KALI & GRAYSON
My heart beats faster in my chest as Grayson gazes inquisitively at me. He continues sipping his coffee, which looks to be an Americano.
He’s waiting for me to open up and tell him about myself, and I love the fact that he’s looking at me like I’m merely some regular girl. I mean, in lots of ways, I am a regular girl. I love to have fun. I love to flip through magazines. I love to stay up late watching Netflix and chowing down on popcorn and wine. I love hanging out with my besties. I just so happen to be a regular girl with millions of people hanging on my every word. I don’t want Grayson to feel like he’s competing with that attention any more than I want him to feel like there’s nothing I crave more than that attention.
Right now, he’s simply a guy and I’m simply a girl and we’re trying to have a simple conversation. I want to keep it that way.
“I do makeup for a living,” I answer as nonchalantly as possible.
His brows lift, but then he nods. “That’s awesome. It makes sense, actually. You look beautiful.”
This time, my face really does burn bright red. Hopefully, it’s concealed by the dim lighting of the café and my flawlessly applied foundation.
“What about you?” I ask, eager to turn the conversation back on him.
He clears his throat, eyes shifting away briefly. “I’m a lawyer. I’m a junior associate at my firm.”
Wow. I did not expect that.
I choke on my latte and hardly manage to painfully swallow down a mouthful of hot, but deliciously smooth coffee. “That’s incredible! You’re so young, too. Making junior associate so fast must’ve been tough.”
“Really tough,” he murmurs quietly before clearing his throat. “Let’s just say I had a lot of motivation to work hard.”
Silence briefly falls over the table as we sip our drinks and gaze at one another. Surprisingly, it isn’t an uncomfortable silence. In fact, it’s kind of nice. When I’m with my girls, there isn’t a moment of quiet. Sutton or Liv or I are always going a mile a minute. There’s always something to do and something to say. This—whatever it is right here between Grayson and me—feels really nice.
Is this what it feels like to be normal? Right now, there’s no pressure to be perfect or flawless. I can simply be me.
“Tough things make us resilient,” I offer quietly.
Even though I desperately want to, I don’t press him for details about his career. I can see something simmering in his eyes, something he isn’t quite ready to talk about. I understand that completely. We all have our secrets, don’t we?
He lifts his chin and his eyes again meet mine. He nods and a slow, small smile curves his delicious looking lips.
Lips I suddenly want to kiss.
I hastily take another sip of coffee—which isn’t nearly as hot so I don’t burn my mouth—and then ask, “Where’d you study law, Grayson?”
I’ve got to keep this conversation going. One, if I don’t speak then he’s going to start asking questions about me, and I’m not exactly a very good liar. Actually, I’m a dreadful liar. Which means I’m only going to be able to play it coy for a limited time. And two, I really do want to know as much as I can about Grayson. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about him since our first meeting, and I want to know every detail possible before we go our separate ways again.
The idea bums me out more than I care to admit.
But he’s a lawyer and I’m a beauty influencer. We both have full schedules. Could it be that after this cup of coffee, we’re both going to walk right out the door in opposite directions and that will be that? The thought makes my heart twist in my chest, but I resolve to take this conversation one word at a time.
“Stanford Law,” he answers.
I wince. “Sounds expensive.”
Laughing softly, Grayson nods. “Definitely. Funding my tuition felt nearly impossible most of the time, but I managed somehow.”
“And now here you are, ready to take on the world one court case at a time.”
“Cheers to that.”
He gently presses his paper coffee cup against mine and we sip on our drinks again.
Outside, the clouds shift. Warm sunlight dances in through the café window, illuminating golden flecks in Grayson’s chestnut eyes and the strong profile of his handsome nose. Every time I blink, I swear he gets more and more good looking.
“What about you?” Grayson asks curiously. “Did you study makeup somewhere?”
“I studied art, actually, and eventually business, too. I wound up with a dual degree from USC two years ago. Believe me when I say I know how hard it is to fund education. I was lucky to land a scholarship.”
His eyes go a little wide. “That’s impressive.”
The raw sincerity of his tone is enough to catch me off guard. He doesn’t even know me, but he sounds so proud. It’s heartwarming and makes me think his soul just may be as gorgeous as the rest of him. I feel a twinge of guilt as he grins at me. I almost feel bad for being furtive about my real career because it’s obvious that Grayson is genuine to the core.
