Author: Julia Kent
Genre: Romantic Comedy/Contemporary Romance
Cover Design: Hang Le
Release Date: April 30, 2019
An all-new STANDALONE from New York Times bestselling author Julia Kent
It all started with the wrong Help Wanted ad. Of course it did.
I’m a professional fluffer. It’s NOT what you think. I stage homes for a living. Real estate agents love me, and my work stands on its own merits.
Sigh. Get your mind out of the gutter. Go ahead. Laugh. I’ll wait.
See? That’s the problem. My career has used the term “fluffer” for decades. I didn’t even know there was a more… lascivious definition of the term.
Until it was too late.
The ad for a “professional fluffer” on Craigslist seemed like divine intervention. My last unemployment check was in the bank. I was desperate. Rent was due. The ad said cash paid at the end of the day.
The perfect job!
Staging homes means showing your best angle. The same principle applies in making a certain kind of movie. Turns out a “fluffer” doesn’t arrange decorative pillows on a couch.
They arrange other soft, round-ish objects.
The job isn’t hard. Er, I mean, it is — it’s about being hard. Or, well… helping other people to be hard.
And that’s the other problem. A man. No, not one of the stars on the movie set. Will Lotham – my high school crush. The owner of the house where we’re filming. Illegally. In a vacation rental.
By the time the cops show up, what I thought was just a great house staging gig turned into a nightmare involving pictures of me with a naked star, Will rescuing me from an arrest, and a humiliating lesson in my own naivete.
My job turned out to be so much harder than I expected. But you know what’s easier than I ever imagined?
Having all my dreams come true.
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“Do you use the proper terms for everything, Mallory?” He makes an inarticulate sound as I peel the gauze off the cut, wiping gently. “You call your pretty place a vulva, right? And you use the word vagina.”
“And yes, I do. Vulva and vagina. And then there’s the clitoris,” I say primly.
“A clitoris. Never heard of it.”
I freeze and look down at him. Bright eyes meet mine. Is he serious?
“The clitoris is a nerve cluster above the opening to the vagina,” I begin, taking a breath to continue my impromptu human sexuality lecture, because when a man tells you they don’t know what a clitoris is, you educate them immediately.
For the sisterhood. All the women Will is going to sleep with from here on out will thank me later.
He starts to laugh. I’m so tempted to pour the small bottle of isopropyl alcohol directly on his wound, but I’m a kind, compassionate woman, so instead I dab it on with a swab.
“OW!” he bellows.
“You’re not sorry at all.”
“I’m sorry for your sex partners that you have no idea what a clitoris is, Will.”
“I know what it is. And my tongue knows how to find one. Blindfolded.”
“Why would you blindfold your tongue?”
“I can’t tonight. I have a date,” I blurt out, remembering David. The dating app. The asshole who isn’t an asshole.
Yet. I haven’t met him, so that judgment remains withheld.
“A date?” Will asks, intrigued.
“Yes. A date. You know, that thing where you go out with someone who has no intention of really getting to know you and you spend the entire time eating bread that doesn’t taste as good as your date claims and trying to decide whether to initiate rescue-text sequences with your mom.”
“That’s your idea of a date?”
“That is my actual experience of every date I’ve had since college.”
“You’re dating the wrong guys.” He holds my gaze for just a little too long. I look away.
“I have to keep fishing in the pond if I ever want to catch a different one.”
“If that’s the way you talk to your dates, I am beginning to understand why they all turn out so badly.”
“Don’t accuse me of being a bad date. I’m a great date! I Google the guy in advance and read his LinkedIn profile. I make sure I don’t wear super-tall heels in case he lied about his height on his dating profile. I pretend to care about all his hobbies and don’t reveal that I’m secretly tallying all the micro-aggressions he’s sending my way during appetizers and wine. And if he makes it to dessert, well–” I falter.
“You never make it to dessert, do you?” Will asks, eyebrows up. He drops them quickly, wincing.
“I–well–it’s not that I don’t. He doesn’t!”
“He ditches you?”
“No! No! It’s just that he always has a thing.”
“A work emergency. Or a dog with a twisted bowel. Or a grandma in the ER.”
“How many guys used the twisted-canine-intestine thing?”
“Three.” I sit down and sag against his teenage desk, elbows sliding forward, fingers deep in my hair. “I looked it up. There’s an entire subreddit devoted to inventive ways to get out of a bad date.”
