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golden thing

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“It’s about time they announced it.”

Yolanda’s hot breath tickled as she whispered in my ear. I suppressed a smile as we stood in one of the large meeting rooms at Carvajal Studios, doing my best to ignore her impatience. It was already a warm day, and the mass of bodies in the space made me feel slightly suffocated.

I looked up at the ducted air conditioning unit in the ceiling. For a moment, I thought perhaps it wasn’t on. But one of the fan blades slowly rotated, indicating it was, in fact, on. I uncrossed my arms and shifted on my feet, my eyes sweeping the room.

The cast and crew for Leon Carvajal’s latest Netflix series, RUN, had been announced months ago. That was, except for one. It had been grating on me for weeks, as we sat through rehearsals and table reads, that one of the five lead cast members had not yet been chosen. Leon assured us at every chance that he had someone in mind, but reiterated the fact that it was complicated, so we continued on what felt like a half-assed attempt to prepare for shooting.

The whole cast and some of the crew had been called in for final fittings that morning. Yolanda and I arrived on site promptly at 9am, and it was immediately obvious there was something going on. We were quickly ushered into one of Leon’s enormous boardrooms along with almost everyone else, and as I looked around to the people I would be working with over the course of the next few months, I could feel the excited humm permeate the room. This time, it was not due to the anticipation of finally starting filming in two weeks after a relatively long pre-production process. That morning, Leon was set to announce the fifth and final lead of the show, and as far as I knew, it was a complete surprise. Of course, there were rumours flying around about who would fill in the last lead role, but I tried not to buy too much into set gossip.

“Who’s your money on?” Yolanda whispered, once again invading my personal space.

I rolled my eyes and turned to look at her. She was smirking at me, an expectant look on her face. But instead of making the typical snarky remark about boundaries and her crazy ability to constantly push them, I leaned in even closer.

“For them to keep it under wraps for this long, it’ll be someone big. I’m guessing Gina Rodriguez.”

Yolanda’s eyebrows raised in surprise for a moment. I wasn’t sure if it was because I gave her a legitimate answer or because I was so close to her. But that surprise quickly transformed into one of mirth as she realised I was playing along.

“Juli, that is a bold guess.”

“Well, I stand by it.” I said with a firm shrug of my shoulders.

“Okay. You’re on. It won’t be her. She’s too old to play a 19 year old.”

She held out her hand between us, offering it as if we were making a bet. I raised one brow at her quizzically.

“I’m not shaking until you tell me who your money is on.”

Yolanda smiled widely at me but kept her hand outstretched.

“I’ve heard Eiza Gonzalez is a safe bet. The reason it’s taken Leon so long is because she was booked on another project, but it finished up just in time to skip onto this one.”

I scoffed in amusement and took Yolanda’s hand. Generally speaking, Yolanda kept her ear close to the ground. She was fluent in gossip around the set and what was going on in the industry in general. But I didn’t let that deter me.

“Now who’s making the bold guess? What’s the bet? $50?”

Yolanda blinked at me plainly, almost as if I'd offended her by the offer.

“I can’t believe you thought we’d bet money on this.”

I frowned and waited for Yolanda to elaborate.

“If I win, you clean my room.” She stated with a cheeky grin and a light squeeze of my hand.

I immediately scrunched up my face at the thought.

“Yo, that’s not cool. Your room is disgusting.”

Yolanda was practically vibrating with glee as she leaned in.

“Yep. I’ve misplaced last weeks pizza in there so I really need it cleaned up.”

I scowled at her immaturity and squeezed her hand harder in mine. She winced as I rubbed her knuckles together.

“That’s repulsive. I can’t believe I live with you.”

Yolanda didn’t flinch. She just kept staring at me in amusement and with an annoying hint of confidence. But I wasn’t one to back down once I'd committed.

“I’m pretty certain it’s not going to be Eiza, so I'm in.” I declared confidently. “And if I win, you’re buying me dinner for a week. My choice.”

I released Yolanda’s hand and she grumbled beside me.

“But you eat sushi and that other disgusting seafood at that damn expensive restaurant.”

I laughed and shrugged my shoulders.

“You wanted to make the bet. Let’s hope you don’t lose.” I said with a wink over my shoulder, a little chuffed at my counter-offer. But before I could get too cocky, another thought dawned on me. “Wait, what happens if neither of us are right?”

Yolanda pressed her lips together in thought. As I waited for her answer, the room hushed around us. My attention left Yolanda and refocused on the front of the room.

Leon Carvajal and his son, Guille Carvajal, strode into the large room with purpose. They smiled and nodded their heads at their colleagues as they quickly found their place at the head of the table. The executive producers and other big wigs running the show were all sitting around the large rectangular table in the middle of the room, deep in their own apparently important conversations. As soon as Leon and Guille entered, they swivelled their chairs to face the head of the production company with haste.

With the look of serious anticipation on their faces at the impending announcement, I wondered just how secret Leon had kept this from everyone involved in the project.

Leon dropped a large folder he was holding onto the oak tabletop and clapped his hands in front of him, his face lit up like a kid on Christmas morning. Guille stood beside him, looking more like a nervous teenager than Leon’s second in charge.

“Good morning, everyone.” He beamed. “Thank you all for meeting this morning on such short notice. I know some of you had to be here today anyway for final fittings, but I appreciate it all the same.”

Leon’s boyish smile and typical charismatic charm captivated the room. I was constantly impressed by the man's people skills. He was very well known in the industry as always getting what he wants, and many were envious of his ability to capture people’s attention and hold it as if he were the epicentre of the universe. It was easy to see why he was so successful in such a competitive environment.

“It’s been a long time coming, but we are here to finally release our fifth and final leading role for our upcoming NETFLIX production, RUN. She will be leading alongside Lucho, Sergio, Anna and Juliana.”

Leon’s arm gestured to the four other leads, and I plastered on a happy smile as all eyes turned to look at us.

Lucho stood on the opposite side of the room, his own wide smile practically blinding as he soaked up any attention sent his way. The boy was well put-together, I had to give him that. He was young and broody, and his tall frame and thick hair certainly helped him to become one of the rising stars of the industry. But after spending a bit of time with Lucho these past few weeks, it was obvious the boy didn’t have any brains or social awareness. Aside from that, he was funny and generally harmless, and he was fairly painless to be around. I really hoped our easy going friendship continued through filming.

Beside him stood Sergio, a shorter and stockier version of his friend. He had a pretty consistent reputation around town as a womanizer and I didn’t doubt it. He held himself with a certain kind of confidence that many women would surely melt for. The stubble that grazed along his chin and the way he puffed out his chest made him look older than his 21 years. We got along just fine, and in fact, I enjoyed watching Sergio and Lucho interact. Their boisterous energy and friendly banter was entertaining and I often found myself enjoying their company. The only problem I could detect with Sergio is him potentially hitting on me at some point. I already caught him staring at me at rehearsal a few times, and I hoped I didn’t have to reject him at some point.

Anna stood only a couple metres to my right. She was my age, with long brown hair and a complexion a few shades darker than me. Few freckles dotted her nose and her thick eyebrows perfectly outlined her stunning green eyes. She was a natural beauty, a rarity in the industry.

Anna and I had never worked together before, which wasn’t unusual considering our pretty short list of appearances. I was pleasantly surprised when Anna reached out to me and invited me to coffee just days after our roles were announced. We’d both made the effort to catch up for regular coffee dates since, to get to know one another before filming began. Anna was easy to talk to, and we fell into a pretty comfortable friendship quite quickly. She was vivacious and passionate about environmental issues and the gender pay gap. We spoke at length about beauty products and how crazy our experience has been in the industry so far.

During rehearsals and table reads, it was easy to see our dynamic was strong. We just clicked, and that apparently transferred through our performance. I still remember Leon’s eyes sparkle when he walked in on a workshop when Anna and I were arguing in character. He stepped between us, concerned, and couldn’t understand why we burst out laughing at his reaction. When he discovered it, he basically patted himself on the back with his discovery of the two of us.

Like me, Anna was pulled from obscurity in what felt like overnight, and turned into an up-and-coming, must-have actress. She was all those things, but when all eyes moved to her, she squirmed under the attention. For someone so beautiful, she still didn’t know how to handle herself. It was an endearing quality, and I hoped the business never sucked that tiny piece of innocence or naivety out of her.

Leon’s excited voice continued, and my gaze left Anna and slid back to the man who was running things.

“So, without dragging this on any longer, please let me introduce our Jessica.”

Leon raised his arm in the direction of the door in which he had entered only moments before, and it felt like everyone in the room collectively held their breath.

I nudged Yolanda in the ribs and wiggled my eyebrows, confident in myself and our bet.

“I can’t wait for some of that sushi.” I whispered with an elaborate lick of my lips.

Yolanda rolled her eyes and refused to respond. She looked past me, eager to see who was about to walk through the door.

“Please make her feel welcome. Our Jessica is my own daughter, Valentina Carvajal.” Leon announced proudly.

The cast and crew erupted into a rowdy applause, interspersed with gasps of shock and murmurs of disbelief.

My mouth fell open as I watched Leon’s youngest daughter step into the room. A myriad of thoughts raced through my mind as the woman who I would be sharing a starring role with, in what was to be the biggest break of my life, joined her father at the head of the table.

One of my greatest pet peeves is when people wear sunglasses indoors. Aside from it being completely unnecessary, it hindered one of the most important aspects of communication. The eyes always tell a lot about a person, and I was immediately frustrated that I couldn’t see hers.

While my brain was processing its annoyance of the sunglasses issue, I was immediately taken aback by the choice for the role.

I knew Valentina Carvajal. Everyone knew Valentina Carvajal. She had long been a top model for some of the most prestigious fashion houses across the globe. Aside from her being of Carvajal lineage, she’d garnered respect for having carved her own way in the fashion world.

That was until she’d forged a new, more recent reputation as the resident bad girl of modelling.

Alcohol. Drugs. Women. All were frequent guests in her life.

Come to think of it, maybe that explained the wearing of sunglasses indoors. I took in the crumpled white t-shirt and faded denim jeans the woman seemed to wear so effortlessly, and wondered how big the hangover was that she was nursing.

As Leon continued to introduce a somewhat disinterested Valentina to the cast and crew, I could feel my face heat up in frustration.

This woman got this role because of who she is. From what little knowledge I had on the model, I knew she had never acted in her life. Which meant she was handed this huge role on a silver platter, just because of who her father is. My fingernails dug into the skin of my palm as Leon’s continued introduction faded into the background. All I could think about was how hard I worked to get to this point, the sacrifices I made, the hoops I had to jump through, and here this privileged woman stood, clearly hungover and aloof, so obviously not taking this seriously.

It was so unfair I could feel the tension in my jaw as my teeth ground together.

After another round of applause in which I did not participate in, Leon dismissed the room. The people erupted in chatter, while small groups split away and dawdled off to begin their jobs for the day, gossiping about the most recent addition to the cast. I watched as Sergio and Lucho made a beeline for the model, their noses immediately sniffing out the fresh meat.

Another knock to my ribs pulled me from my staring.

“That’s insane. Can you believe it? Valentina Carvajal! You’re going to be working with Valentina Carvajal.”

Yolanda’s voice sounded dreamlike. I turned to see her eyes wide and full of admiration as she continued to stare in the direction of the model.

“Are you serious, Yo?” I snapped.

Yolanda’s face moved almost as if in slow motion as she registered my tone. She frowned as she turned to look at me.

“What’s your problem?”

“My problem is that this chick has no acting experience whatsoever, and just because her last name is Carvajal, she gets handed a job?” I ranted. “And not just any job, Yo. This kind of role could be the turning point of my career. Being involved in something like this is the kind of shit I dreamed about, and worked hard for, my whole life. And then she wanders in, clearly hungover, and has absolutely no idea what she’s doing.”

I surprised myself at the venom in my voice, and by the look on Yolanda’s face, so was she. She blinked at me slowly as I tried to compose myself. I hadn’t noticed the onlookers standing not too far away as the room slowly cleared out.

“Geez, Juli. You need to get a grip.” Yolanda whispered through a nervous smile. “She’s a model, so she must know something.”

“What? Are you hearing yourself?”

Yolanda shrugged her shoulders as if she, in fact, was not hearing herself. Her attempt at placating me had the opposite effect.

“Just because she’s a model doesn’t mean she knows anything about acting, Yo. It’s more the fact that daddy has just given her this role that bothers me more than anything. What I have had to do to get to this point doesn’t mean anything when people like that just sail on through life, getting whatever they want handed to them. I bet she wouldn’t even know what hard work and sacrifice looked like if it slapped her in the face.”

Yolanda raised an eyebrow at me, a mix of disapproval and serious concern evident in her gaze. She slung an arm around my shoulder and I closed my eyes as I allowed her to half wrap me up in her warmth.

When I moved in with my aunt at 16, she was the first to actually search for help when she lived through the wrath that was my unpredictable temper. My parents never really bore the brunt of my anger, mostly due to them never being around to see it. Which was ironic considering that exact fact was often the source of my anger. Perlita stumbled upon some research on the power of breathwork for calming the mind and reducing stress and anxiety.

I talked myself through the simple triangular breathing technique I learned as a teenager and felt my body physically calm down.

“I think you should give her a chance. She might surprise you.” I heard Yolanda whisper close to my ear.

I grabbed her hand that was hanging over my shoulder and swung my other arm around her waist. I opened my eyes and took one more sneaky look at the model.

There were still plenty of people milling about, drooling at the chance to get closer to the girl. With her long, chestnut hair and enticingly slim figure, it was easy to see what all the fuss was about. But there was something else entirely that made my breath catch in my chest.

Perhaps it was the jut of her chin, or the tilt of her head, but even as her expensive Ray Ban Wayfarers sat high on her nose, I could sense she was looking straight at me. My skin prickled as I felt her gaze, hidden behind polarised darkness, sweep across my figure. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end, and I couldn’t determine whether I was intimidated under the intensity of her gaze, or flattered by it.

After my momentary lapse in concentration, I straightened up and stared right back at her. The woman didn’t flinch, but kept her full attention on me. She had people clamouring at her feet, yet her eyes never deviated from me.

I felt a quiet sense of satisfaction at the idea of holding her attention for as long as I had. But I had no desire to give her the wrong idea. I wholeheartedly disagreed with her being here, and I was not about to pretend to like her.

I sucked in a trembling breath, my heart beating erratically at the unexpected moment, and tightened my grip on my best friend.

“We’ll see.” I murmured, stepping away and leading Yolanda out of the room without another look. I took one deep, steadying breath and got a hold of myself. “Let’s not think about that anymore. We’ve got a final fitting to get done.”

Yolanda’s breathy chuckle beside me reinstated the wide smile that had been plastered on my face ever since I landed the role.

Chapter Text

“Talk about ostentatious.” I muttered as we carefully ascended the steps to Leon Carvajal’s mansion.

I’m not even sure the word mansion quite covered it. The place looked like a hotel you’d find on the beaches of the French Riviera. It was boldly cut into the hills that loomed behind, made to look as if it had always been there. The building towered above us, bright lights illuminating the vast white columns that I was sure were there more for aesthetics rather than structural integrity. The enormous windows each boasted their own balcony, the architecture intricate and audacious. A double staircase curved around the front of the building, exposing a grand entrance to the massive wrought iron double doors. Rows of perfectly manicured gardens ran perpendicular to the ornate white stone staircase Yolanda and I were slowly climbing.

“Tell me about it.” Yolanda replied, slightly out of breath, as we reached the final step.

The ground levelled out to a large outdoor area and my jaw slackened as I took in the sight. Expensive white tiles splashed with vibrant mosaics were underfoot, leading to the enormous house ahead. Numerous burning fire pits were placed strategically around the space, surrounded by luxurious white outdoor lounges dotted with colourful cushions. The party was already in full swing, with members of the cast and crew of RUN mingling cheerily beneath the fairy lights strung overhead. The latest pop hits were streaming from an unknown source, adding to the party vibe. The music blended with the chatter of people, along with the clinking of glasses as stylish waitstaff eagerly topped up half empty champagne glasses.

With how excessive the waitstaff were being with the alcohol, I made a mental note to watch my drink tonight.

“Champagne?”

A young boy with brown curly hair dressed in a perfectly pressed tuxedo seemed to appear out of nowhere. He smiled at us as he presented his tray full of bubbling champagne flutes.

I closed my gaping mouth and looked at Yolanda. When she smirked at me with that sparkle in her eye, I knew exactly what she was thinking.

“Thanks.” We said in unison as our fingers closed around the thin stem of a glass each.

I followed Yolanda over to a free bar table that stood beside some large potted plants. We clinked glasses and sipped delicately from the exquisite crystal. Our eyes widened at one another as we swallowed the sparkling drink.

“I think this is real champagne, Juli.”

I nodded my head as I licked my lips, relishing the sharpness in taste.

“I think you’re right.” I giggled as an almost foreign kind of excitement gripped me. I turned my neck and looked over the party.

The outdoor area was full of beautiful people dressed in elegant dresses and finely tailored suits. A dazzling sunset was glistening over the ocean in the distance, spilling a perfect orange-purple glow over the huge white mansion. The people I would be working with over the course of the next few months were laughing and enjoying one another’s company.

I sucked in a deep breath and took it all in.

It finally felt like I was nearly there. I had almost achieved exactly what I had dreamed of since I was a child. I was so close, and the giddiness of being here, at this extravagant launch party, about to embark on this journey with a character I so treasured, wrapped around me and sent goosebumps tightening across my skin.

“There you are.”

I spun as a warm hand pressed against the bare skin of my back. I was wearing a black silk gown that seemed to fall perfectly on every curve, highlighting my slim waistline and shapely backside. I was initially quite self-conscious about the backless aspect of the dress, but after many compliments and endless encouragement from Yolanda, I stuck with the decision.

Anna’s playful smile greeted me happily as she pulled me into a one-armed hug.

“Hey! You look gorgeous.” I said into her hair and squeezed her before letting go.

Anna blushed ever so slightly and flicked her long, brown hair over her shoulder. The deep red dress contrasted her complexion perfectly, the fabric almost shimmering in the low light.

“Well, I've already caught at least 5 of the men around here staring at you, so touchè.” Anna replied with a wink and a tilt of her glass towards me.

I rolled my eyes and relaxed back into my position around the table as Anna extended a similar greeting to Yolanda. Inside, I was silently hi-fiving my best friend for the dress choice. Not that I cared about the men allegedly looking at me, but knowing I could turn heads made me feel a little more confident.

“Maybe we can finally hook you up tonight, Juli.” Yolanda added after pressing a friendly kiss on Anna’s cheek.

I raised an eyebrow at my friend and shook my head.

“You know how I feel about dating the people I work with. It never works out.”

Anna settled in next to me and took a quaint sip from her glass.

“And is this speaking from experience, Juli?” Anna questioned light-heartedly, her green eyes shining.

“I’m not going into this with you here, Anna.” I replied with a smirk.

Anna tilted her chin at me, and I knew one day I would have to delve deeper into that story with my new friend. But before either of us could respond, Yolanda diverted the topic of conversation.

“What’s your opinion on Remi’s dress?”

Anna’s eyes lit up once again and she spun to look out amongst the party-goers.

“Oh, my favourite game.” She exclaimed, titling her glass to her lips once more.

I chuckled and followed suit, enjoying the fuzz of the champagne as it slid down my throat. My own eyes swept across the expanse of the party before I found Remi, one of the casting directors of the show, laughing exuberantly with some other crew members.

“The ruffled neck-line is doing her no favours.” I blurted honestly.

Yolanda giggled and agreed with a nod of her head. Anna narrowed her eyes to observe the woman more closely.

“I do like the colour, though. That shade of grey works with her skin tone.”

I hummed in agreement and moved onto the next victim of our completely unfounded criticism of fashion. My eyes spotted Henry, a member of the costume design team, and smirked.

“What about your friend to Remi’s left, Yo?” I mused, the question dripping in obvious light-hearted teasing.

Yolanda whipped around and scolded me with a fiery look. She was silently telling me to shut up, but Anna quickly picked up on the underlying conversation. She looked from my shit-eating grin to Yolanda’s blush and twigged.

“He’s cute, Yo. I like his style.” She reported with a twinkle in her eye.

Yolanda froze as she attempted to detect any sense of sarcasm. But Anna held her gaze and smiled sincerely.

“I’m serious. I think you’d look great together.” Anna confirmed as she looked back at the man in question.

Yolanda made a strangled kind of sound, a mix between a laugh and a choke, and swung back her almost empty champagne flute. The splattering of red beneath her flawless makeup indicated she was a little embarrassed, and I felt bad for a whole 2 seconds before I remembered Yolanda would not hesitate to do exactly the same to me.

“See, Yo. I’m not the only one who thinks it’s a good idea. I don’t know why you don’t just ask him out.” I commented for what felt like the millionth time since Yolanda mentioned that Henry had caught her attention.

“Says the woman who thinks dating colleagues is a bad idea.” Yolanda grumbled, although there was no disguising the hint of a smile in the corner of her lips.

Suddenly, the boy from earlier was there, refilling Yolanda’s empty glass with more bubbling liquid and a charming grin. She offered him a tight lipped smile in return and took another sip.

“Yes, but that’s me.” I retorted as the waiter refilled my own glass. “You think it’s a stupid rule, as you have reminded me countless times.”

Yolanda threw her arms in the air dramatically.

“You work with some of the most beautiful people in the world. Of course I think it’s a stupid rule.”

I looked at Anna for support, but she simply shrugged her shoulders and continued to observe the party from her spot beside me.

“Just because they’re beautiful does not mean I want to date them.”

Yolanda made a psshhh sound and I stuck my tongue out at her.

“Speaking of beautiful…” Anna trailed off.

I watched as her eyes practically glazed over when she spotted something in the distance. I followed the direction of her eyeline and suddenly understood what she meant.

Valentina Carvajal had arrived. She was slowly descending one side of the curved staircase that spilled from the front of the mansion. Her long chestnut hair was out in loose curls that bounced slightly as she walked. She wore a navy blue dress, the material silky and smooth against her figure. It sashayed as she walked, the creases resembling waves in a wild ocean.

I hated to admit it, but for a moment, I felt mesmerised as I watched her. I wasn’t blind, and I certainly wasn’t the only one at the party whose head turned when Valentina made her appearance. There was no denying her beauty, and my eyes betrayed me and refused to look away as she confidently entered the party.

That was until I remembered why she was here.

The frustration I felt when I first saw her returned as I recalled the announcement of her addition to the show only days ago. I lowered my gaze and quickly swallowed another mouthful of champagne.

“Oh my God, that’s Ava Perez.”

I scrunched my brows at Yolanda’s excited squeal. Her firm grasp shook my forearm and spilled over some of my drink.

“Yo, cool it, would you?” I slapped her hand and wriggled out of her grip as I scolded my best friend.

Anna’s surprised chuckle joined Yolanda’s animated jiggle, but it was my new friend's candid comment that diverted my focus from wiping the champagne off my arm and back up to the party.

“They look amazing together.”

Yolanda and Anna were still apparently under some kind of hypnosis as they stared out towards Valentina. But as I located the woman again, I noticed there was someone with her. She was just as tall as Valentina, with dark hair pulled into a low bun and a green sequined dress. Her smile was wide and her arm was linked with Valentina’s as they reached the final step.

I felt my skin burn as I realised that this gorgeous woman was Valentina’s date for the night. I had absolutely no reason to react that way, but it made my stomach twist in knots when I saw them so close together, so clearly intimate.

“I can’t believe Ava Perez is here.” Yolanda breathed, clearly still star-struck.

I tore my gaze away from the couple reaching for a glass of champagne and nudged my best friend.

“Who is Ava Perez?”

I was interested in who this woman was, and it was obvious Yolanda had the answers. Brown eyes turned and looked at me disbelievingly.

“Juli, Ava is a model turned designer. She’s the hottest thing at the moment. Her latest line is the talk of the fashion world. She’s absolutely killing it.”

The admiration Yolanda held for this woman was evident in the way her face lit up when she spoke. I couldn’t hide the scowl when I heard of how successful the beautiful woman was.

“Have you been living under a rock?” Anna added with a cheeky smile.

Yolanda laughed and wrapped an arm around my neck.

“Anna, you will quickly learn that Juli pays little to no attention to the gossip magazines or the world in general. She barely uses her social media accounts because her head is always in a book. I don’t know how she does it, really.”

Anna looked mildly impressed as I shoved Yolanda away from me.

“I must admit, I have noticed the lack of content on your Instagram and Twitter pages.”

I rolled my eyes and grasped my drink again.

“My life is not that interesting.” I remarked, unperturbed.

Anna’s smile widened slightly as she opened her mouth to speak. I knew some witty remark was coming, so I diverted the conversation to a new, more interesting topic that I had been desperate to broach with Anna since it’s unveiling.

“We never got to touch base about the recent announcement.” I said quickly as I balanced my glass against my lips. “What are your thoughts about our fellow co-star?”

Anna raised her perfectly manicured eyebrows and I watched as her gaze caught the object of our conversation.

“An interesting choice. But I think it’ll be fine. She grew up in the industry, so she has to know something. Right?” Anna seemed unsure, as if she were trying to convince herself.

“Not you too.” I groaned and placed my almost empty flute back on the table.

Anna’s inquisitive gaze flicked to Yolanda before finding me again.

“What? You aren’t happy to be working with her? She’s a pretty big deal.”

I shook my head and clenched my teeth. I had to be careful what I said. Anna and I were friends, but that didn’t mean I could smack talk the boss’ daughter.

“Big deal or not, I disagree with the choice. There are plenty of other people who would kill for this role who actually have acting experience.” I stated plainly.

Anna blinked slowly and considered me closely with a tilt of her head. It was clear in the quirk of her lips that she was entertained and I was sure she was about to press me about it further. Luckily, Yolanda piped up and saved me once again.

“I’ve heard some pretty crazy rumours about her.”

I rubbed at my eyebrow in relief and laughed.

“Of course you have, Yo.” I turned to Anna and answered her curious glance between us. “Yolanda feeds off the gossip column. If you ever want to hear what is allegedly going on in anyone’s life, ask Yo, because she most likely knows what’s going on in your life before you do.”

Anna smiled widely and regarded Yolanda with a mix of surprise and interest.

“Right. Well, that’s good to know.” She said before taking another swig of her champagne. “Spill it, then. What have you heard?”

My eyes once more travelled to Valentina as Yolanda spoke.

“You all know her mother, Leon’s wife, and how she was an actress a long time ago?” Yolanda leaned forward and spoke quietly, her alert gaze darting between us. I didn’t respond because I wasn’t aware of that apparent public knowledge. So when Anna nodded her head in confirmation, Yolanda continued. “She died in a car accident just after Leon started his own production company. Some say it was under suspicious circumstances, while others say it was an accident.”

I raised my eyebrows in surprise at the information. I didn’t really know what I was expecting, but this certainly wasn’t it.

“How old was she when that happened?” I asked as my gaze was still glued on the prominent collarbones and long arms of Valentina as she and her date stopped to speak to some of the crew.

“Only 9. Her brother, Guille, was 13.”

“That’s really sad.” Anna uttered quietly.

I chewed on my bottom lip, completely agreeing with the sentiment. A heaviness made itself known in my chest as I imagined a young Valentina grieving over a lost mother. I knew nothing about the other woman, but I had experienced the loss of a loved one. There was nothing as devastating and lonely as grief, and for a moment, I realised that maybe we had something in common.

I looked down to find my champagne glass miraculously full again. I spun around to thank him, but there was no sign of the young boy holding the never-ending bottle. As I sipped at the cool liquid, I was mildly impressed by his ability to do the job so efficiently.

“So, Valentina and Guille grew up with their extremely busy father and no mother.” Yolanda resumed with her story as my gaze landed on Valentina once more. She was standing with her brother, the base of her own champagne glass resting against her forearm, her arms wrapped around her body. “Guille ended up following in his fathers footsteps and joining Leon’s production company, and Valentina eventually went off to model. I heard she went against all of her father’s wishes to pursue that dream. Initially, it seemed like all was going well for her. She quickly carved her own way in the modelling industry. She managed to get herself booked by some of the greatest fashion houses in the world within a matter of time. She worked her way up, modelling at New York, Paris, London and Milan fashion weeks and is one of the biggest names in the fashion world. But nothing that good ever lasts, right?”

Anna snuffed a sardonic laugh beside me, but I was unable to tear my eyes off the woman standing on the other side of the party. It looked as though she were arguing with her brother. Their heads were close and their brows furrowed. Valentina’s date stood awkwardly beside them, a fake smile on her lips.

“Keep going.” I prompted Yolanda. “What happened next?”

I felt Yolanda’s gaze switch to me and she was silent for a moment. She was clearly enjoying the fact that I was finally partaking in her indulgent storytelling.

“She came out at 20. Told the world she was gay on her Instagram. There were mixed reactions, particularly from her father. I guess her way of dealing with that was to dive into the drugs and alcohol that are constantly on offer at those after-parties. Plus, she had no shortage of women. A different woman on her arm at every event. She found herself with a pretty heavy reputation rather quickly.”

“So why here? Why now?” Anna was the one to ask the questions this time.

“Your guess is as good as mine.” Yolanda babbled on. “It’s been 4 years since she came out, so maybe her father is finally accepting of her sexuality. Other people are saying she’s past her expiry date in the modeling industry, so she’s trying her luck with acting. Others are simply wondering if she’s back in an attempt to follow her mothers legacy.”

Anna and Yolanda continued to throw theories about the model around the table, but I was only half listening. I was too interested in watching Valentina’s interaction with her brother. Her date, Ava, continued to smile and wave at people who walked by in a desperate attempt to not draw any attention to the tension currently existing between the siblings.

I bit my lip as Valentina stamped one foot in defiance, clearly exasperated with whatever her brother just said. It was difficult to stifle a laugh as I watched the woman behave like a child. She tipped her head back, her long hair swaying, and finished her drink with one large gulp. As she turned to find someone who could refill her glass, her eyes caught mine.

I felt as though the breath had been knocked from my lungs.

Her face was impassive as she stared right back at me, her movements frozen as she locked on. But what intrigued me immediately, what tugged at something deep in my chest, was the way her crystal blue eyes bore into me. Even if I tried, I couldn’t explain the look in her eye as she stared at me. The way her eyes blazed with uncertainty hooked me. There was something lurking there, a million stories swimming in their depths, but something told me they were carefully guarded. There was a vibrant energy, a fierce determination, a heavy vulnerability, and a terrifying softness all wrapped up in one staggering look.

So that’s what those sunglasses were hiding.

I felt hypnotised, as if I were waiting for a click of the fingers to snap out of my trance. It was pathetic, but I was stuck there in some strange limbo and couldn’t look away. She held me with such confidence that something in the back of my brain refused to back down and turn away from her. I felt as if I did, it could be perceived as some kind of weakness, a kind of submission. It felt like she was testing me.

Just as I narrowed my gaze and settled in for the challenge, someone walked between our eyeline. Simultaneously, Leon arrived and grasped Valentina by the forearm, demanding her attention. As quickly as it had begun, I was plunged back into the land of the living as those clear blue eyes fell away.

“Juli?”

“I’m sorry. What?” I asked as I cleared my throat, straightened up and looked at Yolanda.

My best friend lifted one eyebrow as she examined me with a sparkle in her brown eyes. She bit the inside of her cheek, opened her mouth to speak and then closed it again, as if she thought better of it. Instead, she took in a quick breath and spoke.

“What theory do you like best?”

I sipped at my champagne and looked between Anna and Yolanda, happy to not be subjected to the cross examination I was sure was coming. They looked at me expectantly, and it was clear there was a whole conversation I had missed.

“I don’t care about the theories. And I don’t care why she’s here. All I care about is her pulling her weight.”

My eyes found Valentina once more, her face pulled into one of indignation as Leon spoke closely to her and Guille.

“You don’t think she’s got it in her, do you?” Anna asked as she turned her body more fully towards me.

“Do you really think she deserves the chance to prove it?” I retorted.

As I downed the last few drops of my drink, I could feel the buzz of alcohol begin to make itself known throughout my body. I smiled as Anna seriously considered my question, allowing my still simmering nerves about this party to fizzle out. The boy with curly hair appeared and re-filled my flute as Anna answered my question.

“It’s not really my place to say. But I guess we’ll soon find out.”

Chapter Text

“I’m not sure it’s a great idea, Mr Carvajal.”

Leon’s reassuring smile did nothing to calm the panic that was currently storming inside me. I knew being called into Leon’s office was either going to be good or bad, but I had no idea just how bad.

“Look, I know you have a lot on your plate right now with filming starting next week. Just think of it as a favour to me. Please?”

I pulled at the fingers in my lap nervously as I scrambled to find a way out of my current predicament. But instead of saying anything remotely helpful, I just stared at Leon dumbly.

“She’ll be here any minute. I promise, she’ll be on her best behaviour. She just needs a little push in the right direction.” Leon pressed.

I ground my teeth together as my window for escape was closing quicker by the second. I had to come up with something. The shirt I was wearing was suddenly very sticky and I pulled at my collar in an attempt to move some air around. Leon was watching me with such blind hope that I couldn’t think properly. Before I could formulate anything, Leon took advantage and continued with his persuasive efforts.

“I chose you because I knew you could handle her. She can be a little much sometimes, I know that. But I know she’ll listen to you.”

Listen to me? I’ve never even met the girl. As that thought finally landed, my brain clicked in.

“Leon, I'm just not sure I can really help. I have -”

I was in the middle of mumbling around an excuse I hadn’t yet constructed when the door to Leon’s spacious office banged open.

In breezed Valentina as if she regularly walked through closed doors without a single thought as to what was going on behind them. But two steps into the office and as a breathless “why am I here?” left her lips, she stopped in her tracks.

I turned to look at her and felt the temperature rise another few degrees.

She was wearing a white tank top, the cut in a crop style, allowing a perfectly tanned abdomen to be exposed above a light pair of jeans. She wore white Nike Air Max sneakers, two gold necklaces around her neck, and the same dark Wayfarer sunglasses from the first time I laid eyes on her.

She looked to me, then to her father on the other side of the desk, twice. It was almost comical, how her neck swiveled in a double take.

“Am I interrupting something?” She directed the question to her father, an annoyed rasp on the edge of her tone. “You called me here, so here I am.”

“Valentina.” Leon gushed, his arms opening wide as he stood from his expensive, high backed office chair and approached his daughter. “Thank you for coming in.”

Although the sunglasses covered her face, I could tell the woman was frowning. She stood still as Leon wrapped her in a quick hug. It was awkward as Valentina’s arms hung limp by her sides, making no attempt to return the gesture. I desperately wanted to turn away, and it took all my might to gather my bag that I'd dumped on the floor beside the chair, and stand.

I immediately picked up on the underlying tension between father and daughter. Valentina was clearly holding back, trying not to be outwardly rude to her father in front of me, but not doing a great job at disguising her agitation at the situation either. Leon was almost too over-the-top, which, from what I knew, was quite unlike him. He was generally very cool, calm and collected, but at that moment, he seemed bizarrely nervous. I briefly wondered what the hell was going on between them, and then realised I didn’t care.

I thought back to the party from last weekend and remembered a similar feeling observed between Valentina and her brother. It seemed as though the woman had issues with all of her family members. And I was damned if I was about to get in the middle of it.

“Sorry, Mr Carvajal, but I think I should go.” I muttered as eloquently as I could, avoiding Valentina all together.

“No, no. Juliana, please. Look, come and sit here. Both of you.”

Leon released another nervous chuckle and pointed to the couches on the other side of his desk. Without knowing what else to do, I complied with his request. I randomly chose one of the two couches and sank into it ungracefully. They were upholstered with a patterned red, and I realised as I sat in one, also very comfortable. Leon had his hands on Valentina’s shoulders, guiding her as if he were worried she’d turn and run. Valentina was placed on the couch opposite me as Leon sat close beside her.

Valentina threw her iPhone carelessly onto the table between us. The loud clatter made me jump slightly and I watched as Valentina crossed her arms across her chest and leant back into the full cushions. She released a deep sigh and made it outwardly obvious how utterly unimpressed she was.

“What am I doing here, Leon?”

I struggled to hide my surprise at the woman using her fathers first name to address him. My eyes bounced between father and daughter, my hands gripping my bag strap tighter in case I needed to make a quick escape. I looked at Leon, but he seemed unperturbed.

“I’ve asked Juliana here today to give you a hand, honey.”

One eyebrow shot up from beneath the sunglasses and I shifted uncomfortably. The soft fabric of the couch began to scratch the bare skin on my legs and I could feel the sweat begin to bead along my hairline. The office was well air-conditioned, but it felt astoundingly suffocating.

I hadn’t realised Leon sprung this on me without even consulting Valentina first. A feeling of dread seeped into my awareness as it quickly dawned on me that this was not going to end well.

“What do you mean ‘give me a hand’?” Valentina mocked.

Leon threw me a nervous smile, as if telling me to wait, and looked back at his daughter.

“I know you were struggling a little with your lines, so I’ve asked Juliana here to run through some with you.”

I could see the flex in Valentina’s jaw as she understood what Leon had done. She looked to me, then back to Leon, her hands pulling into fists before she sat up.

Her sunglasses were ripped from her face and joined her iPhone in a move I didn’t see coming. Her hands pulled back into fists and sat against her knees as she faced her father.

“You didn’t think to speak to me about this prior to arranging it?” Valentina spoke through gritted teeth.

In all honesty, I thought she looked like a petulant child who was being forced to do something against her will. Which, in fairness, was exactly what seemed to be happening.

“Juliana is very good at what she does. She can help you.”

I could tell Leon was trying to soothe, but his tone sounded more condescending than helpful. Valentina threw her hands up and then sunk back into the couch.

“Do I have a choice?”

Not if I had any say in it, I thought.

It was enough to be dropped into this by Leon, but it was another to sit here as if I was also willing to go along with the plan, all while this woman with zero acting experience was making it quite obvious that she didn’t want my help to begin with.

I wanted to grab my things and run more than anything in my life. And considering the shit I had to endure to get here, that’s really saying something. But just as I was thinking that this couldn’t get any more awkward, Leon used a tone I had never heard him use before.

“You will stay in here with Juliana and you will run through your lines. You might even learn something, if you bother to try.”

Even I straightened up with the ferocity and acidity in which Leon spoke to his daughter. It was borderline harsh, and it left no room for negotiation. It brought back harrowing memories of my own past, and those demons that I'd done well to push away threatened to come loose. I held my breath as the exchange took place.

Valentina closed her eyes and ducked her head as if she were a scolded child, her shoulders rounding in a protective move.

Without looking at me, Leon stood from the couch and left his office, closing the door firmly behind him.

My eyes adjusted from the back of the office door to the slumped figure sitting opposite me on the couch. Her eyes were still closed and I could almost feel the despair and anger radiating from her.

I wanted to ask if she was okay, to reach out and unfurl the fists that still sat tight against her knees. But I reminded myself that I didn’t care about this woman or whatever else was going on, and refrained.

It was awkward as we sat in a strange kind of silence. The air conditioner clicked and the slight whoosh of air could be heard, along with the gentle ticking of a clock. In the distance, phones rang and footsteps could be heard outside the office. Aside from that, we were very obviously alone.

I couldn’t sit in this purgatory any longer. So I cleared my throat and spoke.

“I’m Juliana, by the way.”

This seemed to get Valentina’s attention. She opened her eyes and looked at me, square and steady in the face. And for the second time, I wondered how this woman could so blatantly hold a stranger's eye contact with such confidence. And for the second time, I held it just as firmly as she did, even with my pulse hammering away in my chest.

Eventually, Valentina took a deep breath and broke away, running her hand through her long, chestnut hair.

“I’m sorry about all this. I suppose he dragged you into it.” Valentina replied as she shifted on the couch, sitting more upright.

The anger had dropped from her tone, her features relaxing in Leon’s absence. I wondered again just what caused the clear animosity Valentina held for her father. I thought back to Yolanda’s explanation of Valentina’s past, and assumed there was more to the story than even Yolanda knew.

“Well, yeah, I guess he did.” I replied dryly.

Valentina looked up at me again, but this time her eyes wandered. She observed my green Vans, white socks and bare legs. Her eyes hovered over my short denim shorts, then up over my tucked in band tee. I copied her earlier move of running my hand through my hair, and was secretly delighted when she closely watched the action. When I realised my train of thought, I dropped my hand back into my lap, entirely unhappy with myself.

“I like your shirt.”

I nodded dismissively at the compliment and reached forward. I’d noticed earlier that two copies of the script for the first episode were already sitting on the table. Leon was clearly prepared and thought this through. I wasn’t sure if I admired him for that, or despised him for throwing me in this.

“Let’s get to it, then.” I asserted, unwilling to engage in small talk with the woman. “We have dialogue in the first episode, so flip to page 14.”

My fingers ran along the edge of the bound script. Maybe a papercut would be less painful than this experience. But I was here and it didn’t seem like I had a choice. The quicker we got started, the quicker I could get out of this stuffy room.

I pretended to read through the page with interest, but instead watched Valentina peripherally peel herself off the couch and pick up her copy. She thumbed through the pages until she landed on 14. I took about a minute to revise my lines, but I was already pretty confident with what I had to do. I put my script back down on the table, stood up and walked behind the couch I had been occupying.

Valentina looked up at me with questions in her eyes. I refrained from rolling my eyes at her and answered her silent inquiry.

“We should probably be standing when we go through the scene. I find it’s easier to get into the flow of the characters and their dialogue when we can move around.”

“Right. Okay.” Valentina answered and stood. She turned in a quick circle, as if she didn’t quite know what to do next. I bit the inside of my lip to hold back my smirk as the woman eventually decided to stand at the end of her couch, in front of the large mahogany bookshelf that ran along one wall of Leon’s large office. Once she found her place, she looked at me with a hint of uncertainty. “Why aren’t you holding your script?”

I blinked at her and clicked my tongue.

“Because I know my lines.”

Valentina nodded her head almost too enthusiastically and dragged her tongue along her teeth. God, she was gorgeous when she did that.

I shook my head as soon as I registered the thought and cleared my throat.

“Ready?” I prompted.

Valentina just shrugged her shoulders and offered me a lopsided smile in agreement.

“Sure.”

I took a deep breath and straightened my shoulders.

EMILIA: What do we do now?

JESSICA: We find shelter, right? I mean…

Valentina stammered and fumbled with the script in her hand. If I weren’t so annoyed with her, I’d find it kind of adorable. I knew her lines, too, but I wasn’t about to step in and help her already. We were a week out from filming and she didn’t even know her lines. It almost seemed like she hadn't even looked at the script yet.

“Sorry.” Valentina mumbled, then straightened and continued.

JESSICA: We find shelter, right? I mean, we can’t stay out here. They could be anywhere.

Valentina read straight from the script like the absolute rookie that she was, with barely any emotion in her voice. I unclenched my jaw and stepped towards her.

EMILIA: Where are we? Do you have any idea?

Valentina’s index finger followed the script.

JESSICA: I think there’s a town up ahead. We could try there?

“Have you looked at the script before today?” I challenged, dropping the pretense. There was no mistaking the frustration in my tone.

Valentina’s head snapped up from the folder in her hand, her eyes darting over my face to detect whether I was joking. When it became blatantly obvious that I was very serious, her eyebrows puckered and she adopted a defensive stance.

“Yes.”

I scoffed at her, and felt the heat rising in my face. I never liked arguments, but I somehow always found myself starting them.

“It certainly doesn’t seem like it. You clearly don’t know your lines and you are putting zero effort into your delivery.”

Valentina gaped at me for a moment, as if she were surprised I was speaking to her with such contempt. But she quickly smoothed her features into one of mock disinterest, her hand waving the script into the air.

“I’m not going to stand here with you and perform my lines like I will on the day. What’s the point in that?”

“Is that a serious question?” I asked, the shock clear on my face. When Valentina didn’t respond, I stepped closer to her and crossed my arms over my chest. “What do you think the point of running lines are?”

“To learn the dialogue.” She replied, almost as if it were the most obvious answer in the whole world.

I released a mocking laugh and shook my head in vexation.

“You’ve never done this before, so let me share something with you. Acting isn’t about knowing the words on a page and speaking those words out loud. Anyone can memorise lines and lines of dialogue.” I said as I pointed to the script in her hands, the anger boiling over in my voice. “Acting is about using your imagination. It’s about understanding the life and actions of your character, about asking the how and why questions to really get to know your person. It’s about the subtlety in your physical skills and expressions to portray a story in the most natural sense. It’s about the chemistry between your character and everyone else involved in the story. It’s about a whole lot of things that I don’t think you’ve even begun to consider.”

I was breathing quite hard at the end of my slight rant, and I was somehow standing even closer to the other woman. Valentina just looked at me silently, but instead of that stony faced, uncaring expression, she now looked at me with a hint of astonishment.

I shouldn’t be wasting my time with this woman. She clearly didn’t want to be helped and I could feel my blood pressure rising at the fact that Valentina hadn’t even bothered to respond. I breathed deeply, feeling my hands shake. The last thing I wanted was to explode in this room at this woman and gain myself a bad reputation before filming had even begun. She wasn’t worth it.

I held it together and did something I don’t often do. I picked up my bag and walked to the door. I could feel Valentina’s gaze on me as my hand grasped the handle.

“Above all, Valentina, it’s about giving a shit.”

I walked out of Leon’s office without another look back.

Chapter Text

“Are you excited?”

I looked up from my phone and grinned at my best friend. The answer was obvious as I was practically vibrating with first day of filming energy.

“Hell yeah i’m excited.”

Yolanda winked at me in the reflection of the mirror and adjusted the flannel shirt around my waist.

“I think you’re good to go.” She said as she stepped beside me and wrapped an arm around my shoulder.

My hand wrapped around her wrist and as we watched our reflections in the mirror, I was thankful, not for the first time, that I got to live and work with my best friend. As Tones and I continued to sing in the background, we quietly considered the clothes I would be wearing for a significant portion of filming. Sand coloured hiking boots, thick striped socks, ripped mid-thigh denim shorts, a grey tee with a small white wolf emblazoned on the chest, a red and blue flannel tucked around my waist and a blue corduroy hat flipped backwards on my head. My dark hair was out and made to look as if I hadn’t brushed it in a few days. A mustard coloured backpack was also slung over my shoulder, a drink bottle dangling from one side.

The show, RUN, was about 5 young friends who go exploring on a week-long camping trip to mark the start of summer after their first year at college. On return from their secluded haven, they quickly realise the world has been overrun with a virus that turns humans into walking dead, or as I preferred to call them, zombies.

Not exactly the kind of thing I was usually into, but the script was mostly about friendship and sticking together, and it was so well written I just knew I wanted to be a part of it.

So, there I stood, looking exactly like I hadn’t had clean running water or proper shelter in a week. I had to restrain myself from sniffing at my own armpits, just to check I was actually freshly showered. Yolanda was truly very good at her job.

“You are worth every cent.” I beamed at my best friend.

She rolled her eyes and slipped out of my grip, unable to hide the smile pulling at her lips. I adore how bashful she gets when I compliment her. She stepped back off the small podium I was required to stand on as Yolanda worked on me and reached for some discarded clothing.

“What scenes are you doing today?” Yolanda asked as I threw my phone into the backpack.

“We’ve just realised people aren’t really people anymore, and we try to come up with a plan as a group as we escape a rogue bunch of zombies.”

Yolanda threw a comb onto the bench with a clatter and put her hands on her hips.

“What about Valentina?”

I frowned at Yolanda and opened the trailer door, stepping with ease down the rickety steel steps and onto the grass. The sun was peeking out between some clouds, and I could feel the heat sink into my skin immediately.

“What about her?” I called over my shoulder, feigning interest in the question.

“You aren’t worried about what happened last week?”

If I was completely honest with myself, there was definitely a part of me that was a little apprehensive about our interaction today. I’d stormed out on her when I'd been asked by Leon himself to help her out, and I knew it probably wasn’t the best career move. As the week wore on and I didn’t hear from Leon, I presumed everything was okay on his end. I didn’t want to waste anymore of my time thinking about her, so I pushed her out of my thoughts and focused on my performance.

I shook my head as Yolanda joined me. We walked through a line of trailers and approached the large marquee I was told to meet at.

“No, I'm not worried. That girl is not my problem.” I stopped and turned to face Yolanda. “In fact, I can’t wait to see what she does today. Because from what I’ve seen, it’s not going to be pretty.”

Yolanda frowned at me. It wasn’t often Yolanda looked at me that way, but I wouldn’t be convinced otherwise, even with the look of disappointment in my best friend’s gaze.

“Juli, that’s not like you.”

It didn’t feel good to be on the receiving end of Yolanda’s judgement, but I had always been strong-willed. I wasn’t about to be persuaded to change my mind that easily.

“Don’t give me that, Yo. You know just as well as I do that she doesn’t deserve this. She didn’t earn it like everyone else.”

Yolanda shook her head disapprovingly at me as I turned and continued towards the marquee. I could hear Yolanda’s footsteps on the soft grass as she followed along behind me.

“Give the girl a chance, Juli. You don’t know her story, so don’t judge her before you even begin.”

I ignored my best friend and stepped under the shade of the huge tent. I breathed out a huff of relief to be out of the sun as I spotted Anna standing with Sergio and Lucho. The girl waved at me with a look of slight desperation. I giggled as I imagined what superficial conversation she had endured in their company. Valentina was nowhere to be seen yet which was also a relief. I still hadn’t worked out quite how I was to approach the woman. But that was future Juliana’s problem, so I shrugged my shoulders and let the concern slip away.

I waved back at Anna with enthusiasm and pat Yolanda on her shoulder as she fell in beside me.

“See you later, Yo.”

I heard Yolanda sigh as I left her behind.

“Good luck!” She called out to me as I practically skipped over to my co-stars.

Anna’s eyes gleamed as she wrapped me up in a tight hug.

“Thank God you’re here,” she whispered in my ear. “They’ve been talking about sports cars for the past 5 minutes.”

I laughed as I released Anna’s waist and readjusted the hat on my head.

“You look just like a Veronica should.” I said with a quick look up and down of my co-star, referring to her character's name.

She was dressed similar to me, with hiking boots and tattered shorts. She had a smear of dirt on her neck and a tiny cut just beside her ear. Her hair was tied up on top of her head which highlighted her excruciatingly perfect cheekbones.

“Well you look just like an Emilia.” She commented with a tug on the peak of my hat, jerking my neck back.

I laughed and shoved her away playfully, the giddiness of the first day of the job evident in the gigantic smile on my face.

“Why does it always take women so long to get ready?” Sergio asked as he nudged Lucho in the ribs. “We were ready 10 minutes ago.”

Sergio was grinning mischievously at me. He’d grown out his facial hair since I'd last seen him, a thick beard beginning to form against his cheeks, chin and neck. A black bucket hat sat on his head, a scruffy button up shirt opened just enough to give a preview of his dark chest hair. I appreciated the playful banter and shook my head at him.

“I don’t know, Sergio.” I replied lightheartedly. “But doesn’t it hurt to know that with or without all that makeup, we will always be better looking than you?”

Sergio clutched his chest in mock pain, and Lucho slapped him gleefully on the back.

“It’s true, bud.” Lucho said to his friend, his brown curls bouncing as he nodded his head in agreement. “You are the worst looking one of the group.”

Anna joined in with the joke, her laughter layering my own as Sergio’s wounded expression worsened with the group ganging up on him.

“Hey, everyone. Sorry i’m late.”

Our laughter faded slightly as Valentina joined us, standing right beside me in the circle. I don’t know about the others, but my stomach swooped when she stood there so naturally, immersing herself so casually into the group as if she had every right to be there. I looked down and kept my gaze at my feet, suddenly very interested in my hiking boots, and trying not to take notice of the intoxicating perfume that breezed in with the woman.

“Oh, hey Valentina.” Lucho greeted bashfully, flashing a wide smile at the woman.

Sergio and Anna also offered a response, albeit nervously. I panicked and not wanting to be rude, muttered an almost inaudible hey.

Lucho and Sergio quickly pulled Valentina into their conversation about cars, and I took the opportunity to talk to Anna. Anything to ease the butterflies in my stomach now Valentina was here and I had to interact with her.

“How are you feeling about today?” I asked as I leaned closer to her, as if I were divulging a secret.

Anna reflected my own expression and beamed at me.

“Really excited, but also super nervous. I hope I don’t fuck it up.”

I giggled and nodded my head in agreement, leaning even closer to whisper in her ear.

“If there is anyone here who is going to fuck this up, it isn’t going to be us.”

Anna pulled away and gave me her now trademark amused one eyebrow quirk. As the comment sunk in, she clapped her hand over my shoulder and released a hearty laugh, her eyes flicking briefly to Valentina over my shoulder.

“Well then, let’s show them what we’ve got.” She said with a conspiratorial wink.

 

~ ~ ~

 

After a half-day shooting, all my anxiety and nervousness over Valentina and how she may behave around me dissipated rapidly.

The first day of shooting was always a little trial and error, no matter how experienced and organised the crew were. We were on location in a dense forest region a couple of hours outside the city. It was hot and humid, and the crew were adjusting to the terrain and working out the kinks as they went.

The dynamics between Anna, Sergio, Lucho and myself was light and relaxed, and we fell into step quite quickly. I concluded it was due to the numerous table reads we did before shooting, the research we did on one another as soon as the roles were announced, and the experience through our previous acting roles.

Lucho and Sergio’s bickering between takes and poorly executed jokes kept us entertained throughout the tiring day. They were constantly creating new competitions to challenge one another in order to kill time. Challenges like who could lift the heaviest rock, who could climb a tree to the highest point, and who could do the most sit ups in a minute broke up the pretty crazy filming schedule. Anna and I occupied ourselves by betting on who would win. As it stood, I was leading with five correct guesses to Anna’s three.

Each time the director called ACTION, we slipped easily into our characters, and I was in awe of my co-stars and how well they had studied the script, not to mention their ability to adapt to any scenario. We even had a few thrilling scenes of improvisation, and I really felt like I was surrounded by like minded people who were just as passionate about this job than I was.

Our fifth co-star, however, I could not speak for.

Valentina was clearly struggling. As time wore on, it was more and more obvious that she had no idea what she was doing. She constantly stumbled over her lines, and the director, Adrian, was becoming increasingly flustered with the amount of scenes he had to cut in order to go over body positioning and blocking.

I tried my best to keep the contempt I felt for the other woman’s presence out of my delivery, but it was obvious from the side glances I was receiving from the cast and crew that I was doing a poor job of it. Eventually, it got to the point that Adrian also had to pull me aside and tell me to keep it under wraps. He asked me to trust him and I swallowed my pride and promised him I would snap out of it. It was obviously beginning to affect my performance and I refused to allow Valentina’s inability to act to destroy my reputation. So I pulled it together and enjoyed my time with the other four, while the blue-eyed woman fumbled her way through the last scene for the day.

And as fate would have it, the last scene of the day happened to be the same scene I attempted to practice with Valentina in Leon’s office a week ago.

We got through it, and I was proud of the way I handled Valentina’s slip ups. It infuriated me that if she’d just taken me seriously that first time, I could have helped her make that scene look so much more convincing. But it was evident that the girl didn’t want help, so I did my part and let Adrian do his thing.

In the end, it was far better than the read through I attempted with her, but it still wasn’t as convincing as I would have liked. As soon as Adrian yelled CUT and dismissed us for the day, Anna and I jumped back in the off-road vehicle that brought us here, the fatigue from the day settling on me as soon as I clicked my seatbelt. I took a deep breath and forced myself to forget about the other woman as I mentally evaluated my performance.

It was a quiet 10 minute trip in the compact car, our eyelids heavy, as the driver expertly maneuvered the vehicle back to the marquee. As soon as the vehicle came to a stop, I scooped my bag over my shoulder and walked with Anna towards our trailers. I gave Anna a hug goodnight and with legs that felt like lead, I slowly made my way through the endless rows of trailers, many of them in varying conditions, to my own. The sun had set and light was rapidly disappearing, but the humidity still hovered dense in the air. I was desperate for a cool shower to rid myself of the grime and sweat I had accumulated throughout the day.

I walked past the trailer designated for Valentina and noticed no lights were on. I huffed a tired laugh as I imagined her still back with Adrian, going over pointers she really should listen to for the sake of everyone's sanity.

Just as I rounded the corner, my own trailer finally in sight, the sound of someone puffing pulled my attention away from the phone in my hand. I turned just as a hand wrapped around my wrist and spun me.

“Hey. Wait.”

Valentina was standing in front of me, her chest heaving as if she’d just sprinted the 100m Olympic final, her hand warm around my wrist. Her long hair was out and tousled, a beige wide-brim hat still balanced perfectly on top of her head. Her white t- shirt somehow looked grubbier than it did this morning, and her long legs poked enticingly out from beneath black denim shorts. She looked exhausted, but her eyes were wide and alert.

I was taken aback by the sight of the breathless woman, and wondered what the hell she was doing.

“Yes? Can I help you?” I spat. “Your trailer is back that way.”

Valentina’s brows puckered at my frosty reception, but I couldn’t find it in me to care.

“I just -” Valentina stammered and adjusted the hat on her head. “I just feel like we got off on the wrong foot.”

I narrowed my eyes at the girl and wondered what exactly she was going on about. I was too tired to deal with this shit, and she’d already used up all the patience I had earlier in the day.

“What do you mean?”

Valentina’s eyes bounced between my own, the crease between her brows deepening.

“I can tell you have a problem with me. And I know I behaved poorly when Leon tried to set up that rehearsal between us. I was just taken by surprise, and -”

“Look, Valentina.” I interrupted, ripping my hand from her grip and pushing my backpack strap more comfortably over my shoulder. “Don’t bother with all this. I don’t need an apology. What I need is a co-worker who knows what they’re doing.”

Valentina retreated into herself a little with my comment. I could imagine not many people in the world would speak to her like this, and it actually felt quite liberating that I was the one to offer her a truth. Her blue eyes were wide and unblinking as she faltered over her next words.

“That’s what i’m -”

“Have a good night, Valentina.”

I whirled around and stomped my way into my trailer without another look back.

Chapter Text

“Do I have to go?” I complained as I flopped down on the large king bed.

Yolanda’s hand slapped my leg harshly. I whined at the faint sting, curling in on myself and turning away from her.

“Yes, you do have to go.” She assured me sternly.

I groaned into the plush purple bedspread and enjoyed the feeling of my eyes finally closing. As far as hotel beds go, this one had to be the most comfortable I’d ever slept on. And that was really saying something because during my lifetime, I’d sampled plenty of beds. So this particular one, with its soft, spongy mattress that felt like a cloud, and the light, fluffy comforter, really felt like heaven. Which was a major bonus considering how long I'd be staying there for.

“What’s wrong with you? It’s a party with free booze. Everyone is going to be there.”

Yolanda poked and scratched at my back as she spoke, making me twitch and convulse on the mattress.

“Yo, stop it.” I yelped and scrambled to my hands and knees, as far away from Yolanda as possible.

She smiled at me, proud of the reaction she’d caused due to her incessant prodding. Her blonde hair was in a high ponytail, the style complimenting the aqua jumpsuit she was sporting. She was already dressed and made up for the party, with strappy high heels to go. I ogled her shamelessly and arched my brow approvingly at her.

“You look good.”

Yolanda scoffed and stood up, a smirk on her lips.

“I am a costume designer. You’d hope I’d know how to dress myself.”

She never did know how to take a compliment.

“I always thought this job was beneath you. You barely have to do anything with the costumes on this show. We wear the same clothes most of the time.”