For just a little while longer, though, I want things to stay this easy.
“I haven’t sat down and talked like this with someone in a really long time,” he continues. “It’s really nice. I’m usually at the office or trying to wade through piles and piles of paperwork that the senior attorneys pass down. I know it’s worth it, though, if I’m going to prove that I’m every bit of a good lawyer as anyone else.”
I understand exactly what he means. Despite what I’ve already accomplished, sometimes, I still feel like I have to show people I’m actually really good at what I do. But I guess I’m not the only one who feels the weight of that on my shoulders.
“Tell me about it,” I say. “Sometimes it feels like the day’s work is never done.”
Grayson tilts his head to the side so he can give me yet another long, intrigued look. “So, what do you do for fun then? To relieve some stress after a long day, I mean. Do you have a man at home to keep you company?”
“Well,” I answer levelly, “there’s George.”
The hunky guy across the cozy café table stops mid-sip of his drink, his eyes narrowing in shock. “George?” he sputters, clearing his throat hard.
“George,” I repeat with an emphatic nod. Unable to help myself, I flash him a feisty grin. “He’s my Labrador mix puppy. I found him wandering the beach near our home a while back—I live with my two best friends, by the way, both girls, if you must know—and he’s been with me ever since.”
Grayson dissolves into husky, easy laughter. He shakes his head and rests his forearms on the table, leaning closer. Our drinks have been pushed aside now, abandoned in our conversation.
“A lab, huh? I always wanted a dog growing up,” Grayson murmurs wistfully, his dark eyes taking on a faraway look for a second. “My parents wouldn’t have it, though. They aren’t animal people, which says everything you need to know about them. Give George a treat for me when you get home?”
I assure him I will just as his phone rings sharply. He sighs and checks his cell before lifting his enchanting gaze back to me.
“That’s my cue. I’ve got to run. I guess it’s my turn to vanish.”
I wink and hold up a playfully lecturing finger. “The difference is that you’re saying goodbye. That doesn’t count as vanishing.”
Grinning, Grayson slides out of the booth and grabs his briefcase along with the book he stashed inside when we first sat down. Instead of walking away, he leans down so that he’s bent over me, his hand pressed against the back of the seat near my face. He’s so close that when he speaks, the heat of his breath drifts over my cheek, sending a wave of goosebumps down the side of my neck.
“What if I don’t say goodbye then?” he asks in a low, playful voice that’s almost a growl.
It’s only when my lungs start screaming for air that I realize I’m holding my breath. I don’t have it in me to even respond.
Fortunately, he doesn’t wait for me to answer. “La Chanterelle. Let me take you out, Kali. I didn’t get a real answer last time and it nearly drove me crazy. I have to try again.”
I shake my head, but it isn’t until his face falls that I finally remember how to speak.
“Not La Chanterelle,” I say softly. “How about Franco’s Burgers instead?”
He blinks hard, seeming as stunned that I’d finally agreed to go out with him as he was that I’d suggested a burger shack. “Franco’s? That tiny place on the beach?”
“They’re dog friendly. George and I can both go. I have to make sure he approves, after all.” I grin again, hoping my reason for avoiding a fancy restaurant sounds convincing.
At La Chanterelle, we would definitely be spotted by some G&G fans, and the veil of secrecy I have over my identity would be yanked away. At Franco’s, no one will notice us, especially at night. It’s a cozy little place that not many people know about, and it’ll be a perfect evening getaway for George, Grayson, and me. Besides, they have seriously good burgers.
He grins. “It’s a date.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a business card with his name and number. “Text me your address and I’ll pick you up at seven sharp.”
“It’s a date,” I repeat, hardly able to believe it.
Grayson walks backward toward the café door, his eyes locked on me the whole time.
When he finally disappears into the late day crowd of people outside, I don’t know whether to scream with excitement or trepidation.
I’ve finally got a date with the man of my dreams—but he has no idea who I really am.
SUTTON & BOONE
“After you,” the handsome stranger says as he pushes open the door leading out onto the terrace, then steps aside to allow me to walk out ahead of him.
