Home > Stripped (Stripped, #1)(10)

Stripped (Stripped, #1)(10)
Author: H.M. Ward

"You bought a public school?"

"A private school, actually. A very expensive private school. I didn't tell anyone, I just did it." I smile foolishly and glance over at her. "The reason I found out about it in the first place was because this hot girl was failing Chem. She was telling me about it, and I kind of told her that I'd fix it. She offered her gratitude and my mother caught us." I feel like an ass telling her that I slept with someone else, but that was the catalyst this time and I don't want to lie to her.

Continuing, I say, "Mom threw my ass on a plane before I could explain. I wanted the school because I want to make things better. I think the school system is f**ked up, but it has so much potential, and this one place is doing it right. I wanted to run studies on their model and see what it would take to utilize it, but no one cares about that part. They basically thought it was a really roundabout way to buy a good time. My mom covered it up. No one knows." I don't look over at her, and I can't stand the thought of seeing the judgment in her eyes.

It's deafeningly quiet for a moment, then Cassie says, "I didn't know you cared about education. First I find out you like art, and now this." She bumps my shoulder and smiles up at me.

My stomach twists and I realize her approval matters to me. I wonder if she knows that little story will get me skinned alive if anyone finds out. My lips twist up, but it's a nervous grin that comes out lopsided. "Don't tell anyone." I wink at her and clear my throat, cautiously avoiding her eyes. "They'll think there's more to me than a pretty face and killer abs."

"Whoever thinks you're all looks is a little low in the smart department. I knew you were more than looks the first day we met."


"Yes, really." She shakes her head slightly, making that silky, dark hair fall over her shoulder.

God, I wish I could have kissed her. I roll the words around on my tongue before spitting them out. It sounds like a confession, one I don't really want to talk about. "No one really notices that about me." My voice drops to a whisper as I stare out the window.

She touches my arm and I look over at her. Her words are careful. I see it in her eyes when she speaks. "Do you give them a chance to notice? I mean, you're all flash and don't really let anyone see more than that, do you?"

"I let you see the rest." I glance up at her, meeting her big brown eyes full on, wishing that I had a chance with her. If I could go back and change everything, I would.

"And how's that working out?" She tips her head to the side and studies me.

"The verdict isn't in yet, but right now it's pretty nice." Cassie treats me to one of those rare smiles, the kind that makes my heart flip, and she shyly looks away.



Jon was so serious in the car. For a second, it felt like he wasn't pretending anymore. The walls came down, and he was just a guy. I didn't like it, I loved it. If he acted like that all the time, I'd be screwed. There's no way I could let him walk out of my life. Thank God Jonathan reverted back into the arrogant edition as soon as we stepped out of the car.

Heading across the parking lot, he takes my hand and pulls me past a mob of people. "What's going on?"

"Nothing. This guy always has protesters. Let's head inside and get the sneak peak tour. There'll be a few other patrons there that have purchased from Gray in the past, but other than that—we'll have the floor to ourselves. Pretty cool, right?"

He holds the door open for me and we duck inside. "You're proud of yourself."

"Just a little bit."

We're taken to the exhibit after Jonathan introduces himself to the director. Canvases that are taller than I am line the walls, each one somber and mute. Women are depicted in paint, their expressions a little too sexual for me to look at with Jon standing next to me.

When did he become Jon? I wonder. I glance at him out of the corner of my eye, watching him wander over to a painting with his hand on his chin. He stares at it, unblinking, unafraid that anyone is watching him. The subject matter makes me blush. The woman on the canvas looks like she's in ecstasy, but she's alone. Between her isolation and the colors, it feels sad—lost almost.

Jon turns to me, his arm folded over his chest with his other tapping his jaw. "So, what do you think of the infamous Jonathan Gray?"

I shrug, and try not to look at Jon. The paintings are more evocative than I thought, so I joke, knowing damn well that it's a defense mechanism. "So, what's wrong with this guy?" I tilt my head to the side and look at yet another painting of a nak*d woman. The monochromatic tones are so somber it makes me want to cry.

Jon moves next to me and slips his hands into his pockets. "Yeah, I think they all feel sad too. I don't know. I'd be seriously happy if I had this chick posing for me at my house."

I glance at him out of the corner of my eye and smirk. "I'm surprised you haven't. It says the artist and models are from New York."

Jonathan fake laughs and steps in front of me, blocking the view of the painting. Folding his arms over his chest, he says, "I haven't screwed every woman in New York."

"No, I know. You spread your seed abundantly over the Tri-State area. Can't forget Connecticut. They get pissy when we do that." I smirk at him and walk over to another painting, glancing out the window as I pass. There are people gathered outside with poster boards that have thick black letters sprawled across each one. They seem agitated, as if something changed down there.

Jonathan laughs deeply and shakes his head. He trails behind me, stopping in front of the window. "Damn, they're getting noisy out there."

"I'm surprised they let us in with all that going on outside."

He shrugs, "I'm not. It's the only perk of being a Ferro."