Yolanda placed her hands on her hips and shook her head. A faint blush crept up her neck, giving her away.

“Stop trying to flatter me and change the topic. Get up and get ready for this party. People are already down there.”

I narrowed my eyes at my best friend, silently willing her to let me sit this one out. When Yolanda didn’t flinch, I knew deep down I wouldn’t win this round. I hung my head and shuffled off the bed, dragging my feet to the bathroom.

“Fine.” I growled. “But I wasn’t lying. I do think you are better than working on this show.”

Yolanda practically stepped on my heels as she followed me to the large ensuite bathroom. I flicked on the lights and approached the vanity while Yolanda leaned casually against the doorframe.

“Thank you, Juli. It means a lot.”

I pulled my hair out of its elastic and looked at Yolanda over my shoulder.

“Enough to get me out of going to this thing?” I asked with a hopeful flutter of my eyelashes.

Yolanda grinned at me again and grasped the door handle, pulling it towards her.

“You’ve got 15 minutes and we’re leaving. I’ll get your clothes organised.”

She winked at me and swung the bathroom door shut, allowing me some privacy to wash away the remnants of a long, hectic week of filming.

 

~ ~ ~

 

“See, this isn’t so bad.” Yolanda whispered in my ear.

I rolled my eyes at her and sipped the drink in my hand.

Whenever we ended up at a social event together, Yolanda made it a habit to create bizarre mystery drinks for the two of us to sample. Somehow, I became what I often refer to as her guinea pig. She has been doing it long enough now that she prides herself on the fun experiments, clapping her hands together with bright eyes and a delighted smile as she hands me another one of her creations. Sometimes they hit, while others are downright undrinkable. Luckily, whatever this concoction was, she seemed to hit the spot. It was tangy with just the right amount of salt.

“The drink or the party?” I retorted, maybe a little sarcastically.

Yolanda ignored the jab.

I was actually beginning to enjoy myself. After my long shower and an insistent Yolanda hurrying me along, we eventually made it down to the pool area to join the rest of the cast and crew for the party.

Working for Leon certainly had its perks. Before I started working for him, I’d heard about the infamous parties he would throw for his projects. Due to most of the show being filmed on location and not on a regular set, he booked out an entire hotel in the town near where we were filming. It was our accommodation on and off for the next few months, and he certainly hadn’t held back. With its marble floors and crystal chandeliers, it was easy to tell it was the most expensive hotel in town. A quick Google search as soon as I checked in confirmed that fact. Not that I was complaining. My spacious room, comfortable bed and the abnormally fantastic room service made my first week of filming quite pleasant.

Yolanda and I stood with a bunch of her colleagues. The men and women standing around mainly consisted of other make-up artists and costume designers. They were all friendly people and I found myself laughing along with their jokes and fitting in quite well.

I was speaking to Tomas, a skinny man with a lip piercing and jet black hair, about the issues surrounding fast fashion when I felt Yolanda tense beside me. Approaching us was a tall man with dark, curly hair. He entered the group circle with a beaming smile and joyous wave, and a grin quickly found its way onto my lips as I realised it was Henry.

Without pausing conversation with Tomas, I nudged Yolanda in the ribs. She cleared her throat and shoved me back, completely avoiding eye contact with me.

Oh, how I loved to taunt her.

Henry greeted the group with ease, as if social outings were his favourite pastime. He was clearly well liked as his colleagues practically begged for his attention. He enthusiastically moved around to each person and greeted everyone with a friendly hello and a kiss on the cheek. I smiled at myself when I realised Yolanda was squirming beside me. I watched on as Tomas shook Henry’s hand, before he finally turned to me. I smiled politely at him and the boy hesitated for a brief moment, his eyes flicking to Yolanda before landing on me again. It was almost infinitesimal, but I didn’t miss it.

I’d heard a lot about Henry, from Yolanda mainly, but I hadn’t actually met him before. I couldn’t figure out why he would be nervous about meeting me, though. I guessed he was unsure on how to introduce himself, so I took the initiative and helped him out.

“Hi, Henry. I’m Juliana.” I said as I held my hand out between us.

He flashed me a shy smile and took my hand in a firm shake.

“I know who you are. But how do you know me?”

I glanced at Yolanda briefly and she looked as though she might pass out. Or kill me.

“I’ve just heard about you from the rest of these lovely people.” I said as I gestured around to the group.

There was a collective laugh and Henry seemed to shed any semblance of uncertainty. His eyes lit up and his curly hair flopped against his forehead. The attention suited him well.

“Well, it’s lovely to meet you, Juliana.” He exclaimed with a gentle squeeze to my hand.

The boy was attractive and clearly very sure of himself. I could see straight away why Yolanda harboured a crush on him for so long. He oozed charisma, was obviously outgoing, and was glaringly attractive. I could almost sense at least five women around me practically drooling over his toned arms and perfectly tanned skin.

“You too.” I replied with a genuine smile.

He dropped my hand and I turned slightly back to Tomas, allowing Yolanda a sliver of privacy when it came to her turn.

“Sorry, Tomas. Where were we?”

But Tomas was looking beyond me, his mouth agape.

“Oh, my God.” He breathed. “Just look at her.”

I scrunched my brows and turned around. I easily spotted the person who had distracted my companion.

Valentina Carvajal just entered the party. And by the look of it, Tomas wasn’t the only one who stopped to take her in. Most people had turned their necks and halted their conversations to watch the model enter through the large bifold doors that connected the pool area to the back of the hotel.

The music continued to thrum in the background and conversations were quickly picked up again as Valentina ducked her head and walked directly to the open bar.

She reached for a bottle and picked up a plastic cup, helping herself to the alcohol her father had so kindly provided. She wore a white linen pants and a crop top combo, and I found myself admiring the way it made her legs look 100 miles long and how her stomach flexed every time she turned. I watched as Lucho approached her and she smiled dismissively at him, flicking the lid back on an almost empty bottle of mezcal. I smirked at her obvious disinterest and Lucho’s apparent cluelessness.

A hand on my elbow made me gasp and I spun around to find Tomas watching me curiously.

“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”

My brows pulled together slightly as I noticed the edge of his lip twitching. I got the feeling he was asking for a specific reason, rather than simply confirming the model was beautiful. Because, obviously she was. She’s a model, for god's sake.

“Yeah, I guess so.” I replied nonchalantly.

Tomas smirked at me over the top of his drink and tipped his glass, his eyes never leaving me as he drank. I narrowed my eyes at him suspiciously. It felt as if I'd been caught out, but I didn’t know what for.

It was then that another hand pulled at me, and I began to wonder why people felt the need to be so hands on. Hadn’t these people ever heard of personal space?

This time, it was Sergio. He grinned widely at me and pulled me into an overly friendly hug. I had to squeeze his bicep with my free hand to silently ask him to let go of me.

“You smell great, Juli.” He babbled as he got the hint and released his hold.

“Thanks.” I replied somewhat awkwardly. Sergio was still standing too close for my liking, so I finished the rest of my drink and hoped Sergio didn’t notice my slight retreat. “Where’s your other half?”

Sergio laughed, his burly chest shaking. The deep sound was a little too boisterous for such a tame joke, and I wondered just how much he’d already had to drink.

“I assume you’re talking about Lucho?”

I grinned and nodded my head. “Yep.”

“He’s over there, talking to Valentina.” He thumbed to the other side of the pool.

As my eyes followed the direction of his hand, I was somewhat surprised to see what was unfolding. Lucho was leaning casually against a bar table, too many buttons of his shirt left open, revealing a hairless chest. It was obvious even from where I stood that he was flirting, or at least attempting to. Valentina was standing next to him with a polite smile and a wandering gaze. She was a considerable enough distance away from the boy to assume she wasn’t particularly engrossed in the conversation. I snuffed out an amused laugh at the sight.

“What’s so funny?” Sergio asked humorously, obviously not understanding.

“Lucho is flirting with Valentina.” I stated, a little entertained by the show.

Sergio blinked slowly and tilted his head, the ice in his glass clinking as he moved.

“Why is that funny?”

I laughed again and shoved Sergio by the shoulder.

“Because she doesn’t like men.” I replied obviously. “Didn’t you know?”

Sergio’s confused expression transformed into a mischievous smile, as if he were holding a precious secret. One of his thick, dark eyebrows arched and he leaned in.

“Just because there’s a goalkeeper, Juli, doesn’t mean you can’t score a goal.”

I laughed heartily then, entirely amused by the boy’s perception of what he or Lucho could achieve with a woman who was out as a proud lesbian.

“Ah, Sergio. I don’t think that applies here.”

Sergio winked at me and took another large gulp of his drink. He licked his lips and leaned in a little further. I could smell the whiskey on his breath and it took every ounce of me not to pull away. I hated the smell of whiskey.

“I think Lucho might be able to change her mind.”

I scoffed at him and crossed my arms, moderately bothered by Sergio’s ignorance.

“Why is it that men always think they can have whatever they want?”

Sergio’s smile faded as my question sunk in. I stared at him thoughtfully, genuinely wanting to hear his answer. The boy shifted a little uncomfortably on his feet and shrugged his shoulders. To his credit, he took a moment to think about what to say before opening his mouth to speak.

“Come on, Juli. It’s just a bit of harmless fun.”

I rolled my eyes at his casual, flippant response.

“It sounds like you guys have a weird perception of what harmless fun is. Surely there are plenty of women here who are single and straight that you could prey upon.”

Sergio’s dark eyes swept across the party, his regular playful smile returning to his lips as his gaze landed back on me.

“I guess you’re right.”

I smiled meekly back at him and looked across the pool as Lucho continued to scramble for Valentina’s attention. The woman was speaking to him as Lucho ran his hand through his hair. I assumed it was a seduction technique and once more swallowed a laugh that was bursting to be set free.

“But tell me.” Sergio’s voice interrupted my thoughts, and I refocused on my co-star. “Why are you so concerned with Lucho chatting up Valentina? I got the impression during this past week that you didn’t like her.”

Sergio had an unexpected glint in his eye as he watched me. I bit my lip as I fought with myself to formulate a believable response to his question. He was right, I don’t like her. But I didn’t particularly want everyone to know it. I mentally scalded myself on being so obvious. I seriously had to work on reigning it in.

Unfortunately, denial rarely worked for me and I definitely didn’t want to delve into the truth with him. We were friends and co-workers, but he certainly didn’t need to know my business. So I went to my next best plan and diverted his attention.

I shook my head and raised my empty glass between us.

“I’m thirsty. Let’s get a refill.”

 

~ ~ ~

 

“So, what do you think about Sergio?” Grace, one of RUN’s on-set photographers, asked.

Her red lips were upturned, glass balancing on her knee, as she looked at me expectantly.

I shot Anna an uneasy look and leaned back into the couch I had been sitting on for the last hour. I unfolded my legs and recrossed them, my glass in a loose grip against the armrest.

“I think he’s so handsome.” Liza interjected on a dreamy sigh. She was one of the script writers, and in my opinion, had done an amazing job so far on writing and adjusting dialogue between the characters.

Not long after Sergio and I helped ourselves to another drink did Anna seek me out. She flicked a quick apology to Sergio and whisked me away to a semi-secluded area of the party.

I’d met Grace and Liza before, during pre-production and throughout the first week of filming, but it was nothing more than a professional discussion about my role and what was required of me. It didn’t take long for me to relax as Grace, Liza and Anna slipped into casual conversation about music and film, issues of the world and trivial life experiences. We laughed and shouted, the liquid in the bottle of tequila placed temptingly in the middle of the table gradually disappearing as the night wore on.

I was well and truly feeling the buzz when Grace interrupted my happy attitude with her pointed question. It was obvious from the way she sat that she was expecting me to spill my guts, and although I was relatively new to the industry, I wasn’t an idiot. I had always been fluent in keeping my mouth shut when it came to my personal life, especially with whom I was intimate and where my interests lay.

Yolanda was one of a select few who were privy to my deepest secrets and desires.

So I shrugged my shoulders dismissively at Grace and replied with relative disinterest.

“We get along well, just like friends and co-workers should.”

The twinkle in Grace’s eye told me she didn’t believe a word I said. It was times like this, with alcohol running smoothly through my veins, that I wanted to blab just why I wasn’t interested in Sergio in any romantic way. But I was smarter than that and kept my thoughts to myself.

“I’ve seen how he looks at you. He’s interested.”

“Well, I'm flattered, but I'm not interested. He’s not my type.” I replied fairly bluntly.

Grace looked at Anna, as if my friend was going to give something away. Liza just giggled, her drink spilling over the edges and wetting her skirt. She hardly noticed her clumsiness as she leaned towards me from the opposite couch.

“Feel free to point him in my direction.” She slurred.

I took another sip from my glass and smiled at her.

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“What do you mean he’s not your type?” Grace continued. “He’s every woman’s dream. Sexy, confident, funny. You’d be lucky to land in his bed.”

I could tell she was drunk and her line of questioning wasn’t meant to be malicious. So although it irked me that she was still pushing the topic of Sergio, I went along with it with the same light-heartedness.

“You’re right. He is funny. But I guess he just doesn’t tick my boxes.”

“I agree with Juli. I don’t see it either.” Anna piped up, her nose scrunching at the thought.

“What? You don’t think he’s a total babe?” Grace looked mortified.

Anna just shook her head and looked remorseful.

“I’m afraid not.”

“What about Lucho?” Liza asked, her wide eyes bouncing between us.

“God, no.” I laughed. “He’s a nice guy though. Kind of like a puppy dog.”

Liza and Grace both looked at me as if I had two heads.

“You wouldn’t sleep with him?”

I shook my head and swung back another mouthful of tequila as Grace gaped at me.

“Juli and I must have similar tastes. Because I wouldn’t either.” Anna confided as she patted my knee in solidarity.

I amused myself at the thought of Anna finding out just what my tastes are. I doubted she’d agree with me then.

“What is wrong with you two?” Liza whispered, her eyes practically bulging out of her head.

I looked at Anna and grinned. Even though she’d given me no reason to think otherwise, I was genuinely surprised at my friend’s confession. Most women act like Liza and Grace, drooling over the idea of capturing Lucho or Sergio’s attentions. But when Anna expressed her utter aversion to the idea, for some reason it made me like her even more. Almost like we had something else in common.

“Maybe working with them in such close contact is enough to put any woman off.” Anna replied cheerfully, pulling a hearty laugh from both of our companions.

Without warning, I had the breath knocked out of me as a body flopped down into my lap. I wrapped my arms around them by reflex, quickly identifying the culprit as Yolanda. She giggled in my ear as she made herself comfortable on top of me.

“Yo, what are you doing?” I scalded her with a light slap on her thigh.

“Hey everyone.” Yolanda sing-songed to the rest of the group, ignoring me.

The three girls responded with the same happy enthusiasm before Yolanda pulled me close, her breath hot in my ear.

“I have a very serious question for you.”

I had no idea what Yolanda was on about, but I played along.

“What?”

Yolanda pulled away and looked at me as if she already knew the answer, before pulling me close once more.

“You have to tell me the whole truth here. Remember I can tell when you’re lying.”

I rolled my eyes at my best friend.

“Hurry up and ask, Yo.”

“Why have you been staring at Valentina Carvajal all evening?”

I used my leverage on Yolanda’s hips to push her away. She looked at me with an intense interest and vaguely disguised suspicion. Her well-penciled brows were raised as she waited for my answer, her eyes brimming with attentiveness.

“I haven’t been.” I stammered.

Yolanda’s expression didn’t change when I spoke, but the slight tilt of her head told me she wasn’t buying it.

“Yes, you have.” She said resolutely. “I’ve been watching you watch her all night.”

I squeezed Yolanda’s hips as my eyes shifted to the other three fearfully. Lucky for me, they were too preoccupied in their own conversation to pay us any attention.

“Can you shut up?” I hissed.

“You’re interested, aren’t you?” She asked as her lips turned up into a lopsided grin.

“Of course I'm not. You know how I feel about her. She’s a self-obsessed, dramatic, spoiled rich girl who can’t act. What’s interesting about that?” I spat back defensively.

Yolanda’s smile grew wider at my hushed outburst. Her arms around my neck tightened as she leaned to whisper in my ear once more.

“You can’t hide it from me, Juli.”

I rolled my eyes and shook my head. Yolanda’s giggle was light and her eyes were full of a false understanding as she pulled back to look at me once more.

“Yolanda, don’t -”

“Juliana, hey.” Sergio interrupted my attempt at reassuring Yolanda she was completely off the mark.

I hadn’t been staring at Valentina Carvajal all night. Sure, I could admit to myself that my attention may have strayed to her once or twice during the night, but it would be ridiculous to classify that as staring at her all night. I looked at many people throughout the evening. I was at a party, surrounded by people, for God’s sake. As much as I would like to, I couldn’t avoid her completely when we were occupying the same space.

“Hi Sergio.” I heard Liza giggle, her voice slow.

I looked up to find Sergio standing beside the couch, right next to me. His smile was wide and his drink was full.

“Hi, ladies. How are we?”

Grace looked like she was about to faint and Liza fell into another round of giggles.

“We’re great, Sergio. How’s your night going?” Anna replied for all of us, an amused smile on her face.

“Fantastic, thanks. But I was hoping to steal Juliana away for a moment.”

All eyes turned to me. As I considered how to reject him without being rude, I caught Yolana’s prying eyes again. She had one brow raised and I knew if I stayed there, she’d shoot another round of questions about Valentina Carvajal at me. That was enough to solidify my decision.

I pushed Yolanda aside easily, ignoring her yelp of objection, and stood up.

“I’ll be back.” I announced flippantly to the group.

I stepped aside and, with my empty glass in hand, made a beeline for the free bar. I didn’t necessarily care if Sergio was following me or not.

A few more drinks and a half hour later, I still stood with Sergio around a tall barrel that acted as a bar table. What I’d said earlier was true - Sergio was funny. I found my cheeks soon hurting as we laughed and joked about everything and nothing. It wasn’t hard to see how Sergio managed to pull hoards of women. He was charming and easy to talk to, but there was simply no chemistry between us. I prayed he also picked up on that and wondered if I should tell him he’s just wasting his time with me.

“How are you finding filming so far?” He asked as we fell into a brief lull in conversation.

“I’m loving it.” I grinned. “This is the kind of thing I've always dreamt to work on. I’m so happy to be a part of it.”

Sergio beamed back at me, picking up my obvious enthusiasm for the work.

“You’re very passionate about this job. And you’re very good at it. We’ve all noticed it.”

I raised my brows, a little surprised by his observation.

“Noticed what?”

“How hard you work. How invested you are. It’s almost contagious.” Sergio laughed.

“Almost?”

Sergio flashed me a wicked smile and lowered his voice.

“I try not to take things so seriously.”

I chuckled at his waggling eyebrows. I knew he was flirting with me, but unfortunately for him, I was completely immune to his advances.

A loud wolf whistle to my left caught my attention, and I turned to see what the commotion was about. Angus, one of the camera operators, resembled a panting dog, his tongue out and drooling. A moment later, I realised why.

Valentina stood beside the pool, her top in a bunch in her hands. She looked towards Angus as she threw her now creased linen crop onto the nearest lounger, her expression impassive, as if she were bored of that reaction. Without missing a beat, she untied the cord around her waist and dropped her pants, stepping out of them and discarding them with her shirt.

My brain glitched as I took in the sight. She wore a brazen white bikini, a colour that perfectly complemented the tantalizing bronze of her skin. Her body was impressive, long and thin and strong. She had a defined structure to her arms and her legs stretched on for miles. She looked unperturbed by the audience, stepping towards the edge of the pool with a confidence in her stride that bordered arrogance. And she had every right to be. She was absolutely breathtaking.

If I didn’t feel like overheating from simply admiring her from afar, I almost combusted when Valentina turned her head and looked right at me.

Her crystal blue eyes caught me watching, and a smirk made its way onto her lips as she held my attention. My mouth went dry and my brain was screaming at me to look away, but I was frozen to the spot. For a few moments, it felt as though time vanished, as if the party didn’t exist. With just one look, she had captured and held me like I was her prisoner, and I had absolutely no power to stop her. But just as quickly as she’d found me, she turned away and dove elegantly into the water.

“Fuck yeah, swim time!” Sergio yelled from beside me.

I watched, motionless, as Sergio ran towards the pool, stripping his shirt and flinging it behind him as he went. He jumped into the air as he reached the edge, whooping as he bombed into the water.

A whole chorus of cheers erupted around the party, and people started stripping off their clothes and jumping into the large, lit up pool without a care.

I swallowed thickly and tried to pull together my scrambled thoughts. I don’t know what the hell that was, but my head felt like it was swimming. My skin was still prickling with the intensity of Valentina’s gaze, my heart still thumping hard in my chest at the sight of her smirk.

It was all too much, too confusing, and I knew I had to get out of there.

I felt as though two blue eye shaped holes burned a hole in my back as I turned and walked towards the hotel entrance, eager to seek solace and comfort in the silence of my overpriced hotel room.

Chapter Text

We spent another week on location before the shooting schedule changed slightly. We had a few days off before we were required to film a few backstory scenes back in the city.

Yolanda and I spent our days off eating out, watching TV and napping. Our nights consisted of drinking red wine as we cooked dinner, and dancing around the house to the best hits of the early 2000’s that blared from the speaker in the living room. In between all that, we found time to go over the script for my upcoming scenes. Yolanda would humour me and switch between voices, constantly leaving me wondering how I ended up as the actress. More often than not, the informal script read included me in stitches on the floor of our living room as Yolanda pranced around the room, her impersonations of my co-stars keeping me thoroughly entertained.

My time off was over in what felt like the blink of an eye, and I found myself back on the lot, ready to shoot my backstory scenes.

This time, Yolanda had a little more freedom in the wardrobe department. I walked onto set in tight black jeans with rips in the knee, and a shirt the shade of lavender that Yolanda insisted to only half tuck in. A gold chain fell from my neck, a thick white crystal dropping between my breasts. Yolanda finished the look with brown lace up boots and a dark leather backpack thrown over my shoulder.

With flawless makeup and wavy hair down over my shoulders, I felt a million bucks. It wasn’t quite how I imagined a high school student would feel, but I tried hard not to think so much about that. I strutted onto the set with a confidence I rarely let show.

“Juliana, you look great.” Adrian greeted me with a kiss on both cheeks.

“Do I look like a high school senior to you?” I asked with a mocking smile, flicking my hair dramatically over my shoulder.

Adrian chuckled and looked me up and down.

“Well, sure. I trust Yolanda, so we’ll roll with it.”

He flicked at the script in his hand and tipped his head to the side.

“Come on, let’s go over it.”

Adrian was referring to the first of my background scenes. The main plot of RUN revolves around the survival of five young adults in the midst of an apocalypse. This week had been scheduled to film a range of flashback scenes that aim to provide the audience with context and character development that tie in to the key plot.

This scene was going to be filmed with my on-screen parents. I stepped onto a well decorated set that was to be my high school bedroom, and greeted Mia and Ben each with a hug. Mia was a petite woman with kind eyes and a toothy smile. She had dark hair like me, but that was probably the only resemblance between us. Ben was tall and muscular, with short light brown hair that was beginning to grey around the edges. In some ways he reminded me of my own father, but I pushed that thought away immediately.

The three of us had met a few times before, mostly during pre-production, but this would be the first time we would act in the same scene together.

Adrian patiently walked us through the scene, where we all clarified dialogue and actions. It was going to be an emotional scene to film, and I wanted to get it right. In my time off I studied the script thoroughly and felt confident I could execute my performance easily.

After a brief wait for Adrian to organise his crew, I stepped to my mark and ACTION was soon called.

I slipped easily into character, feeling the brief rush of adrenaline as I opened the door to my bedroom.

Mia and Ben were sitting on the bed, their faces solemn.

The amount of pink in the room made me cringe internally. It was a far cry from the real bedroom I had as a teenager.

“What are you doing here?” I asked seriously, my eyes darting between them. I stood still in the doorway, my hand still on the handle.

Mia held up a zip lock bag, all the colour drained from her face.

“What is this?” She asked, her voice shaking.

I did my best to look like an awkward teenager who had been caught out. I looked down at my feet, my boots scraping together as I shifted my weight. As I looked back up, something caught my attention beyond the cameras. It was only the slightest movement, but for some reason I felt my heart rate spike as all eyes looked to me.

I swallowed nothing, my throat as dry as the Atacama desert, and spotted a certain pair of blue eyes watching me intently. Valentina stood on her own, her arms crossed over her chest and her hip jutted out, right on the edge of the set just beyond my eyeline. The huge space behind the cameras was low-lit, and she stood just far enough away for the camera operators and other crew members not to notice.

“Emilia,” Mia said sternly, pulling me back to the scene, “I want you to tell me what this is.”

She was prompting me, her eyes wide as she rattled the bag, and I gaped at her blankly. I’d completely lost my place with the distraction of one of my co-stars. I could feel Valentina’s eyes on me, watching my every move, as I struggled to compose myself.

“You -. How?”

CUT.

I blew out an exasperated breath and twisted to where Adrian’s voice boomed across the set. He approached me quickly, his brows pulled together.

“Juliana. What’s going on?”

He didn’t seem angry at me, just a little perplexed with my obvious stumble. We’d been filming for long enough now that Adrian knew it was uncharacteristic of me. I squeezed anxiously at the strap in my hand, adjusting the bag over my shoulder.

“Sorry, Adrian. I don’t know what that was. But I’ve got it.” I replied with a resolute nod of my head.

He looked to Mia and Ben, where two crew members with makeup brushes were flitting about, then back to me.

“Okay, let’s roll again.”

He called out to reset and various crew members scurried about as I turned back to my mark. I sucked in a deep breath and pulled the door behind me, my feet firmly on top of the taped red X. I gritted my teeth and looked up to find Valentina again, still standing outside the set, her gaze fixed firmly on me.

I closed the door and shook my head, ridding myself of the unexpected nerves. I took in another deep breath to relax, blowing out slowly as my lips fluttered through the exhale.

Just don’t look at her, I told myself.

I couldn’t understand why her being here, watching me, rattled me in the first place. It’s not as if she hasn’t seen me perform before. But I was determined to not let it happen again. I won’t let that amateur put me off my game.

A quiet fell upon the set and I gripped the silver handle tightly.

ACTION!

I channeled my inner teenager and threw the door open.

“What are you doing in here?” I asked harshly as I froze in the entry to my character's bedroom.

Mia held up the ziplock bag once more, shaking it in her grip.

“What is this?”

I frowned and ground my teeth together.

“Why are you snooping in my bedroom?” I snapped, throwing my bag to the side. It crashed against a flimsy bedside table, the lamp on top rocking with the impact.

Mia’s face crumpled a little, and I stood defensively in front of them.

“Emilia, what’s in the bag?” Ben, my on-screen father, asked calmly.

I huffed out a desperate breath and lunged forward, ripping the bag from Mia’s grip.

“Get out of my room.” I said through clenched teeth, my arm pointing at the door I'd just entered from.

“Not until you tell us what’s going on.” Ben replied, his voice trembling.

I stood in front of them, the zip lock bag half-full of some substance that was made to resemble marijuana clutched tightly in my hands, and wondered again how lucky I was to land this role with such competent and amazing actors. Mia and Ben had executed their roles perfectly, sitting beside one another on a pink single bed, their faces a mix of worry and concern.

My eyes bounced between them irritably, my jaw beginning to ache with the tension I was holding. Not a sound could be heard on set.

“Emilia.” Ben whispered, his voice cracking.

I let my shoulders slump in defeat, all the fight leaving my body. My head dropped and I looked down to the bag in my hand, then back up to my on-screen parents.

“I want to go to college.” I stated quietly, my bottom lip beginning to wobble. “I want to go to college and I don’t want either of you to worry about it.”

Ben slowly got up from his position on the bed and stood in front of me, placing his large hands softly on my shoulders. I was mildly aware of the mechanical arm of one of the camera’s moving off to my right.

“Emilia, if you want to go to college, we’ll work it out. You don’t have to do it alone.”

He spoke so sincerely that it wasn’t hard to start the waterworks. I wiped defeatedly at a stray tear that sprung up in the corner of my eye and sniffed.

“You don’t have to resort to this, sweetheart.” Mia said gently as she joined Ben, her hand coming to rest upon my head. “There are other ways. You just had to talk to us.”

“I’m sorry if i’ve disappointed you.” I mumbled, my eyes welling even more, my chin quivering. “I see how hard you work and I don’t -”

“Shhhhh, honey.” Ben whispered. His rough thumbs wiped my wet cheeks and he pulled me into a crushing hug.

As I sobbed into Ben’s large chest, I pushed away the thoughts that were trying to resurface. The idea that this scenario, this completely fabricated scene I was acting in, was more heartfelt and caring than any experience I had growing up with my real parents made my heart ache. I didn’t think about it often, but this moment kind of hit me out of nowhere.

Emilia, my character, was in her final year of schooling. Her parents, played by Mia and Ben, were extremely supportive low-income earners. They’d had a tough life with limited opportunity, and Emilia desperately wanted to go to college, but didn’t want to burden her parents with the responsibility of paying for the privilege. So she took things into her own hands, and began dabbling in the world of dealing illicit substances to save some money.

It wasn’t lost on me, the irony of the few similarities and stark differences between my real life and that of my character.

CUT!

Ben released his hold on me at the call and gave me an impressed smile. As I sucked in a fresh breath and wiped at my still wet eyes, I was clapped over the back.

“Juliana. Fantastic!” Adrian beamed at me.

“Thanks.” I mumbled, feeling a little self-conscious under his admiring gaze. I blinked rapidly and pulled my head out of the scene, wiping at my face.

“Leon was right to put his faith in you.” He said with another friendly pat on my shoulder.

Words were a little lost on me at the compliment. I just smiled bashfully at the director and allowed it to sink in.

Adrian turned and spun his index finger in a circle in the air, indicating something to the crew, and walked in the direction of one of the camera operators.

“Nice work you two.” I grinned at Mia and Ben, who both returned the praise with friendly smiles. Before any more conversation could take place, I was surrounded by various makeup assistants thrusting brushes in my face and hair.

I closed my eyes and allowed them to do their job, answering their questions and laughing along with their jokes as they tidied up my wet eyes and slightly blotchy cheeks. There were still a few hours left of shooting, so I tried to keep my mind focused on the next scene.

“You were great, Juli.”

I opened my eyes to see Grace standing in front of me, her camera hanging around her neck. She wore green cargo style pants, her pockets bulging with what I assumed were accessories for her camera, and a ribbed white top. I hadn’t seen her since the pool party at the hotel. She donned a friendly smile and I was genuinely happy to see her.

“Grace, hey! What are you doing here?”

Her red fingernails picked up the camera against her chest and she raised it towards me with a smirk.

“Taking photos, of course.”

The makeup assistants stepped back to look at me. With a nod of the head and a quick you’re done, they disappeared back into the darkness of the lot.

“You look great.” Grace commented approvingly as she approached me, leaving a friendly kiss on the cheek.

“It’s amazing what professional makeup artists can do.” I said with a wave of my hand. “Who else is here today? I didn’t really look at the shooting schedule except for my own stuff.”

“Sergio is filming later.” Grace replied with an arched brow. “I’m sure you’ll be sticking around for that.”

I laughed through my nose at the comment, still amused at the general population making assumptions over something they knew nothing about.

“No, I don’t think I will. I’ve got a bottle of red at home waiting for me after this.”

Grace nodded her head and I stepped to the side, picking up the bag I'd thrown earlier.

“And Valentina is filming later, too.” She added.

I threw the bag over my shoulder and turned to look at the spot I’d seen Valentina standing only minutes ago. To my relief, the place she’d occupied was empty, the woman long gone.

“She was here, watching you.”

I spun back to Grace and raised a brow, unsure what the suspicion in her tone meant. She was watching me attentively, as if waiting for a specific reaction.

“Yeah, I saw that.” I replied dismissively, my tone cautious.

“She doesn’t start filming for another three hours.”

It bugged me a little that Grace was bouncing around the edges of something she clearly wanted to point out. But I wasn’t about to give her the satisfaction of asking her what she was referring to. Plus, I knew Grace was just as thirsty for set gossip as Yolanda. I’d been doing this just long enough to know it’s best to keep your mouth shut completely, otherwise words can be misconstrued and that’s how rumours start. So I just looked at her, waiting for her to get to the point.

“Juliana. Next scene. Let’s go.” Adrian called out.

Adrian was standing with Mia and Ben, their scripts in their hands. I couldn’t figure out if I was annoyed or thankful to not find out what Grace was implying.

I smiled at Grace, offering her an apologetic shrug as I stepped towards the director.

“Sorry Grace, gotta go.”

“See you round, Juli.” Grace winked at me and walked quickly off the set.

 

~ ~ ~

 

“What time do you finish today?” I asked Yolanda as I changed out of my character's clothes and back into my own.

“Not until after 5, depending on whether we stick to the shooting schedule or not.”

“So not until after 8, then?” I asked sarcastically.

I pulled my tight gym shorts up my legs, admiring my tanned thighs in the reflection of the mirror. I’d worked hard the past couple of years to tone up, and I was most impressed with the new strong shape of my legs. All that running, combined with sweaty gym sessions, had certainly paid off.

“What are you doing this afternoon?” Yolanda called over the change room.

I threw back the thick curtain that separated us and stepped out, handing Yolanda the pile of clothes I'd just taken off. She looked me up and down and answered my question for me.

“Going to the gym, I see?”

I grinned at her and nodded my head.

Yolanda placed the clothes on a bench, holding each item up to inspect. I made my way to my gym bag that I'd dumped beside a stray chair and rummaged around, double checking I’d packed my towel and two water bottles. It was another hot day and I could already feel the sweat sticking to my skin.

“I ran into Grace today.” I said as I fell into an old red vinyl chair.

Yolanda looked over her shoulder, the tight black jeans I'd worn in her hands.

“Oh yeah? The photographer that you were talking to at the pool party?”

“Oh, please. Don’t pretend like you don’t know who she is. Gossip queens always sniff one another out. You two probably trade set secrets in the rabbit warren that is this damn set.” I quipped.

Yolanda rolled her eyes at me over her shoulder, but ignored my accusation. She threw the jeans into a pile in the corner and picked up the lavender shirt. She sniffed at it and scrunched up her nose.

“Jesus Juli, why do you stink so bad?”

I picked up a random shoe that had been discarded beside my chair and threw it at her.

“Shut up! I worked hard today, okay? Can you feel how hot it is and then see what you put me in? Of course I got sweaty!”

Yolanda laughed as she dodged the shoe attack, throwing the shirt into the same pile as the jeans. I assumed that was the washing pile, and it occurred to me that that was the not so glamorous side to Yolanda’s job.

I grabbed an apple out of my bag and bit into it, watching Yolanda continue to inspect and rearrange the clothes that were in random piles around the room. It was nice to sit down and relax after the intensity of the few hours of shooting I'd just finished. We sat in comfortable silence for a few moments, Yolanda’s indie spotify playlist keeping us company.

“Why mention Grace?” Yolanda asked calmly, her hands still busy with placing clothes back on hangers.

I chewed around the apple in my mouth, contemplating why I’d even mentioned it. Until I remembered the look in Grace’s eye when she questioned me about my co-star.

“She saw Valentina watching me in my first scene.”

Yolanda stopped what she was doing and turned to look at me.

“Valentina watched your first scene?”

I bit into my apple again, enjoying the juicy fruit, and nodded in confirmation.

“But you started filming at 9am.” She stated.

“That’s right.”

“That’s three hours before Valentina was even expected to be here. She doesn’t start filming until,” Yolanda looked down at her watch and back up at me, “now.”

I shrugged my shoulders in reply. Apparently everyone was aware of everyone else's shooting schedule aside from me. I was also unsure why Valentina decided to apparently arrive four hours early. But that wasn’t my problem, and I hadn’t seen her again after that second take, so I assumed she’d just stumbled upon my set and decided to watch for a few minutes.

“I don’t know why she was there.” I said, somewhat defensively.

Yolanda hung up the gold jacket she was holding and walked towards me. She rested her backside against the bench that ran along one side of the wall, a long mirror also spanning the area. Her arms crossed over her chest as she looked down at me. I quirked one brow at her, waiting for her to speak.

“I catch you staring at her at the party last week, then she shows up early to watch you act.” Yolanda noted, a meddlesome curl to her lips. “Is there something here you’re not telling me?”

I scrunched my face at the connotation, sitting up a little straighter in my chair.

“Piss off, Yo. You know I can’t stand her.”

“Well, she is a lesbian. And you are -”

“But they don’t know that.” I cut her off quickly, my neck twisting to confirm there was no one else in the room. “Not that it matters. I’d rather be with Sergio than her.”

Yolanda burst out laughing, her eyes crinkling at the edges.

“Wow. That’s really saying something.”

I winked at her and shoved the apple in my mouth, lodging it between my teeth as I stood and picked up my gym bag.

“Whatever. I’m done with you and this conversation. I’ll see you later.”

The words were barely decipherable around the apple, but Yolanda seemed to understand. She stood up and pulled my shoulder.

“You were the one who brought it up. You can’t walk out now it’s getting interesting.”

With my free hand, I removed the apple from my mouth and smiled at my friend.

“Enjoy the rest of your day, Yo. Don’t work too hard.”

I winked at her and stepped swiftly out of her grasp and towards the exit. I ignored her calls of disappointment, turned left and pulled my AirPod case out of my bag. It was a bit of a juggling act as I balanced my apple, iPhone and AirPods, fitting the small earbuds into my ears as I walked.

The lot we were using was gigantic. I quickly discovered it was like a maze, with winding corridors, multiple sets, and a range of dressing rooms and offices. I walked down a dark hallway, thinking I was making my way to the exit, scrolling through Spotify to find a playlist to get me pumped for the gym when the hallway opened up to a large, dark space.

I lifted my head and tried to gain my bearings. Up ahead of me was a brightly lit set. I was definitely in the wrong place. I debated on turning around, but there was something that pulled me forward. I hit pause on my phone and walked on, quietly approaching the stage behind the cameras.

ACTION!

“Do you have to go?”

I quickly found a quiet place to the side of the set as the small voice kicked off the scene. In front of me was a bedroom setup similar to the one I’d filmed in that morning. This was slightly different though, with not as many traces of pink and a huge collection of band posters stuck up on the walls. The furniture was also more elegant, giving the impression of a wealthy family home. A stack of boxes sat precariously beside the bedroom door.

Zoe, a 13 year old actress with hair similar to Valentina’s, sat on the four poster queen-sized bed, a sad pout on her lips. She looked up to Valentina who was sitting beside her. The older woman had her arm wrapped around the younger girl's shoulder. If I didn’t already know it, the two girls could easily be mistaken for sisters.

Great casting, I thought, as Valentina smoothed Zoe’s hair back off her face.

“It’s okay, Callie. I’m not going far. I’ll only be a two hour drive away.”

My eyes widened as I listened to Valentina actually execute her line perfectly. She sounded empathetic, and her physical acting was spot on.

“Why do you even have to go to college anyway? Can’t you just get a job and stay here?” Zoe whined, desperation in her voice.

“You know why I have to go away, Cal.” Valentina uttered, thick with dejection.

“You’re leaving me with her. You know what she’s been like since dad died.”

Zoe let out a heavy sob and Valentina wrapped up her on-screen sister in a tight hug. She rocked her back and forth, her eyes closed as she held onto her.

“I’ll come back for you, Callie. I promise. You’ve just got be to strong, okay? Can you do that?”

Zoe shook her head, her sobs loud over the silent set. Valentina pulled Zoe out of her grasp, her hands cradling Zoe’s face.

“Keep your head down, go to school and I'll come back for you. I promise you.”

Tears continued to stream down Zoe’s face and Valentina’s voice was heart wrenching as she said goodbye to her sister. I was completely frozen in place as I was transported into the scene, wrapped up in the emotion both actresses were portraying so convincingly.

CUT!

I jumped a little in surprise at Adrian’s loud voice reverberating around the large set. Suddenly there was movement everywhere, like ants before a storm, as the camera’s stopped rolling.

“Valentina, wow!” Adrian cheered as he leapt from his chair and up onto the set.

His hands fell on both Valentina and Zoe’s shoulders, his eyes wide as he smiled broadly at them.

“I don’t know what inspired you today, but that was absolutely amazing. Perfect!”

Valentina’s face split open into a wide grin. It was probably the first time I’d seen her look so relaxed. There was no worry in the lines of her face, and her smile reached her eyes. It was a breathtaking sight.

“And Zoe, you were fabulous as per usual.” Adrian continued with his compliments.

The young girl smiled sweetly at the director, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the older woman.

Every scene I had witnessed Valentina act in had been a disaster thus far. She stumbled around her lines and barely knew what to do with her body. From the moment she was announced as a co-lead in this show, it certainly came across to me as if the girl didn’t care for the role, and had no interest in improving in the art.

But the scene I just watched was full of passion and heart, the absolute opposite of anything Valentina had presented to this point. I was so spellbound at the change that I failed to get away undetected.

Valentina’s bright blue eyes turned and landed on me, just as I heard my name being called.

“Juliana!”

Fuck. She’d caught me staring.

I shoved the somewhat forgotten apple in my mouth and took another large bite, walking back quickly in the direction I had come. My heart was pounding in my ears and I just wanted to get out of there.

“Juliana. Wait!”

Sergio caught up to me and pulled at my shoulder, forcing me to stop. I whirled around and looked at him in the dim light.

“Hi Sergio. How are you?” I asked as politely as I could, trying to keep the panic of being caught watching at bay.

“Great.” Sergio commented with a toothy grin. “What are you doing here? I thought you were done for the day.”

“Oh, I am. I’m just heading to the gym.” I replied, pointing to my gym bag against my waist.

“You don’t want to stick around and see a legend in action?” He asked as his thumbs pointed to himself.

I laughed and shoved his chest, stepping back towards the exit. I needed to get out of there.

“I’ll see you back in action in a couple of days, Serg.” I called out with a wave, my phone lighting up with the movement. “Have fun today.”

I turned and picked up my speed, running back to the corridor, through the long dark hallways and out into the stifling summer heat.

Chapter Text

“What scene are we at today?” Yolanda asked as she adjusted the buttons on my loose fitting shirt.

“Biology class.”

“Oh, cool.” Yolanda remarked, feigning disinterest. “So, filming with everyone, then?”

I waited for the smirk to appear in the corner of her lips before I grabbed my best friend around the trapezius and squeezed hard.

“Ow, you bitch.” She screeched as she pushed me away, rubbing at her shoulders. “What was that for?”

I smiled triumphantly and picked up the same leather backpack I’d been using in my previous scenes. I swung it over my shoulder and looked straight at her. She was grimacing and I didn’t even feel bad.

“You know why.”

Yolanda rolled her eyes at me and grabbed my phone off the bench.

“I just think the dynamics here are interesting.” She handed me my phone and I took it with a scowl. “Two of your co-stars have a crush on you. I think you should be flattered.”

“Oh my God, Yo. Stop it.” I whined with an immature stamp of my foot.

“What?” She said innocently, her light brown eyes widening. “You know it’s true.”

“Sergio is a man, so I'm not interested. And Valentina is so not my type.”

Yolanda tilted her head at me and looked at me ironically.

“So gorgeous and available are not -”

I held up my hand at her to stop her from adding anything else.

“Aside from her not being my type,” I explained, ignoring what she’d just said while tucking my phone into the back pocket of my jeans, “I don’t want anything to do with her. And she doesn’t have a crush on me. Every interaction we’ve had I've either ignored her or bitten her head off. The very idea that she finds that attractive is ridiculous.”

I picked up a tattered Biology textbook and walked towards the door of my dressing room.

“And I don’t want to hear anymore about it. Alright?” I called back over my shoulder.

I didn’t wait for Yolanda’s response.

 

~ ~ ~

 

ACTION!

“Okay, so you have to make a small incision just there.” I said, pointing to the dead frog pinned to the tray.

Valentina looked at me and swallowed nervously. She slowly lifted the scalpel in her hand and her eyes turned to the amphibian we were supposed to cut open. Her gloved hands were trembling as she lowered the small knife towards the frog's abdomen.

I jumped a little as she made a sound of disgust and stepped away from the high bench we were working at, her feet bouncing as if she was standing on an ants nest. If I wasn’t already so irritated by her, I'd think the little impromptu dance was adorable.

CUT!

“Adrian, do we have to use real frogs?” She complained, turning to the director, her voice childlike.

“Oh, for God's sake.” I mumbled, my forehead smacking against the open textbook.

“Yes, Valentina. It makes it look more authentic when it’s the real thing. We’re trying to keep this as realistic as possible.” Adrian explained with a hint of exasperation.

“Why can’t she do it?”

I lifted my head, the pages of the book peeling off my forehead with the movement, and looked at her. Valentina was pointing at me with the scalpel, a contrite look on her face.

We started shooting this biology class scene an hour ago and I'd already lost count of how many times Adrian had to call CUT for Valentina’s benefit. Even though I promised myself I'd practice being more calm around the other woman, I could feel my patience wearing very thin. I took a deep breath and held her gaze, silently willing her to shut up and continue on with the scene.

“Yeah, make Juliana gut the frog!” Sergio called humorously from the table behind me.

I rolled my eyes as I heard Lucho snigger along with him.

“Don’t be mistaken, Sergio. I heard you gag when Lucho flicked a frog leg at you.” I retorted without turning around and facing him.

The volume of Lucho’s laughter increased and I caught Anna’s amused grin over Valentina’s shoulder. I winked at her and wished my character had been paired off with her rather than Valentina.

“Because that’s not how the story goes, Valentina.” Adrian explained, ignoring Sergio’s comment and my jab. He placed a hand on her shoulder and guided her back to the bench opposite me. “It might be easier to think of this as not you cutting open the frog, but your character. None of this is real, remember? You’re just acting.”

Valentina narrowed her eyes at Adrian and without looking at the frog, pointed at it with the scalpel again.

“That is real, Adrian.”

The director grimaced and patted Valentina’s shoulder.

“Just pretend it’s not. Okay?”

Adrian flicked us both a thumbs up and disappeared back behind the cameras. Valentina huffed and turned back to me, her blue eyes uncertain.

I considered her over the black bench that looked far too clean and intact to exist in a real high school science lab. Although this woman annoyed me like no-one else could, I wasn’t completely blind. As soon as she strode onto the lot, her golden hair bouncing as she confidently breezed through the dim corridors and onto the sound stage, my eyes devoured her as subtly as possible.

Her minimal makeup was just enough to make her eyes and cheekbones pop. Her lips were painted with a glossy pink, thick and plump to the point that I wanted to touch them just to check that they were real. Shiny chestnut hair was pulled into a loose half-up style, the long strands resting over the patterned blouse that tucked easily into a short, pleated black skirt. It looked as if her legs extended for miles, and she exuded an enviable confidence and style in the clothes she wore.

“I’m sorry. I just find this really repulsive.” Valentina’s whispered remark interrupted my perhaps not-so-subtle ogling. She was looking at me closely as she bit nervously into the inside of her cheek.

Without quite realising it, as I gazed back at her with the same distracted exploration, I let myself get carried away with my own thoughts.

As we sat opposite one another, a flicker of latent energy sparking, I discovered that I hadn’t really been this close to her before. I could see the intense clarity held within the blue iris, as if I were looking at the clearest ocean on earth. It hooked me in completely, and I watched enraptured as the uncertainty slowly melted away from her expression and softened into one of surprise. Her lips began to upturn, and I could feel my heart thud energetically in my chest.

I’d always believed you could tell a lot about a person with what you found in their eyes. My aunt taught me that the eyes are the most sincere part of a human because we have no control over what they show. Sure, we can fake a smile and hug someone we don’t want to, but the eyes can’t lie. That’s why she always bought into the whole ‘eyes are the window to the soul’ cliche. And I guess, by the end of her life, I started believing in it too.

So, as I watched Valentina’s clear blue eyes shine back at me, her pupils slowly dilating, I felt my own lips twitch in response. The sincerity in her gaze made me question every negative thought I'd ever had about her, but there was no hiding the inkling of fear tainting the clear blue depths.

What was she hiding?

ROLLING.

My eyelids fluttered as the booming voice ungraciously snapped me out of my apparent trance.

I shook my head and looked down, remembering to breathe as I focused back on finding the place in the textbook I was supposed to be reading from. I hoped Valentina nor anyone else could detect the nervous tremor in my hands as my finger ran along the page. I could hear chairs scrape heavily against the polished concrete floor as we all turned back to our mark. I licked my lips and cleared my throat, unsure where all my saliva had gone.

“It’s fine. But we have to do this so let’s just do it, okay?” I muttered without looking back up at her.

I didn’t hear a reply from the other woman, so I closed my eyes and pressed the reset button in my brain. I didn’t have time to even think about what the hell that was, so I squeezed my eyes shut even tighter and attempted to cage the butterflies that had apparently taken flight in my stomach.

And ACTION.

I opened my eyes and pretended to read the book in front of me.

“Right. This says to make an incision just there.” I said, pointing at the dead frog pinned on the tray.

I forced myself to look at the woman, reminding myself we were filming a scene and I was supposed to be acting. I was just Emilia, and she was just Jessica. None of this was real.

Valentina’s jaw flexed as she raised the scalpel, the blade slowly descending towards the green and brown spotted frog. The tremble was still evident in her hand, but she looked more determined this time.

“And where do I cut to?” She asked quietly.

Thank God, she remembered her line. I was so surprised it took me longer than usual to react. I pretended to consider the textbook again before responding.

“Right between the legs.”

Valentina looked up at me with wide eyes, her mouth falling open. She looked shocked, but if she had read the script properly, she would have known that’s what she had to do. The implication that she hadn’t pricked my resentment towards her once more.

“Go on.” I encouraged as softly as I could muster.

She nodded her head and lowered the scalpel, the tip of the blade just touching the underside of the frog. I held my breath and leaned in. Right as I thought she was going to do it, she froze.

“You just have to push a little harder.” I prompted, looking up at her.

I watched as Valentina’s throat bobbed again, the colour slowly draining from her face. Her knuckles tightened, then she dropped the utensil with a loud clang against the metal tray and stepped back again. She held her gloved hands up apologetically and shook her head.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t do it.”

CUT!

I ripped the gloves off my hands and dropped my head dramatically into my palms. I could almost hear the collective groan from the cast and crew around me at yet another interruption.

“For fucks sake.” I grumbled.

This time, I couldn’t quite contain the volume. Valentina definitely heard me.

“I’m sorry.” Valentina repeated emphatically to whoever was listening. “It was a living thing. I just can’t bring myself to cut it open.”

I lifted my head and stood up from my plastic lab chair, gesturing to the dead animal between us.

“It’s dead now, Valentina. People cut up animals for science all the time.”

Valentina shook her head at my argument.

“But this isn’t for science. None of this is real, remember?” She said, her hand pointing to the cameras, microphones and lights surrounding us.

I scoffed and turned to Adrian. His black shirt had dark circles around his armpits and he was rubbing at his temple as he walked towards us.

“I need a break from this bullshit, Adrian.”

I didn’t mean to be a diva, but I knew when I needed to remove myself from a situation so I didn’t make things worse. Now was that time.

When the director didn’t respond to my comment, I took that as approval and stormed off the set with a thanks, i’ll be back soon thrown his way.

I stomped my way to one of the many corridors splitting off from the main set. I slammed the door behind me and with my head down, walked with no final destination in mind. The unfamiliar hallway was long and dark, with discarded props and pallets haphazardly lining the sides.

The frustration and confusion I felt on set began to simmer away as I focused on my breathing, imagining a triangle as I sucked oxygen in, held it, then released it. The process of tapping into the basic function of respiration was often enough to clear my mind.

My feet eventually slowed and I started to imagine the things that would ease all of this internal conflict I was experiencing lately.

No more Valentina stuffing up her lines. No more Valentina slowing me down. No more Valentina making excuses. No more Valentina and her blue eyes looking at me like I was the only one in the room.

Wait. What?

“What is your fucking problem?”

I twirled around to find Valentina almost yelling at me as she stormed towards me. It dawned on me right then that she was both the first and last person I wanted to see right now.

With her combative tone and irate posture, I immediately went into defensive mode.

“What?”

“I said, what’s your fucking problem?” She repeated as she skidded to a halt right in front of me.

Her nostrils flared as she glared at me. She was breathing heavily, her hands in fists by her side. I’d never seen her like this before, and I wondered what made her crack it at me now.

I didn’t necessarily want to offend the girl, but I figured I'd been enough of a bitch by now to just tell her the truth. I was done beating around the bush. Our lives might be a little easier to co-exist if I just came clean. So I ground my teeth together before opening my mouth.

You are my problem.”

One of Valentina’s eyes twitched as she let my firm words sink in. She was watching me fiercely, and I knew this wasn’t going to be over quickly. Nor was it likely to end well.

“What have I ever done to you?” She demanded with a frustrated shake of her shoulders.

I crossed my arms over my chest. The breathing technique I'd just done to calm down was wasted as I felt my blood pressure rise at the confrontation.

“You really want to get into this now?” I glowered, my teeth grinding together.

“Why else would I ask?” She replied sarcastically, her brows pinched together. “Tell me.”

I sucked in a deep breath and raised one eyebrow mockingly at her.

“You waltz on into this project with absolutely no experience and no idea. You don’t take a moment of it seriously, and it makes the rest of us look like complete idiots when you stumble over your lines. You got this job because daddy handed it to you, and you are taking it completely for granted.”

My voice was harsh as I spoke, almost spitting the words at her. I’d had enough of her and it all seemed to bubble to the surface as I spoke.

Valentina ran her tongue over her teeth, which was both infuriatingly sexy and intimidating at the same time.

“You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Valentina’s eyes were blazing as she stood her ground, speaking through gritted teeth. I took another step closer to her, almost toe to toe, and continued, ignoring her comment.

“The rest of us have worked real fucking hard to get here. The sacrifices, the rejection, the late nights, the no call-backs, the burst dreams, the harsh realities. We all experienced it to get to this point. And I resent someone like you coming in here and proving that blood, sweat and tears is required only for some people in this world. You are the epitome of privilege and -.”

A hand at the collar of my shirt stopped the rest of the words from spilling from my mouth. She grasped my shirt in a bunch and pulled me closer with a strength I was not expecting. We were face to face, and I could feel her furious breath on my skin. For a moment, I thought she might actually hit me.

The wild look in her eye told me to keep my mouth shut at this point. I’d clearly got my point across. Valentina’s bottom lip was trembling as we stared at one another in the dim hallway, the tension thick and heavy between us.

“You have no fucking idea what you’re talking about.” She hissed through her teeth. “You don’t know anything about me. So don’t you dare stand in front of me and pretend like you know a single thing about my life.”

She shook me when she spoke, her lips glistening in the low light. I watched her closely, her eyes wide and scared as she snarled at me.

“The tabloids tell me enough. I don’t need - .”

The grip on my shirt tightened even more as Valentina interrupted me again. Even in the dark hallway I could tell her skin was flushed with anger.

“All you have done from the moment I met you is judge me based on what you think you know. You haven’t given me one single opportunity to get to know me for real since I arrived here. You have absolutely no right to comment on my life and what I've been through to get here.”

The way Valentina’s lips moved when she was irritated was mesmerising. They trembled with every passionate word she spoke. But as her latest rant came to an end, there was a shift in the way she spoke. The anger began to dissolve like sugar in water, making way for a kind of painful nostalgia. The melancholy in her voice hit something deep in my chest, an ache that shook me to my bones. All of my defences began to crumble like a sandcastle in a storm under her wounded expression, her chin beginning to wobble and eyes misting.

I completely froze under her fierce attention, immediately aware of how badly I didn’t want to see her cry. It was like watching a hurt puppy, and it was so obvious that she was trying to hold back the tears.

I’ve always been aware of the fact that I am the owner of some insufferable personality traits. I partly blame my upbringing for that, but I'm mature enough now to admit when I’m in the wrong. And this time, as much as it pained me to admit it, Valentina was right. I had been quick to judge and it was in my stubborn nature to fail to see past that.

I looked from Valentina’s burning blue eyes back to her lips as she slowly repeated the harsh truth on a shaky breath.

“You don’t know me.”

We looked at one another in the dim light, our heavy breathing the only sound in the deserted hallway. She was shaking slightly, and when one single tear finally beaded and spilt over, I moved on instinct. My hand reached out to her, her cheek warm against my palm, as my thumb brushed at the droplet slowly sliding down her skin. I caught it on the pad of my finger, wiping away the naked vulnerability she so frighteningly showed me.

I looked at her, my hand still against her cheek, and felt like the world was spinning out of control around us. It was either blind bravery or complete stupidity to expose yourself like this to someone who could be considered a complete stranger. But here this woman was, holding me close to her, showing me just how profoundly unfair I had been in this unguarded moment.

Her breath was hot against my mouth, and I unintentionally looked down to her lips and remembered just how much I wanted to touch them earlier. I could sense she was doing the same, and I looked up to find her stunning eyes melting as they flicked back up to my own.

Suddenly, she was so much closer than a moment ago. Our breaths collided and noses nudged and my stomach swooped at the unexpected intimacy of it all. That simmering energy that was sparking earlier began catching fire and the reason why we were arguing only moments ago emptied from my brain.

And then, I don’t know who leaned towards who, but her lips were against mine. I automatically swayed into her, my hand cupping her face closer, overwhelmed with the sensation of her soft, full lips capturing mine with a delicacy that knocked the breath from my body.

We parted just enough to look at one another, her mouth slack and eyes burning. But instead of a fire that wanted to harm me, this time they burned with a blatant desire.

I couldn’t think. I couldn’t process what I was doing. I didn’t have any care for the consequences of my actions. All I knew was I wanted to try that again.

We moved simultaneously, my hand dropping from her face and joining my other around her waist. Valentina leaned heavily into me, our lips slotting together with an undisguised desperation that made my knees shake. Her hand released the firm hold on my collar, trading my shirt for my hair.

I reacted impulsively as Valentina tugged at my hair, tilting my head and kissing me deeply. I squeezed her hips and pressed her hard against me, leaving no space between us. Her breasts pressed into mine as we held each other close, tight from our chests to our legs. Our mouths opened at the same time, and Valentina’s tongue dragged along mine hungrily. There was no controlling the sound that growled from my throat, the heat that spread from my chest to my limbs, or the feeling that the floor had opened up beneath me and I was falling, and falling, and falling.

My body responded the only way it knew how with the stimulus it was given. I kissed her harder, sucking on her tongue and gripping her tighter, emboldened by the fevered whimpers vibrating from her throat. Valentina tasted sweet, like a forbidden fruit, and I wanted more. I wanted much more.

Valentina made a small whine as I pushed her up against the wall. I had no recollection of even moving my feet, but desire clouded any kind of judgement and I pushed up against her fully, driving my hips into the other woman. The heat building between us exploded and it was almost suffocating, it was almost too much, but I couldn't comprehend the idea of stopping.

Her body was warm and slim against me. I could feel her protruding hips returning the pressure, her small breasts, her heaving chest, her hands tangled in my hair. My hands itched to explore what was on offer, so I ignored the prodding thought that I was about to cross over into unknown territory and push this even further, and let them wander. I regretfully gave myself a bit of space, my palms brushing up along her sides. I found her breasts and squeezed them gently, encouraged by the small bite Valentina left on my bottom lip. With all the confidence in the world, I found the waistband of her skirt and ripped her shirt out, my hands diving underneath.

