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Man of the Moment (Gentlemen, Inc. Book 1) by Thea Dawson (1)



Life is a series of transactions.

I contemplate this fact as I step outside the studio building into the bright California sunshine and wave goodbye to the leggy blonde who’s just given me her phone number. She wiggles her fingertips at me in response and flashes a smile before turning to walk down the street. I watch. It’s possible she’s swaying her hips just a bit more than necessary to draw attention to her very fine ass—and it’s working.

In exchange for a couple of compliments and the offer of “drinks sometime,” she gave me her number. A few days from now, I’ll give her a call and perhaps, after some negotiation, further transactions will take place.

I pull my eyes away from Leggy Blonde’s assets, and walk toward my car. It's a gorgeous day—it's always a gorgeous day in LA—and the audition I’ve just come away from went well. I always say it's not a done deal until they've paid you, but the casting director was encouraging and said he'd let my agent know early next week if I’ve got the part.

Life as a Hollywood actor is feast or famine. For a few months, I had non-stop work, including a small role in a Taylor Swift video, then for the past couple of months, nada. Even though I know it’s a normal cycle, I’ve been getting … well, I don’t like to use the word desperate, but when possible I liked to avoid having to choose between eating and paying rent.

Of course, in this town, in this industry, you can never let anyone see that you’re desperate, or even a little anxious. That’s poison. They’ll either take advantage of you or decide you’re a loser.

I’m not sure which is worse.

Fortunately, things are starting to pick up again. As if to prove it, my phone rings as I'm walking back toward my car, and I smile as I see that it's Cassandra. I have a job with her on Wednesday, so she might be calling about that, but it's also possible she's calling with something new.

I make sure to keep my voice steady and confident. “Cassandra, hello.”

“Archer, how are you?” Her voice is silky and smooth. I can picture the woman behind the voice: she’s in her early thirties, slender, about average height, with long, light brown hair and impeccable makeup. I’ve only met her a couple of times, once when I interviewed at Gentlemen, Inc., and once when I attended one of her mandatory training sessions, but she’s the kind of woman who leaves an impression. Despite all the handsome men she surrounds herself with, she’s the real face of the company, and she looks every inch the highly successful professional woman.

“I have a role for you,” she continues without waiting for an answer.

More work. The day is just getting better, and my smile gets bigger. "That's great, Cassandra. Tell me about it."

When Cassandra says she had a role, it isn’t like a real role in a TV show or a movie or even a commercial. Cassandra runs a company called Gentlemen, Inc., and her “roles” are more like … temp jobs, I guess you could say. My roommate teases me about it being an escort service, but really, it’s not like that.

When companies or individuals need a particular type of employee for a short amount of time, Cassandra provides them. The particular type of employee she provides are extremely good looking men—and she doesn’t call us temps; we’re “gentlemen attendants.”

Which, Alex says, makes us sound like strippers, but we’re not that either.

We keep our clothes on—Cassandra has very strict rules about that. Typically, we wear black suits or tuxedos, though depending on the job we might wear other things. We get hired out for things like movie premieres and product launches—that's Wednesday’s role, in fact; I'll be handing out samples of a new perfume at a department store. Sometimes we’re hired to deliver corporate gifts by hand. And we do a lot of bachelorette parties, where we do everything from serving drinks to painting women’s toenails.

Pretty much anytime someone needs a handsome man to make them look good, they can call Gentlemen, Inc. From my perspective, it’s easy money—and any exposure is good exposure, as far as I’m concerned.

Cassandra replies, “It’s not a big job, just a few hours, but it’s a companion position, so it pays well.”

Cassandra doesn’t like the term escort, because it implies sex, so we’re “companions” when our role is to be someone’s date for an evening. Like when a woman wants to make her ex-husband jealous at a function they’ll both be at, or if a businesswoman needs a date for a corporate event.

Because the companion jobs involve more one-to-one interaction, they tend to pay better than the corporate gigs. They call for better acting skills and superior social graces. We also have to memorize a cover story that our employer gives us.

“Awesome,” I reply. “When and where?”

“Next Thursday, seven-thirty to midnight. The client will be coming by the office tomorrow at ten and would like to meet you beforehand to work out your background story.”

And check you out, she doesn’t say, but I know that’s what she means.

It's early June and there is a flurry of high-end events around town before the beautiful people scatter to spend their summer in exotic places. I envision a professional woman who needs a last-minute man at her side for an auction or a fundraiser that her company is sponsoring. It’s not cheap to hire a Gentlemen, Inc. companion, so typically, the women who do are successful executive types. They tend to be in their mid-thirties and up, either divorced or just too busy with their jobs to have time for a proper relationship.

