Marissa looked over the offer again. It was generous—that wasn’t the concern. What bothered her were the implications if she accepted his terms. A week in Paris, all expenses covered, including a takeaway stipend, but she’d be at his beckoning. His every beckoning.
She sank further into her couch cushions despite the minimal give left in the decades-old furniture. She pulled the tattered comforter up over her knees until it covered her mouth. Her long sigh worked to warm the chill that crept beneath the fabric and release the edge of tension that worked its way around her shoulders.
But the thin fabric wasn’t enough. Nothing was. Her job as an education aide paid just over minimum wage, which might help her afford certain luxuries like a space heater if they ever gave her the forty hours they’d promised.
Which is why this offer, the one glowing under the dim light of her solitary desk lamp, sounded too damned good to be true. She wasn’t Cinderella, this wasn’t a just-in-the-nick-of-time ticket to the ball, and her life was anything but a fairy tale.
She fingered the paper, thick and formal, like the man who’d sent it over. Could she do it? Could she really make herself into Vivian, her now-ironic hero when she was a struggling teen after the death of her parents? The red ball gown, the rented jewelry that could take care of the surgery she needed and house her for five years if she pawned it. Richard Gere in a white limo.
Again, too good to be true. She couldn’t pimp herself out like that. Not even when the money would make a helluva difference in her quality of life. Maybe the quantity as well.
Fuck. The only thing more impossible than accepting the offer would be to decline it. She grabbed the lone throw pillow and pressed her face to it, screaming at the injustice of being offered everything in a package she couldn’t accept.
Her phone buzzed against her thigh. She dove beneath the blanket and swiped right, answering the call.
“Where are you? You sound like you got swallowed by a whale.”
“Why a whale?” Her best friend, Gregor, was nothing if not obscure. He taught science at her charter school, so she’d always figured it went with the territory.
“Because I just wrote a paper on how humpback whales are coming back from being endangered. It was on my mind.”
“I’m just saying, in our lovely little landlocked state, it’s more likely that an avalanche came down the mountain and devoured me whole.”
“Fine. An avalanche. Do I need to come rescue you?”
“No. I’m fine. Just covered up on my couch.”
“Maybe. I got an interesting proposition yesterday.”
“Ooh. I’m listening. Spill the tea.”
“As long as you quit using millennial speak. You’re thirty with a PhD. Act like it.”
“You’re a buzzkill. Now, talk, before I have to go back to the soul-crushing grading that is far beneath my potential.”
Marissa filled Gregor in on the mysterious man in a tailored suit who’d shown up at the school the day before.
“I saw him. He was fine, girl.”
“Yeah, maybe. But gruff would be an understatement.”
She’d been tasked with showing him around, had realized she wasn’t paid near enough to take care of moody, mercurial older men. Kids, sure. It came with the territory. But why Whitney, the principal and Marissa’s boss, thought she would be the right person to humor the guy was beyond her.
“It’s because you’re secretly a cuddle bug,” Gregor chimed in.
Sure. That was her. Little miss softy. She may not have been rude to the stranger, but she wasn’t exactly welcoming. Neither was he, though, so she didn’t feel as guilty as she might have if she’d treated Gregor that way.
She continued telling Gregor how the contract had come into her possession. How the man had invited her to dinner and Whitney had all but forced her to go. Apparently the suit was an investor.
The last part was the hardest for her to explain. One minute she’d been at dinner sipping on a glass of Petite Verdot that cost as much as her monthly rent, feeling inadequate in the department store shift she’d tried to pass off as elegant.
The next minute, he’d slid an envelope across the table and asked her to read over it and respond in the next twenty-four hours. Between school and dinner, he’d drawn up a packet of papers that threatened to change her life. She was on hour eighteen and no closer to deciding what the hell to do.
“So, what did the contract say? Did he offer you a job? Girl, say he asked you to work for him and he’ll give you the millions you deserve. Don’t forget us little people when you’re famous.”
“You’re not far off, actually.” She told him the last part in one breath, passing it off like it wasn’t a big deal. Like she got lucrative offers asking her to escort all the time.
“Wait, wait. Hold up. He asked you to go to Paris with him for a week? And he’s springing for everything? Wining and dining you and then paying you on top of it?”
“That’s pretty much the gist,” she said. When Gregor put it that way, it didn’t sound as seedy. She was one step closer to accepting it, morality be damned.