“And yet here you are.” He leans against the edge of his desk. “Trying again.”
“I’m a masochist.”
His eyes gleam. “Maybe you should start your dates with that line. ‘Hi. I’m Mallory Monahan. I’m a masochist.’ You’d definitely make it to dessert.”
“You’re changing the subject.”
“How do you know that’s what I’m doing?”
“Because you have this thing you do when you get nervous. You did it in high school and you’re doing it now.”
“You start cracking your knuckles. One by one.”
He halts mid-crack on his ring finger. His bare ring finger.
Will looks down. A slow smile pulls at his lips. “You’re right. I do.” Our eyes meet. “How did you know?”
“I sat behind you in nearly every honors class, Will. I’ve watched you answer countless questions from teachers. And every time you didn’t know the answer, you cracked your knuckles. One”–I crack my index finger–“by”–I crack my middle finger–“one.” My ring finger won’t snap.
“You spent a lot of time paying attention to me, Mallory.”
“I sat behind you. It’s not like I could stare at your ass all day. I had to have something else to look at.”
“You stared at my ass?”
“It was two feet in front of me! Four classes a day!” I start to sweat. The memory of him in football uniform pants. Oh, sweet ice cream fairy, deliver me from evil.
“You okay? You look,” he says, stepping closer, “a little disturbed.”
“Hot, even.” The rise and fall of his chest pauses after those words, as if he’s holding his breath, too.
I watch a blonde woman talk up Will like she wants to take him home and turn him into her evening protein shake. She’s wearing lululemon tights and Jimmy Choos, an unusual combination that seems to indicate she’s ready for anything.
Clap clap! A man in a tight, black Lycra shirt, grey fitted slacks, and the most beautiful Italian leather shoes I have ever seen glides like melting cheese on a raclette into the center of the ballroom.
“Hello, hello! My name is Philippe, and I am your instructor tonight. Welcome! Two more minutes for refreshments, and then we DANCE!” The word DANCE comes out of his mouth in capital letters.
Philippe heads straight toward me, eyes meeting mine, his dark, wavy hair slicked off his face with curls escaping at the nape of the neck, a perfectly manscaped moustache adding to his rakish look.
“And you are?” he asks, the words a demand to reveal my soul.
“Uh, Mallory, it is nice to meet you.”
“It’s just Mallory.”
“Are you Uh, Mallory, or Just Mallory?” he asks, mouth pursing with amusement.
I cannot tell whether I like him or hate him.
Eyeing me up and down, his expression changes to approval when he sees my shoes. “You have come prepared.”
Will chooses that exact moment to walk over, a lemonade in each hand, and offer me one. I smile a thank you as Philippe watches us like he’s judging a couple on So You Think You Can Dance.
“You are here together?” he asks.
“OH, NO!” I call out, as if it’s the word DANCE. “I’m waiting for my date.”
“First date, actually. I don’t know what he looks like, but…”
“Was his name David, by any chance?” Philippe asks, mouth twisted with disgust.
“Corporate,” he hisses. “Again!”
Will exchanges a confused look with me, then takes a sip of his lemonade, choosing to stay out of this. One hand goes to his hip as he politely looks away, drinking like it’s his job.
“Excuse me?” I ask Philippe.
“Did you meet him–this David–on an online dating service?”
Philippe takes my hand as if I’m a mourning widow at her beloved husband’s wake. “Then I am sorry to inform you, Mallory, that David is not coming.”
“Because David is a salesman.”
“No, he’s not! He’s a conversion consultant.”
Will’s mouth tightens as if he knows something.
“Mallory,” Philippe says sadly, “David works for the corporation that owns Bailargo. He is one of their best salesmen.” Anger flashes in his eyes. “Because he toys with women’s emotions and sets them up for this.”
Gesturing at me, he says, “This. You. The poor, lonely single woman looking for love on apps.”
“Watch,” he says, clapping twice again. “Are any women here for a date with David? First date?”
Two hands go up.
“Oh, God,” I mutter, my hands flying to cover my burning hot, deeply embarrassed face. “What does this mean?”
“David has developed a new technique. He goes to dating apps and pretends to be original, asking women to have a first date at a dance lesson. He is charming and funny and–”
A feral sound comes out of my mouth.
“Sound familiar?” Will asks, reaching up to run a hand through his hair, looking really sympathetic on my behalf.
Which makes me feel even stupider.
