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One Second Of Love


The phone rings incessantly in his pocket as he struggles to put his key in the lock with one hand and balance a coffee and an unhealthy breakfast in the other. Once he's safely inside and out of danger of inflicting second degree burns on himself he checks the phone, only to confirm what he already suspected. 7.30 am and he's already got three missed calls from her. He ignored her when she woke him up at 5, he ignored her when she interrupted his morning session at the gym at 6.30 and he ignores her again as he wolfs down a croissant and burns the roof of his mouth with his coffee. She has no respect for time zones or call screening.

He jumps in the shower, soothing aching muscles with warm water, stilling his mind with the sound of water rushing past his ears. He closes his eyes and lets the water envelop him for a moment, savouring the privacy of the place where no one can reach him, question him, pester him. He finally turns off the faucet and grabs a soft, clean towel from the pile of identical, perfectly stacked white towels lining one wall of the bathroom.

By the time he's dried off and stepped back into his bedroom the phone is ringing again and he knows he can't put it off any longer.

"Mother," he answers, not bothering to conceal his annoyance.

"Darling! I tried calling you three times already!"

His mother's exuberance does nothing to pacify him, he already knows what's coming, already knows how frustrating this conversation will be.

"I'm aware."

"Well, then you already know I wanted to speak to you about an important matter," she counters, voice already more curt, poised for an argument.

"Let's hear it then," he sighs, racking his brain for what he could have done recently that might have upset her.

"Indie filled me in on the latest press you've been getting…"

"Of course she did," he mutters, mostly to himself.

"As well she should," his mother snaps, never one to tolerate interruptions. "That's what I pay her for!"

"Well, don't worry about it, ok?" he retorts, not able to stop himself from going on the defence. "I'll handle it, it'll be fine."

The line goes silent for a moment, his mother clearly pondering to what extent he is able to handle his own business. When she starts speaking again her voice is calm and serious, almost without any emotion. Her business mom mode is her most frightening mode.

"Jackson Avery, don't for a second think that you're backing out of this deal," she says, not as a threat but as a direct order. "The board are breathing down my neck on this, and frankly I'm fed up with seeing the family name being dragged through the mud in every tawdry gossip column from here to eternity. It's not becoming in the slightest."

"Mother, I know…" he tries, but she's on a roll and barely notices him interjecting.

"Your reputation has done serious damage to the good name your grandfather worked so hard to build, Jackson," she continues, going down familiar paths, reiterating sentiments that lock in the overwhelming guilt he struggles with. "Our investors are asking questions that are getting increasingly hard to answer and every time you rack up another scandalous headline you diminish the importance of the work we are doing. You're chipping away at your own legacy."

She pauses to let her words sink in and they do, they sunk in the first time she hammered them in too. He waits a moment to make sure he's allowed to speak, she commands his respect like no other woman in the world, always has.

"I understand," he starts, knowing he's not going to get away with making excuses. "I'm ready to take responsibility for it all, ready to try and save my reputation, I am, honestly."

He waits for her to respond, but her continued silence tells him they're still not getting to the bottom line.

"I am willing to go along with the steady relationship story line Indie's set up for me," he continues, hesitating a little before arriving at his conclusion. "I just don't know if the girl is right."

"Just stick with something for once in your life!"

The exasperation in his mother's voice takes him by surprise. She is frightening, meddling, overbearing and it's expected, but never angry like this.

"I'm at my wit's end with you, Jackson. Either stick with this deal or come back to Boston and be serious."

She hangs the looming weight of his legacy over him, the unfulfilled expectations, the disappointment, the condescension all palpable through her tone of voice alone. Since birth his path in life was supposed to take a certain direction, he was supposed to follow the course already staked out for him. He was supposed to get his medical or business degree at a prestigious East Coast college, not take a few classes at West Coast party school and loose interest after a year. He was supposed to take his seat on the board of the Harper-Avery foundation or go on to be an excellent cardiothoracic surgeon, not move to LA with his buddies and spend his trust fund on parties and women. He was supposed to fall in line, to fit the mould, to represent and lead, not bring his family name into disrepute. The enormous responsibility presses down on him like a boot on his neck, no matter how far he moved to get away from it, to escape it, his mother can bring him back, bring him to heel, in an instant.

