Charlie shook her head relentlessly, “No.” She crossed her arms over her chest, plopping onto the sofa like a stubborn child. “I’m not doing it. I’m sorry, Duncan. I’d rather spend my New Year’s Eve watching Friends reruns and eating Chinese food out of a box.”
Duncan blew her nose into a tissue, her ailing appearance was impossible to hide. Her beautiful complexion had been drained of vibrancy, leaving her ashen and displeasing to the eye. The fact that those eyes belonged to a high-end executive made it all that much worrisome to her. He was one of the agency’s most important clients and canceling on him last minute meant not only a very lucrative loss for her but also for Diamond Associates.
The cough erupting from her chest sounded dreadful. Charlie bit her lip, for a second considering Duncan’s request to take her place at the gala. “It’s just not who I am.” Bringing her feet up on the couch, she continued. “I’m not classy or professional enough to pass as a high-end escort. I’ll probably say something really stupid or slap him across the face if he tries anything–”
“It’s not like that.” Duncan chimed in, barely getting the words out. “He’s not interested in sleeping with anyone. Some of the girls think he might even be gay.”
Charlie’s brow furrowed. “Really?” Suddenly, the idea of just being someone’s dance partner for the night didn’t sound so out of the realm of possibilities.
Duncan nodded. “I’ve gone with him to a few events. Your role is just that of arm candy. He’ll go about his night, talk to important people, eat, drink… and before you know it, you’re getting dropped off at home with a fat deposit in your bank account and all for minimal effort.”
“You mean your bank account.” Charlie remarked.
The brunette smiled, “You’re getting a pretty big chunk of the pie.” Her eyes were pleading, “I would never ask you to do this if one of the other girls could cover for me, but it’s one of our busiest nights and everyone’s booked.”
Charlie sighed loudly. “And what if he doesn’t like me for whatever reason?”
Duncan laughed as much as she could before she went into a coughing fit. “Don’t be silly. Gay or not, he’s not blind. He’ll see how hot you are and won’t even think twice about it. Men like that only care about appearances.”
Charlie’s eyes flickered over to the clock on the wall. If she was gonna go through with it, she had to start getting ready ASAP. “One more question.”
With eyebrows raised, Duncan waited for her to ask.
“If he’s such a big shot, why doesn’t he just get a girlfriend instead of paying thousands of dollars for company?”
Duncan looked staggered. “I’ve never actually asked him but I’m guessing the keyword you used there is girlfriend. He probably doesn’t have the time to deal with any kind of relationships aside from a professional one. He travels a lot in his line of business.”
“So, paying money to spend time with a girl without getting anything in exchange is a more reasonable option?” Charlie huffed, “I bet this guy is one of those emotionally-compromised pricks with daddy issues.”
Duncan shut her eyes. “Please, for the love of God, Charlie. Whatever you do–please do not, under any circumstances, utter those words to my client.”
Charlie chuckled, “And run the risk that he ends up being a total psycho? Not a chance.”
“Does this mean you’ll do it?”
She hesitated to answer but eventually Duncan’s sad puppy face won her over. “Fine. I’ll do it but only because I don’t have to sleep with him and because I’m the best fucking friend in the whole wide world.”
The brunette smiled wide, giving her a big hug and repeatedly thanking her.
“You better remember this next time I need a favor.” Charlie muttered.
Charlie looked at herself in the full length mirror, the bottom of her black dress shimmering like tiny pieces of gold; the rest of her was hugged to perfection making her seem like a beautifully crafted hour glass. She applied red lipstick as Duncan styled her hair. Her dirty blonde locks fell in loose waves over her shoulder.
“You look amazing. If he’s not straight, you might actually turn him.” Duncan joked. “Here, don’t forget this. The request form was very specific, you should already be wearing it when he picks you up.”
Charlie looked down at the butterfly shaped mask as the lace touched her palm. “You’re telling me I just spent all this time doing my makeup when half of my face is going to be covered?”
“Customer’s always right, hun.” Duncan replied, a cough escaping her throat. “And trust me when I say, this customer is worth following the rules no matter how stupid you think they are.”
The blonde smiled, “How should I address him? Since apparently, I’m not even allowed to know his name.”
“It’s not that you’re not allowed to know his name. I’m not allowed to share it with you. I signed a confidentiality agreement—and as my replacement you are required to follow it as well.”
