‘This was not what I was expecting,’ I blurted, glaring accusingly at his apartment. Looking around, it was hard to understand how such a conceited and egotistical man could have such a...humble apartment.
It was an open lofty space, with high ceilings and tall windows. There was a grey couch in the centre of the room that looked soft and welcoming. The kitchen was spacious, with a ranch style. The bench tops were beautiful light wood with grey cupboards. There were several wooden doors that led off the space which I assumed were bedrooms and bathrooms but no matter how hard I looked there was nothing that reflected the man I had been faced with so far. It was baffling.
‘Doesn’t live up to your expectations,’ he mocked. ‘I never thought you would be the pretentious kind.’
‘I’m shocked you don’t have a 7-foot portrait of yourself,’ I shot back, moving further into the apartment. ‘I was expecting wall to wall marble and diamond chandeliers.’
‘Sorry to disappoint, sweetheart,’ he chuckled, heading towards one of the doors and disappearing inside.
I quickly made myself comfortable on his cloud-like couch, revelling in its plushness. I sunk into the cushions until I was enveloped, with no prospect of getting back up.
‘Making yourself comfortable, I see,’ he said, coming back into the room. I looked up to see a rare, genuine smile on his face and I felt my heart beat strangely in my chest.
‘This couch is heaven,’ I answered, wedging myself further into the cushions.
‘I’m glad you approve. I imagine it’s quite a step up from what you’re used to.’
‘Why do you have to ruin it?’ I frowned. Every time I thought we were making some progress he goes and opens his mouth and says something that makes my blood boil.
‘I haven’t said anything you don’t already know.’ He shrugged, setting down the first aid kit on the coffee table before sitting down beside it. He sat in front of me, with his knees caging mine in and a smug smile on his face.
‘You don’t know anything about me, pretty boy,’ I scoffed, slouching back with my arms crossed tightly over my chest.
‘You think I’m pretty?’ All I could do was scowl at him in reply. There was no point trying to attack his ego. It was like trying to stab a tree with a blunt knife, impenetrable.
‘Come on, sweetheart,’ he smiled and almost instantly I felt my scowl falling away. ‘Let’s have a look at your battle wounds.’
Gently, he lifted both of my legs and laid them across his lap and surprisingly, I let him.
‘It’s really nothing,’ I halfheartedly objected but he wasn’t deterred.
His brow furrowed as he looked down at my bloodied knees in silence.
I hissed as he wiped my cuts and scrapes with antiseptic but was quickly silenced when he shot me a sympathetic look before returning to his work. I didn’t know he was capable of thinking about anyone but himself, but here he was cleaning and bandaging my cuts and bruises. His fingers against my skin had a dangerous feeling, filling my chest with an unexpected warmth. I tried to tamp it down, but seeing the concentration on his face made it difficult to hate him.
When my knees were expertly bound he set them aside and reached for my hands.
I felt numb and oversensitive all at once. He took so much care, gently cleaning the gravel from my hands before he bound them like my knees. My heart was beating so fast and loud I was afraid he might hear it. When he brought my freshly bound hand to his lips and pressed a gentle kiss against it. I think my heart might have stopped. His hazel eyes were locked on mine as his lips lingered. I felt heat sweep through my body until the room felt stifling.
When he pulled his lips away, I finally felt like I could breathe again. He still held my hand and my gaze with his eyes. I couldn’t look away and it felt like he couldn’t either. For a moment, it felt like we were trapped inside our own little bubble.
‘T-Thank you,’ I stuttered. My voice bursting the bubble as reality splashed me in my face.
Shakily, I drew my hands away from his as he blinked rapidly. He looked in a daze, settling back on the tree stump coffee table but keeping my knees trapped between his.
‘I’m sorry,’ he answered and I started at the apology. He didn’t strike me as the man to do it often. ‘For what happened outside your apartment. I hate that they hurt you.’
‘It’s not your fault,’ I muttered reflexively, but I tasted the lie as it left my lips. The truth was, I blamed him for everything that had happened since that night.
‘They aren’t going to stop, you know,’ he began cautiously.
‘They’ll get over me,’ I shrugged, although there was very little hope left, of me ever returning to my normal life from before this mess had started.
