Bare Skin: A Billionaire Romance (8 page)

But I had been minding my own business, waiting in line. I didn't think I cut anyone, or did anything to bring one ounce of attention to myself.

Reaching the main entrance to the pizzeria, thin lips pulled across my cheek. My fingers braided each other around my clutch, teasing the small tassel that hung off the edge. “Hi.” The word tumbled off my tongue, a voiceless salute to the man in the apron.

“Why are you standing all the way down there? Come, come in.” Holding the door open, he waved me inside.

“Wait... What? No, it's not my turn. You're not even opened yet, and there's a lot of people before me.” Twisting to the endless row of heads behind me, I felt confused.

Why is he letting me in first? I wasn't here before all these people.

A few angry eyes glared at me between unknown faces. Whispers floated between cupped hands and ears, a few loud grumbles echoed off the brick wall.

“No, no, no.” His Italian accent highlighted his tone, the broken words built together with missing pieces. “You come in, you're first. Whenever you come, I always serve you before anyone else.”

“I'm sorry, but I'm confused. You don't need to take my order first, I'll wait my turn like everyone else.”

This wasn't making sense, I wasn't a famous actress or model...

Beth, maybe she had something to do with this.

That was the only thing I could wrap my head around that would explain why this guy ushered me to the head of the line. It was just like our last night out at the club, or the time we went to dinner at Chardon's.

A wave of Beth's hand and we were in; no lines, no reservation, just people kissing our asses.

When your name's in the spotlight, it got you anything you wanted. People would bend over backwards just to make you happy. Hope would sparkle in their eye that Beth's presence would shoot them to the star's list.

“Please, please, what can I get for you today?”

“A couple slices of pepperoni would be good.”

“Si, absolutely.” Screaming into the back, his native language broke the sound barrier. I had no clue what he had just yelled, but two pairs of eyes popped over the open window.

The faceless eyes gawked at me for a brief moment, ducking away just as quickly as they appeared.

This is the weirdest thing ever. Maybe they have me confused with someone else.

A few people over the years had told me I looked like a young Jane Mansfield. But that was it, I had never been compared to someone from this era.

So why had the headless eyes stared at me like I was someone they'd seen on television or in a movie?

Who the hell knew. This state was a melting pot of different characters, this had to be Beth's doing.

I was sure she knew I was envious of her new found fame, I wouldn't put it past her to try and recreate that for me in some way while she was gone.

Fucking Beth.

Yes, I wanted the fame. But not in the way of facial recognition.

I wanted it for my art, wanted it for my creations. The deepest part of my being wanted to hear people talk about the amazing piece of work set in a gallery. I wanted people to know who I was, all while not truly
knowing who I was.

Did that make sense?

To be known without being known. My name without my face. The money without the rampage of fingers pointing in my direction.

There goes that fear of people again.

The man who had called me inside before everyone else, grabbed a bottle of water and placed it on the counter. His smile beamed from ear to ear as he pointed at his name tag. “Georgio, that's me. Next time you come, you ask for me. I'll make sure you're taken care of immediately.”

“Georgio? I thought the owner's name was Antonio.” Small talk was not my thing, the perils of being an introvert.

“Antonio was my father. He was great man, and taught me all I know.” Slapping the stainless steel counter, he sent a barrage of unknown words to the chefs behind the scenes. “I'm very sorry it take so long. You shouldn't have to wait, next time we'll be ready.”

“Really it's fine. Are you sure you're not confusing me with someone else? I still don't understand why you let me in first.”

“You, you never wait. Never.” Two steaming hot pieces of pizza slipped over the counter. “Ah, here for you.”

“How much?” Opening my clutch, I pulled out the few bills I had folded inside.

Shaking his head, his jaw lifted up. “No, please just enjoy.”

“I can't do that, I'll pay for the pizza. The wait really wasn't that long, please let me pay.” Holding out my money, he reached over and folded my hand shut.