Charlie teased, “I never signed anything.” She stuck her tongue out.
Duncan laughed, “He’ll introduce himself to you. Sometimes he uses an alias but you never know, you might get the real deal tonight.”
Placing the mask over her eyes she asked, “What’s he like? Is he hideous? Is that why he has to pay for a date?” She giggled.
“Far from it, actually.” Duncan replied, tying the mask and putting some finishing touches on her hair. “He’s definitely not hard on the eyes.”
Charlie’s breathing stifled, as if that somehow was a bad thing. “Oh.” She said meekly, looking at herself in the mirror one last time.
A few seconds later, the doorbell rang.
Standing in front of her was a bald man dressed in a black suit, a shiny pin in the shape of a flag attached to the left pocket of his jacket. There was a very distinct M inscribed in its center. He smiled shyly, greeting her very politely and then offering his arm to lead her down the apartment stairs.
“Careful, Miss. It just stopped raining and the ground is still wet.” He said.
Charlie noticed the tiny specks of frozen water floating in the air, the sky was overcast, no stars in sight.
She hadn’t found the breathe to speak, she walked towards the black limo car, its windows too darkly tinted for her to see who was inside. Her heart began to beat rapidly, her head suddenly becoming foggy as if she was somehow experiencing a dream—or perhaps a nightmare.
She still had time to turn around. It was still possible to put an end to Duncan’s crazy idea and back out. Sure, her friend would probably hate her for a few days but that beat the risk of ending up on the missing persons list the following week. Charlie’s head felt two times heavier, what had she gotten herself into?
The driver opened the door for her. From her angle, she could only see the bottom half of a man—his legs covered in black dress pants, shiny black shoes placed firmly on the carpeted floor of the car. She took a deep breathe and stepped inside, hunching over and fixing her dress as she took a seat.
The door slammed shut and Charlie finally looked at her companion in the face—or at least, she tried. The black mask he had on left very little to be scrutinized, but his piercing, icy blue eyes were impossible to ignore. He looked at her with curiosity, trying to read her with just his gaze. His curly hair was carefully combed back, the dim lighting making its dark shade of blonde look almost black. His cologne had a subtle hint of wood that was equal parts captivating and inciting. Charlie found the scent very pleasant.
He had well-maintained facial hair and although most of his features were concealed, Charlie deduced he was somewhere in his late 30’s, if not early 40’s. He seemed tall, well-built, and with an affinity for expensive things—if the watch around his wrist was any indication.
He was silent for a moment, his fleshy lips pressed into a firm line.
“I think there’s been a mistake.” He said in a growly voice. It had an alluring tone for which Charlie was not ready. “I was under the impression Miss Paige would be accompanying me tonight.”
Charlie was speechless. After endlessly bashing the guy behind his back, nothing had prepared her for the way she responded to their interaction. It wasn’t just the mask that made him so intriguing. She found herself inexplicably drawn to him.
The driver turned back in his seat, the privacy barrier rolled down, “Is there a problem, Sir?”
Charlie couldn’t look away, the mystery of who was behind the mask kept her eyes glued on him. He licked his lips eyeing her inquisitively. He looked her up and down, tilting his head as his gaze focused on her pools of blue.
Feeling like merchandise that was being inspected, Charlie suddenly found the courage to snap back. “I’m Duncan’s replacement for the night. You either take me or leave me. We have plenty of other clients who are looking for company tonight.”
The corner of his mouth moved ever so slightly, until eventually his lips curled into a full smile. His mouth parted, almost delighted by the way she’d responded. “And with whom do I have the pleasure?” With one hand he signaled to the driver to proceed.
The car began to move at the same time the privacy barrier was raised.
Charlie interlaced her fingers over her lap, “I’m Charlie.”
He smiled again, “Charlie,” there was a unique guttural sound to his voice. He said it gently as if caressing every syllable with his tongue. “That’s an interesting name for a girl.”
“Yeah, well, I can be quite compelling.” She bit her tongue down, afraid that she’d already crossed the line with him.
He shifted his body in her direction, entirely focused on what she had to say. “I like you, Charlie. You’ve already said more than Miss Paige usually says in an entire evening.” A tiny smile appeared on his face, “I might even consider making you my regular if all goes well tonight.”
He studied her face for some sort of reaction but received nothing.