Since they’re trying to make an impression on their colleagues, most companion clients prefer “mature” Gentlemen in their thirties or forties. I’m twenty-six—good looking, but on the young side for this type of job, so I don’t get too many of them.

Maybe this client likes to be seen with younger men, or maybe she’s on the younger side herself.

I can hope.

Cassandra has strict rules against “fraternizing” (i.e., sleeping with) clients, so I’m not thinking about hooking up with her, but I imagine it’ll be an easier job if she’s closer to my age—we’re bound to have more in common, right?

But it doesn’t matter. If she’s an 80-year-old dowager who wants me to pose as her doting boy toy for the evening, that’s fine too. She’ll get what she pays for.

Like I said, everything is a transaction. I learned early that there’s no such thing as a free ride. People use you, you use them back. That’s how life works. Everyone walks away, if not happy, then at least satisfied. I’m just glad to have another paycheck to look forward to.

I don’t have to fake the enthusiasm in my voice when I say, “Absolutely! Ten a.m. tomorrow. Thank you, Cassandra.”

“Wear a suit,” she says and hangs up before I can ask any more questions.

Not that I really had any. I’ll find out whatever I need to know tomorrow morning.

I drive away from the audition and head back to my apartment, the late afternoon casting the palm tree-lined sidewalks in a golden glow. I have an acting class this evening, but I’ve got a couple hours of downtime where I can grab a bite to eat and maybe do some laundry. I fantasize briefly about the day that I’ll be a wealthy and famous movie star and never have to do my own laundry again. That day is coming. I can taste it.

As soon as I walk in the door I can tell Alex is home by the smell of something burning.

I hurry over to the stove and after checking that all the burners are off, I take a deep breath and open the oven door. Smoke billows out. I grab a stray oven mitt and pull out a blackened lump in a pie dish.

“Alex!” I bellow, dropping the pie on the stovetop.

There’s a scurrying noise from the bedroom down the hall then Alex bursts into the kitchen.

“Oh crap!” she yells. She grabs a dishtowel and waves it ineffectually at the smoke. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t hear the timer!”

“That's because you didn’t set it,” I point out. “Just open a window, would you, before the smoke alarm goes off again.”

She throws open the two kitchen windows, then skitters into the living room to open those windows too for good measure. I sigh. I love Alex like a sister, but she’s not always easy to live with.

I’m an equal opportunity kind of guy, and it wouldn’t bother me if she were simply not good at housework or cooking, but it’s closer to the truth to say she’s a walking disaster when it comes to anything domestic. Wherever she goes, clutter follows, dishes break, and no foodstuff is safe.

“I’m so sorry!” she says, rushing back into the kitchen.

“You’re going to burn the whole complex down one of these days,” I grumble.

“I was working on a screenplay, and I just got so involved in it,” she says.

I eye the blackened lump on the stovetop. “What was it?” I ask.

“A quiche,” she answers sadly.

“I swear, you’re like the anti-Martha Stewart,” I grumble.

Her face brightens, the quiche momentarily forgotten. “Oh, I like that line!” she says. “I’m going to steal it. Let me go write it down.” And she dashes back to her room.

A mutual friend who went to high school with me and college with Alex put us in touch when I first moved out to LA. I’m a wannabe actor, she’s a wannabe screenwriter—match made in heaven, right?

Well, about five minutes into our first meeting, we both realized we’d never be a couple—I welcome the occasional hook-up, but I’m too focused on my career for anything serious, while Alex is a hopeless romantic—but we bonded over a mutual love of movies, especially the classics, and ended up being good friends. I was paying month-to-month to live in a crappy overpriced sublet when I first moved here; when Alex’s roommate left for a job in San Francisco, she invited me to live with her, and I did.

I move the quiche into the sink and start boiling some water for pasta. I had to learn to cook for myself when I was young; my dad got to the point where he would just forget to eat, let alone remember to feed me. Fortunately, I enjoy cooking, and I'm actually fairly good at it.

Somewhat to my surprise, Alex comes back out a moment later. It’s not unusual for her to go into her room to write one sentence and then forget to come back for hours.

“How'd the audition go?” she asks brightly.

I glare at her, knowing she’s trying to distract me from the fact that she almost burned down our apartment—again—but you can’t stay mad at Alex for very long.

“Went well,” I say. “I think I’ve got a shot at it.”

“Keeping my fingers crossed,” she says cheerfully. “Especially since rent’s due next week, ahem, ahem.”

“It’s cool. I got another gig with Gentlemen, Inc.,” I say, a little reluctantly because I know she’ll tease me.

