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"Zora, when are you gonna stop teasin' and go out with a brotha?"
Zora Campbell looked up from her script and flashed Todd Brady a smile. Though her supermodel days were behind her, it was still a boost to her ego that men continued to go out of their way to try and impress her. "C'mon, Todd. You know the rules. I don't date men I work with."
"All right then. I quit," he said, shrugging his mountainous shoulders and then spreading his LL Cool J-looking luscious lips into a wide smile. "There. That solves everything."
"You can't quit. I need you." She poked out her bottom lip and fluttered her long lashes up at him.
Todd clutched a hand over his heart and sighed. "Ahhh. If only that was true."
Zora laughed at his silly antics. "It is true. You're the best PR man in the business. Without you I would've just been another washed-up supermodel being a guest judge on a reality show."
Todd's chest expanded with pride as he strolled confidently over to the vacant director's chair. "Don't be silly, Zora. You have the face of an angel and a body designed for sin. You will never be washed-up because you'll never go out of style."
She laughed and shook her head. "With you around, my ego will never be deflated." She returned her attention to the thin script.
"Surely you know that thing backward and forward by now. It's our tenth infomercial."
"I do. I just get nervous before going on," she admitted. "I'm always afraid that I'm going to forget something."
"Relax. The Zora skin-care line is flying off the shelves. As well as the hair care line, perfume and jewelry line. America can't get enough of you."
"We both know this industry is fickle. There's a thin line between can't get enough and 'Damn, girl. We're starting to get sick of you.' If you don't believe me then go ask J. Lo and Beyoncé."
"I would rather we ask Oprah and Tyra."
"They have their fair share of haters, too," Zora reminded him.
"Of course they do. You're nobody until somebody hates you."
"That's an interesting way of looking at it." "In this biz, it's the only way to look at it." The familiar ring of his BlackBerry interrupted the conversation. "Excuse me for a moment." He held up a finger and then reached inside his tailored Armani jacket and pulled out his phone. "Talk to me."
Zora returned her attention to the ten-page script and didn't look up until Todd was gone and the makeup artist was rushing over.
"You're here early this morning, Ms. Campbell." "I'm always early, Beatrice. Force of habit." Beatrice beamed. "I didn't think that you'd remember my name. This is only my second time working with you."
"I also never forget a name." Zora's smile widened. She had impressed the young lady. Even that feat she counted as an accomplishment because she knew that most people expected her to be a certain way. Pretty but not too bright. It was far from the truth.
Zora came from a long line of accomplished academics. Her mother, Billie Campbell, was a Pulitzer prize-winning author and economist, and her father, Elliott, had been a Rhodes scholar. Zora was well on her way to following in their footsteps when she was discovered studying at an off-campus coffee shop. Deciding to sign with the Ford modeling agency had upset the family. Her parents didn't approve of the lifestyle associated with modeling. Admittedly at that time, Zora had been seduced by all the trappings of fame. Easy money, VIP treatment and the possibility of the world knowing her name.
Upon signing, Zora had experienced a meteoric rise to the top six months after her first magazine spread. She made outrageous money for just smiling and playing dress up. It was fun while it lasted. But like all things, there was some bitter with the sweet.
For all of Zora's book smarts, she wasn't and probably could never have been prepared for fame's dark side. There was the endless supply of drugs and alcohol at photo shoots and wild, over-the-top parties. She had seen other girls become addicts and fall victim to abusive relationships. Some managed to pull themselves together, some died and some were just plain lost.
After ten years in the biz, Zora took her bow and allowed the next generation of beauties to take the stage. She returned to college, collected her business degree and then readied herself for the next chapter in her life. Not until Todd Brady came along did she think that stage would still include her selling her face and name. Turns out there were millions of women who were dying to know her beauty secrets. So she packaged them into a jar, slapped her name on it and set it at a price point that even Walmart-going moms could afford, and the rest was multimillionaire history.
The assistant director popped his head into the room. "We're taping in ten minutes, Ms. Campbell."
"Thank you, Henry." Zora drew a deep breath and steadied her nerves. It didn't matter how many times she'd done this, she still got a little nervous being in front of a camera.
Beatrice finished working her makeup magic and gave Zora the last five minutes alone before she went out on set. However, thirty seconds in, there was a knock on the open door.
Zora glanced over her left shoulder and then laughed. "Well, I'll be damned."
Melanie Harte beamed from the doorway. "I want to go on record that you have to be the hardest chick to find in Manhattan."
"Apparently not too hard." Zora stood up from her chair and met Melanie halfway across the small room for a tight, heartfelt hug. "How have you been doing, girl?"
"Fine. Fine. Like you. Busy as ever." Melanie, a fashionista herself, rocked a cute off-white pantsuit and a sharp pixie cut. In the fifteen years Zora had known Melanie, the woman didn't look like she had aged a day. Zora had the stray thought that maybe Melanie should get into the business of selling her beauty secrets.
"I dropped by hoping I could take you to lunch."
"Today?" Zora blinked, trying to think what she had on her schedule. Most likely she was loaded down with meetings and appointments. Mainly because that was how it was every day.
"C'mon. Say yes. It's been months since we've gotten together and just girl-talked."