"Yeah, that and obscene amounts of money." Glancing over my shoulder, I flash him a grin.

Jonathan has this way about him, like nothing I can say will ever get to him. Every compliment or burn I've thrown his way just rolls off his shoulders like his skin is made of Kevlar. Nothing gets to his heart—ever. It makes me wonder what happened to him, what made him this way.

Jonathan steps away and looks at his shoe before standing next to me. The painting in front of us is pale skin on snow, cream and white, and haunted eyes that make me shiver. I stare at the canvas way too long with him by my side, and ask, "What do you think his deal is?"

"I think that's a chick, Cassie. I mean, those could be man boobs, but her ass is a little too—" I jab him in the side with my elbow and render him silent as he chortles.

"No, you dork. I mean the artist—Jonathan Gray. What's wrong with him? All these paintings look so sad. It's like staring into an emotional void and the woman is insignificant."

A single brow lifts on his face, like Jon's impressed. His arms fold over his toned chest as he tucks his chin in. His lips press together and part, like he wants to say something, but he doesn't.

My voice is soft, "Tell me. I know you're thinking something—just say it. It can't possibly make my opinion of you any worse," I tease. He laughs once, but still says nothing. I copy his stance and tip my head up. Eyeing him, I say, "Your silence makes me think that you must be contemplating boning the subject."

Jonathan laughs way too loudly, making a few people, including a security guard, look our way. A sweet smile plays across his face before his flush fades. Damn, he's cute.

"God, you're crass. Although the formal language made it sound much more refined. Thank you, I appreciate that."

"Any time." I smirk and look positively smug, until he starts talking.

Jonathan's eyes don't wander back my way, instead he stares at the painting like he's lost in a dream. "There was this woman back when I was a kid—barely a teenager—she looked like this. Everything about her was soft and alluring. It felt like she was heaven, a safe place in a storm." He presses his lips together and swallows hard. "But some storms never end. They go on and on and the turmoil builds to a f**king froth and this is what you get." He gestures to the painting. "The haunted eyes and the woman in the mist fade to white, but she's never gone—her betrayal is always there, smack in front of my goddamn face." For a moment neither of us says anything, but then he glances over at me. "Too much for you?"

"Not at all. Everyone has a dark side, Jon." I watch him for a second. He's breathing hard and won't look at me. "Hey, real friends don't run when things get bad. I don't know who that woman was or what she did to you, but—"

"She was great. She didn't do anything any thirteen year old guy wouldn't love to do, but—" he shakes his head and pushes his hair back.

"But what?" What the hell is he talking about?

He looks straight into my eyes and it feels like every breath of air has been sucked from the room. The people who were standing so close flitter away. The security guard becomes a gray blob to my right and the elderly couple on the bench fades away. In that moment, everything is him.

When his gaze meets mine, it's as if his blue eyes are waves and he's drowning. I can see he's in peril, but it's too late. This storm has already passed and it drowned him. The man standing before me is a carcass of what he was, an illusion covered in pretty smiles and smooth words. Even though we haven't known each other that long, I see through him.

The vulnerability in that moment makes my anger flare to life. I hate it. I hate that someone hurt him. I hate that I've been trampled over and over again and did nothing to stop it. I hate that I'm weak and that he's hurting. I don't want him to hurt, not now. Not ever. If I lift my hand and touch him, the moment will crumble into a million pieces, but the urge to hold him in my arms is overtaking me.

My fingers brush the back of his hand gently and he shivers. He blinks rapidly and the pleasant expression he wears like a mask slips back into place. "But I shouldn't complain. I mean, I have no reason to..." His eyes look everywhere, except at me.

"It's not complaining."

He clears his throat and shifts his shoulders, tightening his folded arms. "You don't talk about your mother, and I won't talk about mine."

Uh, yes I do. But, I don't understand. My brain sorts through the things he just told me—which sounded sexual—until he mentions his mother. Shaking my head, I ask, "Your mother? What does she—"

He's so uncomfortable, squirming in front of me like I'm going to stomp him with my shoe. He's like a bug on its back, unable to recover without a little help. I smile and look away, tucking my hair behind my ear as I do so. The old security guard in front of me is touching the wedding band on his left hand. His body is tense, but I don't know why.

That's when the unthinkable happens. The floor starts to shake and before I know what's happening a loud sound comes from across the room. Shrapnel flies at us, and before I can blink Jonathan grabs hold of me and tackles me to the floor. He rolls us under a bench on the far side of the room. Shots are fired, but there's so much smoke that I can't see anything. I claw at Jonathan and bury my face in his shoulder, shaking.

Holding me tight, we stay like that under the bench. It seems like years, but it's only seconds. Terror courses through my veins as his body remains wrapped around mine. He speaks to me, but I can't hear him. My ears are still ringing with the deafening silence that followed the blast. I keep my face buried in his chest with my heart pounding so violently that I'm sure he can feel it. The smoke starts to clear and Jonathan says something, but I don't know what. The ringing won't stop.

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