Home > Secrets (Secrets #1)(3)

Secrets (Secrets #1)(3)
Author: H.M. Ward

“Really?” his expression is hard to read. Leaning back, he steeples his fingers and taps them one at a time, his eyes never leaving mine. The room fades away and the only thing I can see are his eyes, dark as sapphires, and glinting like he’s amused—or pissed—I can’t tell which one. Damn it. Why does he hide his reactions so well? It’s obvious that I don’t belong here, and yet, he’s still talking to me.

“Yeah, of course.” I shrug and lean back, draping my arm over the back of the chair. In the back of my mind I’m thinking that he should have ended this already and shown me the door, but he prods me to talk. And the more I talk, the more insane I sound. Pretentious brat doesn’t even come close to some of the trash coming out of my mouth.

“Coming here would be a risk for me though,” I say. “People say you’re losing your edge—that it’s only a matter of time before Le Femme is replaced by someone else.”

“And what do you think?” he taps his index fingers together once and waits for me to answer.

I’ve been flying by the seat of my pants, making up passive-aggressive insults for over twenty minutes. I decide to give him the shove he needs to show me the door. Glancing at my arm draped over the back of the chair, I pause and then look back up into his face. Maintaining a calm exterior is getting harder and harder. I’m lying, blurting out anything I can think of to get him to dismiss me as some arrogant twit.

Looking him square in the face, I answer, “I think you’re already past your prime. I mean, come on. Let’s be honest. Your work’s been slipping for years.” I feel bad saying such a thing. I may not like his subject-matter, but Cole is a good photographer. Saying anything else is a lie, but I need to get him to show me the door and he hasn’t.

When I finish, no one speaks. His expression is neutral even as I verbally bitch-slapped his company, and then him personally. It’s clear that I think he’s a has-been. At least I think it’s clear. Cole just stares at me from behind his palms, occasionally tapping his pointer fingers together.

I stare back.

We watch each other in silence for a few moments. When Cole speaks, he’s looking at the table. Suddenly he moves and pulls a cell out of his pocket and rests it in front of him. The light stubble on his cheeks is distracting me a little. He is easy on the eyes, even if he is nearly twice my age.

Cole’s voice is deep and rich, “You know what I think?” He glances up at me from beneath his brow. He takes his phone and taps it on the table, then continues, “I think that you’re trying to blow this interview—that you don’t want this job.”


I start to say something, but Cole talks over me. Holding up his hand to silence me, he says, “And for the life of me, I can’t understand why. What would make you so incredibly cocky that you would walk in here and tell me to my face that I’m just another old man with a camera?” He’s grinning at me now, like he knows something I don’t. He taps the phone again.

Before I realize I’m doing it, I’m wringing my hands, my gaze lingering on his cell. I have no idea how he figured that out. Arrogant and crazy must look the same in his brain. I didn’t tip my hand. I didn’t blow my cover. At least I don’t think I did, but I’m a big girl. I can admit it when I’m busted.

“I’m sorry,” I say, utterly embarrassed. I can’t look at him. “I didn’t mean to waste your time,” I say softly. I start to stand, but he leans forward, stopping me. I feel the light touch of his hand on my wrist.

“Wait,” he says. I look up at him and our eyes lock. My stomach tingles at his touch before he slides his fingers away. There’s a slight pause before he leans back, saying, “Tell me where else you applied and why you want to work there more.”

“Are you serious?” I blink at him, thinking I’ve already wasted enough of his time.

He nods, “Yes. If you have no desire to work here, then I’m obviously doing something wrong.” He tilts his head back, the corners of his lips seem like they want to pull into a smile, but they don’t.

Since I don’t see the harm, I sit back down. Hesitantly, I say, “I applied at Sottero, Couture, and here. I thought they’d be better suited to teaching me what I want to pursue. Both are wedding photographers. The University requires diversification during the interview process. This was my third interview.” He nods as I speak, his eyes flicking up from the table to my face as he tilts his head and leans back listening to why I didn’t chose Le Femme. “Both Sottero and Couture are self-made. They pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and became two of the best studios in Manhattan and—”

“Both are women,” he interrupts. He says it like it’s a bad thing.

