When It's Real
“Why don’t you tell him yourself?” I grumble.
“Oh, baby, you know your father and I only speak through our lawyers—and mine is out of town at the moment. So be a good boy, Oak, and pass along that message to Dusty.” Her voice goes muffled for a second. “Absolutely not!” she calls to someone who isn’t me. “That paneling must be preserved!” Mom’s voice gets clearer again. “Oakley, baby, I have to go. These contractors are trying to destroy my house! I’ll see you this weekend.”
She hangs up without saying goodbye.
The silence in the house makes my skin itch. Without Luke and his merry band of leeches, the place feels like a museum. I flick on the television again and crank up the sound.
Great. Now I’m pretending I’m not alone by turning the TV volume up. Mindlessly, I watch a bunch of shows about jacking up cars until I can’t stand the stupid manufactured drama. Hits too close to home, I guess. I grab my phone, and my finger hovers over the screen. I could ask Tyrese to call one of those girls who just want to touch Oakley Ford. That’d be good for an hour or two. I could light up a joint. Drink myself into a stupor. Or I could just go to bed. Because if I’m trying to turn over a new leaf, like I promised Jim, none of those other options fit with the plan.
I turn the television off. In the front room, Tyrese is sitting in an oversize armchair, flipping through something on his phone.
“I’m going to bed.”
“You are?” He looks up in surprise. It’s barely ten. “Alone?”
“Yeah. I’m supposed to be a good boy now. Can’t be having honeys over when I’m preparing to romance another girl, right?”
Tyrese shrugs. “I guess not. But Big D’s the family man, not me.”
And we both know where Big D is right now. Not out at the club picking up a random chick. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I’m up at dawn the next morning despite getting almost no sleep. In the kitchen, Paisley is in her usual zombie-like precaffeinated state with a buttered bagel on the table and a half-filled coffeepot in her hand. I grab the pot from her before she crashes it into the side of the refrigerator. My sister can’t function without her caffeine fix.
After our parents died, I started drinking the foul stuff with her. It’s part of my routine now, but I always dilute it with milk. Paisley calls my coffee half and half. Half coffee, half milk.
“I heard you get up at three,” she mumbles as she takes a seat at the glass-topped breakfast table. “You okay?”
“Couldn’t sleep.” I dump out the tap water and pull a pitcher of water from the fridge. “You seriously think this is the right thing to do?” I ask as I pour the water into the coffeemaker’s reservoir and scoop out fresh grounds into the filter. “I kept obsessing about it last night, and it’s not the fake-dating thing that gets me—” I’m a champion at pretending “—it’s the length of time. An entire year, Paisley?”
I take a seat next to her and rip off a piece of her bagel.
“I know it seems like a long time, but unless it’s a serious relationship, there’s no point in even doing this charade.” She sounds tired, too. “You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to. We’ll be fine without the money.”
Guilt rushes through me when I hear the note of defeat in her voice. Paisley’s held our family together with sheer will and grit. When social services wanted to split us up and send the twins into foster care, Paisley was having none of it. She hustled her way through school, taking more classes than I thought you were allowed to cram into one year, and graduated in three years instead of four. She worked two jobs until she landed this one at Diamond. Meanwhile, I ran the household—cooking, cleaning and making sure the twins’ lives remained as stable as possible.
Despite all our efforts, I know we’re barely treading water.
One year is nothing compared to what Paisley has sacrificed.
“I’m doing it,” I say firmly. “That’s why I got up at three. To sign the papers.” And to sweat about how I’m going to sell this idea to W. I turn to watch the coffee drip into the pot. “I mean, it’s not like I have to eat bugs or poop or something gross. There are way worse things to do for money than fake-date Oakley Ford, right?”
“Right.” She smiles with relief. “And he’s not a bad guy. He can be charming when he wants to, and you’ll get to do so many fun things. I’ll make sure your dates are full of stuff you like to do.”
“Great.” I try to summon up some enthusiasm for Paisley’s sake. It’s obvious that the prospect of all that cash is lifting a huge burden from her shoulders, and I would be a terrible, selfish sister to not want that for her. Still, I can’t stop thinking about how much my life is going to change.
“Something is still bothering you,” she says, breaking off another piece of bagel for me.
I stick it in my mouth and chew for a moment before admitting, “It’s W. I don’t know how I’m going to sell this to him.”
Paisley shakes her head. “You can’t tell him all the details. The nondisclosure agreement wouldn’t allow it.”
“I know.” I rub a nonexistent spot on the table. “How strict are those things?”
“The NDA? Very strict,” Paisley says, her eyes wide with alarm. “Do you remember Sarah Hopkins?”
“The nanny who banged Mark Lattimer and broke up his marriage?”
Mark Lattimer is the front man for the rock band Flight. He went through an ugly divorce last year. It was in every online gossip column and every grocery store tabloid for about three months. The scrutiny didn’t die down until the next scandal came along.
“Didn’t she have a drug problem and was turning tricks to pay for it?” I ask.
“Yup, and you know how all the gossip rags got that information?”
I didn’t know before, but I think I do now.
“She signed an NDA, but then decided that she was tired of taking the fall for Mark and Lana’s failed marriage. Everyone inside the circle knew they had an open relationship. She was fine with the nanny until the two of them got caught in public. Afterward, Sarah was paid off but she wouldn’t go quietly. So Jim released all that information to the tabloids. He pretty much ruined her life.”
“So if I break it, Jim will drop a bomb on our house.”
“Our lives,” Paisley corrects grimly. “Oakley Ford is worth millions to Jim. His last tour grossed two hundred and fifty million dollars.”
I gape at her. I didn’t know numbers went up that high in real life. “So what you’re saying is, either I do this one hundred percent, or not at all.”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying. You can only tell W what the agreement says you can tell him. Anything more than that, and Jim will crush us like a bug.”
Us. Not me, but my whole family.
* * *
Paisley drives the twins to school, and I clean the house, prep for dinner and try to force some lunch down before taking the bus to USC to see W. His last class of the day is at 2:00 p.m.
Jim Tolson sent a courier over with another NDA—this one for W’s signature. It’s like he has a million of them on his laptop, ready to spring on the unsuspecting.
With only a week into the new college semester, no one in the dorms seems interested in studying. Several of the doors are open when I arrive, and all sorts of different music and sounds are streaming into the hallway.
Part of me regrets not enrolling this year. W wanted me to, but after watching Paisley bust her ass to make sure all our bills were paid, I wanted to do my part. Taking a year off and making some real money made the most sense. Still...every time I walk into W’s dorm and see all the pretty girls wandering the halls, I’m gripped with a sudden case of nerves.
“Knock, knock,” I announce at the open door.
W and his roommates are lounging on their hand-me-down sofa, playing Madden. Two girls I don’t know are curled up on a love seat in the corner. They always have girls in here. As with everything, I pretend it doesn’t bother me, because the last thing I want to do is look like the jealous, immature girlfriend from high school.