Stripped Read online
I seem to spend a lot of time terrified around this man.
He squeezes the car between lanes, fitting into spaces I wouldn’t have believed a car could go. Having just navigated the streets of L. A. myself, I realize the mastery he has over his vehicle. He makes it look effortless, as if hurtling through the congested traffic of Hollywood at sixty miles an hour is totally normal.
His phone chimes and he pulls it out, tosses it to me. “Can you see who that is?”
I hold the unfamiliar phone in my hand and stare at it. I don’t have a cell phone, since I can’t afford one and don’t have anyone to call. I have an iPad that I use for the internship, though, and it’s just like that. I slide the little green icon across the screen. “It’s from…Ashley M. ” I start reading the text aloud. “She says, ‘You should come over tonight. I have an eight-ball and some Blue Label. ’”
His faces contorts. “Shit. I thought it was from Jeremy. ”
“Who’s Ashley M?” A thought strikes me. “And why just the first letter of her last name? Do you know so many Ashleys that you have to differentiate between them?”
“Shit,” he says again. “She’s…a friend of mine. ”
“A friend. ” It’s not really a question.
He grabs the phone without looking at me and shoves it between his thighs. “Yeah. A friend. And yeah, I know lots of Ashleys. And lots of Jens. Last names…aren’t usually necessary. ”
“So should I answer her for you?” I know exactly what the message meant. Well, maybe I don’t know what an eight-ball is, but Blue Label is high-end whiskey. I’m guessing an eight-ball is drugs of some kind, which means sex. Ashley M is probably glamorously beautiful and sophisticated and knows how to please him in ways I don’t.
My heart clenches. I force myself to remember that he’s my boss. I work for him. He can do drugs and drink and have sex with anyone he wants. This has nothing to do with me.
He shifts gears, and grabs the phone, spinning it idly between thumb and forefinger. Then he tosses it to me. “Yeah. Answer her for me. ”
I take the phone and bring up the message from Ashley M. “What do you want me to say?”
“Just tell her no, thanks, that I already have plans. ”
I type the message into his phone and send it, and within seconds, a response pops up in the gray bubble. “She says, ‘Awww, are you sure?’” I choke a little and set the phone on his lap. “I’m not reading the rest. ”
My heart clenches, and my stomach flips. It’s none of my business. I don’t care. I don’t care. But…as much as I tell myself not to care, I do. I shouldn’t, and I don’t have any place feeling possessive over Dawson, but I do. The rest of the message said, If you come over, you can put it in my ass again.
My eyes blur. Dawson pulls the car to a stop at a red light, and on impulse I throw off my seat belt, shove the door open, and get out. I’m wearing heels, so I can’t run, but I slam the door behind me and start walking as fast as my precarious sense of balance will allow. I’m not looking where I’m going, and I don’t know where I am. It doesn’t matter. I hear Dawson’s angry voice behind me, calling my name. I don’t know what I’m feeling. Angry, sick to my stomach, jealous, confused. Lost. Loss, like some sense of possibility has been taken away. He likes anal sex. He has random women, whose last names he doesn’t even care about or know, texting him for a night of meaningless sex, drugs, and booze.
He’s a star. A celebrity. He lives a celebrity life, and I know nothing about that.
I hear honks and shouts from behind me, and I ignore it. I keep walking, fighting the stupid tears and losing. I don’t even know why I’m so upset about this.
I’m lifted off the ground, spun in place, and pinned against the plate-glass window of a storefront. Dawson’s arms are around me, under my backside. One of his hands is on my cheek, forcing my face to his. He’s breathing hard, sweat dotting his forehead and upper lip. His eyes are blue-gray, the color of his anger.
“Damn it, Grey. It’s not what you think. ”
I writhe in his grip. It’s too much, like this. I’m wrapped up in him, held in place by him. I can’t get away, can’t move, can’t breathe anything but his scent and his power. “Let me go. ”
“Because you don’t understand. ”
“There’s nothing to understand,” I whisper. “You can do what you want, with who you want. And it’s exactly what I think. ”
“She wanted you to come over for sex. It’s simple. ” I suck in a deep breath, close my eyes to block him out. He sets me down and I shove him, hard. “I’m an intern. That’s all. You don’t owe me any explanations. ”
“But what if I want—”
“It doesn’t matter!” I’m yelling, and I’m still crying through it, for some reason. I strive for calm, especially because a crowd is gathering. “Just…God, just stop, Dawson. Just stop. ”
“I can’t. I’m sorry you read that, but…look, you’re right, it doesn’t matter. I’m done with her. I have been. She was a one-time thing. That’s it. ”
I start walking again, and he catches up with me. We’re being followed by clicking and flashing cameras. “I don’t know what you’re trying to convince me of. It doesn’t matter. ”
“You keep saying that, but you’re the one crying. ” His hand catches mine and his other goes around my waist, drawing me to him. Once again, with a mere touch, I feel as if I belong to him. It’s wrong, and it’s right, and it’s confusing. “Stop running. ”
“I’m not. ”
He chuckles. “You’re a shitty liar, Grey. ”
I push him away and struggle out of his hold. I’m struggling against myself as well, since I like how it feels to be held by him. I’m lost, disoriented. Why am I fighting this? He clearly wants me in some sense. But I don’t know what he wants, and I don’t know what to do with his desire, or how to feel, or what I feel. All I know is survival, work, and school. I don’t know men.
I turn away and walk back the way we came, but I’m stopped dead in my tracks by the crowd of paparazzi. There’s dozens of them, and they’re photographing me.
“Miss Amundsen, are you and Dawson an item? How long have you been together? Did you catch him with another woman?” A middle-aged man with thick brown hair and square-framed glasses thrusts a voice recorder at me and shouts a train of questions.
How do they know my name? That scares me more than anything else.
A stick-thin woman with gaunt features and frizzy dishwater-blonde hair speaks over him. “Miss Amundsen, why did Dawson carry you to your dorm yesterday? Are you a USC student? Is it true you and Dawson walked in on your roommate having sex? What’s Dawson like in bed?”
My mouth opens and closes. I feel compelled to answer their questions. I was raised to be polite, to speak when spoken to. I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to be news. “I—I—we’re not, um…I don’t—”
“Can you comment on your relationship with Dawson Kellor?”
“How old are you? Do you have a husband?”
“Grey, have you ever thought about modeling?”
“Look this way, Grey!”
“Grey, over here!”
“Grey, has Dawson ever asked you to do anything in bed you didn’t want to?”
I’m looking from one voice to another, flapping my mouth open and closed, blinking at the flashes. I feel Dawson’s arm go around my waist, pull me back, and then he’s standing in front me, shielding me.
“Grey has no comment at this time, guys. ” He steps forward a bit, and I feel him shift, feel him become stiff and formal, as if he’s putting on a suit of armor. “How about I take a few questions about the film?”
The man who asked the first question pushes forward, jostling for position. “Dawson, we’ve all heard that you’re rumored to be in a remake of