to try really hard to look incredible.
“Hey, did you fin-” Damien paused in the bathroom door, his eyes flicking down her lingerie-clad body before moving back to her eyes. “You were dressed a moment ago.”
She looked at him, couldn’t help the grin that spread over her face when she noticed his tight, black leather pants, accented only by a pair of suspenders and big, chunky military-grade boots. She plastered on her best regretful smile, which luckily for her, she felt in the bottom-most corner of her soul. ‘I’m sorry. It’s a big contract.”
“Seriously? You’re bailing on me? Again?” He pouted, crossing his arms over his chest in a gesture she knew was defensive, not confrontational.
Nodding, she moved past him into their tiny hallway, carrying her red dress forlornly. She tried not to look into his big, blue, disappointed eyes as she turned and said, “I wouldn’t go if it wasn’t a big deal. But it’s the biggest lump sum I’ve ever been offered to work.”
Even Damien, her disapproving best friend had the grace to look shocked. “More than the gay son of the oil tycoon who wanted to introduce a girl to grandma before she died?”
“Shit, Damien. It’s nearly double.”
“Fuck.” His eyebrows disappeared under his shaggy mane of hair, as he padded into her bedroom behind her, his boots clomping over the old carpeted floor.
Because she was comfortable with him and because he was one hundred percent gay, she sat on her bed in her black, lace lingerie and pulled her laptop onto her folded legs before opening it. She may as well suss the man out before she decided what to wear. And, if she had to admit it, she liked to be prepared, liked to know as much as possible about a client before she committed to an outfit. It was amazing how much you could tell about a person given only a few simple facts.
While her computer booted up, she glanced up at Damien. He stood just inside her doorway, his thick brown hair curling ever-so-slightly above his milk-white, bony shoulders, his blue eyes assessing her. Not judging—assessing.
“How much longer are you going to do this?” he asked, a small frown creasing his brow. “It’s been a year already.”
“Fifteen months,” she clarified. As if she wasn’t the one counting the days.
She logged on to her computer and opened her email so she could read the file Angelica had sent her. Before he could respond, she added, “And you know I can’t stop. Not until...” She trailed off when the words lodged in her throat, suffocating her.
Damien sighed. “I know.” Sensing her reluctance to talk about it further, he changed the subject. “So, if you get off at a remotely reasonable hour, could you please come find us?” Before she could refuse, he added, “It’s only nine now and we’ll be out until morning.”
Because she knew it was true, she chuckled. Because she doubted she’d want to track them down at a dark, sexy, sweaty nightclub at one in the morning after making small talk with a stranger for four hours, she added, “We’ll see.”
She double-clicked the email from Angelica, spent ten minutes hurriedly reading the questionnaire that the man had filled out before opening the picture attached.
“Holy. Shit.” Damien said it for her, leaning over her shoulder so that he could get a better look. “He is…not bad.”
“Not bad? Really? That’s the extent of your vocabulary to describe this man?” she asked, pointing to the screen. When he craned his neck over her shoulder, she turned it more fully towards him.
“Words fail me.”
She grinned before turning the screen back so that she could study it. The man in the image was beautiful—that was the only word for it—with high, sculpted cheekbones and a square jaw. His blonde hair, although cut short, curled slightly and she imagined that if he grew it out, it would turn into a full head of ringlets. He didn’t smile, despite the professional headshot; his mouth was set in a firm line that was matched by a pair of cold, blue eyes. She thought he looked like the stereotypical golden boy from a World War II movie; the one who's in love with the heroine and gives her a black and white photograph of himself before going off to war.
“He looks super serious,” Damien said, seeming uncertain. “Why would he need a date? He must have women falling at his feet…”
“You never really know.” Although even she had to admit that even she was curious. Other than the slightly cold eyes, he was truly gorgeous. “Sometimes it's simply for convenience. Like they were given too short notice about the event but don’t want to go alone. Sometimes it's just for fun. I even had one guy hire me because he knew that his ex-wife was going to be in attendance at an annual charity event that they had always frequented together.” At Damien’s soft gasp, she added, “Bastard didn’t even warn me.”
“What did you do?”
“Played it out; ended up moseying up to the ex-wife and finding out that Steve, let’s call him Steve, actually wasn’t a bad guy. Just lonely. And still very much in love with his ex.”
“People are so weird.”
“Mmhmm.” She scrolled through the file one last time, and then closed the laptop as she thought about what to wear. She only had an hour before she was supposed to meet him at the bar in the Ritz Carlton Downtown Los Angeles, which really meant that she had twenty minutes to get ready.
“Help me pick an outfit?” she asked, hoping that the request would bring Damien a little closer to forgiving her.
He smiled, his blue eyes laughing at her weak attempt. “Don’t I always?”