《Not If I Date You First》Chapter 10



"Cut! Take five, everyone." Paul's voice booms through the Roman Sculpture Court of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We've spent the whole evening waltzing around, trying not to knock over the priceless busts and statues. I have no idea which genius chose this location. The setting might add some drama to the scene, but these sculptures must be worth more than even my salary.

"This lighting is still off. Fix it," Paul yells, motioning to some of the crew.

The statues glow under the track lighting. Moonlight filters in through the arcing skylight running the length of the room, casting shadows in all directions.

I tug at the knot of my tie. We're filming yet another formal. The characters on this show attend more formals than students at any high school I've ever heard of. The writers pounce at any chance to get us dressed up and parade us on screen for the fans. I'm decked out in a suit that's been tailored within an inch of its life. It's suffocating.

Paul's standing next to one of the columns, watching as a couple guys maneuver one of the massive, free-standing lights. He's barely looked at me in the last week.

Paul won a BET award for another show he directed a few years back. He's incredibly talented, and I know I'm lucky to have the opportunity to work with him. I need to apologize. To beg for my job if I have to. Seeing my chance, I cut a beeline over to him.

"Can I talk to you for a second?" I ask, feeling like a dog with its tail between its legs.

Paul's dark eyes cut over to me. He jerks his head in a nod without saying a word.

I swallow. He's not going to make this easy.

"I'm sorry about the press event. I should've been there. I really screwed up."

"Yep." The frown on Paul's face deepens.

"I'll do anything to stay on the show. Seriously, anything. Just name it."

Paul scratches his unkempt beard. "I don't want to cut you, Liam. Especially when we've only got ten episodes left in the series. But your image affects the success of the entire show. If we come under fire because of your reputation, the whole crew, the cast, the network, we all look bad."

"I realize that now, and I'm doing everything I can to fix it."

"So I've seen. Those pictures of you and that photographer are, well, they're something."

The shots of me and the girl in the park just about broke the damn internet. Of course Paul's seen them.

Paul sighs. Tugging his fingers through his unruly, gray-streaked curls. "I'm not having you written off yet—"

"Paul, thank you." I can barely keep myself from fist-pumping.

"But," Paul holds up a hand, "if there's anymore bad press or you miss a single event, you're done. I mean it."


"I understand. It won't happen again."

"I hope not, Liam. I really do." Paul shakes his head, and the disappointment in his eyes is like a punch to the gut. How could I have let my career get derailed this badly?

"Going again in five," Paul calls, striding toward the craft service table.

Knowing I'm not getting fired—at least for now—sends a wave of relief so intense flooding through me, my head swims. I bend forward, grasping my knees. My lungs expand fully for what feels like the first time in days. Now if I can only get another job lined up for after we wrap in August.

I straighten, resisting the urge to rub my hands down my face and wreck the work the makeup crew has already retouched multiple times today.

"Everything okay, boyfriend?"

I turn to see Ariani walking toward me, the skirts of her teal-green ball gown rustling. Ariani has played one of the main characters on the show since we started. She's also got this massively popular YouTube channel where she interviews other successful women from a variety of different fields. She's basically a boss.

After years of the fans practically begging and writing their own fanfic about us, the writers finally caved. Our characters started hooking up this season, which is a bit awkward since Ariani is one of my best friends in real life, not to mention Faye's actual girlfriend.

Ariani's forehead puckers as she watches me. Her long, ebony hair shines in the artificial lighting. Wesley and Faye are right behind her.

"Everything's fine," I say. "For now at least."

"You mean, as long as you keep pretending to date that picture girl?" Wes asks, smirking as he fiddles with his bowtie. He thought the whole scene between the two of us at the park was hilarious. He's been laughing about it ever since.

"Oh, riiiight. I thought I was the only fake woman in your life. I can't decide if I should be jealous or not." Ariani teases, pushing a strand of hair out of her face, careful not to smudge her makeup.

I exhale a weighted breath. "Lay off, guys."

I don't usually mind when my friends give me shit, but the potential for this whole scenario to go south is still very real.

"You brought this on yourself." Faye adjusts the straps of her rose-gold dress, which is so tight, I'm surprised she can breathe in it.

"This is what you get for lying to everyone about your relationship," she says, winding her fingers through Ariani's, who plants a kiss on her cheek.

"Ruby and Julian are convinced that pretending to date her is the fastest way for me to fix my image," I explain. "And it seems to be working." My eyes flick over to Paul.