She panted amongst the mess of our kiss as my hands glided along the warm, bare skin of her torso. My nails scraped across her sides, Valentina’s tongue reaching deeper into my mouth in response.

I was beyond aroused at the encounter. My core was aching, a wetness that I would usually be almost embarrassed about encouraging the twitch of my hips in search of something. As if Valentina was sensing my discomfort, or overwhelming need for more, she shifted in the small space she had and pushed her thigh up between my legs.

Fuck.” I mumbled as I released Valentina’s hot mouth from my own.

I pushed back even harder, Valentina’s bra-covered breasts in my hands, my mouth sucking on the tempting skin of her jaw and neck. Valentina’s thigh began grinding up against me, and I could have sworn I saw stars. I released the hold on her breasts and found Valentina’s mouth again, my hands pulling her hips into me in a chaotic rhythm.

She gladly accepted me, her tongue immediately slipping into my mouth. A shiver of pleasure rippled across my skin at the desperation in her kiss and the movement against my centre. My hand reached further south and slipped purposefully under the fabric of Valentina’s skirt. My stomach nosedived into a fiery wreck when I grazed the edge of her panties. I could feel the heat before I even touched her, and my head swam at the thought of my fingers against her.

Even in my haze, I briefly thought about asking for permission. I was about to do something I’d only done a handful of times before, with someone I never would have dreamed of. This was a wild step outside of professional boundaries, let alone my own personal morals, but I was so wrapped up in the feeling of her hot breath, sweeping tongue and smooth skin to think logically. My whole body was buzzing and I didn’t want it to stop.

Just as I was about to pull away and check, Valentina leveraged herself against a side table I hadn't noticed was beside us. She wrapped the leg not pressing into me around my hips, offering herself to me.

“Do it.” She whispered into my mouth before pulling me back into a searing kiss.

I squeezed my eyes shut tight as I flicked her panties aside and slid my fingers through her wetness for the first time. She was so wet she was basically dripping, and my breath stuttered at the slick feel of her.

We both moaned at the action, and Valentina's hand on my bicep almost cut off my circulation.

It was wet and hot and I felt myself respond with a harder push against Valentina’s leg. I rubbed the length of her shamelessly, my fingers slipping through her with one goal in mind - to feel her shake with pleasure against me. We both panted and moaned without a care of being discovered, too focused on quelling this fever that had taken hold of us both.

This whole encounter was rushed and frantic, and the spontaneity of it almost made me want to combust right then. The chemistry between us, evident in the way we moved so smoothly against each other, the visceral response of the touch from the other, was electric. I wanted to feel more of her, to bring her to the brink and watch her crash over the edge. As if she could read my mind, Valentina’s hips tilted a certain way, and my fingers slipped up inside her. She was so ready for me there was no resistance to the intrusion.

“Ah, fuck.” She moaned, her head tipping back against the concrete wall.

We held onto one another as my fingers urgently propelled up into her. After the first unhinged push, I set a slow pace, easing inside and out of her in awe of the feel of her wrapped around me. But it wasn’t long before Valentina moaned ‘faster’ in my ear, and I did as I was told.

As difficult as it was to concentrate on chasing my own pleasure and seeking Valentina’s at the same time, I somehow maintained the erratic rhythm against Valentina’s leg. The friction against my centre was just enough but entirely insufficient at the same time, wishing I could replace the rough seam of my jeans with more of Valentina. Despite this, it wasn’t long before I felt the familiar feeling of an orgasm rippling across my skin. I curled my fingers inside her, my thumb fumbling for her clit.

Her reaction was immediate as the pad of my thumb rubbed over her most sensitive spot. She shivered, her grip slipping from my arm and falling over my shoulder, pulling me even closer. We were squeezed so tight together that it was almost impossible to move, but with my thumb circulating her pulsing nerves and Valentina methodically rubbing her thigh against me, it was only a matter of time.

I squeezed my eyes shut as I tried to hold on. I didn’t want to succumb to my own gratification without Valentina, but as I felt her tremble against me, her muffled whines in my ear and her tightening around my fingers, I couldn’t resist. I allowed myself to fall over the edge, my whole body shaking as the intensity of it made my toes curl and knees buckle.

We moaned through our respective orgasms, Valentina surrendering to her own release with me. We held on as if the other were our anchor, our actions convulsive as we rode the wave.

Eventually, our movement ceased, our heavy breathing the only sound bringing me back to reality. I slowly opened my eyes as the sparks of my orgasm began to fade away, my bearings racing back to focus. I gulped, finally comprehending what I’d just done.

With one final inhale of her intoxicating scent, I slowly eased out of Valentina and stepped away from her, her arm around my shoulder falling limply to her side.

We were both still fully clothed, and I wondered for a second if it was obvious on my jeans what had just happened. But instead of looking down to check, my eyes found Valentina’s. She looked just as shocked as I felt. Her shirt untucked, skirt crumpled, skin flushed, legs open and shaking. Her chest was still heaving from the exertion of our very recent activity.

It was a precious sight, but not one I was sure I was proud of.

I stumbled backwards, nearly falling over a random crate, my hand smacking against the opposite wall to catch myself. The same hand that, only moments ago, had been buried deep inside the woman in front of me.

I tried to find some words, but my brain was spinning around in circles like a gravitron. And just like on the ride, I felt dizzy and confused. We silently looked at one another as we processed what we’d just done, eyes wide and hair mussed.

What did I just do?

“Juliana.” Valentina whispered, an edge of panic in her tone.

“I have to go.” I choked.

I turned and ran down the hallway, leaving her behind, praying I didn’t see anyone before I found my dressing room.

Chapter Text

“Juli?”

My eyes lifted at Yolanda’s scolding tone. She was sitting opposite me, her long pastel blue fingernails tapping against her glass impatiently. Even with her sunglasses on, I could tell she was unimpressed with me.

I pulled my finger out of my mouth and sat up straighter in my chair, finally aware that I'd been caught daydreaming. I distractedly picked up my cold brew coffee, the ice clinking around the glass as I lifted it.

“Sorry.” I mumbled, clearing my throat. “What did you say?”

Yolanda’s perfect brow arched above her reflective Maui Jim sunglasses. She cocked her head and released an elongated breath.

“Did you hear any of what I just said?”

I swallowed the cool drink and placed the very hipster mason jar back against the wooden table, focusing on sitting it back on the ring of condensation it left. Once satisfied, I looked right at Yolanda and knew I couldn’t fake my way through this one. So I shrunk my head into my shoulders, offering her an apologetic smile.

Yolanda threw her head back and slapped her hand against the table.

“I knew it. What is your problem lately? You’ve been wandering around like a space cadet, your head up in the clouds.”

I rolled my eyes at her dramatics and crossed my feet, shrinking away from her.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Yo.”

Yolanda shot me a withering look and flicked her almost white blonde hair over her shoulder.

“Juli, don’t give me that bullshit. I can see right through you.”

I looked back out to the bustling sidewalk and pretended to watch the people walking by. It was mid morning on a Wednesday, and the sun was out and shining. The cafe we sat at was quite popular, with many regulars coming and going as Yolanda and I enjoyed what we considered to be the best cold brew in the city. The shade of the awning we sat beneath provided some relief from the heat, but I could still feel the sweat sticking to my shirt.

“You’ve bitten your nails down to the skin.” She commented with a quick look at my chewed fingers. I recoiled at the blatant call out, shoving my hands underneath my thighs. “Tell me what’s going on.”

I looked back at my best friend, picking up the legitimate concern obvious in her voice.

The past week had been a weird kind of torture. Clearly I hadn’t hidden my inner turmoil over what had happened as well as I'd hoped.

After my unexpected situation with Valentina last week, I found my way to my dressing room after getting lost down three different hallways, my head spinning and adrenaline pumping. I knew I had to go back out there and complete the rest of the scenes that were scheduled for the day, so I cleaned myself up in the adjoining bathroom and fell just short of a panic attack before Anna found me and dragged me back out to the set.

To say things were awkward was an understatement. I couldn’t look at Valentina and she was clearly so distracted that she cut up the frog first take without any problems. Eventually I pulled myself together enough to compartmentalise what took place in order to do the job I was hired to do. I had to work with her, so there was no point in making things more uncomfortable than it already was. For the next three days I pretended nothing had ever occurred between us and not a single person blinked an eye.

I was torn between disappointment that actively avoiding Valentina at all costs was seen by my colleagues as normal behaviour, or relieved that no-one noticed there was something amiss.

I kept my head down, constantly hyper-aware of where Valentina was and what she was doing without actually looking at her. It was like my subconscious couldn’t help but keep track of her while I attempted to ignore it and focus on the job.

On a few occasions I caught her staring at me from across the set. My heart stuttered in my chest and my lungs forgot to inhale each time we made eye contact. On my part, I also let my concentration lapse at times, my own eyes lifting to watch her interact with a crew member. I was mesmerised by the way she moved, remembering the way she’d husked my name, the sounds of her moans hot in my ear, the way she’d clenched around my fingers. I never felt my skin burn so intensely when she caught me staring.

So when my three days off finally rolled around, they were a very welcome relief. I didn’t have to slip on a mask every time she was around, however, it gave me far too much time to think about her, what we’d done, and what it all meant.

I was attracted to her; I could no longer deny it. The inner workings of my mind finally acknowledged that she was gorgeous and alluring, and that I'd known it from the moment I saw her. And maybe I was slightly intimidated by her when she’d sauntered into that stifling board room, all hungover and indifferent and so breathtakingly beautiful. And maybe that intimidation rolled into my insecurities, and I let that override any other completely rational thought.

But deep down, I knew I was attracted to her. Just like I’ve been attracted to plenty of women before her.

There are some absurdly stunning women in this world, and when I first stumbled my way into the acting business, I was constantly surrounded by them. So just like any young, naive lesbian does, I acted on a few of those impulses. Unfortunately, and perhaps inevitably, they never ended well for me. Luckily for me, I was unknown enough for it not to matter in terms of my career, but personally, my eyes were opened and I’d learnt my lessons.

So when this woman entered the scene and my brain short circuited at just the sight of her, I skipped past any coherent thought and stumbled right into defensive mode. I knew enough about her to know she was not good news, and I wasn’t about to become entangled in yet another spiteful drama. I was here to work hard, do an outstanding job, and that was it.

But there was something else about Valentina. There was something about her I couldn’t quite put a finger on, persistently just out of reach, so I continued to deny reason and stick with my stubborn perception in an effort to save myself. But when she furiously pointed out that I hadn’t given her a chance, that I'd made my own assumptions about her without actually getting to know her, the walls I'd so carefully built started to shake. Because it was exactly what I was scared of myself. I was terrified of the world judging me based on snippets of information. Information that may or may not be entirely correct. Information that is nobody else’s business. That is precisely why I keep my cards so close to my chest.

But Valentina wasn’t like that. And that scared me too.

My reaction that day had been authentic, albeit a little confusing. At that moment, in that dim hallway, I wanted her. Desperately. But that didn’t make it right.

So I found myself staring down the barrel of the next question I had to face - what do I do now?

“Nothing for you to be concerned about, Yo.” I finally replied with a reassuring smile. “I promise that if it gets any further out of my control, I'll tell you.”

Yolanda perked up immediately, her head jerking forward, her eyes alert over the top of her sunglasses.

“So you admit there is something going on.”

I scratched my eyebrow at my slip up. This woman never missed a beat.

“Something may have happened.” I admitted with a one-armed shrug. “But it’s all good. And if at some point it becomes not good, you’ll be the first to know.”

Yolanda considered me closely for a few more moments, just to check that I was telling the truth, and then sat back in her chair. She seemed content with that response, and I was glad that even though we were best friends and told one another pretty much everything, we could still respect each other’s boundaries.

“I can live with that.” She said as she lifted her drink and sucked at the metal straw.

I smiled, relieved, and copied her actions. We sat in silence for a few minutes, simply enjoying the moment of stillness in our usually busy lives. That was until I realised why we started talking in the first place.

“Wait, what were you saying earlier?”

Yolanda looked at me with a crooked grin on her face.

“Oh, so you’re paying attention now?”

I poked my tongue out at her mockingly, then crossed my legs to get into a more comfortable position.

“Shut up. What is it?”

Yolanda leaned forward on the table, quickly glancing around to make sure no one was listening, her smile growing even wider.

“Henry asked me out.” She said quietly, although there was no mistaking the exhilaration in her voice.

“What?” I almost knocked over my expensive drink as I moved closer, desperate for the details. “Tell me everything.”

 

~ ~ ~

 

RUN!” Sergio yelled as he jumped through the campsite, scooped up his pack, and legged it between two trees on the other side of the small clearing.

Without asking questions, the four of us sitting around the campfire scrambled to our feet. We scurried around to pick up our own packs and followed him through the forest with haste. Lucho charged out in front, with me right on his heels. Anna and Valentina were somewhere behind me, the sound of our feet crashing through the forest and our heavy breathing the only sounds accompanying the whizz of the camera jigged up on a wire above us. As a log about my hip height came up in front, I snuck a quick look at Lucho just in front of me and pulled deep into my energy reserves. He’d beaten me every take so far, and I just wanted to over take him once. I kicked into the next gear, reaching out and nimbly jumping over the mossy log with a quick flick of my legs. It felt like I was flying for a brief moment as my body hurled through the air, landing elegantly on the soft forest floor on the other side. I heard Lucho grunt as I stretched out in front of him on the narrow path, my lungs burning as I followed Sergio through the trees.

We’d been running through the relatively dense vegetation of the forest for the last three days. We were back on location, and I was beginning to miss the cruisy days on set back in the city. I had cuts all over my legs, and my knees were bruised from when I'd fallen over a log or a tree root one too many times. My hands were red and raw from a scene in which I had to start a fire with a stick, and the humidity was very quickly zapping my energy. At this point in the late afternoon, I felt like if I really was Emilia, I would have given up by now. The zombies could have me.

I resisted the urge to curl up into a ball on the forest floor when Adrian finally called it for the day, forcing myself to trudge back to the off-road vehicles. I walked with Anna by my side in complete silence, both too bruised and battered to bother with conversation. I waved my co-star goodbye with a meek smile as she stepped out of the elevator and onto her floor; the one below mine.

I scrubbed my hair and body under the warm stream of the large shower head, slowly feeling like a new person as I watched the dirt and grime swirl down the drain. A healing cream that was given to me by Yolanda soothed the sting of cuts as I tentatively lathed it over the affected areas of my arms and legs. I sat on the edge of the comfortable king bed, trying not to feel too sorry for myself, tending to my superficial wounds. My muscles ached and my eyelids drooped heavily as I rubbed my wet hair between my towel as a futile attempt of drying it.

Just as I turned off the main light in the room, looking forward to falling into the oversized bed, there was a tentative knock on the door.

I froze and waited, thinking I’d imagined it in my semi-delirious state. The sound of the TV still hummed on low, the news of the day like white noise in my brain. Just as I decided the sound had been a figment of my imagination, I heard another small knock.

This time I stepped up to the door and looked through the peep-hole.

Holy shit.

I covered my mouth in a mix of surprise and apprehension. Her presence here, at my room this time of night, could only mean one thing, and it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to deal with right that minute. I briefly considered ignoring the knock, but there was no denying that I was in the room. I stood facing the back of the painted door, the emergency procedures blurring with my tired eyes, contemplating pretending to be asleep so I didn’t have to face it just yet. I huffed out a deep breath and gripped the door handle. I had to face it someday, so it might as well be now.

With a shaking hand, I unlocked the door and pulled it open. Valentina straightened up and looked right at me, long, still damp locks hanging over her shoulders.

“Hi.” Valentina greeted me with a timid smile and a nervous wave.

“Hey.” I muttered, my voice hoarse.

“Sorry to bother you. It’s just, I couldn’t sleep and I wanted to talk.” Her hands were fidgeting nervously in front of her. She shuffled on her feet, and I couldn’t help but smirk at her tie-dye socks. I took in her sleepwear as my eyes moved upwards. She wore light pink harem pants that hung enticingly from her hips, and a white tank top that didn’t quite cover her entire torso. I felt my body heat up when it became obvious to me that she wasn’t wearing a bra. When I failed to respond, my eyes stuck on the faint outline of her nipples, Valentina rushed to continue with a hand to her forehead, seemingly oblivious to the source of my distraction. “Oh, God. You were probably sleeping. I’m sorry. It was a bad time and a stupid idea. I just really wanted to talk to you about what happened last week and we haven’t got the chance to yet and I really -”

I lunged forward and pulled at her arm, yanking her into my hotel suite. I did a quick check of the wide hallway, thankful there was nobody lurking about, and shut the door behind me. The last thing I needed was people asking why Valentina Carvajal was knocking at my door late at night.

I leaned against the back of the door and looked at her, suddenly very aware of the model standing in my hotel room. This woman was way more famous than I'd ever be, and I knew plenty of women who would probably kill to be in my situation right now - alone and braless and in a hotel room, late at night. I felt my blood rush at the thought, flickers of images of Valentina shoved up against a wall not helping my shallow breathing. Valentina watched me warily, perhaps also wondering how she ended up here and what I was about to do. I couldn’t blame her really, with the mixed signals I’d been sending her and with my reaction the last time we were alone together. But without dwelling too much on it, I swallowed against my nerves and pushed off the sturdy door.

“Sorry.” I said as I walked past her and into the sitting area of the room. “I just didn’t really want anyone hearing that.”

Valentina stood awkwardly just inside the door, one arm hanging by her side as the other grasped her elbow across her body. It hit me that Valentina looked more nervous now than I'd ever seen her. For someone who was as beautiful as her, an international model who grew up in the spotlight, I doubted she felt nervous very often. That thought didn’t comfort me one bit.

“Sorry.” She mumbled again, apparently very interested in the carpet.

“You can come in.” I dropped heavily into one of the large armchairs the room offered and gestured to the other beside me. I was too exhausted to continue standing up and if we were going to have this conversation, I needed to be sitting.

I watched Valentina think about it, and then shuffle forwards, sitting hesitantly in the seat beside mine. We just sat there quietly while the TV danced its unpredictable glow across the room. The bedside lamp offered a small amount of yellow light, just enough to highlight the curves of Valentina’s face as I tried and failed not to look at her. I focused on my fingertips brushing over the coarse fabric of the chair while Valentina wrung her hands in her lap.

“What did you want to talk about?” I prompted after a moment of strained silence.

Valentina dragged her hand through her long hair and finally looked at me, her expression uncertain.

“I wanted to talk about what happened between us.” She stated quietly, but assertively.

My hand went to the bridge of my nose, and I closed my eyes. I needed a second to work out how I was going to navigate this conversation. I didn’t approach her for this little chat because I didn’t know how. I was embarrassed and ashamed of the way I’d behaved. But she’d surprised me once again and been the one brave enough to face this head on, so I at least owed her some kind of transparency.

“Look, I know I stepped over the line last week. I probably should -”

“Hey, no, wait.” Valentina interrupted, her hand raising in the air to stop me. “Let me just explain something first, before you go any further. Please?”

I opened my eyes to find her looking at me earnestly, sitting right on the edge of the chair as if she could just slip off at any moment. I wondered if she’d prepared this speech, and how long she’d spent constructing it.

With my legs curled up close to my body and my head resting against the back of the armchair, trying hard to make the impression that the woman had no effect on me, I waved at her to continue.

“Sure, go ahead.”

Valentina licked her lips and squared her shoulders towards me. My heart clenched in my chest under her undivided attention.

“I’ve had a week to think about it… about what you said to me. And I get it. I can see where you’re coming from.” She admitted, her blue eyes shining with sincerity. “I did get this job because of who I am. And I haven’t exactly approached this whole thing the right way. But I wanted to tell you that I want to do better. I don’t know what struggles you have faced to get here, but I don’t need to know them to understand that you have earned your place here. I see it every time the cameras start rolling.”

Suddenly I wasn’t so tired anymore. This path Valentina was guiding us down wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, and I was momentarily speechless.

“I just hope I can prove to you, over the next few months of filming, that I’m more than what you think of me. There’s more to me than what the magazines and gossip columns want you to see.”

That left a bitter taste in my mouth. I had based my opinion on her off tidbits of information and rumours, and since it had been pointed out to me, it made my stomach churn.

“I apologise for that. I realise that comment was shallow and immature. I shouldn’t have said it.”

Valentina just shook her head, dismissing my apology.

“We all get a little wrapped up in that at times. I probably didn’t help my case when we first met, so it’s fine.”

I clicked my tongue, unsure why she was being so rational and coolheaded about all of this.

“Still, it was unfair.” I offered sheepishly.

Valentina nodded her head once, her gaze dropping once more to her lap. She chewed on her lip as she focused on squeezing her fingers, one by one.

“And about the other thing.” Her voice was so low it was almost a whisper. “I know you probably -”

“Okay, now it’s my turn to interrupt.” I said as I unfurled in my chair, my feet hitting the floor. “I need to apologise for that, too. I don’t know what I was thinking. In fact, I don’t think I was thinking. It was completely inappropriate and unprofessional and I hope we can forget about it and move on.”

My jaw was tight as I waited for her reaction. She blinked at me for a few moments, her gaze holding my own. I felt quite exposed at the connection, almost as if she were trying to read my mind. Her eyebrow twitched as unreadable emotions crossed her features. Finally, she sucked at her bottom lip and slowly nodded her head.

“Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. We should just forget about it.”

I released a breath I didn’t realise I was holding and offered her a small smile in relief. I hadn’t quite realised how nervous I was about facing her, and could feel the anxiety fall away from my shoulders as Valentina agreed to my flimsy resolution.

I felt the soft carpet beneath my feet as we sat together, a calm settling upon us, any previous tension between us dissipating like wispy clouds on a summer's day. She looked at me with an understanding I didn’t foresee, and it rattled me a little. She didn’t require an explanation, or need anything more from me than a pretty weak apology. She was just willing to accept my terms, and that was it.

It was more than what I thought I deserved from the way I’d behaved, and really nailed home the fact that I’d done myself a disservice by judging her so quickly. I’d done something that could have tanked my career, but I was still here with no repercussions other than a slightly bruised ego and that unsettling feeling of shame.

“Thank you for not saying anything.” I murmured, unable to look directly at her.

Valentina tipped her head to the side and considered me closely, blue eyes soft like a caress.

“That’s no one else's business but ours.”

Ours.

I felt my lungs empty at the whispered statement. My chin dropped as a chill skittered across my skin, the tiny hairs rising in response to the switch in atmosphere in the room. It was a peculiar sensation to feel hot and cold at the same time. When I finally found the courage to catch Valentina’s eyes, I found myself suddenly closer to her. Her lips were parted and wet, as if her tongue had just swept across the plump flesh. Her blue eyes were bright in the dim light, and I felt myself being pulled towards the tenderness I found there.

“Why are you being so nice to me?” I asked quietly.

The edge of Valentina’s mouth twitched, and I couldn’t help but look down and appreciate the sight of the woman smiling at me. It was small, a shy smile, but it was enough to make my heart flutter in my chest. I reminded myself that heart disease did run in my family, and to maybe get it checked out. But if I was completely honest with myself, it wasn’t my shoddy bloodline that made me feel lightheaded when Valentina looked at me like that. It was just her.

The fact was that I’d never felt so entranced by someone before, so captivated by their mannerisms or their features. That mysterious intrigue, that unfamiliar pull that captured my interest so intensely felt like a puzzle I itched to solve.

“I don’t know, really.” Valentina puffed out a light laugh, tipping her head back slightly without breaking eye contact. She ducked her head and leaned in towards me, her teeth tugging at her bottom lip. I swallowed nervously at the intensity in her gaze, her voice low. “You caught my attention the first time I saw you. I’m not sure why, but I knew there was -.”

She stopped mid-sentence, her voice fading away like the light at the end of the day. Her eyebrows raised slowly and she straightened in her seat, her eyes darting around the room, shattering whatever calm equilibrium we had been wrapped up in. I watched in bewilderment as she cleared her throat and resumed her nervous fidgeting, her eyes looking down at her forearm and then quickly to me, before looking away again.

“It’s getting late. I should go.”

I looked at her wrist, noting the absence of a watch, and gaped at her as she stood up.

“Thanks for the talk. It’s been good to clear the air between us.” She mumbled as she turned towards the door and then back to me, her skin a slightly darker shade of red. She was kind of adorable when she was flustered.

I regained my senses and stood with her, forcing my eyes to look at her face and not at her chest.

“Thanks for being the better person and coming to talk to me. I should have been the one to do it.” I replied, frustrated at myself for the way I let this all unfold.

Valentina threw me a bashful smile and a quick nod of her head before stepping towards the door. I followed behind her, unable to rip my eyes away from the gentle sway of her hips. Just as she pulled the door ajar, I reached out to her, effectively stopping her from leaving.

She looked at me over her shoulder, my hand still on her forearm. I didn’t really know what I was going to say, but she deserved a better apology than the one I'd already offered.

“Valentina, I’m really sorry for the way I treated you. You don’t have to worry about that anymore.”

Valentina smiled at me, an expression full of forgiveness, and nodded her head again. Her eyes flicked up and down my body quickly before she turned back to the door.

“Sleep well, Juls.”

Without giving me a chance to reply, she disappeared, the click of the heavy hotel room door making me wonder if any of that really just happened.

Chapter Text

I was stuck in traffic.

Again.

It was so hot outside I could see the heat shimmer against the black tar road. It certainly made me thankful for the cool air conditioning that made the loose hairs that had already fallen out of my messy bun tickle against my skin. I turned up Lorde’s latest release and stared at the red tail lights in front of me. My fingers tapped against the steering wheel to the beat of the music, and my mind travelled to where it had barely left the past few weeks.

Valentina.

After our late-night chat in my hotel room over a week ago, things had begun to steadily improve between us. I was trying to be more open-minded and she was focusing on improving her performance. It was still a little awkward each time she looked up and caught my eye, the curious lift of her brow informing me that I had been caught staring a little too long to be considered appropriate.

Interestingly, I wasn’t the only one who was busted daydreaming. I couldn’t help the smirk from creeping onto my face each time I felt a certain pair of blue eyes hovering close by, my skin burning under her attention. Her skin would flush a fascinating pink when I’d catch her, and she’d look down and drag her hand through her hair distractedly, acting as though she’d never been looking in the first place.

The frustration I felt towards her previously dwindled like a prick of light in the rear-vision mirror. Now we’d found an amicable common ground, I felt more comfortable to let go and be myself around my co-stars. I was also pleased to observe Valentina clearly feeling more secure in her place, happily slipping more purposefully into the group dynamics. The five of us were working 10 hour days close together, so it was inevitable that we bonded under the circumstances. I didn’t quite realise how much I was holding back, and how my outwardly bitchy attitude towards Valentina really hindered her ability to get along with the rest of the cast.

The others clearly noticed the shift, joyously including Valentina in their jokes and stories. Every chance he got between takes, Sergio would sit her down and tell her about the newest car release. To Sergio’s great satisfaction, Valentina actually sat and listened, making small comments and asking questions every now and then. Anna would fling an arm around her when Valentina said something particularly funny, their joint laughter one of the greatest sounds I think i’d ever heard. Lucho even continued his advances, and Valentina continuously knocked him back lightly, demonstrating more patience than I knew I had.

It was a delight to sit back and watch Valentina interact with the cast and crew. Now that my perception had shifted, I watched her through a new set of eyes. And what I found was perhaps what I was afraid of seeing since I first laid eyes on her.

She was charming and carefree, infectiously so. People seemed to gravitate towards her, and she treated everyone, no matter who they were, with dignity and respect. I’d come across plenty of people in the movie business who thought they were better than everyone else. It was excruciating to watch them belittle their colleagues and act like divas. I was pleasantly surprised to realise Valentina wasn’t like that. In fact, she often went out of her way to compliment others and converse with crew members that didn’t dare approach the cast. Her charisma and charm affected nearly everyone she interacted with, and I could almost see the stars in their eyes as she waved them goodbye with a friendly smile.

She also seemed to be taking things more seriously. The lacklustre approach to her performance quickly vanished, replaced with an eagerness to learn and a passion to improve. She listened attentively to Adrian when he directed her, effortlessly tweaking her performance in line with the constructive feedback he gave her. Whenever we blocked out or discussed a scene as a group, the crease in Valentina’s brow deepened in concentration. She was often the first to ask questions and even occasionally suggested a unique alternate way to approach a scene. She became more confident in her delivery and the execution of her lines was almost flawless.

Valentina managed it with such natural ease that it was almost as if it ran in her blood.

A blaring horn pulled me out of my daze. I jumped in my seat and smashed my foot on the accelerator when I realised the traffic was finally moving. I refrained from flipping the car behind me the bird as I quickly caught up to the car in front of me.

I lived in this city for 7 years now, and it still shocked me how impatient drivers were in this part of the world.

I settled into the slow moving traffic and after a few mumbled expletives and another ten minutes, I arrived at my destination. Sergio’s flashy convertible was parked two bays down, and I sighed in relief that I'd found the right place. I turned off my relatively modest Volkswagen, grabbed my gym bag and stepped out into the exceptionally warm morning. My car beeped as I clicked the key to lock it, slung my gym bag over my body and made my way through the cars towards the large building ahead of me.

As I approached the warehouse looking structure, I became aware of a commotion to my right. I stepped around a black SUV and saw a large group of people swarming around an unknown individual. It was immediately obvious it was the paparazzi. The distinct clicking of cameras and pathetically invasive and pointed questions being shouted at the person in the middle of the storm giving them away. I rolled my eyes and clicked my tongue at the blood-thirsty vultures pushing the boundaries of personal space and basic human decency. For the thousandth time in my relatively short experience in this business, I was grateful I wasn’t the one being harassed. My profile wasn’t important enough to warrant that kind of attention, and that was fine by me.

I stepped up a few of the wide concrete steps and took another look back, a little curious as to who was causing such a stir.

My foot hovered mid-step when I spotted chestnut hair glinting in the sunlight. She was alone amongst the clamour of large, sweaty men and young fans screaming for an autograph.

Valentina had her phone up to her ear and was almost spinning around in circles in the middle of the swarm of hungry celebrity chasers. The sunglasses on her face were doing little to hide the anxiety she was currently experiencing. It was clear she couldn’t see where she was going and no-one was getting out of her way.

She was trapped.

Without a second thought, I clenched my teeth and stormed down the steps, pushing the beefy men out of the way as if they were mosquitos. With absolutely no grace, I yelled “MOVE”, brusquely shoving at the throng of people. Within seconds I became engulfed in the hot mess that was warm bodies surging to get closer to the model. My arms and shoulders were relentless, barging and bumping at anyone in front of me without a care for anyone’s safety. Finally, I managed to slip through a tiny gap and reach her. She was in a flustered state, her skin flushed red and she looked as if she might just burst into tears.

I took one look at her and grabbed her free hand. She flinched away from me, but I held onto her hand tight, willing her to look at me. Her shoulders slumped as she looked up and realised who I was - a familiar face amongst this craziness.

“Come on, let’s get out of here.” I called with a flick of my head in the direction I'd come.

It was so loud I had to yell, and even then I wasn’t sure she heard me.

She nodded her head at me in acknowledgement and squeezed my hand, indicating she was ready to follow.

“Please.” She mimed desperately.

It was all I needed. I held onto her hand tight and turned around, my face almost smacking into a broad, hairy chest.

“You’re Juliana, right?” The unknown man yelled at me. “One of the other actresses?”

I could almost feel the excitement buzz around the group as my identity became known. I shuddered to think that my presence here might make this worse, so I held on tighter to the sweating hand in my grip. I gritted my teeth and refused to respond, looking for another way forward.

“Juliana, what’s it like to work with Valentina?”

“Juliana, how is Valentina coping with her first acting role?”

“Juliana, do you think Valentina is dealing well with the pressure to perform?”

“Juliana, do you think Valentina is going to be as talented in this field as her mother?”

The questions came at me in quick succession, fast and furious like a hurricane. The voices began to blend into one persistent torrent, and it was instantly suffocating. I swallowed my fears of mild claustrophobia and put my head down. We needed to get out. Now.

Like a battering ram, I pushed forwards. My arm, elbows and shoulders became my weapons, assisting me as I forced my way through the crowd, all while I tugged at Valentina behind me.

The yelling of voices, sickly smell of sweat, rapid clicking of camera shutters and mass of bodies around me would not deter me from my goal. With fierce determination I ambled forwards, hoping I was heading in the right direction. I couldn’t see above the towering men around me, and when my feet stumbled at the first step, I almost cheered.

We were almost there.

Until a tall man with unruly hair and disgusting breath stopped me in my tracks.

“Juliana, are you Valentina’s next love interest?”

“Juliana, how does it feel to be on Valentina’s long list of conquests?”

“Are you two dating?”

“Juliana, are you gay too?”

My blood boiled at the audacity of these men. These unknown men with absolutely no right to be asking these kinds of personal questions.

I almost tackled the burly man in front of me as I steamrolled forward. We needed to get out of the chaos and into safety before I started throwing punches. My breathing techniques weren’t going to work here, so I clenched my teeth harder to restrain myself, desperate to get away.

I could almost smell freedom as we stumbled up the steps blindly. I thought we might just make it unscathed.

Just as I allowed that glimmer of hope to blossom, I heard a whimper from behind me. A whimper that had me spinning so fast my stomach couldn’t even keep up.

Valentina’s other arm was being pulled by a man with a dirty beard and crooked teeth. He had a maniacal look in his dark eyes as he pulled at her, almost toppling us both as I held on tight. Valentina looked terrified, her lip wobbling as her slim arm was tugged by large, unwelcome hands.

I’d had enough. I saw red, and a part of me that I did my best to hide came roaring to life.

I lunged down at the stranger, pushing him square in the chest with the heel of my palm. He was so unprepared for the force of the attack that he released his grip on Valentina’s arm and lost his balance. With one simple shove, I had sent him tumbling into the crowd of people below him.

Wide eyes turned to me, and for a moment, everyone was stunned into a strange kind of silence.

“Don’t you ever touch her again.” I screamed at him, my finger pointing aggressively at his chest.

As I stared down at the disgusting man who had dared lay his hands on Valentina, it dawned on me that this could turn very ugly, very quickly. We were two women surrounded by a mass of men who were all bigger and stronger than the both of us. I didn’t particularly want to stick around and find out if they were going to retaliate to my sudden burst of anger.

I whirled around and thundered up the steps, pulling Valentina behind me as I burst through the shocked crowd. Five more quick steps and my palm smacked at the glass door entrance, almost throwing it off its hinges as we practically fell into the building.

I sucked in a quick breath as I looked around the enormous foyer. The floors were polished concrete and the ceiling was high, pendant lights dropping in an irregular pattern to light up the already naturally bright space. White couches that looked like they’d squeak if you sat in them were dotted around the place, a glass wrapped conference room at one end of the cavernous space. Even with adrenaline still thumping through my body, I couldn’t help but think the space was way too large for a lobby.

I heard a gasp and a cough, pulling my attention to the front of the room. The long desk was made of the same material as the floor, LED lights illuminating the entire length of the structure. Three sets of eyes from behind the desk were wide and unblinking as they took in the sight of Valentina and I.

Valentina’s hand was still encased in my own, warm and trembling. I turned and looked at her, my heart clenching in my chest at the sight of her.

Her bottom lip was still quivering, her hair was disheveled and her thin white shirt had been tugged down over one shoulder, exposing a bright pink bra strap. She looked like she’d just been mugged, which wasn’t too far off what had just happened. I wasn’t aware of how long she’d been stuck in there, but the estimated two minutes I'd spent in the middle of it felt more like twenty. I couldn’t imagine what she’d experienced or felt being stuck in there for longer on her own.

“Are you okay?” I asked, legitimately concerned.

She sucked in a stuttered breath and using the grip on my hand, pulled me into her. Her long arms were flung over my shoulders as she wrapped me into a tight hug. I automatically slid my hands around her waist, returning the embrace. Straight away I could feel her body begin to shake against me. I wasn’t sure if it was a result of the rush of adrenaline in her system, or if she was crying into my shoulder.

Either way, I stood and held her, offering her the comfort she so clearly needed. I rubbed her back soothingly, shocked by the ferocity of her hug.

“Is everything okay?”

I looked up at the three people standing behind the desk. They were almost all identical, even though two were female and one male. They all had blonde hair, blue eyes and looked like they could lift me with one arm. It made sense considering this was a gym, after-all. I didn’t know which one had spoken, but they all looked a little skittish and unsure if they should approach us.

I quickly flicked them the thumbs up and that seemed to be enough. They exchanged looks between them and, apparently satisfied with my response, went back to their tasks, answering the phones and clacking away at their computer keyboards.

Once I gained control of my own heavy breathing, and with Valentina still shaking in my arms, I snuck a look to my right. The crowd that was gathered outside the building had dispersed. A dark blue SUV that hadn’t been there previously was parked askew at the base of the steps, as if they’d screeched to a sudden stop. Two muscular men wearing all black were manhandling the few paparazzi who were hanging around, still hoping to catch a glimpse of the famous model.

“It’s okay. They’re gone.” I whispered as I watched the two men clear out the crowd.

Valentina’s breathing began to calm down and her shaking eased, but her hold on me never loosened. The two men entered the building, clearly satisfied they’d removed the hounding press. They lifted their identical aviator style sunglasses and walked briskly towards us. Although I'd just seen them remove the people who had caused the mayhem outside, I still had no idea who they were and what their intentions were. I twisted Valentina so I was between her and the approaching men.

“Who are you?” I asked, perhaps a little hostile.

One of the men frowned at me, sidestepping around us and placing his hand gently on Valentina’s back. She flinched at the contact, holding tighter against me.

“Hey, leave us alone.” I hissed.

“Miss Carvajal. They’re all gone now.” The man said calmly, ignoring my comment.

I glared at him over Valentina’s shoulder, but he continued to pretend I didn’t exist.

“Felix?” Valentina’s feeble voice could only just be heard from the place in my neck she’d hunkered down in.

“Yes, Miss. It’s Felix. Damian is here too.”

“We’re here, Miss. No-one will harm you now.” The other man, Damian, spoke from behind me.

Valentina slowly pulled away from me. I reluctantly released my hold, watching her carefully as she stood in front of me, her hand running down my arm and slipping into my own. I was a little surprised at the action, but I squeezed our grip tighter to let her know it was okay.

Her eyes were red and puffy, confirming what I suspected - that she’d been crying. I was struck with how tortured her blue eyes looked, panic still evident in the tightness of her brows. She concentrated her gaze at me, an earnest sensitivity and flicker of awe prominent in the insecure blue. It was over, but it was clear the woman in front of me was still feeling the effects.

“Miss Valentina, are you okay?” Felix asked with a softness I was not expecting from a man as large and muscular as him.

Valentina licked her lips and swallowed, turning to address the man who had spoken.

“I’m okay, Felix. Thank you.”

Valentina’s voice was rough when she spoke, thick with emotion. She cleared her throat and blew out a slow breath, her body still managing and overcoming the effects of the ordeal outside.

“We’re sorry we arrived late. Mr Guille asked us to hurry but the traffic made it difficult.”

Valentina shook her head and wiped at her face with her hand, removing the wet residue of the tears that had streaked the skin of her cheeks.

“No, it’s fine. It’s not your fault. Thank you for coming, but Juliana helped me.”

All three eyes turned to me, and I gulped under the sudden attention.

“What happened?” Damian asked.

I wasn’t sure if the question was directed at me, so I answered anyway.

“I don’t really know. There were all these people surrounding her and she looked like she was struggling, so I tried to help. That crowd was horrible, yelling questions and not allowing us to move past easily. I don’t even really know how we got in here.” I said, a little dumbfounded.

“I was having coffee with Guille around the corner.” Valentina added, her hand still clutched tightly around my own. She moved closer to me, the lengths of our arms also touching. “Guille got called into the office so I told him I’d walk. I sat for a while and finished my coffee, but when I left they just surrounded me. Someone at the cafe must have tipped them off. They just came out of nowhere.” Valentina’s shaking hand threaded through her long hair. “They were in my face the entire time, yelling at me and taking photos. By the time I got here I was so flustered and confused that Juliana seriously saved me from a meltdown.”

Three pairs of eyes looked at me again. Valentina’s face was full of gratitude and amazement. The two men just looked mildly impressed.

“It was no big deal. I’m just glad you’re okay.” I said with a self-conscious shrug of my shoulders.

You’d think as an actress, who gets paid to deliver lines professionally for a living, I’d react more composed under that kind of attention. Apparently not.

A shrill phone rang and broke the staring contest I hadn’t realised I’d entered. The man I now knew as Damian stepped away to answer it.

“Thank you for stepping in and helping.” Felix said, offering me his hand.

I still wasn’t entirely sure of the connection between Valentina and these men, but I could connect the dots easily enough. The Carvajal’s were important and rich enough to hire bodyguards.

“Oh. You’re welcome.” I replied as I shook his hand.

“Mr Leon wants to speak with you. We’ll take you to his office.” Damian said as he returned, and Felix thankfully dropped his tight grip on my hand. Both men straightened and snapped their sunglasses back on their face.

“No, I have to stay here. I’m here for work, remember?” Valentina appealed, her thumb pointing towards the large gym doors behind us.

“Miss Valentina.” Felix warned, his voice firm.

Valentina pursed her lips and her shoulders sagged slightly. It was as if she’d already accepted defeat, but she tried again anyway.

“Felix, I'm fine. I’ve got work to do here.”

“You’re coming with us, Miss Valentina.”

Valentina closed her eyes and took in a deep breath, her fingers squeezing at the bridge of her nose. The scared, slightly traumatised woman was gone. She now just seemed frustrated and a little pissed off.

“I don’t have a choice, do I?” She snapped.

“No, Miss. Mr Carvajal requested we bring you to him.”

“Fucking hell.” Valenina muttered under her breath. “Fine.”

Valentina spun and pulled me into another brief hug, whispered a thank you into my ear, and was out the door in a matter of seconds, flanked by the two black-cladded men.

 

~ ~ ~

 

When I walked into the large warehouse style gym the next morning, I was greeted with a round of raucous applause.

The small group of stunt directors, choreographers and other crew members were joined by my co-stars in cheering, whistling and clapping. I looked behind me, but no-one was there. I felt that familiar internal cringe as I realised the ridiculous celebration had to be directed at me.

Sergio laughed as he approached me, his white teeth shining from behind a thickening beard. He threw a strong arm around my shoulder and joined me as I walked further into the space.

“That was epic! The way that guy flew.” Sergio ranted in what seemed like admiration. “I didn’t know you were so badass, girl.”

I pushed Sergio away with a mocking laugh, finally clicking on to what was happening.

“Whatever, Serg. You know I've always been amazing.” I said with a wink.

I slowed in my tracks and scolded myself at what I'd done. I panicked at the positive attention focused on me and somehow ended up flirting with the man who really didn’t need the encouragement. He looked like a puppy dog who was about to be given a bone, so I moved away from him immediately. I threw my gym bag on top of the pile of everyone else’s and joined the group, the applause thankfully fading.

“Let’s use that kind of energy for this training now, Juli.” Called Oscar, a tall, muscular man with a fearsome energy.

I threw the stunt director a panicked thumbs up, once again mortified by my actions.

A double thumbs up? Really?

Before I could dwell on how ridiculous I was being, I was wrapped up in a hug from Anna.

“Told you everyone would go mental over it.” She whispered in my ear.

Anna called me that night after I’d arrived home. She was so surprised it took her almost five minutes to explain what was going on. One of the video’s of me pushing over the man from that morning’s swarm of paparazzi had gone viral, with a variety of headlines ranging from how I was a raging lunatic, to how I'd become Valentina’s knight in shining armour. Most people had preferred the stance of the latter, with other celebrities and regular people retweeting and resharing the video, commenting on the strength shown against these people who crossed a line by grabbing at the model.

“Jesus, Juli. You kept that one quiet today.” Anna had exclaimed on the phone. “This is blowing up!”

Little did I know just how viral the video would become.

Anna gave me one more squeeze and released me.

“Three point six million views as of 20 minutes ago, Juli. Crazy.” Anna beamed. “Beyonce and Bieber even shared it.”

“Really?” I stuttered, my eyebrows almost reaching my hairline at the idea that Beyonce and Justin Bieber knew who I was.

Aside from that slightly overwhelming thought, I took the opportunity to sweep the room for Valentina. I hadn’t seen her as I entered the gym, and I hadn’t seen or heard anything about her since the incident the day before.

“She isn’t here yet.” Anna whispered, correctly guessing what my reconnaissance was for.

“Ladies.” Oscar called, sharp and authoritative.

We both straightened automatically and ducked our heads as we realised everyone was ready and waiting for us. We threw meek apologies at the instructor as we quickly joined the rest of the group. I sat cross legged on the blue gym mat that covered the entire floor, right behind Sergio and Lucho, with Anna folding into an elegant position beside me.

“Right.” Oscar started with a sharp clap of his hands. He looked around the group as if doing a head-count, his expression forming a grimace. He considered one of the crew members with an unyielding stare. I learned pretty quickly the previous day that I wouldn’t want to be on Oscar’s bad side.

“Where is she?”

As soon as the words left his lips, the clunky metal door of the gym crashed open. We all swiveled around to look at who had caused the commotion, and I felt my heart skip a beat when I spotted her. Her hair was pulled back in flawless french braids, and she was dressed similarly to yesterday, in a loose fitting white shirt and black full length tights. She breezed in with her trademark sunglasses on her face and an oversized bag slung over one shoulder. Once I was done ogling, I noticed she wasn’t alone.

I recognised Felix and Damian easily. They were dressed identically again, clad in black with burly chests and bulging arms. They flanked Valentina closely, and she looked comically tiny sandwiched between them.

She faltered in her step as she realised everyone was looking at her. She quickly pulled her sunglasses off her face, threw them carelessly into her bag, and tossed it in the growing pile of people’s possessions in one corner of the room. A wordless goodbye was said between Valentina and her bodyguards, and she hurried over towards us, her white sneakers squeaking against the gym mat as she walked.

“Valentina, nice of you to join us.” Oscar said admonishingly.

“Sorry I’m late.” She replied sheepishly. “Traffic.”

Blue eyes found mine and there was no mistaking the lift of her lips. Without hesitating, she sat down right beside me, her knee millimetres away from touching my own. I held my breath for a second as I took in her proximity, my unabashed gaze focused on her for a moment too long.

“How are you? We are aware that you had an interesting morning yesterday. We missed you here.” Oscar remarked, his tone losing a bit of its regular ferocity.

Valentina’s jaw clenched briefly before she shrugged her shoulders dismissively.

“I’m fine now. Thanks for asking.”

Oscar bowed his head and then clapped his hands again, clearly ready to move on with the day’s events. I wondered if anyone else was going to say anything to her, but other than a few lingering glances, no-one said a word.

“Today, we’ll be building on some of the hand combat moves we started yesterday. Remember, you’ll be required to film these over the coming weeks, so it’s in your best interests to pay attention and work hard. Adrian has communicated extensively with me what he needs you prepared for, and he is expecting absolute competency. You know how tight filming schedules are, so we can’t waste time re-teaching moves you should already have grasped.”

Oscar’s eyes were wide and full of high expectations, and I felt myself kick into the next gear. There was nothing I enjoyed more than proving someone wrong, and I got the impression Oscar lacked faith in us. I loved a challenge.

“I will be teaching you some basic combat techniques, and Antonio will be going through your choreography.” Oscar explained. “Unfortunately, I can’t work directly with each of you, so I will be setting you all up with a sparring partner.”

My heart thumped at the thought.

“You’ll be paired up with one of my very capable instructors.” He continued as he motioned towards a group of very fit looking men, all with well defined arms, and my shoulders slumped in disappointment. “They will be guiding you through the movements.”

We all nodded in acknowledgement at Oscar as he stared at us expectantly. When he was satisfied we all understood, he moved towards his instructors and began pairing us up. Lucho stood as a man twice the size of him stood before him. There was no stopping the snicker of amusement from the rest of us as Lucho paled.

A younger, less masculine man approached Anna. I snorted in amusement when Sergio wolf-whistled as the man held out his hand to her, assisting her to stand. Anna’s scolding look back at him only encouraged the laughter.

A warm hand on my knee pulled my attention to the woman sitting on the other side of me.

“Hey. Are you okay?” She asked quietly. “I didn’t mean to just run off like that yesterday. I realised afterwards I didn’t really check in with you and that was really shitty of me.”

I shook my head with a smile, trying to ease the anxiety I could see in the furrow of her brow. I fought the urge to reach out and smooth the lines there.

“Don’t worry about it. I’m fine.” I said, but Valentina didn’t seem convinced. I ducked towards her slightly, trying to reassure her. “Really. I’m good.”

Valentina seemed to relax a little, her expression softening as her intelligent blue eyes recognised my sincerity. She sucked at her bottom lip and bobbed her head in acceptance. There was no stopping the slip of my gaze, entranced as her teeth nibbled at the pink flesh of her full lips. They glistened, and I wondered what flavour of lip gloss she had applied.

“How are you?” I asked, a little breathless, dragging my eyes back up to meet hers.

Valentina huffed out a quiet laugh, her smile lighting up her eyes. I don’t know if she meant to do it, but her thumb rubbed across the inside of my knee. It was just once, most likely a mindless action, but I felt like I could combust on the spot.

“I’m okay.” She murmured, blinking slowly through long eyelashes.

“Good.” I uttered in response, biting the inside of my cheek to hold back the stupid smile that was trying to break free.

“Miss Valdes, you’re with me.”

My head snapped up to spot a tall man standing over me, his hand outstretched.

“Oh.” I croaked, remembering where I was and what I was supposed to be doing. “Great.”

I felt Valentina’s hand fall from my knee as I took the unfamiliar man’s offered hand and stood. He was about a foot taller than me, with thick dark hair and a five o’clock shadow.

“I’m Ruben. It’s nice to meet you.”

He smiled at me, two dimples forming in his cheeks, and shook my hand. I immediately detected his friendly nature and I returned an easy-going grin.

“Juliana.”

No matter how handsome or friendly the man was, my internal radar was still very much centered elsewhere. I engaged in distracted small-talk with Ruben for a minute as my attention focused on Valentina. I held my breath and watched on as she was matched with a very trim, very fit looking female.

God, why?

I heard snippets of their conversation as Ruben attempted to explain what we were going to start with. The woman with large brown eyes and tanned skin introduced herself to Valentina as Luna. I tried not to be too obvious as I watched Luna basically eat Valentina with her eyes, my teeth grinding as Valentina giggled at what I was sure was a terribly lame joke.

“You ready?” Ruben asked, his dark eyes twinkling.

Poor guy. I hoped he didn’t think he was in with a chance.

“Let’s do this.” I said with a clap.

Nothing better to distract myself than physically throwing myself around with a strapping young man.

“Okay.” Oscar called out, his hands in the air to gain our attention. The chatter amongst the group ceased as we focused on the lead instructor. “The first move we will learn is a simple block. Find some space on the mat, standing approximately one metre away from your partner.”

 

The day was long and physical, and I was exhausted by the time Oscar dismissed us later that afternoon. We had sparred with our partners for hours, learning all kinds of offensive and defensive moves that we would implement in some upcoming fight scenes. And that was how the next few days were structured. We spent hours upon hours in that huge warehouse gym, learning fight moves and then rehearsing them under strict choreographed guidance.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. I loved the physicality of the role. It was part of the reason I’d accepted the job in the first place (aside from the fact it was the biggest job of my career thus far). I considered myself relatively fit, but there were times in that gym, with Ruben swinging jabs and kicks at me, that I felt like collapsing in a heap.

Due to the five of us having our own instructors and choreographers teaching us exactly how our individual fight scene would be filmed, we didn’t get the opportunity to spend much time together. I was too exhausted to even bother looking for the others, too focused on practising my own movements to bother exerting more brain power on them and how they were doing.

The final two days of training, however, we were all together. There was an upcoming scene in which during our fights against the zombies, we had been backed to a section of the forest that fell away into a deep crevice. The script writers and location scouts worked together to orchestrate the scene, ensuring the only way to get across was to jump. In order to film this scene safely, Oscar and the rest of the trainers were in charge of teaching us how to properly jump with a wire which was hooked up to an elaborate pulley system. For some reason, Adrian didn’t want any of this filmed on a green screen, yabbering on about the integrity of the project and making it as realistic as possible. So every scene would be shot on location, in the middle of the forest, where there was an actual ravine.

My problem was not coordinating what I assumed was a ridiculous amount of planning and construction to execute the stunt. My problem was ensuring I could make the jump as realistically as possible. So that’s what I worked hard at, desperate to prove my worth.

We were all feeling the effects of the previous days of physical training. I could barely lift my arms above my head, and my legs felt like lead. But I pushed through it, taking advice and feedback from Ruben on ways I could make it look like I was jumping without assistance, and getting used to being winched up in the air for considerable amounts of time. After a few hours, we were all grumbling about the harness that was cutting uncomfortably into our skin. The boys especially did not hold back on voicing their complaints.

Despite this, the thing that irritated me the most was the female trainer, Luna, and the way she was so pathetically drooling over Valentina. I wasn’t sure if it was exacerbated due to how tired and tetchy I was feeling, but the woman stood beneath us, clapping her hands and squealing every time Valentina managed to execute a movement to Oscars high standards. Which, unfortunately for her, wasn’t often.

Valentina seemed to be struggling the most out of all of us. The skin beneath her eyes were puffy and dark, and her legs visibly shook each time she attempted a jump. She was quiet, barely conversing with any of us throughout our time at the gym. It took her the longest to nail the practice jump, and she required more one-on-one practice with Oscar and Luna than anyone else.

“This is a stitch up. How did Valentina manage to get the hot female trainer?” Sergio asked, his arm shooting out towards them.

Sergio, Lucho, Anna and I were standing on a platform, hooked up to our individual wires, ready to attempt another practice jump together. The trainers all milled about below us talking, most of their hard work already done. Valentina stood on the large blue mat, nodding along as Luna gave her direction on elements of her performance she needed to work on.

I did my best to not scowl at the scene below me. Luna was clearly taking advantage of the situation, her hands on Valentina’s body at any chance she got. She shamelessly flirted with the woman for the entirety of our time in that place. The smile never left her lips, and her eyes never left Valentina’s slim form.

As much as I hated to see it, I also couldn’t really blame her for that. Valentina was a sight to behold. The sweat on her hairline and the determined look on her face somehow made her look even more attractive than she already was. Her crop and high waisted leggings combo made it difficult to not gawk as her stomach flexed and clenched with each duck or weave. I thought the woman placing her hands on the flat plane of Valentina’s abdomen was crossing some sort of professional line, but who was I to make judgement? I forced myself to look away so I didn’t have to subject myself to the sight.

“I’m not complaining.” Anna replied, her eyes lingering on the scene below us.

Lucho nudged her with his elbow, her eyes lifting to frown at him.

“You like what you see, huh?” Lucho asked with a teasing arch to his thick brow.

Anna narrowed her eyes at him and slapped his shoulder.

“I was talking about my trainer, you perv.” She looked down at the other trainers and smiled. “David is very sexy.”

Sergio threw his hands in the air like a child throwing a tantrum.

“Lucho, the women all get paired up with someone they might actually be interested in. And here we are, being thrown around by men with huge egos, as if they’re out here trying to prove something.”

“My guy hasn’t taken his eyes off Juliana this entire time.” Lucho remarked, and three sets of eyes landed on me.

I shook my head and wagged my finger in the air.

“Not interested.”

The three of them gaped at me as if I were insane. I looked down at Lucho’s training partner, taking in his huge form and gigantic muscles, then back at my co-stars.

“Come on, look at him. He’d crush me. That’s not exactly something I’d like to experience.”

Anna giggled and nodded her head in agreement.

“Yeah, imagine that on top of you.” She added.

I joined Anna in her laughter as Lucho and Sergio both made gagging sounds.

“Alright, are we ready?” Oscar’s commanding voice immediately silenced the room.

With everyone’s attention on Oscar below us, I scanned the room for Valentina. She’d disappeared from where I saw her last, and I spotted Luna standing back with the rest of the trainers. All I had to do was follow Luna’s eyeline to find what I was looking for.

I spotted Valentina slowly climbing the ladder we’d already scaled, well on her way to the platform to join us. Her movements were slow and jolty, but she ascended the high scaffold as Oscar continued to shout his direction. Valentina dragged herself to the top, straightened and walked to stand beside me, her expression weary but sharp in concentration.

“You alright?” I whispered to her, my eyes on Oscar as if I were paying attention.

Out of my peripheral vision, I could see her nod her head slowly.

“Yeah. Just a little tired.” She replied quietly. “I haven’t been sleeping well.”

I wanted to ask her what was keeping her up at night. I was curious to know what was going on in her life to the point that it disturbed her sleep. Instead, I leaned slightly closer to her.

“If we make this jump, we can go home.” I said out of the side of my mouth. “I find it easier to propel my legs in the air mid jump. It helps with the momentum.”

Valentina released an exhausted breath and nodded her head again.

“Okay. I’ll give it a go.”

“On the wall, and wait for my call.” Oscar called out.

I hadn’t listened to a single thing Oscar had said up to this point, so I followed the lead of the others. The idea of getting out of this harness and going home to a hot bath and a glass of vino was enough motivation for me to really dig deep for this jump.

The five of us walked backwards until we hit the wall behind us. My fingers reached for the cool concrete wall as I hunched into a starter's running position. My eyes were almost burning a hole through the opposite platform, the voice in my head telling me not to stuff this one up.

“Let’s nail this one. I have a six pack of beer at home that’s calling out to me.” Sergio grumbled.

I sniggered as Oscar began his countdown.

“Three. Two. ONE.”

The five of us launched ourselves off the wall, our legs stretching towards the edge. I grunted as I pushed off as hard as I could, my right leg tense with power. I flew through the air, my muscles screaming at me, the wires tugging achingly at my harness. I landed on the other platform gracelessly, stumbling and falling onto the squeaky gym mat.

There were cheers from below us as I gradually pushed myself onto my heels and up into a standing position. I looked to my left to find the three others with me on the platform, each of them in different stages of exhaustion on the mat. Sergio was flat on his back, his arms and legs outstretched like a starfish. Lucho was on his hands and knees, while Anna sat beside him on her backside, legs bent up and arms stretched behind her to keep her upright.

When I turned to my right, it was Valentina who surprised me. She was still standing, her hands on her hips as she sucked in air as if she’d just run a marathon. She was looking down at the trainers, a triumphant smile on her face.

She made it. I felt the compulsion to walk over to her, pick her up and whirl her around in celebration. It was the first time she’d made it all day, and I felt my heart swell in satisfaction for her.

But I was stopped in my tracks, discouraged by a high-pitched female voice.

“You did it, Vale! You made it. That was so amazing!” Luna screamed and cheered and clapped, jumping up and down on the spot.

I rolled my eyes, breathed out deeply, and fell into a heap beside Anna.

 

~ ~ ~

 

The obvious downside to filming outdoors was the weather.

I cursed at the sky as I stood in the rain, the familiar tug of the harness and its wires causing a red rash to flame on the inside of my thighs. These harnesses were less bulky than the ones we practiced in at the gym over a week ago. Unfortunately, but for obvious reasons, we had to wear these ones underneath our clothes.

After our intense gym training, we had three days off before arriving back on location. The past three days back on location were spent filming our fight scenes, and the weather had been hot and humid. I don’t think I'd ever sweat so much in my entire life. When the clouds came rolling over that morning, I thought Adrian would call off the scheduled jump. Instead, his eyes lit up like a kid in a candy shop.