Smiling at him a little uncertainly, I slowly take a step onto the rooftop promenade.
The music playing out here is much more mellow than the pulsing beat downstairs, and long garlands of lights strung around the pergola twinkle brighter than the stars above us. I catch my breath. From way up here, I feel like I can see all of LA. It’s like being on top of the world. It leaves me feeling breathless and invigorated. I’m so glad that I came to the party tonight, if only for this sight.
My rescuer waves over one of the servers carrying a plate of drinks and puts in an order for the both of us before leading me to an empty couch situated in the far corner of the terrace.
“I thought we could sit here for a few minutes so you can collect yourself,” he explains as he sits down beside me. “Plus, we can also see if that ruffian decides to follow us up here.”
I’ve never heard anyone use the term ruffian before, and it makes me giggle. I’m not too worried about the jerk bothering us, but the couch is comfy and I’m very curious about who this mysterious man is, so I oblige him.
It’s a little chilly way up here and I find myself shivering just as the server arrives with our drinks—another Long Island iced tea for me and what looks like a Jack and Coke for him.
“Are you cold?” he asks.
He doesn’t even wait for me to answer before he starts shrugging out of his suit jacket. Concern makes his dark blond brows draw together as he holds it out to me.
Just who is this guy who’s willing to give me his jacket before he’s even given me his name?
No other guy I’ve ever met has ever been that chivalrous. I feel like most men in LA—Kali’s boyfriend, Grayson, excluded, of course—have never even heard of gallantry.
I consider myself fiercely independent—which is probably part of why I haven’t been in a relationship in a while—but it’s nice when a guy shows some common decency for once.
“I’m a little chilly,” I answer honestly.
He drapes the jacket around my shoulders and the lingering heat of his body and the scent of his cologne on the soft, expensive material warms me up even more than the cocktail I had a few sips of earlier.
The guy is not only sweet, but he’s also handsome as can be. Dark blond hair hangs into ocean blue eyes and his body is absolutely killer. He looks like a runner type, or at least someone super active. I blink hard in an attempt to stop my wandering imagination from conjuring an image of him running in a pair of gym shorts with the SoCal sun beaming down on his shirtless, chiseled bod.
Man, I really have been out of the dating pool too long if I can’t even have a conversation with a gorgeous guy before daydreaming about how he looks half-naked.
“I’m Boone Hammond,” the stranger who is a stranger-no-longer explains, sticking out his hand.
We shake, and when he releases me, my fingers keep tingling.
“Sutton Fox,” I say, reaching up to tuck my long, dark hair behind my ear. “Hey, thanks for being my knight in shining…suit down there. That guy was a major creep.”
Boone chuckles and eases back in his seat. He folds his muscled arms over his well-built chest. “I’d recognize a damsel in distress anywhere,” he quips before playfully winking. “But to be honest, I wasn’t worried about you. I was worried about him. If I waited for another second, I think you might’ve decked him.”
I flash a glossed grin, glad now that I had Kali get me all dolled up before I left for the party. I suppose you never know what cutie you’re going to run into, especially at an affair like this. I might not have any time for a relationship, but I can have at least one flirty conversation before I go.
“I’m pretty good at taking care of myself,” I admit with a laugh. “It’s nice when someone else steps in to help though. A bar fight probably wouldn’t have helped my brand at all.”
“Brand?” he echoes, gorgeous blue eyes curious. “Wait, let me guess. Are you one of those…what are they called?” He pauses and his face twists one way and then the other in deep thought. “In-flu-enzers?”
He pronounces the word like he’s speaking another language entirely and puts a weird, southern emphasis on the middle syllable.
“In... flu... enzer?” I repeat, jaw dropping.
I laugh until I can’t breathe. It’s probably not the sexiest look in the whole world, but Boone merely looks pleased to have brought me so much amusement. His chest is puffing a bit with pride despite the hilarious tears building in the corners of my eyes.
“Tell me you did not just say that,” I finally manage to pant. “It sounds like you’re talking about a deadly disease. I’m a beauty influencer. My two best friends and I have a popular YouTube channel where we post a lot about lifestyle, makeup, fashion tips, etcetera. Believe me, there’s definitely no infection involved.”