"Mother, I'll handle it," he says through gritted teeth, resigned to her iron will.

He finally gets her off the line, ear and phone hot from the intensity of the exchange. He stares at the black screen for a while, knowing the notifications are still ticking in even though he turned the alerts off days ago. He picks up the phone again, opens the offending app and sees that his suspicions are well founded. The #AprilWho? hashtag is very much still alive.

He feels heavy as he moves through the throng of people hurrying off to work, oppressive heat already descending on the city, making the clothes stick to his skin and the pavement shimmer with radiating waves. He brushes past suit-clad people, increasingly irritated as he watches them stride with such purpose towards careers and life goals, leaving him behind to grapple with the single purpose he's worked towards; avoiding responsibility. He never asked for it and he never wanted it, just like this reputation overhaul and marriage of convenience that his mother is forcing down his throat. He'd been reluctant from the start, objecting to both the concept and the girl, and had only caved because he had hoped it would get his mother off his back. That part wasn't working out so well right now, and neither was the girl, who clearly wasn't pulling her weight. Getting April to pretend to be in love with him was like pulling teeth, slow and brutal.

He reaches the generic looking office building and rushes to catch the elevator, but the older man already occupying it kindly pushes the button to open the doors for him. How refreshing.

"Come in, Jackson," Indie purrs as he enters the reception, pink glossy lips revealing a perfect set of pearly whites.

Indie's office is as generic as the rest of the building, sterile and executive in every sense, she looks out of place in her expensive clothes and jewellery, too polished and dolled up to mesh well with the many shades of municipal grey.

"I know you think this is a bit of a fuck up," she starts, the sudden swearing vaguely amusing him. He can tell she really wants to be Meg when she grows up. "But it's just a speed bump, honestly."

"Do people actually know who April Kepner is?" he demands, not easily placated by PR smooth talking. "I mean, is there really any point to this?"

"People know who she is, trust me."

He never trusts anyone who tells him to trust them. Her eyes flicker nervously when he doesn't immediately reassure her that he does indeed trust her, but like a pro the wide smile stays firmly fixed on her face, like it's set in stone.

"This whole thing is on Meg," she starts, allowing her mouth to release the smile so she can feign outrage instead. "That journalist has a big beef with her, Meg basically called her irrelevant and out of touch in an interview a couple of months ago and she's been firing shots at Meg's clients ever since."

He scoffs at the thought, he has a lot of respect for Meg's no holds barred attitude to people as long as he's not on the receiving end.

"Meg's on top of it," Indie rushes to explain, misinterpreting his amused laugh as one of exasperation. "I personally spoke to her this morning and shouted at her until she grasped the seriousness of the situation."

He severely doubts Indie would ever dare to shout at Meg, the most high powered manager in LA, especially since Indie is the most power hungry PR in LA. The very reason his mother hired her was for her hunger, for her obvious need to perform her job to the absolute highest standard, to get the best possible result. He suspects that her need to collect powerful people is the reason she flirts with him subtly, but unashamedly and at every opportunity.

"It's handled," she concludes proudly, as if she's the saviour of the day.

"Is it?" The irritation that has been growing in him all morning is impossible to charm away today. "This whole hashtag issue is pretty embarrassing for both of us. Tell me again why April is the woman for this job?"

"She is the complete opposite of you in reputation terms," Indie explains, fierce conviction in her voice for the first time today. "She's innocent, sweet, naive even. She is girlfriend material, heck, she's even wife material."

"She's not really my type," he interjects, suddenly unsure if they are talking about the public's opinion on April or what Indie thinks should be his opinion on April.

"The public absolutely loved her on American Idol," Indie continues, eagerly leaning forward to make her point. "Even if she didn't win, everyone took her side when her boyfriend dumped her in spectacular fashion."

Suddenly she seems younger, like she's gossiping with a girlfriend, she smiles brightly, eyes sparkling and she forgets to throw him flirtatious glances as she seems to remember the exact details.

