Cover Design: Hang Le
An all-new STANDALONE from New York Times bestselling author Julia Kent
It all started with the wrong Help Wanted ad. Of course it did.
I’m a professional fluffer. It’s NOT what you think. I stage homes for a living. Real estate agents love me, and my work stands on its own merits.
Sigh. Get your mind out of the gutter. Go ahead. Laugh. I’ll wait.
See? That’s the problem. My career has used the term “fluffer” for decades. I didn’t even know there was a more… lascivious definition of the term.
Until it was too late.
The ad for a “professional fluffer” on Craigslist seemed like divine intervention. My last unemployment check was in the bank. I was desperate. Rent was due. The ad said cash paid at the end of the day.
The perfect job!
Staging homes means showing your best angle. The same principle applies in making a certain kind of movie. Turns out a “fluffer” doesn’t arrange decorative pillows on a couch.
They arrange other soft, round-ish objects.
The job isn’t hard. Er, I mean, it is — it’s about being hard. Or, well… helping other people to be hard.
And that’s the other problem. A man. No, not one of the stars on the movie set. Will Lotham – my high school crush. The owner of the house where we’re filming. Illegally. In a vacation rental.
By the time the cops show up, what I thought was just a great house staging gig turned into a nightmare involving pictures of me with a naked star, Will rescuing me from an arrest, and a humiliating lesson in my own naivete.
My job turned out to be so much harder than I expected. But you know what’s easier than I ever imagined?
Having all my dreams come true.
I watch a blonde woman talk up Will like she wants to take him home and turn him into her evening protein shake. She’s wearing lululemon tights and Jimmy Choos, an unusual combination that seems to indicate she’s ready for anything.
Clap clap! A man in a tight, black Lycra shirt, grey fitted slacks, and the most beautiful Italian leather shoes I have ever seen glides like melting cheese on a raclette into the center of the ballroom.
“Hello, hello! My name is Philippe, and I am your instructor tonight. Welcome! Two more minutes for refreshments, and then we DANCE!” The word DANCE comes out of his mouth in capital letters.
Philippe heads straight toward me, eyes meeting mine, his dark, wavy hair slicked off his face with curls escaping at the nape of the neck, a perfectly manscaped moustache adding to his rakish look.
“And you are?” he asks, the words a demand to reveal my soul.
“Uh, Mallory, it is nice to meet you.”
“It’s just Mallory.”
“Are you Uh, Mallory, or Just Mallory?” he asks, mouth pursing with amusement.
I cannot tell whether I like him or hate him.
Eyeing me up and down, his expression changes to approval when he sees my shoes. “You have come prepared.”
Will chooses that exact moment to walk over, a lemonade in each hand, and offer me one. I smile a thank you as Philippe watches us like he’s judging a couple on So You Think You Can Dance.
“You are here together?” he asks.
“OH, NO!” I call out, as if it’s the word DANCE. “I’m waiting for my date.”
“First date, actually. I don’t know what he looks like, but…”
“Was his name David, by any chance?” Philippe asks, mouth twisted with disgust.
“Corporate,” he hisses. “Again!”
Will exchanges a confused look with me, then takes a sip of his lemonade, choosing to stay out of this. One hand goes to his hip as he politely looks away, drinking like it’s his job.
“Excuse me?” I ask Philippe.
“Did you meet him–this David–on an online dating service?”
Philippe takes my hand as if I’m a mourning widow at her beloved husband’s wake. “Then I am sorry to inform you, Mallory, that David is not coming.”
“Because David is a salesman.”
“No, he’s not! He’s a conversion consultant.”
Will’s mouth tightens as if he knows something.
“Mallory,” Philippe says sadly, “David works for the corporation that owns Bailargo. He is one of their best salesmen.” Anger flashes in his eyes. “Because he toys with women’s emotions and sets them up for this.”
Gesturing at me, he says, “This. You. The poor, lonely single woman looking for love on apps.”
“Watch,” he says, clapping twice again. “Are any women here for a date with David? First date?”
Two hands go up.
“Oh, God,” I mutter, my hands flying to cover my burning hot, deeply embarrassed face. “What does this mean?”
“David has developed a new technique. He goes to dating apps and pretends to be original, asking women to have a first date at a dance lesson. He is charming and funny and–”
A feral sound comes out of my mouth.
“Sound familiar?” Will asks, reaching up to run a hand through his hair, looking really sympathetic on my behalf.
Which makes me feel even stupider.
“And then the women come here, there is no David, but some of them stay for class,” Philippe finishes.
“You’re telling me your corporate headquarters is hiring a guy who goes on dating sites and convinces single women to come to a dance class with him, then ghosts on them? On the chance that a certain percentage of us will sign up for dance lessons and convert to paying customers?” My voice goes higher and higher, until I start sounding like Mariah Carey the second everyone finishes Thanksgiving dinner and it’s time for her songs to start on the radio again.
“That’s horrible!” I cry.
“That’s ingenious,” Will says. My glare makes him add quickly, “And completely unethical, of course. Some men are disgusting pigs.” His brow drops, eyes troubled with vicarious empathy, but they move in patterns that tell me he’s processing this information and finds David’s business acumen to be worthy of note.
“If you will excuse me, I need to find some tissues for those two women who are, like you, expecting a date with the charming David. Since he started doing this four months ago, sales have increased eleven percent, but my operating supplies have gone up 286 percent with all the tissues!” Philippe glides across the floor and approaches the two women, who are whispering and comparing phone screens.
Bet mine makes us triplets.