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The Lover's Game (No Exceptions #2)

By:J.C. Reed

I opened my handbag in search of the piece of the paper that was my beacon of hope. I had to give Thalia's job a try, because any job, as long as it paid the bills, was better than none. If only a tenth of Thalia's claims were true, then I had found a way to get away from here, from him, from everyone-a fresh start. Once everything calmed down, I'd focus on healing my heart and move on from a past that wasn't worth remembering.

By the time she came, it was dark, and I had been waiting impatiently for almost an hour, my hands frozen in the pockets of my coat as I watched the late afternoon sun disappear. The beautiful Victorian-style lampposts were already switched on, their dull flicker casting an eerie yellow glow on the asphalted street. Central Park was magically beautiful, both during the day and at night. I usually avoided parks after dark, but today I was making an exception. To kill time as I waited for Thalia, I had walked around the southern half of the park. I had assumed it would be devoid of life at that hour, but to my surprise, clusters of people had gathered here and there, walking or jogging, immersed in their lives, probably struggling with their own demons.

After what seemed like an eternity, a car finally pulled over. From a distance, I spied Thalia getting out, right where we had arranged to meet. I waved to get her attention, then walked over.

Even under the weak illumination from the lampposts, I could see that the car was a scrambled mess with clutter all over the passenger and back seat. Never in my life had I met anyone so chaotic-except for Sylvie, when she was about to pack her suitcase and couldn't decide on what to take with her. It was as if Thalia had practically been living in her car; for all I knew, she had been.

"Jesus. What happened to you?" Thalia slammed the car door and turned to regard me. Her voice betrayed a worrying edge as she eyed me up and down. "Your lips are all blue, and you're freezing." She pulled my hands into hers and shivered as if to prove her point.

My tongue flicked over my numb lips. I hadn't realized my physical appearance would so easily give away the way I felt. Granted, I didn't have a mirror, so I had no clue how I looked. But surely it couldn't be that bad, apart from a bit of smudged mascara. I absent-mindedly smoothed my hair and smiled.

"It's not as bad as you think."

Deep worry lines creased her forehead, signaling that she didn't believe me. "Do you want to talk about it?" she asked quietly, after a pause.

Great. Just great.

I figured I must really look like crap, which wasn't ideal, given the fact that I was supposed to go on a job interview. I should have changed at Sylvie's place. Or maybe not as, I thought, remembering why I'd decided against it in the first place: I couldn't deal with her questions, nor did I have the energy to recall all that had happened or, worse yet, acknowledge my mistakes and whatever hard facts I needed to accept.

"I'd rather not." Swallowing hard, I shot her a shy look. "I just had a crappy day, that's all."

"I don't mean to be pushy," Thalia said. "I've been told I'm a good listener, and I just want you to know I'm here to talk whenever you feel like it."

I shot her warm smile. "I appreciate that, but I'm not ready. Sorry. Maybe another time?"

"All right." She eyed me one last time before she sighed. "I brought coffee. Figured you might want one." She inclined her head toward the car, signaling that she was about to change the subject. "Sorry I kept you waiting. I had to clean the floor after my shift."

"No problem. I'm just really grateful you're offering to take me along."

"You really need this job, huh?" Thalia pointed around the car impatiently, a sign that she wanted to leave. I walked around and slid into the passenger seat.

"After today, I definitely do," I said, realizing there was no point in lying.

I watched her walk around to her side and hop into the driver's seat. Leaning forward, she handed me a cup of coffee.

"Thank you."

I warmed my cold hands against the cup containing the hot liquid, then took a tentative sip. After being outside in the cold for hours, the warmth soothed me from the inside, and I savored the flavor of coffee, sugar, and whipped cream, reminding me that I was still alive and living.

"Don't worry. I'll persuade Grayson to give you a job, but first-" Her eyes brushed over my clothes in thought before she pointed to the cluttered mess on her back seat, "-we need to get you out of that. I have countless dresses I bought before my self-imposed shopping ban. There should be one that fits you. My motto is, 'If you look good, you feel good.' So..." She shrugged and paused, hesitation written all over her face, as though she wasn't sure why she was about to divulge such information "Whenever I have a bad day, I dress up. It makes the world a better place, at least for a while."

At that moment, Thalia officially sounded like Sylvie. I decided to like her; after all, anyone who resembled my friend Sylvie had to be a good person. In fact, I figured most human beings on the planet were better than Jett and his sick family. Compared to them, Thalia was a God-sent angel, and through her, for the first time in my life, I saw a way out, a way to escape my debts.

"I don't know why you're doing it, but thank you for helping," I whispered.

Staring out the car window, various emotions washed over me as thoughts kept spinning in my mind. The job was an option. An option I could accept, but didn't have to. Still, the more I thought back to my college days, eating ramen noodles day in and day out, working my ass off to avoid amassing a fortune in loans, the more I was convinced I was doing the right thing. And I really didn't care what I had to do, as long as I was in control of my own life. And control I was seeking.

Finally, there was a light at t