Stripped Read online
I shrug. “I ain’t…I mean, I’m not. ”
He laughs, a single huff. “You lie, Gracie. ”
“What am I afraid of, then?” I find my voice somehow, and pretend insouciance I don’t nearly feel.
“Me. ” He caresses my hips. “This. ”
I suck in a long, deep breath. “Don’t touch me. Please. Just let me dance. ”
He backs away, dropping his hands, and collapses to the couch, grabbing the bottle of whiskey and pulling on it. “Then dance. ”
So I dance. Naked, afraid, and humiliated somehow, fraught with some kind of desire I don’t understand, I dance. Not like a stripper. Not to provoke lust. I dance. As Grey, I dance.
All motion and power and confidence, I dance. I lose myself in it, in the music and the movement, heedless of my bared body. When I stop, Dawson is on the couch still, the bottle forgotten. His eyes are dark and conflicted, but the bulge at the zipper of his tight, expensive blue jeans shows me the effect of my dance. He sets the bottle down and stands up. I resist the urge to back away from him, but he doesn’t touch me again, although he reaches for me.
“You don’t belong here. ” He gingerly extends his hand, brushes a lock of hair away from my mouth. It’s a tender gesture, and it confuses me, scares me. Hits me somewhere deep inside.
His mouth descends to mine, and his lips brush across mine, hot and moist and soft. I’m not breathing. How can I? He’s kissing me. Why? My heart is frozen. My blood is a scorching river of fire in my veins, and I’m shaking all over. The black silk of his button-down dress shirt is stretched taut across his chest, and as he kisses me, he draws me against him. Silk is cold against my flesh, sinfully soft against skin and brushing my bare ni**les, turning them rigid. His tongue slides across the seam of my lips and his fingers curl into the muscle of my backside, sending thrills of heat through me.
It lasts a mere moment, and then it’s over.
He spins away abruptly, departs with a slam of the door, and I’m left limp. Emptied of everything, gasping for breath and trembling.
What just happened? I collapse back against the couch and struggle to breathe.
When I return to the main club floor, he’s gone.
And I’m changed, totally.
I get home after three in the morning, so I don’t have time to go back through the project files before classes the next day. My first class is at eight, and since I have to be at the Fourth Dimension office immediately after class, I dress in my business attire before I leave the dorm. There’s no time between classes for anything but hurrying to the next class. I don’t even have time for lunch, like most days. By the time I leave my “History of Europe from 1700” class, my stomach has been growling for hours. I shoulder my backpack full of textbooks and notebooks, sling my purse across my body, and click in my three-inch heels to the bus stop.
My stomach is a mess, roiling and growling, waffling between ravenous and nauseous. Today is the first day the Fourth Dimension team meets the cast of the film. The project has gone through development and preproduction, and now we’re getting ready to start actually shooting. I don’t know what to expect. I should, but I don’t. I should have every aspect of the project memorized by now, but I don’t even know who the lead is. I’m jittery, excited, and scared. In my film classes I’ve gone through the entire process of film making in miniature, from development to sound and electrical, camera to auditions to post-production. But that’s all been in-class mock-ups. This is for real. I’ll be working with a real actor, dealing with his rider and various other requirements.
The Fourth Dimension parking lot is filled with expensive cars. There’s a Ferrari, a Bentley, a stretch limousine, and an assortment of Mercedes and BMWs. And then, in the back by itself, is a low-slung sports car painted a kind of silver-chrome that’s almost a mirror. The car looks like it’s worth more than all the other cars in the lot combined, although I couldn’t tell you what brand it is. And here I am, arriving on foot from the bus stop.
I step into the ladies room before going up to the conference room. I’ve brought a fresh blouse to change into, knowing I’d sweat through the one I’m wearing. I put on deodorant, my new blouse, touch up my makeup and fix my hair. I’m dressed in my most conservative outfit. It’s a plain gray linen skirt that falls to my capri line, a pair of black heels, and a non-revealing white blouse. I look professional, like a businesswoman. There’s not a shred of sexy in my appearance at all, and that’s exactly how I want it.
I take the elevator up and follow the sound of voices to the conference room. The meeting is in full swing, but Kaz knows I come right from class. I pause outside the door, out of view, and suck in a deep breath, hold it for a ten count. Through that door sit some of the most powerful and influential men and women in Hollywood. And then there’s me, a messed-up pastor’s daughter from Georgia, a film student stripping her way through college.
I don’t know why this thought hits me now. No one knows what I do. Lizzie barely acknowledges my presence, Kaz thinks I work at a bar (which is kind of true), and there’s no one else who cares. I’m not friends with any of my classmates. Devin is busy with her own life at Auburn, and my dad doesn’t want to know I’m alive. It’s better this way. I’m not lonely; I’m too busy for friends.
Then why do I blink away the blurriness, the wet salt at my eyes? The plain beige carpet under my feet wavers.
Deep breaths, long and slow and steadying. I can do this. I can do this.
I blink hard, dig a Kleenex from purse, and dab at my eyes, then check my makeup in a compact.
I push through the door, a tight smile on my face. A dozen heads swivel my way. Kaz smiles at me from his place at the head of the long oval table, and with a wave ushers me toward the table. He gestures for me to take the one empty chair. I’m too nervous to register who’s in the room. I take the seat and focus on breathing. I hear Kaz talking in my ear, and realize he’s introducing me. I miss several of the names, but I know most of them. I recognize Bill Henderson, the AD; Francine James, the casting director; Ollie Muniz, the unit director. A few others, names I miss, but who will be listed in the files. I force my attention on Kaz.
“…Erskine, our director. Across from you, Grey, is Rose Garret, who will play Scarlett. Next to Rose is Carrie Dawes, playing Melanie. Armand Larochelle to your left, who will play Ashley Wilkes…” My breath catches painfully in my chest when I hear Armand’s name. He’s staring at me intently, a small smile on his lips. But Kaz isn’t done with the introductions yet. “And, last but not least, at the head of the table is Dawson Kellor, who has the role of Rhett. ”
I’m dizzy—the world is spinning, my heart crashing in my chest. No. No way. I force my eyes up to Dawson’s. His face is blank and carefully expressionless, but his mouth is turned down slightly, tight at the corners.
Kaz is clearly oblivious to the sudden tension. “I’m sure you’re familiar with Dawson’s work, Grey. You will be his assistant for the duration of the film. Anything he needs, you will provide. Anything. ” Kaz’s eyes flick to mine, and I force myself to breathe in before I pass out. Kaz addresses Dawson. “Grey is the best intern I’ve ever had, Mr. Kellor. I have complete faith in her abilities. ”
Dawson rubs his upper lip with his finger. “Grey, hmm? Do you have a last name, Miss Grey?”
I swallow hard. “Am…Amundsen. Grey Amundsen. ”
I’m two seats away from Dawson, but we might be the only two people in the room. He’s staring at me intently, as if he could glean my secrets through my eyes. Only, he already knows my secret.
I flash back to last night, to his hot gaze on mine, his hands on my skin, his eyes raking over my naked body. I feel his lips against mine. I stumble to my feet and lurch to the door.
“I’m sorry,” I mumble to Kaz. “I’m not—I’m not feeling well. Some