“So what did he say when you asked him about going to the gala with Jeff?”
I stopped with a grape halfway up to my mouth to frown at Laurel, who was sitting across from me at my kitchen counter. “Girl, I just told you I barely got two words out of my mouth before the man had his hands in my panties. What, exactly, makes you think I made time to ask that man if I could be on someone else’s arm at a gala?”
“Lucky bitch,” Laurel snickered, then picked up a cube of cheese. “Why doesn’t stuff like this ever happen to me? I like wild hotel sex too.”
Shaking my head, I frowned at her again. “You’re joking, right? You’re not seriously jealous of my sex contract with a stranger are you?”
“Hell yeah I am,” she said, sucking her teeth. “He sounds fine as hell. And then you have Jeff Perry sweating you too, and we know he looks good. It’s honestly not fair. You have too many niggas, while I don’t have enough.”
I laughed. “Laurel, bye. First of all, I don’t have any. And second, you’re not about to front like you don’t curve men left and right.”
“But we’re not talking about that right now though. You have two fine ass men who want you – what is you gone do?”
“Not a single thing any different than what I’m already doing,” I explained. “You see two men who want me – I see two men who want to fuck me, one of whom is already paying for the privilege of doing so.”
“You mean, one of whom wanted it so bad he signed a contract for that pussy,” Laurel sang, doing a little jig on her barstool that made me laugh. “And yeah, of course Jeff wants to fuck you, but so what? It would happen eventually if you two were dating anyway, so…”
“That’s a huge if. I don’t know him like that, and can’t really get to know him for another three weeks – not until the contract is done. I’m only entertaining the gala because I think it would be good for the center for me to get some face time with potential donors.”
“Ugh,” Laurel groaned. “It always comes back to the center for you, doesn’t it?”
I shrugged. “Yeah, and?”
“And, you’re still young and fine! All you ever do is work at the center, or worry about the center, or talk about the center. When is the last time you did something just for Rowan?”
Rolling my eyes at where the conversation was heading, I picked up my wine glass for a sip – partially because I need the alcohol to dull my senses, and partially because I needed something to delay having to give an answer.
Last night had definitely felt “just for Rowan”, but… now that I was outside of the moment and looking back, it didn’t feel right to say that.
Not that I thought I’d be judged – this was Laurel, there was very little I could say to make her look down on, or think less of me. It was less about saying it to someone than it was about admitting it to myself.
Admitting that not so deep down… I was enjoying this.
“Those kids need me – need this,” was what I said out loud, not ready to have that transparent conversation quite yet. It was so much easier to bring it back around to the kids, as if that were the only reason I’d gone to that hotel room last night. “For most of them, the people at the center are the only ones who can or will drop everything for them. The center is a lifeline, and I refuse to let it fail. Even if it means sacrificing my social life… for now.”
Laurel sighed. “I get it, Ro. I really do. I just don’t want to see you burn yourself out working on everything but yourself. You deserve too. That’s why I’m no glad to hear that Mystery Nigga has been putting in work, making sure you get yours. You’d better see if you can sign a contract extension or something. A month of orgasms is not enough.”
“It is plenty,” I argued, laughing.
“Girl whatever. Since that’s the case, you send him my way next then, okay?”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“You do that,” Laurel implored as she stood. “Wait though – you don’t think it’s Obama, do you?”
I almost choked on the sip of water I’d been taking. “What?” I sputtered. “No, it is not goddamn Obama!”
“How do you know?!”
“I told you, I saw his skin tone the first day. He’s dark chocolate.”
Laurel nodded. “Oh, okay good. Cause Michelle is my girl, and I wasn’t trying to have to fight my bestie over my forever first lady’s man.”
“Weren’t you leaving? Can we still make that happen?”
She put a hand to her chest. “Wow, so are you putting me out now though?”
“Yes, I am,” I laughed. “Because it is still early enough for me to do something just for Rowan before I go to bed.”
“Rub one out?”
“If by that you mean fall asleep before I finish one episode of my current Netflix binge, then yes. I’m gonna rub the hell out of it.”
