What in the Hell Just Happened?
THE LINE I WAS TRAPPED in snaked around the building. It wasn’t unusual for this time of morning when dawn’s chill clung to the air. A chill that would soon give way to the sweltering heat that choked New York in the summer.
My nose lifted, inhaling the doughy scent of bagels drifting from the shop door jammed open by the slew of bodies vying to get in. I didn’t particularly like to wait in lines for bread—or anywhere that required braving the morning rush of impatient, caffeine-deprived New Yorkers—but this morning was different.
Possibility and hope played through the crisp breeze, wrapping me in a protective shell. Today was the beginning of seeing my dreams come to fruition. Of checking off another marker on the bucket list of goals I’d set for myself. Each within a logical time frame and each with the sole purpose of expanding the small farm life from which I’d come.
I took a step forward when the line moved, herded and distracted. Tore my eyes away from my Kindle long enough to notice the back of the man’s neck in front of me. Words were inked across his tanned skin in dark, narrow letters—Life is short. Break the rules.
Break the rules. Right. I could just imagine myself going against what I was told to do. The red-faced giveaway. The sputtering words when asked to explain myself. Once, when I was thirteen and on a kick about finally falling into the teenage bracket, I’d thought I was a rule-breaker when I left a towel on the floor instead of putting it in the hamper.
Let me repeat that—a towel.
The stunt lasted all of five minutes. Five painstaking, nail-biting minutes. When visions of my mom carrying the towel into my room, demanding an explanation, surfaced, I had run back to the bathroom and tossed it into the hamper before one of my sisters could rat on me.
Let’s just say, I had given up my rebel ways after that.
With a sigh, I dove back into the story on my Kindle. Back to the words carrying me into a foreign land with hopes of finding my hero. I didn’t go anywhere without it. Without a plausible escape from the ruckus of the New York subway.
Can I get an amen?
Through my peripheral, I noticed the line moving forward and took a few more steps. The door was inches away. The toasty scent playfully wove in and out of the slight breeze. My heart quickened in pace as the heroine on my Kindle ran through the forest, trying to avoid the men chasing after her. I had known this was going to happen, that something thrilling would come next. Maybe even the introduction of her hero.
The words propelled through my mind, a dizzying dance of literature and imagination, only to disappear the next moment when a hard slam of a body rammed into the side of me.
“Shit! I’m sorry.”
The man’s words and presence were lost to the sound of my Kindle colliding with the sidewalk, the queasy, irrefutable sound of plastic and concrete smacking together. The same Kindle my parents had gifted me with four Christmases ago.
Sweet baby Jesus.
I reached for it before the onset of footsteps damaged it further while my anger warred with my empathy over whether or not to curse him out. Surely, I wasn’t invisible. He’d have to be a complete idi—
“Watch out!” I heard him shout just as my biggest fear took on the shape of one large, square-toed shoe.
The heavy foot landed with a crunching stomp on the front of the cracked screen. If there was any hope of salvaging it before, well, that hope had just been catapulted out the door.
I tilted my head back until the kindle-crushing perpetrator was in full view. He was a robust man in a three-piece suit with his phone pressed against his ear. One cigar and an underbite away from being the next Godfather.
He paused the profanities the moment his foot lifted off my Kindle and then shouted back at the man in front of me, “No, you watch out. I’m walking here!”
After he so kindly bestowed me with a curt glance—you know the kind, sneering and slithery—he then proceeded to rant to whoever was on the other end of the line and continued down the sidewalk.
Mentally, I flicked him off.
“Here … let me …”
A sharp pain lanced my forehead when it bumped against his on the way down to my Kindle. What the hell is it with this guy? I palmed the throbbing ache above my eye. Cradled my broken little book baby to my chest. The damage was colossal. A testament to the type of luck I had, which was equivalent to zero. Could this morning get any worse?
Standing, I tucked it into my tote. Calmed myself with the thought that all was not lost. I could read off the Kindle app on my phone until I could afford to buy another one.