"I mean, that Baz was a total douchebag, I always thought so," she adds, almost to herself.

"A bad breakup is why she is perfect for me?" His voice seems to snap her out of her trip down memory lane and back to the question at hand.

"He dumped her for another contestant while they were all on tour together after the show," Indie elaborates, clearly still outraged on April's behalf. "Every night she had to go on stage and perform with both of them, you coming in and changing your bad boy ways for her will make you a hero in every teenage girl's and housewives' eyes."

"If they remember who she is, that is," he feels it's only fair to point out.

"People remember her," she reiterates, determination written in her face and in the small fist she has slammed down on the desk between them. "And please remember that you absolutely cannot be seen with any other women while this deal is on. Cheating on April Kepner would destroy your reputation beyond repair and I wouldn't even know how to face your mother if that happened."

"Don't cheat on the fake girlfriend with real women, got it," he sighs, resigned to the will of a strong woman for the second time today and it's not even lunchtime yet. "Anything else?"

It's starting to feel very hot and sticky in Indie's small office. He's stuck with this, however unnecessary he thinks it is, however unsure of the situation he feels.

"You need to turn things up a notch," she decides, back in PR mode, back in flirtatious mode, lashes batting at a hundred miles per hour. "More dates, more touching, I'd like to see a kiss too."

She says it without emotion, describing the mechanics of what makes tabloid stories happen, but it leaves him conflicted. He will do what is required of him, and he will play his part well. He's used to playing a role, to put up a facade, to pretend, it was his entire life until he moved away to college and it is still his life whenever he goes back to Boston. He will put up and put out, at least seemingly so, but this is so much more intimate than pretending to be interested in budget forecasting and grant distributions. This requires another person to return the intimacy. This requires partnership.

"Ok," he concedes, mind scrambling to distill a conclusion from his internal conflict. "I'm meeting April for lunch, I'll talk to her."

She is her normal curt self on the short car ride over to the lunch spot he has in mind, somewhere they can be easily spotted, somewhere obvious. She's apprehensive or nervous or something, because she refuses to look at him and from the corner of his eyes he can see her wringing her hands over and over.

"You OK?" he asks, glancing over quickly.

"Fine," she mumbles, in the way that people who are not fine tend to.

She's uncomfortable around him, avoiding his eyes, making as little conversation as possible. From their brief encounters so far he has felt her contempt, her inability to take him seriously, her prejudice against the concept of him. He's never bothered with people who aren't bothered with him, but he's stuck with her, the prospect of dragging a show of intimacy out of her is already wearing him out.

He decides to drop it, busying himself with finding a parking spot instead. He finds the perfect spot, far enough away from the lunch place to give anyone taking photos ample opportunity and time to clock them. As they get out of the car she's still miles away, closed off in some private world of hers he's not privy to. He self-consciously places his arm around her shoulders, which startles her and forces her to acknowledge him.

"Whatever it is, you have to leave it behind for now," he warns quietly, spotting a couple of paps on the far corner of the block. "We're working."

He keeps his hand on her shoulder, doing his part and hoping she came to play ball. He leads her to a restaurant on the corner with rows of small tables outside, perfect for the kind of exposure they're looking for. They sit down at one of the outside tables, settling in on uncomfortable green and red metal chairs. Her vacant stare and hand wringing is back and he decides not to prod her by playing games, letting her order her own lunch.

"I'm really sorry," she suddenly says, breaking the silence. Her eyes are wide, her cheeks flushed, her lip worried in under her teeth. "For the whole horrible hashtag thing, I mean. I know it's embarrassing for you, it's really mortifying for me too."

"It happens," he shrugs, unnerved by her sudden honesty, worried that she will demand his in return. "You can't take these things personally."

He instinctively puts his hand over hers to reassure her, but lifts it again after a few seconds; feeling like it's an intrusion in her privacy. She notices, raises an eyebrow to him as their waitress puts their drinks down on the table.

"This whole thing is mortifying," she explains, small smile on her lips. "The ruined career, the fake relationship, the twitter abuse. This is so far away from what I thought I signed up for."