Laurel was still laughing when she left, and my own great mood persisted as I headed back to the kitchen to clean up. It wasn’t much to do – just putting away the things we’d been snacking on and wiping the counter down before I could make my way to the living room to plop down on the couch.
I’d been there maybe ten minutes when my phone buzzed, and I picked it up to find a text from Laurel letting me know she’d made it home. I shot her a reply and then put the phone down beside me and closed my eyes, not opening them again until I was pulled awake by another notification from my phone.
My immediate assumption had been that it was a response from Laurel, so I was surprised to Desiree’s name there instead, with a text message instead of a call.
“He wants to see you tonight. Are you available?”
I pushed out a sigh. I’d just been with him the night before – vigorously enough that I’d woken up alone in the hotel room with sore nipples and sore thighs. Somehow… those seemed like reasons to see him again, instead of reasons not to.
And it wasn’t like I had other plans, since surely dozing in front of the TV didn’t count. I’d showered as soon as I got home from the center, so I was halfway ready to go anyway…
I picked up my phone, staring at the words in the text for just a few more moments before I tapped out a reply.
“Sure. What time?”
The darkness intensified everything.
I couldn’t figure out who had the unfair advantage, me or him. But as I laid out across the bed, legs spread wide, panting as I tried to breathe normally again after yet another explosive orgasm, I definitely felt like I was getting the better end of this deal.
“Tell me how you came to be what you are today.”
I startled at the words – first because I hadn’t heard him come back into the room, then because he was speaking to me at all, and finally because of the content of the question. The two times before, there hadn’t been any conversation, no pillow talk and cuddling after the deed was done. So for that to be the first thing out of his mouth… I really didn’t know what to say.
“Excuse me?” I asked, seeking clarity as I sat up, blindly feeling for the covers to wrap around my naked frame. “I’m not sure what you’re asking.”
“The Cartwright Center,” he came back. The bed shifted a bit under his weight as he sat down – another discrepancy from the “norm”. “Program Director, Manager, whatever your title is… you run the place. How did that happen?”
Behind my mask, I tried to raise an eyebrow. “I’m pretty sure you’ve looked into me enough that you know the answer to that. Know everything about me.”
“I know what the internet says about Rowan, but I don’t know… Rowan. I’d like you to enlighten me.”
I ran a hand through my hair, absently attempting to tame my sex-matted kinks. “I… didn’t think that was part of the agreement.”
“Does it have to be in the contract? I can’t just want to talk to you?”
“It’s not that you can’t,” I answered, shaking my head. “It’s more that I just didn’t think you wanted to. It’s not the precedent that was set.”
“A mistake I’ll own,” he said, from much closer than he’d been a moment before. I shivered at the touch of his hand on my bare thigh, held my breath as he moved it up, stopping at my hip. “But, just so that you know…” his hand moved from my leg to my chin, shifting my head in a way that undoubtedly would’ve left me looking him in the eyes if it weren’t for the mask. “Please don’t mistake my enthusiasm for, and expertise at making you cum for disinterest in the other things I find attractive about you. You understand?”
I swallowed hard, slightly embarrassed by the way the cockiness in his words sent a tremble through me. “Yes. Duly noted.”
“Thank you,” he told me, in that resonant, sexy voice – the same voice he’d always had, only now, after three of these… “meetings”… it felt different. Familiar. “So now then… back to my question. How does a well-educated, ambitious, gorgeous woman end up running a struggling community center?”
I wanted to be a little offended by the “struggling” part, but considering that the “struggle” was the whole reason I was in this room in the first place, I swallowed that feeling.
“Loyalty, I guess.” I raised my shoulders, and then dropped them again. “I’ve gotten other job offers, could’ve done something else. Maybe would’ve been more successful at something else. But the Cartwright Center is just… engrained in me, I guess. Growing up, it was a safe place to study, play with my friends, have a meal. I was always right beside Janie when she was still alive, running this place. I saw the impact it had then, and I still the impact now. I can’t just give up on it.”
“So you think that’s the only way you make an impact? Couldn’t you do something else? Something other than putting a bandaid over their needs… and knees?”
I frowned. “A bandaid over their needs?”
