When It's Real
Jim doesn’t seem to be as amused by the truth as I am. “—who just so happens to be related to the head of this agency. So we need to provide a plausible reason why a Diamond employee’s sister is suddenly involved with one of the agency’s clients.”
“We’ll blame it on coincidence,” Claudia says with total confidence. “One of Vaughn’s Tweets to Oakley will be this—” She moves her fingers through the air like she’s conveying a headline “‘Oh-em-gee! I just realized my big sis works at the same agency that reps you! How cool is that!’”
I try not to roll my eyes.
“That could work,” Jim says thoughtfully. “And then we’ll get Paisley—” he glances at my sister “—to give a short interview about her role in the relationship.”
“My role?” Paisley sounds uncertain.
Claudia can obviously read Jim’s mind, because she starts nodding again. I’m surprised her head is still attached to her neck at this rate. “Yes, you’ll give a statement about how you could not believe it when Oakley’s manager called you into his brother’s office and told you that Oakley wanted your sister’s phone number.”
Paisley starts nodding, too, and I almost reach over to smack her. Why is she feeding into these people’s craziness?
“I have a few more questions for Vaughn,” Jim says. “Your sister said you were dating someone?”
I don’t miss the way Paisley’s lips curl slightly at the reminder of W. Ugh. One of these days she’s going to have to suck it up and accept that I’m in love with the guy.
“Yeah, I have a boyfriend,” I reply awkwardly. “And actually, my Twitter and Instagram have lots of pictures of the two of us.”
Jim turns to Claudia, who falls silent. I can see the wheels in her bouncy head turning and turning.
“You’ll announce a breakup on your social media,” she decides. “We’ll spend two—no, three, weeks focusing on the split. First will be your despondent post announcing the end of the relationship, then we’ll document your grieving process, how you’re so upset and—”
“Listening to Oakley Ford’s albums on repeat,” one of the assistants finishes animatedly.
Claudia’s eyes light up. “Yes!” She claps her hands together. “Oakley’s music pulls you from the dark abyss of heartache.”
I almost gag.
“And that’s what inspires you to draw his face, which leads to our social media meet-cute.” She glances at Jim. “It still works.”
He looks pleased. “All right. What about Vaughn’s appearance? How do we feel about that?”
Everyone at the table swings their heads toward me. Their gazes pierce me, assessing me like I’m a specimen under a microscope. My cheeks heat up, and Paisley squeezes my hand again.
All of a sudden, the critiques start pouring in.
“The bangs are too long,” Claudia chirps. “We’ll trim them.”
“Hair itself needs a trim, too. And that shade of brown looks too fake.”
“It’s my real hair color!” I protest, but nobody’s listening to me.
“The honey-brown eyes are nice. I like the gold flecks. We’ll forgo colored contacts.”
“Shirt’s a little too baggy. Are your shirts always this baggy, Vaughn?”
“Isn’t normal what we are going for?” someone disagrees. “If we make her pretty, then the fans won’t be able to relate.”
I have never been more humiliated in my life.
“Oh, one last thing,” Claudia says suddenly. “Are you a virgin?”
Scratch that—it’s possible to be more embarrassed. There are a few coughs from other people at the table. Jim pretends the traffic in the hallway outside the room is fascinating, while the lawyers all stare stone-faced down the length of the table.
“Do I have to answer that?” I cast a dark look at my sister, who shakes her head.
“That can’t be important,” Paisley says to the man who’s more or less her boss.
Jim ignores her. Clearly this question is one he wants the answer to, as well.
I want to hug her for standing up for me. I’m pretty sure my cheeks are officially as red as Claudia’s hair.
“If you’re worried there’s some sort of sex scandal in Vaughn’s past, don’t be,” my sister assures the table. “Vaughn is the definition of good girl.”
I don’t know why, but Paisley’s view of me kind of stings. I mean, I know I’m not Miss Badass, but I’m not a Goody Two-shoes, either.
Claudia shrugs. “We’ll do a thorough background check, nonetheless.”
Background check? My sex status shows up in someone’s report? I’m about to burst in outrage when Jim steps in.
“All right, I think we can all agree that this arrangement shows promise.” He clasps both hands together and glances at the lawyer section of the table. “Nigel, why don’t you and the boys draft a rough contract and jot down any negotiation points you anticipate? Oakley will be here in an hour, so we can get into the finer details then.”
I frown. We’re all just supposed to wait around for an hour until His Majesty gets here? And now that I think about it, do I need a lawyer? I whisper the question to Paisley, who voices the question to her boss.
“The contract will be very straightforward,” Jim assures us. “Basically, it will state that you’ve agreed to enter into a service contract and that should you, at any time, no longer be able to perform your duties, the contract can be terminated. Any goods or monies received up to that time are yours to keep.”
I bite my lip. This is starting to feel exceptionally complicated. But I guess when twenty thousand dollars—a month!—is involved, I should have expected complicated.
“How about this?” Jim suggests. “Why don’t we sit down with Oakley and go over the contract details? Then you can read the agreement Nigel’s firm drafts, and then you can decide where we go from there.”
“Okay,” I answer, because that sounds very reasonable despite the ridiculousness of the situation.
Next to me, Paisley winks and gives me a not-very-subtle thumbs-up of encouragement. I shoot her a wan smile in return.
If I just remember why I’m doing this—so my brothers can go to college, so Paisley can stop worrying about how we’re going to pay the bills... If I can just keep focusing on all that, then maybe I’ll stop feeling like I’m going to throw up.
I’m hungry and my stomach’s been announcing that fact for the last thirty minutes. Still, no one suggests we take a break for lunch, even though it’s close to noon and Oakley Ford still hasn’t appeared. It’s been two hours. Jim and the lawyers have left the room, but everyone else is glued to their chairs.
“Here’s a granola bar. And a Coke.” Paisley sets the snacks on the table in front of me.
“No wonder you like working here,” I joke. “The free lunches are so fancy.”
But since I’m starving, I shove half the bar in my mouth—at the exact same moment that Oakley Ford throws open the door.