The Girlfriend Experience
- 30.3K words
According to Zachary, Leda always says yes—and this time he wants her to say it to him, once and for all. Leda’s life is at a low point—jobless and living with her aunt and her aunt’s husband in Heart Lake, Saskatchewan, far away from the hustle of the city. Her only link to that more exciting world is her aunt’s husband’s son, Zachary Benson. But Zach is a hard person to get to know and an even more difficult person to like, so Leda is shocked to learn Zach’s had a crush on her for years. Since her aunt married his father a decade ago, Zach has never been particularly nice to her, mocking her for being a people pleaser who only says yes. But it turns out he wants her to say yes to sex with him over and over again, for as long as it takes for him to get her out of his system. Leda is willing to go along with the unusual plan on the condition that it won’t involve any threat to her heart. Since her parents’ deaths, she has armored herself against losing anyone else she loves, and that makes her determined to never love again. But the more nights she spends with Zach, the harder it is going to be for Leda to keep that promise.
The house was large and the rural property sprawling, so there was no reason for Leda to feel claustrophobic. Except she did, more and more as the days stretched out without calls or leads or any of those small, welcome signs that would show that the working world had not forgotten about her.
She was thirty-four years old, too far along in adulthood to be living with her aunt and her aunt’s husband. The older couple thought she was saving money by giving up her expensive downtown condo and living out on their spacious ranch. They didn’t know that selling the condo had been an immediate necessity, not a prudent, preemptive move. After deducting the mortgage and transaction fees, her bank balance was below a thousand dollars—well below.
A woman could eat and sleep for free off her relatives indefinitely, but Leda drew the line at asking for money to take the bus into the city—assuming the bus came out to Heart Lake, Saskatchewan. Everybody in town seemed to get around in a slightly differently tinted version of the same beat-up truck—her uncle’s son from his first marriage included, and he was rich!
Leda glanced up from her laptop in time to see her cousin by marriage—or was it stepcousin? She was never too clear on the terminology—start down the sweeping staircase. His heavy-booted footfalls were as distinctive as they were decisive.
“Are you heading back to the city?”
Zachary had grown up in Heart Lake, but he didn’t live there anymore. He was the owner of a computer software company that specialized in custom programs for the oil and gas conglomerates that clustered in the Canadian prairies, and his home was in a ritzy suburb of Regina. His house was modern, minimalist and extremely expensive—the kind of place Leda’s design colleagues would be salivating over at first sight, much like young women tended to drool over Zach.
In the decade since her aunt’s wedding to his father, Leda had swung between loving and hating Zach, sometimes managing to do both at the same time. Immense success at an early age had made him arrogant. He was six years younger than her and, even at the height of her career, he must have been worth at least six times more. But, he was also generous. His support had allowed the older couple to retire early, and he’d given Leda a very lovely antique ring for her thirtieth birthday which would be the last thing she hocked—and probably gave the ring another couple of months on her finger.
Zach looked at her thoughtfully as she curled up in an armchair by the window. He was tall, so he had to look a long way down.
“You want a lift?”
“Yes, please.” Then she sagged back into the plush cushions as she realized the practical problems of such a simple task. “Only I have no way to get back home.”
Zach waited, jingling his keys in the front pocket of his jeans. He was obviously not about to offer to make the two-hour trip back to Heart Lake merely to drop her off.
“I guess I could spend the night at Jenny’s…” Assuming Jenny didn’t have her newest male friend spending the night already. Three in a bed would be awkward.
Zach turned his head slightly to stare out of the window in a gesture no doubt meant to signal his lack of interest in her train of thought. The sunlight streaming through the glass suggested warmth where there wasn’t any. It took a long time for the seasons to change on the high prairie. So-called Indian summers prolonged the warm weather—and the growing season—for weeks on end, while winter seemed to want to cut both short. Snow tires came off the cars in May and often toward the end of that month.
The light burnished Zach’s hair into a bronze helmet. His profile was clean-cut and just a tiny bit cruel. He was very attractive, perhaps because of that hint of cruelty.
“Or Rae’s,” Leda continued to muse aloud. “Rae’s bound to be in town.”
He switched his attention back to her as suddenly as an elastic band snapping back into place. “Who’s Ray?”
Leda was surprised at the sudden interest. As a rule, Zach showed no curiosity in the details of her personal life. And, as far as she knew, he had no private life of his own, apart from what little he chose to reveal to the business magazines who habitually did profiles on his successful Western Canadian empire.
He was like that Rihanna song—all work, all the time.
“Rae is my friend from design school,” she responded.
Zach’s green eyes were sharp. “Good-looking?”
“Very,” Leda said. “Smart, too.”
Smarter than Leda had been after graduation. While Leda had stuck to high-end clients and been quite successful in selling eclectic luxury concepts to wealthy oil executives, Rae had gone for commercial design work for hotel chains and other businesses. When the economic downturn had hit, Leda’s services had been quickly deemed disposable and her firm had laid her off in the first round of widespread terminations. Rae, meanwhile, was now designing cheerfully efficient interiors for a growing national chain of coffee shops.
The edges of Zach’s hard mouth curved downward. “Smart enough to get you to think spending a night in his home would be free of complications.”
Leda blinked up at him for an entire minute before she fully understood what he was saying. “Rae,” she said, “is spelled R-A-E. As in, short for Rachel.”
She paused again, this time not in concentration but in thought. As incongruous as Zach’s reaction had been, it was also quite unmistakable. “You sound jealous.” She smiled to allow him the luxury of thinking she was teasing. She wasn’t. His response had been too textbook-perfect for ambiguity.
Leda was merely bewildered.
What was wrong with the world that Zachary Benson could be jealous of her?
His jaw was tensed as he answered her, his face now slightly averted. “Maybe because I am jealous.”
“Of imaginary Ray?”
“No. Over very-real you.”
That reply shed no light on her confusion. “Why would you be jealous of me?”
He met her eyes this time and his expression could only be called grim, as if the less-appealing option compared to talking with her was listening to and answering her questions.
“Not of you,” he said with pointed emphasis. “Over you.”
“What’s the difference?”
He curled his hands at his sides. One of those clenched fists held his bunch of keys.
That must hurt.
Leda shook her head. “I really don’t.”
Her insistence appeared to anger him.
“It’s left over,” he said curtly, “from ten years ago.”
She stared up at him, still unable to make sense of his words. They were both speaking English, yet she had the urge to run and get a Zach-to-English dictionary for translation.
“Enlighten me,” she begged. “What happened ten years ago, apart from my aunt getting married to your father?”
“You know,” he said again. Leda was fascinated to see a dull flush rise on his lean cheeks. “I had that painful and embarrassing crush on you.”
She straightened in her chair. “Painful and embarrassing…crush?”
“You knew,” Zach said, as if repeating the statement enough times would make it the truth. “Everyone knew. That’s why it was so fucking embarrassing.”
“I didn’t know,” Leda insisted as the blood rushed to her own face. If she had suspected that might have been his answer, she wouldn’t have pried the truth from him. Still, a crush wasn’t a serious malady. Why is he still so ashamed of it? “You were, what…eighteen? Teenagers have all kinds of weird crushes.”