“Yeah.” He’d already dropped his hand from my face, but he shifted closer, enough that I could feel the heat from his body. “A lot of what the Cartwright Center does – the lunch program you want to do, for example – it’s about filling in a gap, right?”
“Okay, so what if, instead constantly having to provide the meals, the source got fixed. Better wages for the parents, better nutrition education, better publics transportation for access to the stores…”
“Ah, so politics, huh?”
“Uh, no,” I laughed, without even feeling bad over killing the enthusiasm in his voice. “All that political stuff? Just sounds good to talk about, honestly. I have zero confidence in the government when it comes to making a real difference for people in need.”
“Wow. So you… what, you just don’t trust politicians?”
“Not even a little,” I agreed. “And I feel bad for the new ones, running on these “hope” and “change” platforms. I know they mean well, but they’re going to get in there and realize that nobody gives a shit except them. All those millionaire lawmakers care about is themselves, their millions, and their millionaire friends.”
“Damn,” he chuckled. “That’s a pretty cynical position to take.”
“It’s a realistic position to take. I… you asked how I ended up running a “struggling” community center? Well, it wasn’t always struggling. But then one politician after another, all of whom promised to make things better, and be there for the “people”, and look out for children, the usual bullshit… little by little I’ve watched funding get stripped from vital programs. The programs that kept our children fed, kept our parks clean and safe, helped us be a resource. We’ve gone from thriving to barely afloat, all under the reign of politicians who promised it wouldn’t be that way. So you have to forgive my… skepticism.”
He pushed out a sigh, but didn’t say anything for a few moments. “I understand. I’m sorry you’re feeling let down. I still think our communities are better served by solving the roots of our problems, but that doesn’t change the fact that people like you, places like the Cartwright Center, are necessary. Those kids do need you. There’s no reason for you to not have what you need.”
“There may not be a reason, but the reality is what it is,” I countered. “I was supposed to have what I needed, but I didn’t. So I took it into my own hands, and here we are… debauchery for money.”
As soon as those words left my mouth, an air of tension fell over the room, making me shift uncomfortably in my spot on the bed.
“Debauchery?” he asked, his tongue forming the word so deliberately that I could tell he was surprised I’d used it.
I swallowed, clearly sensing that he was bothered. “I mean… what else would you call this? It’s not legal, it’s immoral, it’s…”
“A mutually beneficial arrangement. You get something you need, and so do I.”
I scoffed. “Yeah, but you’re not being paid to degrade yourself.”
“Degrade?” Nick laughed – a sound I didn’t know I needed to hear until it was happening, warming me from head to toe. “Tell me,” he said, leaning in to kiss my shoulder before he lowered his mouth to my ear. “When did you feel degraded? When I pulled you on top of my face so I could be fully immersed in the decadence of your pussy? When I had your toes in my mouth? When I—”
“Stop,” I snapped, as my face grew hot.
“Why, Rowan? I’m trying to understand when exactly I did something to you in this room that made you feel degraded.”
“I…” I shook my head, infuriated by the embarrassed tears forming in my eyes, and grateful for the mask to hide them. “You… haven’t.”
“You’re goddamn right I haven’t. I haven’t done shit but revere you, so now I need to understand why that bullshit even came out of your mouth.”
“Why wouldn’t it?!” I exclaimed. “Are we about to pretend that having sex for money is some normal thing?!”
“This is Vegas, beautiful. A thousand transactions are happening as we speak.”
I pulled the covers tighter around me. “But I’m… I’m not that girl.”
“Bullshit,” he argued. “You’re exactly that girl – or are you a figment of my imagination, and you’re not really here right now?”
“Fuck you. How dare you speak to me like this, like you aren’t the one who approached me with this shit?!”
He chuckled again. “Yeah, I did. I saw you. I admired you. I wanted you, so I did what it took to get you. That go-getter attitude was something I thought we had in common, but apparently not, since you’re not that girl.”
“Excuse me?” I frowned.
