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‘I’d appreciate it if you made this look natural,’ Cormac hisses through his perfect rows of blinding teeth.
‘I’m trying,’ I force through my wide-mouthed smile.
‘They’ve got it, sir,’ Erik informs him from the side, and Cormac drops his arm and strides back to the private lounge.
We don’t speak again except when he barks at me to look happy at the next station. By the last rebound of the day, I’m getting bored. Eating while rebounding is harder than I imagined. It’s difficult to balance the food on my fork while the room shifts and shimmers around me. By the time we arrive in Cypress, where we’ll stay overnight, I’m hungry and cranky. I answer the interview questions mechanically and smile brightly for the camera, but I’m looking forward to spending some time alone in my hotel room before my aestheticians arrive to dress me for tonight’s scheduled appearance.
I’ve been in my room for about twenty minutes, waiting for room service, when my prep crew flies in.
‘I hope you had something to eat,’ Valery trills as she lays out my long satin gown on the bed.
‘I’m supposed to have private time,’ I snap back. ‘I’m still waiting for my food.’
‘You can eat while we work,’ she assures me, not meeting my eyes. ‘As long as it’s not messy. Enora wants you ready to go half an hour before the event.’
‘Even from afar she tortures me,’ I say with a groan.
Valery shoots me a disapproving look. ‘Enora is only looking out for you—’ she begins, but she doesn’t finish the thought, because my food arrives.
My dinner of roast goose and sweet potato curry looks delicious, but as the girls work on me I only find time to snatch a handful of bites. There’s always someone powdering me or doing my nails.
‘May I enter?’ Jost asks from the sliding door to my room.
‘Yes,’ I croak out against Valery’s hand, which is firmly holding my jaw as she plucks my eyebrows.
‘You look lovely.’ Jost laughs as he comes into the room.
‘Oh, shut up.’
Valery sighs and lets go of my face. She gives him a scathing look as she squeezes past him to pull my adornments from the trunks the crew brought with them.
‘That looks good,’ he says, pointing to the goose. ‘I had the duck.’
My stomach rumbles as he draws my attention back to the food, and I tilt my head towards the girl carefully painting my fingernails to indicate why I haven’t been able to eat.
‘Here,’ Jost offers, picking up the plate and gathering a forkful of the potatoes.
I take the bite gratefully. The dish has grown cold but the curry still pops along my tongue.
‘Thank you,’ I mumble with my mouth half full.
‘It’s my pleasure.’
Jost stands next to me and carefully sneaks me a few more bites as the girls continue with their prep. Soon the gnawing hunger evaporates, and I find myself enjoying the light touch of my aestheticians expertly curling my hair and massaging cream onto my legs. With a full belly, I don’t even notice I’m tired until Valery’s irritated cough rouses me from an impromptu nap.
‘We’re ready to dress you,’ she says.
I nod and look around the room for Jost, but he must have left when I fell asleep.
‘He’s not here,’ Valery tells me as she helps me step into the cool satin gown.
‘I’m sorry?’ I ask.
‘Jost,’ she says, and it’s clear from her voice that she doesn’t buy my innocent act. ‘A valet? When you could have someone like Erik?’
‘Or Cormac?’ her assistant offers as she zips me up.
‘I really don’t know what you’re talking about,’ I say, but I can feel my cheeks growing hot.
‘Oh stop it or you’ll ruin your cosmetics.’ Valery laughs. ‘Don’t get the wrong idea. He’s very good-looking for a valet. His eyes are as blue as Erik’s, but he’s . . .’
I give her a drop-it look, and she holds out a bracelet, which I cuff onto my wrist.
‘It’s probably for the best,’ her assistant continues. ‘Cormac goes through the ladies pretty quickly, and Erik . . .’
I can’t help but turn to listen to what she has to say about him.
‘He’s Maela’s.’ Valery finishes the thought.
‘Good thing I’m not interested in any of them,’ I say, but I keep my eyes on the mirror.
In the reflection, I spy Valery and the girl exchange meaningful looks.
‘Sure, honey.’ But when her assistant goes to retrieve more of my adornments, Valery drops her lips to my ear and whispers, ‘Take the happiness you can, even if it’s only a little.’
Valery straightens up as soon as the girl re-enters with my necklace, but her words lodge themselves in my head. Watching her movements in the mirror, lithe and purposeful without a trace of resentment for her assignment, I hope she’s happy and wish I could be.
‘So exactly what’s on the agenda tonight?’ I ask Erik when he meets me at the door.
‘Well, you looking beautiful for one thing,’ he says, and I have to hold myself back from laughing.
‘Does that stuff work with the other girls?’ I ask, barely containing my amusement.
‘Yeah,’ he says, grinning widely. ‘How are you so immune to my charms?’
‘Years of segregation,’ I say, letting myself smile a little.