My wallet snickered at that.
“Can you believe that guy? How bad is it?” the man in front of me asked.
All my thoughts stilled, ramming one into the other in a traffic jam of cosmic proportions the moment I finally looked at him. Lulled to a dizzying jumble of meaningless sounds and forgotten rants. He had the most beautiful eyes, stunning and striking. Almond in shape and shadowed by hard-pressed brows. Silver streaks slashed through hazel irises, like lightning on a warm summer night. Alarming and encompassing. Dangerous.
Wait a minute.
Did I really just lose myself in a man’s eyes?
And of course, they were framed by full lashes. The kind that curled up to his brows. Thick and as black as a raven’s feathers. Lashes women spent hundreds of dollars to maintain.
But nothing could prepare me for the realization that simultaneously crashed into me like a freight train on crack.
Oh my God.
He rubbed a spot at his hairline, a small chuckle breezing past his lips. “Sorry about the knock on the head. You okay?”
“I …” My words faltered, stumbling over their clumsy little feet.
There he was, in the flesh. New York’s notorious player. America’s heartthrob. The bad boy every girl loved to hate but still wanted to date. Heir to a football dynasty. Record holder for most models dated.
Even his skin shone as if it were made of gold.
Hold, please, while I internally combust.
He was the story one couldn’t help but read. The headline that could always be counted on.
“Grayson Pierce—America’s Finest Bad Boy.”
“Grayson Pierce—Will He Ever Settle Down?”
“Grayson Pierce—The Arson Scandal of the Year.”
That last headline, I’d always wondered about. But that wasn’t important enough to dwell on at the moment. What was, was that everyone wanted a piece of him, but no one could ever get close to him.
Yet I was within inches.
For years, I’d been following his story through the tabloids when he first broke onto the scene through his Instagram account, which had flourished into a top-tier modeling contract. It was his face that grabbed the world’s attention. The perfect smile that held the wattage of a million lightbulbs. The jawline so sharp, it could slice through diamonds. Boyish yet sexy with just the right amount of sin. A stormy taunting pushing through his eyes giving the edge of mystery.
He became the face of men’s clothing lines. Colognes. Shoes. He even dabbled in television and movies.
He was an empire in and of itself.
It wasn’t until his reputation for dating women had taken a hard left that the tabloids turned sour against him and dubbed him a serial dater. Woman after woman tried to be that unicorn that could tame him. And woman after woman found herself in the tabloids with tears streaming down her face as he paraded a new dalliance.
But even all that was shadowed by the incident. A scandal that ended with him losing his modeling contract and disappearing for two years. Until about a year ago, when he released a memoir, hoping to clear his name. Branding him as the reformed bad boy turned writer, which landed him a job with Stud—a leading blog geared toward men. He had become a journalist—a glove that, oddly enough, seemed to fit him well.
His knuckles brushed against mine when he handed over my Kindle. An unfamiliar zapping sensation spread through my skin and sank into every cell, alive and swimming ardently. A sensation I’d read about countless times in hundreds of romance novels and always managed to gag at the fictionality of it. Surely, no touch could actually make one’s skin heat. Could actually feel like the static zing I used to feel when my sisters and I would fervently rub our socked feet across the carpet and chase after each other. Yet there I stood, dumbfounded but also intrigued.
It's real, guys.
It’s freaking real.
“Sorry about this. I’d like to replace it since it was my fault and all …” His voice was deep and rich, like warmed maple, sending a sugar high to my insides.
I couldn’t tear my eyes away from him. The simple white T-shirt that did its best to stand up to the expanse of pectoral glory straining against cotton fibers. The casual way his sleeves were rolled up on the sides, exposing a braiding of tendon and muscle I could stare at all day long. The words and art tattooed across his forearms.
Up and up my gaze went, his height and energy inexplicably towering over my tiny five-foot-two frame, until it came to rest on his luscious, scandalous lips quirked with a smirk.
That same infamous smirk that had launched a thousand thrown panties in his direction.