“You’re not hard of hearing, Rowan. I admired your determination – your willingness to do whatever the fuck you had to do to keep that center open. I get the gift of your presence for a month – you get perks that the Cartwright Center will be benefitting from for years and years to come, but you can sit in my face whining about “degrading yourself” like every-fucking-body doesn’t have a price – most of them a lot goddamn lower than yours. I have a not more respect for a woman that uses whatever resources she has to better her position than one that sits back and lets the shit happen to her and then plays the victim.”
Before I could think about it, before I could calculate the risk, before I could consider the consequences, my hand had swung out, blindly connecting with his face.
“Fuck you,” I hissed, even though I’d said it already, and had no business further antagonizing him. Apparently though, I wasn’t in control of my body – I certainly didn’t intend to put my hands out, wildly, sightlessly grabbing in his direction. I made contact with his shirt, using it to pull myself toward him, and the next thing I knew I was climbing on top of him, lowering my face to his with startling aggression.
At first, my lips smashed against his forehead, but that was what I needed to get my bearings and properly aim for his lips. Any intentions I had of controlling that kiss were quickly overshadowed – as soon as our mouths connected, he consumed me.
He kept my mouth where he wanted by fisting handfuls of my hair as he kissed me, licked me, devoured me. My clumsy hands worked their way between our bodies, undoing his belt, unbuttoning and unzipping the pants I didn’t understand why he’d put back on, freeing him from his boxers. I frantically worked my way into position and then sank down onto him, moaning as my body adjusted to accept him.
And then we both went still.
His grip on my hair softened, and we stayed there, face to face, him inside of me, saying nothing. We weren’t kissing anymore, but we were still right there in each other’s space, swapping air – him seeing everything, me seeing nothing.
I dipped my head, and then adjusted my hips, allowing him to settle deeper into me. Behind the mask, I closed my eyes – squeezed them tight – trying to hold back the inexplicable tears that were threatening to break free.
“I… I need to see your face,” I said, not even knowing why that came out of my mouth. That was quickly becoming a theme for me, apparently – just doing things with no rhyme, reason, or explanation.
He brought his lips to mine, but didn’t kiss me. “No you don’t, beautiful. I’m nobody of consequence to you.”
“That’s not true. If it was true, you’d show me your face.”
Before I could make another appeal, he’d rocked his hips in an upward stroke that snatched the words from my lips. Then his hands were at my waist, holding me where he wanted me while he did it again, and again, and again, until I’d forgotten any questions or concerns I’d previously felt the need to state. Instead, I chose to focus on the euphoric feeling of having him inside of me, his hands gripping my ass, his mouth on my neck.
I focused on riding him.
Like this situation was something different than what it was. Like I wanted to be here, because I did. Like I wanted to cum, and make him cum, because I did, no matter how much I may not have wanted to admit it. Like I wanted him to leave this room thinking about my pussy, because I did.
Because if I was honest with myself… I wasn’t thinking about the Cartwright Center when I came here tonight.
I was thinking about his dick.
Laurel wanted me to do something for me, and here it was.
I had every intention of enjoying it.
“I’ll be contacting you directly, from now on,” I said, placing a brand new smartphone on the dresser. It had already been through the ringer with Des’ tech people, so I trusted it damn near better than I trusted my own personal one.
So I’d gotten one just like it, to contact her with.
“The number is already saved, so you’ll know it’s me.”
From her perch on the bed, she nodded. “Okay. Is there an expectation that I’ll always answer it immediately?”
“Of course not,” I told her, grinning. “You’re a grown woman. I’d like you to be responsive, obviously, but I don’t expect you to be waiting by the phone either.”
I’d gotten her talking earlier and then fucked it up, pushing her too far. But it had gotten under my skin, hearing her speak down on herself. Especially with the shit that I knew went down around here – in Vegas in general, but even more so among the rich, and especially among rich politicians. If this all got aired out, people would treat it like some huge scandal for the sake of having something to talk about, but honestly?
It was just another Tuesday.
It was a little rich of me to feel so indignant about it, when I was the one who’d put her in this position. A better man – a less selfish one – would have seen her need and met it. But I… I’d just had to get something out of it.
And honestly speaking? Tonight had been more of what I wanted from her than the two nights before.