“And then the women come here, there is no David, but some of them stay for class,” Philippe finishes.
“You’re telling me your corporate headquarters is hiring a guy who goes on dating sites and convinces single women to come to a dance class with him, then ghosts on them? On the chance that a certain percentage of us will sign up for dance lessons and convert to paying customers?” My voice goes higher and higher, until I start sounding like Mariah Carey the second everyone finishes Thanksgiving dinner and it’s time for her songs to start on the radio again.
“That’s horrible!” I cry.
“That’s ingenious,” Will says. My glare makes him add quickly, “And completely unethical, of course. Some men are disgusting pigs.” His brow drops, eyes troubled with vicarious empathy, but they move in patterns that tell me he’s processing this information and finds David’s business acumen to be worthy of note.
“If you will excuse me, I need to find some tissues for those two women who are, like you, expecting a date with the charming David. Since he started doing this four months ago, sales have increased eleven percent, but my operating supplies have gone up 286 percent with all the tissues!” Philippe glides across the floor and approaches the two women, who are whispering and comparing phone screens.
Bet mine makes us triplets.
“It is time to DANCE! Find a partner and hold each other’s hands, facing one another.”
Five women start walking toward Will.
“Mal?” Shyness infuses his question, sending chills up and down my arms and legs. They settle at the base of my neck, riding shotgun next to the arousal centers of my nervous system. He’s adorable, one hand out to me, eyebrows slightly up, blue-green eyes asking to dance with me but hinting at more.
Or… am I inventing that part?
“Sure,” I say, instantly regretting my answer. Does it sound grudging? He doesn’t seem to think so as I take his hand and stand before him, tall in my high heels but he’s even taller. Looking at him from this height makes him even more human, more masculine, more real.
My heart skips a beat.
But the music sure doesn’t.
“Now, the ‘man,’” Philippe starts, using finger quotes because there are several female-only couples in the class, “puts one hand on the woman’s waist. The right hand.”
It’s like sticking my finger in a light socket and orgasming at the same time.
His left hand takes my right hand and he holds it, strong and firm, smiling at me with a boyish grin that makes me feel instant remorse for hurting him today.
“I’m sorry I bashed your head in,” I whisper, moving near his ear, our mouths inches apart.
There is a gap between us. My lungs live there, in that space. They breathe. I don’t make a move. My autonomic nervous system works without intention. If it didn’t, I’d die.
Because I would hold my breath forever in Will’s arms.
Philippe is moving from couple to couple, adjusting positions, commenting and correcting.
“Closer,” Philippe says right behind me, the press of his firm palm against my lower back a shock as he pushes me into Will, closing that gap.
My autonomic nervous system gives up entirely.
“Look into each other’s eyes,” Philippe commands, his accent making this even sexier. “When you dance, you show your love with your hips, your eyes, your languid grace. You are making love in public with your bodies, fully clothed.”
Is Will holding his breath, too?
“Your hand goes here, Mallory,” the teacher says, taking my left hand and putting it on Will’s shoulder. My breasts brush against his chest, our breathing ragged. I try to look away, but we’re too close. All I can do is look at his eyes or his mouth, and right now, both are so, so dangerous.
No one else in the room exists. The light that bounces off the polished floors is ours. The murmurs and giggles in the background are ours. The way he breathes my air and I inhale him is ours, too. We’re touching, my thigh against his, and every warm part of Will Lotham’s front half that is decent to display in public is rubbing against me.
Except his lips.
“Now, take one step forward,” Philippe says. “Together.”
Will steps on my foot. Hard.
I make a very unfeminine sound and start to pitch backwards. Tightening his grip on my waist, his hand sliding, open and splayed, across the small of my back, he saves me from a complete wipeout.
But that save has its costs.
In an instant, all traces of that teenage girl in me are gone, disintegrating, turned to stardust that sweeps off me like a fine spring breeze. I am all woman now, mature and wanting.
All I want is this. Now. The man before me, his arms warm and assured, grasp confident and bold.
And very much wanting me back.
New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author Julia Kent writes romantic comedy with an edge. From billionaires to BBWs to new adult rock stars, Julia finds a sensual, goofy joy in every contemporary romance she writes. Unlike Shannon from Shopping for a Billionaire, she did not meet her husband after dropping her phone in a men’s room toilet (and he isn’t a billionaire). She lives in New England with her husband and three sons in a household where the toilet seat is never, ever, down.