Schooled

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Stripped Excerpt! Chapter 2

July, Six and a Half Months Later

I fucking hate New York.

My pulse pounded in my ears like a drum. Sweat poured down my face and my neck.

Is spontaneous combustion a real thing? Because it might happen in the next five seconds.

“What the hell do you mean you’re selling our condo?” I panted into my cell. My lungs dragged in two shallow breaths.

“Honey, it’s my condo. You and your roommate need to be out in a week.” Our landlord’s voice came down the line.

“But we just moved in! You can’t—”

Dial tone.

Shit!

I was booking it across 37th Street as fast as my trendy open-toed pumps would carry me, already late.

Getting evicted wasn’t the first bad thing to happen that month. Since my best friend and I had moved to New York, a pigeon had shit on my head, a local had flashed me on the street, and the R train had got me lost.

Three. Fucking. Times.

For a city that’s supposed to be epic, the Big Apple hadn’t bothered to put out the welcome mat.

The sleek office building finally came into view as I rounded the corner. When I pulled on the handle of the glass door by the side of the building, it refused to open. I tried again.

“Come on, you know you want to.”

I gave up the crooning and tried to pry it open. My nail broke off in the door frame.

“Dammit!”

I looked around wildly, realizing too late that everyone was going through a revolving door farther down the building. The one I’d been trying said Security Only

across the top. Finally pressing inside the right door revealed a lobby filled with well-dressed professionals who, unlike me, knew where they were going. My heels clicked as I rushed over the marble floor toward the security guard in the corner.

The guard’s nametag said Barry. I plastered on a smile and tried not to wheeze.

“I’m—” shallow breath of a dying woman “—I’m looking for a law office.”

“Which law office?” Barry asked my boobs like they were more exciting than my words. In his defence, Barry wasn’t the first man to think so.

“There’s more than one law office here?” I groaned.

“Twelve in this building.”

No wonder the world is going to shit. I tried to remember the name. “Umm … something about arms …”

“Armstrong Levitt. They’re on eighteen. What’s a pretty girl like you need a lawyer for?” He looked me up and down like it was the best part of his day. Barry was old enough to be my dad.

His eyes shone hopefully when I rested a forearm on the desk. “I cut a guy,” I confided in a loud whisper. Then I took off toward the elevator bank without looking back for his reaction.

Eighteen floors passed in a flash. I tried to fix myself in the mirrored wall. Tucked a few strands of auburn hair back into my messy bun. Scrubbed a tiny smudge of winged eyeliner I always screwed up on my left eye. Smoothed my royal blue silk tank and tugged down my probably-too-short skirt. I did the last part carefully, to protect the feather detailing around the hem.

No matter what I did, it didn’t hide the sheen of sweat that covered my … well, everything.

The doors opened with a ding, exposing a law office that looked like it was made by old rich men, for old rich men. Shiny wood. Polished marble. Big, bold lettering probably made from twenty-four-karat gold. A pretty secretary smiled from the reception desk. I blew past her with a wave as a familiar face caught my eye through the wall of a glassed-in meeting room.

“I’m here! Sorry, sorry.” I tugged the sliding door shut behind me.

My best friend sat on the far side of the table with our lawyer, John. Lex wore a stylish blue boyfriend jacket rolled at the sleeves. Her red hair fell in sleek waves just past her shoulders and her gray eyes radiated relief. Always 100% class, my BFF didn’t look like she’d just completed an Ironman.

So that made one of us.

“Traffic was insane. Still getting used to it.” I pulled out a chair and collapsed into it. My clothes were already sticking to me. Now they’d stick me to the chair. Ick.

Lex knew I didn’t drive but wasn’t about to rat me out.

“Right. So, remind me what we’re doing here?” I was dying to know the reason for my best friend’s cryptic and urgent-sounding phone message asking me to get my ass down there. I never thought we’d need a lawyer. And with less than eight weeks to finalize Travesty’s spring collection, Lex and I didn’t have time to mess around.

“Someone from the court came to my office this morning,” Lex started.

John gestured to another person at the table, who I’d hardly noticed in the rush. “Ava, Travesty has been served with a complaint. Nathan Townsend is here representing the plaintiff.”

I didn’t understand what that meant, but turned my head.

Oh.

Oh no …

Oh, supercalifragifucking …

I’m a visual person. What I noticed was spiky dark hair. A jaw you could cut diamonds on. A navy suit that cost more than my rent, tailored to fit a hard body. Eyes two shades lighter than the suit.

He wasn’t smiling, but I knew his teeth were straight. The only flaw above his neck was a scar through his eyebrow. And you’d only see it if you were close.

Say, close enough to lick it.

I wanted to squeeze my eyes shut. Hope he’d vanish in a puff of smoke, like a leprechaun. Or a unicorn. Or anything that belonged in my imagination and not reclining comfortably in a New York law office.

“Ava Cameron, is it?”

“No. No, no, no.” I turned to John. “We are not working with him. If you need help, find someone else. According to Barry there are lots of options.”

“We’re not working together.” A voice smooth as whiskey commanded my attention. Blue eyes took me apart and put me back together. Then the owner of that voice and those eyes straightened despite his already impressive posture and pushed a card in front of me on the table.

An actual fucking business card.

Nathan J. Townsend. Associate, Townsend Price.

Unbelievable. Weren’t lawyers supposed to be old and balding, like John? Not twenty-something and sexy as—

“I’m representing Anthony Bryson, whose work you copied.”

The surprise at seeing Nate dissolved into a new shock. “What the hell are you talking about?” I demanded.

“One of the designs from Travesty’s initial collection, your design, bears an uncanny resemblance to one created by my client,” he replied easily. Nate opened a folder and slid over the glossy photos like a detective in a network cop show. “These garments appeared at a fashion show three weeks ago. I understand they’re part of your fall line.”

He’d switched into full-on lawyer mode. It felt strange. The last time I’d heard his voice, it had been an octave lower and saying other things.

Very different things.

I forced my attention back to the photos. The first showed a flouncy skirt I’d done for the fall, blown up to highlight tone-on-tone detailing in an inverted chevron pattern that blended into hearts at the bottom. Next to it was a photo of a maxi skirt I didn’t recognize, but the pattern was similar.

I glanced at Lex, sliding the photos over. “Travesty’s designs are original. And mine,” I bit out.

“I appreciate your indignation, Ms. Cameron. But there is a striking similarity between this motif, shown here, and my client’s.” His smooth tone was as infuriating as his accusations.

“It doesn’t sound like you appreciate anything, Mr. Townsend,” I said tightly, leaning in. “Except the tree trunk up your ass, which you seem pretty happy about.”

Nate blinked.

Take that, Suit. I felt an ounce of satisfaction at his reaction.

“What Ava’s trying to say,” Lex jumped in with her trademark tact, “is the chevron has inspired a lot of collections this fall. We have a unique take on it.”

“Nathan, this is a sham. We intend to dispute this. But I think we’re done for today.” John cut us off before we could get into any more trouble.

This day had gone from bad to worse to apocalypse-sized disastrous.

I dug into my bag, searching for a nail file. At least I could fix something.

I’ve been in New York four weeks. I’m behind on the spring line, a week from homeless, and getting sued by the only person in the whole damn city who’s seen me naked.

“Quite the trifecta,” Nate muttered under his breath as he slid his files into a brown leather case.

Because apparently I’d said it out loud.

~

Thanks for reading this excerpt of Stripped! I hope you loved it. If you want more of Nate and Ava, you can find their entire story on most e-book retailers <3

xx,

Piper

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