Home > Work in Progress (Red Lipstick Coalition #3)(2)

Work in Progress (Red Lipstick Coalition #3)(2)
Author: Staci Hart

God, I could feel him watching me. I could feel him smirking.

He took a book as I set it down, his hand entering my line of vision like a giant, manly, long-fingered version of my tiny pale one.

“Who should I personalize this to?” he asked.

“No personalization,” I answered before I lost my nerve.

Another soft chuckle as I added to the stack. “No problem.” The sound of a Sharpie scratching the page filled the silence.

Say something! You are a mess, Amelia Hall. You have to tell him who you are. Janessa will shit a brick if you don’t.

I swallowed the sticky lump in my throat, arranging the book pile without purpose. “I…I’m Amelia Hall. W-with the U-USA Times.”

The book closed with a soft thump.

“Amelia Hall? As in the blogger for Halls of Books?” The question was thick with meaning.

The blood in my body rushed from every extremity, racing up my neck in a blush so hard, I could feel the tingling crawl of it on my skin.

Like a dummy, I looked up. An affirmative word was on my stupid, fat tongue, stuck there in my mouth like a gum ball in a water hose. I nodded.

He was smirking, lips together, a tilted smile that set a glimmer of amusement in his eyes. “You’re the blogger who hates me so much.”

I frowned and spoke without thinking. “I-I don’t hate you. I just hold issue with your idea of romance.”

The words left me without thought or attempt or desire to reel them back in.

I might not be able to order a pizza over the phone, but I could stand up for a little old lady who someone had cut in front of or the kid who was getting picked on. And my ideals. I could stand up for those too, especially when questioned.

The corner of his sardonic mouth climbed. “Well, lucky for me, I don’t write romance.”

A derisive sound left me. Lucky for all of us. “I don’t hate your books,” I insisted.

He shrugged and took the next book off the pile to sign. “Wouldn’t guess so from your reviews. My least favorite phrase on the planet is unforgivable sin, thanks to you.”

The heat in my cheeks flared again, this time in defense. “Your world- building is incredible. Your imagery is so brilliant, sometimes I have to set my book down and stare at a wall just to absorb it. But every hero you write is, frankly, an”—an asshole, was what I was going to say but instead landed on—“ unkind man.”

He nodded at the title page as he scrawled his name. “Viggo?”

“He left Djuna because she was pregnant with his half-breed baby. And she took him back even though he wouldn’t even commit to her for good.”

“Blaze?”

I rolled my eyes. “He didn’t come for Luna because he was more worried about himself. He could have saved her from the Liath!” My hand rose in the universal sign for what the hell and lowered to slap my thigh with a snap.

“Even Zavon? He’s everyone’s favorite.”

My face flattened. “He cheated on her out of spite. That, sir, is the ultimate unforgivable sin. And if that wasn’t bad enough, she took him back for no reason. He didn’t even apologize.” I said the words as if it were me he’d cheated on. Honestly, it felt that way.

He slid the book to me and picked up another. But he didn’t sign it. Instead, he turned that godforsaken smirk on me, which subsequently turned my knees into jelly.

“But he loved her. Isn’t love enough to forgive?”

It was that tingle again, climbing up my face like fire. “Of course it is, but your heroes never make heroic decisions about the women who love them. In fact, they don’t seem to love their women at all, not enough to sacrifice their own comfort. They’re irredeemable. Why isn’t love enough to make them act less like assholes?” I clapped a hand over my mouth, my eyes widening so far, they stung from exposure to air.

Something in his eyes changed, sharpened with an idea. He was otherwise unaffected, chuckling as he opened the book and turned his attention to his Sharpie again. “I mean, you’re not wrong, Amelia.”

The way he’d said my name, the depth and timbre and rolling reverberation slipped over me.

I blinked. “I’m not?”

His eyes shifted to meet mine for only a heartbeat before dropping to the page again. “You’re not. Every time I publish a book, I wait for your review to see if I’ve finally won you over.” He closed the book, pushing it across the table to me before reaching for the last. “Would you consider helping me with my next novel?”

Somewhere, a needle scratched. Tires squealed from a pumping of brakes. Crickets chirped in a chorus in an empty room.

Help him?

“Yes, help me,” he answered as he signed. I didn’t realize I’d spoken the question. “I could use a critical voice on my team. I have a feeling they’ve been telling me yes for years when they should have been telling me no. I need a no.” He looked up again and asked, “Are you interested?”

“Interested?” I echoed stupidly.

“Are you interested in being my no?”

I blinked at him. “What a strange question.”

A chuckle rumbled through a closed, sideways smile. His eyes had to be black, black as sin. “I’ve got to admit, I’m usually asking for a yes, especially where women are concerned.”

My face flattened, not only because he was a cocky bastard, but for the flash of rejection that I wasn’t considered a woman worthy of a yes. “What would the job entail?”

He watched me with an intensity that made me want to crawl out of my skin, which all of a sudden felt too small for everything inside me. “Be available for meetings to plot and character develop. Read for me when I send the manuscript and provide critical feedback. Talk me off any ledges or push me off them, if that’s what you think I need. Help me make my stories better.”

I said nothing. Absently, I realized my mouth was open as if I were about to speak.

When I didn’t, he smiled. “Why don’t we meet up tomorrow? We can discuss the details. What do you say?”

What could I say? Thomas Bane was a sensation—famous not only in the literary world, but in the pop culture stream. Page Six followed him around like he was their only job. He was, at that very moment, on a forty-foot billboard for TAG Heuer in Times Square. On top of all that, he was a phenomenal writer even if his stories did need a fresh set of eyes.

And he was asking me for help.

“Say yes, you idiot!” the girl behind me hissed, presumably the one who’d shoved me toward his table when my feet failed me.

Thomas Bane’s smile tilted higher. Otherwise, he didn’t react.

Say something. You have to answer right now.

In the span of a handful of seconds, I weighed it out. He wanted my help, and I loved to help. I’d beta read for authors a hundred times and always found it fulfilling to offer my advice in order to make a story the best it could be. In fact, I loved it and took every opportunity to say yes, should it arise.

So why wasn’t I jumping at the chance to help Thomas Oh-My-God-Quit-Smiling-At-Me-Like-That Bane?

On paper, there was no reason. Floating around in my head were a hundred, the topmost being that when he looked like that, I actually felt like my panties were on fire.

He expectantly watched me. But when that smile of his dropped incrementally in defeat, coupled with the almost infinitesimal draw of his brows, I caved.

Thomas Bane wanted my help, and I had the rare opportunity to give it.

“No.”

His eyes narrowed in confusion. “Wait. No as in yes? Or no as in no?”

“I…I think I’d like to help. So if you need someone to tell you no, I’m your girl.”

There it was again—that smile that probably cost more than most people’s cars. “I like the sound of that. I’ll message you through your blog, and we can set up a time to meet.” He arranged the stack of books, straightening their corners before moving them a couple of inches closer to me.

The gesture was strangely nervous and utterly disarming.

I found myself smiling. I picked up the books and deposited them in my bag. “I’ll look forward to it.”

   
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