“Oh ho.” She turns to me with a cheeky smile. “I think it’s great that you’ve found a way to make money out of your natural talents as a man whore.”

“It’s not an escort service.” I throw a dishtowel at her, which she catches. “And I’m not a man whore.” I know she’s just teasing, but I don’t like that particular term. Even Alex, my closest friend, doesn’t know my whole story.

“Of course not,” she says with mock contrition. “You’re just … popular.”

I roll my eyes. Yes, I’ve brought a few girls home, and no, none of them have lasted more than a couple of dates, but I’m hardly the player she likes to pretend I am.

“You’re just jealous,” I reply.

“Oh, please, Mr. God’s Gift.”

“Not of me. You’re just jealous that I’m getting some and you’re not.”

She turns back to the sink, but not before I catch a hurt look on her face. "I'm getting plenty, thanks," she says, a note of false bravado in her voice.

I wince. Alex has this on-again, off-again thing going with this loser named Trevor who comes into town every few weeks for a quick hook-up then disappears again. Alex is convinced he’s Mr. Right, but I think he’s a slimeball and a half. Alex would make someone a great girlfriend (as long as she doesn’t try to cook for him), but this guy doesn't deserve her.

"Chop some garlic for me, would you?" I say, changing the subject. "I'll make that vodka tomato cream sauce you like for dinner."

At 9:55 a.m. the next day, I walk into Gentlemen, Inc., which is located on the 16th floor of an office building in downtown LA. It’s not big; there’s just room for Cassandra and her assistant, with a meeting room that serves as a kind of catch-all space. But the office is sunny, sleek and modern. Tasteful black and white framed photos line the walls, and classical music plays softly in the background. Gentlemen, Inc. is still a new company, and I don’t think it’s started turning a profit yet, but Cassandra is the type who’d make an impression no matter how little she had to work with.

I nod at Jenny, the assistant/secretary/receptionist, and she waves me into the meeting room. I pause for just a moment before stepping in to straighten my tie and run a quick hand through my hair.

Just an acting job, I remind myself. No need to be nervous. If there is one thing I'm good at, it's making women happy.

I knock lightly and step into the room. Cassandra is there, looking like the classic LA executive. The three-inch chocolate brown suede shoes that she wears make her appear taller than she really is. She wears a sleeveless beige sheath dress with a slim belt that matches the shoes and an eye-catching necklace made of highly polished squares of some exotic wood. She is standing by the window talking to the woman I assume has hired me.

In contrast to Cassandra, the other woman is younger, probably in her early twenties, and she’s on the short side, barely five feet tall. Her breasts and hips are a little bigger than you usually see on a girl that height, but she has a small waist that gives her a nice little hourglass figure. Her wavy, dark brown hair is cut short in a bob that makes her look even younger. She’s dressed in a retro-style white dress with a fitted bodice and a flared skirt that’s covered in a pattern of what looks like little red cherries. She wears a cropped red cardigan over it and chunky red shoes.

She turns to look at me as I walk in, and I take a moment to study her face, which is dominated by slightly anxious green eyes with thick lashes. They’re pretty but somewhat obscured by the geek-chic horn-rimmed glasses she wears. She has a small, upturned nose with a smattering of freckles across the bridge and on her round cheeks. Nice skin, I note as my eyes dropped to her mouth. Her lips are full, lush and pouty, a surprisingly sexy contrast to the girl-next-door rest of her. Finally, I take in her chin, which is small and brings her face to a heart-shaped taper.

She’s a long way from the 30-something power player I’d expected. She’s more geek than glamour girl, more quirky than cool. She has her own style, for sure, but it’s a long way from the slender, tan and leggy look that dominates Los Angeles.

She’s … cute.

Inwardly, I breathe a sigh of relief. Not to sound arrogant, but I’m a pretty good looking guy, and I’ve swept women a lot more sophisticated than she is off their feet. Showing her a nice time, helping her impress her friends or her co-workers for an evening … no problem. This one is in the bag.

I lock eyes with her and give her my most charming smile.

Cassandra glides toward me with a smile of her own. “Archer, thank you so much for coming in. Annabelle, I’d like to introduce you to Archer Carleson, one of our Gentlemen Attendants. Archer, this is Annabelle Winter.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Annabelle,” I said, making a point of looking deeply into her eyes.

Annabelle stares at me. At first I take her wide eyes and slightly parted lips to mean that she is pleased with what she sees, but then her pretty mouth falls into a pout and her forehead wrinkles in dismay.

She shakes her head slightly. “Oh, this won’t do,” she says. “This won’t do at all.”