Stripped Read online

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I shake my head. “It’s not that. ”

  “Then what? Explain it. ”

  “You wouldn’t understand. You couldn’t. ”

  “You’d be surprised what I can understand,” Dawson says. His eyes are intent on mine, not wavering, daring me to look away, which of course I can’t do.

  “You know,” I whisper. “You saw me. You saw Gracie. You’ll never see anything else now. ”

  “Am I treating you like a stripper?” He says the word casually, as if the truth of it doesn’t rip a hole in me.

  “No. ” I can barely whisper the answer.

  “You think you’re the first girl to strip her way through college? You’re f**king amazing at it, Grey. You should own it. It doesn’t have to define you. ”

  “But it does. ”

  “Then that’s your problem. You’re going to let it ruin your career before it even begins? Seriously? If it’s that big of a deal, I won’t tell anyone. And I’ll talk to Armand and make sure he doesn’t, either. Adam and Nate were wasted, and I doubt they’d be able to pick you out of a lineup. Just come to work tomorrow. ”

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  “Just…go. Please. ” I’m near tears, holding them back desperately.

  Dawson shakes his head slowly, as if confused and irritated. “Damn it, Grey. Just let me—”

  “Let you what? What are you going to do? Change reality?”

  He sighs in exasperation. “Fuck, fine. Be that way. ” He turns to the door and put his hand on the knob, then stops as if remembering something. Pulling a set of keys from his pocket, he crosses the small room in two strides, takes my hand in his, and places the keys in my palm. “Here. You shouldn’t be walking everywhere alone. ”

  I look down and see a Land Rover emblem, the key folded into the fob, a silver oval on the black plastic with the signature green lettering. “What? I can’t—I mean…what?”

  “It’s my Rover. It’s in the lot out there. Those are the keys. I want you to drive it. ”

  “But…no. I mean, you don’t even know me. We’ve met twice. I can’t drive your car. ”

  “Yes, you can. And you will. You’re my assistant for this project, which means you have to do what I tell you. Your job is to keep me happy. So drive my car. ”

  “But…what if I crash it?”

  He snorts. “Babe, I’m Dawson Kellor. I could buy a dozen of them with my debit card. I couldn’t care less if you crash it, except for you getting hurt, that is. ”

  “You have a debit card?” I ask. It seems so commonplace a thing for a celebrity of Dawson’s caliber to have.

  He seems puzzled. “I have a bank account, so therefore, yes, I have a debit card. I also have credit cards. And a driver’s license. ” His tone shifts to teasing. “You know what else? I’m a guy. I pee and miss the toilet. I take shits. I eat cheeseburgers. I watch baseball and drink beer. ”

  I glare at him. “That’s not…I mean, I just—”

  He laughs, and brushes a finger over the frown lines on my forehead. “Relax. I’m teasing you. My point is, I’m just a guy. ”

  “You’re not, though. You just said it yourself. You’re Dawson Kellor. ”

  “Does that intimidate you?” He’s closing in, and his mouth is centimeters from mine, his breath on my cheek and his eyes boring holes in me.

  He could snap his fingers, and any woman in the world would jump to do whatever he wanted. Yet here he is, in my dumpy little dorm room, acting like he likes me, like he sees something special in me beyond the fact I’m pretty enough. This isn’t vanity but more about who I am. I’m not the kind of girl he’s used to. I’m not an L. A. girl. I’m not an actress or someone sexy and confident and sure of who I am. I’m a mess. A confused, embarrassed, shameful mess.

  And he’s the god of Hollywood.

  He’s the face of Cain Riley, hero of the Mark of Hell trilogy, a series of paranormal action-adventure/romance books that outsold both Harry Potter and Twilight. Those movies made Dawson’s career. His face is on the books now. There’s a Mark of Hell ride at Universal Studios, with Dawson’s face plastered all over it. There are toys with his likeness, fan clubs and cosplay costumes and parodies and SNL skits making fun of him.

  His portrayal of Cain was darkly sexual, James Bond meets Batman. Women swooned over Cain Riley, fantasized about him. What makes Dawson even more famous is the fact that he seems to emulate in his own life the character he played in the movie. Women don’t just swoon over Cain Riley the fictional character, but over Dawson Kellor, the very real and wild, sexy young debonair playboy with more money than God.

  I see this dark and sexual Dawson Kellor in the way his eyes devour me. They are burning thunderhead gray right now, and I realize the color of his gaze is a mutable thing, changing with his emotions and his clothes. His hands settle on my waist, and I’m not breathing, unable to look away from his eyes. I feel his breath on my lips, feel the power of his hands on my skin, and I remember the taste of his kiss, the luring hypnotism of his mouth on mine. My lungs burn with held breath; my eyes waver and blur, and the heat of his body radiates against my skin and I want him. I want to kiss him again—I want to get lost in his touch like I did for that moment in the club. For that briefest instant of time, I was just a woman being kissed, a girl experiencing her first brush with passion; nothing mattered, nothing existed but Dawson and his mouth and his hands and his eyes and his heat and his broad, hard, muscular body.

  I want the very same in this moment.

  I have to stop this. I have to turn away. Kissing him would be wrong. If I have to work with him, I can’t kiss him. I can’t think about that night in the club, silk shirt against my bare skin and his hands on my backside, owning me.

  Except I want him to own me. I want him to do whatever he wants. I want to give in to my own shaking need and trembling desire. I want him to show me what I’ve never known.

  His lips are soft and wet against mine, and I’m breathing his breath, clutching his shirt desperately and holding on for dear life, letting him kiss me again. The kiss…God, the kiss. I scold myself for taking the Lord’s name in vain, and then I remember that I don’t care about that anymore, and then his tongue slips between the slight parting of my lips and scrapes my teeth, touches my tongue in a rapturous tang. I can’t breathe, can’t begin to think, can’t do anything but grip his T-shirt in my fists and kiss him, move my mouth against his and touch his tongue with mine. And now I’ll never return from this place, for I know the taste of temptation. I’ve sinned; I’ve fallen.

  His lips pull away, and I’m left empty. I sag forward and rest my forehead against his chest, and then sobs overtake me, sending me into shuddering spasms, wracking, jerking, heaving sobs.

  “Grey? Jesus, what’s wrong?” His voice is plainly confused.

  “Go. Just…go. Please go. ” I can barely speak.

  “Why are you crying? Was it that bad of a kiss?” He’s trying to joke but it falls flat. The wince on his face shows he knows it.

  I can only shake my head. I stumble away from his hypnotic heat, away from his touch, his lips. “Go! God…please just leave me alone! I can’t…I can’t—I can’t do this with you. You have to go. ” I climb my ladder to the top bunk, feeling like a child trying to hide from punishment.

  I feel him standing there, watching me. I’m facing away from him, so all he can see is the curve of my waist and the wide bell of my hips and the taut expanse of my backside. My gray linen skirt is tangled beneath me, stretched tight across my hips, and I feel his gaze on my body. I want to shift and adjust the skirt, but I’m too conscious of his eyes on me to move. I hear a jangle of keys and then the sound of metal on wood as he sets them on my desk. I hear him shoving the empty carryout containers into the paper bag, and then the sound of the knob turning. Excited voices grow louder as the door opens. Greg growls an injunction to calm down.

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&nbs