My brows pinch together. I’m not sure where he’s going with this—if he wants to help me or if this is payback for wasting his time. Cole Stevens makes me uneasy. I nod my head slowly, replying, “Exactly. And I think that’s an asset.”

“Not to you,” he says, shaking his head. “You said on your resume that you wanted to be a wedding photographer for the rich,” he lifts the paper and looks at it, before looking back up at me, “Was that true or did you lie about everything?”

My cheeks flame and I squirm in my seat. Regret washes over me. I wish I didn’t listen to Sophia. I should have come in and said what I usually say and leave. Instead I’m sitting here with my stomaching twisting and doing my best not to wring my fingers and dive under the table. Mortification doesn’t look good on me.

I press my lips together and look up at him. At least I try to. I feel foolish for getting caught. My voice is soft and steady, “I didn’t lie. My resume is real. My accomplishments are true. I just felt like I’d do better somewhere that was more...”

“More like what you already do. Anna,” he pushes away my resume and looks straight at me, “internships are to learn. While you might admire Sophia Sottero, her work is lacking. She’s a single medium artist.”

“And Couture? You think her studio is substandard, too?” I ask calmly. Those two studios are owned by women in a man’s industry. I respect them with every fiber of my being. They made something from nothing. They do exactly what I want to do. And this guy is slamming them. Tension lines my arms and trickles down my spine. People like Cole Stevens have no idea how hard it is to go it alone. Everything was handed to him.

I smile, shaking my head softly, and say what I’m thinking, “How can you be so arrogant? How can you dismiss them so quickly? Their work is beautiful.” He starts to answer, but I talk over him, “That is what I want to do—and Couture or Sottero can offer me the training I need to accomplish that dream. I want to show women what they look like on the most important day of their lives. I want them to see how stunning they really are.” My face pinches together, “I don’t want to learn how to turn them into a wet dream.”

He laughs, one short laugh, “You think that’s what I do? Make fantasy girls?”

“Yes,” I say. I don’t know where this streak of confidence is coming from, but he thought he was right and he isn’t. He doesn’t understand and I want him to. “You don’t get what I want to do. Women are more than some fantasy. They have brains, and hearts, and bodies that they never think are good enough. I want to show them they are good enough, just the way they are. I want beauty to be defined by the woman, not society. I want a woman to feel powerful and beautiful when she looks at a shot I’ve taken. It’s art, Mr. Stevens.

“Work like yours blindsides everything I want to do—everything I want to be. It’s not about heart with you, it’s about seeing how far can you push the line and still be able to shoot your ads to turn a profit.” I’m practically breathless when I suddenly stop speaking. My jaw dangles open, and I’m shocked that I’ve spoken to him like that. Everything that I hold against him came pouring out of my mouth. I sit frozen and pull my jaw shut.

Cole’s glaring at me now. His eyes flick to his phone. Before I know what’s happening, he flips it on and the screen flares to life. He presses a number and says to me, “This has been a very informative meeting. I had no idea feminists hate me so much,” he says playfully.

I smile and say, “Yes, you did.” Leaning back into my chair, I fold my arms across my chest. I have no idea what made me say it. I meant to be playful, but it came out wrong, “You just didn’t know regular women don’t like you, either.” For a hideous moment, I can feel a flirtatious smile slip across my lips. Cole stops whatever call he’s about to make and stares at me. God, his eyes are so blue.

He blinks once, hard, like he can’t believe I just said that. Neither can I. What the hell is wrong with me?

After a moment, he says, “Actually, you’re one of the only applicants who spoke frankly with me this week. I may not have conducted their interviews, but I did speak to each of them briefly. It’s been a blinding array of endless flattery. Your apparent distaste is refreshing.” I smirk at him, but don’t reply. I don’t trust my mouth anymore. My head is spinning and there is nothing I want more than to get out of there. Cole’s eyes drift over me, lowering to my shoulders and quickly sweeping to my shoes before he looks me in the eye and asks, “So, tell me. The clothes—do you usually dress like that? Or was that just for me?”

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