“I said almost, Ash. They booked Mandy instead.”
“Huh.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw the crowd gathering, the line becoming more of a swirl, the doors of the coffee shop now forced open due to incoming gawkers. Someone had tagged me, released my location, and now the hounds were on the hunt.
“Have you found her yet?”
“Listen, man, this isn’t really a good time.” I knew he was trying to reference our conversation from last night, keep after me about some idea he’d had, but right now the crowd gathering behind me was starting to feel like an angry mob.
“Don’t you tell me it’s not a good time to talk, Ash. You need serious image rehab. America likes bad boys, but not like this. You need to clean this up.”
A giant, hulking slab of beef lumbered over to me, baseball cap on backwards. “What, do you think you’re cool, bro?” he asked me, his face round and pale like a rising full moon on a cold, clear winter’s night. “You think you’re a big shot?”
A few girls flanked him, angry heat in their eyes. A growing, vengeful army started to form behind them. The linebacker was clearly trying to score some points by sticking it to the guy who’d dumped America’s sweetheart. Not that he cared a flying fuck about Mandy Monroe, I could guarantee that, but he definitely cared about impressing the girls behind him.
Side entrance. I ducked out quick, pushing my way through a throng forming on the sidewalk. I could imagine the barista tweeting right now, letting everyone know how I’d skipped out without paying for my coffee. Add it to the list of my sins. Brim down, I hustled along the sidewalk, but then it happened. The blinding flash of a professional camera. They’d found me, the paparazzi. Never far away, like a biblical plague of locusts raining down on my head from above. This guy seemed to be perched up on the rooftop of a storefront across the street. You wouldn’t believe what those guys would do for a shot. One time a guy had lowered himself down in a harness wearing full-on climbing gear to get some shots into my hotel room in London. Sexy pics he got, too. I bet they made him a bundle.
“WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON!” Joel’s voice blasted through the phone I was still clutching. I forgot I was still on the call.
“Right, just heading out of a coffee shop.”
“Listen, I’m serious about what we talked about yesterday.”
“Yup.” With a slight turn of my head, I checked out the scene behind me. At least ten people heading out of the coffee shop on my tail. Quickly, I ducked into an alleyway which, thank God, wasn’t a dead end. Who knew celebrity stardom would involve such cloak-and-dagger shit?
“Have you thought about it?”
“What?” Tucking around the side of a large dumpster, I hunched down in its shadow. Such glamour in my rock-n-roll lifestyle.
“The kindergarten teacher. The nurse.”
“Right, right.” He’d pitched me something yesterday, an idea he and Lola had come up with. Probably Lola, my main point-person from the PR firm representing me. She was a schemer, that one.
“We’re working on a few leads, but it’s better if it’s someone you know. From your circles.”
“My circles?” I peeked my head around the corner. No sign of the angry mob, but you never knew with these types of things. One minute, nothing. The next minute pitchforks, torches and your head’s on a spike.
“You must know some wholesome girl, some goody-two-shoes who’d play along for a month. Then dump you in public.”
That was what they’d come up with, taking Mandy’s idea right out from under her. I needed to get my heart stomped, publically, by some young sweet thing. Because what could humanize a demon? Seeing him get his come-uppance.
It was the holiday season, the time when everyone wanted to cozy up fireside with a loved one. What better time for me to launch a highly publicized romance? They wanted me to pull out all the stops with staged visits to a tree-lighting, ice skating at Rockefeller Center, a snowball fight in Central Park. They even wanted me to declare my love and propose to this lucky girl at my New Year’s Eve concert. It would play out like every woman’s dream of a whirlwind romance. And then she’d dump me even more heartlessly than Ash Black. On camera.
It was a good idea, I’d give them that. The problem was the woman. She had to be legit, no actress pretending. Celebrity hounds would be on that in a second and it would all turn on me, the asshole who’d hired someone to make him look better than he really was. No, we had to find someone real. She had to be pretty in that wholesome, classic Ivory soap girl kind of a way. She had to be sweet and kind and giving and adorable with not a single black mark to her name. And she had to be willing to be my fake girlfriend for a month, then dump me heartlessly and preferably on live TV.
“A nurse would be good.” Joel was still talking, brainstorming.
Hmm. I’d played naughty nurse with some girl a few weeks ago. But I think she’d been a stripper.
“Naughty nurse won’t cut it.” Shit, it was like Joel read my mind. He knew me too well.
“I could adopt a puppy?” And hire someone to actually raise it. “That could be good for a few photo ops, right?” Maybe a golden retriever puppy, and we could put a big, fat red bow on it.
“You’d need to adopt every puppy in the country. And you’d still fuck that up. Did you know Mandy’s writing a song about you now?”
I pressed the palm of my hand into my eye socket. Yes, I did know.
“She’s posting about it. It’s called ‘Ride.’”
I nodded. “As in, you took me for a—”
“Ride, yeah,” Joel confirmed.
Just then a couple of celebrity rats came swarming around the corner, cameras in hand. On the hunt, somehow they could smell my blood.
“Gotta go,” I whispered into the phone and took off down the alleyway. I needed better cover, somewhere they wouldn’t think to look for me.
“Find her,” Joel demanded. I ended the call and shoved the phone into my pocket. Where the hell was a guy like me going to find a nice girl, sweet and pretty with nothing sketchy in her past, yet still willing to enter into this circus for a whole month? It wasn’t going to happen.
Footsteps, I could hear them behind me. Turning right once I hit the street, I broke into a run, weaving between a couple people, crossing onto the other side. I made it around the corner, quick, and saw it: lions, gargoyles, the building had once been grand but now looked dusty, old and in desperate need of repair. A public library. Perfect. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d set foot in one. Had I ever? Time to give it a try.
Bounding up the stairs two at a time, I yanked open the huge front doors and dashed behind the first thing I could find, a large, wooden desk. Huddled there, I realized I wasn’t alone. Next to me were a pair of long, sexy legs in black tights laced into a pair of boots with just enough heel to suggest saucy. My gaze kept traveling on up to a simple black dress that ended mid-thigh. Up and up I caught a glimpse of soft, rounded breasts and long, shiny light brown hair I wanted to stroke and touch, maybe knot in my fist.
“Excuse me?” Huffy, indignant, the woman looked down at me full-on stern librarian. With sweet, full parted lips perfect to taste, lick, and bite. At her neck, her dress had a rounded white Peter Pan collar, fussy and prim. Why did I suddenly have a raging hard-on picturing undoing that dress and easing her on out of it?
“What are you doing?” She knelt down slightly and I caught a scent of her, light and vanilla.
“Hey,” I spoke in a hushed whisper. “I’m trying to hide out for a sec.”
Her eyes widened as she looked at me and realized. “You’re Ash Black.”
Before I had a chance to work my magic, take that intro and make it all happen, the library door opened with a cacophony of voices. They’d found me.
“May I help you?” My mystery woman rose up to her full height, not so large or tall but still, she commanded an impressively haughty tone. With her boot, she nudged me slightly and I eased myself further under the desk. She p
lanted both feet directly at my side, helping to hide my spot.
“Yeah, we’re looking for—”
“A book?” she offered. She was a librarian, I realized. That’s why she sounded and looked like one.
“Is he here?” another voice asked.
“I swore I saw him come in here,” another answered.
“He could be down the other side. I’ll go check.”
“This is a library,” my heroine declared. “I’m happy to help you find a book. But if you’re looking for something else—”
“You seen Ash Black, sweetheart?” one of them asked. I didn’t like him calling her sweetheart.