Boone chuckles, eyes gleaming. He has an attractive laugh, one that suddenly gives me an old-fashioned hankering for sweet tea and buttery biscuits. When he crosses one ankle over his knee, his foot jiggles slightly and the overhanging lights glint against the leather of his black shoe.
“I guess I’m pretty out of the loop when it comes to social media things. My coaches have always been pretty strict about what we should post online, so I just don’t.”
“Oh. So you’re, like, a sports dude?” I ask, intrigued.
“Athlete,” he corrects with an amused grin. “But yes. I play for the Coyotes, the professional rugby team here in LA. I actually just moved here last year.”
I narrow my eyes playfully on the handsome athlete. “Rugby? That’s kinda like real football, right?”
“Says the in-flu-enzer,” he teases right back, grin widening.
We burst into laughter again as we sip our drinks, appraising each other curiously at the same time.
“Are you a California girl, born and raised?” he finally asks.
When I nod, he gives a thoughtful hmm and gazes down into his drink before swirling the glass gently. Ice clinks against the backdrop of soft music and the muted conversation of other people on the terrace.
“Where are you from, Boone?”
He smiles again, but this time it’s a small, almost bittersweet smile. “Texas. They say everything is bigger in Texas, but here in California, everything is way more overwhelming. It’s all hustle and bustle and rush and fuss. It makes a country boy’s head spin. I’m definitely not in Texas anymore.”
I set down my drink on the small table in front of us, then slip off my heels and curl up on the couch with my feet beneath me. Nestled in Boone’s jacket, it almost feels like I’ve known him forever, even though he’d only just whisked me away moments ago. With him, I don’t feel this pressure to be a picture-perfect girl. I can simply chat with him, person to person. He has my curiosity piquing.
“I can definitely imagine a move like that being overwhelming,” I say. “I grew up not far from here, so I’ve never had to truly relocate. Did you come out here all by yourself?”
He drags a hand through his dark blond hair and an uncomfortable expression flashes across his face. Just when I'm regretting saying anything, he shakes his head but the movement is so small I almost blink and miss it.
“I actually moved here with a girl—Lucy. We’d been together since high school, but in our tiny town, that wasn’t unusual. She ended up cheating on me a little while after we got here.”
“I'm so sorry,” I whisper, wincing.
Boone shrugs strong shoulders. “I’m over it now. I mean, I’m way too busy with the Coyotes’ intense training schedule to date anyway, so maybe it was for the best. Plus, we hadn’t exactly been happy before the move.” He pauses and strokes his chin before laughing quietly. “Honestly, the hardest thing about being single lately is the team’s fangirls. They’re relentless! I can hardly walk down the sidewalk without one of the Coyotes’ groupies tackling me. It was never like that in Texas.”
I paw playfully at his shoulder. “That’s because you’re special here! That southern charm of yours is going to attract girls for miles.” I sigh. “I get what you’re saying, though. The only men whose interest I seem to catch are sleazeballs like the one downstairs. If I had time for romance, it would definitely not be with someone like that.”
“Why does being single have to be so complicated?” Boone muses before sipping his drink again.
“Tell me about it,” I say with a snort. “Don’t people get that not everyone is actively looking for a relationship? Fans are always asking when I’m going to find a boyfriend, but running the G&G channel is more than a full-time job. It’s practically my existence.”
Boone grins. He rests his head against the back of the couch as the music swells and changes.
“Sometimes, I think about hiring someone to come with me to these parties,” he chuckles. “I know that sounds insane, but it’d keep the girls from flocking all over me. I can’t even enjoy myself at these parties most of the time because so many women keep trying to get my attention.” He lifts his head again and turns toward me with a faint frown. “I have to be honest, Sutton, that was part of the reason I scooped you up tonight. I would’ve helped anyone who was being tormented by that gross guy, but I was hoping you would hang out with me for a bit so I had a chance at having a good time tonight. I mean, look, we haven’t had a single person come bug us since we sat down.”
Frankly, Boone’s right. I hadn’t even considered that until now. Nothing else dramatic had happened since we buddied up. It’s a miracle.
Suddenly, I shoot upward on the couch and twist toward him.
“Boone,” I whisper, barely able to talk through my earnest excitement, “I think you might be a genius.”
