Home > Work in Progress (Red Lipstick Coalition #3)

Work in Progress (Red Lipstick Coalition #3)
Staci Hart

Amelia

Three more people.

The girl in front of me shifted the weight of her bag on her shoulder, the bulk of which rested under her arm like a pack mule. I eyed the bag, wondering how many books were inside, like one of those How Many Jelly Beans Are in the Jar? games I was terrible at.

There were eleven, if I had to guess.

I might not have spatial awareness of jelly beans, but I could probably sniff that bag and determine how many books were inside.

Two more people.

Sweat bloomed in my palms as we all shuffled a few steps closer to the table where Thomas Bane sat.

All I could see between bodies was an unrecognizable sliver of face and a bit of his elbow, clad in a black leather jacket.

I took a breath—a deep, thick, anxious breath—and recited the words on the damp piece of paper in my back pocket.

It’s nice to meet you.

I’m Amelia Hall with the USA Times.

Please sign that generic.

I’m fine, thank you.

Yes, I’ve read every word you’ve ever written.

No, I actually didn’t enjoy them at all.

Okay, that last one wasn’t on the list. And the truth was, I’d devoured every book he’d written since he broke out six years ago. I might have hate-read them, but read them I had, every word.

Thomas Bane, the sensation. At twenty-four, he’d shown up first in pop culture, dating a Hollywood It girl—the one tapped to star in half a dozen romantic comedies in half as many years. The crowd went wild, the media clamoring to find out everything they could about the tall, dark, and cavalier Thomas Bane. And in the height of the media frenzy, he’d dropped his first fantasy novel.

He was a legend, the name on everyone’s lips. There were entire websites devoted to speculating about his girlfriends—comprised of a long and famous list of models and pop singers and actresses—and his relationship status. He had somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty bazillion followers on Instagram, and there was a fan account devoted strictly to his hair.

His hair, guys. His hair had its own Instagram.

I’d say I didn’t follow it, but I was a terrible liar.

And there he was, just a few feet away. And in two—shit—one person, it would be my turn to meet him.

The best I could hope for was that I could survive the meeting without fainting, running away, or squeaking like a farmhouse door.

If it wasn’t for my brand new gig blogging for the USA Times’ book division, I never would have found myself standing in the hip little bookstore in the East Village. But my boss, who happened to be a terrifying, brilliant shark, had assigned me my first real gig—come to the book signing, meet Thomas Bane, have a few books signed, and try not to have a stroke when I had to have an actual conversation with him.

My therapist had said the exposure would be good for me. If I was ever going to pursue my dream of editing for a publisher, I figured I’d have to learn to speak to strangers.

The girl in front of me unloaded her haul onto the table with shaking hands.

…nine, ten, eleven. Ha!

A rumbling laugh from the other side of the table. He said something I couldn’t make out, something in a snarky, smoky baritone that did something inexplicable to my insides.

I chalked it up to nerves.

Remember the ABCs—acknowledge, breathe, connect, I recited to myself matter-of-factly, sucking in a noisy breath through my nose that garnered me a glance from the girl in front of me.

I hadn’t purchased groceries at the actual market in well over a year. I hadn’t answered the phone for anyone but my best friends or parents in at least five. And I didn’t go anywhere without a buffer who, in case of emergency, could speak for me.

It was almost always a case of emergency.

My speechlessness wasn’t an enigma, but it was most definitely inconvenient. God knew I had enough words in my head, words in my heart, chittering chattering words that never saw the light of day when the spotlight was on me.

It didn’t even have to be a spotlight. A flashlight was plenty.

It was rare to hear me speak outside the company of people who I knew loved and accepted me. People I could trust.

Thomas Bane was most certainly not one of those people. And if he recognized my name, I was well and truly fucked.

I’d reviewed every book of his at three stars or less.

Three stars! you say. But that’s average!

Not to authors, it wasn’t. I’d been blogging books since college, but a couple of years ago, one of my reviews—on one of Thomas Bane’s books—had gone viral, and my blog had exploded.