He gets it, the weight of responsibility is hanging around her neck too. He sees in her the same desperation that's in him, the need to follow her own path, to grasp at autonomy.

"We're both jumping through hoops here," he admits, the conversation with his mother earlier in the morning fresh on his mind. "For whatever reason we ended up here, together, and it's up to us to make this work. I can't do this without you, you have to invest in this, you have to step up."

"I know, I just…" she starts, eyes flickering up at him, hesitation drawing her bottom lip downwards. "I'm just not sure…"

He sees the conflict in her eyes, sees her arriving at the same conclusion he arrived at himself, eyes flashing a silent apology at him. She can stomach a fake relationship, just barely. She's just not sure she can stomach him.

"I'm not my reputation, April," he sighs, running his hand over his head in frustration, pulling up his eyebrows into a frown. "That's just what other people think I am, it's got nothing to do with reality. At least give me the benefit of a doubt before you judge me."

The sudden arrival of their food halts the conversation; letting his last words simmer between them. She can barely look at him, eyes dancing from the waitress, to her food, to her hands. Once they are alone again she picks at her salad and fingers her small necklace while he waits for her to acknowledge him.

"You're right," she finally says, exhaling deeply, still thumbing the small gold pendant hanging above her collarbones. "I haven't given you a chance, I haven't been fair to you, and I know that."

She pauses to look up at him, hesitantly reaching out for his hand across the table, leaving the little gold cross dangling on the thin chain around her neck.

"I agreed to be friends," she follows up, looking a little guilty, a little shamefaced. She looks into his eyes but can't hold his glance for long, resting them on their entwined hands when looking directly at him becomes too much for her. "And I still mean that. I know I haven't acted like it, but I am invested in this."

She squeezes his hand softly and he glances down on her small, pale hand inside his. His eye catches a flash of something reflecting from across the street, he doesn't even have to look up to know what it is. He's got himself so wrapped up in this conversation with April he's all but forgotten why they are here together in the first place.

"Shit," he mutters under his breath, glancing up the road to see a small group of photographers, long, dark lenses pointed directly at them. "I think we kinda screwed up this lunch."

She drops his hand and glances over her shoulder, quickly turning back around and ducking her head down.

"I completely forgot about them," she hisses, shooting him a helpless look. "Do you think it looked like we were having a fight?"

"I don't think it looked like we were madly in love," he retorts, voice a little sharper than he intended.

She hangs her head, guilt back in her eyes, cross pendant back between her fingertips. He sighs and grabs her hand away from her necklace, lacing his fingers through hers. Holding her hand for show is somehow less intrusive to him than holding it out of genuine intimacy.

"Don't worry," he sighs, letting a slight smile cross his lips. "We can get them back. The gossip mongers love a little drama anyway."

She relaxes her shoulders slightly, smiles hopefully back at him. There is a brief moment where her eyes betray some sudden inspiration, and then she leans over the table and places her free hand on his cheek, small fingers slightly splayed across his jawline, thumb tracing small circles on his skin.

"Ok," she says quietly, leaving her hand on his face, stroking him gently. "We'll be more convincing next time."

"Nice save," he smiles, following her example and leaning in closer.

"Thanks," she swallows, eyes dark and unflinching. She slowly retracts her arm, leaving a tingling trail behind on his skin as she breaks contact.

He lets out a small breath, shoulders relaxing slightly. As they leave the restaurant the arm around her back is less self-conscious, and she doesn't shrink away from it or him.

The opportunity to convince comes a couple of days later. There is an event, a brand launch or something, he forgets the specifics, focused only on the optics it will provide. Indie sets it up, repeating her earlier advice to turn the heat up, to hype up their stock.

He waits in the car for her to come down from her apartment, focused on the task at hand, determined to achieve, to placate, to redeem. She's on time, as promised, big, red curls bouncing off her shoulders, more makeup than he's ever seen her wearing. She gingerly slides in to the seat next to him, tucking her red lace dress in under her legs. The way she dresses is miles away from his usual type, more covered, less obvious, perhaps a little more classy, but he figures that is the point of her, the reason why Indie finds her so perfect for the job.