“This is perfect!” He proclaimed. “The rain will add another touch of drama to the already tense situation.”

The script supervisors and producers eagerly agreed, their headsets buzzing with new instructions.

So here we stood, soaked to the bone, waiting for Adrian’s call.

“Right. You five have had days of practice for this moment. We don’t want to be out in this weather for any longer than we have to.” Adrian shouted excitedly over the sound of the rain. He stood underneath an umbrella, a young blonde intern holding the shelter for him. “Everything is set. It would be really great if we could land it in one shot.”

I bit back my sarcastic remark, but Sergio was clearly less impressed than I was.

“Obviously, Adrian. We’re not here to purposely fuck up this scene.” Drops of rain flicked from Sergio’s fingers as he waved his hand in the air. “This is really uncomfortable so if you could just hurry this up?”

Apparently nothing was going to ruin Adrian’s mood today. He simply nodded his head with a smile and scurried off, the intern struggling to keep up. He disappeared under the row of tents and behind the cameras that were wrapped in their own little ponchos.

“This is like torture.” Lucho complained.

“Stop being such a sook.” Anna said. “There are worse things than rain.”

“Yeah, like watching Sergio flirt.”

Our heads all swivelled to gape at Valentina. She stood to my right, book ending the five of us. She shot us all a sheepish smile and a shrug of her shoulders. The joke was so well timed and perfectly delivered that there was no stopping the delayed laughter that burst from Lucho, Anna and I. Lucho slapped Sergio on the back as his friend stood with his mouth open in dismay at the model poking fun at him.

“She’s got a point, mate.” He roared around his howling laugh.

Anna and I almost doubled over in laughter, Valentina even joining in with her own delightful chuckle. And just like that, the tension between us, the frustration of standing out in the pouring rain, was broken.

“How would you know?” Sergio asked, clearly entertained but still trying to defend his wounded ego.

Valentina bit her lip and tilted her head at him.

“I’ve seen you try to flirt with Juliana, Serg. It’s been painful to watch.”

Valentina’s expression flicked from gentle teasing to obvious concern as the words spooled out and then sunk in. She looked at me as the other three continued with their raucous laughter, searching my face for recognition of her slip up. I couldn’t hide it, a small smile stretching my lips as I processed the accidental confession.

Valentina had been watching me.

“Sorry.” She mumbled, her eyes shifting and uncertain.

She didn’t even try to explain it, or make an excuse to cover it up. It was out there, my brain not quite processing the implication of what that meant. Valentina was looking awkward and mortified with herself, and I couldn’t let her continue to feel as though it were wrong. Because to me, there was nothing wrong about it. In fact, I was flattered and intrigued.

Without really realising what I was doing, my hand stretched out towards her. I needed to get her full attention, and she was clearly embarrassed that she’d caught herself out. My fingers wrapped gently around her wrist and we both trembled at the contact. The action worked exactly how I intended, her blue eyes firmly settling on mine.

“Please, don’t apologise.” I murmured. “There’s no need.”

She blinked at me dumbly for a moment, perhaps shocked at my quiet plea. Then, realising I wasn’t at all concerned or repelled by the idea of her watching me, she softened and awarded me with a silly, lopsided grin.

ROLLING!

My hand fell from Valentina’s wrist as Adrian’s booming voice snapped me back to reality. I swallowed hard and shook my head, focusing on the task ahead.

“Let’s do it!” Sergio yelled emphatically.

I dug my feet into the wet ground, my shoes slipping slightly in what was quickly becoming mud. I tensed my muscles and waited.

And ACTION!

The five of us sprinted, our ripped clothes sticking to our wet bodies, the fake blood smearing as we ran in the rain. As if in unison, we all skidded to a stop, the wires attached to our harnesses helping to keep us upright as we slid in the wet.

“Shit!” Lucho yelled, his brown hair stuck to his forehead.

“What do we do?” Valentina called out, turning to look behind us. “They’re coming.”

The anguish and panic in her voice was perfect, and I was impressed at how effortlessly she just nailed her lines. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to waste thinking about that.

I looked down, my eyes surveying the scene before us. The crevice in the forest before us was deep, the rain pouring off the edges and down into the darkness.

I silently thanked the harness and ignored the thumping of my heart at what we were about to do.

“We have to jump it.” I stated, my voice shaking slightly.

“Are you crazy?” Anna replied incredulously. “There has to be another way.”

“There’s no way around this, Veronica.” I spat at Anna. “Do you have a better plan?”

“Unless you want to get eaten, Veronica, this is it.” Sergio screamed as he stepped back, giving himself enough space to get a run up.

“This is crazy.” Anna whined in defeat.

We all stepped back in line with Sergio, our eyes wide in fear. I looked behind my shoulder and watched as at least 100 extras, all made up to look like very realistic zombies, advanced towards us in the rain. Their collective groaning was very disconcerting, and my pulse raced with adrenaline.

“As one.” I bellowed, fighting to be heard over the rain and approaching zombies.

“On three.” Sergio shouted.

I took one look at Valentina beside me. She looked right back at me, her jaw set and a fierce spark of tenacity in her eyes.

“One.”

Valentina gave me one resolute nod and turned towards the jump.

“Two.”

I followed her lead, stooping into a strong starting position.

“THREE.”

I took the cue and ran as fast as I could towards the lip of the crevice. The rain hit my face harshly, making it difficult to see. I trusted the wires to help me out and with all the confidence in the world, I pushed off my dominant leg and jumped, just as I had practiced so many times in that huge warehouse gym.

For a few moments, it felt like I was flying. My legs propelled mid-air, and I urged my body forwards, towards the other side of the gaping hole.

My feet hit the other side and I stumbled slightly, my hands clawing at the muddy ground to help me find my balance. I crawled on my hands and feet for a few metres before I was able to use my momentum to push my body upright and keep running. My lungs burned and my eyes watered, but as I reached the point beyond the jump that indicated the end of where the cameras could reach, I could hear Adrian yell CUT through his microphone.

As I slowed to a stop, I could hear the loud cheering begin. From out under the tents spilled out the stunt coordinators, production assistants, grips and all other kinds of crew members. They whooped and cheered in the rain, circling us and hugging us triumphantly.

One of the stunt coordinators, Andreas, ran over and unclipped my harness. The wires disappeared upwards, assumedly to the high-tec scaffold that had been purpose built for this stunt. He offered me a high-five and a brief hug.

“Smashed it.” He called in his charming French accent, squeezing lightly before releasing me and reaching for Anna.

I was quickly swept up in the atmosphere of euphoria. It was a difficult scene for the actors to execute, but it had been an extremely difficult stunt to organise and coordinate. So much planning had gone into ensuring the safety of all involved, while maintaining the quality of the filming. Dozens of people had been involved in the set up and delivery of the scene, and I was quickly understanding that it had gone smoothly, precisely how everyone had planned.

I was surrounded and given many more high-fives and fist bumps by crew members, their teeth on show through wide smiles, no-one so much as caring about getting wet.

Sergio, Anna and Lucho were enjoying the attention, their faces lit up as they whooped along with the crew. I searched for Valentina, realising for this kind of reaction, she must have made the jump first take with the rest of us. I spun in a whole 360 degrees before I found the blue eyes I’d been searching for.

She was standing off to my right, her black shirt clinging to her skin and hair that had fallen out of her ponytail stuck to her face. She had mud splattered all up her legs, her shoes no longer the navy blue they were at the start of the day. Despite all that, the smile on her face was jubilant. She was shining, her whole body vibrating with victory. And she was gazing right back at me, her outward joy at nailing the scene in first go directed right at me.

Even with the chaos swirling around us and the adrenaline still hurtling through my veins, my mind remembered a late night in my hotel room where a promise of doing better was made. Valentina’s quiet yet determined voice echoed around my brain.

The product of hard work and dedication stood in front of me, and I couldn’t have felt happier to be proven wrong.

Her blue eyes shined knowingly, her eyes crinkling at the edges as she smiled even wider. I tipped my head back and laughed.

Chapter Text

“I heard you guys pulled off that insane stunt first take.” Yolanda exclaimed. “In the pouring rain, no less. Congratulations!”

I snorted in tired amusement as I twirled the ends of my hair that rest on the bedspread. I was flat on my back in the centre of the large bed in the hotel room that was starting to feel like my second home. I’d fallen there once my thumb had tapped Yolanda’s name, still fully dressed from dinner. My phone was pressed gently against my ear, happy to finally be hearing Yolanda’s voice.

“Thanks, Yo. I’m glad it’s done and over.” I sighed. “When are you coming back? I miss you.”

Yolanda chuckled through the earpiece.

“I’m afraid this new project is a little more complex than RUN. The costumes on this show are mind-blowing.”

I smiled at the excitement in her voice. Yolanda had been poached by another leading producer for a show set in the early 1800’s. Being from that time period, the costume design was intricate and detailed, and needed to accurately represent that era. She was lucky that Leon recognised her talents and had enough staff to help cover her role on RUN. That allowed Yolanda to pursue a job that many in that sector of the industry dream of, while still contracting with his production where possible.

“That’s amazing. I told you this show was beneath you.” I sniggered as I kicked off my shoes, using my toes and heels as leverage. They landed with a quiet clunk somewhere on the floor. “And you’re enjoying it? Are the people nice?”

“Yeah! The people are lovely. This job is huge and it’s keeping me really busy. It’s such a fantastic opportunity and I'm loving every second of it...”

The sensation of my hair being tugged at the root felt rather calming. I closed my eyes and listened to Yolanda describe the complicated and challenging nature of her new job. She sounded ecstatic and it filled my chest with a great warmth.

“Well, as much as I miss you here, I’m happy you’re happy.”

“Thanks, Juli.” Yolanda muttered, a little shy.

“What about Henry? Give me the latest.” I implored, rubbing my eyes lightly. The slight pressure eased the tightness that had become a common occurrence these past weeks.

Yolanda giggled. It was a giddy sound, one that Yolanda rarely used. She was typically very composed and levelheaded, the one in the friendship who regularly had to talk sense into me. Upon picking up the undercurrent of frivolous enthusiasm, my eyes snapped open and I smiled at the ceiling.

“He sent me flowers to the studio yesterday.” She whispered, as if someone else might hear.

“Oh my God, how adorable.” I crooned.

“Shut up.” She scalded me playfully. “He’s been really sweet. We went to dinner last week when he was back from working on location for the night.”

“Hang on. You’re telling me he got the night off, and he spent it driving all the way back to the city to take you to dinner?” I asked incredulously.

Yolanda was quiet on her end of the line, and I could almost hear her rolling her eyes at me.

“Oh wow, Yo. He’s got it bad.” I laughed.

“Whatever.” She said loudly, trying to be heard over my delirious laughter. “What about your not-so-secret crush, huh? How’s that going for you?”

A classic diversion tactic. I had to give it to her; she learnt it from the best.

“What?” I asked skeptically through my light laughter. “What crush?”

Yolanda snorted and this time it was me rolling my eyes.

“Oh, please. I’m talking about the drop-dead gorgeous model you’re currently working with, and you know it. The one who you’re trying to show everyone you despise, but I know you better than that.”

The arm that wasn’t holding my phone to my ear relaxed onto the bed. I looked up to the white ceiling above me, my mind conjuring up all kinds of images of Valentina Carvajal. I felt the blood rush to my skin, suddenly feeling quite hot, as I remembered our encounter in the dark hallway in the studio. Even though it happened weeks ago, I still frequently found my mind meandering lazily through the images of Valentina pressed tightly against the wall, the feeling of her warm body wrapped around me, at the most inopportune moments.

“I told you we made a truce.”

Yolanda made an indignant sound, as if she were offended at the comment.

“Yeah. In your hotel room. Late at night.” She pointed out dryly. “And you’re telling me that nothing happened between you and the famous lesbian?”

“Nothing happened that night, Yo.”

There was a suspicious silence on the other end of the line.

“Nothing happened that night? So you’re saying something happened another night?”

“Yolanda…” I complained childishly.

KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK.

I sighed in obvious relief. Saved by the knock.

That conversation with Yolanda was about to become much trickier to navigate. It’s not that I wanted to hide things from my best friend, I just wasn’t ready to tell her yet. Nor was I ready to deal with the pestering I knew would come once she discovered my little secret. She’d already questioned my intentions regarding the paparazzi situation over several days. I could only imagine what she was going to say once she found out I'd already been intimate with Valentina.

“Someone’s here. I have to go.” I said, sitting up. My head spun a little with the quick movement.

“No way. You are not hanging up on me right now.”

“I’ll call you later, Yo.” I promised.

“Juliana…” Yolanda warned.

“Miss you!” I said, making exaggerated kissing sounds before hanging up and throwing my phone carelessly on the bed beside me.

Without really wondering who would be knocking on my door this time of night, I shuffled towards the entryway. I didn’t bother checking the peephole, grasping the brass handle and heaving the heavy door open.

I blinked foolishly, my breath getting stuck momentarily in my throat, as I set eyes on my visitor.

“Oh, hey.” I said, unable to hide my surprise. “Valentina.”

Valentina smiled at me bashfully, swaying slightly where she stood. She looked as if she’d just returned from an evening out. Her hands were tucked into the front pockets of faded stonewashed denim jeans. She rocked in a pair of suspiciously clean white Nike Air Max trainers. A black shirt with white cursive text along her breasts was tucked into her jeans, her long hair trailing over her shoulders in a windswept look.

She was stunning, even dressed casually. I swallowed and stood up straighter, forcing my eyes to look at her face and not ogle the rest of her slim frame.

“Hey.” Valentina replied, her cheeks reddening slightly. “I’m glad you’re still up.”

Her eyes swept the length of me, confirming that I also hadn’t yet made my way to bed. Like her, I was still fully dressed. Jeans that I had immediately regretted wearing due to the warm night were still clinging to my legs. My white socks were on show, and I tried not to notice the exaggerated height difference now she was wearing shoes and I wasn’t. I wore my favourite black sleeveless shirt and decorated belt buckle. I was surprised to see Valentina’s gaze hover for a moment too long over the length of my arms.

“I am. I just got back from dinner.” I said slowly, my brain apparently not quite catching up with what was happening.

Now that I'd accepted that the long days of filming were simply a part of my life here, I’d begun accepting invitations to explore the town at night. A few less hours of sleep each night weren’t going to change my perpetually tired eyes. Grace and Liza, the on-set photographer and scriptwriter with whom I met at Leon’s first hotel pool party, regularly accompanied Anna and me on our evening adventures. We tried all kinds of local cuisines and frequented a few alternate bars, enjoying one another's company and switching off after a long day of filming.

“Yeah, me too.” Valentina revealed. “My brother came to visit. We found a great Thai place for dinner.”

I quickly checked the corridor of the hotel, wondering if he was accompanying her here now, but it was silent and deserted.

“Guille?”

I never had much to do with Guille Carvajal, but from what I'd heard, he was humble and quietly spoken. The few times I'd seen Leon and Guille together, I had wondered about the dynamics between father and son. Just from my brief observation, Leon and Guille appeared as polar opposites. What I did know about Valentina’s older brother was that he was tall and handsome, giving off a kind of rugged likeability. As I watched his sister standing before me, it was clear beauty was hereditary.

“The very one.” Valentina snorted an adorable laugh through her nose, my eyes finding hers again. “He’s in his room now, though.”

A flash of affection lit up her eyes at the mention of her brother. I smiled crookedly at her, delighted to see the crease of her eyes as her own smile widened.

“Do you want to come in?” I asked politely.

I still didn’t know the reason why Valentina had knocked on my door, but my curiosity was certainly piqued. I didn't particularly want to have a conversation with her in the hallway, whatever the topic may be.

Valentina cleared her throat, her hands lifting out of the comfort of her pockets.

“Oh, ah, yeah. You’re probably wondering what the hell I'm doing, knocking at your door this late at night.” She released a breathy laugh, the sound tinged with nervousness. “I was hoping we could talk. If you have a minute?”

It was obvious Valentina was anxious about approaching my door at almost midnight. She wrung her hands in front of her and chewed at the inside of her lip as she waited for my response. Seeing her so unsure of herself constantly sparked a strange king of intrigue inside of me. It was the complete opposite of what I’d observed when I watched her interact with everyone else. She always seemed to be so sure of herself, held herself with a breezy kind of confidence that I was almost envious of. But right here, as she stood at the door of my hotel room, she was hesitant.

I stood aside and held the door open for her with a soft smile, inviting her inside.

“Come on in.”

She gave me a lopsided grin and moved forward into the room. She was close enough that as she passed, I could smell the faint linger of cigarette smoke and the sharp hint of spice, both indications of where she’d been that evening. However, beneath the typical combination of restaurant and bar aroma’s that were clinging to her clothes and hair was her unmistakable natural perfume. There was no masking the subdued floral scent that, in my head, had become synonymous with the model.

I followed her into the room, allowing the self-closing door to do its job. It clicked shut as we reached the main area of the spacious room, and I indicated with my arm for her to sit down in one of the armchairs on offer. With a meek nod of her head, she spun and sat in the same armchair she occupied the last time she set foot in this room.

“Do you want a drink? I have some beers in the fridge.” I offered, tilting my head towards the well stocked bar fridge in my kitchenette.

“No, thank you. I’ve had enough to drink tonight already I think.” She admitted, settling onto the chair. She perched herself on the edge, her ankles crossed and hands settled in her lap.

She looked up at me and for the first time, I noticed the slightly unsteady look in her lightly made-up eyes.

“Are you drunk?” I asked, one eyebrow raised.

“No, not drunk.” She shook her head with a mischievous smile. “I’ve had a few drinks but it takes a lot more than 4 drinks to get me drunk.”

I made a clicking sound with my tongue and stepped to the free armchair, flopping into it. Unlike Valentina, I settled right into the cushioned seat. My hands gripped the ends of the arms, my legs crossed and my head rested against the high back.

“Sorry about the mess.” I said, glancing over the room.

The coffee table was littered with script pages, my handwritten notes scribbled across them, and discarded coffee cups from this morning’s breakfast. My bed had outfits that hadn’t made the cut to tonight's dinner thrown across it, and my shoes were strewn across the room. The television was on low, the music channel flashing with the latest raunchy pop film clips.

Valentina looked around the space, her eyes gliding across the low-lit space.

“This is not messy.” Valentina stated around a crooked smile. “You should see my room. Growing up, Guille used to call me Pig-Pen from the Peanuts comic. Of course, I didn’t like that, so I used to sneak into his room and steal his records when he wasn’t there. It used to infuriate him.”

She peered back at me, a spirited gleam in her eye. It was obvious she had a strong relationship with her brother, and the tiny insight into her life, at her wicked sense of humour, was illuminating. She looked more relaxed, and there was something about the lighthearted way she was looking at me that made my heart beat a little faster in my chest.

I found myself unable to look away. I knew I reflected the silly smile on her face, and although I wanted to bask in the unexpected emotion that swelled in my chest and was dying to shine through, I forced myself to restrain it. I was satisfied with the amicable, friendly place we finally reached after a tumultuous beginning. I didn’t want to ruin it.

“That’s some serious revenge. I feel sorry for your brother.” I teased softly.

Valentina laughed, a hearty sound, and my stomach did a back-flip instinctually. It was only short, a brief moment in time, but there was something about the melodic sound, so free and pure, that made my heart leap in my chest. My smile automatically widened in response as I watched her face squish with mirth. Somehow she was even more captivating when she let go like that.

“It wasn’t all bad. I’d hide them around the house and make him play the hot-cold game if he wanted to find them. It was fun for both of us, really.”

She took in a deep breath and relaxed a little more into her chair, her focus never shifting from me. Her broad smile eventually faded into a close lipped grin, all traces of anxiety gone. A strange kind of comfortable silence took over, and I revelled in it. Neither of us apparently knew what to say next, nor did we feel the need to speak just yet.

I didn’t want to overthink it. I didn’t want to read too much into what it was about Valentina that had me so enthralled. I could feel it, that undefinable power, with every shiver of my skin and thump of my heart. As we sat in the cushioned armchairs, facing one another with easy smiles on our faces, I could detect the energy that seemed to be thrumming between us, live and dangerous. I reflected that it had most likely always been there, simmering between us, but I was too ignorant and stubborn to notice it properly at the start.

My emotions had always been heightened when it came to Valentina. At the start, I was overcome with frustration, anger and insecurity. I reacted accordingly, lashing out and judging her harshly. As time went on and I gradually calmed down, allowing my prejudices to fall away, those overwhelming feelings slowly morphed into something else.

It was that something else that terrified me.

As content as I was to simply enjoy Valentina’s company, I felt compelled to speak. A lot had happened since she last sat in my hotel room, and I wanted to address what we spoke about then.

“I’ve been meaning to tell you that I've noticed,” I said, my voice louder than expected. “You’ve been getting better.”

Valentina licked her lips, her teeth biting into her bottom lip to slow the spread of her smile. Even without context, she understood exactly what I meant.

“I told you I would.”

I swallowed at the intensity with which Valentina uttered the statement. She continued to stare at me, her head cocked to the side just slightly, her eyes almost challenging me to ask.

“How? Performing in front of cameras to the standard that is expected -” I quirked a brow and smirked. “It’s not exactly something we can improve overnight.”

Valentina sucked in a deep breath and rolled her shoulders, carefully considering what to say next.

“No, you’re right. It’s not.” She accepted. “But, I want to be honest with you.”

There was a pause, and then I heard myself speak.

“Why?”

Valentina faltered a little at my question. Her brows furrowed, then her eyes dropped, fixating on a random spot on the carpet. She was thinking, and I scalded myself for asking the question. It didn’t matter why, I just wanted her to continue. My palms started to sweat a little as her mouth downturned and she looked back up, her shoulders lifting into a shrug.

“I don’t know, really. I don’t know what it is. I just felt an inexplicable urge to tell you - to explain myself a little better.” She huffed another nervous laugh. “I guess it also kind of leads into why I'm here tonight.”

I nodded my head, swallowing around the nerves that suddenly lodged in my throat.

“Okay, yeah. Go ahead.”

Valentina shifted in the seat a little, her palms pressing into the seat cushion either side of her thighs.

“I didn’t want to do this job in the first place, as I'm sure you’re aware.” She started, dragging her fingers through her hair absentmindedly. “My father kind of dragged me back over here from Europe and basically told me I was doing it. He announced the role publicly before I could really dig my heels in and say no. He never has been big on asking for my opinion on matters that affect my life.”

She choked on a cynical laugh at the last sentence. It seemed to be said more to herself than to me. I watched her curiously as she clenched her teeth and released them, the muscles straining in her cheek. She looked to the ceiling and then back down at me, jerking her head as if to empty those thoughts from her brain.

“Anyway, that’s a whole other story.” She said with a weak wave of her hand. “But I hope that kind of pathetically explains my shitty attitude from the get-go.”

I was a little shocked at the revelation that she was doing this all against her will. I felt a nauseating twist inside my stomach at the idea of anyone being forced to do anything, let alone at the hands of their own father. I knew Valentina’s relationship with her father was contemptuous, but this was a whole dimension that I wasn’t expecting. My brows pulled together in a frown, the injustice of it all increasing my blood pressure.

“Valentina, what your father did, that’s -”

Valentina’s hand shot up between us, halting me mid-sentence.

“Don’t -” She threw me a shaky smile and shook her head. “Please don’t worry about that. It’s done now.”

I blinked at her, the feeling of unease lingering at the flippant way Valentina wanted to glaze over that whole issue. The Leon I knew and the Leon Valentina just shed a sliver of light on were two completely different people. I could tell by the pleading look in Valentina’s eye that there was so much I didn’t know about that dynamic, nor did I have the right to question it. It took all of me to swallow back the questions threatening to spill from my mouth.

Instead, I ducked my head in understanding and was quiet, allowing her to continue.

“The turning point for me was watching you, actually.”

It was as if we’d just hit a hairpin turn at full speed. The frustration I felt towards Leon simmered away to the background, my attention now centred entirely on the change of direction Valentina was steering us.

“Me?” I asked stupidly, pointing to myself.

“Yes, you.” She smiled at me, a cheeky, timid smile.

“Why? What did I do?”

Valentina rubbed her hand up and down her forearm, her eyes watching the movement. The smile was still lingering in the corner of her lips.

“You are very good at what you do, Juls.”

There it was. The second time that nickname tumbled so easily from her lips. It made my insides shake when she said it, so wispy and rich.

“So good, in fact, that you inspired me.” She explained, her eyes lifting back to meet mine. There was a glimmer of admiration there, floating in the depths of crystal blue.

I scoffed at the comment, unsure if this was an elaborate joke. Judging by the sincerity in which she spoke, I guessed there weren’t people hiding in my room, waiting to jump out and yell that I was on camera.

“Really?”

Apparently being around the model turned me into a monosyllabic idiot.

“I got to a point where I knew I looked like an incompetant asshole.” Valentina continued. “I was doing it partly to piss off my father, and partly because I'd been thrown into the deep end with zero support. I mean, there are aspects of modeling that are similar to acting, but this is a whole different ball-game.”

“I can imagine.” I stammered.

I don’t really know why I said that. What Valentina was describing was a situation in which I couldn’t imagine. I had no idea how she felt, or how she’d managed to get this far without crumbling into a mess in the corner.

I reflected for what felt like the thousandth time on how poorly I'd treated Valentina those first few weeks. Hearing more about her story, learning snippets of her perspective made me feel even worse than I already did about my childish behaviour.

Valentina pulled mindlessly at a thread in her jeans. There was a cut along the knee, and I watched her long fingers twirl and tug at the loose denim as she went on.

“I thought about how I wanted to be seen throughout all this. I didn’t want to get to the end and have everyone think I completely wasted their time, and to have ruined what is actually a pretty great show. I already had a generally terrible reputation and I didn’t want to add fuel to the fire. Especially with my co-stars.”

I sunk in my chair at the teasing smirk Valentina shot at me.

“So I reached out to an old friend of my mothers.” She continued.

A nostalgic smile curled Valentina’s lips and she released the thread, reverting back to watching her hands fiddle in her lap.

“Did you know my mother was an actress, a long time ago?” She asked with an air of fragility.

I licked my dry lips and nodded my head.

“I did. Yolanda told me.” I reported quietly. “I’ve seen pictures of her. She was beautiful.”

Valentina sighed then, a long, drawn-out breath.

“Yeah, she was.”

Valentina lifted her head and there was a glint of pride in her expression.

“Rafaela used to work with her. I called and asked her for help. She’s been spending many hours doing what she can with what little talent I have.”

I rolled my eyes at the modest remark.

“Well, I'd say she’s been doing a fantastic job.” I said truthfully.

Valentina’s eyes lit up, her back straightening at my compliment.

“You think?”

I smiled and nodded, watching in awe as Valentina’s lips lifted in delight.

“I wouldn’t say you have little talent, Val.” Her eyes widened slightly as the nickname rolled easily from my tongue, surprising even myself. “You’ve been amazing lately. The transformation from the start to now, I think, requires a lot of talent. And bucket-loads of dedication.”

“Thank you,” Valentina mumbled softly. A slight blush appeared on her cheeks, that gorgeous tinge of pink that made my brain malfunction. I wanted to reach out and feel the heat on her skin. “That kind of leads me to the point of why I'm here.”

I really had no idea where this conversation was leading. Somehow this woman was constantly keeping me on my toes.

“I’m listening.” I assured her.

Valentina swallowed, her throat bobbing with the movement. She bit nervously into her lip again, her gaze a little uncertain. I sat up in my chair, my elbows leaning against my thighs, encouraging her to continue.

Her chin did a cute little wobble and she smiled as she recognised my eagerness to hear her out.

“Rafaela lives in the city.” She explained, her hands moving as she spoke. “With this long stint of on-location shooting we’re in now, I can’t really get back to see her.”

I nodded along as she spoke, and I could see Valentina begin to fold in on herself a little. She shuffled to the edge of her seat again, her eyes piercing through me.

“You’re obviously very talented. And Leon paired us up at the start for a reason.”

Finally, it clicked. I flashed her a smug grin and raised my eyebrows.

“You want me to help you.”

Valentina scrunched her nose as if asking for help was the worst thing in the world. Her shoulders hunched in and she shied away from me.

“Would you mind?” She squeaked.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but there was not one single molecule of my body that protested the idea of helping the woman. In fact, my body sang with the prospect of working more closely with her. With each interaction I was more and more intrigued, unable to ignore the way she looked at me, or why I felt that bewildering urge to be close to her.

“How are you thinking of doing this?” I asked calmly, tampering down my own excitement.

Valentina, on the other hand, was practically bouncing in her seat. Her blue eyes were wide and hopeful, her full lips stretched in a reserved smile.

“I mean, it’s no pressure or anything. But I thought maybe in the evenings, we could meet up and run through some lines? I promise I'll take it seriously this time. I won’t take you for granted, and I’ll work hard and listen to everything you have to say.”

I laughed at her almost tangible enthusiasm. She was practically vibrating as she spoke, and it was as if it were infectious. I quickly found myself buzzing with anticipation, a quiet laugh slipping from my lips.

“Okay, Val. Sure, I'll help you.”

“You will?”

She squealed when I nodded my head in agreement. She unexpectedly launched herself from her chair and collapsed on top of me, almost knocking the breath from my lungs on impact. Her arms folded around my neck as she sat awkwardly on top of me, her body tight against me.

“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” She repeated over and over again as she held me tightly.

I giggled along with her as my own arms circled around her waist. I breathed her in and closed my eyes at the contact. As spontaneous as it was, the embrace felt natural. I’d barely touched her since our moment in the dark studio hallway, and I was almost breathless in the wonderful way her body felt against mine.

After a moment, she went rigid. She pulled away from me, her eyes wide in horror.

“Oh, shit.” She uttered as she stumbled to her feet, her hands out in front. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know why I did that. I’ve never been very good with personal boundaries and I didn’t ask if it was okay to hug you. I hope I didn’t make you uncomfortable. I just get really excited sometimes and I don’t think -”

“Val.” I said loudly, joining her in a standing position. “Stop fretting. It’s okay.”

“It’s okay?” She asked, eyes wide and full of uncertainty.

“Of course. Chill out.”

Valentina gradually stopped her frantic movements, her expression finally relaxing.

“Sorry. I just really don’t want to screw this up.” She admitted sheepishly.

“You won’t.” I said, and I knew she couldn't. “But I'll only do this with one condition.”

Valentina blinked at me, a wariness in the narrowing of her eyes.

“What is it?”

I rubbed my chin, unable to hide my teasing smile.

“Only if we can be friends?”

Valentina burst out a silly high pitched laugh, immediately covering her mouth with her hand, mortified at the noise she made. My eyebrows shot up in surprise at the loud sound, and we both laughed at the ridiculousness of the moment.

“I’d love that.” Valentina confirmed finally, her smile wide.

I held out my hand confidently. She looked down and then back up, her whole face lighting up at the gesture. Her warm palm slid across my own, squeezing it in a gentle handshake. I ignored the way my stomach flipped at the contact, focusing instead on how sore my cheeks were becoming.

“Come back here around 8pm tomorrow evening and we’ll run through a few things.” I said, our hands still clasped together. “Sound okay?”

Valentina ran her tongue across her teeth, her blue eyes blazing with warmth.

“Sounds perfect.”

She bit her lip as she gently removed her hand from my grasp. She sucked in a deep breath, and I could have sworn her gaze dropped fleetingly to my lips. Without allowing me a moment to question it, she pointed with her thumb to the door.

“I should probably go.”

My brain scrambled, trying to find a reason to get her to stay, but she was right. It was late and we had a whole day of shooting tomorrow. Plus, I now had an evening with her to look forward to.

“Yeah, it’s getting late.”

Valentina turned and walked towards the door, her hands sliding into the back pockets of her jeans.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, then.” She said over her shoulder.

“Yeah.” I replied. “Nice early start tomorrow. Adrian wants us there to start make-up at 7am.”

Valentina groaned as she pulled open the door. She stepped over the threshold and into the hallway as I held onto the heavy timber.

“See you in about 7 hours then.” She said quietly, suddenly shy again. She took two steps down the hall before turning back to me. “Good night, Juls.”

I returned her smile and held up my hand in a wave.

“Good night.”

Chapter Text

“You wouldn’t even believe how hot it is.” Valentina groaned from beside me, her hand fanning her face in a useless attempt to cool down.

I looked up from the bound script in my lap and was surprised to see she wasn’t speaking to me. Her phone was at arms length out in front of her, her forward-facing camera recording. She flicked me a side-look and with a smirk, turned the phone towards me.

“What do you think, Juls? Tell everyone how hot it is.”

I quirked my brow and looked at her incredulously. My eyes bounced between Valentina’s flushed face and her phone screen, trying very hard not to look too hard at my reflection. I wasn’t vain, but I didn’t know who was going to see this tiny snippet of our day. I was hot and sticky, and the mist sprayers temporarily placed in the top corners of the tent we currently occupied were not doing much to quell the sweat from forming on my hairline and top lip.

“Ah, yeah. It’s really hot.” I stated obviously.

Valentina rolled her eyes and swivelled her wrist to point the phone back to herself.

“Well, as you can see, Juliana is a girl of many words.” She laughed before removing her finger from the circle on the screen.

“I’m tagging you in this.” She giggled, her head down as her fingers tapped her screen, typing away.

“Huh?”

“Instagram. It’s going on my story.” Valentina notified me without missing a beat.

I tipped my head back and snorted.

“You know I don’t do all that.”

Valentina lifted her head and gave me a long look. The previous night, we had discussed our conflicting views on social media.

“How many followers do you have?” Valentina asked.

She sat on the edge of my bed, her legs crossed beneath her. Her light blue t-shirt had a hole in the right shoulder and made her eyes look as clear as the sky on a cloudless day.

I flipped mindlessly at the pages of my script, once again easily distracted by Valentina’s inquisitiveness. I narrowed my eyes as I thought hard about the answer to her question.

“I actually don’t know.” I finally replied with a nonchalant shrug of my shoulders.

Valentina gaped at me, her pen dropping dramatically from her fingers. It landed on the copy of her script, bounced off the side and rolled onto the floor. She didn’t seem to care.

“You don’t know? What do you mean you don’t know?”

“I don’t know,” I replied with a laugh. “I don’t really buy into the whole social media, post-all-your-staged-photos-and-fish-for-likes thing. I quite like people not knowing my every move.”

Valentina arched one perfectly symmetrical eyebrow at me, the edges of one side of her lips lifting in a mischievous grin. I narrowed my eyes at her suspiciously.

“What?” I asked.

Her eyes flicked to my phone resting on the coffee table, then back to me. There was a beat, and I read her next play with precise accuracy. We both launched ourselves at my phone at the exact same time. I threw my script on the floor and pushed off from the bench of the kitchenette I had been resting against, arms outstretched towards the device. Valentina stumbled from the bed, almost tripping on the shoes she’d kicked off an hour earlier. Valentina’s long fingers curled around the device just before I was in reach, pulling it straight to her chest in a protective posture.

She giggled enthusiastically, stepping out of my reach, clearly very proud of beating me to it.

“What are you doing?” I asked, arms crossed over my chest.

Amusement shined from the wide grin on her face and the way she bounced excitedly on the balls of her feet. She held my phone with two hands and turned around, her back to me.

“What’s your passcode?”

“I am not giving you my passcode.”

“1234, Juls? Seriously?”

“Oh my God, would you stop?” I tried reaching over her shoulder, but she diverted the attack, flopping onto her armchair.

“Woah, Juls. You need to organise your apps. This is a mess.”

I rolled my eyes and circled around her chair, standing behind it.

“Did you want my phone just to criticize the way I use it?” I retorted.

I watched her click on the Instagram app, my feed quickly appearing. I folded my arms on the top of the high-backed chair, resting my chin on my forearms. I watched her index finger tap on my profile picture, the screen changing to my home page.

“Juls, how do you only have 18k followers?”

I huffed an offended breath.

“I thought that was a lot.”

“You don’t even have a bio, Juls.”

I clicked my tongue, unsure if I should say what I was about to say.

“What’s a bio?”

Valentina swivelled her neck and looked up at me, long lashes blinking in disbelief. Her eyes narrowed as she gauged whether or not I was being serious, her smile widening when she realised I was.

“Just, shush. Let me do my thing.”

Valentina lifted her phone and showed me the video. It started with the model’s flushed face, cutting to a very confused and cagey looking me before Valentina’s smiling face reappeared.

“But look how cute you are! My 6.4 million followers will now also be able to see how adorable you look.”

I stared at her, my expression blank, and she pushed at my shoulder. My hands flew to the flimsy wooden arms and my feet hit the dusty floor, compensating for the two legs of the chair that were now tipped up in the air. Once I regained my balance, I glared at the woman next to me. She was frozen, her mouth agape in horror. Her hand was still outstretched towards me, as if she didn’t quite know what to do with the appendage.

“You almost killed me!” I screeched, my tone playful.

“Juls, I didn’t mean to tip your chair.” She said slowly, watching me carefully as the idea of retaliation formed in my brain.

“I can’t let that behaviour slide, Val. You have to pay the price.”

I uncapped the pen that was somehow still in my grip, my eyes never leaving her. Wide, blue eyes flicked down to the item, my movements slow, and she raised her hands in surrender.

“Juls.” She warned. “We have a scene to shoot. Remember that.”

Valentina tried to slink away from me in her chair, her lips curling up as I stood and advanced.

I launched at her, the ball of my pen aiming right for her pretty face. Her hand shot up on instinct, capturing my wrist and using all her strength to keep me away.

“No, Juls!” She howled, her body shaking with laughter. “Stop it.”

She lifted her legs during the attack in a feeble attempt to keep me away. I managed to quite easily push her legs apart, moving in closer. My free hand escaped her clutches and I held onto her shoulder.

“This’ll teach you to try and push me around, Carvajal. I think you’d look great with a moustache.” I joked, my own giddy laughter joining hers.

Valentina was laughing so hard her eyes narrowed to the point of being closed. I continued my advance, the pen tip hovering closer and closer to Valentina’s face as she weakened, the laughter wracking her body sucking her energy. Her face was turned away from me and as I stood between her legs, I realised how close I was to her.

This, I recently discovered, was the problem with Valentina.

Valentina was naturally an affectionate person. I knew that tiny fact about her from watching her with crew members between takes and from her time spent in my hotel room. She didn’t hesitate to reach out and touch, from a simple pat on the shoulder to wrapping people up in a hug. And she never flinched when it was returned. I was allowed to be like this with her. I could step into her space and be confident that I wasn’t overstepping any boundaries.

We’d begun, at Valentina’s behest, practice running lines in my hotel room three nights previous. Valentina had knocked on my door at 8 pm promptly each night, a bright smile on her face and script in her arms, a canvas bag slung over her shoulder. She would wrap me up in a tight hug and give me a quick kiss on the cheek in greeting. She was always freshly showered, and my head spun each time I inhaled that crisp, clean scent of lavender and honey.

Considering our turbulent beginning, I was surprised at how quickly and easily we fell into a new rhythm. It took a few well-timed puns from Valentina for me to relax, unaware of just how nervous I was to have the model in my hotel room for hours at a time, helping her to improve in what I believed to be an amateur at. But the conversation was smooth, the jokes were plentiful, and our smiles were wide as we worked together. Valentina was clearly grateful for my time and effort, focusing on my constructive criticism and picking up nuances as if she were born to do it. Between our rehearsal and my general feedback, we filled the space with constant chatter.

It spilled out between us naturally, her presence warm and welcoming, resembling a sensation as familiar as the sun rising. It came with a comfortability that felt as though I'd known her my whole life. I knew it was a rare occurrence. I knew it because I'd only felt it once before.

Years ago when I was new to the city, I walked onto the set of my first commercial, young and inexperienced. My aunt's connection in the industry and a burning passion to act were the only things I had going for me. A blonde-haired assistant walked into the trailer I’d been directed to and smiled at me. She was the first friendly face, the first genuine smile I'd seen since my chaotic arrival in the big city. In all my life, I would never forget the moment Yolanda shook my hand and laughed with me at the absurdity of the storyline I was about to film. I knew then that Yolanda would be around for years to come.

But with Valentina, it was different. Sure, we’d agreed to be friends, but this went further than that fulfilling platonic friendship Yolanda offered. It was even more than attraction, more than the simple recognition that my chest tightened each time I laid eyes on her, that my entire body felt floating when she smiled at me. There was an underlying energy, a simmering excitement between us that I couldn’t escape.

So, as I continued to bear down on Valentina, my pen edging closer and closer to her face, our joint laughter loud and cheerful, I realised just how much I wanted to kiss her again.

“Juli?”

Anna’s voice rang out from behind me, a hint of impatience in her tone.

I straightened slightly, my pen still hovering mid-air. Valentina’s hand was still wrapped around my wrist, my own hand cupping the back of Valentina’s head. I twisted my neck to look back over my shoulder.

“Hey, Anna. What’s up?” I asked, my laughter dying but the residual smile still bright.

She shot me an awkward smile and looked past me to Valentina. Her eyes swept over the scene, lingering on the places that our skin touched. I don’t know why, but I felt caught out. My hand slipped from its position and I stepped away from Valentina, my arms dropping to my sides as I turned to face my co-star.

“Hey, Valentina.” She addressed the model before her gaze flicked back to me. “Sergio and Lucho are done with their scene. We’ll be called soon.”

Almost as if on cue, Sebas, one of the men in charge of organising the five main cast members, appeared from behind another flimsy tent.

“Come on you three. We’re on.” His gruff voice didn’t quite match his friendly demeanour.

“Coming.” Valentina and I said together.

We shared an amused look and went about organising our things. Anna waited as I found my pen lid, capped it back on, and picked up my fallen script. Valentina shoved her phone in her faded canvas bag that was hanging over the back of her chair and flicked her hair over her shoulder. We were ready at the same time, standing shoulder to shoulder.

“Let’s go.” Sebas urged, tipping his head and turning, assuming we were following.

The three of us stepped forwards in the direction Sebas was heading. I looked down as I walked, a little devastated at the way my boots were slowly deteriorating. Cuff marks and dried mud gave the appearance that I had been wearing the same boots for weeks at a time, which was entirely accurate for myself and my character. It was difficult giving the boots back to wardrobe every evening, tattered and worn. I usually take more pride in my things.

We’d barely even left the shade of the tent before I was tugged to a stop. I looked up as Anna’s hand grasped my elbow, halting me as she stepped in front.

She searched my face and then smiled. Her eyes shone, and I couldn’t help but return her friendly grin.

I could see Valentina also slow to a stop just over Anna’s shoulder. I did my best not to look at her, though, knowing my gaze would drift there automatically if I didn’t concentrate.

“What are you doing tonight?” Anna asked.

I floundered a little at the question. It’s not like what Valentina and I were doing was a secret. We just weren’t telling anyone.

“Uh, well, I’m -“

“We haven’t hung out in days, Juli,” Anna complained in an almost child-like whine, her eyes round and begging. She stepped in closer, her hand still on my elbow. “Come out with us for dinner tonight. I miss having you around.”

I caught Valentina attempting to look busy by kicking a small tree root, but it was obvious her ears were pricked.

“I know, Anna. I’m sorry.” I said, my brows creased apologetically. “But I can’t tonight. I’ve got plans already.”

Anna’s lips turned down, and I could see a flash of white teeth in my peripheral vision.

“Really? What about tomorrow?” She pressed.

I chuckled at the solemn expression on my friends face. I reached out with the arm Anna didn’t have a hold of and rubbed at her shoulder.

“Anna, don’t be like that. Come on, we’ll hang out again soon.”

She rolled her eyes at me and was about to put up another argument, but was interrupted by a slightly tetchy Sebas imploring us to hurry up. She snuffed out a frustrated breath but released my elbow, tucking her own arm under mine.

“Fine.” She mumbled as we continued our walk. “Next week, then.”

Valentina’s smile was victorious as she fell in step beside me. I linked my arm with hers and debated whether I should tug her behind a tree and kiss her, or roll my eyes at her smug grin.

“Plans tonight, huh?” The model whispered to me as the three of us followed Sebas.

I rolled my eyes at her and poked out my tongue, secretly enjoying the extra bounce in her step.

 

~ ~ ~

 

Valentina sat in her armchair, long hair pulled into a loose braid that fell over one shoulder, tied together with a pink ribbon. Her white Nike t-shirt cut down into a low V neck, exposing perfectly milky skin across her chest. She wore the same necklace as her character in the show, a gold chain with two rings interlocking that sat right in the hollow of her collarbones. Her long legs were crossed, knees resting on the arms of the chair, black tights covering her entire lower limbs. I nibbled at my pen lid as I watched, entranced, as Valentina twirled her pen between her fingertips.

I was mesmerised by the motion, in awe of the fluidity of the movement. It was a smooth and rhythmic sway of her fingers, patterned like a wave. The pen flicked expertly between her knuckles with as much ease as magicians roll coins. I didn’t know if it was the idea of the dexterity I enjoyed or just the way her long, slender fingers moved, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away.

It had almost been a week since we started our evening rehearsals in the quiet of my hotel room. Our nights together quickly became routine, but more importantly, the part of my day I most looked forward to. Every time I heard her knuckles tap on my door, my heart would lurch and I would have to stop myself from running towards it. She’d throw herself on me for a quick hug, breezing into the room as if it were her own. We’d get settled and then run through the lines of a few scenes coming up, scrawling notes on our scripts as we discussed the intricacies of the characters and how to best deliver the dialogue. Then we’d block it and run through it again, this time on our feet, moving about, all while I guided her on the tone she could use or how to better use body language to execute her lines.

In between all of this, we’d always find time to talk.

Talking wasn’t something I was always super comfortable with, nor did I think I was very good at prolonged conversations. I grew up in an environment where it was frowned upon to have an opinion, generally keeping to myself in order to avoid saying or doing the wrong thing. Of course, this learned behaviour stuck with me throughout adolescence and into adulthood, looming over me in social situations like a dark shadow. It was difficult, at times, working in an environment that was brimming with people so superficial and obnoxious that sometimes I felt like my eyes might roll out of my head. That approach didn’t help me when all I wanted to do was blend into the background and do my job.

It was cutthroat, an industry that required individuals to stand out from the crowd, to be different and noticeable. Somehow I managed to do that, but in a different way than anyone expected.

Leon once told me the draw I had, the quality I possessed to make it, was the element of mystery. He explained to me that most actresses were so open and readable, which automatically made them a little more predictable and therefore, less tempting to employ. He told me that the fact that I held myself back a little more than usual was what made me so alluring to hire. People like an enigma, he said, it keeps them interested. My lack of social media presence and the fact that I seemingly popped up from nowhere was what Leon liked about me.

But there was something about Valentina that had me lowering the gate, waving her forwards and eagerly granting her permission to enter.

My stomach grumbling interrupted my moment of self-reflection.

Valentina’s head slowly raised from the open script in her lap and she looked at me humorously, one eyebrow raised.

“Are you alright over there?”

I felt my face heat up against my wishes. I always hated that the rush of blood to the skin gave me away every time.

“Sorry. I haven’t eaten since lunch.”

Valentina’s brows pulled down into a slight frown as she tapped her phone screen, checking the time.

“Juls, it’s after 9 and you haven’t had dinner yet?”

I shook my head and uncrossed my legs, allowing them to hang from over the end of the bed.

“I kind of forgot.”

She didn’t need to know that, on more than one occasion, I was too excited to eat before she arrived.

“Well, we have to fix that,” Valentina said as she shoved her script onto the coffee table in front of her.

“No, it’s fine. I’ll be alright.”

Valentina ignored me and unfolded herself from the armchair, taking a few long steps past me and towards the kitchenette. She picked up the room service menu, flipped it open and scanned it as she practically skipped back towards me. I watched as blue eyes flitted across the page, her tongue sweeping across her front teeth in concentration. I bit the inside of my lip as the action affected me more than I’d like to admit.

After a moment she looked up, gave me a lopsided smile, and handed me the stiff menu.

“Pick something.” She ordered.

“It’s late. Do they even do room service this late?” I faltered as I took hold of the offered menu.

Valentina tipped her head to the side as she considered me.

“My father has booked out and paid for this entire hotel. I’m sure they can organise something.”

I was hungry, but I didn’t want to eat on my own. There was no reasonable excuse other than I thought it would be awkward if I stuffed my face while she watched. So I pursed my lips and stared at her, my chin jutting out in provocation.

She picked up on my playful challenge and continued to smile, crossing her arms over her chest in response. It looked like neither of us were backing down.

That was until my stomach rumbled again, even louder this time.

Valentina snorted a winning laugh and stepped around the bed, reaching for the phone on one of my bedside tables.

“I’m getting the cheeseburger. What do you want?” She asked innocently as she lifted the corded phone to her ear.

I swallowed the saliva that flooded my mouth at the mention of a cheeseburger.

She won this round.

“I’ll get the same.”

 

~ ~ ~

 

“So where are you actually from?” Valentina asked before she took a large bite out of what was left of her burger.

I paused, fry in mid-air, at the question. I shouldn’t have been surprised by the query. By this point, we’d spent enough time together for this kind of questioning to be considered appropriate. It was, after all, the natural progression of getting to know someone. I licked my lips and continued with what I was doing, dipping the deep-fried potato into the ketchup and popping it into my mouth.

My eyes flicked to the TV screen that seemed to always be on. It was on low once again, the late-night news bulletin flashing its top stories of the day. I chewed and watched as a high-rise building collapsed under a controlled detonation, the tower imploding and falling in a strangely satisfying way.

“I grew up in Texas, actually,” I replied eventually.

In the corner of my eye, I could see Valentina’s head bob as she considered this new information.

“With your parents?”

I sucked in the air between my teeth and picked up my burger. I replied with a muffled “yep” before stuffing in another mouthful.

Valentina nodded her head again but didn’t ask any further questions, obviously picking up on my reluctance to divulge much information on this topic. We both watched the television absently as we chewed in silence.

Without permission or reason, my brain decided that amount of information wasn’t good enough. Valentina had been vulnerable with me in the past, and I admired her bravery in that choice. It wasn’t fair to her to hold myself back like I normally would. I wanted to do things differently this time. I wanted her to trust me, to build a healthy foundation after i’d so royally fucked up at the start.

I released a deep breath and took a leaf out of her book, opening up in a way I'd scarcely done before.

“I moved to the city when I was 16. I’ve tried to block out the memories of my childhood in Texas as much as possible.” I said with a derisive laugh.

I don’t know why, but laughing had always been my way of dealing with uncomfortable or nerve-wracking situations. I reached for my glass of water and gulped down two large mouthfuls, washing away the remnants of the cheeseburger I’d almost finished.

“Why did you move?” Valentina asked with a softness that demanded my attention.

She was swirling a single fry in her small tub of ketchup, but her eyes were on me. Her hair was slowly falling out of its loose braid, the dark golden strands of her hair messily framing her face. She appeared relaxed and restful; it looked good on her. I was pleased to find her focus on me anything but intimidating, and it was the first time in a long time I felt the confidence to share this kind of information with another person.

“Do you really want to know?” I queried.

Valentina blinked at me and leaned in a little closer, forgetting her food.

“If you want to tell me, I'll listen.”

I swallowed as I recognised the sincerity on her face. A long breath was released from my nose and I looked at her closely.

“I ran away.” Valentina’s brows immediately creased at my announcement. I looked down at my plate, observing the half-eaten burger and scatter of fries leftover, unable to watch the pity in Valentina’s eyes when I spoke.

“My parents never really wanted me around. They were involved in some pretty terrible stuff, and I was more of an inconvenience than anything.” I cleared my throat and began deconstructing my burger as a way to distract myself from the story I was telling. “My father reminded me daily that I was an accident, and they found out too late in the pregnancy to get rid of me. If they had known earlier, they would have dealt with me.”

I could hear Valentina’s sharp intake of breath. I turned my attention to the TV screen again, my eyes not really watching what was happening.

“It was okay, most of the time. I just kept my head down and tried not to get in their way. I found ways to make my own money to feed myself, and I had some friends I spent a lot of time with. I often lost myself in books and TV shows, obsessing over the lives of others.” Memories of nights curled up on the couch, reading my favourite novels and investing in someone else’s fate made my lips curl in a wistful smile. “It’s kind of what inspired me to become an actress.”

A warm hand slid across my forearm, forcing my gaze to tear away from the TV screen and down to the soft contact of Valentina’s palm against me. Her fingers curled around my wrist, her thumb grazing gently over my skin. She didn’t offer any words. I looked up at her and she just sent me a small smile, her expression full of understanding. It was all I needed to find the courage to continue.

“On my sixteenth birthday, I told my parents I thought I was gay.” I blurted.

I exhaled a long, shaky breath at the confession. There was only a small group of people on this earth who knew that about me. My sexuality had been something I'd kept to myself ever since I figured it out, with only a few exceptions. Even though it may already be obvious to Valentina considering our history, I was still expecting her to flinch away as others had. Instead, her grip was firm on my wrist, her gaze soft and sentimental. She smiled at me, a tender lift of her lips, and my heart sung at her outward display of acceptance.

“I don’t know why I did it.” I persisted, finding a sliver of confidence. “Maybe a part of me was screaming out for attention, trying to rock the boat. I could have continued living there with them, finish off my secondary education and then disappear forever. But they’d forgotten my birthday again, and out of nowhere, I just screamed at them that I liked girls.”

I scoffed solemnly at the memory, my focus dropping back to my hands clasped against my thighs, Valentina’s grounding touch filling me with determination.

“My father slapped me, and my mother screamed at me. They were horrified that I could disappoint them even more. I’d had enough. I threw my few belongings into my backpack and a small overnight bag, taking all the cash I had stashed away, and left. My parents didn’t fight me, didn’t chase me or ask me to come back. I cried the whole way to the bus station.”

Valentina’s grip fell from my arm. Before I could protest, her index finger and thumb gently cupped my chin, delicately guiding my face up. I succumbed to the pressure, my head lifting and turning to look at her. A soft, shaky smile still lingered on her lips, her eyes as blue as ever. Her thumb swiped across my cheek, and I blinked as I realised what was happening.

“Fuck, am I crying?” I muttered, sucking in a deep breath and wiping my hands over my face hastily.

The evidence was there on my fingers. A few tears had escaped, and between the two of us, they were gone in a matter of seconds.

“God, this is so embarrassing.” I laughed again, my voice rough.

“Don’t be embarrassed,” Valentina commented soothingly, her hand pushing my hair away from my face. “If you remember, I’ve cried in front of you before. Now we’re even.”

There was no helping the stretch of my lips as I focused on the model, her eyes sparkling with something new. It was enough to lighten the mood, and a warmth like I'd never felt before burst from my chest, crept through my veins and settled into my bones.

“Okay.” I breathed out, my bottom lip fluttering. “Now we’re even.”

I wiped underneath my eyes once more and then reached for my plate, shoving a handful of fries into my mouth. I’d lost my appetite, but I felt the need to divert attention away from what just happened. They were starting to get cold, but I chewed around them anyway.

“What did you do when you got here?” Valentina asked quietly.

I relaxed my back against the armchair, pulling one leg up to my chest and wrapping an arm around it. Valentina rearranged herself too, shuffling closer so her leg pressed against the length of my own, stretched out along the floor and disappearing beneath the coffee table. For a brief moment, as my breath hitched at the closeness, I wondered if maybe Valentina’s suggestion to eat on the floor was a tactical move. I’d thought about ways to get closer to her myself, the armchairs in the room not providing me with many opportunities to be close to her. I was relieved when Valentina took the initiative. After we ordered the food, she pushed the armchairs together and arranged the cushions on the floor, claiming through another silly bout of laughter that it would be more comfortable.

I swallowed my mouthful and rested my head on the front of the armchair, Valentina in perfect view right next to me. She was so close I could see the faintest smatter of freckles on her nose, and the flecks of different colours of blue in her iris.

“I had an aunt who lived in the city.” I continued, finding a handle on my train of thought. “I’d met her once before when she came to visit us when I was 13, back in Texas. We sort of clicked straight away. Our personalities were really similar, and she actually wanted to spend time with me. She’d take me on walks and buy me ice cream and make me feel like someone in my family actually gave a shit. I cried for a week when she left.”

Valentina’s face morphed into a pout and I scrunched my face up at her. I didn’t want her sympathy.

“After she left, I found a folded note in my copy of Jane Eyre. It read: Juliana, if you're ever looking for refuge, you know where to find me. And then it had her address. Looking back, I wonder if she could predict the future.” I laughed, heartily this time, and Valentina’s expression shifted to reflect mine. “I knocked on her door at 10 pm the next evening and she opened it in her pyjamas, hair like a mane. She took one look at the bruise on my face, pulled me into a tight hug and told me things were going to be different from now on.”

“Wow. She sounds amazing.”

I agreed emphatically, my hand wiping under my nose as I nodded my head. In my peripheral vision, I could see movement below us. Valentina’s hands had been clasped together in her lap as she listened to me. With all the confidence in the world, she released one hand and shuffled it from her leg onto mine. There was a slight tremor in her touch as her palm slid across my skin, all warm and soft.

It could be construed as a friendly gesture, one of comfort a friend might offer another when they were spilling their guts. But the way my heart skipped a beat when her fingertips scratched at the inside of my knee was anything other than affected. My teeth sunk into my bottom lip and I sucked in air through my nose as I tried to control myself.

I gave myself a mental hi-five for wearing my lounge shorts. My eyes were glued to the spot our skin touched, and I forced myself to continue so she wouldn’t back away.

“The next day, we sat down to work out a plan. We never talked about what happened. I think she probably already knew.” I said with a one-armed shrug, my gaze lifting to look back at her. “I told my aunt I wanted to be an actress. Instead of finishing high school, she enrolled me in acting school. I loved every second of it.”

“A fantastic move by your aunt, by the looks of it,” Valentina said with a wink.

I grinned at the comment, a nervous titter escaping from between my teeth. She was so close to me, her hand still sliding gently across the sensitive skin of my knee. I wanted to reciprocate the touch. I wanted to show her that I wanted her close, too. I mean, I didn’t even know if that was Valentina’s plan, but the opportunity was presenting itself and I knew I’d kick myself later if I froze now.

I could hear the thumping of my heartbeat as I found the courage to slip my arm underneath hers, my palm coming to rest on top of her hand. Valentina’s eyelashes fluttered briefly at the contact. I watched on nervously as her throat bobbed and she licked her lips.

I knew what I wanted to happen. Not for the first time, I wanted to lean in and kiss her. I wanted to feel her full lips against mine.

But as much as I wanted to reach out and grab what I wanted, I couldn’t. The last time I kissed her had been inappropriate and wrong. I’d spent enough time chastising myself over what happened in that dark hallway, ashamed that I'd acted so impulsively after treating her so poorly. I didn’t need something else to feel bad over for the remaining time we had filming. I didn’t want to ruin what we’d worked so hard to finally build.

So instead of acting on what my body was screaming at me to do, I gulped at the air for a deep breath and continued.

“My aunt was an actress herself, during her young years. She was never super famous, but enough to make a name for herself.”

Valentina's eyes lit up at that information. Her mother would have been roughly the same age as my aunt. As far as I knew, they never worked together, but it never crossed my mind until that moment that they could have known one another.

“Really? What’s her name?”

A nostalgic smile crossed my lips as I remembered her.

“Perla Valdes.”

Valentina’s face slowly dropped as the name clearly meant something to her. The contact of her hand on my skin fell away, and she turned more fully towards me.

“Oh, Juls.” She whispered, her eyebrows rising and the colour draining from her face. “I knew Perla. Well, kind of.”