“And you’re not thinking about it why? Because remember I saw the guy and ugly isn’t an adjective anyone would use to describe him. Poorly dressed wouldn’t be, either. Did he have halitosis? Pick his nose?”
Marissa recalled the way her body had reacted when she got close to the stranger. Her stomach had flipped, heat pooled in her belly, and her panties had grown damp. Her sex ached just bringing back the memory of his hand on hers when she reached for the contract at the restaurant. He’d gotten up after that, left without a word, just grabbed the bill and stalked off, leaving her to look over the contract alone and appalled. And surging with a sexual energy she’d never allowed herself to feel.
The loss of his hand on hers left her longing, wanting more. But why? Because he was an ass as far as she was concerned. The most devastatingly handsome ass she’d ever laid eyes on, sure. But an ass all the same. And no halitosis had come to save her from the growing lust spreading from her abdomen south. He’d leaned in to ask about the student technology room, his breath hot on her cheek, and it had taken every ounce of willpower for Marissa to not turn her head and kiss him. He smelled like vanilla and cigar smoke, and all she wanted was to taste him, discover what those scents would feel like swirling around her tongue.
He was walking, talking sex. Which was another reason she couldn’t make herself say yes just yet. What could she possibly offer him that he couldn’t find in an actress, or heiress? Or worse yet, a highly-desired, and expensive escort. Someone who knew what she was doing. Why had he picked her? A teacher who couldn’t afford rent and didn’t know a department store from a designer? Surely taking someone to Europe for the purposes he’d outlined in the contract demanded some basic set of guidelines, guidelines Marissa lacked entirely.
“I dunno,” Gregor said, drawing her out of her overthinking-pity-party. “I think you have to go. What do you have to lose?”
“Um, my dignity?”
“So your dignity isn’t for sale. That’s fine. But if he’s offering you the world, take that and keep your precious dignity under lock and key. It isn’t directly linked to giving it up, you know.”
“Yeah, but for money?”
“Please, honey. You should see the type of men I’ve slept with and none of them ever offered me a dime. If anyone should be concerned about their dignity, it should be me. At least you’d be getting something out of the deal. Anyway, I have to run. Let me know what you decide.”
Gregor hung up and Marissa sat there, stunned. Somehow, in the span of a ten-minute phone conversation, Gregor had talked her into it. Before she could undo his hard work by overthinking her decision, she snuck a hand out of the blanket and grabbed the pen and papers, dragging them back under her shelter. She scrawled her name on the contract and dialed the number listed on the bottom of the last page.
When the man answered, her teeth chattered in response. That, and her pussy clenched at the idea of traveling with the husky voice on the other end. Something about the way he spoke unlocked a part of her that had been dormant since she’d moved to town.
Who answered the phone like that? Like the person calling was doing him a favor?
It was her father’s name, and almost impossible to say in this context. She swallowed back memories that came rushing forward. Tried not to think what he’d say about this agreement.
“Marissa. How nice to hear from you. I hope it’s good news you’re calling with.” A statement, not a question. Marissa wondered if Philip ever got rejected, or if women like her just fell at his feet.
“It is. I’m in.”
A deep exhale in the receiver told her maybe her assumptions about him were, if not wrong, then a little off. He’d been holding his breath.
“Good. I’ll have a car swing around tomorrow morning and pick you up.”
Tomorrow? But tomorrow was Sunday. Followed by a Monday, when she had to teach.
He sensed her apprehension, addressed it before she had a chance to speak. “I’ve cleared it with your principal. She believes it’s a business trip and has cleared you to go. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Asshole. Presumptive, domineering asshole. Nope, she’d judged him fairly the first time.
“What should I pack?”
“A passport. I’ve taken care of the rest. Get some sleep. Our itinerary is full, Marissa, and I need you looking fresh.”
The line went dead and Marissa sat there, huddled and shivering, this time not because of the chill in the air. But like a harpy who was never satisfied, Marissa’s clit throbbed with wanton desire for the voice to come back, lull it to sleep with a vanilla-laced tongue. Marissa slid her hand underneath her pajama pants to calm the need, regardless of whether her fingers were a poor substitute for what she really craved. Sleep wouldn’t come easy that night without it.
Shit, she thought as her fingers moved in and out of her slick. What the actual fuck had she gotten herself into?