His door had a wreath on it. An actual, real, not-fake-and-bought-from-Michael's Christmas wreath. There were even sprigs of holly that jutted out in perfect symmetry.
Cress didn't know why this should have surprised her, but it did. People in his line of work were real people too, after all, and they had to live somewhere. But not this up-scale suburban neighborhood somewhere. She had expected dark alleys and doors with paint chips that were crumbling off the exterior.
Business had to be booming.
Swallowing hard, she plucked up her courage and rang the doorbell.
Please be cute, please be cute, please be cute, she prayed.
He had sounded cute enough on the phone, and his customer satisfaction rate was the highest of all the companionship services she'd checked out—99%. With such high numbers, there was no way he couldn't be good-looking.
She heard footsteps behind the door. Cress readied her hand in her purse, clutching her pepper spray with all her might. Then she considered running away. But she wouldn't—couldn't. She had made the phone call sealing her fate four days ago. She had already told her parents she was bringing him. There was no going back now.
She only had to hold her breath briefly before he opened the door. Heart fluttering from nerves, she sized him up, thankful to find that he did, in fact, have some really cute features. Tan skin. Dark brown hair. Chiseled jaw. Surprisingly vibrant blue eyes. A dimple when he smiled.
And he was smiling all right. Beaming, almost.
She clutched her pepper spray tighter.
"Well, aren't you gorgeous!" he exclaimed, his eyes roving up and down her body before lingering on her face. "You should see the type of people who call me on a regular basis. They're pretty hopeless. But you, my dear, are not hopeless at all. Come on in!"
He held the door open for her and beckoned her inside.
Cress remained rooted to her spot on his front stoop. She took her time studying him before she spoke. "You're not ready."
He looked like he had been watching a football game, to be exact. He donned black sweatpants with the Vikings logo embroidered on the left thigh and a snug gray T-shirt that should have had him shivering from the draft of the open door. It was obvious that he worked out.
"I don't choose my outfits before I meet my clients, especially if I'm meeting the parents. Some families are particular about clothes and I need to adjust to that. I also need to get a sense of your style so I can match you better. We want to look compatible, don't we?"
"Don't just stand there, babe," he said, smiling warmly at her. "We have business to attend to."
He gestured for her to enter again, and she realized that she had to make a choice. She could either run away and stay miserable during the holidays, or she could go inside and take her chance with this guy. Cress chose the latter, holding her head up and walking in as if she really had known him for six months, like she'd told her family. She might as well start calling upon her useless Theater degree to help her out.
They would both be doing a lot of pretending this weekend.
When he shut the door behind her, he immediately went to grab a stack of papers on the entry table. Cress peered behind him to get a glimpse of his living room. It was meticulously organized, but she noticed that there were no pictures hanging from the walls. As if no one even lived there at all.
After shuffling through the papers, he handed her a pen. "Here's the contract that you've already seen on my website, including cost, but I wanted to remind you that you're signing a non-disclosure agreement." He winked at her. "I've got to protect my reputation as much as you've got to protect yours."
Her hand trembled as she signed the document, not wanting to tell him that she feared having her real name on anything related to his services. She paused when she saw the signature line for him. Under it was written his real name: Carswell Thorne.
She frowned. "Where's the honorific?"
"Shouldn't it read Captain Carswell Thorne?"
"Sweetheart, I'm not a real captain. Just call me Thorne."
"But your ad…your number…?"
"Sorry to disappoint, but there isn't anything written on my site about me actually being in the military. I needed a good pseudonym, that's all. Do you have military family?"
"Well no, but…"
"But you're disappointed and I aim to please. If you think I've advertised falsely and needed me to be in the military, we can rip up this document right now." He held up the contract she had just signed.
"N-no! It's okay. I just thought that my parents would appreciate someone who serves his country. They would respect me having a boyfriend in the military."
"I can pretend, if you like." He dropped to one knee and took her hand in his. Then he pressed a quick kiss to her knuckles. "Captain Carswell Thorne, at your service."
Cress retracted her hand from his grip quickly. "Um—no. That's okay. We'll think of a different backstory."
"Whatever you wish, darling." He got up off his knee and signed the document in front of her. Then he held out his palm. "Got the money?"
She reached into her purse and forked over an envelope full of cash as he had requested. It's a holiday weekend, he had said. Prices doubled during holidays. She could only imagine what his price for New Year's Eve was. She really couldn't afford his regular daily rate, let alone the weekend holiday rate, but she had decided that she would ignore the glaring red in her monthly budget line for December. It would only get more of a deficit after she paid all of his expenses this weekend too.
He counted the bills greedily, like a child surveying his wrapped presents on Christmas morning. "Perfect," he said at last. "I'll collect the second half at the end of the weekend." His eyes flashed with mischief. "Tips are, of course, always appreciated."
"For that insane price, I think it's pretty crappy that I have to pick you up," she decided to say boldly. "What kind of service is that?"
He scoffed. "You found me online. You could be a predator and I'm not about to be lured into some trap."
"What about you being the predator?"
"Like I said, you found me, honey."
She bristled. "Stop calling me all those dumb pet names."
He held up his hands and offered her a placating smile. "I was just trying out different terms of endearment for this weekend. See which one rolls of the tongue more naturally now that I've met you. Pet names are important to keep things authentic, you know. Couples are obsessed with them."
"I would prefer for you to just call me Cress most of the time."
"No can do. Too easy to mix up names with other clients." He chuckled. "Which pet name was your favorite so far?"
She sighed and shook her head. "I don't care. Just pick one and stick with it."
He cocked his head, studying her. "Cress, was it?" He reached for her shoulders. She stiffened as his hands ran gently along her arms. "Relax, Cress. You hired me because I'm a pro at this. I'm going to take the lead in everything and make sure your family thinks you've got the most amazing boyfriend." He left one hand on her shoulder and cupped her chin with the other. "Trust me, okay? I guarantee you'll be satisfied with my services."
Cress nodded automatically, but a warm tingle spread through her body at his words. His eyes looked so honest and kind that it was hard not to believe everything he was saying. She wondered how often he said those lines to his clients, not to mention how often he told them they were more gorgeous than the previous ones.
It didn't matter.
She knew she was skinny and plain and awkward compared to his cool confidence and handsome demeanor, but that was the point. Everyone was going to wonder how she had managed to snag someone like him. For once, everyone was going to wish they were her.