chapter 12 - i'll give you a boyfriend

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A low murmur of voices comes from the other side of my father's office. My fingers hover over the polished brass knob as curiosity gets the best of me. I open it a crack, enough to see Elle sitting primly across from my father's desk, which surprises me. I hear her voice talking about what she's passionate about in life and how modeling is something she wants to pursue. My scowl deepens. What the hell is she doing in my father's office talking about her aspirations?

"Ron, about the proposition. Elle believes she can help Ace." Elle's dad says to my father, and my ears instantly perk up like a startled dog as a knot of suspicion tightens in my gut.

"Help me?" I mutter, the words barely a whisper. What could she possibly help me with? My ever-growing disdain for her?

I can hear the audible relief in my dad's sigh. "Honestly, Elle, I wouldn't want to ask anyone else. Things have gotten out of hand with Ace, and I've seen the fire you have. The way you handled him...that fighting spirit is exactly what he needs."

The vivid image of our confrontation flashes in my mind. Her defiance and the way her eyes held a spark as she was challenging me head-on. So, that's it? My father witnesses one minor mishap and thinks a girl can cure me. The most infuriating part is that he didn't come to talk to me first. Why am I not in there discussing this with them?

"He wasn't always like this, you know. The fame, the constant media attention... it's changed him. Our PR team and I believe a public display of a committed relationship could be the key to slowing down these rumors."

His words throw me off balance. A committed relationship? Public display? My brain scrambles to keep up. I continue to listen as my mind races with confusion. Damage control? He really wants me to fake a relationship to shut the media up. Never in a million years did I think this would be my father's answer. A fake girlfriend.

As if my life isn't complicated enough already.

I clench my fist, the metal of the doorknob digging into my palm. The sound of Elle's goodbye slices through my thoughts, and I gaze back up just in time to see her approaching the door. I realize I've been eavesdropping for too long, thinking about the whole situation. My common sense abandons me as I search for a hiding place, and I notice two secretaries manning the reception desk. Without a second thought, I rush over and crouch down, startling the secretaries.

"Sir?" The woman dressed in a black pantsuit inquires. Her gaze shifts between me and her co-worker, a man sporting a garishly colored tie who's equally bewildered. I raise my index finger to my lips in a plea for their cooperation. A silent conversation passes between them with a raised eyebrow and a pursed lip before they return their attention to their monitors, their fingers hovering awkwardly over the keyboards.

Then I hear Elle offer a kind farewell, her voice dripping with sweetness. Clenching my jaw, I force myself to stay put, every muscle in my body tight with tension, until the sound of the elevator doors whooshing open and shut finally releases me from my self-imposed prison. I stride over to the opposite set of elevator doors, realizing how absurd the situation is. Why do I keep hiding from her in my own domain? I should confront her head-on.

I'm already losing patience, feeling like a ticking time bomb. Every agonizing second the door stays closed seems to stretch into eternity. Once the doors open, I step in and press the button to go to the ground floor. The metal box feels like it's suffocating me, and the constant hum of the machinery is beating at my chest. When the doors finally open, I see her walking through the glass doors of the front entrance.

My pace quickens, catching up to her light strides as she crosses the street. I slow down as a beat-up pickup truck zooms past, the burnt oil smell stinging my nostrils. I watch as she reaches the driver's side car door, fumbling with the key fob. Her fingers clutch the handle, but she barely gets it open before I slam my hand against the door, trapping her between the cool metal and the heat of my body. A startled gasp escapes her lips as she whirls around, eyes widening in surprise with her pupils blown dark. My other hand shoots up, resting on the frame beside her head, completely caging her in.

"What are you planning?" My voice comes out in a taut hiss as I dip my head closer, making sure no passerby can hear the conversation we are about to have.

Elle recoils, her delicate hand instinctively pushing against my chest. She stares at me for a few seconds, probably trying to read my expression as I force myself to focus, scanning her face for any sign of deceit. Elle is a mystery; she has a soft demeanor, but her criticism of me stays sharp in my head.

"What are you talking about?" She counters with a slight tremor in her voice.

"Don't play dumb," I say, frustration burning in my throat. "Are you trying to get into my life by snaking your way in because you secretly have a crush on me? Because I hate people like that. First, you became friends with my sister and somehow got my dad's attention, telling him your dream of modeling? Is your damsel in distress at school also an act?"

I know it's a low blow, but the words tumble out before I can stop them. I'm trying to rile her up enough to quit whatever it is she plans to do.

I said what I said to her the other day because I didn't want to give Cassie another reason to go after Elle. Last year, there was this rumor flying around like a dust devil after Cassie overheard a girl say she wanted to confess to me. Cassie had made such a big fuss that it became school lore. As far as I can tell, Elle doesn't have those kinds of feelings for me, but with Cassie, any interaction I have with a girl feels like walking a tightrope over a pit of vipers. It's exhausting, this constant need to navigate her possessiveness. So, I took the easy way out and the hurtful way out, hoping to stop any jealousy before it even had a chance to grow. Now, those words left a bitter taste in my mouth. Then again, do I care how that affects Elle? She already doesn't like me. Maybe, a twisted part of me thought, it wouldn't hurt to push her further away.

Her lips part in shock at what I said, and my gaze lowers to her lips, the color both tempting and frustrating, before snapping back to her eyes. Maybe I figured her out, and I'll get that apology sooner than I thought. I refuse to let someone like her use me, and I won't allow someone so manipulative to get away with her little game.

"A crush?" she finally says, her voice regaining its strength, laced with a surprising amount of sass. "If I had a crush on you, I wouldn't tell you that you're a self-absorbed jerk and you need all the help you can get."

"I need help?" I graze my tongue on the inside of my mouth, trying to suppress a bitter chuckle. "Fine." I concede, a smirk tugging at the corner of my lips. "I'll give you a boyfriend."

I can tell that's not what she was expecting me to say at all, as her brows furrow in concentrated fury. However, my smile vanishes when I catch a dark figure squatting low behind a street lamp, his wide-brimmed hat and camera covering his face. But I don't need anyone to tell me who this person is. I step forward and press my body against Elle's, my sudden movement causing her to try to shove me off.

"Don't move," I instruct her, the urgency rough in my voice. I move my head next to hers, hiding her face in hopes he doesn't get a shot of her identity. The last thing I needed was her face plastered across every tabloid tomorrow, and people would have a field day investigating until they found out her name and her story.

A strand of her hair, the color of dark chocolate, brushes against my cheek. For a split second, I'm drawn to the smell of her vanilla shampoo, but then reality hits back, and the scent becomes sour in my stomach. A curse tumbles under my breath. This situation is snowballing faster than I can handle, and it's not going in my favor. This is exactly the kind of ammo my dad needs to force Elle and me into a full-blown fake relationship. I wasn't going to let them win.

Elle, sensing the urgency in my voice and the shift in my demeanor, finally stops struggling. Her wide, bewildered eyes narrow to concern when she sees the tension in my face.

I take off my black uniform blazer and create a wall, using my body to shield her. I don't give Elle a chance to speak as I toss my blazer over her head in an attempt to further disguise her. "You need to get out of here." I yank open the car door, shoving her gently inside as she gets her seatbelt on. I turn back to the paparazzo. The cowardly weasel is already hightailing it down the sidewalk, his legs pumping like pistons.

What story are they going to spin this time?

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