‘Annie,’ he sighed, touching my knee to draw my attention back to him. ‘They aren’t going to forget about you.’
‘Not if you keep mentioning me in interviews and rocking up at my doorstep,’ I shot back defensively. ‘If you left me alone they would have no reason to follow me.’
‘I’m not going to leave you to fend for yourself, you know? I am somewhat of a gentleman.’
‘I don’t need you to protect me, I am perfectly capable of looking after myself,’ I grumbled, pushing to my feet and shoving his legs out of my way.
‘I never said you weren’t capable Annie,’ he huffed and I could hear his footsteps trailing after me as I made my way for the door. ‘I just want to make this a little easier for you. I want you to be safe.’
‘I would have been safer if you had just left me alone,’ I shouted, spinning back to face him. He stumbled back a few steps with a startled look on his face when I continued. ‘None of this would have happened if you had just denied everything.’
‘They would have found you anyway,’ he defended.
‘You don’t know that. You have no idea what this “relationship” will cost me. All you thought about was yourself and how you could make life easier for you. Well, what about me, Xander? What do I get out of this?’ I demanded, poking him aggressively in the chest, with one of my injured hands.
‘I’ll admit that my choice to continue the charade was for selfish reasons and yes I want it to continue.’ I made to interrupt him but he pressed a finger against my lips to silence me. ‘However, the damage has already been done and whilst your job loss was a regrettable side effect it can’t be helped now. So, you can either, make the best of a bad situation or go back to your apartment and sulk until the reporters lose interest.’
‘I choose to sulk.’ I answered as his hand fell away.
‘I never picked you to be a coward, Miss Reiner.’ He challenged.
‘I’m not a coward. I’m practical. What could I possibly gain from continuing with your delusion? I’m not a model or an actress who can profit from your fame, nor am I a socialite or a gold digger who hopes to cash in big on your wealth. What could you possibly offer me that would ever tempt me to be a part of your act?’
‘An adventure,’ he shrugged. ‘How many people in the world can say that they have been the girlfriend of a world famous movie star?’
‘You really think a lot of yourself, don’t you?’ I scoffed, shaking my head at his absurdity. He wasn’t listening to me. He didn’t understand that the last place I wanted to be was tabloid fodder. It was a situation I thought I could somehow manage to avoid, especially now that I was so far away from home.
‘Come on Annie, you’re not seeing the potential here,’ he pleaded and I rolled my eyes at his desperation. ‘All you need to do is attend a few events with me and pretend to be loved up for a few months. Then we can part amicably as friends. I’ll pay for everything and I’ll even throw in a hefty compensation payout for the loss of work I’ve caused you.’
‘I don’t want your money,’ I spat, insulted that he thought I could be swayed by his wealth. ‘Money is the least of my problems.’
‘I’ve seen where you live, sweetheart,’ he smirked, thinking he had me cornered. ‘You could definitely do with the cash injection.’
‘You’re a pig.’
‘It’d be irresponsible of you to turn me down.’ He condescended.
‘You don’t know anything about me. How dare you belittle me and assume that I need anything from you. Especially your charity.’
‘It’s not charity. Consider it a job offer. You’ll be on my payroll, so, anything I give you is simply part of your salary.’
‘Do you understand what you’re suggesting?’ I hissed. I felt dirty even listening to his offer. He wanted to pay me for my affections. He would own me and I was terrified about where he might draw the line.
‘I’m suggesting you play a part. I’m asking you to act like a loving girlfriend for a few months.’
‘You’re paying me to be an...an escort.’ I spat, hating the taste in my mouth.
‘Annie, you’re making a big deal out of nothing. I would never force you to do something you’re uncomfortable with.’
‘I’m already uncomfortable.’ I shot back, crossing my arms tightly over my chest and glaring at him.
‘A few public displays of affection here and there. Nothing you’d be afraid to show your grandma.’
‘Can’t you find another girl? I mean, I’m sure there are plenty of women out there who would kill to do this for you. Why don’t you ask one of them?’ I grumbled. Why was he so insistent that I be the leading role in his ruse?
‘The press already know about you. If I was to find another girl they’d label you as the rebound. Is that how you want to be seen?’
‘No.’ I sighed.