Charlie tried to keep quiet but she couldn’t help blurting out the obvious question that had been on her mind. “And what’s your name?”
She noticed the dimples that formed on his cheeks when he grinned, even though they were partially obstructed by his finely trimmed facial hair. He ran his pointer finger over his bottom lip in a pensive manner, his blue eyes fixed on her. “Sebastian.”
“Sebastian?” She repeated, raising her eyebrows questioningly. “Right. I can work with that.”
He chuckled, “You don’t believe me? I would show you my ID but I’m afraid that’s a little too personal for my taste. Tell you what, you can call me Bass.” He smirked.
Was he flirting with her? Charlie couldn’t quite grasp his angle.
She changed the subject. “So, Bass, are you in town just for the holidays?”
There was hesitation to his reply. “No. I’m actually based in Philadelphia.”
Charlie’s eyes widened. For all she knew, she could’ve already bumped into this man on a number of occasions and never realized it. “Oh. Philly’s a great city.” She said lamely.
“Yeah, it is.” He smiled, studying her once again.
Charlie had been joking when she told him she could be compelling but based on the way he was looking at her, it was obvious he was more than fascinated by his mysterious companion.
The car pulled up to the historical bank and trust building. A long gold and black carpet led the way to the entrance. The driver opened the door for them but when it was time for her to get out of the car, it was Bass who greeted her on the other side.
The night had become even colder, snow flurries fell over him at a rapid pace as he extended his hand to her.
Charlie went along with the charade, walking inside the building arm in arm like they’d known each other forever. To anyone else’s eyes, they looked just like any other couple there to enjoy the evening.
Inside the venue, the mood was sophisticated. The glow of purple floor lighting coming from the corners of the room gave the reception hall an elegant touch. The masquerade party had a Winter Wonderland theme. In the center of each table sat silver glitter branches adored with lights and crystals.
Charlie looked around the hall at the numerous attendees. They were all decked out in evening attire and donning elegant masks. A live band played music from a stage but it wasn’t too loud that it disrupted the various conversations going on throughout the venue. Next to the stage there was a champagne fountain carved out of ice. She smiled, amazed by it all.
Tilting her head back, she noticed the giant crystal chandelier that hung in the center of the room, and then her eyes swept around the balcony that encircled the second floor. It wasn’t until she was done awing over every detail that she noticed Bass had been looking at her the whole time.
“Don’t tell me you’ve never been here before.” He said, holding her hand and leading her to a reserved table just a few feet away. She noticed the place cards atop the white linen table cover. Monroe.
“Of course I’ve been here,” she lied, “I just really love this place.”
He huffed, “Well, enjoy it while it lasts because a signature here and there and this space might turn into another law firm.”
And then she made the connection. “Monroe Enterprises.” She blurted out. “You’re him?”
The company was renowned throughout Philadelphia and the surrounding metropolitan areas. He was one of the city’s biggest and most profitable commercial investors. He was a big name in the trade business. And yet, he was a complete enigma. The name was everywhere but as much as she tried, she couldn’t put a face to it.
He smirked. “You’re very observant.”
One of the waiters floating around the venue set a couple glasses of champagne on the table. Bass took one in his hand and handed the other to Charlie.
“Most girls don’t care to know who I am. They only care about completing their end of the deal and getting paid at the end of the night. But you,” he took a sip of his drink, “You’re not like the other girls.”
Charlie shrugged, “I like learning new things about my clients.”
“Why? We both know it’s all business. Why bother getting to know me?”
She downed her champagne, setting the empty glass on the table. “Because forming connections is what normal human beings do.”
His expression was sullen, almost annoyed. Perhaps what she had just said was equally appalling as accusing him of being an emotionally-compromised prick.”
“You don’t know me, Charlie.” He responded, finishing his drink as well. “Sometimes it’s better not to get too close to people. No strings attached has worked wonders for me so far.” He fiddled with his mask and then ran his fingers through his curly hair. “So, let’s just leave it at that and dance for a bit, what do you say?”
After a few moments of dancing she spoke again. “Can I ask you one more thing?”
He looked at her as if not wanting to give her the chance to probe into his personal life further. His body and hers swayed from side to side, slowly and closer every time. But his curiosity was so great that all he managed to do was nod in agreement.
“Why do you seek our services but never want anything more out of it?”