Let me tell you something—there were few perks to being someone’s top-rated negative review on Amazon, at least for someone like me who hated confrontation almost as much as I hated keeping my opinion to myself. Online, it was easy to be myself. With a screen firmly between me and the masses, my personality was bold and outgoing. Real life was another story. Put me in front of a cashier and watch me lock up like rigor mortis.

I cursed Janessa again for sending me here, wondering if she’d been intentionally cruel. Maybe she was hoping for me to return with some famous Thomas Bane quip or one-liner. Maybe she was hoping he’d confront me about my reviews, be an asshole, and load us up with material to write an article on.

Notorious bad-boy Thomas Bane. Model-dating, ultra-rich, devil-may-care, super-famous, fist-wielding, public-drunken and indecent-exposure Thomas Bane, fantasy author with a rap sheet the length of my arm.

“Do you want a picture?” I heard him ask. I thought I could hear him smiling.

“N-n-n-no, thanks,” the girl stuttered.

My guts turned to ice.

She’d been talking her brains out with her friend not ten minutes ago with sword-brandishing bravado about how she was going to French kiss him there in front of God and everybody. If she couldn’t answer a simple question from him, I was never going to make it out of the building.

I took another breath and straightened my spine, stretching me to the extent that my five-foot-one frame would allow. But when she moved out of the way, I almost went out like a candle.

His eyes shifted from the parting girl to fix on me, and the air left my lungs in a vacuum that would have snuffed an entire room full of candles.

They were dark as midnight, the iris indistinguishable from his pupil, his lashes thick and long and absolutely ridiculous. Ridiculous, every inch of him. The cut of his jaw, covered in a shadow from his casually kept beard. His nose, strong and long and masculine. Those cursed eyes, which had to be brown, but I couldn’t make out even a hint of anything but bottomless black. His hair, long enough to fall over his shoulders, wavy and so thick, I’d bet his ponytail was at least seven times the diameter of mine.

But the most ridiculous part of his absolutely ridiculous face was his lips, wide and full, the bottom in a constant pout, the top a little bit thicker, slanted at a ridiculous angle that had me wondering what it’d be like to suck on it.

Which was ridiculous in and of itself. I’d never even been kissed.

But whenever I was, God, grant me lips like those.

Hands planted themselves on my shoulder blades and shoved.

Thomas Bane laughed, and I was unsurprised to find that his smile was ridiculous, too. What utterly unfair bullshit that a man should be that gorgeous.

I wondered if anyone ever called him by anything other than his full name. He was like Celine Dion but with better hair. No one called Celine Dion just plain old Celine. I imagined even her kids called her Celine Dion, yelling through their multitrillion dollar home, Celine Dion, wipe my butt! I also imagined that on Sundays, she wore a ballroom gown and tiara to lie around on the couch and watch Netflix.

I cleared my throat and unloaded the books the paper had sent with me. I couldn’t meet his eyes again.

“Hi”—he paused, probably looking for the name tag stuck to my tiny boob—“Amelia. It’s good to see you,” he said as if we’d met a hundred times.

My lips wouldn’t move.

Say hi. Say hello. Say hi, Amelia, goddammit.

I made the mistake of looking up, and my tongue tripled in size.

Don’t look at him, you idiot! ABCs—acknowledge, breathe, and CHRIST, he is hot.

My eyes darted back down to my hands. I swallowed.

“H-hi,” I whispered.

God, I could feel him watching me. I could feel him smirking.

He took a book as I set it down, his hand entering my line of vision like a giant, manly, long-fingered version of my tiny pale one.

“Who should I personalize this to?” he asked.

“No personalization,” I answered before I lost my nerve.

Another soft chuckle as I added to the stack. “No problem.” The sound of a Sharpie scratching the page filled the silence.

Say something! You are a mess, Amelia Hall. You have to tell him who you are. Janessa will shit a brick if you don’t.

I swallowed the sticky lump in my throat, arranging the book pile without purpose. “I…I’m Amelia Hall. W-with the U-USA Times.”

The book closed with a soft thump.