I scrambled a little at the news that this woman had memories of the aunt I so adored. After a moment of hesitation as the words sunk in, I tucked my legs up underneath me, positioning myself a little higher than the model.

“Are you serious? What? How?

Valentina’s lips lifted in a satisfied smile, her eyes darting around the room in search of the answer to my rushed questioning.

“When my mother was alive, I remember Perla attending the parties my parents used to have at the house. She and my mother were good friends.”

“Really?”

Valentina simply nodded her head, her eyes creasing as she recognised the awe in my expression.

“This is crazy,” Valentina said as the colour started returning to her face. “I remember one night Perla came over for dinner. My father was out of town on business, so my mother and Perla sat out in the courtyard all night, drinking red wine and eating this amazing dessert Perla made.”

“Baklava?”

Valentina clicked her fingers and pointed at me.

“Yes. Oh my God, I've been wondering what that was called for years and for the life of me I couldn’t remember. Baklava.”

“I loved her baklava.”

“Well, me too.” Valentina giggled, leaning in a little closer. “I would have been about 7 at the time, and I remember I couldn’t get to sleep. I snuck out to the courtyard that night, fully expecting my mother to tell me to go back to bed. But instead, Perla smiled at me, pulled a chair right up close to her and asked me to join us. I looked to my mother and she just grinned at me, giving me permission. I was so happy to be out past my bedtime, but that was nothing compared to how I felt as Perla slid a plate of that sticky dessert in front of me.”

“Wow, Val.” I breathed, completely speechless at what I was hearing.

“Every time Perla came over after that night, she’d bring me a small box of baklava, wrapped in a pink ribbon with white polka dots.” She chuckled with the memory, but then Valentina’s smile faded slightly. “After my mother died, I didn’t see Perla anymore. There was no reason for her to come to the house.”

The corners of my lips downturned, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away from Valentina’s. My mind was trying to process everything. I was utterly transfixed by this shared memory, the thread between us strengthening with the newfound connection.

“I was in Paris when I read about what happened to her,” Valentina whispered softly. “I’m really sorry, Juls.”

I swallowed around the sudden lump in my throat, suffocating on memories of the grief I’d dealt with ever since I got the phone call 2 and a half years ago. That conversation with the police officer explaining that my beloved aunt had been in a fatal car accident regularly replayed in my mind. My head dropped and I adjusted my sitting position, my backside landing heavily on the cushions beneath me.

“It sounds as though we have a lot more in common than I thought,” I mumbled as I got comfortable, hoping Valentina couldn’t detect the tremble in my voice.

“It looks that way.”

There was no explanation as to how it kept happening, but it felt as though I'd just crashed through yet another self-imposed barrier. Valentina now knew more about me than almost anyone else, but instead of feeling threatened by that thought, it was a source of comfort. The simple idea that Valentina had known Perla, had been in her presence, made my chest ache with contentment.

“Alright, that’s enough.” I laughed with a shake of my head. “This is getting way too deep.”

I leaned forwards and swished some more water down my throat as Valentina agreed with a breathy “yeah”. We both settled back into the cushions. Without saying anything, almost as if it were the most natural thing in the world, we moved closer together, the full length of our legs and arms in contact. As difficult as it was to not focus purely on the touch, my attention moved back to the television as flashes of a celebrity and entertainment news show lit up the screen.

“Oh, this show is such rubbish,” Valentina commented as a picture of Lady Gaga spun on the screen.

“Complete garbage.” I concurred.

“Although, I did meet Lady Gaga in Barcelona last year.”

“Are you serious? What’s she like?”

My head turned to look at her, excited to hear what Valentina had to say. The model’s lips stretched into a smile as she continued watching the TV, and I drank in her profile like I was dying from thirst.

“Insane, but in a very cool way. Like, she’s a total badass. Completely intimidating, you know, knows what she wants and just goes for it. I’d love to have her confidence.”

My eyes followed the slope of her nose and the line of her brows, trying desperately to commit it to memory. She was so achingly beautiful, with flawless skin and voluptuous lips, and I felt so lucky to simply be in her company. As my eyes hungrily skimmed across her features, it reminded me why she was so famous.

“Did you enjoy modelling?”

Valentina looked at me sideways, considering how to answer, her eyes flitting back to watch the screen.

“Yeah, I did. But I wasn’t doing it for the right reasons.”

The story on Lady Gaga ended, the show changing to a grainy video of Jennifer Lawrence. The sound was too low to make out what the entertainment reporter was saying.

“What were your reasons?” I asked.

Valentina crossed her ankles and shuffled lower in her position, her neck resting comfortably against the slope of the front of the armchair. She folded her hands across her stomach and chewed on the inside of her lip. She looked hesitant, and I knew I’d touched on a sensitive topic.

I was just about to backtrack, explain that she didn’t have to tell me anything, but Valentina spoke first.

“I needed to escape my father. He was trying to control my life. I did it to gain back some of that control.” She continued to chew at her lip when she paused. “I knew he’d hate it, too. I knew he’d be watching from afar. The life I lived over there was quite different from the life I sold to the press.”

My eyebrows shot up at Valentina’s final muttered sentence.

I wasn’t entirely innocent or a complete social media pariah. I’d most definitely done some research on the famous model sitting next to me. Initially, it had been in angst, so frustrated by her inclusion in the project that I fed my disgust by reading up on all kinds of gossip about her. But as I got to know Valentina, I found myself typing her name into search bars more often than I'd like to admit. Now, it was in search of the brightness of her smile, or to remind me of how her skin looked in the sunshine. Images of Valentina stumbling out of clubs with various women escorting her replayed in my mind.

“Really? What do you mean?”

Valentina smirked at me, a playful glint in her eye.

“Do I really strike you as the kind of person who goes on benders?”

I was a little astonished at the question. I guess I hadn’t really thought about it. As I let the question sink in, and as I quickly examined Valentina’s behaviour since I'd known her, I realised I’d only seen her drink once at the first pool party. Then there was the mention of a few drinks with her brother over dinner a week ago.

“No, I guess not,” I admitted.

“I’ve never so much as touched illicit drugs in my entire life, and I only drink on social occasions. I respect myself a little more than that.” She continued with a comical lift to her lips. “But there were plenty of drugs around at the parties I used to frequent, so I used that to my advantage. It made Leon absolutely livid, of course, so my plan worked.”

My eyebrows hadn’t yet returned to their normal position on my face, constantly surprised with every layer of Valentina I was able to peel away. I knew what it felt like to have a father who didn’t listen or care, who thought he knew best. I huffed an impressed sigh and turned back towards the TV.

“Look, it’s you!” I exclaimed, my finger pointing to the screen.

A picture of Valentina on set, clearly taken from afar and zoomed in, appeared on the screen. The low ramblings of a busty woman with blonde hair could barely be heard, most likely discussing her role on the show we were currently filming.

Valentina scoffed and said nothing more as we quietly watched more images of Valentina fill the screen. Suddenly, a video began playing. My heart stopped as I saw myself, red with anger, Valentina’s hand in mine as I barged towards the shaky camera. It was from the mob of paparazzi outside the gym the day I tried to help Valentina escape. My hand covered my mouth as I watched on as if it were the first time I’d seen it. Which wasn’t far off; I'd only watched it once when Yolanda forced me that very evening when I got home.

“Shit.” I choked.

“You’ve never seen yourself on a gossip show before, have you?” Valentina guessed, very accurately.

I shook my head, my eyes still glued to the screen. I wanted to reach for the remote and turn it up, but I was too afraid to hear what they were saying about me. About us.

A still picture of me and Valentina, taken on set and without either of us aware of it, replaced the footage of the mob video. Following that, images of Valentina with various different women were scattered across the television. Each photo pierced something inside me as my hand dropped to my lap.

“What about all the women? Was that all for show, too?”

As soon as I blurted out the question, I wished I could hook it before it reached Valentina’s ears and reel it back in. I turned my head to look at her, my mouth agape in shock.

Valentina’s expression was neutral. I couldn’t tell if she was annoyed at my question, embarrassed, or relieved to be asked. She just blinked at me, her lips in a thin line, her hands still clasped comfortably over her stomach. There was a taut kind of silence between us as she held onto her answer.

“Yes.” She replied finally, her voice low.

And then, it occurred to me that I couldn’t figure out what aspects of her life was a lie, and what I actually knew about her was real. What if she used her sexuality as another way to get back at her father, knowing that coming out as gay would be another dagger to get back at him? What if I’d been reading this all wrong, and this energy between us was all in my head? What about our interaction in the hallway of the studio? Was it -?

Oh, God.

I felt a wave of nausea at the thought.

“Are you even gay?” I quavered.

Valentina’s face finally shifted. Her eyes widened and her mouth slackened in panic. She could sense my unease, my doubt, my alarm.

“Juls.” The word slipped from her mouth like honey. She lifted her body and scooted back into more of a sitting position. “When I told you we have more in common than we realised, I wasn’t joking.”

“What do you mean?”

The twisting of my stomach continued to make me feel dizzy.

“The only aspects of my life I ever manipulated were the drugs and alcohol.” She implored, her brows furrowed. “I’m very gay. I always have been.”

Valentina’s blue eyes darted between mine, searching for something. When she didn’t find it, she reached for my hand. She grasped it, pulling me closer and interlocking our fingers. I held my breath as she continued to speak, immediately calmer due to her touch.

“When I came out as gay, that was all very real for me. I’ve known for a long time that I’ve only ever been interested in girls. Sure, my father didn’t like it, but that wasn’t why I came out. I did it because I want to live freely, to be true to myself like my mother taught me. It was never my intention to lead people into thinking I slept around.”

I glanced away, hating myself for asking the question, but not enough to stop it from tumbling out.

“So, those women, you didn’t sleep with all of them?”

I could feel the heat under my skin as I looked back at her. Valentina sucked in her cheeks and shook her head, the hint of a smile in the corner of her lips.

“My reputation as a womaniser is completely unfounded. And that was all way beyond my control. I didn’t even try to orchestrate that storyline, I swear.” Valentina scratched at her hairline with her free hand and took in a deep breath. “I slept with some of them, sure. I have needs, just like everyone, but I’ve only ever slept with a handful of girls in my whole life.”

A heaviness lifted from my chest. Even though I felt silly for asking such a personal question, the relief I felt was worth it. Valentina’s grip around my hand relaxed a little as she recognised my understanding. Her face softened, and with a shy smile, she continued.

“Those women were mostly my friends or colleagues. It was a time in my life that I was lonely and homesick and mostly just sad. It was their company that I craved. The press tends to embellish people's lives because gossip sells. You’ve seen what they’ll do for a photo.”

I looked back at the television, the next headline already filling the screen. There was so much more to this woman than I ever gave her credit for. As I delved further and discovered new quirks, I found myself craving more.

Always more.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to sound accusatory.” I croaked, ashamed of making her explain herself.

Valentina snorted a short laugh at my sheepish expression.

“No, it’s fine.” Valentina waved, dismissing the apology. “I wanted to tell you anyway. I just hadn’t found the right time.”

“Doesn’t it bother you? That people are saying things about you that aren’t true?”

Valentina licked her lips and scrunched her nose up, emphasising the slight shake of her head.

“Nope.” She replied firmly, not thinking twice about her response. “The people who matter know the truth. That’s all I need. I don’t care what everyone else thinks.”

“Who knows all this?”

Valentina reached for her glass of water and took a sip. Our hands were still clasped together in the crevice between our legs. She moved so she didn’t have to let go. I fought a smile as I rubbed my thumb across the back of her hand.

“Guille, Ava, and now you.”

“Ava Perez? The designer?”

Valentina threw me a dimpled smile, her entire expression lighting up.

“Yep. She’s my best friend; has been for years now. She knows everything.”

I remembered back to the launch party at the Carvajal mansion, Valentina’s arm linked with a beautiful woman. I felt like an idiot for thinking Ava was Valentina’s romantic date.

“That’s a very small group of people, Val. Why did you want to tell me?”

Valentina’s brows pinched together for a brief moment before she smiled at me cheekily.

“This may surprise you, Juls, but I don’t have many close friends. It was too hard to work out who was being authentic and who was just trying to get close to me for fame and money. It’s much easier to keep my friend circle small.” She said as dipped her chin, looking up at me through dark eyelashes. “I know we haven’t known each other for the longest time, but we did make a deal. We shook on it. We’re friends now whether you like it or not.”

I laughed then, a carefree laugh that made my chest shake. The idea that Valentina wanted me to be part of this small circle made my head spin.

“So, you’re telling me I'm trapped?” I teased softly.

Valentina giggled along with me, her eyes shining with frivolity. I leaned in closer to her, inexplicably drawn into her space.

“That’s exactly right. You’re stuck with me.” She uttered, her smile wavering.

Her blue eyes were so deep, and I felt my stomach do a backflip as I realised just how close we were. My breathing was shaky as I watched Valentina’s eyes dart between my own and then drop to my lips. It was panic and excitement that rushed through my veins at that moment. My whole body shivered as time and space evaporated, leaving my beating heart and Valentina’s warm breath against my face as the only elements that mattered.

“I think I can handle that.” I whispered, and with all the courage in the world, I closed the distance between us.

My forehead gently tipped against hers, and I closed my eyes at the acute euphoria of the moment. Sound and touch were all I had left, and I honed in on the feeling of each tiny snippet of Valentina I could sense. It was quiet except for the racing of our hearts and the shaky intake of breath we shared.

I melted when I felt Valentina’s other hand reach my neck. When I felt her fingers splayed across my skin, the slightest tremor in her touch, I leaned into the sensation. My eyes squeezed shut tighter as my resolve broke, the idea of feeling Valentina against me setting my whole world alight.

I’d felt it once before, rushed and dark and wet, and I wanted it again. But this time, it was for entirely different reasons. I wanted it to be different. I wanted to feel all of her, every single inch.

The loud buzzing of my phone on the glass coffee table snapped the moment prematurely. Valentina jerked away, my own eyes snapping open at the intrusive sound.

My eyes darted across Valentina’s face as we pulled away, our hands releasing their hold on the other. For a moment, we just stared at one another. I swayed in my spot, my head spinning with what was about to happen. Her lips were glistening with moisture, still so temptingly close, and I desperately wanted to rewind.

She offered me a coy smile and tipped her head in the direction of my phone.

“You should get that.”

I cleared my throat and turned, begrudgingly breaking eye contact. I grabbed the device and looked at the name on the screen. I dropped it into my lap, happy to forget about it.

“It’s just Anna.”

A flash of uncertainty swept across Valentina’s face before she was able to stop herself. She nodded her head and moved, lifting herself from our perfect cocoon on the floor of my hotel room.

“You should get that.” She repeated noncommittally as she straightened.

“Why? Where are you going?” I asked, eyes wide. “I don’t want -.”

I stopped myself before the rest of the words tumbled out, making a gigantic fool of myself. I bit my lip, embarrassed.

My God, why did I have to sound so desperate?

Valentina’s eyes drifted to the door, and then back to my pleading face. She relaxed and flicked me a stupid grin, pointing to the bathroom.

“I need to pee.”

I relaxed then, running my hand across my face to cover the blush.

“Can we order some ice-cream and put on a movie? I’m not ready to sleep yet.”

I smiled widely at the model.

“Sure, Val.”

Valentina nodded her head once and stepped away.

“Answer Anna. I’ll be right back.”

I watched Valentina disappear into the bathroom and swiped my trembling thumb across my phone screen.

Chapter Text

502k.

I stared at the staggering number of followers on my Instagram profile with wide eyes.

I shouldn’t really be surprised. Since Valentina started following me and tagging me in her stories, the amount of people who clicked the blue follow button on my profile skyrocketed. More often than not, my phone was buzzing with a notification of a new follower, or a fresh DM from some fan who was only interested in me because I’d featured fairly prominently on the models daily story updates.

These direct messages were a mixed bag, and gave me a glimpse of what it was like to be famous, or associated with people who were. Sometimes I was flattered with compliments, with comments on how beautiful I was. Others asked personal questions and often inquired as to whether I was just a friend of Valentina’s. Many told me in no uncertain words that I wasn’t good enough for the model. It seemed that people had become very interested in who I was and what my intentions were.

It was rather overwhelming, and Valentina had spoken with me at length about ignoring what people say on the internet. It was my first time experiencing how easy it was to be engulfed by the negatives, but with Valentina’s quiet reassurance and vehement persuasion that it was all total bullshit and not to listen to her overzealous fans, I followed her guidance and tried to block out the bad stuff. Recently, I was forced to mute notifications from the app just to give myself some peace and quiet.

Without much thought, my finger tapped the small magnifying glass and then hit the search bar on the top of the screen. Automatically, Valentina’s profile popped up as a recent search. I chewed on my top lip as my index finger poked the small icon of the model in a large, dark sunglasses, frozen mid-laugh.

The profile of ValeCarvajal, punctuated by a blue tick, appeared in front of my eyes. It was familiar now, embarrassingly so. I’d looked at it so many times that I could memorise her bio by heart, and could almost draw her first 10 pictures just from memory.

I clicked on her most recent picture, my lips lifting at the carefree smile on Valentina’s face as she posed for the camera. She was dressed in her character's black denim shorts and white shirt that had been made to look as though she’d been living rough for weeks. An oversized Hawaiian shirt, patterned with pinks and greens that her character had picked up on a supply run hung loosely on her slim frame. She grasped her wide-brim canvas hat high in the air as if she were celebrating. Her hair was pulled back into two identical french braids, loose strands of hair escaping from the relaxed style.

Valentina smiled widely at the camera, the sun in her face, her features scrunched up in cheerfulness. I had been the one who took the photo, happy to participate in the impromptu photoshoot. I could still hear her giggle as my eyes scanned the photo for the millionth time.

She was breathtaking.

“I didn’t realise you were having lunch here.”

I jumped in fright, caught red-handed, my hands fumbling with the phone that had been resting in my hands. When my composure eventually caught up, my palm now flat on top of my phone against the table, I looked up to find Sergio gazing down at me comically.

“Are you alright?” He asked, a smirk hiding behind the thickening beard on his face.

“Yes. Fine. Sorry.” I mumbled in a strange, disjointed way. “You just surprised me.”

“Do you mind if I join?” Sergio’s eyes flicked to the long bench seat that only I was occupying.

I cleared my throat and nodded my head.

“Of course, yeah.”

Sergio grinned and dropped down beside me, his tray of lunch clattering against the sturdy fold-up table. His fingers pulled at his bread roll before his plastic knife scraped at an offering of butter on his plate. He smothered the roll with the yellow paste before dipping it into whatever mess his lunch was. From the looks of the rice and saucy red chicken, I assumed he’d picked an Indian dish from one of the food trucks on site.

“We haven’t caught up one-on-one in a while.” Sergio commented around a mouthful of bread. There was a drop of sauce stuck on his beard. I considered telling him about it, but decided against it. “You’ve been a little preoccupied.”

“What does that mean?” I asked cautiously.

Sergio grinned at me again, his typical boyish mischievousness shining through.

“You know what I mean.”

I folded my arms across my chest and turned to face him. I watched him, one brow raised, as he shoved in another mouthful of food. He threw me a wink and nudged my side, chortling as he chewed.

“Don’t get all defensive, Juli.” He laughed. “It’s nice that you and Valentina are finally getting along.”

Immediately, I paled. Luckily, Sergio was too preoccupied with stuffing his face with food to notice my expression transform into one of panic. I quickly reminded myself that my reaction could give me away, so I swallowed down the alarm rising in my throat and turned back to my tray of barely touched food. I picked up my plastic fork and pushed at the Mediterranean salad in front of me.

“Whatever, Serg.” I brushed off with a laugh I hoped sounded genuine.

“No, I’m serious. It’s nice.” He said as he chewed. I resisted the urge to tell him it’s rude to speak with his mouth full. “It was a little tense at the start, so we’re all thankful you two sorted out whatever the issue was. It’s been much nicer filming with you two as friends.”

I bit my lip, my fork crunching into a moon of cucumber, a little embarrassed.

“It was that bad, huh?”

Sergio almost choked on his food, eventually laughing at the comment.

“You were basically throwing daggers at her the entire time. It was awkward as hell.”

My face scrunched up and I lifted my head to look at him. He was watching me with an affectionate smile, and even though more sauce had joined the initial drip in his dark beard, I couldn’t help but ignore it and reciprocate the gesture.

“I was kind of a bitch, hey?”

“Just a little.” He laughed as he finally wiped his beard with a napkin. “What was the problem, anyway?”

I dropped all pretense of pretending to eat and left the fork on the tray, my hands twisting in my lap. I obviously wasn’t going to go into detail, but I wanted to be more transparent than I had in the past. Sergio had been nothing but friendly to me, so I figured he deserved some element of truth.

“It wasn’t her. I was stupid and let other people’s opinions sway my judgement. Once I got to know her a little, I realised I was wrong about her.”

Sergio nodded as he gulped down another large mouthful.

“Occupational hazard, huh?”

I lifted a brow at him questioningly. He understood that I had no idea what he meant.

“You know,” He said as he waved his plastic knife in the air. “In an industry like ours, it’s easy to already have an opinion on the people we work with before we actually meet them. It can be hard to separate the idea of a person from the reality at the start.”

I sighed and nodded slowly, glad Sergio mostly understood where I'd gone wrong.

“I guess I'm still pretty new to this.”

“Well, get used to it girl. From what I can see, you’ll only end up more famous once this drops.”

I pushed at Sergio’s shoulder as I felt a blush creep across my skin. Compliments always made me feel a little uncomfortable, but I could tell Sergio was being genuine. He winked at me and thought no more about it, continuing on with his lunch.

“Where is everyone else?” I asked as I stretched my back. The vertebrae popped satisfyingly, earning a slightly disgusted look from my lunch companion.

“Anna is in wardrobe. Apparently there was a problem with her shoes. And Lucho was re-shooting a section of one of his scenes.” Sergio explained. “Valentina was on a phone call when I passed her on my way here.”

“There you are.” My hat was nearly knocked off my head as two arms wrapped around my neck.

I could tell who that voice and those arms belonged to any day of the week.

Valentina’s warm cheek pressed against my own as she hugged me, her body hot against my back. She whispered a quick hey in my ear, my heart in my throat and smile growing wider as she pressed a quick kiss against my cheek, out of sight of Sergio.

“Speak of the devil.” Sergio grinned as his eyes flicked up to Valentina, then back down to me.

“Oh yeah?” Valentina said as she shoved my hat back on my head. “You were talking about me?”

The long arms around my neck adjusted as Valentina pulled out of the embrace. One arm she kept draped over my shoulder as she straddled the bench seat on the other side, her body right up against me. I swallowed at the proximity of the blue-eyed girl, her open legs making my blood rush. We’d continued to grow closer during our evening rehearsals, and Valentina had become increasingly more hands-on with her friendly affections. It was something I secretly enjoyed, but it still surprised me each time she reached for my hand or placed a quick kiss on my cheek. The others simply accepted the shift between us, too busy with their own schedules to really pay us too much attention.

“Juli asked where you were. I told her you were on a phone call.”

I rolled my eyes at Sergio’s twist of what we were discussing.

“I asked where everyone was.” I corrected, not looking at either of them.

“Well, Sergio is right. I was on the phone.”

I turned my neck to look at her. My breath stuck in my throat as I caught her eye, her expression full of undisguised excitement.

“Yeah?” I asked, a little breathless at the light blue eyes shining at me.

“What are you two doing tonight?”

She asked us both, but her eyes never left mine.

“Nothing. Yet.” Sergio replied around another mouthful of food. “What are you thinking?”

Valentina finally tore her gaze away from mine, addressing Sergio.

“My friend Ava is in town. I thought we could have a little gathering up in my room tonight. She’d like to meet you all.” She babbled, her fingers pressing into my shoulder as she spoke. “Plus, we haven’t really done much bonding outside of the set, just the five of us.”

“The five of us, plus Ava?” Sergio clarified, his brows raised.

“Yep.” Valentina said with a nod of her head. “Are you in?”

Sergio licked his lips and picked up what remained of his bread roll.

“Aren’t you in the penthouse room?”

Valentina’s lips twisted and a smattering of heat sizzled across her already warm skin. She was clearly embarrassed at the question. I loved the way her skin flushed that perfect pink when she was embarrassed.

“As per my fathers orders, that is correct.” She replied, unaware or simply not concerned about my staring. “Drinks will be on me. Well, technically Leon.”

“What time?”

The three of us laughed at Sergio’s enthusiasm. Valentina’s eyes flicked to mine again, finally, her smile creasing at the edges. She studied me closely, her hand moving to the side of my neck. She massaged the muscles there, just lightly, but it made my hands shake in exhilaration.

“Let’s say 8?”

She was asking me directly, her expression begging me to say yes.

As if I could refuse.

“I’ll be there.” I said, and I watched with a thumping heart as her smile took over her entire face.

 

~ ~ ~

 

“Fancy seeing you here.”

I looked up from a text from Yolanda to find Anna greeting me with a wide smile. She breezed into the elevator and my eyes couldn’t help but sweep the length of her. She was wearing a white shirt tucked into tight blue jeans, a deep red lipstick highlighting her full lips. She looked fantastic, even in the most simple of outfits. No-one could ever say that Anna wasn’t a stunning woman, all high-cheekbones, long hair and dazzling smiles.

“You look great.” I exclaimed as I shoved my phone into the back pocket of my jeans before moving forward to hug her.

Anna smelt of an expensive perfume, a floral scent that almost made my eyes water. She giggled as she pulled me close, her body slim and tall against me. As I pulled away, she threw me a similar compliment and smacked a quick kiss against my cheek. I don’t know why, but it felt much more awkward compared to the way my body swooned whenever Valentina did the same thing.

I settled in beside her and watched as the elevator doors slid shut.

The button had already been pressed for the top floor, the cursive number 6 softly illuminated. The elevator lurched slightly as it began its slow ascent, my hand wrapping around the cool steel bar that lined the small box.

“Is this not totally random?” Anna asked as she flicked her long hair over her shoulder. She adjusted her shirt as she studied her reflection in the mirrored doors.

“What? Valentina’s invite?”

“Yeah.”

I shook my head, taking Anna’s lead and checking over my appearance before we arrived. I approved, but couldn’t help but smooth the collar of my shirt. It only took me an hour to settle on it, but I'd chosen my favourite black boots, well-fitting blue jeans and a black sleeveless button up top. I hadn’t done up the top two buttons, exposing a gold necklace against my chest.

“No, I don’t think so. She said her friend Ava is in town and wants to meet us. Maybe she just wants us to hang out a little more.”

Anna nodded her head as she listened, rearranging her hair in a distracted kind of way. I wondered if she was somehow more nervous than me about what might transpire. Just as the number 4 flicked to a 5 on the control panel, Anna nudged me with her elbow.

“Well, it’s nice that you’re free to join us tonight. You’re generally too busy to hang out in the evening.”

I knew with the arch of her brow and lift of her lips that Anna was just teasing me, but a part of me couldn’t help but wonder if she was still annoyed that I hadn’t been able to make time for her. I wasn’t about to tell her that my priority was with Valentina, and it would stay that way as long as she wanted to continue our evening rehearsals.

A light bing sounded, and the elevator doors lurched open. Instead of responding, I offered her a vague shrug of the shoulders and gestured for Anna to go first. She looked at me as if I wasn’t going to get out of it this lightly before stepping out. There were only two rooms on this floor, and Valentina’s was on the right. Anna grinned at me as she took a few steps forward and wrapped her knuckles against the door.

“I can’t wait to see the inside of this place.”

I tilted my head to the side, unsure of Anna’s curiosity. My co-star pursed her lips together and reached out, wiping her thumb against my cheek. I assumed there were some remnants of lipstick there from when Anna kissed me in greeting.

“Why?”

The door before us swung open, an excited Valentina on the other side.

“Hi!” She burst, her smile wide and eyes lit up like the stars.

She quickly looked at Anna, then at me. Anna’s hand dropped from my face, the gesture turning into a slightly awkward wave. There was a quick twitch to Valentina’s brows before she straightened up her smile and lunged forwards, wrapping Anna up in a hug.

“I’m so glad you came.”

Anna laughed and returned the embrace.

“Thanks for the invite.”

Valentina’s long, dark-golden hair swayed against her tight, black crop. It paired perfectly with her wide-leg black pants, a bow tied just beneath her navel as they sat just perfectly against her hips. My mind swam as my eyes drank her in, her flat stomach so enticing I could feel my mouth water at the sight.

Valentina was smirking at me when I forced myself to look up at her face.

“Juls.” She whispered as she flung her arms around me.

On instinct I pulled her close, my hands overlapping around her back and holding her tight.

“Thanks for inviting me.”

I squeezed her once and allowed my arms to fall, aware of Anna’s gaze on us. Valentina stepped back, her lip tucked between her teeth, one hand slipping around mine. She linked our fingers and tugged at me. I was glad she didn’t also hold Anna’s hand.

“Come on.” She said with a flick of her head. “Come on in.”

I stumbled along behind her, her hand tight around my own. I didn’t look for Anna, but I assumed she was behind us.

I didn’t quite understand the idea of a ‘penthouse’ until I stepped foot in Valentina’s room. Well, room was a complete understatement. It was essentially an entire apartment. A fully equipped kitchen stretched off to our left, tall bar stools lining the huge island bench. An array of snacks, piles of limes and copious bottles of liquor were scattered across the stone top, a red blue-tooth speaker vibrating with music contributing to the party atmosphere.

Cheers and hollers came from the group of people already sitting on the L-shaped lounge in the large living room. Sergio, Lucho and Ava were sitting around a glass coffee table, their smiles wide and drinks full.

“About time you two got here.” Sergio called.

“Bathroom is just there.” Valentina pointed to the first door down a long hallway. “As well as another bedroom. My room is through that door.” She pointed to a closed door on the opposite side of the kitchen.

She twirled and her hand loosened from mine. I ignored the disappointment I felt at the disconnection. Her arms widened towards the island bench, and my eyes were once again directed to the spread.

“What would you like to drink?”

“This is a lot.” Anna laughed.

“Yeah. Ava and I have this tendency to get a little too excited. And then this happens.” Valentina grinned. “Is there anything in particular you’d like?”

“Val, I need another.”

I turned to my right at the sound of a voice I didn’t recognise. The woman who I already knew to be Ava placed her glass against the stone bench and I was immediately struck by her beauty. I only caught her profile, but she was stunning in a frustratingly natural kind of way. It was the kind of beauty many women on this planet would kill for, and spend lots of money to try and replicate. But it wasn’t just her clear skin, defined features, and dark hair that caught my eye. It was the way she held herself, a certain confidence in the way she stood, the ferocity in her expression, that had my mouth dropping open in awe.

“Same again?” Valentina asked, and Ava nodded her head.

“How about I make four. Are you two alright with margaritas?”

As with every time she spoke, my attention was pulled back to Valentina. Her blue eyes were watching me carefully. I noticed she did that a lot when we were around other people. She’d ask a general question, but she always waited for my response, her eyes lingering on me as if she couldn’t care for anyone else’s answer. I couldn’t even explain the way that felt even if I tried.

“Sounds great to me, Valentina.” Anna said.

We all know Valentina heard her, but she barely acknowledged it.

“Juls?” She prompted.

“Yeah, Val. That’d be perfect. Thanks.”

Valentina nodded, a hint of hesitancy in the depths of her crystal blues, before she reached for the stack of limes thrown into a decorated fruit bowl. I watched as her long fingers picked up a sharp knife as she began expertly slicing the limes. Anna’s voice barely registered with me as she began chattering away with Valentina, my attention focused on the way her hands held the knife and flipped the fruit.

She was mesmerising.

Just as Valentina began squeezing the limes into two cocktail shakers, the tips of her fingers turning white with the effort, a hand appeared in front of me. My eyes registered the offering, my head lifting to follow the arm back to the woman standing on my right.

“Hey. I’m Ava.”

The designer had a friendly smile on her face. Her teeth were straight and white, and there was a faint glimmer of amusement tucked away in her expression.

“Hey.” I replied, finally catching up. I grasped her hand in a loose handshake. “I’m Juliana.”

Ava’s eyes mapped me out, an element of perception in the way she surveyed me. Generally, I would have been alert to this, wary of someone trying to work me out. But, strangely, Ava’s gaze was fond, kind, and almost like we already knew one another. It didn’t feel evasive so I didn’t mind the prolonged contact.

“I know.”

I didn’t know exactly how to respond to that. She looked at me as if she could read my mind.

Ava’s eye colour was a strange mix of green and brown. People would typically call that mix ‘hazel’, but I didn’t believe there was a way to classify the way those light coloured eyes studied me. They were soft and distinctly like nothing I'd ever seen before.

“It’s nice to meet you. Valentina has mentioned you before.”

I released her hand and offered her a polite smile, doing my best to hold myself together. This woman was Valentina’s best friend. I wanted to make a good impression.

“Has she?” Ava giggled a smooth, airy sound. “I’m sure it’s nothing compared to how much she’s babbled on about you.”

“Really?”

“Well, sure. You’re good friends. Right?”

Ava’s eyes narrowed as she asked the question, her gaze flicking carefully over my face, watching for a reaction.

I licked my lips, my mouth suddenly very dry. I didn’t quite know how to take that. The fact that Valentina had mentioned me to Ava, apparently quite regularly, made my brain glitch. But the mention of good friends made me wonder if perhaps I really was on a different page from the woman who was now shaking the cocktails vigorously in the kitchen.

“Yeah.” I responded, a little less enthusiastically than I'd intended. “I guess we are.”

Ava’s brows pulled together briefly, as if she were confused about my response. She took a quick look at her best friend before leaning in closer and dipping her chin, demanding my attention.

“I’ve heard a lot about you, Juliana.” She spoke quietly and fervently, as if she were trying to tell me something. “It’s nice to finally meet you.”

“Hey. You two.” Valentina called, her fingers trying to click to get our attention.

Ava’s head turned and she pulled back, standing straight and throwing her best friend a brilliant smile.

“Yes, Vale.”

Valentina’s gaze bounced between us as she wiped her hands on a cloth. I couldn’t help the curl of my lips as my eyes connected with hers again. There was just something about her, something I still hadn’t fully grasped, that made my insides melt every time I had the opportunity to observe her.

Once she spotted my relaxed grin, Valentina softened and pushed two glasses towards us.

“Your drinks.” She presented. “One margarita each.”

“Thanks, Val.”

Ava picked up what looked to be an expensive glass, decorated with a salted rim and a sliced lime, and sipped at the offering.

“Your best one yet, Vale.” Ava said with a wink.

Valentina giggled and picked up her own drink, throwing me a quirk of the brow as she tipped her own glass, licking at the salt on her lips.

“Come on, let’s join the boys.”

 

~ ~ ~

 

Three margaritas later and I was sufficiently relaxed. I didn’t realise how nervous I was about Valentina’s impromptu gathering until I'd consumed enough alcohol for the worry of making a good impression finally fell away.

The first hour was full of boisterous chatter and cackling laughter between the six of us. Anna, Lucho, Sergio, Valentina and I simply continued the friendly banter we’d eased into over the course of filming, and I was reminded once again how lucky I was to be cast in this role with such amazing, like-minded people.

The surprise packet was Ava. The designer slipped right into the dynamics as if she was also part of the cast. She was the perfect balance of flirty and friendly with the boys to keep the sparkle in their eye, and she was nothing but gracious with Anna and myself. The conversation flittered chaotically between set stories and the general rowdiness that tends to occur once the alcohol begins to flow freely and inhibitions are lost.

Ava and Sergio sat amongst large, fluffy cushions that had been thrown on the plush rug. I noticed as time wore on that Sergio began to creep closer to the designer, his toothy smile forever aimed at the beautiful woman. Anna and Lucho sat on one edge of the L shaped lounge, while Valentina and I occupied the other length. The coffee table sat between us, an accumulation of our phones, spilt drinks and empty bottles crowding the furniture.

“I have an idea.” Sergio proposed loudly, his freshly opened beer almost spilling as he sat up.

“We’re not getting naked, Serg.” Anna noted quickly, prompting another round of laughter.

“Party pooper.” Sergio winked. “Let’s play Never Have I Ever.”

The twinkle in Sergio’s eye at his own suggestion made me wonder just how out of control the game could get.

“Yes!” Ava clapped, perhaps a little too enthusiastically. She crossed her legs to get more comfortable, stuffing a large cushion behind her back. “I love this game.”

“How do you play it again?”

“Lucho, are you serious, man?” Sergio groaned.

Lucho looked innocently around to the rest of us, and I couldn’t help but giggle at his forlorn expression.

“Hold up five fingers.” Valentina directed through her own laughter.

She leaned closer to me, her arm pressing into the length of my thigh. If it were possible, she’d become more bold with her physical touch the more she drank. Not that I was about to protest; I was more than happy to play along. As she held up her hand, her five fingers stretched out and waggled in the air. I took a moment to admire the length and shape of them, unsure why I was mildly obsessed with the way they moved.

“We’ll go around in a circle and make a statement starting with ‘never have I ever’. If you have done that thing, you put one finger down and you DRINK!”

“And the first person who puts all five fingers down has to finish the rest of their drink.” Anna added, moving to the edge of the couch.

A warm palm fell on the back of my neck and I shivered at the contact. Valentina’s hot breath was soft against my ear, and I swallowed around the excitement in my throat.

“Do you want another drink?”

I nodded as she pulled away. My neck twisted just enough to look up at her. She was close, her lips wet as if she’d just finished her own drink. She was smiling at me, her eyes bright and shimmering.

“Yeah. Please.”

I picked up my glass from the coffee table and threw back the last mouthful, enjoying the combination of sweet and salty. Turning back to Valentina, I licked my lips, my tongue catching the last few traces of salt from the rim. I caught Valentina’s eye, immediately aware of the effect I’d accidentally had on the other woman. She was still, her eyes ablaze as she stared at my mouth. I continued slowly, tracing the entire surface area of my lips, watching on as Valentina continued to gawk. Her own mouth was agape, and I could see the tip of her tongue resting against her bottom lip.

There was almost enough confidence swimming in my veins to lean in and kiss her. I wanted to. Desperately. However, not only were we in the middle of her living room, surrounded by people, but Valentina deserved better than that.

The last time I kissed her, it had been rushed and under the wrong circumstances. I’d treated her badly and I took advantage of her moment of weakness. I’d torn myself up about it ever since, even more so that I'd allowed myself to get to know her better.

If it were to happen again, I’d want it to be right. I’d want it to be reciprocal, and not some hurried mess in a dark hallway. I respected her more than that.

So instead of closing the distance between us and pulling her into a kiss like my entire body was screaming at me to do, I gently pushed the now empty glass into Valentina’s hand that wasn’t still wrapped around the back of my neck.

“I’ll have another. Thanks.”

Valentina blinked at me, once, then again, before she seemed to understand what was going on. She closed her mouth and cleared her throat, the warmth of her palm dropping away as she stood up.

“I think we’re done with margaritas.”

I watched on with a smirk on my face as Valentina stepped away from the couch and into the kitchen. She discarded our glasses onto the island bench and reached for a tall bottle of mezcal that stood amongst the various other types of alcohol. She licked her lips as if in thought, and then looked directly at me.

Knowing full well I'd been caught staring, I held my ground and simply raised a curious eyebrow at her, a coy smile on my lips. I couldn’t help it if my brain just wanted to watch her every move. Valentina’s eyes sparkled as she pushed her lips together in a bashful, lopsided grin. It was the kind of smile that made my stomach swoop, a smile that was just for me. I scrunched my nose up at her and she responded with a playful attempt at a wink. I’d never seen a more adorable expression in my entire life, and it made me laugh a full, hearty laugh.

“Juli, are you listening?”

Anna’s voice tugged me from my moment with Valentina. I caught Ava’s eye as I turned back to rejoin the group, my smile still wide on my face.

She was watching me closely, a smirk on her face as she tipped her head to the side. I wasn’t sure what Valentina had told Ava about me, but I could feel her eyes follow me as I focused on Anna.

“Sorry. What’s going on?”

“Lucho started the game. Put your hand up.” Anna giggled as she grabbed at the hand resting against the couch. “Lucho, repeat it so Juli can play.”

“Never have I ever lied to a boss.”

My face scrunched up in disapproval as Lucho waved five fingers at me.

“Lucho, you’re saying you’ve never lied to a boss? Really?”

“Yep.” He said, full of good-natured humour. “Never had to. My natural charm takes care of it for me. I don’t have to lie.”

I rolled my eyes and tucked away a finger.

“You have to drink.” Sergio said as he finished his own mouthful, four fingers remaining on his other hand.

“I don’t have one.”

Right as I said it, a tall shot glass brimming with a clear liquid appeared in front of me. Two long fingers held it in front of my face, and I looked up to see a mischievous Valentina grinning down at me.

“Now you do.” She beamed.

I took the offered glass, my mouth agape.

“Shots? Val, we do have to work tomorrow.”

“Not until midday.” Sergio piped up. “Take your drink, little miss liar.”

I grimaced at the boy lounging against the cushions but did as I was told. The mezcal burned my throat and I coughed at the intensity of the flavour.

A hand rubbed at my back soothingly as Valentina settled in beside me.

“You’ll get used to it.” She whispered as she took her own sip.

“Alright, my turn.” Ava called excitedly. “Never have I ever been to a strip club.”

The two boys immediately raised their drinks to their lips, as did Valentina.

“Really, Val? Without me?” Ava admonished.

She shrugged her shoulders as if it wasn’t a big deal.

“It was in Paris with Cara and Kate. It wasn’t really my scene but they enjoyed it.”

“Cara and Kate?” Anna asked, trying to keep up.

“Cara Delevinge and Kate Upton.” Ava clarified as Valentina didn’t respond.

Sergio almost spat out his drink at the name drop. For the first time since I walked in the door, the only sound in the apartment was the music. Heat Waves by Glass Animals was blaring from the speaker and we all just sort of gaped at Valentina.

“Sometimes I forget how famous you are.” Lucho said, his eyes wide.

It was true. We kind of lived in this little bubble while on set. It wasn’t like a normal shoot in the city where we’d go home at the end of a long day of filming and still be attached to our normal lives. All we did while we were on location was film for ten hours, and then end up too exhausted to do much so we’d see the inside of our hotel room at night. At least that’s what Valentina and I had fallen into the habit of doing while working on our evening rehearsals. We spent most of our time together, so aside from the overwhelming number of people following her on social media, it was easy to forget just how famous she was.

“It’s whatever.” She said with a shake of her head. It was clear she didn’t want to dwell on it. “Come on. It’s Sergio’s turn.”

The six of us snapped out of our brief lull of admiration for having Valentina in our presence and continued on with the game.

“Never have I ever had a threesome.”

Ava’s finger bent and the rest of us burst into mocking applause at the admission. The designer blushed but laughed along with us, sneaking a sip of her drink while the rest of us demanded some details.

“It was after my first fashion show in New York.” She stated, keeping fairly tight-lipped.

“That’s all you’re going to give us?” Sergio was basically drooling as he leaned in for more information.

Ava grinned at Valentina, the two sharing an amused look. It was clear Valentina knew this story already. Sergio’s eyes bounced between the two women, his eyes widening.

“If you want to try it again, I'm more than willing to participate.” Sergio gushed. “Vale, are you in if we are?”

I laughed along with the rest of the group, but my stomach was twisting at the thought of Sergio anywhere near Valentina.

“You wish, Serg.”

After Valentina shot him down, Sergio swivelled his neck to Ava, the hope slowly fading from his eyes.

“In your wildest dreams.”

With those four words, Sergio’s dreams were crushed.

“Alright, my turn!” Valentina called out over the laughter, her shot glass balanced between her index finger and thumb. “Never have I ever fallen asleep during sex.”

Valentina’s eyes were locked with Ava’s, and the designer made a sound of displeasure at the comment. Clearly, Valentina was targeting her best friend with some inside information. The rest of the group hollered and whooped as one more finger curled down for Ava and she and Sergio both tipped back their drinks.

After Sergio and Ava explained themselves, all eyes turned to me.

“Alright. Never have I ever gone skinny-dipping.”

Every single person around the circle gaped at me and took a drink, completely shocked that I had never swum without any clothes on. The five of them threw a barrage of questions at me once they’d swallowed their mouthfuls, wondering why I’d never participated in such a brazen act.

“The opportunity just never presented itself.” I cried out, trying to be heard above their utter disbelief.

“There’s a pool here, you know.” Sergio laughed with a wink.

A range of different, disgusted negatives were sent in Sergio’s direction before Anna continued on.

“Never have I ever had sex with a female.”

The two boys of the group sniggered and high-fived one another, almost spilling their drinks on Ava as they did so. They threw down another mouthful as Valentina quietly took a sip of her own drink. I swallowed down the panic that grew inside me at the statement. I could feel my skin burning and I could sense an intense pair of blue eyes staring at the side of my head, but I couldn’t bring myself to lift the drink to my lips.

I knew the truth. Valentina knew the truth. But no-one else knew about my sexual orientation, nor the rushed encounter i’d had with Valentina on set weeks ago. Or any of the previous sexual experiences I’d had with other women.

The thought of everyone else finding out my secret caused a line of sweat to break out on my forehead. I gritted my teeth and ignored the side glances from Anna and Ava, determined to keep my cool while also thinking of ways I could explain my reluctance to admit the truth to a disappointed Valentina.

The feel of my jeans beneath my suddenly sweaty palms took priority, and I focused my gaze on my lap as the light banter between Sergio and Lucho continued on.

“I kind of like being the only one who knows.”

I turned to look at Valentina as she pulled away from my ear, the feel of her breath on my skin increasing the blush on my face. I let go of the breath I didn’t realise I was holding onto when I found two soft blue eyes focused on me. With that simple look of complete understanding, and that calm whisper in my ear, my nerves faded away like a morning dream.

The smile that spread across my face at the other woman’s earnest expression was almost embarrassing.

How did she do it?

“Okay.” Lucho said loudly before clearing his throat, gaining the attention of everyone in the room. “If that’s the way we want to play it. Never have I ever had sex with a man.”

I rolled my eyes as I bent my neck, downing another small mouthful of mezcal. I looked over at Valentina with a scowl as the liquid burned my throat on its journey south. She was looking at me with a curiously arched brow, her drink still lowered, balanced against her knee.

And then it hit me, perhaps a little naively, that she’d only ever slept with women. She was so confident in herself, so assertive in her own sense-of-self that it made me feel like such an idiot for the reasons why I'd gone through with my own fumbling sexual experience with a man at the vulnerable age of 18. A combination of pressure from straight women pointing out that I never showed any interest in the other young men on set, the buzz of alcohol in my circulatory system, the slight curiosity of what it would be like, the fading confusion over what I actually preferred, and a handsome young man named Adam eager to follow me into a guest bedroom, all led to the moment I told myself I should try.

Once was enough to solidify the concept of what it meant to be gay in my mind.

I raised my own brow at Valentina, a silly smirk on my face. I knew, with the curve of her lips and slightly narrowing of her eyes, that I'd have to recount that terrible story later. She looked relaxed and flirtatious, her eyelids blinking slowly as she continued to watch me with a softness and attentiveness that made my heart thump hard in my chest.

I could have stared at her all night. I wasn’t sure if it was the alcohol or just the way Valentina looked at me, but I felt like I could simply dive into the blue depths of her eyes and she would wrap me up and hold me close. It was a wonderfully comforting thought, and for the upteenth time that night, I had to restrain myself from leaning further into her. I had to continually remind myself that we weren’t alone in my hotel room, and I couldn’t just throw myself at her.

“Okay, now we’ve established that.” Ava laughed, her white teeth gleaming wickedly as she grinned widely.

It was clear the group was quickly sliding into inebriation as we all reacted boisterously to the game. The collective laughter was becoming less inhibited, with more crude jokes and slightly slurred sentences thrown at one another across the room. I felt the couch dip next to me as Valentina moved closer, her leg just touching the length of my own. I continued to participate in the playful joke Sergio was using to try and provoke me, unable to let go of the idea of skinny dipping, all while doing my best to ignore all the places that Valentina and I now touched.

Eventually, someone realised it was Ava’s turn. The designer clapped her hands, our laughter and conversations dying on our lips as we focused on her. She licked her lips, her eyes sweeping across the group before she settled on Valentina. Her lips twitched and I could almost see the idea flick a switch in her brain. She clicked her teeth under the guise of hiding her sly smile.

“Never have I ever had sex on set.”

The shot glass almost slipped from my fingers as Ava’s green eyes flashed at me.

I could never forget it. Valentina, the most gorgeous woman I’d ever met, pressed up against a wall in a dark hallway. Her tongue sliding against my own, the soft feel of her beneath my fingers, the sounds of her pleading with me, caused a blush to erupt under my skin.

Without looking at one another, Valentina and I both raised our shot glasses to our lips. We knocked back the rest of the clear liquid, wiping our mouths as the mezcal slid down our throats.

Hang on.”

I looked up to see the other four staring at us with varying degrees of amusement and confusion.

“What?” Valentina replied.

The model reached for the half-full bottle of mezcal she’d placed on the coffee table. She plucked the glass gently from my hand and removed the lid off the bottle.

“You’ve both had sex on set?” Lucho asked.

“Looks like it.” Valentina said with a nonchalant shrug as she went about refilling our glasses. “Anyone want some?”

Ava and Anna both picked up a shot glass and held it out for Valentina.

The model looked entirely unfazed by the question, but I could tell by the flex in her jaw and the reddening of the tips of her ears that she knew what the implication of us both drinking to that question meant. I felt the colour drain from my face as Sergio tipped his head inquisitively to the side, a sly smile on his bearded face.

“Isn’t this your first job on a set, Vale?” Sergio asked strategically.

His eyes bounced between the two of us as if he were watching a tennis match, the interest clear in the glint in his eyes. I tried my best to school my features into one of indifference. I wasn’t sure I was succeeding.

“Yes.” Valentina replied firmly as she forced the lid back on the bottle and carefully handed me an almost overflowing glass.

My hands were trembling slightly as I received it. Valentina flicked me a calm smile, one that said trust me. I blew out a shaky breath and realised I did, without a doubt, trust her.

“So you two…” Sergio continued excitedly, his index finger wagging at us.

Lucho and Sergio cheered and gave each other another obnoxious high-five. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes as I witnessed the most bro-like thing to ever happen. Anna just gaped at us and Ava sat back and watched, joining in with Lucho and Sergio’s jubilant banter on what they thought they had just discovered.

I swallowed harshly and shook my head. I released a nervous laugh and in the process, spilled a bit of my drink on my jeans. Valentina’s hand immediately wiped at my leg and nudged me with her elbow.

“Relax.” She mouthed at me before she turned back to the others.

“Sergio, you moron. Put it back in your pants.” Valentina called out, determined to be heard above them.

“I fucking knew it.” Sergio grinned as he lifted his beer to his mouth and finished off the bottle.

“You knew what?” Valentina asked casually, her head wobbling as she mimicked Sergio’s tone.

“That there was something going on between you two.” He chortled as he reached for the bottle of mezcal and a spare shot glass. “Didn’t we, Lucho?”

Lucho just nodded his head feverishly, like a puppy who was just offered treats. Sometimes I wondered if that man ever had an original thought in his entire life.

“Well, you’d best get that idea out of your head.” Valentina remarked.

I was more than happy for Valentina to take the lead on this one. It was apparent that I’d been stunned into silence. The thought of this group of people finding out about what had happened between Valentina and I caused my brain to almost shut down, as if it were in defensive mode. I couldn’t do any more damage if I kept my mouth shut, so I gladly watched as Valentina handled the boys as if they were putty in her hands.

“What? But you both drank to having sex on set, and this is your first job. We’re just joining the dots here.”

Valentina sighed as if she were about to explain the most simple thing to a bunch of ignorant 6 year olds.

“I’m the daughter of Leon Carvajal, Serg. I grew up on set. Just because Juliana and I both drank, it doesn’t mean it happened at the same time.” She tipped back a small sip of mezcal as the rest of the group looked at one another. “I’m sure we’ve both had plenty of opportunities, what with all those dark hallways and drawn curtains around the lot. I’m actually surprised we’re the only two who have.”

Anna’s shrill laugh rang out as Valentina finished, the others soon joining in.

“Sergio, you idiot.” She said as she threw a cushion at his head. He just ducked in time, somehow also keeping his shot glass still enough to not lose any of his drink. “Get the fantasy out of your head. Juliana would never do that with Valentina.”

This time, it was me who laughed. If only Anna knew just how badly I wanted to be close to Valentina. Again. Thankfully, my laughter blended in with the rowdy hysterics and friendly jabs at one another as we continued our slide into intoxication.

“No need to burst our bubble, An. We’re quite happy imagining it.” Lucho grinned, earning another raucous round of laughter and sounds of disgust.

I joined in on the light banter, relaxing in my posture once I was out of the danger zone. Valentina’s deflection clearly worked. Everyone moved on from the topic, Sergio now reminiscing on the time he almost managed to pull Claudia Garcia, a beautiful actress on his last job, into a dark corner between takes. It was apparent Lucho didn’t believe a word of it, the other boy jesting and toying with Sergio for more details.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Ava flick Valentina a brief apology, her expression full of remorse. Beside me, Valentina shook her head minutely, as if she were forgiven. Ava took a breath and with a blink, removed the pleading look in her eyes and turned back to the conversation.

It was a moment between two best friends, a moment that wouldn’t have taken any longer than 5 seconds, but I noticed it. For a moment, my mind wandered. I pondered how much Valentina had told her best friend regarding what had happened between us. What made Ava bring that up? She didn’t strike me as the kind of person who would purposely embarrass her best friend, or betray her trust. My heart raced as thoughts of someone else knowing my secret, and what they could do with this information, began circulating in my head.

With a light squeeze on my knee, I was pulled back to the present.

I looked down at my full-again drink and Valentina’s hand on my knee, and back up to bright, blue eyes. She was smiling at me, a delicate, soft pull of her lips, and just like that, my brief spiral was halted. She leaned in, her scent making my eyelids flutter, and whispered in my ear.

“Are you okay?”

I was aware of how easily the drink in my hand was being consumed, and how quickly it was refilled. I’d been drunk plenty of times before to know the signs. My entire body was moving at a much slower pace than normal, and I was enjoying how relaxed I felt. Not to mention how great it felt to have Valentina so close to me.

She hadn’t moved away, her hand still resting against my leg, her warm breath on my cheek. I took in a deep breath, relishing the perfume radiating from the other woman, and replied.

“I’m fine.”

Valentina’s light laugh was hot against my skin, and I smiled widely as her chest shook in amusement.

“Just fine? Anything I can do to make your night any better?”

I bit my lip as Valentina’s flirtatious voice whispered in my ear. I was hot, almost too hot, but despite this I could still sense the goosebumps rise all over my body in reaction to the loaded question. We were in a room with our friends, and I desperately wished they would all disappear so I could lean in and place a kiss against the soft column of skin on Valentina’s neck that was so damn, enticingly close.

“Hmmmmm.” I hummed. “I don’t think so.”

Valentina’s head dropped slightly and she began to pull away. I realised she was retreating, perhaps disappointed in my response. It was the last thing I wanted.

I reached out, my hand boldly cupping the back of her neck and pulling her into me again. She released a quiet huff of surprise at the movement, our cheeks sliding together as I made to whisper in her ear.

“I’ll be happy as long as you stay close.”

My hand fell away from her neck, tracing down her spine to settle on the small of her back. This time I pulled back to look at her, and was pleasantly surprised to see the shock on her face. She quickly pulled herself together, licking her lips as her gaze dropped to my mouth, and back up.

It was pathetic, painfully so, at how desperate I was to throw away all the fucks I gave and just kiss her. But the room full of people, coupled with the terror I felt at the thought of people knowing about my sexuality held me back. Not to mention the promise I made to myself, that I wouldn’t be the one to push myself on Valentina ever again.

Valentina opened her mouth to speak, but my body had more important matters to attend to.

“I’ll be back. I’m busting.”

I shuffled forwards and pushed off her leg with my hand. I realised pretty quickly that I got up too fast, my feet unsteady as I stood. I swayed for a moment, the amount of alcohol i’d consumed suddenly making itself present in my system. The room spun for a second and I stumbled forward.

“Woah, Juli.” Sergio laughed, his hand shaking as he poured himself another shot.

Just as I thought I was headed for the glass coffee table, two firm hands grasped my hips and stopped me. I turned to see Valentina holding me, still seated, one eyebrow raised and mouth open.

“I’m okay. Just stood too quickly.” I mumbled, only just loud enough to be heard over the sound of the music.

Anna’s giggle pulled my attention. I wobbled on my feet and blinked at the girl who had quickly become my friend. She was leaning in close to Lucho while the boy showed her something on his phone. She looked quite enamoured with him, sitting close enough to be considered intimate or flirtatious. While one of her hands gripped her shot glass, the other was slung over his shoulder as she tugged him closer.

I smiled as I watched Anna flirt with our co-star, and made a mental note to quiz her about that later. For now, my bladder was practically screaming at me.

Valentina’s hands fell away from my waist as I stepped towards the kitchen. Remembering Valentina’s brief introduction to the apartment, I reached for the door handle on the first door down the hallway. It was rigid, as if it were locked.

“I think Sergio’s in there?”

I spun on the spot to see Valentina grinning at me. She stood close by, her face in slight shadow from the light behind her, but I could still spot the glimmer in her eyes.

“What? He was just with us.”

I looked over Valentina’s shoulder. Ava was lying back on her elbows, laughing along with Anna and Lucho. Sergio must have just beaten me to it.

“Damn.”

“It’s okay. You can use my ensuite.”

Valentina took my hand in hers and dragged me back through the main living area and through a closed door at the other end.

Two bedside pendant lights were on, spilling warm yellow light onto a large king bed. Her mirrored closet doors were shut, but I imagined there was nothing left inside considering the amount of clothes that had been thrown onto the bed.

“Sorry about the mess.” Valentina snorted. “Bathroom is through there.”

Valentina pointed at a door that was slightly ajar, opposite the wall of sheer curtains running the length of the room. We were finally alone, but my body really wasn’t about to cut me any slack.

“Thanks.” I mumbled, desperate to relieve myself.

I ignored the slight spinning of the room as I sat down, sighing in relief as I emptied my full bladder.

I pulled out my phone and opened up a message from Yolanda. She’d sent a selfie, and I giggled stupidly at the sight. She was slumped in a chair, her face squashed against her flat palm, dark circles under her eyes. She was obviously still on set, working late into the night.

I hit the camera button, taking a selfie with my tongue out and sending it back.

She replied in an instant.

Are you drunk? You look drunk.

She knew me too well.

I snorted and replied: Maybe. We’re in the penthouse having a few drinks.

In Valentina’s penthouse?

Then quickly: Valentina, the one you have a crush on?

I rolled my eyes, my fingers sliding across the screen slowly.

Valentina, my co-star, yes. All of us are here.

The three bubbles popped up on screen, letting me know Yolanda was typing.

Have you found the courage to kiss her yet? Seriously, Juli, shoot your shot.

If only she knew. I would be back in the city in two days, and I wasn’t sure how much longer I could hold Yolanda off from telling her the full story.

I’m going back to the party now…

I locked my phone and cleaned myself up. As I did so, my mind flitted back to the woman who dominated my thoughts.

Valentina was even more playful when drunk, and I was happy to admit to myself how much I enjoyed it. The way she looked at me and the closeness we’d shared throughout the night made my face split open with a silly grin.