My words stammered in my throat like tiny, inexperienced soldiers. “I, uh … yes.” I knuckled my glasses up the bridge of my nose.
There was that chuckle again, soft and inviting and every bit captivating. “Name’s Grayson. And you are?”
My knees gave way a little at his smile, my tongue twisted and inflamed. I shifted my stance. Tried to string silly letters together into the shape of my name. Vowels and consonants that suddenly didn’t make sense.
“Primrose.” The name shot out of my mouth like an unfledged cannonball, followed by an embarrassing flutter of uneasy laughter. “Sorry.” Breathe. “Prim,” I said, this time with better control. “That’s what everyone calls me. Well, unless you’re my grandma. She uses my entire name every chance she gets.”
When his eyebrow dipped with confusion, my brain cells deserted me. It was at this moment that things could go one of two ways: I’d gracefully offer him a bubbly burst of laughter that would lure him in, or I’d make an ass of myself and overshare like I so often did when nervous.
Take a guess which way it goes.
My voice turned croaky as I mimicked my grandma’s tone and said to him, “Primrose Amberly, do you know where your name came from?” I waited a beat and added, “You think I’m about to say something significant, right? Because when grandmas are about to tell you where your name came from, you just know it’s from something historic or romantic. Not me though. She said …” And of course, I resumed my grandma voice for this next part. “From a baby book. That’s where.”
His grin stretched up to his eyes, glimmering, as laughter peppered the air. God, his laugh, rich and deep and from the heart … even that could be bottled and sold.
I swallowed, the tingling in my stomach intensifying. “Yeah … my grandma isn’t the type for sagely stories.”
“Prim,” he said, as if testing out the name. Tasting it.
Heat flared behind my cheeks when I noticed his eyes roaming the length of me.
Wait a minute … is he … is he checking me out?
I couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe. The way my name had rolled off his tongue, like velvet and intimacy. The way his baritone voice had sunk in between every letter. Every vowel.
“Next,” I heard someone behind the counter yell.
We were already at the door. I should have been salivating over the intoxicating scent of fresh bread, but that wasn’t what my brain picked up on. It was him. The leathery, citrus musk. It tingled the hairs on my arm awake. Made me want to grab hold of him for a good, strong whiff.
He stepped to the side. “Here, you go first.”
I moved past him. Stepped up to the counter, trying to regain focus. But that proved impossible when a hushed murmur fell over the crammed shop. It moved like a tidal wave as Grayson’s name rolled off every tongue.
There was an older woman beside him whose face gave way to delight the moment her eyes locked with his. “Gra-Grayson? Grayson Pierce?”
“The one and only.” The chuckle that left his mouth sounded worn down, like the tired chains on a bicycle. Overworked and overused. Not at all the same sound he’d produced with me just moments before.
“Oh my God! Can I …” She paused, fumbling for her phone. “Can I get a picture?”
I blinked away the fevered voices and trained my eyes on the boards overhead. When the order was complete, I gave a tight smile to Grayson, who had his arm around a young woman. She was smiling toward the camera another woman held in front of them. A pang of sympathy spiked through me when he was passed to the next person who wanted a picture, still unable to place his order. It reminded me of a doll my sister had gotten when we were younger. It was one of those expensive ones, and my other sisters envied her to the point of snatching it away from her. It went on and on, pulling and tugging until, eventually, that shiny, beautiful doll’s arm had snapped clean off.
What kind of life is that? I thought as I tucked myself into a corner. A person in the flesh stuck behind an invisible cage. Didn’t they see that he, too, was human, just like us? That he, too, only wanted to get a bagel and perhaps a coffee, so he could begin his morning?
Sure, he was famous, and yeah, he elicited a sense of excitement when in view. But beneath the headlines, beneath that stimulating smile, he was still only flesh and blood. A heartbeat and lungs and no doubt charged with a desire to feel normal, judging by the grim look on his face.
I took a much-needed, long overdue deep breath and then reached for my Kindle. A crescent-shaped crack started near the top and had splintered down the middle, spreading tiny veins along the sides. Colors pushed behind the glass but no words.