“No, I cannot take. It was made for you.” Snapping his fingers, another guy stepped out from behind the back. Walking to the door, he flipped the sign to open.

The double doors flew open, and the room was instantly filled. A gush of crackling feet hit the tiles, different tones of voices turned the quiet space into a symphony of sound.

Well, Beth got me free pizza. How nice of her.

I couldn't wait to bust her balls about how grateful I was she saved me ten bucks. And made me flush twenty shades of pink from being called out in front of a crowd.

That girl was going to be the death of me. Everything she knew that made me uncomfortable, I swear she went out of her way to throw them in my face.

She had told me once before I needed to be desensitized. That if I exposed myself to more situations then I wouldn't turn into a ball of nerves and I'd be able to live freely.

Easier said than done. It was way easier to think it, than it was for me to do it.

Beth couldn't understand what I felt. The idea of unknown eyes riding my body, people I didn't know casting judgment or just plain staring at me, it made my skin crawl.

I had tried to explain it to her, but she longed for the stares, while I shied away from it. She couldn't connect to my feelings, only thinking I was overreacting.

But when your entire body is shaking, stomach is a whirling tornado of nails, and the taste of battery acid sticks to the back of your throat...

It's more than just thoughts, it's physical.

Aching, physical pain, that doesn't go away till the eyes are gone.

And avoiding the eyes meant I avoided the burn.

Side stepping out to the sidewalk, I let the breeze sweep away the sick feeling coating my gut.

I can't believe she did that.

After demolishing the two slices of pizza perfection, I headed towards home. The food had done its job, my stomach was no longer trying to eat itself from the lack of a real meal.

And the short walk back gave me another chance to stop and stare at the empty store front window. The tiny place I spotted the first week I was here, the one I was about to call mine.

It was perfect.

The small shop had a huge front window, a great spot to display my work. The sidewalk that was home to the tiny store was always busy and full of people.

I knew I couldn't afford the place on my own, at least not until things took off. But that was where the investor came in. I took everything I had and put it down on first and last months rent.

My account was now down to the skins, a few hundred dollars was all I had left. Monday I would get the keys, and finally get to step beyond the doorway. My head was filled with so many ideas for what my gallery would look like.

The last step, the final screw I needed to fit in place, the investor. Without help I'd have two months to try and fend for myself, hoping and praying that I could make enough to last another thirty days.

Without someone to open the vault, without someone by my side helping to fund the shop, I'd lose everything.

God, I want this so bad.

That place had my name written all over it, it screamed at me to dust it off, and breathe a new fresh life into the closed walls.

Stepping to the large window, I cupped my hands on the glass to look inside. Something I'd done almost every day since I found the place. Letting out a long breath, I whispered. “Soon you'll be alive again.”

Turning to leave, I spotted a small book store right next door. Pausing, I stared at the front door. I hadn't noticed the hidden library before, it seemed to jump up from the dirt. Taking shape after I had walked the same path for weeks.

My inner voice yelled at me to keep moving, Beth's free spirit screamed at me to give in just once, and check it out.

She did save me ten bucks from lunch... Screw it. Why the hell not?

Tugging on the door, I was hit with the rich scent of leather and fresh paper. It might sound weird, but yes I am fully aware of how brand knew paper smells.

For years my grandmother would buy me reams of computer paper to draw on. It was more affordable than canvas, or Fabriano papers. She could buy me five hundred sheets for under three bucks, and that would last me a decent length of time.

Scanning the shelves, I let my fingers glide over the smooth bindings. A beige trim caught my eye, tugging the book free, I held it firm.

“That's a great book.” A delicate voice skimmed the air around me.

Snapping my head up, an older woman stood at the end of the aisle. “I haven't read this one yet,” I said, flipping the cover open.

“The Story of Art, by Phaidon, it's a classic for any artist.”

“How much is it?”

Her face grew soft lines, head leaning into her shoulder. I saw her eyes scan my thigh, a gentle and motherly smile spread across her aged cheeks. “That's a beautiful tattoo.”

