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The Lover's Game (No Exceptions #2)

By:J.C. Reed

he end of the tunnel, an escape from a precarious financial situation that I had thought would keep me enchained for the rest of my life. My best friend had always told me that if I wanted something, I had to work hard to achieve it. I had done that, but as it turned out, working hard was not enough, and it was certainly not always the fastest way to solve a problem. So I had always poured everything I had into my career, but now, a shortcut was necessary.

Taking this job could be my shortcut. I was willing to adapt, to change, to try something new, and to take on challenges I hadn't faced before.

Whatever it takes. It was time to write my own destiny.

As silently as I could, I switched off my cell phone, so no one could reach me.

The streets were busier than usual, and the car seemed to stop at every corner. We had been driving for at least forty minutes when we finally reached an area close to the Williamsburg Bridge. The car came to a screeching halt in front of a red, three-story building, and I got out. From the outside, in the dark, it seemed rather ordinary, if not even a bit run-down. If I hadn't known any better, I wouldn't have had a clue that it was actually the studio of a successful photographer slash artist. There was certainly no sign indicating the opportunity of a promising job.

A cold wind whipped my hair into my face, and I wrapped my coat tighter around me. Shivering near the entrance, I watched Thalia change her sneakers for a pair of high heels. She tossed the athletic shoes onto the back seat and retrieved an oversized training bag, which I assumed contained her outfit for the job.

"Is he famous?" I asked as she locked up the car.



"I wouldn't say that, but he is well established and known for his exquisite taste and expensive art collection." She turned to shoot me a strange look, then glanced up at the windows. "Whatever he shows you, keep any remarks to yourself. His art takes a while to get used to, if you ask me, but he takes it very personally when someone doesn't like it."

"Is it that bad?"

She laughed. "See for yourself. As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I've never understood his taste, but I'm not exactly a creative genius. Maybe it'll appeal to you. Who knows?"

She slung the bag over her shoulder and let herself in, motioning for me to follow her up a narrow staircase. Her cryptic words had left me eager to find out what she had meant by "exquisite taste." Was this Grayson renowned for his taste in selecting just the right model for the job, or did his art cater to the strange and bizarre? The countless questions floating in my mind kept me intrigued and focused and not just as a distraction that helped me forget my relationship drama. As far as impressions went, Grayson was a big, blurry question mark. I knew next to nothing about him, and the sudden realization of the unknown made me nervous.

"What happens with the pictures he takes?" I asked. "Does he always sell them?"

"Usually, yeah." Thalia nodded slowly. "Most go to rich collectors, fans of the fifties era. Others he sells to magazines and film and music studios. He keeps only a few for himself. This is the place where he usually hangs out when he's not traveling. Sometimes he rents out his studio to art events, gallery shows, and launch parties, which is how he raises his profile. Before he became a photographer, he owned a modeling agency."

She pressed a button above a polished steel plate that had "GR Photography" engraved on it. Within seconds, the door buzzed and opened. We stepped into a large hall decorated with marble pillars, huge mirrors, and hardwood flooring. In some ways, it reminded me of an art gallery with white naked walls and high ceilings. No flowers, no paintings adorning the walls.

"This is the waiting area," Thalia explained in a muted voice.

I nodded as I let my gaze sweep over the plain white leather couches and matching chairs near an unoccupied glass reception desk set up in the middle of the room.

"Obviously, Grayson's expecting us, so we're not going to wait here," Thalia continued and pointed at a door marked "Studio."

As we passed the reception desk and crossed the corridor, my eyes fell on a life-sized sculpture. Just looking at it gave me the creeps and yet I stepped back to analyze it, unable to peel my eyes off the horrid statue. It took me a few seconds to process what I was seeing. The thing was carved from wood and reminded me of a distorted face with an open mouth and big, alien eyes reflecting terror. The body resembled a deformed man surrounded by blazing fire, his arms waving as though to cry for help, while his feet were rooted in what looked like earth. I shuddered at just how ugly it was. Actually, ugly was an understatement. It was dreadful. In one word: monstrous. So bad it was almost funny. I pressed my hand over my mouth to suppress a giggle. It was so deplorable and grotesque that I was surprised Grayson's visitors weren't too freaked out to return.

"What the hell is this?" I whispered. "If I had something like this in my home, I wouldn't be able to close my eyes at night."

Thalia laughed quietly in my ear. "He calls it his 'mandrake.' Scary as shit. Now, that's the art I was talking about. He is kind of obsessed with it." She pulled at my arm gently. "Like I said, pop over a few times, and you won't even notice it anymore. But if he asks, tell him you love it."

I nodded and Thalia led me through yet another door into a well-lit space with floor-to-ceiling mirrors and various places to sit.

"This is the dressing room."

Compared to the entrance hall, this room felt oppressing and tight. Maybe it wasn't the lack of space as much as the fact that it was littered with clothes and carrier bags, and shoes strewn across the floor.

"From the sight of it, Grayson's busy." Thalia pointed to the