Holding a smile in place for hours should have been the number one line item on Jessica’s resume. No matter what happened around her or how she felt, she could keep her lips tilted in the perfect, quirky half-smile. No one likes ugly. The flash of the bulb snapped her from her reverie of recalling the long-ago words.
“Beautiful, perfect. You’re gorgeous. Tilt your head to the side? A little more,” the photographer directed.
She cocked her head and swiveled on the bar stool she’d been provided. The smell of industrial cleaner hung in the air. She fought off a chill at the bare, unexceptional loft space. Aluminum, concrete, and wood were not warmed by the streaks of cool, early May sunlight against the stark white backdrop. In the strange room, she almost had an out-of-body experience. Like she observed herself acting out the role everyone expected. She’d spent so much of her life pretending, and she was tired.
Camera flashes continued, and she followed the man’s directions. Not so long ago, posing for a photo shoot and a feature in the lifestyle magazine for Chicago’s jet set would have thrilled her. Fast forward to the present, she couldn’t wait to get the whole thing over with and done.
The photographer guided her through various poses. Top forty radio hits belted out up-tempo beats. Her gaze nearly glazed over so she forced herself to laugh. The sound was foreign. Giving her head a shake, she tossed her hair then stood. She crossed her arms over her chest, flashing him a smile she hoped reached her eyes. Wearing a white-collared shirt and dress pants, she’d layered on the jewelry to keep from resembling a caterer. In this pose, she projected a woman in charge of her future and destiny—the very image she needed to present to the world at large. She clung to the false image, as her whole empire threatened to unravel.
“You look sensational.” Brittany stood next to the photographer.
Jessica raised an eyebrow and smirked. At some point during their collaboration, her Public Relations maven had become one of her best friends. For the most part, Brittany James kept from offering Jess the fawning platitudes she administered to the rest of her clients. The glint of humor in Brittany’s gaze told Jess she was teasing.
“And we’re done.” The photographer stopped shooting, about-faced, and ambled away.
Jess took in a deep breath. Over. Finally.
“I think the article will be good. Really good stuff.” Brittany approached and handed her a water bottle.
“Thanks.” Jess opened the plastic bottle and took a sip. She sank onto the stool steady on its mark on the white backdrop. One of the many photo shoots she’d been a part of, this morning’s work shouldn’t be any different. Show up, smile, listen to direction, and go home. The morning, however, had been draining. After avoiding cameras and shying away from the aggressive paparazzi hounding her for the past eighteen months, she drew in a breath. Smiling for the lens felt unnatural. She had to present the image she needed Now: Chicago magazine to help her maintain. Jessica Edwards—lifestyle guru, immaculate, and drew in a breath. Smiling for the lens felt unnatural. She had to present the image she needed Now: Chicago magazine to help her maintain. Jessica Edwards—lifestyle guru, immaculate, and always together.
Not the thirty-two-year-old woman struggling to make sense of where to take her life. “Thank you for arranging the interview and photo shoot. I needed some positive press, Brittany.” She kept her voice low, not eager to draw any curious ears from the table of snacks set out near the windows overlooking Millennium Park.
“Don’t mention it.” Brittany waved off her thanks.
Jessica nodded and took another gulp of water, returning her attention to the small crowd gathered by the windows. The magazine staff had laid out a full table of treats. Of course, out of the group of six, only the two assistants snuck any of the food. Jessica smiled, watching the younger women snack while their bosses, higher-ups at the magazine, reviewed the photos with the photographer and chatted. “I guess they have everything they need?” Jessica tilted her head to view Brittany who, at the earliest lapse, typed on her phone.
“Huh?” Brittany’s head bobbed up, for a moment for a moment her smooth brow wrinkled. “Oh, yeah, I think we’re good. They’re shooting everyone today. They’ll call later in the week to set up a time for the interview.”
“Great. Let’s get going.” Jessica capped the water bottle. She ambled back to the corner of the room to retrieve her purse and coat. Early May still required fortification against the icy gusts off Lake Michigan. Stuffing herself into the coat, she crossed the room to approach the magazine staff and the photographer. “Thank you again for having me.” Jessica shook hands with the editor-in-chief.
“Of course,” the older woman replied. “What kind of top Thirty-Five Under Thirty-Five list would it be without the Jessica Edwards?”