“Think?” he teases, but his brow slowly creases with confusion. “But seriously, what are you talking about?”
I grin at him, rubbing my palms together like the mastermind that I am. I’ve got just the plan to make both of our lives a thousand times easier.
All Boone has to do is say yes.
LIV & CASH
To my surprise, the tattooed Adonis chuckles when I suggest he’s at the wrong booth. Cash has such a gruff and rugged exterior that I’d been anticipating him to roll those green eyes or scowl rather than let out an amused laugh.
Cash leans back, arms folding over his rock-hard chest, mouth quirking.
I blink hard, trying to sear the image into my mind so I can drool over him later. Cash was swoonworthily gorgeous while straight-faced, but with a hint of a crooked smile on his handsome features, he’s downright extraordinary. I might not be interested in jumping into the dating pool—and he probably isn’t either, at least, not with me—but I don’t want to ever forget how close I was to the sexiest man I’ve ever seen in my life. I had no idea guys could be this outrageously good looking before today.
“You’re one of the G&G chicks, aren’t you?” he asks.
As he speaks, he pulls out a small pad of paper and a pen from the back pocket of his jeans and sets them on the table.
I clear my throat, which suddenly feels like a frog has taken up residence in it. “Um, yes.”
His green eyes briefly blaze back into mine. A hint of a smile continues quirking the corner of his mouth. “Then I’m at the right table. I thought there were supposed to be three of you girls, though?”
“Sutton and Kali are busy with some other stuff in LA, so they’re not going to be able to make it,” I explain, fiddling my thumbs nervously in my lap in an attempt to stop myself from squirming. My sandaled feet tap on the ground like they’re trying to run off and leave me behind.
His faint smile twists into a frown and my heart plunges right along with his expression.
Oh, no. I’ve gone and said something dumb, haven’t I?
“This is supposed to be your first business meeting with my father and two-thirds of your company couldn’t be bothered to come?” he remarks coolly. “That isn’t very professional, is it?”
An internal wail of terror quakes through my whole body. My back goes rigid, and beneath the table, my fingers clutch hard at the hem of my sunny yellow skirt. Kali would be able to expertly dodge his comment while Sutton would almost certainly have some funny quip to distract from it. I, on the other hand, am frozen in sheer terror.
To my complete shock, Cash laughs softly again. A second later, his frown relaxes back into a devastating grin.
“I’m just teasing you, Liv,” he says. “Sorry about that. I guess I’m not as funny as I thought.”
“You were joking?” I whimper.
Using his pen to gesture at the bustling restaurant around us, he shrugs his broad shoulders. “In case you haven’t noticed, Franco isn’t exactly huge on professionalism. He thinks it’s too straitlaced and boring. I mean, this restaurant doesn’t even have a real floor. It’s beach sand.”
Despite what Cash is saying, I can’t seem to relax. My mind is running a thousand miles an hour and it stubbornly refuses to slow down. This whole mess has my fight-or-flight instinct going haywire and it won’t let me chill out. If I’m not careful, I think I might just hyperventilate.
Thankfully, Cash is content to keep talking while I try to convince my heart rate to calm down.
“Anyway, I’m Franco’s son. He’s pretty busy these days, thanks to the publicity your girl group brought him, so unfortunately, he doesn’t have time to sit and talk with you.” He pauses to glance down at the pad and paper he’d brought out and flips through a few of the pages, where I assume Franco has jotted down some things for him to discuss. “Now, I guess you guys are going to do some sort of fashion line or something?” he asks, sounding skeptical. “How exactly does someone make a fashion line based on a burger place?”
Silence creeps across the table as I stare helplessly at Cash. I want to answer him, but my tongue feels so heavy behind my teeth that I’m not sure I can say a single word.
He waits patiently while I try to collect myself, but the more desperately I try to arrange my thoughts into verbal speech, the more frazzled I become. If I was a cartoon character, I would have steam pouring out of my ears, the gears in my head are grinding so hard.
“Um, well,” I sputter when he casts a look at the doors of the kitchen. I can hear talking and laughter as the cooks do their thing in there. I know Cash must be tired of dealing with me. I can feel it. He’s merely waiting to escape this tedious conversation so he can go back to Franco and tell his father that the business deal is off because I’m not capable of carrying it out correctly. “The fashion line is like, you know, a vibe.”
