I hated the red carpet.
The sheer artificial nature of the relationships along its nicely defined edges drove me nuts. If you walked the red side, everyone knew your name – or strived to learn it if you were a fresh face like Vexx – and wanted to stand near you for a picture. Anywhere outside the red, all you deserved was an impersonal smile, a forced laughter and three-minute interviews with people who couldn’t care less about your name.
No wonder paparazzi got back at us by plaguing our every move.
Ironically enough, I had the reputation of a rather boring rich heiress and the lack of public scandals meant I lived my life flash-free, except for the couple of days after an event such as this. The presence of my new ‘boyfriend’ would lengthen the media coverage to a week at least.
Oh well, a good game of chess against the mega corporation might be worth the trouble.
“Miss Beyer,” a blond woman sporting a pass from Tech Weekly stuck her mike under my nose. Vexx took a step back, his arm still hooked around mine. “You look absolutely gorgeous. Who dressed you tonight?”
That kind of question was also one of the reasons I hated the red carpet. I hid my annoyance behind a blinding smile.
“My usual designer, Meredith Avery.”
“What about your plus one?” The first time a journalist designated him that way, Vexx had lost his superb. He had since grown used to it.
“She dressed my dear Vincent too.” A series of quick response to inane questions followed that statement before the journalist freed us. Three steps later, we got caught in another media net. We managed to reach the ballroom after half an hour of stop-and-go.
“I thought we would never make it,” Vexx murmured in my ear, his smile stiff but untainted by the impatience his tone carried. I made a quick eye contact and smiled so everyone would believe he cooed instead of complained. His attitude changed drastically once we crossed the threshold but he managed to drop the first spider at the guards’ station bordering the entrance before excitement warmed him.
Merrilyn Technology threw a party like only a billions-of-dollars company could. About two hundred people had already arrived and flitted about the multiple open bars, the round table crawling under luscious centerpieces and the dance floor. A steady stream of newly-arrived broke into small groups before and behind us. The crowd would double before the doors closed for the festivities to begin. Stiff handshakes and cheek smooches united too beautiful people under the thick gloss of pretended kindness. Genuine friendship was an endangered species in forests where money grew on trees.
I despised the whole ceremony but had to agree it made a pretty and colorful waltz.
Vexx carefully maintained his composure as he took in the scene. I recognized the smooth curve of his shoulders for what it was: tension-free spirit. He enjoyed himself and looked damned good while at it. I could imagine his traits beyond the fake face but his confident mien was what drew the other females’ attention to him.
And the jealous glances to me.
Catching one of them, Vexx leaned and ever so softly kissed my forehead. I smiled in return and tightened my hold on his arm.
It was all part of the plan; we couldn’t afford people eyeing us too much so the longing for the hot new guy had to be nipped in the bud. The women needed to believe, without the shadow of a doubt, that Vexx and I had ‘the spark’. It was the only trick to make them think twice before trying to get his pants off. Sad but true. Most women would rather pay for a Pretty than come to the ball alone, which made it easy to steal their date once the night was over.
“So you did find yourself a decent dress,” Dad said, surprising me as he spun me around to plant a kiss on my cheek. “And a decent date.” He detailed Vexx who now stood a few steps behind me, alone and a bit uneasy. I giggled and hugged my father. His perfume swirled around me, smothering my bad mood.
“And where is your date?” I teased. Dad nodded to a woman who stopped conversing with her neighbors long enough to smile and wink. Since my mother’s death at my birth, my father was as fleeting as me in his relationships. He had loved her that much. “Dad, this is Vincent.” I grabbed Vexx’s elbow and pulled him by my side. He stepped forward without a fight and outstretched his hand. “Honey, this is Andrew.”
The men shook, their eyes riveted at each other. I almost sighed at the testosterone-fueled evaluation but let it run its course. A faint bell rang and the men parted.
“If he can dance, he’s a keeper.” My father moved away to wrap an arm around his date’s waist. Around the room, most couples were doing the same, filling the dance floor for the pre-dinner waltz. To my surprise, Vexx’s arm trailed around my back until his hand pressed possessively on my waist as he steered me to the center of the room.
“I didn’t know you waltzed.” Because I was in a good mood, I forced the depth of my disbelief out of my tone. It peeked through but I managed to keep my right eyebrow from rising.
“Tonight, I can pull any ballroom dance.” He grinned. Damned tech-addicted cheater! “It’s only a temporary chip,” he said before I scolded him. He placed my hand around the nape of his neck. The device made a bump the size of my pinky under the cover of his soft curls. “And I build and programmed it myself. I just couldn’t look this cool and miss the tango.” The deep rumbling of his voice sent a tingle down my spine. I pulled back a bit and smiled.
“If you fall off the wagon, I’ll break enough fingers to ensure you don’t have dexterity to ever build anything again.”
Somehow, his nod managed to come across as “shut up and dance”.
We spun with the rest of the room, round and round the carousel of the rich and famous on the Waves of the Danube. I winked at Dad when we brushed past. My eyes trailed behind him and his date only to meet a known face across the room. A dash of adrenaline heated my blood. I bit my lower lip.
“What are you planning?” Vexx said, catching the mischief as it crossed my face.
“Nothing,” I replied only to receive a scoff in return. “I’m a professional. I won’t do anything but enjoy the private joke.”
“Lorelei,” Vexx growled. I wondered if he knew how sexy he sounded when he did that. I should annoy him more often.
“My FBI agent is here.”
Vexx turned his head to search the crowd. I pulled him into a kiss to stop his stupid reaction; he didn’t even know what the guy looked like. Not that panic cared for logic. Vexx stiffened in surprise but quickly slipped back into the role of the loving boyfriend. One hand ran along my neck, the other pressed my back in a silent invitation. A couple brushed past us. I broke our kiss and led Vexx back into the waltz.
“He only saw my other face,” I whispered.
Vexx stepped on my toes and I pinched him out of his daydream. We managed to finish the dance without another incident. When the huge screen at the end of the room lit up for the opening speech, we slipped out of the room.
Slipped right under the nose of the FBI.
I couldn’t stop smiling.
Killing Time OST – 10b – Dance
I hated the red carpet.