‘Besides, you don’t like me. So, there’s no risk of you getting attached when it’s time for us to break up.’
‘What would I have to do...exactly?’ I asked, narrowing my eyes as I watched him start to relax.
‘Be seen with me around the city. I start filming my new movie next week and I still have promotional work to do for the new Nightmare Slayer movie. So, you’d come to set a few times, come with me to premier nights and charity Galas and launch parties.’
‘So, I’d be like a trophy girlfriend. A trinket to hang from your arm whenever you need me to?’ I frowned, feeling a familiar sense of panic start to build in my chest. The room felt too small, my clothes felt too tight and the air too thick. My mother’s smug face flashed across my vision and the tang of copper filled my mouth.
‘Exactly,’ he smirked, wrapping a strong around my waist and drawing my tense body closer.
‘I’ll just be at your beck and call,’ I whispered, feeling like my veins had turned to ice.
‘I like the sound of that,’ he murmured, brushing a loose strand of hair from my forehead and leaning closer. I couldn’t move but I wanted to escape. I didn’t want this. I didn’t want any of this. I didn’t know this man from a stranger on the street and he was asking me to be something that I had spent my whole life running from.
‘I can’t do this,’ I breathed, still frozen in his hold. ‘I need to go.’
‘Annie?’ I heard the frown in his voice as I pulled away but I was too focused on my breathing to answer. If I stopped to talk I would break down.
I was already in the elevator when I heard his steps coming after me. When he came into view the doors were already closing. The confused look on his face only lasted a moment before the doors closed. Thankfully they did because moments later the dam broke. Every time I wiped a tear away another was quick to take its place. I couldn’t deal with this. A week ago I thought my life was perfect and with one night my whole world had started to unravel. I didn’t even know if I could go home.
When I left the elevator there was no doubt in my mind that my eyes were red and my cheeks were streaked with tracks where my tears had fallen and still continued to do so. I hurried through the extravagant marble lobby with my head hung low so the doorman couldn’t see. When I was out on the street I realised I had no idea where I was and with my phone and wallet still in the superstar’s custody I had no way of getting back to my apartment. I couldn’t go back up and ask for them back now. I didn’t want him to see me in tears. He wouldn’t understand. I didn’t want him to understand. I didn’t want him to know anything about me, especially, what made me vulnerable. The things I wanted to keep buried in my past.
‘Miss Annie?’ I jumped back when I heard the voice and looked up to find a concerned Greg walking towards me. The big black SUV was parked beside him with another man in a black suit leaning against it.
‘Greg,’ I said, trying to sound upbeat as I wiped some of the fresh tears from my face.
‘Are you alright, miss Annie? Do you need to go somewhere?’
‘I don’t know. I’m not sure if it’s safe to go home?’
‘Will Mr Collins be joining you?’ He frowned looking over my shoulder in search of his client.
‘No,’ I answered, twisting my hands anxiously. I was eager to be as far away from Xander’s apartment. I was afraid he would follow me down and try to convince me of his ludicrous plan.
‘We can take you anywhere you want miss Annie.’ He assured me, urging me in the direction of the waiting car.
‘I should be fine,’ I muttered, unconvincingly. ‘I can find my own way home.’
‘I can’t let you wander the city on your own,’ he admonished, his moustache twitching with disapproval. ‘It’s not safe to walk alone at night.’
‘I don’t want to be an inconvenience. Won’t you get in trouble for driving me somewhere if Xander needs you?’
‘Mr Collins can fend for himself for a night. Especially if he was insensitive enough to make a beautiful woman cry,’ he chided, holding the door open for me as the other man moved to the driver’s side.
‘And here I was thinking you hadn’t noticed,’ I laughed bitterly.
‘We’ll take you where you need to go miss Annie,’ he said warmly, resting a hand against my lower back to help me inside.
‘Thanks, Greg,’ I smiled sadly at him before he closed the door and climbed into the passenger seat.
‘That’s it,’ I announced, leaning forward to point at the familiar storefront.
‘Boxing Books?’ Greg frowned.
‘Yep,’ I smiled, feeling lighter now that I knew I was close to somewhere safe.
‘Don’t you want us to take you home?’ He frowned.