He's examining the lighting with the set director and holding a plate piled high with mini cream puffs.

Ruby texted me earlier to congratulate me on a job well done on the photos from Central Park, but she didn't have any updates on the auditions for Where There's Smoke. I've just got to hope all these rumors will convince Ackerman I'm willing to work with the press.

"I can't believe your agent gets you girls. My agent never gets me girls." Wesley folds the lensless glasses he wears on the show, sticking them in his pocket.

"Way to miss the point there, Wes." I shake my head. "It's not like I'm actually dating her. I'm just letting the paps take some pictures of us together."

Wesley scoffs. "Sure you are, man."

I shoot him an exasperated glare. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"All I'm saying is that girl's fine as hell."

Ariani makes a disgusted noise in the back of her throat and rolls her eyes.

"Hey, I'm just stating the facts." Wes holds up his hands.

"I think you mean she's annoying as hell," I mumble, but even I have to admit she isn't unattractive. I caught myself checking her out more than once while she was yelling at me yesterday.

My phone goes off inside my jacket. It's a text from Julian.

Julian: Respond or I'll have the publicity team do it for you.

He's included a link to a Twitter post.

Hello to you too, Julian.

I know I messed up, but he doesn't need to be such a dick. Especially since I'm going out of my way to try and repair the situation.

"Who's Ada Datchery?" I ask, reading the user name below the link.

"Are you serious?" Ariani's arched eyebrow hitches.

"Yeah. Why?"

"Self-centered much?" Ariani clicks her tongue. "You two have been tagged in about a million posts together this week. How do you not know her name?"

"Wait. This is the photog girl?" I tap on the link. "Her name's Ada Datchery? That sounds like the name of a goddamn Disney villain."

The girl—Ada—has Retweeted an article from The Hollywood Reporter with a picture of me jogging through Central Park. It must be one of the shots she took. She's added her own comment.

@AdaDatchery: Should I be concerned that my new boyfriend can't seem to keep his clothes on in public?

Boyfriend? I couldn't have read that right. I blink, but the word stays put on the screen. I should be grateful she's playing along, but she's just taken this game to a whole new level by publicly declaring a relationship status.

My mind reels. I can't comprehend how anyone would believe the two of us are together, but the thousands upon thousands of likes and comments on her post say otherwise. My friends gather around me, peering down at my phone.

"Ooh, damn. Boyfriend?" Wesley laughs. "Dude, you sure she's just playing?"

"Trust me, this girl hates me. She's probably trying to turn herself into the next Kardashian or something. How the hell am I even supposed to respond to this?"

"If you want to sell this phony relationship of yours, then you better get your flirt on." Ariani nods toward my phone.

"I don't know about that." Faye frowns, scrunching her nose like she doesn't approve.

"You're acting like this is some huge scandal," Ariani scoffs. "It's not like he's sleeping with the girl. She's obviously fine with the rumors. It doesn't seem like Li has much of a choice."

She's right. I'm the one who decided to feed the rumor mill in the park. If I want to fix my image then I need to keep it going.

I hit comment. Grinding my teeth, I type out a reply.

@LiamAnders: Would you prefer if I just keep them off in private?

Wesley hoots out a laugh.

Ariani shoves my arm, giggling. "Now that is what I'm talking about."

I watch the numbers beside the like and comment buttons of my Tweet spin like a slot machine. Faye bites her lip and doesn't say anything. I have my account set up to only receive notifications from people I'm following, so I navigate over to Ada's profile and jab the follow button before I can change my mind.

There must be a crossroads beneath this museum, because it feels like I just sold my soul.

We all stand there, waiting to see if she responds.

The number one appears next to the bell at the bottom of the screen. I drag in a breath and tap on it.

@AdaDatchery: Why don't you come outside and ask me, Superstar.

Dread pools in my stomach. I knew there was a mob of photogs waiting for us, but I was planning on slipping out the side door to avoid them.

This whole charade might be helping my career, but I've exceeded my paparazzi threshold for the week. That isn't going to be an option now, since I'm sure Julian's already seen her response.

I groan, tilting my head back and staring blankly up at the skylight. Faye was right. I brought this on myself.

"To your places, everyone. Let's go!" Paul shouts, clapping his hands together.

I straighten my tie as the hair and makeup team give us one final touch up before we take our positions around the puddle of fake blood that's been artfully pooled on the tile. On Cipher, we rarely make it through an entire episode without someone getting offed. Right now, I'm just glad it isn't me, even if it means coming face-to-face with Ada again.

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