"You look really nice," he flatters, because he can't help himself, it's like an impulse, like sexual Tourette's kicking in whenever he's alone with a woman. She does look nice, admittedly, but from her slightly horrified expression he can tell it came out sounding like a lame playboy pickup line.

"Um, thanks?" she grimaces, cheeks pinking up, hands suddenly busy pulling the skirt down over her knees.

The fragile ease they found with each other just days ago seems forgotten, derailed by his overconfident reaction to seeing her somewhat dressed up. He quickly flicks on the radio, hoping that some background noise will reel it back in. A tinned, synthetic pop song comes on, too schmaltzy for his tastes so he goes to turn it over, but she bats away his hand at the last second.

"Wait, that's my song!" she says, surprise in her voice. "I'm back on the radio."

"Oh, sorry, I didn't know", he apologises, annoyed with himself for managing to make an already awkward situation worse. Not only did he let her know he has no clue what her music sounds like; he also made it clear he doesn't like it.

"Not a fan, eh?" she scolds, but he thinks he can hear slight amusement in her voice. He tries to feign ignorance, suddenly reading every road sign meticulously as if he has to concentrate really hard to find his way, as if he has no clue what she's talking about.

"Um, well..." he mumbles, still fully focused on the road ahead, though they're only going straight ahead and there's practically no traffic.

"Don't worry, I'm not either," she says breezily, laughing a little to herself. "It's not really my style, it's what the label wanted and I stupidly went along with it."

"Oh, well..." he exhales, majorly relieved to be off the hook. "I mean you have a great voice, obviously."

He attempts to retrace his steps, to gloss over, to dig himself out of this hole, but it sounds hollow even to him. He hates to admit it, but he's an Avery to a T, diplomatic, polite, gracious, even complimentary when there is no reason to be. In essence he is everything his mother expects of him, not that she ever gives him credit for it.

"Thanks, but you don't have to say that just to spare my feelings," she says, betraying a glimmer of inner strength and confidence she has managed to hide well up until now. "I'm just pleased I'm back on the radio. This means we must be doing something right."

The event turns out to be as boring as he feared. After they've done their posing together in front of the step and repeat wall and done the minimum of customary mingling, the party has little going for it. The room is filled with sponsors and plus ones star struck by the scattering of celebs roped in to add some glamour to it all, craning their necks to spot them over the throng of invited press circling around their prey. Aspiring actors dressed in skintight shirts mill about handing out the product that has brought them all here for the evening, a sickly-sweet fruit flavored vodka drink inexplicably packaged in metal tubes that look like they should contain oil paint. He can predict with alarming accuracy how these events tend to unfold, he's been to hundreds here in LA and hundreds more in Boston that seem more serious and credible on the surface, but are filled with the exact same inane chatter and the exact same wandering eyes eager to catch the attention of someone more important.

They cling together, constantly touching, caressing, simulating two people unable to keep their hands off each other. She smiles and nods at a few people she recognises, he does the same, but the two of them are on their own here, locked into their own private bubble, or he hopes that's how it comes across. He's never been one for overt displays of affection in public, but he finds he can tolerate her physical presence more easily because it's not real, because it's an act.

"Do you think this is convincing enough?" she murmurs in his ear, smiling lazily up at him, latched on to his arm.

He scans the room briefly, clocking one or two photographers looking over, but most of them seem preoccupied with attention seeking starlets arching their backs and fluttering their lashes, blatantly posing whilst pretending to engage in conversation with their unfortunate companions for the evening.

"We need to amp it up," he decides, not wanting to go for a bust for the third time running. He spots an opportunity, leads her across the room towards a circular staircase in a darkly lit corner, seemingly private but eminently visible to the entire room. He carefully lifts her and puts her down two steps up so she is at eye level with him. Her face is inquisitive but curious, slightly alarmed but trusting.

"I'm going to kiss you now," he says calmly, facing her dead on.

Her eyes widen in panic, but she manages to keep the rest of her face serene. He moves closer, his face hovering just in front of hers, so close he can smell her conditioner. He struggles to swallow, throat thick and dry in anticipation.

