She gave him a false smile, knowing that reality was barreling toward her, like a train. She couldn’t stop it. “I’m sorry. It might be important,” she murmured.
She shifted from beneath the warmth of the comforter, shivering slightly, feeling his eyes upon her. She plunged her fingers into her coat pocket, drawing out several scraps of paper and receipts, along with her phone. The caller ID revealed it was Rocco, and her heart seemed to sink into the acid of her stomach.
She couldn’t answer a phone call from Rocco. Not there, in the Prince’s bedroom. Her eyes darted from her phone to the naked man before her, his muscled biceps visible over the comforter and his curls diving over his ears and forehead, making him look like a Roman god.
“What’s that?” he asked, pointing to the ground.
Lisa turned her eyes downward, then. Still gripping the phone, she felt her legs bend slightly, an admittance that everything had just gone terribly wrong.
After a final ring of her unanswered phone, she shoved the phone back in her pocket and reached for the papers that had fallen, unable to catch them before Francesco wrapped his fingers around them.
“I can explain,” Lisa whispered, wrapping her arms around her body, suddenly self-conscious. “I really can.”
Francesco held an old press pass, from when Lisa had been on assignment at the New York premiere of a movie. She’d been tasked with catching the actress looking her worst, to promote the story that the lead actress was aging poorly. She’d chased after the poor woman, her flash blasting. And then, she’d collected her five hundred dollars, knowing that she’d just trashed a woman’s body for her own personal gain. She’d hated herself that day. But, she’d hated herself nearly every day after that, as well. She just hadn’t thrown out the press pass.
The press pass in question carried the Daily Sneak logo on it, along with her photo, in which her smile was more like a jeer, and her eyes were sharp, hungry—much more like her journalistic persona. And Francesco held it in his outstretched palm, glaring at the photograph of the woman he’d just spent the night with, his eyes dark and angry.
“What the hell is this?” he asked her. “A press pass for the Daily Sneak? One of the shadiest supermarket tabloids of them all? What the hell is your photograph doing on it?”
Lisa balked, feeling exposed and suddenly terrified—so unlike the bribing, cajoling woman in the photo. “Um…”
“You said you could explain. So start explaining,” he said, his eyes flashing. “Because I have a whole lot of words to describe what I think this is. And I’d love it if you could prove me wrong, right now.”
Lisa closed her eyes, allowing a million lies to come to the surface. She imagined telling him that she’d been a waitress for the event, and that they’d given her a press pass, instead of a worker pass, because it had been easier. She imagined telling him that there had been a mistake—that she’d been there to photograph for Vanity Fair, but that the pass had been printed for the Daily Sneak, instead.
But the lies swirled, and none of them stuck. And she was left stuttering, unsure, with Francesco’s dark eyes upon her, demanding the truth.
As the silence stretched between then, Francesco marched toward her, shaking the pass. “Why do you have this?” he cried, his eyes wide with indignation. “I’m going wild here, baby. Why are you really here? Come out with it. Just tell me the truth.”
The word—baby—rang through Lisa’s ears. Tears sprang to her eyes. Guilt rushed through her. She felt herself fall to her knees. “I’m not really a waitress,” she mumbled, speaking to the spotless floorboards. “I’m a paparazzo.”
“And you were sent here to photograph me?” Francesco asked her, incredulous. “I can’t believe I’ve let one of your kind into my house. You’re a monster.”
Lisa held up her hand, wanting to explain. Her breath was uneven, and her tongue lacked articulation. But she fought for it. “I was tasked with getting pictures of you and Princess Rose together. That much is true.”
Francesco sat down on the bed, sighing heavily, but Lisa continued her confession, feeling the words tumble from her mouth.
“I was told that I would receive more money and recognition if I took a photograph of the two of you arguing.”
Again, the Prince didn’t move. He’d dropped the press pass, and it crumpled to the ground, like the trash it should have become weeks ago.
“I didn’t hesitate to take it,” she breathed. “I’ve been taking jobs like this for years now, just trying to save up money to go back to school, like I told you. That’s all I wanted out of this. A bit of extra cash. That’s all.” She recognized that the truth was ugly; that it stank of selfishness.
“Was the entire restaurant in on it?” he asked quietly. “You were working there, Lisa. You were an employee. How could they not know who you really were?”
“I snuck onto the staff just for the night,” Lisa murmured, her cheeks reddening.
“Dammit,” the Prince breathed, stabbing his fist upon his knee. “You’re just like the rest of them. A snake, slithering through people’s lives, without a care for the pain you inflict on the way. And it’s not like tabloid success is something to be proud of, you know. You could make money doing almost anything else—like working at Matador, for example—”
“It’s not that simple,” Lisa explained. “I need the experience. I have to do this, don’t you see?” She blinked rapidly, feeling lost.
“So. You got your photographs. Congratulations,” Francesco said, rising once more. He yanked a pair of boxers over his legs, covering himself. Lisa’s eyes fluttered back toward him, admiring the strength of his abdomen. The sunlight cast deep shadows that emphasized his six-pack. He was a figment of her imagination; he was unreal.