“Thank you, I just got it. Hurt like hell, excuse my language, but totally worthwhile.”

“I bet it was.” Pinching her lips, she stepped forward and scooped the book from my hands. Nodding her head for me to follow her, she walked back to the counter. “Are you an artist?”

“I'm trying to be, that's why I moved here.” Shrugging a shoulder, I slouched over the desk top.

“Trying to be? Honey, if you're an artist, you're an artist. How will anyone else believe you, if you don't believe in yourself?”

Arching a brow, I nervously scratched at my neck. “Well, I'd like to think I'm an artist, but I haven't sold anything yet.”

“That doesn't matter, if you think it, others will believe it. It's that simple.” Dropping the hefty book into a plastic bag, she held it out. “Here you go, Honey.”

“How much is it? I don't even know if I have enough to buy it, or if I even should buy it.” Letting my head drape forward, I twirled my fingers together. “I'm trying to get a gallery up and running, the place next door will be perfect. I have a lot of work ahead of me, so this is probably the last thing I should do with my money.”

“Consider it a gift.” Winking, her eyes fell back to the art on my leg. “I see you already received one gift, let me give you another.”

What the hell is going on today? Did I wake up in some weird alternate universe?

“What? No, I can't take that. I'm sorry, I just can't.” Bouncing my palms in the air, I pushed back from the counter.

“Sweetheart, a gift is a gift. Take it, this is for you.” Slipping the handles over my fingertips, the woman cupped her hands together. “Good luck with your gallery, Neighbor.” And just like that, she was gone, disappearing into a door behind the desk.

I stood dumbfounded. My jaw hit my chest, mind wildly racing around what had been happening today.

This is insane. Did Beth call every small shop around my place?

Did she really go out of her way to make me feel like I already made it big?

Stepping back out onto the sidewalk, I couldn't make sense of the people in this city. I had gotten free pizza, a free book, and that wasn't all. I noticed that while I walked today people moved around me, whereas before shoulders would slam into me like I didn't even exist.

The usual ping pong game of bodies against mine had seized, instead eyes drifted over me, stepping out of my way.

People were being overly nice, smiling in my direction, holding doors, and traffic so I could come through.

It was bizarre, crazy, not the city I was living in just a day before.

What the fuck is going on? Am I just imagining this?

No. No this is all happening.

But why?

Chapter Seven

Willow

T
he resonate ding of my phone caught my ear. Digging through my purse, I pulled it out to see Beth had so kindly sent me another selfie of her in some fancy apparel, holding a glass of sparking crystal champagne.

Dig the knife a little deeper, Beth.

Was I jealous?

Of course I was. Who wouldn't be?

She was living large, traveling the world, enjoying the life she was destined for.

Tapping the keyboard, I sent her a nice little thank you for the loving gesture of her social status.

'Nice pic! Don't spill any on that outfit.
'

It really was a great picture of her, but they always were. I didn't like feeling the twinge of angst towards my best friend and her success. But it was hard not to.

She's always had everything. The loving home, the family that turned their world upside down to sidestep life and jump feet first into her career.

While I watched her from a computer screen, listened to her through a speaker, and spent my nights eating boiled oatmeal.

Yuck, that taste will never go away.

We were sixteen when Beth landed her first modeling gig, and I got my first job; one of those Statue of Liberty sidewalk trophies for the local tax office.

We were sixteen when she lost her virginity and I lost... Nothing even close to that. Instead I lived through what the experience might be like from her very detailed account.

A memory I could live without.

Details are good, but too much is sometimes just too much. And that story was the epitome of too much.

I was almost eighteen before I had my first taste of cock. Which let me just say, it wasn't a front page story of my adolescence.

It was spring time, senior year was coming to an end, and my dull life had already begun to spiral into dust balls.

Beth had left school early to travel to California for a photo shoot, and the only guy I ever even felt an ounce of comfort with had been my long time neighbor Dylan.

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