I slipped it into my bag and then fixed my eyes on the floor. I wouldn’t be like the others. I wouldn’t pry on Grayson as if he were some escaped zoo animal.
The next thing I knew, a pair of black leather boots entered my frame of vision.
I lifted my gaze.
“About that Kindle.” Grayson extended a card to me along with another smile. When I took it, surprisingly, he burst out in laughter, which instantly made me smile. A warm, gooey feeling spread through my chest and settled the erratic pounding of my heart. “I never thought I’d be the type to carry around a business card. It just feels so … informal, you know? But Harrison insists,” he continued. “I wrote my cell on the back. If you want, I can meet you later at the Amazon store to replace it.”
“You really don’t have—”
His hand clasped mine, and with that solitary touch, my brain cells scattered. “Please, Prim. I insist.”
“Order number forty-two!”
I couldn’t pull my attention away from his hand on mine. From the sudden rush of blood pressing against the surface of my skin. From how weak my knees were in this man’s presence. His beauty was unnatural. Radiant. Devilish. I was only an awkward kind of pretty. It had taken me twenty-three years to grow into my features.
“Order number forty-two!”
Grayson leaned forward, eyes skimming over my receipt. “Looks like that’s you.”
I gave a slight laugh and then hurried to the counter, shouldering through the tight crowd as best I could. Handed my receipt to the woman on the other side of the counter and then took the bags she’d offered. All I had to do was make it to the front door, and then I’d be free from Grayson’s Adonis-esque beauty and soul-piercing eyes.
But that pesky-ass fate had something else in mind. And by that, I mean, another dose of humiliation. My body slammed up against Grayson’s when I spun around.
Only this time, he caught me before the bag dropped.
“Jesus … you’re there again.” I pulled the bagels to my chest as Grayson slowly let go of me. “Listen, you really don’t have to worry about my Kindle. I can take care—”
The humored glimmer in his gaze halted my words. He held up his receipt and then pointed over my shoulder to the woman holding two cups of coffee out to him.
“Right … you’re next, and I’m … in the way. Sorry.” That was my cue. I slid past him with enough heat behind my cheeks to power the sun. Thoughts pinged clumsily around the inside of my skull, like an overworked game of pinball.
Smooth, Prim. Real smooth.
I fought my way to the front door. Told myself everything was fine. The embarrassment was over, and I’d never have to see him again. Once outside, I pulled in a huge breath of stale city air, focusing on the feel of my expanded lungs. A whirling of unfamiliar emotions pressed and stretched behind my skin.
Did that really just happen?
I turned away from the stream of cars, back to the storefront, unable to make him out from the slew of bodies. A small bout of laughter tore past my lips when it all crashed over me. When I glanced down at his card, still tucked inside my hand, with his number handwritten on the back. I had Grayson’s number, and he wanted me to get in touch with him.
I slid the card into the pocket of my skirt. My head shook as I lifted a hand in the air to hail a cab, a silly smile plastered across my lips. The moment the cab sidled next to the curb, an arm reached around me and pulled the door open.
It was him. Again.
“Sorry about all that back there. I’d love to say it doesn’t happen often, but, well, you know …” He turned and grabbed the two coffees off the newspaper stand he’d placed them on while I stood there, as dumbfounded as ever. “Shoot me a text or call me when you have time to meet up.” He paused. Searched my face which I seemed to have lost all control of. There was that laughter of his again, the deep notes strung with a bit of nerves. “What am I saying?” He shook his head. “You barely know me. If you’d rather not do either, you can always email me. I’m sure I can have it sent to you. Regardless, I want to replace it.”
“It was nice, bumping into you, Prim.” He finished the sentence with his famous panty-melting grin.
“Nice … bumping … too,” I said with a faint wave, watching his form disappear into the ever-changing crowd. I stopped. Spun in a half circle as if I were looking for something.
My common sense.
What in the hell just happened?