I desperately wanted to kiss her. I wanted to feel those full, soft lips against mine again. I couldn’t recall another moment in time when I so badly wanted to be close to another person. There was just something about her that made me dizzy with desire, made me giddy with want. The soft touches and whispered remarks made me think that perhaps she felt the same way. The thought of my escalating feelings being reciprocated made my heart rate spike and my skin flush.

I washed my hands, and with a firm look at myself in the mirror, I stepped back into her bedroom. I took a moment to memorise the space. The scatter of jewelry and perfume on her bedside, the stack of shoes in the corner, the scribbled script on the edge of her bed. I smiled to myself and forced my feet towards her bedroom door. Just as I was about to pull it open, I could hear hushed voices on the other side.

“I bloody knew it.”

It was Ava.

“What the fuck were you playing at with that Never Have I Ever question, Ava?”

And Valentina.

I bit my lip. It was clearly a private conversation between two friends, but I found myself frozen in place.

“What do you mean?” Ava asked innocently.

I could almost see the roll of Valentina’s eyes through the door.

“You know exactly what I mean. Why did you throw us into it like that?”

“You can’t tell me you had sex at work and then not give me any details, Vale.”

“Ava, come on. Maybe I didn’t tell you for a reason. Did you think of that?”

“I’m your best friend. You used to tell me everything, but you’ve been very tight lipped about this Juliana girl. I had a suspicion and I wanted to confirm it. What’s wrong with that?”

So Valentina hadn’t told her. Ava was just playing the game and we fell into the trap.

Well, she knew now.

“It’s none of your business, Ava.”

From the tone of Valentina’s voice, she was pissed. It went quiet between the two of them, and for a moment I thought the model had stormed off.

“You’re right. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have pried, especially in front of everyone.”

Valentina released a deep breath.

“Okay, Ava.”

A beat.

“Was it good?”

“Oh my God, Ava. Stop.”

“Why are you being so secretive about this anyway? It’s not like you.”

I felt myself straining to hear the answer, but one never came.

“You like her, don’t you?” Ava giggled, only just loud enough to be heard. “You don’t smile like that about just anyone Vale.”

“Shut up.” Valentina replied, the mirth in her voice strong. “There’s just a lot going on. No-one knows about her. She isn’t out yet, and it’s not our place to go and shout it to the rest of the world. You can’t tell anyone, okay?”

I could feel the blood whoosh through my veins as I stepped away from the door, the contents of that conversation reverberating around my head like a game of pong.

Somehow, my brain ignored the idea that Ava knew about me, and decided to focus on the other aspect of the whispered conversation.

Could it be true? Could Valentina really like me, like me?

A light breeze ruffled the sheer curtain, and in my stupor of possibilities running through my head, I walked towards it. Behind the curtain was a half-open glass sliding door that led out onto a balcony. My brain was gasping for fresh air as my tipsy self tried to decipher Valentina and Ava’s hushed conversation.

I stepped out onto the large balcony and walked straight to the edge, my hands grasping the cool metal railing. I turned my face to the sky, the stars like icing sugar against the black. I sucked in a deep breath, a smile creeping onto my face, and I allowed myself to relish in the thought of Valentina possibly returning this forever growing feeling that burned inside of me.

The music and laughter from the party in the penthouse living room flowed out into the warm summer breeze, the sounds disappearing into the darkness of night. There was the occasional traffic noise from the road below, but this section of the hotel faced a large parkland. It felt fairly private, and due to the late hour, there weren’t many people around.

I bent my neck to look below. I was only 6 floors up, but it seemed much higher than that. The streets were lit with bright orange lights. I spotted two people strolling the sidewalk, arm in arm. I swore I could hear the woman laugh as they continued their slow meander. They looked close; intimate. I wondered who they were, what their story was. Were they friends? Lovers?

“What are you doing out here?”

Valentina’s mellow voice surprised me, and I jumped a little in fright.

“Sorry.” She giggled while she floated towards me. Her hand gently rested on my shoulder and my heart fluttered in my chest. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

I looked sideways and smiled at her like an idiot, too pleased to see her.

“No. Sorry. I was just in my own little world. I didn’t hear you coming.”

She bit her lip and nodded her head at me, before turning to face the same direction. Her hand dropped from my shoulder and wrapped around the same railing, just centimeters away from my own. We settled into a quiet moment, our breathing soft and soothing as we stood side-by-side.

“What were you thinking about?” She asked gently.

My eyes drifted downwards and I cringed a little at my train of thought.

“How everyone has their own story.”

“That sounds deep.”

I breathed out in amusement through my nose.

“Oh, it wasn’t meant to be.” I glanced at her, and was a little surprised to see her already watching me.

“See that couple, down there.” I pointed down towards the sidewalk, the two small figures walking slowly together along the street.

Valentina squinted as her eyes followed the direction of my index finger.

“Just.”

“I was just contemplating who they are. How did they meet? How do they feel? What are they to one another?”

I knew it was stupid, but I didn’t feel uncomfortable sharing it with Valentina.

“Oh yeah? And what did you come up with?”

I laughed at myself and the absurdity of my imagination.

“I’ve decided they met at a Starbucks. She ordered a Pumpkin Spiced Latte and he, standing behind her in line, laughed at her order. When she turned to confront him about it, he asked why she even came to a coffee shop when she was going to order something that was equal parts dairy & diabetes, and whether she was going to drink it atop some freshly fallen leaves. She was furious at his comment, claiming that she didn’t come here to be judged for her drink choice. It’s a free country, after all. In a quick change of direction, he apologised. He said he would like to make it up to her by judging which meal and drink she would choose from the little Italian restaurant down the road. Impressed with his quick wit and chiseled jaw-line, and with no immediate plans, she accepted both the terrible Pumpkin Spice Latte and the dinner date. It only took two more dates before they became lovers and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Valentina’s head tipped back as she laughed, her throat bobbing as she stretched.

“And you worked all that out, just by watching them from all the way up here?”

I shrugged my shoulders as if it were nothing.

“It’s a gift.”

Valentina nudged me with her shoulder, her laughter bright in the darkness of night. I smiled as I listened to the sound and enjoyed her closeness. Her perfume carried in the warm summer's breeze, the fresh scent of linen and lavender sending a cascade of endorphins hurtling through my system. I felt as though I could step off this balcony and walk on air, as long as she was by my side.

“Well, what about us?”

Valentina’s quiet question was said with such anticipation that it made me shiver. She was still standing right up against my side, but I didn’t dare chance a look at her. I was afraid of what I might see looking back at me considering what little control I had left. So I continued looking down towards the street, my body beginning to tremble despite the warmth in the air.

“What do you mean?”

A quick movement and the warmth that was by my side now pressed against my back. She was standing behind me, her hands on either side of mine on the railing, her torso lightly grazing my back. I froze, and my breath was trapped in my lungs.

“What are we to one another?” She whispered, hot and breathy against my neck.

I let out a forced exhale, heaving more oxygen into my lungs, as Valentina’s nose traced up the back of my neck. She leaned in closer, her lips grazing my skin, and I shuddered.

“Jesus, Val.”

My hands gripped the steel railing even tighter as my knees weakened.

“Turn around.”

A demanding Valentina was a serious turn on. I could feel myself respond, an increased wetness in my panties, at the hoarsely whispered words. My breath shook as I followed the instruction, slowly turning in the minimal space Valentina offered.

What I found when I finally looked up was the most beautifully flushed face I’d ever seen in my entire life. I could feel it, my control slipping like an avalanche, as dark blue eyes blinked slowly at me. Her hands were still holding onto the railing behind me, trapping me against her. She licked her lips slowly, tantalisingly, and I almost whimpered at the sight.

“What are you doing?”

The words were something between a whisper and a groan, a sound I had no control over.

Valentina’s eyes bounced around my face with an intensity that took my breath away. Again. I was at her mercy, and absolutely willing to go down whatever path she was leading us. Once satisfied with her confident exploration of my face, her gaze halted at my lips, her own lifting into the softest smile she’d ever given me.

I felt like I was falling. Like the balcony gave way and we were just floating through a never-ending dream. Together.

Without responding, she leant in. My hands twitched forwards in response. I grasped onto her hips, my fingers pressing into the fabric of her pants. I tilted my head to the side as Valentina’s face nuzzled into my neck.

I closed my eyes at the closeness, pulling her nearer still. My body was crushed between the balcony edge and Valentina, and there was nowhere else I'd rather be. She was so alluring, every single bit of her. My senses were overwhelmed. Valentina’s scent, her touch, her physical beauty - It was so overwhelming I wanted to choke on it.

“Val.” I whined, desperately.

She pulled away a little at my pathetic cry. She turned to face me, her lips hovering millimeters away from my jawline. Her breath washed over my skin.

It was evident in that moment that we both knew what we wanted, but were equally holding back. I swallowed thickly, unbelievably turned on, my body screaming for her. I just wished she’d stop torturing me and eliminate the distance.

“Juls.” She responded, composed yet affected.

She moved again, the tip of her nose scraping my neck and I groaned lightly at the feeling of her breathing me in.

“You’re so -”

She finished her sentence with a kind of strangled moan. My fingers flexed into her hips, and upon the feel of fabric beneath my fingers, I remembered what she was wearing.

There was bare skin not far away.

Do I dare?

A flicker of Valentina’s tongue against my neck jerked my hands upwards. I was rewarded with the warm, trembling skin of Valentina’s torso. My fingertips dragged along her back, the feeling so wonderful I immediately tried to formulate a plan to get her back into her bedroom and have my way with her without the rest of the party knowing.

Valentina’s tongue was replaced with her soft lips. They began slowly pressing into my neck, my eyes nearly rolling back into my head at the sensation. I held on to her even tighter, my breathing rough and heart hammering beneath my chest.

“What are we doing, Juls?” Valentina whispered once she trailed a line of gentle kisses up my neck, her teeth tugging on my ear lobe.

I could barely comprehend what was going on, let alone respond appropriately to a question. But I did my best.

I wasn’t sure if she meant literally what we were doing at that moment, or if she wanted more clarification around where we stood.

Could this be something more?

The thought was equal parts intoxicating and terrifying.

“What do you want?” I managed, my voice breathy and pathetic.

Valentina’s full lips set out on a new path, latching onto my jawline. The pace she was setting was making me ache. My skin was alight, yearning for more. My hands traced to her side, the underside of her bra grazing beneath my fingertips. I wanted to push it up. I wanted to free her breast and latch onto it. The feel of her nipple in my mouth made me salivate, and I whined a little with the mental image.

“I want -”

“There you are!”

Sergio’s slurred cry cut through the night air like a knife. I never moved so fast in my entire life. Without understanding how, Valentina and I were now standing at least a meter apart. Her face was dazed, her lips still puckered as though she were still caressing my neck. I stood, trembling, my eyes wide as I watched our drunk friend sip on his beer.

I immediately felt sober.

“We were all wondering where you were.” He said slowly, his eyes unfocused.

As soon as I realised Sergio hadn’t seen anything, or at least wasn’t in the right frame of mind to jump to conclusions about what Valentina and I were doing, pressed so tightly against one another, I released a deep breath.

How could I be so stupid?

We could have so easily been caught and my world would have come crumbling down around me. I realised that everything I worked so hard to build was as precarious as a sandcastle in a storm. I had to be more careful. I don’t trust anyone enough in that room to keep whatever the hell that was going on between Valentina and I a secret. If Sergio wasn’t so drunk, he would have noticed, and then had the power to blurt it to the world. And then what? What would happen to my career then? What would everyone think?

“Sorry, Serg. We just needed some air.”

Valentina’s melodic voice interrupted my internal panic. I glanced at her, and once again she was looking at me while addressing someone else. Her expression was masked, relaxed and carefree, but I could tell by the look in her eye that she was pleading with me for answers.

“Are you coming back in?”

My heart continued to pump with the adrenaline of almost being caught. It had been too much. I knew what I needed to do.

“Actually, I should go.” I said, checking my pockets to make sure I had my room card and phone.

“What? No, Juli. Stay.”

“Thanks Serg, but it’s late and I'm pretty tired.” I said as I took a step back towards the party. “Last day of filming tomorrow. I don’t want to be out too late.”

I covered my anxiety with a nervous laugh and patted Sergio on the shoulder.

“Don’t have too much more to drink, pal, okay?”

Sergio smiled at me and tipped his beer in my direction.

“Yes, mom.” He mocked in a ridiculous American accent.

I threw Sergio a smile before looking back over my shoulder to Valentina. She was standing still, in the exact same place I left her. This time, however, there was no hiding the look of confusion and panic on her features.

Stay. She mouthed.

I knew we had to talk. I just knew I wouldn’t be able to properly express myself tonight. At least, not in the way I wanted to. That feeling of dread was too far gone in my head, that gnawing anxiety of what if the world knew, had crept in too deep.

I needed to process. I needed to escape.

But I couldn’t leave her standing like that.

I turned and took the four steps towards her, wrapping my arms around her waist. I sucked in a deep breath and closed my eyes, wishing and hoping I wasn’t about to fuck this all up. She held me fiercely, our bodies shaking as I whispered in her ear.

“Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I have to go. I’m sorry. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

With that, I released her and walked away.

Chapter Text

I slowly exhaled and closed my eyes. My head made a tiny thunk as I tipped it back against the mirrors that surrounded me. The gentle lurch of the elevator told me it was beginning its short descent. I took advantage of the rare moment of quiet and focused on my breathing in an attempt to centre myself.

It had been a long day. Aside from the hangovers all five of us were battling, ranging from manageable to downright horrendous, it had been hot and chaotic. It was the final day of shooting in this particular block, and although we only filmed for a few hours, Adrian and his producers buzzed around the set barking orders as though we wouldn’t be back to finish.

With how I left everything with Valentina the night before, after we shared that exquisite moment before I panicked and ran, I was nervous to see her. As I arrived on set, chauffeured to the location in a Jeep that went a little too quick for my stomach, I spotted Valentina almost straight away. She was sitting on a chair underneath one of the tents, sunglasses on and a folded piece of paper fanning her face. I was surprised to see her looking a little less composed than usual, albeit still astonishingly beautiful.

As anxious as I was to discover her reaction to my quick exit from her penthouse apartment, I approached her despite myself.

She looked up from her phone and spotted me just as someone else approached her from behind. Her face lit up, a smile sliding onto her face, and she ignored the hand on her shoulder to stand and greet me.

“Juls.”

It was a breathless sound, as though she’d been waiting too long to say it.

Valentina stepped forwards and wrapped me up in one of her most tight hugs. She promptly nuzzled into my neck and I could almost feel the unease fall away like a cloak. It was quickly replaced by relief, and it encompassed us warmly as I returned the embrace. I knew then, from the way Valentina held me close, arms strong and snug, that everything was okay. I hadn’t entirely ruined my chances just yet.

“Hey, Val.” I murmured against her hair that smelt of sunshine. “How are you feeling this morning?”

I inhaled deeply, allowing the sweet natural aroma of the other woman to calm me, and held her even tighter. Neither of us was willing to separate just yet, and I had a sneaking feeling that Valentina had been feeling just as jittery as I was.

“I feel a little rough. But I’m better now.”

I laughed through my nose at her whispered comment. My hand snaked through her hair, fingers playing with strands as soft as silk. Valentina hummed against the skin on my neck, light and peaceful, and I forgot entirely where we were.

An obvious clearing of a throat ended our brief moment of tranquility. We separated begrudgingly, our arms falling limp by our sides as we turned towards the noise. Then, Valentina jerked forwards.

“Guille!” Valentina cried excitedly.

A second later and her arms had flung around the shoulders of her brother. Guille laughed a wholesome sound, his face splitting into a beaming smile.

“Hey little sis. It’s good to see you.”

Valentina pulled back, her hands resting against his cheeks as she gave him a special smile.

“I’ve missed you.”

I’d never personally met Valentina’s brother. I’d seen him at events and communicated with him via email for work, but we’d never been properly introduced. He seemed like a busy man, and there had clearly never been a need. Until now.

Guille’s eyes flicked to me over Valentina’s shoulder. His eyes were brown, like his fathers, his features thick and dark. His smile lingered, and I liked him immediately. It seemed to me as though he was a quiet soul, thoughtful, with a kind demeanor.

Valentina giggled and turned to me, her arm slung over her brother's shoulder. She held him close, almost choking the poor guy.

“Guille, this is my good friend Juliana.” She gestured to me, but I didn’t miss the way she wavered, just slightly, over the words good friend. “Juls, this is my brother Guille.”

Guille maneuvered himself around his clingy sister to offer me his hand.

“It’s lovely to meet you, finally, Juliana.”

I couldn’t help but smile at the genuine acknowledgement. I took his hand, warm and large, and shook it.

“You too.”

The two Carvajal siblings blinked at me for a moment longer, both with affectionate smiles on their faces. Talk about good genetics. They were absolutely stunning, standing side-by-side.

Guille was the one to speak first, turning back to his sister with a deep fondness that made me yearn for the siblings I didn’t have.

“Do you have time for a chat?”

Valentina tipped her head and considered her brother. Then, a mischievous grin appeared on her lips.

“Sure. But only if you stay all day.”

It looked as though I wasn’t the only one powerless against Valentina’s charm.

Due to Guille’s presence on set for the few hours of filming, I didn’t really get a chance to speak to Valentina the way I wanted to. Not that I knew what I was going to say to her, or how I was going to explain myself. I, perhaps stupidly, backed myself to speak candidly and without too much pre-thought. I hoped the pool party would give us an opportunity to clear the air before we left to go home for the next week.

The light bing of the elevator brought me back to my reality, and I opened my eyes just as the metal doors slid open.

I could hear the faint bass of music from the pool area as soon as I stepped out onto the slick marble floor. My low heels clicked as I walked, my hands clenching and unclenching by my sides. I was nervous, my brain thrumming with possibilities of what the evening could bring. As I approached the side of the hotel where the pool was located, my feet slowed and stopped. My internal musing, although turbulent, was not enough to distract me from the voices not quite arguing around the corner. I could recognise that voice anywhere.

“Why should I do what he says?”

Valentina sounded frustrated, her voice increasing in pitch. I pressed myself up against the wall as if it might help camouflage me.

Do I turn, go back and wait until they’re done? Or, do I try to slip by without being noticed? I can’t just stand here and listen…

“Because that’s what he does, Vale. He tells us what to do.”

I thought Guille had gone already, but there was no mistaking who the other voice belonged to. He sounded exasperated, but there was a clear delicacy in his tone. Evidently, the topic of their father was a prickly one for them both.

“Well, that’s bullshit. I don’t know why you work for him.”

“And what do you think you’re doing right now?”

I could hear Valentina scoff.

“You know I had no choice.”

“Little sister, the quicker you learn that it’s easier to just do as he says, the less angry you’ll be and the easier your life will become.”

Valentina made a low, grumbling sound. It made me smile as I imagined the crease between her brows.

“I’m no pushover. He can’t rule our lives like this.”

This time, Guille pushed out a heavy sigh.

“Vale, you’ve had your time being the rebellious model, gallivanting around the world.” Guille’s voice lowered slightly, a hint of pleading in his tone. “I know he’s demanding and sometimes a little brash, but I need you here with me now. I need you. Please stop playing games.”

“I’m not playing games, Guille. All I want is to live my life without our damn father meddling.”

She sounded exhausted, as if they’d had this conversation a million times before. Guille exhaled another deep, burdensome sigh. I knew I shouldn’t be listening to this personal conversation, but my feet refused to move. Plus, I couldn’t help but be a little curious. The few snippets I managed to hear definitely shed some more light on the complexities the Carvajal children shared in their relationship with Leon. Even with my minuscule understanding of their family dynamics, it didn’t take much detective work to figure out it was anything but cheery. I felt bad for them, but completely empathised with that sinking feeling of never being good enough.

“I just want you to be happy, Vale. Did modelling really make you happy?”

“You know it didn’t. You know why I did that.”

“And what about this? I watched you today. You really seem to be in your element on set. Adrian said you’ve hit your stride, and in my few talks with the crew today, they couldn’t stop telling me how amazing you are.”

There was silence, the buzz of the music not far away, and I found myself leaning closer.

“You don’t want to admit that you’re enjoying this, do you?”

I could tell Guille was smiling when he asked the question, and the responding slapping sound made me think Valentina didn’t want to put up with his teasing.

“Shut up!” She laughed. “You don’t know what you’re saying.”

“Oh really?” Guille said, his tone provocative. “Well, I think maybe it’s not just the job that has caught your eye.”

“Oh my God. Okay. We’re not doing this. It’s time for you to go.”

I straightened up as I heard Guille’s mocking laughter and heavy footsteps stumble closer to me. I brushed my palms down my white linen skirt and, as casually as possible, stepped around the corner.

I almost bumped into the man, even though I was fully aware he was there. I congratulated myself on my acting skills as I pretended to be shocked, hands flying to my chest.

“Oh, shit. Sorry.” I mumbled, stepping backwards to move out of his way.

Guille’s eyes lit up as he recognised me, his briefcase swaying by his side as he also recovered from the almost collision.

“Juliana. Wow. I’m so sorry.”

I quickly composed myself and offered him an apologetic smile. His eyes swept the length of me. Thick eyebrows raised as he clearly liked what he saw. I wasn’t oblivious to the way men looked at me, now privy to the look of approval I often found in their eyes.

Before either of us could say anything else, a slim arm wrapped around my shoulder.

“Hey, you.” Valentina whispered into my ear before turning to look at her brother.

Guille was smiling, a wide, playful grin, as his eyes bounced between us. His dark eyes were bright and brimming with understanding. He clicked his tongue and reached out, cupping his sister's cheek in his hand.

“Oh, Vale.”

He said it as if confirming something, a hidden conversation, a secret I wasn’t aware of. Valentina narrowed her eyes at him, daring him to spill it. I smiled at their interaction even though I didn’t really understand what was going on.

“Aren’t you going now? We have a party to attend.”

Valentina reached out with her leg and lightly kicked her brother, a playful hint to get him moving.

“Okay, okay.” He said, one arm up in surrender. “I’ll go. Just please don’t forget about the photoshoot.”

Valentina rolled her eyes.

“Fine. I won’t let you down. I’ll be there.”

His hand dropped away and he stepped around us, moving towards the lobby.

“It was lovely to see you again Juliana. And Vale, I'll see you next week.”

Valentina and I called out our own goodbyes and waved. Guille stopped once more and took one last look at us.

“You two look very nice tonight.” He said before looking right at Valentina. “You’ve got great taste.”

With a wink, Guille turned and strode quickly away.

“Thanks idiot.” She called out shamelessly across the lobby.

We watched as Guille’s suit-clad body disappeared out the large entrance doors, his shoulders shaking in amusement as he was swallowed up by the night.

When he was out of sight, Valentina sighed and turned to me. The arm that was resting over my shoulders slid down my arm, her fingers stopping at my wrist, firm but tender. She held onto me as if she never wanted to let go and I knew this was our chance.

I finally looked up and was disarmed by how she was looking at me. Her gaze was full of adoration and attentiveness, her full attention making my pulse quicken. I swallowed and told myself to keep it together. But it was difficult when that familiar jolt of something that had settled upon us these past few weeks continued to whirr, alive and steady, between us.

It didn’t help that the woman was drop-dead gorgeous. Valentina exuded elegance, even dressed casually, and I still couldn’t believe I was the one she wanted to spend time with. She’d placed two sparkling diamantes on the edges of her eyes, and when the light reflected off them, the blue of her iris shone brighter than usual.

Valentina broke the apparent stupor I found myself in.

“Even though Guille is a prat, what he said is true. You look really pretty tonight.”

That damn blush I could never control decided to betray me once again, my skin heating up as Valentina complimented me. And as always, Valentina’s smile widened slightly as she noticed the red blossom across my neck and face.

“Thanks.” I replied, bashful. “But nothing can compare to you.”

I was breathless when I spoke, unaware of how or why my brain decided to let the words slip. It was true, of course. Valentina was always the most beautiful woman in the room. But I didn’t mean to sound so besotted.

Valentina’s brow arched slowly, her gaze flicking briefly to my mouth. The edges of her lips twitched and she took in a deep breath as she reestablished eye contact.

I took advantage of Valentina’s silence and approached the subject we’d both been waiting for.

“Hey, we didn’t really get to talk today.”

“I know. Sorry about that. Guille kind of surprised me and -.”

“No, that’s totally fine.” I interrupted. I had to get it off my chest. “But I wanted to apologise for last night. I’m sorry for just running away like that. I guess I kind of panicked. Sergio came out of nowhere and surprised me and -”

“Juls, hey. It’s okay.” Valentina consoled, her eyes alert as they bounced around my face. “I hope I didn’t make you uncomfortable. I tend to get a little silly when I drink. I didn’t mean to push it with you -.”

“No, no. You didn’t -. I just -. When it all -. You know -.”

I stumbled like a brain-dead imbecile over my thoughts, my free hand spinning around in the air as if it might help get my point across somehow. This was not ideal. Maybe I should have gone over this in my head.

“Juls. Please, don’t apologise to me. And I don’t need an explanation. The most important thing to me is that I didn’t ruin anything between us.”

That crease had made its way back between Valentina’s eyebrows. She showed such genuine concern that she’d messed up that it almost made me want to laugh. I shook my head instead.

“I don’t think that’s possible.”

Valentina blew out a relieved breath, her expression transforming to a look of hope.

“Are you sure? We’re good?”

I tilted my head at her, a bright smile on my face, satisfied we were able to clarify everything so easily.

“Yeah, we’re good.”

Valentina did the most adorable hop, like a happy dance, and threw her arms around me again.

“Thank God. I don’t know what I’d do if I’d messed this up.”

My hands pressed gently into her back, careful not to touch the skin uncovered by her crop. As much as I wanted to, my fingers twitching towards it, I knew my self-control was all over the place. Best not to let temptation get the better of me, especially now that we’d cleared things up.

“Me either.”

Valentina let go of me, her hand sliding down into mine. She squeezed my hand, her smile wide, and gestured to the pool area.

“Let’s go and celebrate then?”

If only she knew I would follow her anywhere.

“I’m with you.”

 

~ ~ ~

 

“Juli?”

Grace’s impatient call of my name snapped me back to the group. The photographer sat opposite me, her arm outstretched as a bottle hovered over my cup. I looked down to realise it was empty. I didn’t remember finishing it.

“Huh?”

Grace’s red lips upturned in a crooked smile.

“Would you like some more?”

As she asked, her eyes drifted to where my attention had been diverted before flicking back to me. There was a slight hint of amusement in the corner of her mouth and the curve of her brow. It was as though she was taunting me, wanting me to sputter out why I’d been staring at Valentina Carvajal rather than listening to her. But it was none of her business, and I wasn’t about to spill my guts to someone I barely called a friend.

I swallowed and pretended nothing was amiss.

“Thanks, Grace. Just a little please.”

Grace acquiesced, pouring a small amount of liquid into my cup, followed by a mixer. As the cup filled, I realised I should probably pay more attention to what I was drinking. I tried to remember how many I'd already had, recalling perhaps three, or was it four? I gave up pretty quickly. I couldn’t put the effort behind that right now. There were other pressing matters to deal with.

“So, who was your trainer?” Grace asked as she relaxed back into her seat.

The party was in full swing by then. Cast and crew members enjoyed Leon’s open bar, their conversations getting louder and more carefree as time passed.

“Oh, please tell me you had him.”

Our eyes all followed Liza’s finger as she pointed across the party.

My jaw clenched as my gaze landed back on the group of fit, muscular trainers that had worked with us on the jump. A few of the men had been on set when required since the big stunt, helping us with our choreography and confidence to execute certain moves. To my relief, Luna hadn’t been one of them, and I hadn’t thought about her since that evening in the gym when she so pathetically jumped up and down when Valentina made the practice jump.

Unfortunately my luck had run out. Leon, even though he wasn’t making an appearance, took it upon himself to invite all the trainers to the pool party to thank them. So there she stood, long hair braided back and a stupid smile on her face as she proceeded to drool over Valentina.

“No, that was Lucho’s.” Snorted Anna, clearly entertained by the memory. “He was not impressed when they got matched. He got his ass kicked all week.”

“He is very… large. I wonder if it’s all in proportion.” Liza sniggered.

“Oh my God.” Grace laughed as she slapped her friend. “Is that all you think about?”

“Maybe.”

As the others joked around, I watched as Luna played with the ends of Valentina’s hair. I couldn’t identify exactly what it was that made my stomach twist and curl. Valentina didn’t seem to mind or even notice the bold attention as she regaled Luna and Ruben, my trainer, with a story. Her typical enthusiasm was obvious with the way she gestured with her hands and expressed herself with her movements, her laughter ringing out across the open air, soft and sweet.

She was utterly captivating.

It was no wonder Luna was hanging off her.

Valentina finally seemed to notice Luna’s attention, her eyes flicking down to observe the trainer's fingers playing with her hair. She blinked a few times, and then lifted her head.

My breathing stopped when two sharp, blue eyes found me. Valentina’s stare bore into me, wild and daring, as she flicked her hair behind her shoulder and out of reach of Luna’s dancing fingers. She raised her chin, just slightly, as if she were trying to tell me something.

It was terrifying; the way she made me feel, both disoriented and yet exactly where I should be, when she focused on me from across a room. It was completely unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. It burned inside me, wild like the winds in an electric summer storm, and I knew that if I let it, this could consume me.

And in that moment, her eyes alight and soft as they kept steady on me, it finally dawned on me.

I wasn’t alone in this.

My heart thumped even harder at the thought. Of course, there had always been something simmering away, an inexplicable undercurrent buzzing and sparking recklessly from the moment we met. There had to be something to explain that dark encounter from long weeks ago, rushed and hot and frantic, filled with a tension neither of us could name. It happened unexpectedly, as if it were out of our control, our bodies responding blindly to an energy we hadn’t even noticed. But as our connection gradually flipped from misplaced wariness to fierce wanting, our frenzied moment kept in the dark, that tension never went away. It just transformed, morphed into something bigger and more profound, and I was almost afraid to even think about what that meant.

There was one thing holding me back from walking over to her right then and whisking her away to a quiet space, just the two of us.

Could she be worth risking it all for?

“So, which one is yours?”

I sucked in a shaky breath as Grace’s insistent questioning pulled me away from where I really wanted to be. My eyes flicked to her, and then to Anna’s hand that, at some point without my even noticing, had fallen against my knee.

“Juliana’s trainer was Ruben, the one standing next to Sergio.”

Anna came to my rescue and answered for me. I smiled and nodded, lifting my cup to my lips and sipping at the refilled drink.

Grace’s eyes widened as she found the man, her lips shifting into a smirk as she devoured his muscular frame.

“Wow, Juli. He’s hot.”

I murmured some kind of vague agreement, but Grace’s expression told me that wasn’t enough. I had to restrain my eyes from rolling into the back of my head.

“Yeah, he’s really nice.”

“Nice?” She repeated, incredulous.

“Yep. Nice.”

“Did you take him home?”

I frowned and laughed, shaking my head.

“No, I didn’t take him home.”

“Why not?”

I blinked at Grace, realising just how much I hated this line of questioning. Not only that, but I hated myself at that moment. I wished I was braver, more confident, to stop hiding myself from the world. But that same feeling of self-doubt and panic seeped through me like poison ivy and I continued to lie.

“Because I'm a professional.”

Grace laughed lightly at my response and nodded her head as if she didn’t believe me.

If only you knew.

The other three switched conversation topics, and I vaguely listened as they discussed the latest gossip surrounding Kim Kardashian and whoever the man was she was last seen photographed with. Disinterested, my head inevitably drifted back towards Valentina. She was standing in the same place as before, still talking to Luna, Ruben and Sergio. I wondered why the hell I was sitting here, listening to this boring conversation when I really wanted to be near the model.

And then I realised there was nothing stopping me.

“Do you want to meet Sergio, Liza?” I interrupted.

The three women gaped at me, and then Anna laughed.

“Liza has met Sergio before, Juli.”

“Well. Do you want me to introduce you? Properly.” I raised an eyebrow suggestively at the script-writer.

Her eyes widened, a broad grin quickly following.

“Yes. I really do.”

“Alright. Let’s go.”

I stood and helped Liza out of her seat. I threw an arm around her shoulder as I guided us around other clumps of party-goers, heading towards the group of people I’d been watching all night.

“Be cool, okay?” I whispered as we got closer.

Liza gave me a distracted head nod and I wondered if she’d actually heard what I said or was just nodding on instinct. Her eyes were on her prize, and I stifled a giggle at the dreamy expression on her face.

Sergio saw us coming out of the corner of his eye, smiling and making room for the four of us in the circle.

“Hey!”

“Hey. Do you mind if we join?” I asked, my arm falling from Liza’s shoulder.

“Of course not.”

I grinned and caught Valentina’s eye. She was watching me closely, a gentle smile on her lips.

“Sergio, have you met Liza before?”

I gestured to my friend and Sergio turned his full attention to her.

“I have.” He said, holding out his hand for her to take. “Although, we haven’t really talked much.”

Liza snorted a nervous laugh as she placed her hand in his, and Sergio’s smile widened at the sound. He lifted her hand to his lips and pressed a kiss there.

“Maybe tonight that can change.”

“Yeah.” Liza breathed, her lips parted. “I’d like that.”

I turned away from the two, allowing them to introduce themselves more privately, without me gaping at them. I found Anna introducing Grace to Ruben, and lifted my plastic cup back to my lips to hide my smile. Valentina arched her brow curiously at me as I spotted her over the rim. I shrugged my shoulders as if I hadn’t planned all this. She shook her head at me in playful admonishment.

Just as Valentina opened her mouth to say something, her attention broke away. Luna was leaning in close, a hand on the small of Valentina’s back as she spoke quietly, only to her. I could feel the tension in my jaw as I watched on, feeling helpless.

Valentina flicked me a look. She was asking me to stay, to not go anywhere.

I knew I wouldn’t, an act of self-masochism, but I also didn’t have the stomach to watch. As Luna wiggled even closer to the model, I gripped my cup a little harder and allowed Anna to pull me into her conversation with Ruben and Grace. I half-heartedly joined in as the four of us talked, joked and listened until, finally, Valentina approached.

She did it in a way that cut me off from the other three, somehow enveloping the two of us away while still appearing to be in the group.

“Hey.”

She brushed her lips against my ear and I shivered.

“Hi.”

Valentina, detecting my hesitancy, pulled away to look at me.

“What’s up?”

“You’ve been busy.”

Valentina lips twitched in amusement.

“Luna can be very persistent. I couldn’t get away without being rude.”

I made a sound of unimpressed acknowledgement, looking straight ahead and taking another sip of my drink. Valentina leant closer, her breath hot and voice low.

“But, just to clarify, I'm not interested in her.”

I nodded as if that piece of information didn’t thrill me, ignoring the goosebumps rising across my skin. I swallowed and slowly lifted my gaze to her. Clear, soft eyes found mine and we shared a look, one full of truth and hope, and I couldn’t help but drop my eyes to look at her lips.

Valentina swayed forward, her tongue sweeping across her teeth. I stopped breathing, desperate for Valentina to close the distance and sweep me up in a breathless kiss. I craved it, the yearning like a bottomless pit, and my hands began to reach for her. Then, a second of uncertainty suspended itself between us, tight like a piece of elastic. The words not here didn’t have to be verbalised, but the fact that they existed at all made my head spin. Valentina blinked and reluctantly pulled away.

“Anyway.” She said as she cleared her throat, her eyes flicking around her surroundings as if to remind herself where she was. “What are you doing on your week off?”

The party environment slowly came back into focus and I shook my head slightly. It took more brain power than necessary to remember my plans.

“Ah. I’ve got a meeting with my manager.” I explained. “Otherwise, I want to try and catch up on some reading and maybe go swimming. I’d also like to sleep longer than 5 hours a night.”

Valentina chuckled, nodding her head in agreement.

“Yeah, I know what you mean.”

“What about you?”

Valentina rolled her shoulders at the question, her nose scrunching a little.

“Ugh. I have a photoshoot and a couple of interviews for some magazines.”

Ah, the life of a famous model.

“Oh, wow. That sounds cool.”

Valentina quirked a brow at me and shook her head.

“No. It won’t be.”

I didn’t really know how to respond to that. It clicked with me that these engagements were most likely what Guille and Valentina were arguing about earlier.

“I’m just tired. I wish my time off was exactly that. But, my father always seems to have other ideas for me.”

Yep. There it was.

“Oh. That sucks.”

I wish I could have offered something more meaningful, but Valentina didn’t seem to mind. She shrugged her shoulders as if there was nothing she could do about it.

“Otherwise, maybe we could have hung out.” I said, quietly, with an awkward wave of my hand.

I’d thought about it these past few weeks, wondering if I should ask Valentina if she wanted to catch up while we were both back in the city and not ruled by a shooting schedule. I hadn’t yet gathered up the courage to broach the subject with her though. The words kind of just spilled out, and at first I froze because I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to say it. But then, I felt my heart beat harder against my ribcage as Valentina’s face slowly brightened.

“You would want to hang out with me back in the city?”

I frowned briefly, surprised by the doubt in Valentina’s tone.

“Of course I would.”

Valentina released a huffed breath, a tinge of awe attached to the end, and smiled. She reached up, her fingertips brushing against the side of my neck.

“Well -”

We were rudely interrupted by Anna tugging on my free hand.

“Come on, Juli. Come with me.” She urged, her feet pulling us away.

I dug my heels in, annoyed.

“What? Where are you going?” I growled.

“I need to go to the bathroom.”

I looked around, a little bewildered as to why she’d chosen to interrupt me when we were literally surrounded by people. Luna had disappeared, finally, and I silently hoped I didn't have to see her again. Sergio and Liza were tucked away in their own conversation, as were Ruben and Grace.

I rolled my eyes and looked at Valentina. She looked from Anna, back to me, her expression now unreadable. I was torn, but a thick arm around Valentina’s shoulder helped make my decision for me.

“Vale.” Lucho hollered, pressing a sloppy kiss against her cheek.

Valentina pushed him away, wiping at her face with a beautifully unrestrained laugh.

“Yuck, Lucho. You’re disgusting, you know that?”

“Hey, I have a question to ask you about that thing we were talking about.”

Valentina turned to me and winked. I almost collapsed at the sight of it.

“I’ll be here when you get back.”

I gave her a look that said good luck, before joining Anna. We made our way to the bathroom as Anna babbled on beside me about the designer brand swimsuit she was going to buy and Juli, do you think I should get it? I replied that she should definitely buy it, not at all phased by the outcome, as I pushed open the door to the hotel lobby restroom.

I distracted myself as Anna closed a bathroom stall by being self-critical of my makeup in the mirror. Anna described the beach getaway she’d organised during her week off as I wiped beneath my eye, attempting to touch up the few blemishes on my skin.

Then, Anna was beside me, her hands in the sink, as she caught my eye in the reflection. She held my gaze longer than usual, and I felt my skin flush under the attention.

“What?” I asked, something hidden in the way she looked at me.

She twisted her lips and shrugged her shoulders, turning to pull the paper towel from the dispenser to dry her hands.

“Nothing.”

She was being shy. It was unlike her, and it intrigued me.

“No, tell me.” I said, my hand gently tugging at her shoulder. “What is it?”

Anna threw the paper towel in the bin and turned to face me. Her lashes were long and dark, the light smattering of freckles on her face popping due to spending the day in the sun. Her hair was pinned back on either side of her head by pink, sparkling clips, her long hair tumbling over her shoulders.

She tipped her head slightly to one side, her eyes bouncing around my face as if trying to read my mind.

“You’re just really beautiful.”

My lips curled upwards at the compliment. The way Anna said it, quiet and thick, made me think she really meant it.

I reached out to her, my knuckles grazing her jawline.

“Thanks, An. So are you, you know?”

There was a beat, a pause between us, and then everything happened so quickly.

Anna was there, right in front of me, her lips pressed against mine. My hands dropped to her waist, searching for balance, as Anna pushed forwards.

Her lips were soft, exploratory, as they moved against me. Her hands grasped the back of my neck, tugging me closer. I was shocked by it all, but even amongst the confusion, it felt nice. She kissed me carefully, and I allowed myself the moment as Anna’s lips puckered and pulled me deeper.

But as I felt her tongue swipe against me, I realised with a rush that this wasn’t what I wanted. These weren’t the lips I craved for, and it all felt wrong, like trying to force the incorrect piece into a puzzle. Anna and I were friends, and I didn’t want to give her the wrong idea. Just as my brain finally caught up, the sound of the door opening snapped us apart.

My eyes flew beyond Anna’s shoulder to see Valentina standing there, her wide eyes quickly deciphering what it was she’d just walked in on. The recognition crossed her features in startling clarity and her shoulders dropped. She bit her lip and with one last broken look at me, she spun and disappeared.

Fuck.

“Val, wait.”

I hadn’t realised my hands were still on Anna’s hips, and her hands were still against my neck. It was very obvious what had just happened. I untangled myself from Anna and stepped around her, but a trembling hand grasped my wrist and stopped me.

“Juli?”

Fuck.

Anna looked forlorn, scared as though she were lost in the dark. I looked at her and felt sick. I was torn, my heart already down the hall with the model, while my brain told me I couldn’t leave my friend like this.

“Did I do something wrong?”

Every single atom in my body was screaming at me to do something. I had to walk out of that restroom and find Valentina. I had to explain that what she’d just seen wasn’t actually happening. It wasn’t real.

This couldn’t be happening.

“Shit. I did, didn’t I? This was a mistake. I fucked up, didn’t I?”

Anna had her hands in her hair, her bottom lip quivering. I pushed aside my own spiralling feelings and approached her. She had tears welling in her eyes and I knew I couldn’t leave her. Not with all these unanswered questions.

“What’s going on here, An?” I implored, my voice rough.

Anna blew out a deep breath, her neck tilting back.

“I don’t know. I’m so confused.”

Her voice was croaky and her eyes were squished tightly shut. I grasped her hands and held them within mine.

“Anna, look at me.”

Anna sucked in a shaky breath and lowered her head, finally opening her eyes to look at me. The torment swirling there looked painfully familiar.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to ruin things.” She mumbled around a strangled sob.

How many times was I going to have this conversation today? I breathed through my frustration and squeezed her hands tighter in an attempt to comfort her.

“You didn’t ruin anything, An. But tell me what’s going on. Why did you kiss me?”

Anna released one of her hands to wipe a tear that rolled down her cheek. She cleared her throat and laughed a watery sound.

“I’m such an idiot.” She said. And then: “I kissed you because I like you, Juliana.”

I gaped at her like a fish for a few seconds.

How did I miss this?

“What? You like me? As in, like me?” I stammered.

Anna nodded as she chewed anxiously on the inside of her lip.

“Yeah. I don’t really know how it happened. I just found myself really wanting to be near you. Then, when I realised I had a crush on you, I started picking up all these vibes that maybe you would - maybe - reciprocate. That maybe the men we were surrounded by didn’t interest you like they might other girls.”

I blew out a deep breath. This was the last conversation I was expecting to have with my friend and co-star, and I didn’t really know how to navigate it.

“You think i’m gay?”

Anna faltered, her green eyes cloudy and unsure. Her lips moved but no sound came out. I dropped my head, resigned to the fact that I wasn’t as opaque as I tried to be.

“What gave me away?”

When I looked back up, I found wonder in Anna’s eyes.

“So you are gay?”

I straightened my shoulders and nodded. It felt good to say it out loud to someone who wasn’t Yolanda. Or Valentina.

“Yeah, I am. I’m gay.”

Anna’s eyebrows lifted, as did her smile.

“Wow.”

“Why do you look so surprised? You suspected it anyway, right?”

Anna lifted one shoulder in a timid shrug, and the tightness in my chest eased as I allowed myself to be me.

“Yeah, I did. But it’s different hearing it confirmed.”

We smiled at each other then, a new understanding weaving between us, fine and strong, and I knew I could trust her with this.

“What about you?”

Anna’s eyes drifted around the bathroom. Her lips twitched in thought and she wiped at her face again.

“I don’t know what I am.” She said, finally.

Then, realisation dawned on me.

“Have you ever kissed a girl before?”

Anna shook her head, softness in her eyes.

“No.”

I bit my lip and braced myself. This girl was only just discovering herself, and I was about to crush any hopes she had of us being an ‘us’.

“Look, Anna. I’m flattered by this, I really am. I know that sounds cheap and cliche, but it’s true.”

Anna’s expression dropped and all traces of excitement fell away. I continued, despite knowing that I was about to reject her. I understood how shattering that feeling is, but I wasn’t about to lead her on. If we didn’t have respect for one another, what did we have?

My hand brushed at her cheek, and I spoke as softly as I could.

“You are gorgeous and so beautiful. I mean that. But, unfortunately, I just don’t see you that way. I think we’re great friends, but I think that’s all we’ll ever be.”

I half expected Anna to yell insults at me or run out of the room to spread my secret all over the place, but she was better than that. A sliver of a smile made its way onto Anna’s lips and, although she looked defeated, I could feel the acceptance in the way she squeezed my hand.

“That’s okay. I had to try, anyway.”

I laughed then, and the awkwardness disappeared.

“I’m sorry.” I whispered.

“It’s okay. I knew it was a long shot. Your attention has seemed to be otherwise occupied lately anyway.”

I pursed my lips together and scratched at my eyebrow as a way to distract my thoughts from going to Valentina. She’d seen me kissing Anna, or she’d seen Anna kissing me. My stomach clenched unpleasantly as I remembered her expression, dejected and hurt. As soon as I knew Anna was calm, I had to find her. I had to explain.

Anna seemed to read my mind.

“I’m okay. But you should go and find Valentina.”

My frown shifted into a small smile as my co-star gave me an encouraging smile.

“I can see it now.” She uttered, stepping closer. “I hope I didn’t get in the way of things. But you should go now. Tell her I'm sorry.”

There was still a lot to unpack here, but she was right. I had to go.

“Do you promise we can talk about all this a bit more later?”

“Yeah, for sure.” Anna said with a firm nod. “I’ll need that, I think.”

I squeezed her hand once more and turned, my hand grasping at the door handle.

“And Juli.” I turned at the call, half of my body out the door. “Your secret is safe with me.”

I chuckled lightly, thankful that even though this had been a disaster, things with Anna were still salvageable. In fact, it could even help our friendship reach a new level. Maybe we could help one another. It didn’t hurt to have another ally.

“Yours too.”

With one last lingering smile, I shot out the door and strode back to the pool party. I had one purpose, one goal, and my body shook with how desperately I needed her. My eyes scanned the area for the model, but I couldn’t find her. My eyes landed on Sergio, and I made my way straight to him.

“Where’s Valentina?” I asked, interrupting his conversation with Liza.

He looked up at me, a little bewildered, and then seemed to understand what I was asking.

“She and Luna left here like, ten minutes ago.”

My skin prickled with devastation, but I asked anyway.

“Where did they go?”

Sergio glanced at Liza, then looked up at me. He looked a bit like a puppy, like he didn’t want to hurt my feelings. But, my stern gaze was enough to get him to say it.

“I don’t know. Valentina took Luna’s hand and asked if she wanted to go somewhere. They left straightaway.”

It felt like everything I knew to be true and right just exploded into dust.

“Oh, right.” I stuttered, my stomach plummeting. “Cool. Thanks Serg.”

I spun, just like my world, and ignored his calls to stay for another drink. I didn’t even bother with the elevator, barging at the stairway door with my shoulder. It didn’t take long for the echoing concrete chamber to be full of my heavy breaths, my legs burning as I took the stairs two at a time. I fumbled for my room card and thrust it at the pad, heaving the door open before falling inside.

Finally, cocooned in my own solitary, my face crumpled.

 

~ ~ ~

 

2:07

The bedside clock glared its red numbers at me. Why was it that time moved more slowly when you wanted it to speed up?

After pulling myself together and getting into the shower, where I gave myself another severe talking to, I finally made it to bed just after 11. Sleep, however, had eluded me. Unwanted images of Valentina and Luna together danced across my thoughts, disrupting any kind of sanity and any chance of getting some sleep.

I shoved at the sheets again, now a messy pile at the end of my bed, and huffed a frustrated breath. The curtains that led out to the small balcony ruffled in the warm evening breeze. The bed felt too hot, unable to find reprieve. My feet hit the carpet and then the cool tile of the balcony, my eyes closing as the air kissed my face.

I stood there, watching the quiet of night slowly turn in front of me, before I made up my mind.

I had to leave tonight. I wasn’t sure I could face anyone the next morning, so better to leave now and avoid it all. My heart ached and there was no point in lying awake when my own bed was waiting for me at home.

It only took me 20 minutes to get dressed and pack my things.

I pulled my suitcase over the lip of the elevator as I adjusted the duffle bag across my shoulder. Thankfully, the party had ceased, the lights shining on the mess left behind. I clutched tightly at my car keys, eager to leave this night behind and get back to a little normalcy.

I almost fell over my own feet as I approached the front desk.

Luna stood at one end of the long desk, her heels in her hand, as she spoke to the one staff member on duty. I swallowed back the bile, bit back the hurt that filled my chest, and dragged my heavy suitcase behind me.

“The taxi will be here in 5 minutes, miss.” I overheard the hotel worker behind the desk say.

“Thank you.”

Luna’s neck snapped up as I slid my key card across the marble desk.

“I’m checking out.”

The man nodded as he collected the slim piece of plastic. I appreciated the simple acceptance of the strange check-out time.

“Yes, Miss Valdes. We will see you again in a week?”

“Yes. Thank you.”

I got three steps away before I heard Luna’s voice.

“Juliana, wait -.”

I didn’t stop. I couldn’t even look back.

Chapter Text

You would think, after years in front of the camera, the flashing lights wouldn’t bother me by now. Instead, I tried my hardest not to blink as the brightly lit studio sporadically filled with bursts of artificial light, accompanied by the rapid clicking of camera shutters and the terse directions being shouted across the sparsely furnished room.

My eyes watered with the effort.

Manuel, a man with a thin mustache who also happened to be one of the best magazine photographers in the city, directed me for the next three hours. His assistants moved props around the set, while hair and makeup poked and prodded me until I was sore and my patience was thin. A tension headache began to form in the front of my skull, but I acted like the good girl everyone thought I was and smiled through the pain.

By 3pm, I was finally back in my own clothes. I tossed two pain killers in my mouth and swallowed an entire bottle of water without stopping for air. I threw the crumpled plastic bottle and empty pill packet into the trash on my way out of the studio.

Alirio, one of my fathers drivers, greeted me on the other side.

“Miss Valentina.”

I almost tripped over my feet at the greeting. I wasn’t expecting him, so it took a moment for my body to react. He smiled at me, his dark eyes crinkling at the edges. Of all of Leon’s workers, Alirio was my favourite. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s why Leon sent him - because he knew I’d do what he asked if it was actually Alirio asking me.

“Hi Alirio!” I said, my hand pressing against his shoulder as I placed a quick kiss against his cheek. It wasn’t exactly the traditional way to greet your family's employees, but Alirio had been around forever and felt more like family than anything else. “It’s so nice to see you. What are you doing here?”

Alirio grimaced a little, his hands clasped in front of his body.

“I’m here to drive you home.”

I slung my backpack across the front of my body and unzipped the smaller front pocket. I grasped my AirPods and flicked open the case with my thumb.

“It’s okay, Alirio. Thank you, but I only live five blocks from here.”

Alirio’s dark eyes looked down the street and then back to me.

“But Mr Leon sent me to drive you home.”

I wiggled the earbuds into my ears and threw the case back into the pocket, zipping it shut.

“I know.” I said, looping my arms through the backpack to place it securely onto my back. It was fairly small, only just big enough to hold my iPad, a charging cable, drink bottle and some of my own makeup brushes. It wasn’t heavy, and rested comfortably between my shoulder blades. “But it’s a nice afternoon and I'd prefer to walk.”

Alirio looked a little torn, his eyebrows pulling together in concern. I wondered what instructions my father gave him, or convinced him how hard he should work to make sure I got in the car.

“But -”

“I’ll be fine Alirio.” I said as I unlocked my phone. “It’s not too warm and I need to exercise. It was lovely to see you.”

I patted his shoulder affectionately and waved as I stepped away. I felt a little bad for just leaving him there on the curb, the large black SUV behind him, but I was already feeling suffocated enough by my fathers controlling habits.

Plus, I honestly just needed a little alone time. I’d just stood in a room for the majority of the day, surrounded by people, and not one single person looked at me like I was a real person the entire time. I was treated like a prop myself, something to behold, like if I was looked at in the eye or asked a genuine question, I might just melt into the ground like the wicked witch of the west.

It made me hate my life, this celebrity life, full of facades and glassy eyes and fake smiles.

My finger clicked on the Apple Music app and my tetchy mood quickly decided on my FIRE playlist. I tucked my phone into the back pocket of my denim shorts and lifted my head, a fresh Childish Gambino song setting the pace.

It was a warm afternoon, but not hot enough that a leisurely walk outside was unbearable. I wore a hat to semi-disguise myself, my hair wrapped up in a bun that poked through the back of my cap. From experience, I found that when I wore my hair up, less people recognised me. Coupled with the large, dark sunglasses on my face, I hoped I wouldn’t be disturbed as I wandered through the city streets.

The usual thrum of a busy city street buzzed around me as I walked. It had been a long few days, and this was the first opportunity I'd had to just breathe. Since I arrived back in the city the morning after the pool party, my time had been taken up with interviews and photoshoots for various publications. Leon had taken it upon himself to fill up my schedule, and I was exhausted. The only saving grace was it meant I hadn’t had much time to think about her.

Juliana.

I snorted out a disheartened breath as her name looped around in my head, over again like a broken record. Oh, what a mess I found myself in.

Generally speaking, walking into a bathroom to find two women kissing wouldn’t be such a bad thing. I’d most likely apologise for interrupting and encourage them to continue as they were. But when I spied Juliana locking lips with Anna, I felt a strange tightness in my chest that hadn’t yet lifted.

Prior to walking in on that scene, I, perhaps naively, had felt fairly secure in the idea that Juliana and I had reached a kind of unspoken mutual agreement.

Initially, when I first laid eyes on her, I was intrigued. There was something there, just out of reach, and it made me curious. And then I pretty quickly discovered she hated me, and to be fair, she made some strong points. But I couldn’t let that disrupt this strange prodding in the back of my brain, telling me don’t give up, not yet. It all came to a tipping point when we screamed at one another in a dark hallway on set, then I cried and she fucked me against a wall. I still flush when I think about it. It was extraordinary in a sense that I couldn’t put into words.

After that, all the anger seemed to seep out of her, and things started to change.

I asked her to help me, and thankfully, she was willing to do so. She put countless hours and so much effort into helping me do better. Our nights together shifted from friendly into something more over time, and it didn’t take long to start feeling things much more than basic attraction. It was thrilling considering it was a concept I’d long given up on. It involved emotions I’d never experienced before, assuming it was for a select few members of the population and I’d lucked out this round.

For the first time in my life, I actually wanted to be around another person all the time. And when Juliana wasn’t there, it was as though a part of me were missing. An important part, one I couldn’t manage without, just as vital to my functioning as my lungs or heart or brain.

I thought about her all the time. Her luminous smile, those dark coffee eyes, that gorgeous laugh. It made me melt. It made me want more.

And I thought I'd made that pretty clear. One particularly special evening, I cracked the code and she let me in. She confided in me, told me she was gay, and even though I kind of already knew it, it all just clicked. It was as if the sun had risen on a new day, shining its light on this new information like it was golden and right.

I knew then, armed with the knowledge that I could be in with a chance, that I actually wanted that chance. My body acted of its own accord, reaching for her whenever the opportunity presented itself. To my delight, she didn’t flinch away from my advances. In fact, with the way her eyelids fluttered and her skin shivered each time we touched, it encouraged me even further. Then, when she began to reach out for me, I knew I was gone.

I tried my best to show Juliana that I was interested, trying to convince her that she could take the leap with me. She could trust me with this, my hands cupped and ready to hold onto her delicate heart. For a time, I felt that it wasn’t just one-sided. From the way she looked at me, to the way she reacted to my touch. It was enough to convince me that maybe she was willing to take my hand and fall into this thing alongside me.

Then I found them kissing, the object of my affection, the woman of my hopes and dreams, locking lips with another woman. And while my suspicions about Anna were confirmed - another reason to trust my instincts - I felt something inside me tear a little bit. My usually very composed self had actually opened up to the possibility of exploring this new, exhilarating thing with Juliana. I let myself think that this was going to be different. That the world was finally allowing me to have something I craved with such intensity it made my heart skip a beat or three when I saw her. So when I saw Anna’s hand on the back of Juliana’s neck, their bodies pressed together, it was like a bucket of cold water had been cruelly dumped on me. The world was leering at me, as if to say gotcha.

Had I really read it all wrong?

My fingers twitched and I allowed them to tug at my phone, bringing it in front of me as I continued my casual stroll. I dodged oncoming pedestrian traffic as I unlocked the device, tapping on the Instagram icon. As if they’d done it a million times in the past few weeks, my fingers immediately hit the search bar, and then again on the top most recent search.

Juliana’s personal page loaded, and I stopped dead in my tracks as I viewed her most recent update. It was posted only 23 minutes ago at a restaurant I didn’t recognise. She sat beside her friend Yolanda, the girl who had been working wardrobe when RUN first started filming, a cheeky smile on her face. Her hair was in a half up, half down style, and she looked effortlessly stunning in a casual green shirt and black jeans, the stem of a red wine glass pinched between her fingers.

I zoomed in on her face and felt my heart stutter in my rib cage. It was the first image she’d posted in over a week, and it was a relief to know she was out there somewhere, in this same city, enjoying the same afternoon sun with her best friend.

And then I realised that I missed her. But not like how I missed my brother when I was living overseas or missed Ava when we hadn’t spoken in weeks. I missed her with a yearning so deep it took my breath away.

We hadn’t spoken since the bathroom incident. It was the longest we had been out of touch since we actually became friends. They had been the worst, most lonely days of my life. And that was really saying something.

My phone suddenly vibrated in my hand, and I jerked as if I'd been zapped by it.

Jesus, I muttered to myself as I fumbled with it.

Incoming call from Ava Perez.

“Yeah, thanks Siri.” I replied to the computer animated voice, my music momentarily paused.

I answered the call and transferred the audio to my AirPods, then continued walking.

“Hey.”

“Hey, girl. What are you doing?”

Ava’s voice was almost too enthusiastic. It didn’t fit well with my mood.

“Just walking home from that shoot with Glamour.”

“Oh yeah? How’d it go?”

I shrugged my shoulders even though she couldn’t see me.

“Yeah. Fine.”

There was a pause on the other end of the line, and I almost felt bad for being so despondent.

“What are you doing tonight? I’ve got a party to attend and don’t have a plus one. Do you want to be my plus one?”

“I’m sorry, Ava. I’m just not really feeling it at the moment.”

I kicked a tiny pebble and it ricocheted off a metal bin that was almost overflowing with rubbish.

“What is wrong with you? You were like an excited puppy dog when I saw you last week. Now you sound like someone’s died.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“Don’t apologise. Just tell me what’s bothering you.”

I turned my eyes upwards, watching the sky through the gaps in the trees and buildings. It was blue today, not a cloud to be seen. They were my favourite kind of days. Ones where you could see the horizon stretch on for miles, unblemished, as though it was painted with one, long brushstroke.

My feet slowly stepped one in front of the other as I considered how to answer.

“It’s nothing. I’m just being silly.”

There was a light scratching on the line. I assumed Ava was readjusting her phone to get more comfortable.

“Vale, I've known you for years. You are probably the toughest person I know. You are the queen of plastering on a smile, but I know you better than that. Something is clearly up. Spill.”

