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The Lover's Game (No Exceptions #2)

By:J.C. Reed


I was just about to point out that I had no idea what she was talking about when soft thudding sounds carried down from above. People rushing around. Jumping. Perhaps even dancing.

Moving past the mirrors, I caught my reflection and winced. My hair looked presentable enough. Being curly and wavy, it never needed a brush. But my face was a mess: my skin pale from exhaustion, the bags under my eyes swollen and dark. There was no doubt I looked as though I had attended a funeral. I laughed inwardly at my morbid thoughts. It some way, I had been at one. While sitting in Central Park, I had mourned my old self and all those things I'd never have: a family with Jett, a father for my child.

Thalia glanced at her watch.

"We're late. We have to hurry." She retrieved a blue Donna Morgan print dress from her bag and pushed it into my hands. "Try this on. It should fit you."

I changed quickly, aware of her eyes on me, and then followed her silent command to sit down when she pointed to a chair. Her hands immediately began to busy themselves with my hair and makeup. My curls were pulled up and twisted with bobby pins, then, with a precision and ease I had never possessed, Thalia started to transform my face into flawlessness, complete with porcelain skin and huge, hazel eyes, framed by dark green eyeliner. She paused to inspect her work before resuming with the confidence of a professional artist.

"Where did you learn to do this?" I asked.

"I'm self-taught," she said with justified pride. "As a teen, I wanted to be a makeup artist, so I used to spend my time reading fashion magazines and blogs. Even though I couldn't afford school, the knowledge has come in handy." She applied a touch of mascara and stepped back to regard me, apparently satisfied with the result. "There you go! You have stunning eyes. You should wear more green and gray."

"Thank you."

She pointed at the mirror and began to put away her brushes.

For a moment I hesitated, afraid of what I might see. Taking a deep breath, I lifted my gaze and almost didn't recognize myself. "Wow. You're good." I stared at myself, unable to look away. "Really good." And I meant every bit of praise.

The woman standing in front of me didn't look like Brooke Stewart at all. She didn't look hurt and broken. She looked confident and sexy.

The kind of woman no one would ever dare to cheat on.

Self-doubt passed over me. What if I had never really been sexy enough for Jett? What if my insecurities and my inability to trust him completely had pushed him away? Maybe he had missed the excitement and the confidence women of his social status often exuded. Maybe he started cheating on me because I wasn't like them?

I turned back to Thalia, glad she didn't seem to notice the sudden drop in my mood, and watched her change into a peach-colored dress with fishnet stockings. I had to admit, not only did she have a gorgeous body with toned legs and hips to die for, but the attire seemed to be her thing, as though she never wore anything else.

"Do you like your job?" I resumed the conversation as she began to paint her lips a bright shade of red.

"I do." She nodded, and with a glance in the mirror she smacked her lips. "I'm a big fan of anything burlesque because it's so feminine. You snap a picture, and you can be sure it's going to be perfect. There's nothing ugly about being a pin-up girl, Jenna."

I flinched at hearing the sound of my sister's name, and realized I had forgotten that I had adopted a false identity. Oblivious to my reaction, Thalia began to apply some of her lipstick on my lips and then snapped the cap shut. "What we are doing is nothing to be ashamed of. It's not porn, but art, and that makes all the difference."

She flashed me a smile, revealing two beautiful rows of pearly white teeth and slight dimples that gave her character. "The way I see it, it's an honor," she continued, her hazel eyes regarding me warmly, "to help a man dream of his perfect girl-one who's out of his reach. We're what I'd call a fantasy, a dream, something most men will never have." She grabbed my hand, infusing some chirpiness in her voice. "Come on. Time to meet Grayson."

By the time we returned to the hall and ascended a staircase, I was beginning to think it was all a mistake. My heart was pounding so hard I could feel the blood rushing in my ears, threatening to burst my veins. What had I been thinking? I didn't have Thalia's confidence. I didn't have her gorgeous looks. In no way would I be suitable for working as a model. I could call myself lucky if this Grayson guy didn't laugh. I was better off finding a job in real estate and waiting tables in the evening.

Don't be stupid, Stewart. You can't afford to live off just one income, and topping it off with tips certainly wouldn't make a difference.

My heart sank in my chest as I realized that not only did I need a second job, but if I was to avoid Jett for the rest of his life, I'd have to stop working for him. That meant I'd have to look for a new job, all without health insurance and probably no references. And then there was the matter of my ever-growing loan problems.

Ninety thousand dollars debt!

I still had trouble wrapping my head around that part.

You'll be repaying loans for the rest of your life, Stewart. That is, unless you start taking risks.

And this was indeed a risk, not just for my finances, but also for my confidence.

Confidence or not, I had no choice but to go through with the interview. If I didn't try, I might end up living in a small, rented apartment forever, with no opportunity to offer my child the best life he or she could possibly have.

"There's nothing to be afraid of." Thalia's voice, meant to reassure, only managed to make me more nervous.

"I know." I sighed, biting my thumbnail.

We took a left turn through yet another corridor and entered a do