Her beauty was what got my attention. The fire in her spirit, determination in her voice as she argued for that grant had been what kept it. Her quiet dignity – her refusal to allow her disappointment over losing it to show on her face, her immediate kindness to her opponent… that had solidified it.
I wanted to know more.
And everything I learned made me want her more.
She wasn’t just talking shit about helping people, wasn’t raising a ruckus just for show, like so many. She was actually about that action – evidenced by the contract she’d signed. Unconventional, sure, but she wasn’t sitting around waiting to be saved – she made the best deal she possibly could.
I hated that she didn’t see it that way.
I didn’t say goodbye.
My attempt at making conversation had made things awkward enough between us. I’d pissed her off, sure, but I doubt she knew the effect her words had on me.
She’d spoken life to my worst nightmares.
I wasn’t naïve, I didn’t think. I knew that much of politics was occupied by bullshit and bullshitters, but I desperately wanted to not be part of that. I had lofty – maybe unrealistic – goals of being someone to actually get shit down, but the more I saw, the less faith I had.
I wasn’t so sure anymore if it was worth it.
“Reid Graham!” I heard, as soon as I – inadvertently – stepped off the elevator into the main lobby of the hotel. I was supposed to be meeting my security in the sub-lobby, outside the view of general public, but I’d been so consumed with thoughts of Rowan that I wasn’t thinking as clearly as I should.
Looking up, my eyes scanned until they landed on Jeff Perry, and I fought the urge to roll my eyes. Of all the people to run into at a hotel, this motherfucker was one of the last I wanted to see.
“Jeff, how are you?” I asked, putting on the same fake smile I kept ready for any public appearance, accepting his hand when he offered it.
Jeff shook his head. “Man, I am doing much better than you after those latest poll numbers I think. You’re getting your ass kicked in this politics thing, man. You think maybe it’s not really your thing?”
“I think that I am not about to get tricked into giving you a quote – like I suspect you did to the woman from the community center,” I told him, looking him right in the eyes. “That article definitely took a shot, man.”
He smirked. “My bad. You know I believe in you, Reid, but we have to report the truth.”
“You keep up the good fight then, aiight?”
“Most definitely. What are you doing here man? It’s a little late for any um… campaign meetings, right?”
I kept my expression impassive. “Work doesn’t have a time frame. It ends when it ends. What are you doing here?”
“Staying here, until I get my new place set up. Drake properties are known for their, ah… discretion. A factor I’m sure you can appreciate.”
Jeff was working hard to get a rise out of me, but I wasn’t giving him the satisfaction.
“It’s Vegas, Jeff. Everybody appreciates discretion. I’ll see you around,” I told him, turning to head towards the stairs that would take me where I needed to be. Everything was all good until he called after me.
“You’ll be at the Armstrong Gala next weekend, right?”
I stopped to turn and answer him. “Yes, I will. But I already have a plus one, I’m afraid.”
He laughed. “Yeah, I would think so. That gorgeous fiancée of yours. Enid Grant, right?”
“You already know that.”
“I do,” he nodded. “And I think you know my date as well…?”
I raised an eyebrow. “I do?”
“Yeah. That fine ass director from the Cartwright Center. Rowan Phillips.”
I tamped down the hot, instant annoyance that filled my chest, again forcing myself to keep my true feelings off my face. Instead, I let my eyebrow go higher as I grinned. “Really now?” I asked, feigning respect. “That’s quite a catch.”
“You see it,” Jeff joked, with a nod. “Anyway… we’ll see you there. Have your checkbook ready for a donation to the center.”
I nodded. “My checkbook stays ready, my man.”
With that, I turned away, knowing I was barely keeping my anger in check. Rowan and I had been in that room for hours, she knew what our contract stipulations were, and she hadn’t found it pertinent to mention this shit?
I bluff out a huff of air as I headed down the one flight of stairs.
I knew better than to act on anything Jeff said without getting the real story for myself, and besides that… I wasn’t that concerned anyway.
I wasn’t a man that buckled in the face of competition – my failing campaign was evidence of that. I wasn’t going down without a fight.
I was just gonna work harder.