When It's Real
“Is there an it? Because I’m beginning to wonder.”
Paisley pauses for a beat. Then she blurts out her next words in one breath. “They want you to pretend to be Oakley Ford’s girlfriend this year.”
I spray the concrete steps with lukewarm coffee mixed with spit. “What?”
“I promise you it isn’t as bad as it sounds.”
She runs a hand through her ordinarily perfectly styled black bob, and I notice for the first time that her hair is sticking up on the sides. Paisley’s usually so polished, from the top of her shiny head to the tips of the flats that she buffs every night.
“Mr. Tolson thinks you’re perfect for the job,” she tells me. “He said you’re pretty but not in an over-the-top way. More like a natural, girl-next-door type. I described you as down-to-earth, and he thinks that will complement Oakley, because Oakley can be really intense sometimes—”
“Okay, let’s back up,” I cut in. “Are you talking about Oakley Ford, pop icon? Oakley Ford, the guy with so many girls’ names tattooed on his body he’s like a phone directory of former Victoria’s Secret models? Oakley Ford, who tried to depants a monk in Angkor Wat and nearly caused an international incident? That Oakley Ford?”
“Yeah, him.” She scrunches up her nose. “And he’s only got one tattoo of a woman’s name and it’s his mom’s.”
I raise an eyebrow. “Did he tell you that or did you make a personal inspection?”
Oakley’s nineteen and Paisley’s twenty-three, so I guess it could happen, but that’s kinda disgusting. Not because he’s younger, but because Paisley’s too awesome to be some celebrejerk’s castoff.
“Look, if you’re serious, the answer is still no. In fact, there are so many reasons for me to say no that I don’t know if we have time for me to list them all. But here’s one—I don’t even like Oakley Ford.”
“You played his album on repeat for, like, three months.”
“When I was fifteen!” Oakley Ford was a phase. Like BFF necklaces and Hannah Montana. Plus, his antics got really unappealing. After the tenth or so picture of him making out with some random girl at a club, he got kind of slimy in my eyes.
Paisley runs her hand through her hair again. “I know this is your year off. And I want you to have that, I swear. But this thing isn’t going to take up very much of your time. An hour or two maybe every other day. A couple nights. A couple weekends. It’s the same as if you were waiting tables at Sharkey’s.”
“Um, aren’t you forgetting something?”
She blinks. “What?”
“I have a boyfriend!”
“Yes, W.” For some reason, Paisley hates W. She says his name is stupid and that he’s stupid, but I love him anyway. William Wilkerson isn’t the greatest name to be saddled with, but that’s not his fault. It’s also why we call him W. “There have to be dozens of girls who want to pretend-date Oakley Ford. And why does he need a fake girlfriend anyway? He could probably walk down to the Four Seasons on Wilshire, point to the first girl that drove by and have her in a hotel room in five seconds flat.”
“That’s the whole problem.” She throws up her arms. “They tried the whole fake girlfriend thing with him before, but she fell for him and he broke her heart. I think half of the bad publicity the guy gets is because of her.”
“Are you talking about April Showers?” I gasp. “That was fake? Oh, man, I believed in ShOak. My childhood dreams are crushed.” I’m only half-kidding. Fifteen was a tough year for me, and not just because it was the year my parents died.
Paisley punches me in the shoulder. “You just said you didn’t like him.”
“Well, not after he cheated on April with that Brazilian swimsuit model.” I chew on the corner of my lip. “Fake, really?”
Hmmm. I might have to rethink my opinion of Oakley. Still, doesn’t mean I want to be the next fake girlfriend to be fake dumped and fake cheated on.
“So you’ll do it?”
I stare at her. “I make a couple hundred a night at Sharkey’s. You said before Christmas we were doing fine.” I narrow my eyes. “Is there something you’re not telling me?”
Last year I found Paisley crying at the dinner table at two in the morning. She admitted that Mom and Dad didn’t leave us in the greatest financial position. The insurance money kept us afloat at the beginning, but last summer she’d had to get a second mortgage to cover all the bills, and she was thinking of leaving college to get a job. Appalled, I sat down and made her go over everything with me, because she was a year away from graduating. I got my diploma early by taking summer courses, online ones to supplement my high school studies, and special permission from the school to take advanced classes. And then I found a job. Serving steak and iceberg lettuce wedges isn’t fancy, but it pays the bills.
Or so I thought.
“No. We’re fine. I mean...” She trails off.
“Then my answer is no.” I’ve never been interested in the other side of LA. It seems so artificial, and I do enough pretending as it is.
I have my hand on the screen door when Paisley drops her next bomb. “They’ll pay you twenty thousand a month.”
I spin around slowly, my mouth hanging open. “Are you effing kidding me?”
“Don’t swear,” she says automatically, but her eyes are bright with excitement. “And that’s for a full year of commitment.”
“Put the boys through college? Pay off both our mortgages? Make everything easier for us? Yes.”
I blow my overgrown bangs out of my face. This proposition is insane. I mean, who pays such an obscene amount of money to some random girl to pretend to be a pop star’s girlfriend for a year? Maybe that’s normal in the entertainment industry, but I grew up with parents who were elementary school teachers.
I suddenly wonder what Mom and Dad would say if they were alive to hear this crazy offer. Would they encourage me to do it, or tell me to run, run for my life? I honestly don’t know. They were all about exploring new opportunities, taking the road less traveled. It was one of my favorite things about them, and I miss my fun-loving, impulsive parents. I miss them a lot.
That said, their love of spontaneity is part of the reason why we’re hurting for money.
“An opportunity like this doesn’t come along every day, but you don’t have to say yes,” Paisley assures me. Her words say one thing; her strained tone says another.
“How long do I have to think about it?”
“Jim Tolson wants an answer tomorrow morning. And if it’s a yes, he wants you to come to the agency to meet with him and Oakley.”
Oakley. Oakley frickin’ Ford.
“Fine, I’ll think about it.” I let out a breath. “You’ll have my answer in the morning.”
Twenty thousand dollars a month, Vaughn...
Yeah. I’m pretty sure we both know what my answer is going to be.