“Amelia Hall? As in the blogger for Halls of Books?” The question was thick with meaning.

The blood in my body rushed from every extremity, racing up my neck in a blush so hard, I could feel the tingling crawl of it on my skin.

Like a dummy, I looked up. An affirmative word was on my stupid, fat tongue, stuck there in my mouth like a gum ball in a water hose. I nodded.

He was smirking, lips together, a tilted smile that set a glimmer of amusement in his eyes. “You’re the blogger who hates me so much.”

I frowned and spoke without thinking. “I-I don’t hate you. I just hold issue with your idea of romance.”

The words left me without thought or attempt or desire to reel them back in.

I might not be able to order a pizza over the phone, but I could stand up for a little old lady who someone had cut in front of or the kid who was getting picked on. And my ideals. I could stand up for those too, especially when questioned.

The corner of his sardonic mouth climbed. “Well, lucky for me, I don’t write romance.”

A derisive sound left me. Lucky for all of us. “I don’t hate your books,” I insisted.

He shrugged and took the next book off the pile to sign. “Wouldn’t guess so from your reviews. My least favorite phrase on the planet is unforgivable sin, thanks to you.”

The heat in my cheeks flared again, this time in defense. “Your world- building is incredible. Your imagery is so brilliant, sometimes I have to set my book down and stare at a wall just to absorb it. But every hero you write is, frankly, an”—an asshole, was what I was going to say but instead landed on—“ unkind man.”

He nodded at the title page as he scrawled his name. “Viggo?”

“He left Djuna because she was pregnant with his half-breed baby. And she took him back even though he wouldn’t even commit to her for good.”

“Blaze?”

I rolled my eyes. “He didn’t come for Luna because he was more worried about himself. He could have saved her from the Liath!” My hand rose in the universal sign for what the hell and lowered to slap my thigh with a snap.

“Even Zavon? He’s everyone’s favorite.”

My face flattened. “He cheated on her out of spite. That, sir, is the ultimate unforgivable sin. And if that wasn’t bad enough, she took him back for no reason. He didn’t even apologize.” I said the words as if it were me he’d cheated on. Honestly, it felt that way.

He slid the book to me and picked up another. But he didn’t sign it. Instead, he turned that godforsaken smirk on me, which subsequently turned my knees into jelly.

“But he loved her. Isn’t love enough to forgive?”

It was that tingle again, climbing up my face like fire. “Of course it is, but your heroes never make heroic decisions about the women who love them. In fact, they don’t seem to love their women at all, not enough to sacrifice their own comfort. They’re irredeemable. Why isn’t love enough to make them act less like assholes?” I clapped a hand over my mouth, my eyes widening so far, they stung from exposure to air.

Something in his eyes changed, sharpened with an idea. He was otherwise unaffected, chuckling as he opened the book and turned his attention to his Sharpie again. “I mean, you’re not wrong, Amelia.”

The way he’d said my name, the depth and timbre and rolling reverberation slipped over me.

I blinked. “I’m not?”

His eyes shifted to meet mine for only a heartbeat before dropping to the page again. “You’re not. Every time I publish a book, I wait for your review to see if I’ve finally won you over.” He closed the book, pushing it across the table to me before reaching for the last. “Would you consider helping me with my next novel?”

Somewhere, a needle scratched. Tires squealed from a pumping of brakes. Crickets chirped in a chorus in an empty room.

Help him?

“Yes, help me,” he answered as he signed. I didn’t realize I’d spoken the question. “I could use a critical voice on my team. I have a feeling they’ve been telling me yes for years when they should have been telling me no. I need a no.” He looked up again and asked, “Are you interested?”

“Interested?” I echoed stupidly.

“Are you interested in being my no?”

I blinked at him. “What a strange question.”

A chuckle rumbled through a closed, sideways smile. His eyes had to be black, black as sin. “I’ve got to admit, I’m usually asking for a yes, especially where women are concerned.”

My face flattened, not only because he was a cocky bastard, but for the flash of rejection that I wasn’t considered a woman worthy of a yes. “What would the job entail?”

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