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The Lover's Secret (No Exceptions #1)

By:J.C. Reed

ile his somewhat old-fashioned hairstyle and affordable looking clothes weren't the reason for my ignited attention, I couldn't stop the sudden alarm ringing inside my head because of the way he regarded me. Most people barely paid me a fleeting look; some guys checked me out. But this man's glance was different. It was a little too sharp, too hard. It was almost as if …

No, don't go there, Stewart.

I stifled my paranoia. Too many bad things had happened. It was time to let go because it was over. So what if a man had looked at me in a weird way? That didn't mean he was a bad guy. No one would ever come after me again. Now, if I could only just believe it …

As if sensing my unease, he returned his attention to his newspaper and continued to read whatever he'd been reading before. An instant later, a woman joined him, and relief washed over me. Probably his wife, I figured from the way she kissed him on the cheek, and together they walked to the reception desk, their arms linked, their chatter indistinguishable.

Stupid paranoia.

It had happened before, and it just kept happening. For the umpteenth time, I pondered whether or not I should pay my therapist another visit. The trouble was, I hadn't seen him for eight years, and I still felt guilty over the way I had so abruptly broken off our sessions when I decided I was strong enough to deal with the issues of my past myself. He had insisted I wasn't ready, but I had brushed off his concerns, claiming he didn't know me as well as he thought he did. Yet, on a subconscious level, I knew even then that he was right. But I wanted to feel normal, and if I visited a shrink again, it would be like admitting to myself that I was corrupted. Branded. Damaged beyond repair.

Since I couldn't bring myself to visit him again, the best thing I could do for the time being was remember his advice: "Try to focus on the things that feel real, things you can grasp." The hotel seemed like a good start. Taking three deep breaths, I forced my mind to let go of my mistrust of the people around me and instead focused on my surroundings.

Passing through another hall, I marveled at the exquisiteness and luxury of the place. The TRIO wasn't just one of the most expensive hotels in New York City. Rising over Manhattan's premier shopping and business districts, it was a popular see-and-be-seen place for the rich and famous. From the huge indoor water fountains and the magnificent crystal chandeliers hanging from backlit onyx ceilings to the stunning displays of each hall I passed, I realized calling it an image of perfection was no overstatement.

The place was pure Zen. It made me wonder how life was for the VIPs of the world, for those who weren't too shy to spend thousands of dollars a night in such luxury accommodations, just to wake up each morning to the knock of someone bringing a three-course breakfast or to spend half their day at the spa that occupied an entire floor.

It wasn't the life I had been born into, nor was it the life I needed to be happy. But I could certainly see the appeal and why it might be alluring, even for a day.

Or even a night with him.

Excitement washed over me as I stepped off the elevator, onto the fifty-first floor and stopped in front of Room 512. Soft music carried over from inside-perhaps a TV set or radio. I swiped the keycard, unsure if I did it the right way, but it didn't work. I took a deep breath and knocked softly.

Nothing stirred.

I knocked again, this time a little louder.

Finally, the music was switched off, and the door was thrown open.

A guy stepped out.

I frowned. Just like my prospective date for the night, this man was in his early thirties and dressed in an expensive business suit. The only problem was: I had no idea who he was.

"You're early," he said, opening the door wider to let me in.

My gaze traveled past him to scan his room. I took in the open notebook on the table and the loose sheets of paper spread haphazardly around a glass of what looked like scotch or whiskey.

"I'm not paying extra just because you're early," he mumbled, and a whiff of alcohol hit my nostrils.

What the heck?

I took a step back as realization kicked in. "Sorry. Wrong door. I, uh … " My words failed me. It wasn't at all how I had imagined my first one-night stand would go down. How could I explain to this man that I wasn't at his service, in a situation so mortifying I could barely talk? I thought it over for a second, then decided being short and prompt was the way to go. "Sorry again … and have a nice evening," I muttered and turned my back to him when he blocked my path.

"Wrong door? That's about the lamest excuse I've ever heard. You know that?" He sounded affected, maybe even annoyed, but a mask of friendliness remained on his face. "You chat me up online, only to leave me hanging. Why would anyone pay in advance for a stripper?" He paused for effect.

I just shook my head, signaling that I had no idea.

"Correct me, but I thought we had something. You wanted to meet with me here, so here I am."

I groaned inwardly; he was taking my rejection personally. I couldn't avoid the low chuckle escaping my lips.

Me, a stripper?

The very idea of me being a stripper was hilarious. In a way, it was a compliment; while I had the curves, I lacked the long legs. Besides, I could barely swing a few dance moves.

"I understand your confusion, but it's clearly a mistake," I explained.

His eyes lingered on me, pondering, and I caught another whiff of alcohol. "Is this some kind of game you're playing, part of the act or something?" he finally said, taking another step forward. "You know what? Forget what I said earlier. I'll pay for the extra time. Now just move your hot ass inside and give me what you promised the other night." His hand went around my waist, close enough to touch my ass, as he pointed behind him.