"Wait," she protests, leaning away from him slightly, placing her small hands on his shoulders. "We have to talk about this."

"Let's not talk about it," he sighs, grabbing the bannisters either side of her. "Let's just get it over and done with."

"Ok, ok," she hisses when he leans in again, holding him back. "Just don't use your real kiss on me."

"My what?" he asks, not understanding.

"This is a-a job right?" she stutters, speaking faster as her face gets redder. "So use your work kiss on me, not your real one."

"I'm not sure I have a work kiss, April," he says, eyebrows knitted into a frown, but respectfully backing off, needing her permission, her participation. "I'm pretty sure I just have the one kind of kiss."

"Well, just don't kiss me like you mean it," she tries to clarify, tries to justify to herself, tries to keep up some barriers.

"Ok," he agrees, because there is really no way to disagree with that, and no other way he can appease her.

"Ok, then," she sighs, because she'd rather still be talking about it, and he can see her nerves kicking in.

She inhales sharply as he puts her hands on her waist, bites her lip as she folds her hands behind her neck when he moves closer. Her dress rustles against the fabric of his suit, her breath uneven in apprehension, eyes on his but fluttering her lashes steadily as her last form of defence.

"Got anyone's attention?" he whispers, motioning subtly to the room behind him. Her eyes flicker briefly past his ear and return back to him, nodding imperceptibly.

Her pink lips part ever so slightly as he moves in, the last thing he sees before he closes his eyes, before he shuts off his brain and goes with his instinct. He kisses her softly, moving his lips slowly over hers, but doesn't push into her, doesn't overpower her. But he only has one kind of kiss, and his instincts tell him to pull her closer, to lean into it, to move his hands across her back and grasp at her.

The moment is brief, yet unintentionally intense. When he pulls back her eyes are slow to open, her lips slightly swollen and still parted. He partially expects the room behind him to erupt into applause, but the loud hum of indistinguishable voices and generic thump of bass is as they left it. Her hands are still tightly wound around his neck and his hands are glued to the lace on her back.

"I think they got us," she finally says; voice a little hoarse, eyes dark and entirely focused on his. She can't have looked past his shoulder to check, but he releases her, because they did what they came to do, amped it up, put on a show, appeared together and appeared to be together. They got it over and done with, and now the kiss is over, the work is done.

"I think we were plenty convincing," he mutters in her ear, leading her by the hand back across the room and out the door.

He stares at his computer screen, opening link after link, one window replacing another. There are so many links he just skims the headlines and the pictures of him and April in various constellations, arms around each other, her hand on his cheek, his hand in hers, his lips on hers, her fingers laced around his neck. According to the headlines they have done their jobs, managed to convince, to deceive. According to reliable sources he is madly in love, through extensive analysis things between him and April are heating up, what is plain for everyone to see is that his bad boy ways have been curbed. His immediate reaction is pure relief, content that his mother will be mollified, that his family responsibilities aren't looming quite as large.

Indie's done extensive work, he has to work his way down a long list of links before he reaches the punch line.

"I told you it's handled", she's written above a link to a tweet from the very same journalist that coined the unfortunate #AprilWho? hashtag. It's a photo he's not seen before, from last night's event, but not one he can immediately pinpoint in time. They're holding hands, turning slightly away from each other, her with a small, slightly secretive smile, him with a big grin that looks directed at only himself. The accompanying tweet reads like Meg herself has dictated it word for word.

"Breakout Idol-star April Kepner turned up the heat with boyfriend Jax Avery at LA event. These lovebirds look set to be the next celeb super-couple. #Japril anyone?"

He's about to get straight on the phone to Indie to set her to work on minimising the spread of the hated abbreviation of his name, when he inadvertently clicks on the #Japril link and is faced with an endless barrage of new tweets. Even in his A-list dating days he never had a couple nickname, a portmanteau signifying he is part of a unit, part of a coupling bigger than his own name.

He sighs deeply, puts his phone back down and clicks back to the photograph he failed to place. It finally comes to him, he finally realises that it was taken just moments after he broke away from kissing April, and it makes the expressions on each of their faces even more incomprehensible.

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