I sucked at the inside of my cheek when out of nowhere, I felt like crying.

“Look. You don’t have to tell me.” Ava continued, her tone low and soothing. “But I’m here to listen. If you want. I can cancel my plans and come over?”

“No, no. Don’t be silly.”

Ava was quiet on her end. A horn blasted beside me and I almost jumped at the harshness of the sound.

“I’m just a little confused, I guess. I don’t know what I'm doing with myself.”

“Oh, honey.” Ava crooned. “Tell me more. What are you questioning?”

I pushed out a breath noisily through my lips.

“Is this really the life I want? Am I really being who I want to be, or am I just going through the motions? Am I going to wake up in 10 years time and hate myself and the decisions I've made.” I hung my head and held my breath. “Would my mother be proud of me?”

Ava’s response was swift.

“Vale. Come on. You know she would be.”

“No, I don’t. I don’t know if she would be proud of me.”

A passing dog on a lead sniffed at my leg, the owner yanking its chain. He mouthed sorry at me and continued on his way.

“Well, you’re in the business now. I’m sure that would have made her proud. Following in her footsteps is a huge deal.”

I frowned.

“I’m not so sure about that.”

Ava made a kind of dismissive sound, and we were quiet again for a moment. I knew I’d sort of dumped all these pretty big life questions on her and then refused to elaborate on them, but I couldn’t make myself talk.

“As for the other stuff, what’s brought all this on? Has something happened since I saw you last?”

I pursed my lips, unsure how much I should expose.

“Maybe.”

“Do you want to tell me?”

I clicked my teeth together at the memory, deciding to let it free.

“I found Juliana and Anna kissing.”

“Oh.” Ava sighed. “How did that all go down?”

I appreciated my best friend ignoring the fact that I haven’t actually explicitly told her I liked Juliana. She assumed as much, after the gathering in the penthouse, and I hadn’t denied it when she asked, but I also never confirmed it.

“I turned and left.”

“Have you not spoken about it?”

I pulled at my cap, readjusting it on my head. A group of people sitting outside a restaurant sang happy birthday to their friend, candles blazing atop a large cream covered cake.

“What is there to say?” I balked.

“Valentina, did you give her the opportunity to explain?”

I could almost see her rolling her eyes at me.

“There’s nothing to explain. I saw them together. That’s all there is to it.”

“She didn’t chase you or anything?”

“Well, she asked me to wait but I couldn’t do that. Not while her hands were still on Anna’s hips, for Christ sake.” My hands flew in the air as I turned a corner. “Apparently she asked for me later on but I’d left the party by then.”

“Vale, you can be such a bloody moron sometimes.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, I don’t claim to be some mind-reader, but I didn’t have to be. That little party you had in your penthouse told me enough. Her eyes didn’t leave you the entire night. And there were those weird, silent conversations between the two of you, and I know something happened out on that balcony. If she and Anna kissed, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was just some misunderstanding. I didn’t get those vibes at all.”

I grunted a non-committal response. Torn between Ava’s observations and the doubt that swirled in my chest, words escaped me.

“You need to give her the chance to tell her side of the story. You should know all about misconceptions and how things aren’t always as they seem.”

I knew she was right. Every story has two sides, and I did run away when she’d asked me to wait. She deserved the chance to explain.

“Okay. Your point is made.” I huffed.

“What about the rest of it all?”

I turned my head to look down at my phone. A new notification had come through from Guille, asking how the shoot went. I ignored it, and went back to watching my feet drag along the concrete sidewalk.

“I don’t know. I guess I just feel a little lost.”

“Well, then. How are you going to fix that?”

I passed a tobacco shop as someone opened the door and stepped out. I was hit with a nauseating wave of sickly sweet smoke and grimaced.

“I don’t know.”

“I think it’s time you were completely honest with yourself, Vale. You’ve done your stint of doing whatever possible to piss off your father. The time has come to stop with that and start focusing on yourself. Fuck Leon, ya know? You’ve wasted enough time and effort on him. What do you want?”

A laughing, bashful Juliana flashed in front of me, and that feeling she invoked inside me made a brief appearance. It made me smile. That was my answer.

“At the moment, all I can think about is Juls. I want her.”

“Well, that’s a start.”

I chewed anxiously at my lip. I looked around at the people walking past me, paying me absolutely no mind.

“But, I'm nervous.”

“What? You’re never nervous.”

I flicked my hand in the air, then grasped at the straps over my shoulders.

“I know. But - she makes me nervous.”

“Geez. You do have it bad.” She laughed, and I bit back the scolding remark on the tip of my tongue. Ava was being very patient and understanding with me. She didn’t need my sarcasm or defensiveness. Instead, I verbalised my fears.

“What if she doesn’t want me back? What if I've read it all wrong?”

“I don’t think you have to worry about that, honey. You’re a total catch. And I’ve seen the way the girl melts when you even glance in her general direction.” Ava giggled. “But let’s come up with a plan. How are you going to do this? How are you going to get your girl?”

My feet skidded to a stop in front of a large shop front. The neon sign buzzed a bright red, contrasted against the crisp white of the paint behind. A strip of afternoon sunlight reflected off the wide windows, shining on the decadent baked goods on display. My eyes scanned the items, my spirits lifting as I found what I didn’t know I was looking for.

“I just thought of one.” I announced.

“That’s my girl!”

“Thanks, Ava. Gotta go.”

“Wait, you can’t just -.”

I hung up on my best friend and approached the door. A bell jingled as I stepped inside, alerting the shopkeeper to my presence. I slid the sunglasses off my face and stepped up to the til.

“Good afternoon.” A man with salt-and-pepper hair said jovially. “What can I get you today?”

I pointed to the baked item I wanted and said I'd like two. The man nodded his head and took a pair of tongs hanging from a steel rack attached to the display cabinet. Two minutes later and I was back out on the sidewalk, a smile on my face and a small box wrapped in twine in my hands.

For the first time in three days, I felt hopeful.

 

~ ~ ~

 

I kicked vigorously through the water, my arms propelling myself through the light resistance. I counted the strokes and as I saw the wall nearing, I glided through a flip turn, my feet pushing hard off the edge.

Swimming was my release, a way to distract my mind from the chaos that ran riot most of the time, from the turmoil that had no end. I tried my hardest to push thoughts of Juliana and my conversation with Ava away as I breathed through each lap, arms and legs thrashing with more power. But tonight, there was no escaping it.

Juliana was everywhere. She took up every single ounce of my thoughts. I craved her with such blind intensity that not even 50 of the quickest laps i’d ever swum was enough to calm my tormented mind.

I hadn’t felt the need to do this, find my escape, during filming. It was as if when I was around Juliana, she brought the calm to my storm. She had this ability to switch off all this self-doubt, all this bullshit that danced around inside me, and now that she wasn’t here, it came back tenfold. Or maybe it has always been this bad, but the brief reprieve made it worse now that I knew what it was like to have a break.

Not feeling any better about anything, my hands grasped the edge of the pool and I flung off my goggles. My lungs heaved with effort and my heart beat rapidly in my chest. I stayed where I was in the cool water as my body dealt with the effects of me pushing its limits. I floated there, the water lapping quietly against the tiled pool edge, and slowly settled. Eventually, I waded through the water and clambered up the smooth, silver ladder on one side.

I toweled off my body and threw a loose dress over the top. It quickly soaked through, spreading large patches of even darker black across my midsection and chest. With bare feet, I padded out of the pool area and into the lobby of the apartment building. I rubbed at the ends of my wet hair with my towel as I stood in the elevator, mindful of not making a mess. The carpet squares felt rough beneath my feet.

My fingers, almost numb, punched in the code to my apartment and I entered, welcomed by the cool of the ducted air conditioning. As I walked through the small hallway and into the open-plan living space, my eyes were attracted to the glinting city lights below. It was one of the reasons why I bought this little place when it was selling two years ago. I stepped down the few steps leading from the kitchen and didn’t stop until the tips of my toes were pressing against the cool glass.

The whole city stretched away below me, entire lives playing out right then. It made me feel small, thinking about it. Each little light told me there was a human being there, watching TV, or reading a book, or having an argument, or cuddling their baby. Just, living.

Was that what I was doing? Is this living?

The lights spread out for a time until it suddenly stopped and plunged into pitch black. The ocean, invisible at this time of night, then continued on even further. Miles and miles of nothingness extended out in the darkness, life still going on beneath the waves.

With my hands still holding the towel to my hair, the quiet of my apartment was deafening. I wondered if anyone ever looked into my window, up at my light, and wondered what life was going on behind these large glass windows. Then I shuddered to think what they’d find. A lonely woman, directionless, with a father she hated and a brother mostly too busy for her.

I turned my head, my eyes landing on a small brown package wrapped in twine, and I remembered.

I remembered the feeling of being listened to, of someone caring, of being seen. I remembered the only thing that sparked any kind of joy in my chest, a feeling that made me want to curl up in it and never leave. A feeling that I knew I couldn’t give up on. A feeling that a part of me wondered is this that once in a lifetime find?

I dropped my towel, the cotton landing in a pile with a barely audible whoosh, and reached for my phone. My hands shook as I unlocked it and pressed the green phone app. I clicked the name that even the sight of made me giddy, and held it up to my ear.

It rang once, twice, three times, before a surprised voice sounded on the other end.

“Val?”

I could breathe. Finally.

“Juls.”

Chapter Text

I smacked my lips together and reassessed my reflection in the tiny vanity mirror. I’d chosen a soft pink lipstick, and I was secretly impressed by how well it complimented my outfit. I touched up the edges of my mascara and took in the fine lines of my eyeliner. I blinked my long lashes and looked myself straight in the eye.

This is it, I told myself. Keep it together.

I threaded my hands through my hair and snapped up the sun visor.

I didn’t want to have any expectations of how the night was going to go, but that didn’t help the nerves jitter through my system like an out of control game of pong. I took one more moment to inhale a deep breath, puffing up my cheeks before releasing it into the quiet of the car. At least if things didn’t go as planned, I looked damn good.

“You look fucking hot. Get out of my car and go get your girl.”

I turned to Yolanda and stared at her. She was smirking at me, both hands still resting on the wheel, her blonde hair tied up in a bun on top of her head. It reminded me of a bird's nest.

It didn’t take long for Yolanda to pull the entire story from me once I returned to the house. She was my best friend, so of course she knew something was off. This time, however, she didn’t give me any space or time for myself. Twenty minutes after I’d woken up and dragged myself around the house the morning I got home, she’d tackled me to the couch and pinned me down. Once I got over the initial surprise that Yolanda was strong enough to hold me in that position, she forced me to talk.

I had to admit, it felt better to get things off my chest. Yolanda listened as I went back to the start, and over three coffees, she offered me another perspective. She was surprisingly Team Valentina, and it annoyed me but also thrilled me.

“You’re sure to come pick me up if things don’t go so well?”

Yolanda raised a brow at me and shook her head. She was still smirking at me, and I got the impression she was enjoying my nervousness.

“I’m not coming back here tonight. You know damn well that won’t be happening.”

Yolanda squeaked as I shoved her arm over the centre console.

“I’m going now.” I announced, slinging my bag over my shoulder and opening the car door.

“Just be yourself Juli. And keep your cool!” She shouted, her voice now muted behind the glass.

I almost tripped over the tiny lip of the door as a gentleman in a tuxedo bowed at me as I walked in. It was all very fancy, which didn’t help my already heightened state.

“Good evening. Do you have a reservation?”

I looked around the dimly lit foyer of the restaurant with wide eyes. A lone figure stood behind the desk. She had a wide smile that complimented her dark skin, and beautiful hair tucked behind a vibrant head band.

“Uh, yes. It should be under Valentina. Carvajal.”

My skin prickled with excitement at the sound of her name. I liked the way it sounded, the way it rolled around in my brain and slipped off my tongue, sweet as honey. I cleared my throat and the woman didn’t even check her book. She continued smiling at me, her brows lifting slightly as she looked me up and down.

“Are you Juliana?”

“Yes. That’s me.”

She nodded her head and clapped her hands together. I noted the concealed hint of approval in the corner of her mouth, but I didn’t quite know how to take it.

“It’s lovely to meet you, Juliana. Please, follow me.”

The woman turned and I moved to follow her to my left. She pulled aside a dark curtain and I ducked beneath it.

“Wow.” I murmured to myself.

It was as though I’d stepped into another world. It was reasonably dark and comfortably cool, with quiet classical music playing somewhere above me. The only source of light were candles on the tables and dimmed pendant lights hanging in no particular pattern from the ceiling. The tables were hidden behind dense greenery and beautifully decorated screens. It felt like I’d just walked into an acclimatised forest, but instead of smelling like damp soil, my senses were overwhelmed by delicious cooking spices. My head spun as we walked further into the restaurant, and I found that even though I tried, I couldn’t actually see anyone. I knew people occupied the booths because I could hear the familiar murmur of voices, the clatter of cutlery against porcelain plates, and the light titter of friendly laughter. It was as though they were invisible, untouchable behind an impenetrable force field.

When I told Yolanda this morning about the phone call late last night from Valentina, she gasped when I mentioned where the model was taking me for dinner.

“That’s the most exclusive restaurant in the city, Juli.”

“So?”

“Oh my God.” She cried, her hands slapping her thighs in disbelief. “I can’t believe someone who has no interest in going to The Forbidden Forest is the one who got invited. This is so fucking unfair.”

Now, as I followed the woman deeper still, I understood what Yolanda meant by exclusive. She informed me it was where all the famous people go when they don’t want to be seen. They’re very discreet, she told me.

“Here we go.”

The woman smiled and pointed to a small gap between two bushy ferns. I felt my nerves rise at the thought of being so close to Valentina again. She was right there, hidden from view, but still constantly at the forefront of my mind.

“Your waiter will be here shortly to take your order. Have a wonderful evening.”

My palms sweat as she turned and walked back the way we’d just come. I fiddled with the strap over my shoulder, looked at the gap between the plants and felt like my heart was about to beat out of my chest. I couldn’t quite talk my feet into moving forward. It felt like I’d stepped up to the edge of the plank and was staring at the unknown waters below.

“Juls?”

Valentina’s sweet voice was there, nervous but present.

You got this, I told myself.

I swallowed down my swelling nerves and stepped around the large leaves. My eyes finally landed on her, and I wondered why the hell I worked myself up so much about this. She was sitting in a booth, the seats wrapped in dark leather, a timid smile on her face.

My fingers ceased their stiff grip against the strap of my handbag as everything clicked back into place.

“Hey.” She whispered before shuffling to the edge of the seat. She stood up in front of me and for a moment, we just looked at one another. Disarming blue eyes gazed at me softly, and I almost had to pinch myself to remind my overstrung brain that she was real. “Can I hug you?”

She’d never asked me that before. I felt my skin flush a little, but I nodded my head.

“Of course, yeah.” I wrapped my arms around her waist as she tugged me tight, her arms over my shoulders. “Hey, Val.”

Valentina breathed out a long breath, her head tilting to fit more snug against me. The feel of her so close, holding me with such longing and care, was like a hit of serotonin. It was as if my nerves cells took a collective deep breath and relaxed.

“I missed you.” She said, almost as if she couldn’t believe she was telling me. “You wouldn’t believe how much.”

I closed my eyes and filled my lungs with the smell of her. It did something to my insides, that familiar scent, and it was intoxicating.

“I missed you too.”

She pulled back and looked at me, her thumbs brushing against the side of my neck. She blinked, smiled meekly, and then stepped back.

“Come on. Sit with me.”

I yanked the small handbag that was resting against my hip over my head and then shuffled into the booth behind her. I placed my handbag to the side and angled my body slightly towards my dinner companion. The leather creaked faintly as we adjusted. Valentina crossed her legs and gazed at me.

“Thank you for agreeing to see me.”

I pursed my lips and shook my head.

“No, I should be thanking you. I’m glad you reached out. We should probably talk.”

Valentina bit her bottom lip and fidgeted with her hands in her lap.

“Yeah. I think there’s probably a lot to say.” She whispered, her gaze dropping to watch her fingers as they fiddled in her lap.

I looked at her profile, studying the perfect slopes and lines of her face in the low-light, and felt my skin buzz with the simple proximity of her. After four days apart, I almost couldn’t believe the relief I felt at seeing her again. But, when I actually thought about it, I realised I could believe it. The time away from her had been hard, surprisingly so. I’d never thought about anyone with such deep, weighty yearning in my life.

She was dressed in a tight purple dress that sat just above her knee. The spaghetti straps exposed plenty of perfect skin across her chest, and my mouth watered at the thought of her not wearing a bra. She couldn’t be. Not in that dress.

A waiter appeared then, seemingly out of nowhere to snap me out of my ogling, and asked what I’d like to drink. A glass of red wine, remnants of lipstick around the rim, sat in front of Valentina. I indicated I'd like the same, and then he disappeared again.

“You look really beautiful.” I whispered, leaning in to seek her attention.

It worked. She glanced up at me, a bashful smile on her lips. She looked so gorgeous when she blushed, and I liked being the one to make it happen.

“Thanks Juls.” She murmured, her eyes sweeping over me. A coy smile tugged at her lips as she took in the low neckline of my dress. “So do you. I mean, I think that all the time, but tonight you’re particularly stunning.”

I tried my best not to comment on her lingering eyes, instead flicking some hair behind my shoulder as if I was barely affected by her husky compliment. It was difficult considering how sincere she was being and how earnest her flattery was. I’d spent hours choosing a dress and doing my hair and make up, so to hear that she enjoyed the view made all that time worth it. I leaned casually into the soft back of the booth and crossed my legs at the ankle.

“I’d like to start, if that’s okay with you?” I began.

Valentina’s blue eyes were soft in the candlelight, and I knew this was going to be big. This conversation, right now, was going to set my life on a path that could lead only one of two ways.

With her, or without her.

I crossed my fingers in my lap, superstitiously hoping it went the way I planned. I’d spent all day fretting about how I was going to properly explain myself to Valentina. Now, the moment had arrived and I was finally ready to let it out.

“Sure. Go ahead.”

I looked right at her when I spoke. I knew what I had to say, and I understood how important it was to get this right.

“What you saw happen between Anna and me wasn’t what it looked like.”

Valentina’s gaze seemed to shake for a minute, then with a tiny lift of her chin, I continued.

“It sort of came out of nowhere. One minute I was wiping at the makeup under my eyes, and the next she was telling me I was beautiful and kissing me. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about it. ”

Valentina’s jaw flexed before she spoke, her voice tinged with insecurity.

“It didn’t seem as though you were too displeased by it.”

I shook my head vigorously. I wasn’t going anywhere until I was clear about what happened and where I stood with it all.

“It shocked me, that’s all. My brain kind of glitched and didn’t react as quickly as it probably should have. Or as quickly as I would have liked.”

“Did you- ?”

Valentina stopped herself with a click of the tongue. I frowned. I didn’t want her to hold back. I wanted her to feel safe and comfortable asking me anything, and I would do whatever I had to to quash any doubts she had. I needed to air this out, so we could move forward.

“Did I what?” I pressed, encouraging her. “I’ll answer whatever you want.”

Valentina looked shy all of a sudden. Her eyes were downcast again.

“Is there something going on between you two?”

I needed to touch her not only to ground myself, but to get her to look at me and take what I said very seriously. I leaned forward, my hand touching just above her knee. She stuttered out a slow breath, receiving the message, and eventually lifted her gaze back to me.

She looked vulnerable and uncertain. It made my chest ache.

“I love Anna, as a friend.” Valentina’s brows continued to hold the tension, and I wasn’t sure she was properly hearing what I was saying. “She’s been one of the few people in this world who has been nice and compassionate and friendly towards me, without an ulterior motive.”

“Seems like she did have an ulterior motive.”

“Val, listen to me.” I implored, my hand squeezing her thigh. Although a tiny part of me was excited at the prospect of a slightly jealous Valentina, I needed her to understand. “That was the first time anything like that ever happened between us. There’s nothing more to it. I explained to her that I didn’t see her in that kind of way, that we were just friends, and that was all we’d ever be.”

“And how did she take that?”

I smiled at the gradual smoothing of the crease between her brows.

“Well, in the end.”

Valentina chewed on her lip in thought for a moment. She kept her determined gaze on me. I could tell she wasn’t entirely satisfied yet.

“I didn’t even know she liked girls.”

She said it with the air of attempting to be casual, but I could see right through the one armed shrug. She needed confirmation. She needed more convincing.

“Well, I think it’s only a fairly new revelation. She said she wasn’t entirely sure what she was feeling, or what everything meant.” I explained emphatically. “That’s why I had to stick around. I couldn’t leave her there to deal with the fallout of all that on her own. As a friend, I couldn’t walk away with all that going on in her head.”

That seemed to do it. All the fight left Valentina, her shoulders dropping and jaw visibly relaxing.

“Okay.” She said, and I knew with that singular breathy word that she believed me. “I’m glad you did. It can be a pretty frightening time. That’s really nice of you.”

“Thank you.” I said quietly. “That’s not saying it wasn’t a difficult decision to make.”

Valentina arched one eyebrow and looked at me quizzically.

“Why?”

“Because it’s not exactly where I wanted to be at the time.”

Valentina kept her gaze fixed on me. She sunk a little deeper into the booth and waited for me to continue. Suddenly, a glass of red wine was placed in front of me and I barely thanked the waiter before he disappeared again.

“I wanted to speak to you.” I explained. “I needed to explain myself to you, but I couldn’t just run away from her. Once I knew Anna was going to be okay and I was able to leave without being totally selfish, you were nowhere to be seen.”

Valentina’s tongue ran across her teeth distractedly. She looked mildly irritated, but I didn’t feel like it was aimed at me. Her eyes distractedly watched her long fingers reach towards the table, her fingertips playing with the end of her fork. She pressed it, and the pronged end of the fork raised slightly.

“I think this is where I step in to explain myself.” She uttered.

I removed my hand from her leg. I wiped my hands over my dress, on top of my thighs. I picked up my wine glass and pressed the cool edge to my lips.

“I’m here to listen.” I said before I swallowed a small mouthful of red wine.

Valentina sat up a little straighter. Her eyes were unable to focus on a single feature of the quiet booth we occupied. She couldn’t look at me, that much was obvious. I knew what I was about to hear, and it made my skin prickle with jealousy.

“I took Luna up to my room.”

I allowed the words to take up the room in my brain, process it for what it was, and then blew out a breath.

“I know.”

Valentina turned then and finally focused on me. She looked sad, even pained as she considered me. I looked back at her impassively and waited. Valentina continued quietly, her tone laced with self-loathing.

“After I saw you and Anna together, I kind of lost it a little. This is kind of embarrassing to admit.” She scoffed lightly, her hand rising to her forehead. She touched her fingers to her hairline and I could see the light tremble of nerves.

“I want to hear it.” I said patiently.

The restaurant continued on as normal, unaware of the gravity of the conversation happening in that booth. I leaned in closer and waited, the light hum of smooth classical music softly playing overhead. Valentina was anxious, I could tell from the way she shuffled in her seat. She was restless. Valentina was generally someone who couldn’t sit still, but this was different. It was all nervous energy and it made me feel like I wanted to get out of the restaurant right then and breathe in all the fresh air I could possibly hold in my lungs.

Valentina moved towards her glass and tipped the red liquid into her mouth with a shaky hand. She swallowed harshly, her long throat bobbing with the action, before placing it back down on the white tablecloth.

“I was hurt.” She said firmly, and I felt my world slow down a fraction. “And because of that, I tried to hide my pain.”

“So you slept with her?”

Valentina stopped her nervous fidgeting and stared at me. I’d said it with a little more vehemence than I’d intended, my tone cutting as my blood boiled at the idea of them together. I thought I could hear it and act like a mature adult, but my reaction told me I wasn’t as emotionally equipped as I'd originally thought. I already assumed Valentina had taken Luna back up to her room for only one reason, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the sharp turning of the knife that pierced right through me when Valentina confirmed it.

I felt my hands begin to shake. I shouldn’t feel betrayed, but my heart was already in too deep. It was silly, because nothing between Valentina and I was exclusive. I reminded myself for the hundredth time that it wasn’t like we were dating - she didn’t owe me anything. I didn’t even know how she felt about me, for goodness sake. I just knew that my feelings towards her were growing with intensity with every passing day, and it wounded me more than I realised that Valentina had been with someone else while I thought we were on track for something bigger.

A vein in Valentina’s temple twitched and her expression hardened slightly. I’d seen that look once before, in the dark hallway of the studio, right before she called me out for my bad behaviour. It was a mix of anger and despair. My stomach clenched in reaction, as if it were ready for a heavy blow.

“I wouldn’t have considered anything with her if I hadn’t seen you kissing someone else that night.”

My heart sank at her clipped response. She was right. If Anna hadn’t kissed me, if Valentina hadn’t walked into the bathroom at that exact moment, I was confident that the chain of events following that wouldn’t have occurred. I started to feel that seed of guilt take residency in my gut.

Valentina lowered her chin and shook her head, her fingers pressing into the bridge of her nose.

“I’m sorry.” She said softly, all traces of anger gone. “I’m not blaming you. It wasn’t your fault. That was a childish thing to say.”

I grated my jaw, hoping for the rational part of my brain to take over.

“No, you’re probably right. But I wish you’d spoken to me about it, rather than grabbing the first woman you saw and fucking her to cover your feelings.”

Oops. Maybe I was still riding the emotional wave and hadn’t quite seen reason yet.

Valentina pulled away a little, her eyes flicking over my face in consternation. I knew I probably looked a little pissy, and my tone was snappy, but I kind of wanted her to know it. After a silent moment, her expression shifted into one of amusement. She even huffed out a small laugh, and I swallowed back the defensive comment about to spill out.

“Ah, I haven’t seen this side of you for a while.” She commented through a smile. “It makes me glad I'm on your good side these days.”

It took a moment to understand what she meant. Of course, I hadn’t been the most pleasant person to deal with at the beginning of our relationship. Valentina had once been at the receiving end of my scathing retorts and hasty judgements. Lately, Valentina had flipped to the other end of the rollercoaster of my personality. She was now the most popular recipient of my smiles and attempt at charm. I rolled my eyes at her, the indignation slowly dissipating under Valentina’s soft gaze.

“You aren’t on my good side right now.” I stated with a little less bite.

That only elicited another delighted laugh from the model.

“Juliana, if you let me explain without jumping to conclusions, maybe you won’t be so mad at me.”

“I’m not mad.” I grumbled, my arms crossing across my chest.

Valentina tipped her head to the side, her eyes shining with mirth at my pathetic denial and petulant attitude.

“Really? Cos you seem pretty mad.”

As Valentina continued to smile at me as though I was the night's entertainment, I knew I was being ridiculous. Valentina had sat quietly and allowed me to explain what had happened with Anna. I owed her the same courtesy and respect in return. I dropped my arms from their closed off position, shut my eyes and took in a deep breath.

“Alright. I’m sorry. You know I’m prone to overreacting. I’ll shut up and listen now.”

“Is it bad that I find your sulky, fiery side completely endearing?”

I opened my eyes and looked back at her. She was teasing me. It was obvious from the same amused grin on her face, but it was also clear that she meant it. With that one comment, she managed to eliminate all angst and confusion that had crept into the conversation. We found ourselves back in a place of calm appreciation of one another, an easy equilibrium, but the nerves still hovered. Not everything had been resolved yet.

I scrunched my nose up at her, unable to hide the smile that curled my lips.

Once she was satisfied I was actually going to stick to my word, she nodded her head once and settled more comfortably in the booth. She licked her lips and then launched into her version of events.

“So, the thing with Luna.” She reminded me, as if I'd forgotten what we were talking about. “I took Luna’s hand and dragged her up to my room with the full intention of sleeping with her. I had all this pent up energy inside me, and I just needed to release it. But then I kissed her and I knew it was wrong. Everything about it was off. So I pushed her away, and then felt even worse.”

She stopped and looked away. I ignored the tightening of my chest at the news that they had kissed. I had to brace myself for whatever came next, no matter what. Valentina blinked rapidly, and then cleared her throat.

“Luna was gracious, though. She could tell something was wrong. So she asked, like the nice person she is, and I just spilled my guts at her. I talked at her for hours. I told her my whole sordid story and she just sat and listened while I cried my heart out. And then she left, and I fell asleep.”

So she hadn’t slept with Luna. Holy shit.

Although it was difficult due to the overwhelming relief of Valentina’s statement, there was something much more concerning that required my attention. I couldn’t be selfish at this moment. I tampered down my internal cheer squad that launched into full celebration mode and focused on the woman beside me. The affliction she was battling was evident in the way her expression dropped, hidden behind her expressive blue eyes.

“Why were you crying, Val?”

Valentina’s hands flexed into fists in her lap. Her tongue swept across her teeth again, and it hit me that this was her anxious tick.

“I cried because I’m -”

“Are you two ready to order?” The waiter asked, his back straight as he stood beside me.

“Oh.” Valentina mumbled, a little shaken. Her mouth opened and closed a few times before her gaze slid back to me. “Do you know what you want, Juls?”

I glanced at the unopened menus on the table and shook my head.

“No. But I don’t mind if you’d like to order for us both. What’s good?”

Valentina offered me a small smile and looked up at the waiter.

“We’ll have the duck confit and the pork belly, please. And a serving of roast vegetables. And maybe some of those rice paper rolls to start.”

“Yes, Miss Carvajal. Coming right up.”

The man grabbed the two menus and disappeared again.

“I hope that’s alright.”

I nodded my head. “Of course. That sounds great.”

We found ourselves in a strange silence for a moment. It was big, this conversation, full of topics that were profound and life altering. Valentina was completely unguarded, expressing herself to me as if she trusted me with the world. I wasn’t about to let an interruption from a waiter halt the progress we were making.

“I don’t like to hear that you were crying.” I pouted, hoping she would pick up where we left off.

She pressed her lips together, her lipstick a shade darker than I knew her lips to be, and wobbled her head faintly.

“I was just being dramatic.”

My hand fell on her knee again. Her chest inhaled deeply with the contact. I forced myself to keep my eyes on her face and not slip down to her rising chest.

“Please. Tell me. I want to know what was wrong.”

Valentina considered me for a moment before the effort of holding it together faded away. She closed her eyes in defeat and took the plunge.

“There are lots of things wrong, Juls. For the most part, I hate my life. I hate that I've carved this boring, unfilling life out for myself. And for what? To spite my father? I wanted him to suffer, but in exchange, I made myself miserable.”

I stayed quiet, my thumb running in small circles on her skin. She turned her shoulders gently towards me and finally looked at me.

“But what I was most upset about, Juls, was that I thought I missed my chance with you.”

I almost choked on nothing when she said it, low and true, her blue eyes soft as she gazed openly at me. I’d come here tonight to admit to Valentina that I’d developed feelings for her I couldn’t explain. I came here to tell her I didn’t know what to do about it all, this blossoming feeling in my chest that happened to flutter every time I saw her. I had to say it out loud, to confess it all to her, otherwise I feared I might burst.

It seemed as though I was being beaten to it.

Was this it?

“What?”

“Let me explain.” She whispered, shuffling a little closer so our knees were touching. Her hands wrapped around the one I’d placed on her knee, holding me close. “You, Juliana, have somehow, over the course of the past couple of months, flipped my world around. You see, my life, for a long time, hasn’t really ever belonged to me. Up until I left to model, my father ruled all of my decisions. And when I found myself on the other side of the world, soon one of the most sought after models in the world, I realised that that didn’t even really belong to me. I was only doing it to stab at Leon because I knew he would have hated it. My life over there was empty, full of meaningless engagements and superficial interactions. It was all a facade, a horrible lie, a devastatingly lonely existence, and I was extremely unhappy. And then I get a call from him, supported by my brother, telling me he’s secured me a new job and to get home on the next flight.” She sighed. “Now, normally I wouldn’t have followed that demand, but he didn’t really give me any choice, announcing it without talking to me about it first. So I turn up to another job I don’t want to do at the behest of my father, and I imagine I'm going to have an absolutely dreadful time.”

She bit her lip then as she looked at me through her fluttering eyelashes. I was breathless from it. I knew I could look at her forever.

“Go on.” I whispered, my voice thick and overwrought.

“Well, it’s been the complete opposite of dreadful. Forgetting about my fathers involvement and why I was there, I actually began to enjoy myself. I felt at home on set, happy to be a part of something my mother was so passionate about. I know I sucked at the start,” She grinned, and I copied. “But then, I started to improve, and things got easier. And for the first time in my life, I thought that maybe I'd found it, the thing I was meant to do.”

“That’s great, Val.”

Valentina nodded. One of her hands released its grip on me, and she dropped it on my mid-thigh. My mouth went dry as her palm slid across my skin.

“Here’s the thing, though. When I pull it all apart, I know deep within me that there is one contributing factor to why it all felt so right. There is one thing that makes it all worth it, all that hard work and those long hours. One thing I know is that if I can look up at the end of the day and she’s looking back at me with pride and wonder in her eyes, it all makes sense.”

I could hear my heartbeat thump in my ears.

“Val.”

Her name spilled from my lips in a strangled kind of whisper. Valentina tilted her head, just slightly to the side, and looked at me with a devotion that made my head spin.

“Ever since you came into my life, Juls, things are calmer and brighter. These past couple of months have been the most content I have ever felt, the most settled and the most I've truly felt like the real me. Suddenly the flowers smell more fragrant, the sun shines brighter, and the grass is even greener. I want to get up every morning because I know you’ll be there, with that cheeky grin on your face, working your ass off to be the best person you can be. And that’s what I want, too. I want to be the best person I can be. And I honestly think that version of myself is most alive when you are around. Because I want to be better, to try harder, for you. For you and me.”

A pause. A moment where I felt like my world might just combust right there at the table, and I would be alright with it, as long as Valentina was by my side. Then, the words I’d been holding my breath for came.

“Because, I really like you, Juls. More than just friends. I think about kissing you all the time. I feel this overwhelming energy between us and it drives me insane. I want you around all the damn time, and you know me like no-one else does. I don’t want to think about you with anyone else. I want you, Juliana. More than I can put into words.”

I grasped her face between my hands and rested my forehead against hers.

“Shhh.” I whispered through a smile.

I don’t know why I shushed her. I wanted to hear her say those things to me on repeat. I wanted to get out my phone and record her saying it so I could listen to it over and over again. But I was just so overwhelmed and she seemed to be rambling and I wanted to comfort her. I wanted her to know I felt the same, that she didn’t have to say anything else for me to understand.

My thumbs swept beneath her eyes, across her cheekbones, and we breathed one another in. I hoped she couldn’t notice the tremble in my fingertips as I held her close. My thoughts scrambled to think of a response big enough to match that brave declaration. Happiness was basically radiating off me. My smile could barely fit on my face.

“That’s not really what I was expecting.” I murmured in the small space between us.

Valentina snorted lightly.

“Really? I thought I made it pretty obvious.”

“I can be pretty obtuse.”

“Well, I think you’re pretty great.”

I laughed lightly at the quick response, my heart dancing, my cheeks beginning to hurt from how happy I felt. I let my eyelids flutter open. She was so close, and I realised I could finally do what I’d been dreaming of for weeks.

“Come here.”

I dipped my chin and kissed her fully, my lips capturing hers with intent. She smiled and our teeth clashed gently. Then her hands gripped my waist and she pulled me closer still. Our lips moved together slowly, thoughtfully, as if we both couldn’t believe this was finally happening. She tasted sweet, like cherry and red wine, and I couldn’t get enough of her. One of my hands slid to the back of her neck, my fingertips pressing softly into her skull. She whimpered and I opened my mouth. Her tongue took the opportunity and slid against mine with careful reverence. Her fingers flexed into my ribs and I breathed in deeply through my nose so I didn’t have to break away. It was soft and unhurried and I’d never felt such tenderness in my life.

Eventually, Valentina was the one to gently pull away. She kept me close though, just enough to open her eyes and look at me. I could still feel her breath against my lips, the edges of her iris barely distinguishable. She licked her lips and beamed at me.

“Is that your way of saying you like me too?”

I blew out an amused breath, my hands sliding to rest on either side of her neck.

“It was strange, listening to you describe your feelings. It was almost as if you had experienced it from my eyes.” I whispered. “I didn’t want to pressure you, or do anything you didn’t want to do. I wanted you to take the lead on this, because of what happened before.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know. When I basically threw myself at you on set that time.” I stammered as I said it. I was still embarrassed about it.

I thanked the low lighting as I felt my face heat up at the memory. Valentina’s lips curled up wickedly.

“Juls, that was barely a one-sided interaction. I literally told you to do it.”

“Still. It was reckless. I don’t want to be so careless with you. You mean more to me than that.”

Valentina’s expression softened again.

“I’m glad we’re finally on the same page.”

I leaned in and kissed her again. I pressed my lips against hers and held her there for a moment, just grateful I could feel her against me like that. Then I pulled away and dropped my hands, giving us both a little space. Although we were now pressed right up against one another in the large booth, neither of us moved away any further.

“Me too.” I uttered around a smile.

Valentina understood the need for space. Her hand extended out to her wine glass. She held it in front.

“To us.” She beamed.

There was a spark in her eye. She looked positively radiant. With an expression I believe mirrored hers, I picked up my own drink and clinked it against Valentina’s.

“To whatever comes, as long as you’re with me, I think we can face anything.” I added.

Valentina watched me closely over her glass as we tilted it towards our lips, her eyes glinting in the candlelight.

 

~ ~ ~

 

“Thank you.” Valentina said to the Uber driver before shutting the door.

We were careful in the back seat to keep it casual. Unlike at dinner, we kept our hands to ourselves and maintained a light conversation. We laughed and giggled and joked with one another the entire 20 minute trip back to Valentina’s apartment building. It felt so normal, so easy, so right.

“So, this is it.”

I tipped my head back to look up at the high-rise building. It had to be one of the tallest in the area.

“How far up do you live?” I asked.

“I’m on the 49th floor.”

“Wow.”

“Come on. I’ll show you the view.”

With a quick glance at our surroundings, Valentina grasped my hand in hers and pulled me inside. Her fingers tapped at the buttons of the elevator and we stood in silence, watching one another with new eyes as it took us higher. She didn’t let go of my hand when she opened her apartment door and dragged me inside.

It wasn’t until I reached the end of the small entryway that my hand fell away from hers.

Valentina stepped into the kitchen and wordlessly opened a cupboard door, pulling out two clean wine glasses. My eyes, however, were glued to the vision of the city flickering below me. Without really taking much notice of the rest of her apartment, I dropped my handbag and stepped down a few wooden steps. Hypnotised, I crossed the space to the gigantic floor to ceiling windows.

“Wow.” I said for the second time that night.

“Yeah.” Valentina mused as she stood beside me. She held out a fresh glass of red wine and I took it. “This is basically why I bought the apartment. Pretty great, right?”

I tore my eyes away from her and my eyes swept across the view. Hundreds of spots of lights stretched until land met the ocean. A stadium shined brightly a little ways in the distance, the network of roads illuminated by tiny pricks of yellow light. I wondered what it would look like from here on a clear day.

“It’s amazing, Val.”

We both watched the world turn before us for a quiet moment. It was then that I realised Valentina had put some music on in the background. A James Bay song filtered around the apartment, contributing to the soft ambience of the evening and the comfort I felt in my chest.

Eventually, I heard Valentina’s soft voice.

“Would you like a tour?”

I spun and nodded.

“Yes. Sorry. I just kind of walked right in, didn’t I?”

Valentina scrunched her nose up in that adorable way that said she didn’t mind, and then gestured to the room from where we stood.

“This is it.” She said, and then laughed. “That’s my favourite thing in here, my baby grand piano.” Before I could ask any more questions about the fascinating instrument tucked into the corner, she kept going. “Kitchen is there. Obviously” She pointed to the decent sized, very tidy kitchen with large white tiles that I got the impression were quite expensive. Then she pointed to the mezzanine on the same level as the kitchen, a wooden and steel railing creating a hallway. “There is the spare bedroom and extra bathroom.” Her finger moved to the other end of the room, pointing to sliding doors that sat atop another small set of stairs. “My bedroom and ensuite are in there. And this,” she said, gesturing to the generous living space we were currently standing in, “is the lounge room, or entertainment room, whatever you want to call it.”

Tucked away beneath the mezzanine level was a built in bookcase, jam packed full of books. My eyes widened as I walked towards it, the red wine sloshing around my glass. The bookcase was the exact same height as me. My fingers reached out and ran along the spines of some of the novels that sat there. Names such as Steinbeck, Bronte and Kerouac were all there, tucked in beside one another. The books had been placed in color order, some standing and some laying flat, and were punctuated with a photo frame or decorative item. My eyes flitted over the multitude of books on display, fascinated and hungry to know more.

“I know you like to read. Feel free to borrow anything you like.”

I turned, slightly embarrassed, and spotted Valentina sitting on her couch. It was a deep blue and looked as soft as velvet. The back faced the bookcase, the front facing towards the window.

“You have quite a collection.” I said as I joined her on the lounge. “This place is beautiful, Val.”

The lounge was plush and comfortable, just as I imagined. We sat only centimeters apart, our wine glasses between our fingertips.

“Thank you.” She said with a genuine smile. She bent forward and her fingers fiddled with the clasp around her ankles. She continued talking as she kicked off her heels. “I bought it on a whim. I wanted a place in the city even though I wasn’t spending much time here. I saw a photo of the view and bought it without even sighting it. I’m glad I did. It’s been a wonderful refuge.”

I followed her lead and removed my shoes as well.

“You like to live alone?”

“Yes. Very much.” She replied with a nod. I must have looked puzzled, because she gave me an answering smile. “I need peace and quiet at the end of a long day. Do you like living with Yolanda?”

My smile brightened at the mention of my best friend's name.

“Absolutely. We have a lot of fun together. Even though she is exceptionally messy, I adore her company.”

“That sounds nice.”

I nodded and took a sip of red wine. It was rich and smooth and tasted expensive. Valentina lifted her long legs and placed them on the ottoman in front. She wiggled her toes and sunk a little further into the pillows, making no effort to cover her the extra view of skin on display. I thought if she stretched out any further, I might get a glance of her underwear. I salivated at the thought.

“How did the meeting with your agent go?”

I told Valentina about that before I left. I didn’t expect her to remember it. I gulped down another mouthful of wine and tried to ignore the tempting distraction of what colour panties she was wearing.

“Really well, I think. There might be some theatre roles coming up once I finish up on RUN.”

“Is that something that interests you?”

“Very much. I’ve done small stage shows before, mainly when I first got into acting. It’s a different thrill to filming. You can’t fuck it up. Or, if you do, you have to hold it together and recover well. There’s not much room for mistakes.”

Valentina chuckled, and I reveled at the sound. It was light and carefree and I felt it reverberate throughout my being.

“I’d be no good at it then.”

“That’s not true. I think you’re very talented.”

Valentina grinned at me. It was kind of lopsided and her eyes crinkled at the edges.

“Thanks to you.”

I rolled my eyes playfully at her self-deprecation.

“Come on, don’t be like that. You have a lot of talent, you just doubted yourself a little in the beginning. Stop being so hard on yourself.” Without consciously realising I was doing it, my hand reached out and slowly brushed her hair behind her ear. It was soft and I liked the feel of it between my fingers. “You’re pretty amazing to watch.”

Valentina’s jaw slackened, and I felt my stomach swoop at the sight. This was still so new and fresh. I didn’t know how to act. I didn’t know if it would be okay to act on my impulses and just kiss her, only because I wanted to.

I cleared my throat and gradually traced my finger tips down her arm. Valentina didn’t seem to mind, staying still as I fiddled with the ends of her hair.

“What about you?” I asked, my eyes watching the browny-blonde tips of her hair looping around my fingers. “Do you have plans once filming is done?”

Valentina bit her lower lip and shook her head a little.

“No. But, I think that’s something I need to work out pretty soon. Leon will have plans for me, I'm sure. I should probably lock something in before he beats me to it.”

“You should talk to Guille. If you want to keep doing this, you should get yourself an agent that has nothing to do with your dad and find a script you like. Choose something for yourself, rather than do something that’s picked for you.”

Valentina considered me for a while, and we were silent while Bon Iver sang in the background. It wasn’t unpleasant. In fact, I thought I could sit on that couch for hours and just look at her. After a while, she made a sweet little motion with her lips, then lifted her glass and finished what was left of her wine. She licked her lips, her tongue redder than usual, and looked out the window contemplatively.

I had a feeling the night was coming to an end. I didn’t want to overstep my welcome, so I began my attempt at a gracious exit.

“Thank you for dinner tonight. It was lovely.” I managed.

Valentina turned and smiled softly at me, and then stifled a yawn.

“You’re welcome. I had a great time.”

I shuffled to the edge of the couch and made to stand. A hand on my wrist stopped me.

“You’re not going yet, are you?”

My eyes bounced over Valentina face, searching for an answer. What did she want me to do?

“I don’t know. It’s getting late and you seem tired. I didn’t want to keep you up.”

Valentina huffed a quiet laugh and shook her head admonishingly at me.

“Juls, surely you know by now that I don’t often go to bed before midnight.” She glanced at a clock that sat hidden amongst her books. “It’s only 10:30. Stay a little longer?”

Her hand hadn’t left my wrist. I glanced down at where we connected and blew out a quick breath.

“As long as you’re sure.”

Valentina’s smile widened, her eyes gleaming with something more. I wondered if I'd ever get used to the way she looked at me.

“I actually have something for you, if you stay.”

“You do?”

Valentina grinned at me and maneuvered herself to the edge of the couch. She stood and adjusted our grip, her hand sliding against my palm, our fingers locking together. I liked the way they looked, milky white skin contrasting my slighter darker shade.

“Come with me.”

I nodded absently and lifted myself from the comfort of the couch. My bare feet shuffled behind her, from the rug to the cool of the wooden floorboards to the slightly textured tiles of the kitchen. She dropped my hand and stood on one side of the generous island bench.

My handbag, a fruit bowl and some jumbled paperwork sat in one corner, our now empty wine glasses discarded in the sink in the centre, and a small brown box tied up with twine was on the opposite edge. Valentina chewed on the inside of her cheek and pushed the box towards me.

“I saw this yesterday and thought of you. It helped me to finally grow a pair of tits and call you last night.”

My eyes flicked down to her breasts, small and perky beneath the thin material of her dress, and smiled shamelessly.

“Well, I’m glad you found them.”

“Stop it.” She laughed, her arm coming up to cover herself. “Open it.”

With a wink, my eyes dropped to focus on the gift. My fingers unraveled the twine, the rope coarse against my skin, and opened the box.

“Is this -?”

I was lost for words.

“I’ve seen this bakery on Instagram. People have been raving about how good it is. I accidentally stumbled upon it yesterday on my walk home. It’s only a couple of blocks from here.” She rubbed her elbow nervously. “Apparently it’s the best baklava in the city. I thought we could try it out.”

My eyes began to water as I stared down at the sweet pastry in the box. There were two small squares, placed neatly on top of some red and white striped paper, the sickly scent of sugary syrup bringing back waves of nostalgia.

“Wow.” I mumbled. I wiped at my suddenly runny nose with the back of my hand. “I haven’t had any in years.”

Valentina was beside me then, her hand warm on my back as she rubbed gentle circles over the fabric of my dress. For the second time tonight, Valentina surprised me with how intently she listened, how acutely she paid attention to the things I said and did. And for the millionth time tonight, I wondered why? Why did she pick me to focus her time and effort on? What was so special about me?

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you upset.” She whispered, very close to my ear.

“No, no.” I stuttered. “I’m not upset. I’m just very grateful. I can’t wait to share this with you.” My eyes lifted and she was watching me closely, a hint of concern in her expression. My hand reached up, my fingertips hovering lightly over her cheek. “Thank you.”

The model closed her eyes for a moment, her lips falling apart slightly at the touch. When Valentina replied, she spoke so softly and calmly that I felt immediately soothed.

“I can’t say it’ll compare to Perla’s, but let’s give it a try?” She opened her eyes and looked at me closely. “I have ice cream. We can get changed into something more comfortable and put on a movie, if you like?”

I sniffed one final time and nodded my head emphatically.

“I’d love that.”

Valentina took my hand again and led me back down the steps into the living area, past the couch, and back up the other set of stairs to her bedroom.

Two rattan pendant lights were on, hovering over the bedside tables on either side of a large, king-sized bed. Olive green and faded grey linen pillows complimented the textured white bedspread. The bedhead sat against a half-wall, with two spaces either side leading to what I assumed was the closet and ensuite. The only other furniture in her room was a low-line dresser. Two walls of the bedroom were wrapped in curtains covering windows to the spectacular view outside. One set of curtains remained open, and I noticed they led out onto a balcony.

Valentina let go of me and busied herself by opening up some draws. She placed a pair of lounge shorts and an oversized tee on her bed and gestured to them.

“Change into those. As much as I love this dress on you, you’ll be much more comfortable for the movie.”

Valentina moved to my side, placed a sweet, lingering kiss against my cheek, and then pulled the doors shut behind her.

I blew out a breath. Standing in the place she left me, my eyes bounced around the room, eager to drink it all in. I was in Valentina Carvajal's bedroom, after all. I almost burst out into an embarrassing happy dance right then at the realisation. Instead, I pulled myself together and found the tiny zip on the side of my dress. As quickly as I could, I changed into the clothes Valentina had offered me. They were soft and light and they smelled of her. I never wanted to give them back.

I folded up my dress and placed it on Valentina’s dresser. My eyes lingered on the couple of photo frames she had there. There was a photo of her and Ava, smiling widely in front of the Eiffel Tower. They were bundled up in large jackets so their arms only just made it around the shoulder of the other. Next to it, a wooden frame displayed a picture of a small girl, wrapped up in the arms of an older woman who sat on the hood of a car, a young boy standing beside them licking an icecream. I peered closer, interested in the image, assuming the woman was Valentina’s mother. She was striking, with long brown hair and bright blue eyes to match the girls. She was thin and there was something about the way she was smiling that made me smile back at it.

A sound from the living room made me straighten, and I realised I was probably taking too long. Despite definitely taking advantage and snooping, I didn’t want her to think I was being a snoop. I slid open the doors to the bedroom, hoping I'd see the inside of that room again later.

Don’t get ahead of yourself, Juliana.

Valentina’s smile widened when she saw me. Her eyes flicked over the length of me with barely disguised hunger.

“You look good in my clothes.”

She had her arm outstretched, a remote in her hand, and a screen was slowly sliding down from the ceiling. It was so enormous it almost covered the entire window. It was like a private movie theatre.

“I was wondering where the TV was.” I said as I descended the steps, my brain still circulating thoughts about Valentina’s mattress and whether I'd get a chance to try it out later.

Valentina hummed and clicked another button towards the bookcase behind her. A blue light flashed from a projector that was hidden away between the books. After a second of loading, the bright red NETFLIX logo appeared on the large screen. She dropped the remote and walked towards me.

“Make yourself comfortable, and grab anything you want. I’ll get changed and be right back.”

Her hand slid up my arm before she walked past me and up into her bedroom.

I inhaled a deep breath and collapsed onto the couch. I arranged myself into a comfortable position before even noticing two bowls sitting on the large ottoman. There was the baklava, each with a scoop of ice cream. My mouth watered at the sight.

In what seemed like no time at all, Valentina reappeared in a light blue shirt with palm trees on the front, and black lounge shorts. She’d put on pink socks and she looked unfairly gorgeous. She flicked her hair over her shoulder and grinned at me.

“Ready?” She asked as she flopped down on the couch right next to me.

She handed me a bowl, picked up her own, and looked at me excitedly.

“Yeah,” I replied. “Let’s do this.”

 

~ ~ ~

 

Ten minutes after we finished dessert and fifteen minutes into NETFLIX’s latest film release, I started getting restless. I couldn’t concentrate on the huge projector screen in front of us. Not when Valentina was right beside me, her arm over my shoulder, my head tucked up against her chest. Not when Valentina’s hand found its way beneath my shirt and was skimming light circles over my stomach. Not when her index finger dipped ever so lightly into my navel.

So, as expected, my own hand began to move, itching to explore.

From the inside of her knee to her mid-thigh, my fingertips scraped against her bare skin. It was light to start with, but as my own body began to respond to Valentina’s delicate touch that was slowly sending me insane, it started to become a challenge to control myself.

Valentina’s ragged breath in my ear was doing nothing for my self-control. This anticipation, this slow build up, was thick with weeks of tension. We teased one another, our eyes looking towards the screen but paying no attention to it, and I could think of no better way to lose myself. Her legs spread a little further, and my mouth went dry at what I thought was about to happen.

I’d dreamed about it, of course. I knew what it felt like to touch her so intimately. I knew I wanted to do it again. But this time, it was different. And we both knew it.

I bit my lip as Valentina’s fingers slipped just beneath the waistband of my borrowed shorts. I knew my underwear would already be ruined, my arousal mounting with every second she touched me with purpose. Her fingers dragged along the sensitive skin of my hip, and I bit back a desperate whine.

I couldn’t take it anymore. I needed more of her touch. I needed to feel more of her.

Just as I found the confidence to do something about it, Valentina’s free hand smoothed across my jawline. I shuffled just slightly in my position and turned my neck. From where I was, shrunken just below her on the couch, I looked up to be welcomed with a glorious sight.

She looked down at me, her blue eyes now almost black, her lips slightly parted. She was panting harder now, and her skin took on a slightly pink hue. She was fucking stunning when she looked at me with such barefaced desire.

“Juls.”

The sound was so needy, so desperate, that it snapped something inside me.

I twisted to face her more fully and, with my hand clutching at her shoulder, I kissed her.

She welcomed me eagerly, her mouth already open. My tongue slid against hers desperately, and one or both of us moaned at the overwhelming exhilaration that took over. I wanted to immerse myself in it, in the feel of her silky tongue stroking mine, in the way her lips puckered to hold me longer, in the way her teeth bit into my flesh.

I was dizzy from it. But I wanted more.

My hand grasped the back of her neck and without breaking away, I got on my knees and swung a leg over her. I straddled her, dropping low and settling as close as I could get. She made a surprised sound, a low growl in the back of her throat, and it made me ache with how badly I wanted her.

I was absolutely ravenous. The rest of the world fell away as red hot desire snaked its way through my bloodstream, curling around my limbs, and paralyzing my fear. All my thoughts and worries about what the end game was here, how whatever emotional connection we had could wreak havoc on my professional life, vanished into dust. I had one singular thought: to make Valentina squirm and writhe against me, bare skinned and flushed, loud and shameless.

Valentina’s strong hands flexed into my hips and pulled me against her. It sent us off on a feverish grinding, hips and thighs twitching uncontrollably. We barely found a rhythm, too overwhelmed by our own desire. We were jerky, messy, uncoordinated, but neither of us seemed to care. My hips tilted into her lap, my centre dragging against her stomach. There was no holding back the shiver across my skin or the whine that snuck up my throat.

Valentina’s tongue continued to roll against mine, deep and determined. Her frenzied hands scrambled underneath my shirt, her short nails scraping down the expanse of my back. I broke away from the kiss, my skin on fire, but Valentina didn’t miss a beat. Her lips attached to my neck as I looked to the ceiling, her mouth soft yet ferocious as she kissed and sucked me.

I continued to grind against her, losing touch with anything that wasn’t Valentina, and her hips began to lift up to meet me. It was hot and sensual and I felt like I was going to split in two, right there on the couch.

Valentina’s hands trawled up the sides of my ribcage and scraped the underside of my breasts. I mentally thanked past Juliana for not wearing a bra. I leaned in and kissed her deeply, my tongue licking the roof of her mouth, aware of her hands cupping me more fully. Her thumbs flicked over my nipples, and the sound that came out of my mouth was positively dirty. She’d barely touched me, and I felt like I was already going to climax, fully clothed. How pathetic.

“Wait, wait, wait.” Valentina panted.

She sat back slightly on the couch and looked up at me, her hands still holding my breasts. I froze in my rocking against her, panic shooting through me at Valentina’s halting words and actions. I looked down at her and relaxed the grip I had against her neck and back of her head.

“What’s wrong? Did I do something?”

My words weren’t louder than a whisper, but even I could detect the insecurity in their depths.

Valentina’s dark eyes widened and she dropped her hands to my hips, holding me tight. She seemed just as rattled as I was, as though she was also standing on the precipice of something mind-blowing.

“No, nothing is wrong. Everything is great. I just want to make sure you’re okay with all this. I don’t want to do anything you don’t want to do.”

“What?” I husked, a little uncontrolled. “Isn’t it pretty obvious that I definitely want to do this?”

Our bodies were still pressed so tightly together, our breath still out of control, and I felt like everything was a little off-kilter. It was absurd that we were having this hushed conversation when I felt such a powerful pulsing so deep inside me.

“Yeah, I guess. I just -.”

Valentina’s gaze dropped then, a flash of concern crossing her features, before she looked back up at me. I sucked in a steadying breath and moved my hands so I was cupping her face delicately. I forced her to look at me deeply, and she seemed to calm down.

“What is it? You can tell me.”

Valentina’s hands pressed into the skin on my hips and I resisted the urge to rock back against her.

“I just want to do it right with you. I don’t want to stuff it up.”

Any residual distress I felt melted away, and a coy smile snuck onto my face. Here she was, the most breathtaking woman on the planet, the most famous model in the world, and she purposely halted what was inevitably going to be an amazing round of couch sex to check in on me. And she did it because she wanted to make sure we were together on this.

How did I get so fucking lucky?

I huffed out a quiet laugh and pulled my hand away from her face. I held it between us.

“Val, look at what you do to me.” I said, my hand trembling. “I want you so badly that i’m shaking.”

Valentina’s expression completely softened then. She leaned forward and I turned my hand, her cheek rubbing against my palm. She kissed the tip of my thumb and then settled back onto the cushions. I rubbed my thumb across her bottom lip, and she released a shaky breath.

“I’m just nervous, I guess. It’s silly. I’m sorry.”

I tilted my head and offered her a cheeky smile.

“You don’t have to be nervous. It’s not like we haven’t done this before.”

A tiny crease formed between her brows, and she leaned more heavily into the palm of my hand. She looked at me seriously.

“We haven’t done this before.”

I blinked down at her, my clit still throbbing, and tried to understand what she was saying. Memories of Valentina wrapped around my fingers, hot and wet, flooded back like a tsunami. It was no wonder I was so worked up and we both still had clothes on. I bit my lip, fully aware of Valentina’s gaze dropping to look at it, ignoring the heat on my face.

“I don’t know if you’ve forgotten this, but I kind of fucked you up against a dark hallway already.”

The edge of Valentina’s lip twitched, and her eyes darkened a touch more.

“I certainly haven’t forgotten.” She murmured. Her hands began to rub up and down my sides. “I haven’t been fucked that thoroughly in a long time. You don’t even know how many times I’ve thought about it.”

She licked her lips then, her hungry gaze on my mouth, and I forgot how to breathe. She swallowed heavily and dragged her eyes back to mine.

“That’s not what this is, though, Juls. I like you more than that. This isn’t just a quick fuck. Not for me.”

She looked so earnest, so sincere, that I didn't quite know how to respond. We just looked at one another, the sound of the movie dim in the background, and a new, sweeping tension snuck its way between us. I closed my eyes and pressed my forehead against hers. I smiled like a fool, held her close and breathed her in deeply.

“You are full of surprises.” I whispered in the tiny space between us.

She snorted a quiet laugh and licked her lips.

“I hope you like surprises, then.”