’No, this is fine. I don’t want to deal with all those reporters and Sarah isn’t home anyway. She had another shift at the restaurant tonight.’ I shrugged, reaching for the door handle as the car rolled to a stop.
‘Annie,’ I heard Greg call, but I was already out of the car and closing the door. Greg was quick to follow, leaving Harrod in the front seat. He was another of Xander’s security team. He was massive and had been almost bulging from his jacket. Like Greg, he was bald but he had no defining facial hair. He was very intimidating to look at, none the less.
‘Miss Annie, you’re meant to wait until I get out. I need to check that the area is safe before you just jump out of a still-moving vehicle.’ He scolded, stepping up to my side and scanning the footpath.
‘The car was basically stopped,’ I scoffed, starting to walk towards Teddy’s gym.
‘Miss Annie-’ However, his chastisements were cut short by a very angry Teddy.
‘Angel,’ he growled, slamming the door open and marching across the footpath to where I stood.‘Who are these men?’
‘Hey, Teddy.’ I smiled, rushing over to him and wrapping my arms around his middle.
‘What’s going on, angel?’ He asked, gruffly. I knew, without looking, he would be eyeing Xander’s two security men fiercely.
‘It’s been a very long day,’ I muttered against his chest.
‘Who are you?’ Teddy demanded and I looked up to see him glaring at Greg and Harrod.
‘We are Mr Collins’s bodyguards.’ Greg explained. ‘We were ensuring that miss Annie was returned safely to her home.’ Teddy grunted in response and tucked me under his arm.
‘I’m Greg,’ he introduced extending his hand which Teddy shook with a firm grip. ‘And this is Harrod.’
‘Ed,’ he grunted, shaking the other man’s hand as well.
‘We’ll be going now miss Annie,’ Greg announced.
‘Thank you, Greg,’ I smiled. He gave me a nod before both he and Harrod headed back to the car and disappeared.
Then it was just Teddy and me, standing out the front of his gym. I could tell from his silence that he had a lot to say.
‘What have you been up to, angel?’
‘I need a place to stay,’ I announced, always finding it easier to just get to the point with Teddy.
‘Who do I need to pay a visit?’ He growled, steering us back inside.
‘No one, I’m fine,’ I assured him.
‘Is that why it looks like you’ve been crying?’
‘I’m fine,’ I repeated, wiping the phantom tears from my cheeks.
‘What did he do?’ When we got inside, there were still a few men in the gym working out. I noticed Terry lifting some weights in the corner. He liked to come here after the cafe was closed. I think he does it to work off some of the tension that builds up from dealing with Piere all day.
‘He just brought up some things from my past. I wasn’t expecting to have to deal with any of this ever again.’
‘I thought we planned that you would distance yourself from this nuisance.’ Teddy scolded.
‘I was, but he showed up at my place.’
‘Where does this boy live?’ He rumbled, shutting his office door behind us and settling me on the worn out, striped green couch.
‘Just leave it, Teddy. I’m too tired to talk about him,’ I sighed, curling up against the arm of the couch as Teddy began to pace.
‘I don’t like seeing you hurt, angel. If this boy keeps it up, he deserves what’s coming to him.’
‘Look, Teddy, I know you’re looking out for me but I just want a good nights sleep. I haven’t had one in over three days,’ I moaned, stretching out dramatically. Teddy shook his head with a rye smile before he scooped me up and threw me over his shoulder.
‘Alright angel, but don’t think we’re finished talking about this.’
‘Whatever, Teddy bear,’ I sighed, hanging limply over his shoulder. My body bounced lightly as he pushed the door open that led to the stairs of his apartment above the gym.
‘Looking good, Terry.’ I shouted, causing the poor man to blush and his grip to slip slightly on the machine he was using.
‘Don’t embarrass the boy. You know how sensitive he can be.’ Teddy scolded before the door slammed shut behind us.
He deposited me in his guest bedroom with a warm kiss on my temple and instructions to get some sleep before he disappeared to shut up the gym for the night. Teddy had let me decorate this room so it was bright and airy with more than enough feminine touches. Especially, when compared to his dull, man cave of a room.
I quickly slipped into one the spare shirts Teddy left in here, then snuggled beneath the well-worn covers and shut my heavy eyes. My head had barely touched the pillow and I was out.