“You mean sex? Why don’t I want sex from you?”
She cleared her throat and smiled nervously. “Yes.” No one around them seemed to be paying attention to their conversation but it still made her look down sheepishly.
“Because when I want to have sex with a woman, I don’t need to pay for it.” He twirled her once and then brought her into him. “This,” he gestured between him and her, “Is only because I need a date for the evening and I don’t want to invite just anyone. Otherwise, I run the risk of them ruining the night with their lack of poise.”
Charlie continued to listen, although paying attention was difficult when his hand was wrapped around her waist and his face was in such close proximity to hers. She was enthralled by his sheer presence.
His breath was warm against her cheek. “You’re a professional. You know how to handle yourself in front of these type of people. You won’t embarrass me or make a scene when I look at someone else instead of you.”
He paused, staring at her and wondering why he’d want to do that on that occasion.
“Anyone else would get attached, they’d expect a call the next day, wonder if I had a good time, wonder if we’d go out again. You won’t. You don’t want anything from me at the end of the night because I’m just another assignment.”
He inched his face closer to her, leaning in and invading her personal space. “When I like a woman and I want something more from her, I let her know. Paying for your service and not wanting sex out of it doesn’t mean I don’t get it any other time.” He whispered into her ear.
While the gesture had been intimate, there was a tone of arrogance to his statement that rubbed Charlie the wrong way.
She looked away nonchalantly, “Has anyone ever told you you’re kind of a douchebag?”
Charlie bit her lip. He twirled her once again. That time, her body crashed into his, sending a shiver all over her body. Her heart was beating faster, afraid that she’d definitely crossed the line that time.
She tilted her chin, looking into his eyes as she spoke. “Admitting that the only reason you don’t bring a significant other to events like these is because they don’t know how to behave themselves, kind of makes you a douchebag.”
His expression was stern at first. The smirk that followed took her by surprise. “No. I never said I wouldn’t bring a girlfriend. I said I needed a date and I didn’t want to bring just anyone. I thought I made myself perfectly clear.” He wasn’t sure why he felt so compelled to explain himself to her but he did it anyway. “The whole reason why I paid for your company and your professionalism is because I don’t have a significant other at the moment.”
Charlie opened her mouth to speak but was interrupted by an apparent acquaintance of his.
Their dancing came to a halt.
“Bass. I thought I recognized you, you son of a bitch.” The man gave him a hug and exchanged pleasantries before eyeing Charlie with regard.
“I see you’re in very nice company tonight.” He extended his hand to her, “Good evening, Miss. I don’t believe I’ve seen you before.”
“Charlie, this is Jeremy Baker. He’s one of my partners.”
Charlie smiled, “Nice to meet you.”
The man gaped at her like he didn’t already have his arm wrapped around his own lady friend. “Maybe we can chat for a bit later on, Charlie. I’d love to get your business card before you leave.”
Bass put his arm around her, “Jeremy. You might be confusing Charlie for someone else–”
Jeremy let the words sink in. His eyes widened, sure that he’d made a terrible mistake.
“Oh shit.” He uttered. “I’m sorry. I thought you—fuck, I’m such a tool.” He looked away embarrassed, “Bass I didn’t know you were seeing someone, I’m just so used to seeing you with–” He cleared his throat, “You know what? I’ll just stop talking and go find something to drink instead. I apologize.”
Jeremy held on to his date and left flustered. That was the last time they saw him the rest of the night.
“What was that all about?” Charlie asked.
Bass was at a loss for words. What did he care if Jeremy wanted a date with her? He had expressed himself clearly—it was just a business transaction. No strings attached. And yet, the mere thought of Jeremy wanting something more from his date, made him want her all to himself.
“Nothing.” He replied. “It was nothing.”
The waiter came by to pick up what remained of their meal, Charlie had left a few fingerling potatoes on her plate but there wasn’t a single crumb of the succulent duck breast it had accompanied. He soon returned with a couple of clean glasses and a bottle of champagne.
Charlie looked at her watch, “It’s almost midnight.”
“Your shift’s almost over.” Bass muttered.
She shook her head, “That’s not why–”
The pop of a champagne bottle startled her, cutting off her words. She didn’t bother to repeat them.
“Duncan said you’d be conducting some business tonight.”
“Client didn’t show. He had some trouble at his firm and wasn’t able to make it.”