“A vibe?” he echoes blankly. “What vibe?”
I shift on the seat under his curious gaze. Thankfully, this time the plastic doesn’t squeak.
“As I’m sure you know, Franco’s has a vibe. And the clothes, um, also have a vibe.”
I cut myself off with a grimace, giving up on floundering for words.
Could I sound any less intelligent? Or business-like?
I’m going nowhere fast, except leading the collab deal down the drain. Instead of saying anything further, I grab the leather-bound folder sitting beside me in the booth. I’d completely forgotten about my portfolio until now, and I know I need to let it do the talking because I am seriously falling short.
I set the folder on the table and push it toward Cash.
He opens it and begins to slowly flip through designs that I’d spent hours drawing, as well as a few of the samples I’d stitched. For the actual collaboration, a local boutique has offered to produce the limited line for us so that I don’t have to sew every single piece. But for this meeting, I needed every article of clothing to be perfect. I’ve included a pair of women’s shorts that are perfectly distressed and a flattering shade of dark blue, complete with patches on the back pockets with Franco’s logo. I’ve also crafted a vintage-cut men’s tee that actually goes quite well with the jeans Cash is already wearing. He has the same kind of style that I’m going for with this clothing line. That makes me pretty proud, even though I can’t bring myself to say as much. The whole line will be laid-back and chill with garments that anyone can rock on the beach or in the burger shack.
“Hmm…” Cash murmurs thoughtfully.
He spends so much time studying my designs that I start to wonder if I messed up and included my rough drafts instead. When he finally gets to the last page, he picks up the jean shorts I made and inspects them carefully. Then he checks out the tee before setting both articles of clothing back down. Still silent, he jots a few notes on his paper pad before turning his attention back to me.
The second his gaze lands on me, I feel my mind turning to goo. The effect this man I’ve never met before has on me is both frustrating and confusing. As if speaking up isn’t hard enough on me, this guy dares to have such a gorgeously distracting face that I struggle even more than normal.
Sweat forms on the back of my neck, sliding bead by ice-cold bead down the notches of my spine. It makes a shiver roll all the way up my body from my toes.
“You’ve certainly brought some interesting samples with you,” he states with an inflection to his husky voice that I can’t figure out for the life of me.
Is he pleased or disappointed with what he sees?
And what in the world does he mean by interesting? That can be taken so many different ways. I mean, it’d been interesting when Kali and I found out that Sutton was faking her relationship with her now-real boyfriend, Boone, but not exactly in a good way. Sure, that’d worked out for Sutton, and now, she and her southern sweetie are head-over-heels in love with each other, but Boone is a rugby player, not a rough-around-the-edges motorcycle-riding bad-boy relegated to doing his daddy’s errands. They’re total opposites.
Oh, man. Is Cash about to tell me to work on my craft and try again when I get some real talent?
My eyelashes flutter and my head starts to spin all over again. I’ve got to get out of here before I make a bigger fool of myself. This meeting was done before it even began. As soon as my besties said they couldn’t make it, I should’ve run away. I know I’m not cut out for this sort of thing. Why did I even try? I need to leave this kind of stuff to the girls who can handle it.
“Um, it’s been really nice talking to you,” I sputter, stumbling over my words. I try not to look him right in those dazzling eyes, because if I do, I’m going to trip right over my own two feet and land face down in the sand. That would only be adding salt to the wound. “I should get going. Do you have everything you need from me?”
“Well, yes, I guess—” he starts, but I’m already gathering my purse and scooting out of the booth before he can say anything more.
The plastic seat once again clings stubbornly to my legs, loudly squelching every time I move. Crimson flames lick at my face as my embarrassment builds.
“Thanks again for your time,” I mutter when I’m finally free. I offer a half-hearted wave, then whirl around and dash out of the restaurant, feeling his gaze follow me the whole way.
Outside, the California sun shines brightly over my head, but my mood is gray and more than a little dour.
Now, I have to face Kali and Sutton and admit that not only did I potentially mess up a great business deal, but that I also made a fool of myself in front of the most gorgeous guy I’ve ever seen.