Home > Work in Progress (Red Lipstick Coalition #3)(6)

Work in Progress (Red Lipstick Coalition #3)(6)
Author: Staci Hart

It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. But Janessa had no idea I was a nervous mute in public.

It was a physiological response to a psychological hurdle I’d never overcome. Such was my curse as the colorlessly pale, eccentrically shy daughter of the Slap Chop fortune, who had grown up with a speech impediment. Not only was I an odd only child of inventors, and not only were we the wealthiest people in our provincial South Dakota town, but I couldn’t pronounce Ls or Rs.

I realize it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. When I was five, it was adorable. When I was ten, I was a pariah. And thanks to the cruelness of children, I’d spent my formative years crying in excess and escaping into books. I had a million friends there.

Even when my impediment had been corrected with years of speech therapy, I barely spoke. Which somehow made the bullying worse. I knew every word that rhymed with Amelia, and none of them were pleasant—pedophilia, necrophilia, achylia—the absence of gastric juices—plus a dozen other “philias” that were equally disturbing. Although, Popillia wasn’t the worst. But they were still a genus of beetle, and such was my lot in life.

Not exactly a happy place for a twelve-year-old girl. I was a ghost, pallid and silent, drifting through the halls in the hopes that no one would see me.

Sometimes, they didn’t. Sometimes, they did.

But I’d become a ghost girl through and through. And now, I had years of conditioning to break if I ever wanted my dream job.

Bag in hand, I made my way down the wide aisle bracketed with cubicles, heading for my editor’s office.

Janessa Hughes stood behind her desk, tall and beautiful. Her dark hair was loose and wavy, falling over the shoulders of her blazer. She looked comfortable there in her corner office, the floor-to-ceiling windows behind her looking out over the tip of Manhattan and the Atlantic beyond.

She was the epitome of power and control, everything about her lovely and severe. Her eyes sharpened when I passed through her open doorway, her lips lifting in a composed smile.

She waved me in, her gaze dropping to her phone. “Charles, don’t bullshit me. Can you get the story or not?”

“That’s what I’m trying to explain. There’s a hang-up. If I can’t get Senator Williams to meet, I can’t—”

“Then I guess you’d better figure out how to secure a meeting whether he wants it or not. I want the story on my desk Monday, Chuck. Otherwise, don’t bother coming in.”

Before he had a chance to respond, she disconnected the line with a cold press of a button.

When she smiled, it was warm and friendly and the exact opposite of the woman who had just hung up on poor Chuck.

“Amelia Hall,” she said amicably as she smoothed the rump of her pencil skirt and sat. “It’s nice to finally meet you in person. Please, have a seat.”

My heart galloped in my chest, and I was grateful she had given me an objective so I didn’t have to respond. I had a whole separate list of lines for this meeting, but as I sat, I found I couldn’t remember a single one. So I reached into my bag and started unloading books in lieu of trying to formulate sentences or—God forbid—instigate an entire conversation.

Maybe if I hadn’t been in public all day.

Maybe if I weren’t actually me.

“Ah, Thomas Bane.” As she reached for the books, her smile curled into something more wicked. “He’s a real looker, isn’t he?” She took one of the books and opened it up to inspect his signature.

“Mmhmm,” I hummed, completing the stack. I then focused all my attention on my hands as I folded my bag into equal parts with far more precision than was necessary.

Janessa didn’t seem to notice. “I mean, seriously, he’s gorgeous in print but in person? I’m salivating just thinking about it.”

I imagined Janessa turning into a stammering, blushing fool around him, and the thought that she was actually flappable relaxed me infinitesimally.

“So,” she started, turning her full attention on me, “how did it go?”

I fiddled with the bag in my lap. “It went—” I croaked and cleared my throat. “It went well, I think.”

She chuckled. “I’d say it went better than that. I saw the picture of you two on his Instagram.”

My gaze snapped up to meet hers. “He already posted that?”

“He did, Tagged you, and the Times, too.” She picked up her phone, swiped at it a couple times, and turned it around in display.

There we were—me and Thomas Bane, laughing in the bookstore like old friends.

“That is so weird,” I breathed.

She laughed aloud at that. “Glad to see you’re enjoying the perks of blogging for a newspaper—getting to get a good whiff of Thomas Bane.”

Had I been in different company, I would have groaned my agreement. “That leather jacket.”

“And his soap maybe. His shampoo? With all that hair…I swear, it’s like a diffuser. Something citrus and spicy and…mmm,” she hummed, setting down her phone. She leaned toward me, her eyes sharp and smile wry. “So, did he hit on you? Come on to you? Start a fight with any readers? Tell me he at least squeezed your ass. Or that you at least squeezed his.”

A painful flush climbed up my neck. “No! Of course not.”

“Well, that’s a shame. Would have made a good story.” She sighed and sat back in her chair. “Did you get any dirt on his next novel? I’ve heard a thousand rumors, and I’m dying to know the real story.”

“No, not exactly. But he asked for my help with it.” The words felt like a betrayal the second they left my mouth.

She shifted, sparking with intrigue. The tension in the room thickened. “Oh, really?”

I tried to smile, my tongue sticky and thick. “I-I’m not even sure I’ll do it,” I hedged.

“Oh, you’ll do it all right,” she insisted.

Shit.

“Thomas Bane’s story has been sought after by every major news syndicate ever since he broke out. His social life, the women he dates, his history. Who he really is, because the charm and swagger he wears like head-to-toe plate armor is nothing but a mask. We all know there’s more to him. But no one’s been able to get close enough to learn the truth. This sounds like a golden opportunity.”

I blinked, trying to sort out how I’d gotten here, to the threshold of her suggestion. “I…I’m sorry. I’m not really a reporter, Ms. Hughes.”

“Please, call me Janessa. And I realize this is out of your wheelhouse, but think about it,” she said, her face softening, opening, brimming with charisma. “He read your reviews, I’m guessing?” When I nodded, she continued, “He respects your opinion. You’ll be spending time with him, learning about him, working with him. You’ve already proven you’re a fantastic writer by the scores of reviews you’ve written and the wide-scale popularity of your blog. What if I offered you a permanent position at the newspaper as a journalist in exchange for a piece about him?”

My brows drew together, the weight of her proposition tugging the corners of my lips. Before I found the wherewithal to speak, she beat me to the punch.

“I’m sure you’ve never considered it—at least, not like this. Don’t answer me now.”

“I…I don’t want to be a journalist, Ms. Hughes. Janessa.”

Something in her tightened, and the predatory feeling it gave me triggered an instinct to bolt.

“Well then, what do you want, Amelia?”

I swallowed hard enough that my throat clicked. “To be an editor for a publishing house.”

Her smile curled at the edges. “Your reviews are stellar, critical and constructive without being overbearing. With the success of your blog, your master’s degree in English, and credits reading for other authors, I can see you moving in that direction. Your résumé is impressive. And I can get you an internship.”

A flash of hope ripped through me like lightning.

“All you have to do is consider writing a piece about what you learn working with Thomas Bane.”

The crack of thunder in my chest that followed was deafening.

   
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