Charlie frowned, “That’s too bad.”
Ever since their encounter with Jeremy, Bass had been a little different—more distant and less willing to converse. Maybe it was a good thing the night was almost over.
He took the champagne bottle in his hand and began unraveling the aluminum cover over the cork. Charlie watched in silence as he popped it open and began pouring the bubbly liquid into their glasses. A screen near the stage was projecting the countdown. The clock was now down to only two minutes.
Between the silent glances and the little smiles, the seconds seemed like an eternity. Charlie couldn’t tell if she’d done something wrong and it bothered her that she cared so much about what he thought of her.
The crowd started hollering. “Ten, nine, eight…”
Bass’s eyes peered at her from behind the mask and she trembled like a helpless animal, unable to tear her gaze away.
“Two, one! Happy New Year!” The invitees all shouted, the sounds of poppers and party horns erupting everywhere.
He took a step closer to her, “Happy New Year.” Taking a sip of his champagne, he managed to close the distance between them further.
Charlie replied, “Happy New Year,” and smiled before drinking.
With his face only inches away, the uncertainty of whether his lips would actually touch hers made her body resonate and her breathing hitch. She wasn’t the type of girl who kissed strangers just for the fun of it but in that instance, she couldn’t think of anything else.
He gulped, taking her glass from her hand and setting it on the table along his. His movements were slow, calculated, and smooth. It was like he was trying to talk himself out of it, as if kissing her would be his biggest mistake.
“Take off your mask.” Charlie whispered.
Bass sighed, hindered by her request. After a few moments, he untied the ribbon, revealing his face. Charlie’s lips parted, awestruck by his handsome features. His eyes somehow looked bluer now that he was completely visible. The urge to kiss him only intensified once she realized how incredibly attractive he really was. She didn’t even give Bass the chance to request the same thing of her.
Her lips smacked into his, the bristles of his mustache prodding her upper lip. Charlie went about it with care, her mouth exploring slowly and savoring his delicious taste. He held on to her face, continuing the kiss for a few seconds longer before they broke apart.
Charlie felt like she had stepped out of line but nothing about her reaction was apologetic.
“Who are you, Charlie?” He asked.
Her eyes widened. “What do you mean?”
He laughed. “I know you don’t work for Diamond Associates. You gave yourself away the moment you stepped into my car.”
He’d been playing her all along. Charlie didn’t know what to make of it. “I was that obvious?”
Bass nodded. “And I think it’s only fair for me to see who’s behind the mask. Don’t you think?” He asked, smiling.
She raised her hands to the back of her head in resignation and began untying it. Once off, she set it on the table, hoping he would like what he was seeing as much as she liked him. Charlie smiled. There was silence in return. Bass looked stunned.
After the longest of seconds, Charlie said something. “Okay, you are making this really awkward. Am I not what you expected?”
He tightened his jaw and then rubbed his forehead. “It has nothing to do with that. You’re–” He stuttered, “You’re very beautiful.” That was putting it lightly.
His words were positive but something seemed off.
“I need to take you home now.”
“What? Why?” She asked.
“Charlie. Enough with the questions, okay?” He said harshly. “The request form was very specific. You’d be here until midnight and then I’d take you back home.”
She crossed her arms over her chest and shook her head. “I’m not going anywhere until you tell me why you’re acting so weird.”
He sounded angry. “How old are you? Twenty?”
“Twenty-five.” Charlie sounded offended. “That’s the problem? I’m too young for you?”
He huffed, “No. That’s not the problem.” Bass took her arm, trying to get her to move.
“Then what is it?”
He clenched his jaw. “I don’t like mixing business with pleasure, Charlie.” He took a beat. “And you may not work for Diamond Associates or be bound by a contract but unfortunately, you’re still part of my business circle.”
With furrowed eyebrows and a perplexed look, she tried to make sense of his words. “I don’t understand.”
“The client who didn’t show up.” Bass explained, “I met with him in his office a week ago. It’s in a pretty affluent part of Atlanta, his law firm’s on the top floor of a tenth story building and he’s looking to expand sometime this year. That’s why he got in touch with me.”
It all seemed irrelevant. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because aside from stacks of files and post it notes, the one other thing he keeps on his desk is a picture of his daughter.” He replied. “My client’s name is Miles Matheson.”