Jess fought to keep her expression neutral and pleasant. She fought to keep from wincing or, worse, grimacing. Yeah. The Jessica Edwards, lifestyle blogger, whose pursuit of perfection spawned an empire. The woman desperate to get out from the weight of her image and live her life, if she had a life beyond her carefully curated brand.
“But I do wish you’d let us feature you in the top eligible singles of Chicago issue,” the editor said.
Her responding wink curled Jessica’s toes. Thank heavens Brittany put a stop to that nonsense. “Maybe next year.” Jessica kept her expression cheery. Everyone loved poking the open wound in her otherwise-pristine image. Fighting against the digs became second-nature.
The editor smiled and about-faced.
Brushed off. She’d been raised in this exact fashion. Over the years, her skin had toughened from such curt dismissals. This time, she hadn’t been stung. She nodded her goodbyes to the remaining team at the table and spun on her heel.
The door opposite the windows banged against the wall, the sound reverberating in the vast, cavernous space, causing a minor commotion. The rush of air and the unexpected clap of noise grabbed everyone’s attention.
Jessica was one of the crowd turning toward the door.
In strode a ghost.
The water bottle crackled in her tight grip. She took a step forward and then another. “Leo?” she asked, her voice a tentative whisper.
The man froze.
She approached him with Brittany. Standing at average height with brown hair, olive skin, and brown eyes, Leo Martinelli should have been unremarkable. The man she’d meet in her first, and only, year of law school had been anything but. His laugh was joyful and lit up his whole face. His deep voice, while he patiently explained legalese she really ought to have known, was warm as the sun. His mother’s cannolis were life affirming.
“Leo Martinelli?” she called out, stopping only a few feet away. Dressed in a dark gray overcoat, revealing a suit underneath, the man looked ironed and perfect. His thick hair had been slicked back. Jessica looked up and waited for some sort of acknowledgment. The heavy five o’clock shadow she remembered always tracing his jawline had been wiped clean. Even without the facial hair, she couldn’t deny the man before her was her one-time study partner.
At one point in time, she might have even imagined a future together. Of course, back in law school, she hadn’t been searching for the easy masculinity he’d worn as well as his current tailored overcoat. The nice guy in a hoodie and jeans hadn’t fit her type back then. She’d wanted a male model dressed in a suit, exactly like his current get-up. Seeing him in business attire, however, she wanted to send him away. The persona wasn’t him.
She’d learned the hard way how false appearances could be. Now, she was forever paying the price for her folly. Maybe she always would.
His deep voice swept over her, warming her toes. She wanted to protest his use of her name. They’d been on a nickname status a decade ago. Why the sudden professional distance? “How surprising.” Jess smiled. Her cheeks pinched and her mouth stretched into her first real grin of the day. Seeing Leo again, under any circumstances, was a welcome surprise. When he darted his gaze side to side, however, the pleasure evaporated.
He shifted his weight and adjusted the briefcase in his hands.
Clearly uncomfortable, he surveyed the setting, like a man who’d wandered in on something salacious. “This is my PR guru, Brittany James,” Jess introduced. She took a step back, letting Brittany lean forward to extend her hand. They look good together. They’re the same height. Jess bit the inside of her cheek. She’d never cared about being short before, but suddenly standing next to Brittany and Leo had her feeling like she might be squashed under a heel like a bug.
Leo cleared his throat and dragged back his gaze. “Could I have a minute of your time?”
“Of course.” Jessica furrowed her brow and adjusted her purse over her shoulder as she followed Leo out to the hall. She flashed Brittany a not-sure-what-this-is-about look and then was out of the door.
The lock clicked as the door settled back into the doorframe. She spun to face him.
He extended something.
On instinct, Jessica grabbed the thick, unmarked envelope. She opened the flap and slid out the first sheet. “What?” Her fingers tightened on the pages. She jerked up her head and scanned the hallway, bouncing off the industrial carpet and the track lighting.
He continued farther down the corridor. The elevator doors opened with a whoosh, and he stepped onto the elevator. “You’ve been served,” he called out as the door slid shut.
Oh, no. A lawsuit did not fit with her plans, not so close to taking charge of her destiny. She clutched the papers and her purse tight. She ran toward the exit, yanking open the door to the stairwell. Her heels pounded against the steps, metallic clangs only fuelling her frantic race to the bottom.
Leo Martinelli owed her an explanation. She intended to get one.