I closed the distance and kissed her, the desperate urgency from before all but gone. This was slow and sweet, and I knew this was it. This was either going to be the biggest heartbreak of my life, a spectacular mess that I might not recover from, or it could turn out to be the best decision I ever made.

Either way, I was all in. And I got the impression she was too.

Valentina broke away, her lips almost touching mine, and she whispered the most erotic thing I could have ever expected.

“I want to have you all to myself, Juls. I want to take you, slowly. I want to fill you up and I want to hear you moan. And I want you in my bed, not on my couch.”

The dull ache returned with a vengeance, and I trembled at her words.

With shaky legs, I pulled myself up off the couch. She was a sight I would never forget, with messy hair and a dazed look in her eye. I stood in front of her, between her legs, and held a hand out for her to take.

“You have me.” I croaked. “Take me to bed.”

Valentina’s jaw dropped, as if that wasn’t the response she was expecting. Then she composed herself, took my hand and stood. She immediately wrapped her arms around my waist, dropping kisses up my neck and onto my face. She began stepping forwards, taking me with her in the direction of her bedroom, and I giggled at the intimacy of the gesture. She sucked on my earlobe and then whispered in my ear.

“I’ve wanted this for so long.”

I almost tripped up the steps in haste as we entered her bedroom.

Chapter Text

As soon as we reached the top of the steps, Valentina’s hands were on me again. She gripped my hips and grinned at me, excitement shining bright in her eyes, before she leaned in and kissed me.

Considering our previous moment on the couch, there was no hesitation. Our mouths anticipated the other easily, lips open and tongues eager to stroke the other. We kissed deeply, with no barriers or questions between us. My hands found her neck, and I held her close to me and enjoyed the warmth building into a sizzling heat.

Valentina managed to guide us towards her bed, my feet clumsily stepping on hers as I stumbled along with her. We giggled as Valentina’s foot saved us from tipping over, her heel levered against the bed frame. Her smile was dazzling as we pulled apart and looked at one another. I knew the look of desire that was radiating from her was reflecting back at her. The prospect of the evening’s activities made me giddy with arousal. My body shook with the intensity of it.

I wanted her. I wanted her so badly I could barely think straight. I pressed my hand to her chest and pushed gently, with the intention of getting her on the bed. I moved forward with the movement, chasing her with my lips. Valentina surprised me by pulling back, my lips meeting only air and not the soft pink flesh I craved. Her smile transformed into a wicked smirk as she resisted my advances. She continued to stand upright, her hands flexing into my hips, a hint of teasing in the blue depths of her gaze.

With a small frown, indignant I wasn’t given what I wanted, I moved forward again, eager to press my lips against hers. My hands kept still against her neck as I attempted a second time. Valentina denied me again, and I began to get a little frustrated.

“What are you doing? I want to kiss you.” I whined.

She laughed quietly, obviously amused by her teasing and the almost tantrum-like reaction from me. One hand reached up and stroked between my brows.

“Don’t frown.” She cooed.

“Don’t deny me and I won’t have to. I want you. Now.”

I could hear the childlike argument tumble from my mouth, and I wondered when I lost control over the seductress I tried to be. Valentina’s brows raised and she bit her bottom lip in response to my pout.

“I told you. I want you slowly. And I always get what I want.”

I cocked my head at the confidence she exuded. It was authoritative and sexy in a way I wasn’t expecting. My knees buckled with desire as she looked at me lustfully. There was no doubt in my mind that this was going to be the most explosive torture I’d ever had the pleasure of experiencing.

Valentina leaned in, ever so slowly, her eyes never leaving mine. She licked her lips, and just as I thought she was going to finally put me out of my misery, she ducked. Her lips attached to my neck, and a sound I'd never made before croaked out of my throat. She pulled me harder against her, her lips and tongue working against my jawline and neck.

I tipped my head back and my eyes swept across the bedroom. I barely noticed the soft music still spilling out of the speakers that were apparently in this room too. I almost missed the dimmed pendant lights hanging from the ceiling. I only just registered the lit candle on her dresser, and another on her bedside table.

“Did you plan this?” I husked out.

Valentina’s teeth bit into my neck lightly and I flinched. Her warm tongue flattened over the same spot, and I felt like I might melt under the perfect balance of pain and arousal. My hands gripped her shoulders and ran up her neck, critical for my own sanity that she continued her plan of attack.

“Maybe. Why?”

“The lights are dimmed and there are candles burning.”

Valentina pulled back and licked her lips again. I would never tire of seeing that, her eyes dark and full lips wet. She was so fucking gorgeous.

She threw me a lopsided grin as her hands began to lift my shirt.

“I didn't want to be presumptuous, but I thought by setting the scene, I could manifest what I wanted.”

Valentina’s bright eyes disappeared for a moment as she slipped the shirt over my head. She discarded it beside us as her gaze dropped. I wasn’t wearing a bra, so without a shirt, I was naked on top. Her lips parted and she seemed to wobble on her feet as she stared at my chest. I knew my nipples were hard. They’d been straining against the soft cotton of my borrowed t-shirt ever since I straddled Valentina’s lap back on the couch. I tried to stand there with as much confidence as I could muster, willing myself to be worthy of this woman's time and attention. Valentina swallowed hard as her hands found me again. She tentatively grasped my sides as her gaze lifted, and I could have sworn they were yet another shade darker.

“You are exquisite.” She breathed.

In all my life, I’d never heard a compliment said with such genuine fervor. I gaped at her, my chest lifting and falling with every affected breath I took, as she continued to watch me with a transcendent intensity. It was almost palpable, the way things slipped from giddy flirting to something much deeper. It swept across my skin and sparked through my veins, a feeling comparable to the shift in air pressure before a wild summer storm.

Finally, Valentina leaned in and kissed me. Her tongue was warm as it slid into my mouth, and I whimpered at the tender pace she sat. I could taste it on her tongue, and I could feel it in the way she held me closer. She was just as breathless with this connection as I was. She was just as baffled at the ferocity of this thing between us. I kissed her back with equal force, my lips puckering and hands moving, eager to show her I was right there with her. I felt it too.

My hands gripped at the back of her shirt, and I yanked at it enough to pull Valentina’s attention. She leaned away enough to give me space, and raised her arms in the air. I threw the shirt behind me and didn’t even bother taking the opportunity to look at her. I knew she’d be perfect, and I knew I'd have enough opportunities to stare at her later. Right now, I wanted to feel her. I needed to feel her.

My hands looped behind her and I pulled her close. We both sighed, intoxication with the awareness of our bare chests melting together. Her hands smoothed across the expanse of my back, my skin rising under her attention, my nerve endings firing like a New Years celebration. I found the waistband of her lounge shorts and slipped beneath them. I squeezed at the flesh of her ass, encouraged by the tilt of Valentina’s hips harder against me. She moaned into my mouth, and I felt my underwear slip with my inexhaustible desire for this woman.

“Can I take these off?” I asked against her lips.

She crooned in agreement and I grazed my teeth along her lower lip before letting go. With my hands still in her shorts, I used the leverage to lower them down her legs. I kissed down the length of her chest, between her breasts, my tongue tracing the perfect plane of her stomach. When I felt the clothing drop to the ground, Valentina’s underwear among them, I dropped to my knees and slid my palms up her calves, to the bend in her knees, and smoothed up her long thighs. My tongue circled her navel and continued lower.

My lips pressed light kisses along the smooth skin where her shorts previously rested. I felt Valentina’s hand thread through my hair and massage my scalp, her other gripping into my shoulder.

I dipped my head even lower, tracing open mouthed kisses to the juncture of where her legs met her pubic area. The skin was hair-free and soft. I was so close I could smell her. I was dizzy with anticipation, a simple head tilt away from pleasuring the most beautiful model alive. I wanted to relish it, I wanted to enjoy the build up and make her beg for it. But I was so on edge myself, wild with thirst, fully aware the only thing that could quench it was the nectar between her legs.

One of my hands slid around her knee to encourage her to open wider. I could hear her ragged breathing, could feel the unlocked tension in the way she pulled me closer. Nevertheless, she understood what I wanted. She obeyed, shuffling her foot along the carpet as I sat between her widened legs.

I was about to do something I never thought I’d do. I was about to fuck the most gorgeous woman i’d ever seen. But, more importantly, I was about to go down on Valentina Carvajal, the woman who dominated my thoughts and feelings these past months. This was the woman who’d shown me that I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, that I owed it to myself to give people a chance. This was the woman who’d shaken up my world, opened me up, and demonstrated first hand that it was okay to be vulnerable, that keeping your cards close to your chest was okay for the general public, but it was even more important to be true with the people closest to you. This was the woman that let me into her own world, shared with me her secrets, and provided me with the safe space and encouragement to be myself.

The thought alone made my skin buzz, heart thump, and head swim in a greedy yearning.

I opened my eyes and looked up. Valentina was completely naked, chest heaving and legs opened wide. Her blue eyes, dark and wide, were staring down at me. Her lips were parted, her tongue pressing against the corner of her mouth, her hair tumbling over one shoulder in a waterfall of blonde and browns. She was utterly gorgeous.

“You smell so good.” I groaned, completely aware my breath was wading over her glistening center.

Valentina blinked down at me once, nothing but affected, her lips trembling.

“I want to feel you on my tongue.” I flicked my tongue out, gliding it along the skin just beside her folds. “Is that what you want?”

Valentina’s hands flexed even harder against my scalp and shoulder. She looked like she might just fall over, unsteady and wavering on her feet. Instead, she swallowed and nodded her head.

“Yes. I want that.” Her voice just above a whisper, eager and pleading. “Please.”

I smirked up at her and without looking away, I tipped my head to position myself right in front of her. I took in a breath, and I salivated. I wasn’t lying, she smelt fucking amazing. I just knew she’d taste as delicious as she smelt.

With all the care and adoration in the world, I opened my mouth and dragged my tongue, slowly, along the length of her. It was like I’d been handed my most cherished flavor ice cream on a stinking hot day, the sweet treat unable to do anything but trickle down the edges and melt in my mouth. I wanted to devour it, lick and suck at the rapidly softening dessert to consume every inch of it, unwilling to let any go to waste.

Valentina’s gaze was shaky, her eyebrows pinched, and she made a kind of breathy choking sound.

“Oh, fuck.” She whimpered, her eyelids fluttering.

I did it again, licking against the entire length of her, from her entrance to her clit, and reveled in the wonderfully filthy moan that spilled from Valentina’s mouth.

“You’re so fucking wet.”

My tongue flicked over her clit, testing the sensitivity, and Valentina’s hips jerked against me. My hands gripped onto the soft skin of her ass, holding her in place. She tipped her head back, eye contact broken, unable to continue to look down at me.

“You have no idea how much I want you.” Valentina whined towards the ceiling. “I’ve driven myself crazy thinking about you like this. I’ve touched myself thinking about you fucking me with your mouth.”

I moaned at Valentina’s confession. I’d never really been a very vocal person in the bedroom, not quite feeling comfortable enough to do anything more than what was expected of me. But Valentina brought something out in me that I didn’t even know existed, my brain wanting to engage in any kind of dirty talk. It turned me on even more, if it were even possible, and Valentina’s own trembling gasps of pleasure and shaky confessions made me crazy with hunger.

The thought of Valentina touching herself provided me with a newfound energy. I closed my eyes and enjoyed the sensation of having her here, wet and open for me. I moved my tongue against her, changing direction and pressure, paying close attention to each reaction. My hands squeezed into her tight ass, tugging her impossibly closer. Valentina’s arousal was so slick and hot, and I lapped it up eagerly, her fluids sliding down my chin.

It was the most fun, the most turned on, the most desperate I’d ever felt. But just as my tongue pushed up into her, a firm pressure pushed at my shoulders and the warm, wet heat was removed from my face.

I looked up at her dazedly, my hands left clutching at nothing but air, as she sidestepped me. She stood right beside the bed, just out of reach, her skin flushed a tantalizing pink. Her small nipples were stiff and pert, and my gaze hovered over them for a few moments before I found her blue eyes fixed intently on me.

“What? What happened? Are you okay?”

My voice sounded strained as I tried to work out what I’d done wrong. I wiped my hand over my mouth and chin, my tongue licking at the remnants of her on my lips.

“That is not how it’s supposed to happen.” She whispered, one of her hands stretched out towards me as if she were going to ward me off if I got any closer.

My brain was still ticking along, trying to understand why it wasn’t still paying Valentina’s core the attention it deserved. It wasn’t in the right state to decipher Valentina’s code at that moment.

“Huh?”

Valentina stood straighter and licked her lips, the change in her instantly evident as a devilish smile took residence on her gorgeous face.

“Take off your shorts.”

My body reacted immediately to Valentina’s demand. I knew from the way she said it and the wicked look in her eye, that everything was more than okay.

With a strength I didn’t realize was still in my muscles, I pulled myself up into a standing position. Valentina’s gaze was greedy as she stared at me, mapping along my neck, arms, breasts and stomach. My thumbs tucked underneath the waistband of my shorts and Valentina’s eyes hovered there, mesmerized.

“You want these gone?”

Without looking away, she nodded her head once.

“Yes. Now.”

I tugged at them, lowering them slowly, along with my underwear, until they joined Valentina’s in a pile at my feet. Valentina sucked in a breath as she stared, unabashedly, between my legs. Her teeth bit into her lower lip and she stepped closer to me, her eyes finally lifting to mine. Warm hands fell against my forearms and slid up to my shoulders.

One cheeky eyebrow raised at me before she spun me around. It was fast, and before I knew what was going on, Valentina was standing behind me, the length of her front pressed against my back. My shins were against the edge of Valentina’s mattress, pressing into the thick white comforter. I looked towards the curtains on the other side of the room as they ruffled against the slight breeze let in from a door left ajar. Valentina hummed into the skin on my neck as she kept her hands busy. They skimmed across my stomach before cupping my breasts. My head tipped back against her shoulder as she pinched my nipples between her talented fingers.

“You’ll be the first to come tonight,” She whispered, hot in my ear. “Not me. So please don’t distract me with your mouth until I'm done with you.”

I moaned as the words, coupled with the pressure around my nipples, caused me to clench around nothing. I pushed my ass into her, my body smoldering with pent-up hunger, my breath rough as it pushed out of exerted lungs.

“Promise me.”

“If you keep touching me like that, I’m all yours.” I whimpered.

Valentina nipped at my neck and I could feel her smile against my skin.

“Good.”

Her hands slipped from my breasts and traveled lower. One hand gripped my hip, while the other skimmed over the small patch of hair just above my core.

“Can I touch you, Juls?”

I gulped and almost stumbled over my response in impatience.

“Jesus. If you don’t, I think I'll explode.”

Valentina’s teeth tugged at my earlobe as she released a quiet, breathy laugh. Then, her hand moved and I felt my world spark alive as she slid her fingers through me.

Fuck.”

My eyes squeezed shut tighter as her deft fingers danced against me, circling my clit and dipping lower, gliding against me torturously. My hand found the arm that was keeping me still, her fingers digging into my hip, and I wrapped my fingers around her wrist. The other reached behind me and scratched against her scalp, thick locks of hair flowing between my fingers.

“You feel so good.” She breathed in my ear.

I grunted in response, too lost in the sensations of Valentina’s fingers pressing against me, making me shudder.

The hand holding my grip grazed back up my stomach and squeezed my breast, while her mouth sucked against the back of my neck. All of the individual sensations were overwhelming, and I felt myself slipping quickly. My hips moved with Valentina’s fingers, while she rolled my nipple and bit at my skin.

“Val, fuck.”

I knew I sounded desperate, but I didn’t care. My orgasm was building quickly, and I was out of my mind with how desperately I wanted to come undone for her.

For the second time in the space of ten minutes, I was taken completely by surprise. Valentina’s mouth and fingers disappeared and I was turned and pushed onto my back. I landed on the mattress with a huff, barely able to register what was happening. My head was in such a Valentina-induced haze that I only just leaned up on my elbows before Valentina’s lips were on me.

She kissed me deeply as she hovered over me, her tongue dipping into my mouth hungrily before she pulled away.

“Val.” I whined.

I watched as Valentina threw her long hair over one shoulder and situated herself between my legs. Her knees were still on the soft carpet of her bedroom as she leaned over and looped her arms under my thighs. She licked her lips, a flirtatious gleam in her eye, and my stomach clenched with how completely enchanting this woman was. Before I could end that thought and comprehend what was about to happen, her mouth was against me.

Needless to say, my elbows gave out and my back arched as Valentina lapped at my center. Her tongue was long and warm against me, the strong muscle quickly finding a rhythm and pace we were both clearly very happy with. Her bedroom was inevitably filled with sounds of my approval of her technique as I gave myself over to her.

Valentina’s expert attention on my core was the single most overwhelming experience of my life. Whatever she was doing caused everything else to stop, and empowered me to lose all inhibitions and simply enjoy the pleasure curling through my veins and coiling in the pit of my stomach. Her tongue entered me, and I bucked up into her.

Jesus Val. Right there.”

My fingers curled into her hair and cupped the back of her head, encouraging her attention. She doubled down her efforts, her tongue pumping into me with a strength that knocked out every concept I knew about sex. My other hand released its deathgrip on Valentina’s comforter and found my breast. I squeezed it harshly and moaned at the familiar pulses dropping low in my stomach. Valentina’s fingers dug even further into the skin of my hips.

“I’m close, baby.”

Valentina’s mouth moved, dragging up through my folds before suctioning onto my clit. She pulled me into her mouth and the change was immediate.

Fuck. Yes. Don’t stop.”

Within moments of Valentina’s lips wrapping around my clit, I succumbed to the pressure and fell into the abyss. The orgasm that hit me was almost violent in its intensity, my body uncertain of what to do with the powerful blaze beating over my muscles and winding through my bloodstream. I saw myself high into the clouds of ecstasy, watching as if from afar, the surge of oxytocin making me feel as though I could fly. As I slowly floated back down to earth, Valentina was the only thought of my mind. I had no recollection of where the model was or what she was doing as my body writhed through the most intense apex of pleasure I’d ever experienced, but in that moment, I felt grateful for her. Grateful that we’d met, and that she’d given me a chance.

Valentina’s soft kisses on my face slowly brought me back to reality. I fluttered my eyes open to find her grinning down at me, her eyes deep and blue and radiant. My body was still alight and she somehow looked more gorgeous than ever. She blinked, just once, and she looked as though she’d just found the key - to what, I wasn’t sure.

Just as I was about to say something, Valentina’s fingers touched me again. I jumped slightly, not expecting it, and she smirked at me.

“I’m not finished yet.”

She leaned down and kissed me thoroughly, and with the endorphins still skittering through my system from my last orgasm, two of Valentina’s long fingers slowly pressed into me.

I moaned loudly at the bold action, my arousal firing back up just as intense as before. I was so ready for her that when she entered me, there was no grace period to adjust to the intrusion. My body eagerly welcomed it, my walls already tightening around her. I trembled with how fucking worderfully sensitive it all was. She thrust inside me with long, gentle strokes before burying herself as deep as she could go. Valentina’s tongue scraped against mine and she flung a leg between mine, pressing her thigh against her hand to push even deeper.

I could swear I saw stars as Valentina’s fingers curled inside me.

“I had to fuck you with my fingers.” She said, breathless, into my ear. “I had to know what you felt like.”

I whined, lost in the overwhelming pleasure coursing through me, as she repeatedly pressed into me.

“Faster.”

Valentina didn’t hesitate for a second. She used the leverage of her thigh and picked up her pace. We worked together, my hips canting into her hands, her long fingers curling inside me. I moaned as she panted at the effort, and without warning, I came undone beneath her for a second time.

I shook and cried out her name as the towering wave crashed into me, leaving me boneless and wrecked. I shuddered when Valentina pulled her fingers out, and I sighed when she continued to pepper delicate kisses across my face, neck and chest.

She waited patiently for my recovery, her lips never leaving my skin.

When I felt like I could finally move again, I opened my eyes and cupped her head between my hands. I pulled her up, her long hair ticking the skin of my shoulder, and she smiled shyly at me.

“Was it okay?”

I huffed out an exhausted laugh, my lips curling upwards at how damn adorable this woman was. Exuding sensuality and confidence one minute, then seeking approval the next. It had my head spinning in the best possible way.

“You are amazing, Val.” I pressed a quick kiss against her lips. “You are fucking incredible.”

Valentina giggled against me. I could feel her chest shake, and the scrape of her breasts against mine, the realization of her entirely naked body laying along the length of me kept the fire burning. It felt endless, like no matter what I did, I’d always want more.

Would I ever get enough?

My hands slid into her hair, pulling it just behind her ears. I observed her dilated blue eyes with fascination. I did as she promised and let her have me first. She’d had her turn. Now it was mine.

With a newfound energy filling me up and the unshakeable motivation to watch Valentina crumble, I flipped her with ease. She landed on her back, her hair fanned out and her eyes wide as she gazed up at me. I wrapped my hands around her wrists and held them above her head.

“Now it’s your turn to promise me something.” I said as I straddled her waist.

She arched one eyebrow at me seductively.

“What is it?”

I grinned impishly, ideas of what I was going to do to her racing across my mind.

“You do everything I say. Can you do that?”

Valentina shot me a dazzling smile and nodded her head.

“I promise.”

 

~ ~ ~

 

Soft pressure against my spine and a warmth in my ear roused me from my sleep. I grumbled and attempted to push myself deeper into the mattress, the tempting wisps of sleep slowly slipping from my grasp.

“Juls.” My name sounded dreamlike, quiet and husky. “Wake up.”

I groaned again, squeezing my eyes shut tighter as my subconscious reached out to the alluring darkness. I figured if I kept my eyes shut for long enough, maybe I could slip back under, taken away by the gentle tides of sleep. I nuzzled further into the pillow and breathed in deeply. It smelt familiar but not like my own.

The pressure against my spine turned into a gentle scratching and a sweet whisper kept close to my ear.

“Juls. Baby. I want to show you something.”

Baby?

What?

I reluctantly pried one eye open, curious at the term of endearment and where it was coming from. It was immediately obvious that it was not the right time to be awake. According to the distinctly faint glow of the room and the general quiet that comes with the hours of darkness, it was very early morning and certainly still time to be sleeping. It was also evident that I was not in my own bedroom. Curtains I only vaguely recognised swayed briefly in my eyeline, a candle burning the very ends of its wick flickered on the bedside, and a scent I finally connected to its owner was enough for those last strings of unconsciousness to fall away.

I wasn’t at my house. I stayed at Valentina’s. I was in Valentina’s bed.

With much effort, I shuffled against the soft sheets, my limbs heavy with fatigue. I had slept on my stomach, my face squished against a heavenly pillow. A warm, bare body was pressed into my back, a long leg draped over my own. When I began moving, the body behind me automatically pulled away, but only far enough for me to readjust. I turned my shoulders and was greeted with a stunning view.

Valentina was there, tucked in right beside me, every inch of skin possible touching along our lengths. She was smiling down at me, her head propped up by the palm of her hand, the other sliding over my stomach. Her hair was without its usual tidiness, strands wild and free around her face and over her exposed shoulders. Blue eyes shone at me in the dim light, ethereal in their depths. They were adorably puffy, her lips pink and voluptuous.

She was perfect.

“Morning.” She mumbled, a demure smile tugging at the corners of her lips.

There was no stopping the returning smile, my sleepy eyes crinkling under the weight of my happiness. I was wrapped around the most beautiful woman I’d ever laid eyes on, my body tired and spent from an evening of very pleasurable activities. Activities that had taken me to places I didn’t know were possible. Activities that only cemented my growing feelings for this spectacular woman.

“Good morning.” I managed, my voice thick and croaky.

Valentina sucked the corner of her bottom lip into her mouth. Her eyelids fluttered as they slipped to my lips, and my smile widened further at the sight of a provoked Valentina.

Sexual chemistry was always something I knew existed. How could I not? The topic was saturated in popular culture. Entrenched in sappy rom-coms, basically thrown at you in raunchy film-clips, even becoming more prominent in mainstream books. As much as I tried to steer clear of the topic of sex in public, not because i’m a prude, but because I was constantly hiding the fact that I exclusively slept with women, I still somehow found myself hearing about it. It was regularly brought up in conversation at parties, women laughing about their awkward, clumsy encounters with men who they failed to find that spark with. Then there were the women, albeit a select few, who swooned about those rare, mind-blowing connections. They would blush around a grin, their skin heating up as they gushed about how it all just clicked.

My sex life up until this moment had been sufficient. Even though I’d only been with 5 women in my life, it had been fine. I would even consider those escapades as being nice. I enjoyed myself, and I got the impression my partners also had a good time. In all five situations, it had always been kept fairly casual. We both had needs, and we played the part in satisfying those needs. Eventually, after a couple of months, we’d call it quits for various reasons and go our own way.

It had been a perfect arrangement. I didn’t need anything more from them, and they didn’t need anything more from me.

But this. Whatever this was, I finally understood what those women at those parties meant about sexual chemistry. About it all clicking. Because last night had been fucking amazing. There was a sense of comfortability with Valentina that made things unexpectedly sexy. She was confident in her body, and almost arrogant in her pursuit of what she wanted. I don’t know if it had anything to do with our confessions earlier in the evening, but there was no barrier between us. We moved as if in sync, completely giving ourselves over to the other, leaving our hearts and bodies open to whatever the other was willing to give.

If I ever thought I fully understood what the word mind-blowing meant, I was sorely mistaken. Because Valentina Carvajal and the way she fucks is exactly that.

Mind-blowing.

“What are you looking at?” I whispered, my eyes still heavy from sleep.

Valentina looked serene as she considered me. I didn’t know what it was, exactly, but something felt different. There was a distinct shift in energy, a change in the way she looked at me compared to every moment up until then. There was something calmer, a sense of peace evident in the soft edges of her features. The change made my heart clench in my chest, and butterflies to erupt in my stomach. Because somehow, it made her even more remarkable.

“Just admiring the sleepy look.”

Her hand moved from its place on my stomach, and I had to fight the complaint of the cease of her fingers tracing lazy patterns on my skin. Instead, I licked my lips as her fingers lightly tracked between my breasts, over my collarbone and up my neck.

I narrowed my gaze and looked at her suspiciously.

“I’m a mess, aren’t I?”

Valentina finally gave me what I wanted, her small smile morphing into a sweet, toothy grin. She laughed a breathy sound and shook her head. The movement caused a thick lock of hair to fall in front of her face. I immediately came to the rescue, my free hand shooting out from beyond the covers to gently tuck it behind her ear.

“I wasn’t expecting it -” Valentina said, leaving the sentence unfinished with another quiet giggle.

My eyes widened a little at her teasing. Oh, Jesus. Did I actually look disgusting?

“What? Did I drool? Is my hair matted or something? What?”

Valentina’s laughter grew from a soft laugh to an audible giggle at my slow panic. My hand flew to my head as I attempted to pat my hair into something that wasn’t too embarrassing.

“No, no.” Valentina laughed, her hand coming up to stop my urgent fretting. “You’re fine. Stop it. You’re fine.”

“Well then, what is it?” I asked, joining in on her game.

“I wasn’t expecting you to look even more captivating when you sleep.”

“You were watching me sleep?” I asked in mock horror. In all honesty, the admission made my heart sing.

Valentina’s skin flushed, her mouth opening to explain.

“Not like that. Don’t make me look like a creep.”

“Sounds like you were being a creep, though, Val.” I teased, voice still scratchy, my smile wide.

“No. It wasn’t like that.”

I arched a brow mockingly, enjoying this light teasing despite the early hour.

“Then what was it like?”

Valentina sucked on her cheeks as she considered what words to say. Her tongue ran across her teeth before she spoke.

“I had this horrible moment in the middle of the night when I thought you’d left.” She said, and I pouted. “But when I properly woke up, I realised you were tucked right in next to me. You look so peaceful when you sleep, all curled up and relaxed, like you don’t have a worry in the world. I just wasn’t expecting you to look so fucking irresistable when you slept. And then I tugged you closer, and you made this cute little sound and threw your arm around me, and it took me no time at all to fall back to sleep. I liked having you so close.”

I rolled my eyes playfully at the woman hovering above me. It was absurd, how her unfiltered words sent a shiver down my spine, how her bright gaze, those blue eyes that seemed to hold the secrets to the universe, looked so adoringly at me.

My hands found her again, one tracing her naked back while the other slid into the soft locks of her golden hair. Valentina settled into the close embrace, all traces of teasing laughter gone. All that was left were silly smiles on our faces as we stared, completely unabashedly, at one another.

“Did you really wake me up before the sun just to tell me that?”

Valentina arched one perfect brow and scrunched her nose at me.

“No. I mean, it’s absolutely true, but that’s not why.”

Her alert gaze continued to bounce around my face, only inches away, the quiet of the morning like a cocoon I didn’t want to disturb just yet.

I mirrored Valentina’s expression, my own eyebrow raising, as I waited for her to elaborate. When it became apparent that she was quite content with simply looking at me, I prompted her.

“Am I going to have to guess, or are you going to spill?”

Valentina shook her head, only slightly, as if forcing herself to get out of her own mind and converse with me. Her eyes flicked down to my lips, a thought crossing her face before she pulled away and caught my eye again.

“I wanted to show you something.”

I scoffed, quickly realising that she was being serious.

“Now?”

Valentina’s chest shook lightly with amusement.

“You really aren’t a morning person, are you?”

I sucked in a deep breath and forced my brain to tell my body that any chance of getting more sleep this morning was disappearing quickly. Although, if Valentina wanted to show me something that had to do with fingers and lips and wet heat, I think I could handle that. Even though my power button was still only just whirring to life, I was well aware of the gorgeous, tantalizing naked body pressed into my own bare skin. It wasn’t every morning I woke up in the same bed as a famous model who appeared to like me just as much as I liked her.

“If there’s a good reason to be, I can do it.”

Valentina bit the inside of her cheek and tilted her head at me.

“Then come with me.”

Valentina began to move away, but my hands gripped onto whatever they could to stop her. Of course, I would follow her wherever she wanted to go, but she didn’t have to know that yet. She looked back down at me, the question in her eyes, a tiny flicker of fear in the blue depths. I didn’t know why I was being so mushy, not typically my approach when I liked someone, more comfortable to keep them at arms length to protect myself. So I was surprised at my own need, and ability to voice it.

“We aren’t going anywhere before I get my good morning kiss.”

The resulting smile was worth it. It lit up her eyes, and I could have melted into the mattress at its earnestness.

“Of course. How silly of me.” She replied before lowering her head.

Our lips touched, her softness immediately setting every single piece of me alight. It was like a whoosh of warm air over my skin as she puckered her lips, pulling away only to press even further, silently asking for more, always more. I clung to her desperately, eager to feel everything she was willing to offer. My palm pressed into the smooth skin of her back, pulling her tighter against me. It felt so fucking good, almost surreal, to have her like this, soft and supple in my arms. Valentina made a small whimpering sound as I attempted to deepen the kiss. Our tongues slid together, my head lifting off the pillow as my hand slid down her back to cup her backside.

Just as I was about to roll her over, determined to feel her underneath me, my fingers trembling with how badly they wanted to touch her, she pushed at my shoulder.

“Juls.”

With a firm hand on my shoulder, stalling any further advances, I frowned.

“Is something wrong?”

No.” Her response was immediate. “No, of course not. I just know that if I let you continue, I won’t have the willpower to stop. And as much as I’d love to continue where we left off last night, I really want to show you something.”

My frown gradually vanished as I realised how persistent she was being with whatever this idea of hers was. So I nodded and relaxed, showing her I wouldn’t pounce once she let me go.

“Okay. Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry.” She whispered, lowering her head so her lips touched my ear again. “I barely slept knowing you were beside me. We’ve got plenty of time to explore this. Trust me, we’ll pick this up very soon.”

I felt my skin shiver, but before I could do anything about it, Valentina’s weight was gone. She gracefully rolled off her side of the bed and stood. I was frozen, wide-eyed and staring, as her naked frame bent down in the gradually lightening room and picked up her discarded clothes from the night before. Her arms lifted high in the air as she let gravity drop her oversized shirt onto her body. Then she slipped on her shorts, not bothering with underwear.

She turned back to me with a smirk on her face, knowing exactly what she’d just done. The exhibitionism was certainly encouraged, but it only served to drive me crazy. I ignored the already slick feel between my legs and swallowed.

“Are you coming?”

I cleared my throat and nodded my head dumbly.

“Yeah.”

I forced myself to push aside any body insecurities and pushed at the sheet. It’s not that I thought poorly of myself, but as a woman in modern society, I certainly had my own internal struggles. I wish my thighs were slimmer, I wish my skin was tighter here, I wish that stretch mark wasn’t there. I gulped and with all the confidence I could muster, I stood up. She’d already seen me naked, but that was in the throes of passion, too excited at touching one another to really look. I stepped to her side of the bed and looked up, my feet halting against the soft carpet of her bedroom.

Valentina stood before me, my borrowed clothes in her hand stretched out towards me. But it was the look on her face that made my heart palpitate in my chest. But more importantly, it was what made me stand still and allow her to look, rather than hide away in embarrassment or shame.

It could be described as nothing but reverent. Her gaze swept across my legs, hovering for a moment at the junction between them, before slowly sliding up my torso, across my breasts, and over my chest. She gulped heavily, her throat bobbing, as she took in my neck, then my face.

A shy smile adorned her lips as she finally found my eyes. Somehow, the way Valentina looked at me, full of adoration of warmth, made it easy for those absurd insecurities to melt away. With a simple look, she made me doubt any negative self-talk that bounced around unpleasantly in my head. With the hunger I saw in her eyes, it was almost easy to find the confidence to stand so naked and vulnerable in front of her.

Wow.” She murmured, the word falling from her lips in awe.

“What?” I huffed out humorously as I grasped the clothes and took them from Valentina’s gentle grip.

I busied myself with pulling on the shorts and sliding into the soft shirt as I waited for her reply.

“I don’t think you fully comprehend just how alluring you are.” She said, quietly, as she stood barefoot in the sanctuary of her bedroom. “I still almost can’t believe that I got to have you in my bed last night.”

I shook my head at Valentina’s breathless compliment. My skin immediately reacted, heating up under the intense look she trained right on me. In the past 12 hours, I felt more at ease than I ever had in my entire life. Wrapped up in Valentina’s presence was what I pictured floating down a calm river would feel like. It was a feeling that consumed me, a beautiful weightlessness that was free of worry or concerns. All I had to focus on was the sensation of Valentina’s warmth and attention surrounding me, her sweet declarations urging me to fall deeper into the tide. It was pure bliss, the feeling unmatched, and I was happy to go along for the ride for as long as the river ran.

“Don’t be ridiculous.” I replied shyly, forcing myself to look right at Valentina when I spoke. “You’re the most beautiful woman in the world. It’s more like I can’t believe you wanted me to stay. Waking up next to you was even better than a dream.”

Valentina rolled her eyes bashfully and stepped towards me. She reached for my hand and linked our fingers together.

“If I have anything to do with,” she said as she pulled me along behind her, “there’ll be plenty more mornings like this.”

Valentina’s long fingers picked up a large throw that was sitting messily on top of a simple armchair tucked away into the corner. She placed it over her shoulder and with a wink at me, pulled at the sliding door. A cool breeze rushed through the opening, goosebumps springing up in its wake.

Nevertheless, I followed without question as Valentina stepped out onto a generous balcony. It was almost triangular in shape, wide as it wrapped around the side of Valentina’s large bedroom before meeting at a point at least 8 meters from where we stood. There were plants scattered around the space, a small table and chair setting positioned in the widest area, a large round daybed nestled in the other corner.

The sky was slowly transitioning from night to day. There was a faint, almost white glow hanging in the few clouds that hung above us, the rest of the sky a deep navy blue. The balcony was lined with clear glass, topped with a stainless steel handrail, allowing for perfect viewing at the breathtaking sight that expanded out before us.

Wordlessly, Valentina guided me to the daybed. She clambered on first, wrapping the blanket around her shoulders and out over her arms. She leaned back against the large, European style cushions, and opened her legs with a gentle smile. I understood what she wanted and didn’t hesitate to follow. I shuffled back against her, my back against her front, our legs stretched out before us. Valentina’s arms immediately enveloped me, her arms sliding over mine and holding me close, our bodies pressed together. A small kiss was pressed into my hair, and I sighed in serene satisfaction as we settled into our warm embrace.

The blanket was large enough to go around both of us, and I tucked my head into the junction between Valentina’s neck and shoulder. We didn’t speak, both of us sitting and breathing in the cool morning air. Content with the easy satisfaction of being held snug and cozy beneath the shared blanket, we silently watched the day break before us. The sky continued to gradually lighten, the glow transforming from dark grey to deep purple with streaks of pink, to a ripened yellow and then a radiant orange. Soon enough, the big ball of brilliant sun began to peek up from the distant horizon. The clouds strewn haphazardly across the sky became ablaze in the new light, like fluffy balls of rich cotton candy. It all happened quite quickly after the first sliver peeked over the edge. The sun lifted over the ocean, illuminating the city in fresh, golden light, the sky brightening to a breathtaking blue and welcoming the city to another day.

With Valentina’s arm wrapped securely around me and the emergence of the sun shining on a new day, I felt full. A soothing comfort took place in my chest and diffused into my bloodstream, crawling down my limbs like tendrils of a vine. The feeling snuck into every inch of my being, absorbed into my skin and sunken into my bones. It was with such lightness that I felt like I was invincible, like I could jump from this balcony and instead of plummeting down, I could soar up into the perfectly blue sky. It felt like the sun had risen today with one purpose: to permeate my body with its warmth and infuse my mind with happiness.

“This is my favorite part of the day.” Valentina broke the silence, her voice soft in my ear. “I usually come out here and meditate as I watch the sunrise. Some days I'm too exhausted to drag my ass out here and do it. But I try to build it into my routine when I'm here.”

I hummed contently, happy to listen to more, to find out more pieces of her.

“What do you like about it?”

“I think it’s the stillness.” She spoke quietly, as if she didn’t want to break the serenity that surrounded us. She released her hold on the blanket, the throw staying in place around us, and linked our fingers together over my stomach. “My life has always been a bit of a circus, my time taken up with things I never really wanted to do in the first place, people vying for my attention and pulling me every direction possible. The early morning, right before the sun rises, is the quietest my life ever gets. Everyone else is tucked away sleeping, there are barely any cars on the road, no planes in the sky, no phones ringing or people talking. It’s the perfect time to just sit and think. It’s the only chance for me to just be.”

Valentina nuzzled into me even closer, her head turning to breathe in my hair. There was still so much about Valentina I didn’t know, but I was very much looking forward to finding out.

“What do you think about?” I prompted.

The 49th floor was high enough in the sky that I felt like I sat on top of the world, but I could still see the tiny waves breaking at the shore and the miniature people walking along the soft sand of the beach. The ocean rippled until it disappeared in the distance, the expanse of water stretching out for miles and miles beyond what I could see. The sun reflected off the windows of office and apartment buildings, people slowly beginning to stir as the new day called to them. By now, the sun was a little higher in the sky and was beginning to get a little bright. Instead of squinting, I closed my eyes and handed my senses over to sound and touch. Valentina was right - it was perfectly quiet. All I could hear was the gentle breeze in my ears, the light ruffle of the blanket against my skin, and the rhythmic inhale and exhale from both of us.

“Everything.” She answered slowly. “What I plan to do with my life. Things I could have done, or should have done differently. Conversations I need to have. Directions I want to go. Things I’d like to see.”

I smiled and enjoyed the sound of her voice, delicate and soothing, as the sun warmed my face. Valentina’s chest rose and fell against my back, vibrating soothingly when she spoke, and I felt like I could stay there forever.

“That sounds deep.” I said around a smile. “Do you make many decisions at this hour?”

Valentina huffed out a quiet laugh and held me tighter, her teeth finding and tugging on my ear lobe.

“Sometimes.” She replied. “Other times it’s just enough to reflect.”

I sighed as one of Valentina’s hands slipped out from under my own and snuck up beneath my t-shirt. Her long fingers lightly brushed over my stomach, and I felt that overwhelming rush of desire at the act. It was a simple touch, nothing overtly sexual, but it was enough to pick up my heart rate and want more. Always more.

Her other hand fell away from my torso, bringing mine still linked with it, and resting it against her leg. It left me exposed, my entire body open and ready for Valentina to explore.

“Lately,” she murmured in my ear, “there’s been something else that has overtaken any other thought.”

Her fingers pushed into the skin at my hip and dipped beneath the waistband of my shorts. I inhaled shakily as she continued to touch me like I was the most precious thing in the world.

“Oh yeah?” I asked, breathless. “What’s that?”

I shifted, my legs widening, as Valentina’s hand moved further into my shorts. Her index finger pushed into the skin where my leg met my torso, close enough to my center to send my blood hurtling through my veins at light speed. I squirmed under her touch, and with these brief yet purposeful touches, I knew I was already soaking wet.

“I’ll give you three guesses.”

Oh, so she was in the mood for a game.

“Isn’t it too early for this?” I asked, my back arching against her as her fingertips danced enticingly across my front, across the soft skin just above my clit. It throbbed, painfully aware of Valentina’s closeness, and I whimpered shamelessly at the distance. I almost couldn’t keep up, a little dizzy at the speed in which we shifted from thoughtful conversation to playful teasing. Maybe Valentina was just as affected by this electricity sparking between us as I was, as easily swept up into the crashing waves of desire.

“It’s never too early to have you like this.” She husked, her teeth nibbling against the shell of my ear, her breath hot and ragged.

“What?” I complained. “All tortured and turned on for you?”

“Mmmm.” She hummed, although I picked up on the shaky exhale. “I’ll have you any way I can. But I'll always enjoy you so open and wet for me.”

“How do you know I’m wet? You haven’t even touched me yet.” I panted, my skin on fire.

Her fingers brushed one of my lips, and my legs trembled at the contact. I opened them wider, bowing at the knees to offer her more room to move. She understood the intention and smiled against the skin of my neck.

“Because I’m just as ready for you, baby.”

I squeezed my eyes even tighter shut and moaned at her admission. She hadn’t even touched me yet and I was already a gasping mess. If I wasn’t so high in a daze of desire, I would probably be embarrassed by the sounds spilling from my mouth and the evidence of how turned on I was with just a few words and light touches. The heat of the early morning sun slowly rising higher in the sky, the warm blanket wrapped around me and the burning need churning through my bloodstream caused tiny beads of sweat to erupt across my hairline.

Her fingers dipped closer, my brain almost short-circuiting at the torment. I would do anything, give her all my secrets and fulfill all her dares, just to have her touch me intimately again. I shifted my hips, full of lust and longing and frantic to feel her fingers glide across me, over me, and into me. Unfortunately, she saw right through me, and before I could succeed with my mission, she pulled away to pinch the inside of my thigh.

I huffed out a sigh of annoyance.

“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”

Valentina sniggered lightly in my ear and pressed a quick kiss to my neck.

“Oh, very much.”

“Fine.” I groaned. “I’ll play.”

Valentina’s other hand slipped free from my own, leaving both my arms limp by my sides. The daybed was rough beneath my hands as I rubbed them against the coarse texture of the cushion. I pressed my palms down, trying to find some leverage to push myself further into the woman behind me.

Valentina reacted unfairly to my squirming. The hand that wasn’t stroking the insides of my thighs found its way beneath my shirt. She raked it up my stomach and cupped my breast gently, her thumb flicking once over my nipple.

I gasped and jerked at the sensation. My breasts were always quite sensitive, and it seemed Valentina had figured that out already. My head fell back harder against Valentina’s shoulder and she took advantage, her tongue licking out over the skin beneath my ear.

“What’s your first guess?”

I could barely think, my mind more focused on Valentina’s hands, where they were and what they were doing. But I fought through, knowing that if I played along, I’d most likely get what I wanted.

“Ah.” I groaned. “You’ve been thinking a lot about one person in particular?”

Finally, Valentina rewarded me for the correct answer. The hand on my nipple squeezed harder, rolling the sensitive bud between her long fingers. Simultaneously, her other hand moved to cup my center. Two of her fingers dipped into my heat and, starting low, slid them through me. We both moaned at the contact as she ended the caress around either side of my clit.

“Fuck.”

Using the same technique, she continued with long, slow, deliberate strokes. My body trembled with the consistency of her movement, never forgetting the gentle tugging of my nipple. I was so wet that Valentina found no resistance, her deft fingers exploring my core with a delicate strength that made my lungs forget how to breathe.

“You feel so fucking good on my fingers.” She groaned in my ear.

Valentina’s lips sucked and teeth bit gently into the skin she had access to. My hands found Valentina’s knees, my fingers wrapping around her slim legs. I needed something to hold on to while she inflicted the most excruciatingly intense pleasure on me.

“This person.” I continued with the game, somehow spurred on by her previous teasing. “You are working with them currently. You’ve been filming with them. Right?”

“That’s right.” She agreed, her fingers beginning to press more firmly against me.

She was still just bypassing my clit and it was beginning to drive me insane. Her index finger rubbed small circles against my entrance, before sliding through me and around the small bundle of nerves that pulsed and throbbed and ached with want. I knew release wouldn’t be far away when she finally touched me there. I moaned again with the thought, my body writhing under her attention.

Even though I was being touched by her, her fingers brushing against my center and nipples at an agonizing pace, deliberately building me up to dizzying heights, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to use the game against her. I knew there would be ramifications, but for some reason, I couldn’t contain the silly joke.

“You’ve been thinking about Lucho?”

Valentina’s heavy breathing choked, and her fingers stilled against me. I scalded myself, even though I still thought it was funny. My body vibrated with dismay at the cessation of her fingers rolling against me, and I made a noise of complaint even though I knew it was most likely the consequence.

“Juls.” She croaked. “Why would you bring his name up right now?”

“I don’t know.” I said through a disbelieving laugh, my hands kneading the soft skin of her legs. “I thought it would be funny. You know he likes you.” Valentina’s hand squeezed my breast and I grunted at the excitement that sparked through my body. “I’m sorry. Please don’t stop touching me.”

I was wild with hunger, and my high-pitched request was immediately acquiesced. Her fingers pushed through me, harder this time. I knew she could feel it too, the chemistry bubbling intensely between us, dangerously close to overflowing.

“Has he forgotton i’m a lesbian?” She husked in my ear.

I made a sound that was a mix of laughter, whimper and a groan. Valentina sucked on the skin of my neck and flicked my nipple with the tip of her finger, jolts of stimulation shooting across my skin. My stomach clenched tighter as I worked to find an appropriate answer for the woman with the attentive hands.

“I don’t think that concerns him too much. I can’t say I blame him for fantasizing. It’s one thing we have in common.”

Valentina growled in my ear and pushed her hips into my back. I didn’t quite understand how I was able to semi-coherently speak as Valentina continued to rub her fingers through me, slipping in the abundance of my arousal for her.

“I want you to say it, Juls. I want you to give me the right answer. I know you know it.”

I moaned louder as her fingers flicked once across my clit. I jerked with the contact, my stomach dropping in anticipation. I could feel my orgasm approaching, rolling in like storm clouds over a desert. Valentina’s methodical grazing through my wet heat increased in pressure, then she dipped one finger just inside me.

“Fuck, Val. Don’t stop. Please, fuck me.”

Valentina’s breaths were deeper, my back lifting against her chest with each erratic inhale. She pushed her finger deeper inside, then pulled out to the tip. Her thumb stoked up the length of me, stopping just below my beating clit.

“Say it. Say it, and I'll let you come.”

My neck stretched as she pushed inside me again, her pace maddeningly slow yet sensual. Valentina’s hips shifted against my back again, and I wondered just how desperate she felt at that moment, just how soaking wet she was. That was something I would deal with in a minute. Right now, I had to give her what she wanted to get what I needed.

“Me. You’ve been thinking about me.”

Valentina’s thumb moved immediately, the pad swirling around my clit with practiced ease. I made the most embarrassing sound yet, but couldn’t find it in myself to care. I just hoped Valentina didn’t have any close neighbors who were awake yet.

“I haven’t been able to get you off my mind.” Valentina puffed. Her index finger continued to fill me, her thumb brushing across and around my clit, over and over again. The tightness in my stomach coiled harder and I knew I was close. “From the first moment I saw you in that boardroom, I knew I was attracted to you. Even though you hated me, I couldn’t help but allow you to consume my thoughts. Every morning, I would sit outside and meditate, but images of you danced across my mind instead. Your lips, your jaw, your body.” I lifted my hand and cupped my own mouth to dim the sounds of ecstasy pouring from my tongue. Valentina’s fingers around my nipple, over my clit and inside me had me standing on the precipice, looking out towards oblivion. “Despite your dislike towards me, I wanted you. Something inside me knew you wanted me too. I couldn’t give up.”

“Val.” I whimpered through a gap in my fingers. I was so close. “Don’t ever give up on me.”

Valentina attached her lips to my neck and sucked, hard.

“Come for me, baby.” She panted against the wetness she left on my neck.

With her thumb pressed down on my clit and a curl of her finger thrust deep inside me, I succumbed to the building pressure. My toes curled against the fabric of the day bed, my body trembling with the intensity of my orgasm. I bit down on my knuckle, my other hand with a firm grip around Valentina’s knee, as sparks of pleasure shot through me. I moaned as Valentina’s finger pulled every second of gratification from me with light, gentle pushes inside me. Her tongue lapped at the area of my neck she’d suctioned to, the skin there tender from the pressure.

Eventually, my body went limp in her arms. Her hands delicately pulled away from my breast and center, wrapping around me in a hard hug. I did my best to return the embrace, her kisses along the column of my neck helping to keep me tethered to this reality.

When I finally opened my eyes, I was surprised at how bright the day had become. The sun was much higher in the sky now, the first licks of late summer heat landing on our skin. The blanket that surrounded us was by our sides, our arms a tangle across my still clothed body. We had slid down a little further on the daybed, our bodies slightly more horizontal than before.

I turned my head and nuzzled into her neck. It was an awkward position, but I pressed a few light kisses against her warm skin.

“Juls?”

I pulled back and, with my head still resting on her shoulder, looked up at her. There was something in her voice that told me to pay close attention.

The morning sun shone brightly on her skin, highlighting the perfect curves and smoothness of her skin. It made the blue of her eyes look even lighter, reflecting back at me like the ripples of water moving along the bottom of a pool. Her lips were full and slightly parted, wet from the kisses she’d pressed against my skin. But her brows were pulled together, the only hint of concern in her features.

“Yeah?”

“What do you see happening here? With this. Us?”

I blinked at her, my brain trying to catch up to the next swift change in conversation. Valentina constantly surprised me, flirtatious and steamy one second, anxious and self-conscious the next. She pulled her bottom lip into her mouth and looked away from me.

“Sorry. I know it’s a silly time to bring it up.”

I turned in our embrace, my hands landing either side of Valentina’s body. I positioned my body over hers and then lowered, holding my weight up enough so I wasn’t crushing her. My back was arched in a strange position considering we were half-sitting, half-lying down, but I needed her attention. Valentina looked at me, her eyes wider, her hands resting against my hips.

“It’s not a silly time.” I said, dropping my head to plant a small kiss on her cheek. “Why do you ask?”

She did that thing with her lips then, twisting them as if in thought. I waited and watched as she battled with what words to use next. It was a conversation we needed to have, I just didn’t think it would be right after she’d fucked me on the daybed on her balcony. She looked uncertain, unsure what to say, so I pressed closer into her and nuzzled into her neck.

“I won’t look at you if that helps. Tell me what you’re thinking, baby.”

Valentina’s chest rose with a deep breath. Her fingertips pressed into the skin of my hips as she held me tighter.

“I’m scared.” She whispered.

I stilled, my mind racing with reasons why Valentina would be scared about all this. I gulped down my own panic, my core still throbbing from what Valentina’s fingers had finished only moments ago, and traced my nose down the length of her neck.

“Why are you scared, Val?”

I shifted my lower body so I could lie more comfortably against her. My leg slipped between hers, her hip bones just noticeable against my thigh. I continued to stay close, my lips pressing delicate kisses to her neck in encouragement. She smelt of sunshine and sleep and everything that was good.

“I’m scared -” Valentina stopped and cleared her throat. She sounded nervous, hesitant, but she continued despite herself. “I’m scared of the depths of my feelings for you, Juls. I’ve never felt like this before, about anyone.”

The relief that washed over me was like a cold shower on a hot summer's day, exhilarating and invigorating. I smiled against her neck and huffed out a quiet, disbelieving laugh.

“Me either.” I replied, punctuated with a firmer kiss to the place just below her ear.

Valentina shifted her hips beneath me. It was only a small movement, but it was enough. I was reminded that only one of us had climaxed so far that morning. I knew that she had to be out of her mind with desire. Considering what had happened between us minutes prior, that heightened feeling would have been percolating beneath the surface, the bubbling becoming more vigorous as time went on without surrender. My release was strong and vast, but Valentina hadn’t reached it yet. I adjusted my distribution of weight and pushed just marginally stronger against her.

Valentina let out a sigh, her hands pushing further along to the small of my back. I bit her earlobe, then kissed open mouthed passes along her jawline.

“I really like you, Juls.” Valentina pushed out between puffs of air.

“Yeah?”

Valentina nodded her head, my teeth grazing her chin. The rest of my body joined in on the slow rhythm, my thigh pushing harder into her. She was laying beneath me, her eyes closed, allowing me to move over her. I didn’t think life could get any better than having this beauty underneath me, wanting me to touch her. I would do it forever if she let me.

“Yeah.”

“I really like you too.” I replied thickly.

I’d never said anything more true.

I found her lips and kissed her deeply. She kissed me back passionately, our tongues sliding tenderly against the other. I pulled away, my fingers itching to touch her, my teeth nibbling on her bottom lip. Her mouth fell open as I pushed into her again, harder this time.

“But things are pretty crazy, considering who we are and what we do.” I stuttered as I struggled to contain myself with Valentina on offer.

I began shuffling down the model's body, my hands lifting the hem of her shirt. I kissed her stomach as I positioned myself between her legs. Her skin was warm and soft and my tongue licked over the smooth skin.

“Yeah.” She huffed. “That makes things a little tricky.”

I smiled and looked up at her. Her eyes were closed, head tipped back on the cushions, her hands covering mine that rested on her stomach.

“Can anyone see us out here?”

Valentina’s lips lifted into a creased grin. She opened her eyes and tilted her chin, looking down at me nestled between her legs.

“No, baby. It’s just us.”

I licked my lips and, without breaking eye contact, lifted her shirt up and over her breasts. I admired them in the sunlight, not having the chance to properly inspect them the night before. They were plump and perky, small enough for my hands to cup them. Her nipples were pink, her areolas small, the buds already tempting me to flick them. They were the most perfect set of breasts I'd ever laid my eyes on.

Valentina’s hands fell away as I worshiped her chest. She picked up the edges of the blanket and wrapped it around us, hiding me from view. My attention lifted to her face and I arched a brow at her.

“Just in case.” She said, sheepishly.

I chuckled at the light blush that covered her usually milky skin, and slid my hands down her sides. She shivered at the sensation, and I took the opportunity to show her just how much I was enjoying the view. My mouth covered Valentina’s nipple, my tongue carefully lapping at the bud.

Valentina relaxed into the large cushions of the daybed, a whiny kind of sigh puffing out from between her lips. She closed her eyes and tipped her head back again, leaving me to do whatever I wanted with her. I kissed and licked at her breast, trying to not get too distracted by the sounds bubbling up from her chest. When satisfied I’d paid it enough attention, I kissed my way over to the other.

My mouth worked her nipple into a raised, red, glistening cherry. With a light pop, I let go of the stuff nipple and shuffled down, the blanket still sheltering us from the outside world.

“Maybe let’s just not put any pressure on ourselves.” I said, continuing our conversation. “Let’s just see where this goes. I mean, I have no interest in anyone else. And -”

I paused, my hands curled around the waistband of Valentina’s shorts.

“What?” Valentina asked, slightly perplexed at my pause.

“I want you exclusively. I don’t want to share you.”

Valentina’s eyes blinked open and she looked at me. I was half sitting, half-lying between her legs. I could only imagine what I looked like, having spent most of the night with the most beautiful woman in the world wrapped around me, not to mention the height of arousal I was taken to not long ago.

I knew I was being bold with my comment, presumptuous even. I knew it was a lot to ask, a pretty large step to be taking when we’d only just confessed that we had feelings for one another. But from where I sat, those feelings had been brewing for long enough for this to be the natural progression. And it was true; I had absolutely no interest in anyone else, and I most definitely liked what I saw in the other woman enough to focus only on her. I hoped I wasn’t alone in that.

I tugged at Valentina’s shorts, indicating that I wanted them gone. She continued to gape at me, her mouth curled into a dazzling smile, and raised her hips. It took me a whole second to slide them down to her ankles.

“I don’t want to share you either.” Valentina said firmly, her knees opening up for me.

I breathed a sigh of relief, happy to know I wasn’t the only one completely infatuated.

“I’m very happy to hear that.” I said with a small kiss to the inside of her knee. “But let’s just keep this between us for a while. I just want to have you to myself for a little bit. I want to get to know you better and see what happens. Does that sound okay?”

My tongue licked along the inside of her thighs, and I could barely restrain myself from plunging into her right away. I wanted to hear her response first.

“Juls.” Valentina groaned, her hips rising towards me, eager to be touched.

“Tell me first, Val. I don’t want to see anyone else, but let’s take it slow. Is that what you want, too?”

“Yeah, baby. That’s what I want. That’s all I’ve wanted for weeks.”

My smile was wide, and I gently nipped the inside of her thigh before soothing it over with my tongue. I could smell her, my mouth watering at the memory of how sweet she tasted.

“But for now, baby, I want you to come on my tongue.”

I opened my mouth and licked up the length of her, my tongue flattened against her, and Valentina’s thighs shook around my ears.

“I want that so badly, Juls.”

I licked out again, wide and flat, from her entrance to just below her clit. She was so wet, so hot, and so ready for release. Valentina moaned when I thrust my tongue inside her, my jaw beginning to ache after a few frantic minutes of licking and sucking her.

I could listen to the sounds of Valentina’s ecstasy forever, the breathy moans a beautiful melody to my ears. She squirmed as I finally pulled her clit into my mouth and sucked gently.

“I’m so close, baby.”

One of my hands that was pinning Valentina’s thighs apart slid beneath her thigh and over onto her stomach. I licked up her length again, hard and fast, and when I sucked her, I pushed against her stomach.

“Oh, fuck.”

Different versions of my name tumbled from Valentina’s lips as she climaxed, her thighs trembling around my face. I did my best to see her through her release, my tongue resting against the pulsing nerves as she slowly relaxed.

I hauled my way up her body, wiping my wet chin as I went, and tucked my head into the cozy space in her neck. I stayed there and dropped light kisses on her skin, patient as her breathing calmed and body ceased its twitching.

When she was ready, she pulled my head from its hiding space. She cupped my face between her palms and looked at me with such adoration, such yearning, that my heart skipped a beat.

She smiled, still a little dazed, before pulling me in for a sweet kiss.

“Breakfast?” She asked against my lips.

I nodded my head and left a light kiss on the tip of her nose.

“I mean, it’s still a little early….”

Valentina giggled the most beautiful, indulgent sound, and pushed at me playfully.

“Shut up.”

I leaned back and looked down at her.

“You should probably put these on first, though.”

She rolled her eyes at me but lifted her hips as I shuffled her shorts back up her long legs. I slid off the edge of the wide daybed and held out my hand for her.

“Come on, gorgeous.” I crooned. “Let’s get you fed.”

She took my hand with the most breathtaking smile I’d seen yet.