Henry reappeared in the doorway. "Two minutes, Ms. Campbell."
"I'll be right there." Zora glanced back down at her friend and felt the tug of playing hooky.
"Don't front. You know you want to," Melanie pressed.
"All right. All right." She glanced at her watch. "It's going to take about two hours to film this twenty-minute infomercial. I can call—"
"How about I wait here on the set?"
Zora blinked. "You want to wait?"
"Sure. Why not?"
Zora's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "What are you up to?"
"Huh? What? Nothing." She tried to cover with a bright smile, but it only made her look guilty.
"Ms. Campbell, we need you on set."
"I'm coming." She moved toward the door, but then stopped. "I'll go to lunch with you, Mel, but don't think I don't know you're up to something."
"Who? Me?" Melanie batted her long lashes at her friend.
"Please. You ought to know better. That's my signature move." She wagged her finger. "You're definitely up to something."
Melanie pressed her lips together in order to remain mum.
Zora laughed. "All right. I'll go to lunch with you but whatever else you have in mind, my answer is no." Zora winked at her friend and rushed to the set.
Melanie stayed behind with a huge smile on her face. "We'll just see about that."
"You know you're going to hell for lying to that sweet old man," Kitty Ervin warned with a wave of her finger. She softened the admonishment with a smile. In the three years she had known Jaxon Landon she couldn't remember a time she could ever stay mad at the sexy multimillionaire. In fact, it was hard enough just to be in the same room without having the impulse to rip off his clothes and try to screw his brains out.
"Sweet old man?" Jaxon Landon chuckled as he sat down behind his office desk and pulled out his checkbook. "You can't possibly be talking about my grandfather."
"Of course I am," Kitty insisted, leaning a hip against his sturdy mahogany desk. "Despite your efforts to inform your family of my lucrative career choice, every five minutes, your grandmother was nothing but kind to me the entire time I was there."
"My grandmother, yes. Carlton—that's a horse of another color." Jaxon's rich laughter filled the large office. At six foot four and caramel candy-coated, Jaxon Landon managed the impossible feat of being both pretty-boy fine and alpha-male rugged at the same time. He was always immaculately groomed from head to toe, and the way he walked exuded a certain wild and dangerous grace. And his voice! His voice alone had the power to weaken the strongest sistah's knees.
"Besides, old money is nothing if not civil. It's what is being said behind closed doors that really matters. Trust me. My grandmother is likely crying to everyone who'll listen that her mother is rolling around in her grave—no—rolling around, keening in her grave at the very thought of me marrying a stripper. I love her dearly, but she does tend to be overly dramatic from time to time." He laughed, shaking his head.
Kitty's back stiffened. She wasn't ashamed of her profession. It was the idea that someone thought it eliminated her from landing someone like Jaxon Landon. Just because he was the new "Prince of Wall Street" and was cloaked in money, power and respect didn't mean that he was out of her league. It just meant that she would have to step up her game.
Jaxon noticed that Kitty's playful smile had vanished. He lowered his gold pen and rose from his chair. Jaxon kept forgetting people—mainly women—tended to be thrown off by his bluntness. He smiled as he moved around the desk. When he placed his large hands on her small shoulders and started massaging, he could tell by her twinkling eyes that all had been forgiven. "Sorry, Kitty. But I warned you before you accepted the job not to take anything that happened personally. My family can be closed minded and cruel sometimes."
She laughed, and then spoke before thinking. "It's not your family you should be apologizing for."
Jaxon's hands stilled on her shoulders. "What do you mean?"
Kitty mentally kicked herself. "Nothing." She gently shrugged off his hands and moved from the desk. "My check?"
Jaxon couldn't let such a flippant comment go. "Are you saying you thought I was somehow being unreasonable?"
Kitty really didn't want to get into it. After all, it was none of her business whatever drama went on between him and his family. Chances were that she would never see them again anyway. Plus, she didn't want to piss off Jaxon to the point that he would stop coming to the Velvet Rope. The women that competed for his attention grew more fierce every time he showed up. As it was, she was already the envy of every dancer in the place. Mainly because she had the advantage of knowing that it took more than big breasts, a slim waist, onion booty and a pretty face to grab and hold his attention.
Jaxon was an unusual client when it came to his visits to the gentlemen's clubs. He wasn't there to zero in on certain body parts. No. He generally enjoyed the art. He was particularly fond of the burlesque style as opposed to straight grinding on a pole and booty poppin' in a sequined string thong.
Smiling, Kitty leaned forward and let her expensive breasts press against his chest. "I would never suggest that you were ever unreasonable," she assured, blowing her strawberry scented breath up at him. "You have to be the kindest, most generous man I know." And she meant it. Jaxon Landon was known for many things: a son of a bitch when it came to business, dangerous when it came to those who crossed him and a heartbreaker when it came to women who had the misfortune of falling in love with him.
But the one thing very few people knew about him was that he genuinely had a heart of gold when it came to people he cared about. It was no accident that she was the one to land the ten-thousand-dollar job to pretend to be his fiancée for the weekend. Kitty knew that word had gotten around the club about her grandmother's increasing medical bills.