CHAPTER 1

Balancing on the hood of a sports car while slickly oiled up was a lot harder than most people imagined. Add to that doing it hands free, because you’ve got your hands wrapped around a fully loaded burger. Plus, you are in a bikini and are wearing six-inch stilettos. Well, then, you’ve got yourself a straight-up high-wire act.

Leila Darling tried her best to suck in her stomach, push out her behind, while simultaneously “making love” to the camera by puffing out her lips into a sultry, come-hither pout. She narrowed her eyes ever so slightly, as if extending a welcome invitation to wanton sex, while still appearing approachable with her version of the ever popular smize. Why it took this much sex to sell a hamburger still baffled her, but hers was not to reason why, since she was getting paid a small ransom to sit on the shiny car, be extra shiny herself, and make the Barn Burger the most lusted-after burger in fast-food history.

“Give me more. Give me more!” yelled Matteo, the famed photographer, fighting to be heard over the blaring bass of the heart-thumping rock music in the studio. If you could call the rented garage space in a rather sketchy part of East LA a studio. The tips of Matteo’s dark hair, what little he had left, were bleached and spiked so that they stood up at odd angles, and he wore an excessive amount of kohl around his eyes, making his deep under-eye bags all the more pronounced.

“That’s right, Leila. Just like that. Oh, darling, you are selling it. Those eyes, those breasts … I’m getting hungry just watching you. You’re a sexual beast, darling!”

Leila pushed back a sneer at the way the word darling rolled off his tongue. Though it was her last name, in her case the word could be used as a proper noun, an adjective, or sadly, as of late, a verb. “Pulling a darling” was, now thanks to social media, used for all sorts of things, and none of them good. Such as wild clubbing until the wee hours of the morning. Though, for the life of her, Leila didn’t understand what was wrong with blowing off a bit of steam. Or it was used when one threw a fit. Though in Leila’s eyes, demanding respect, even if it was in a forceful tone, was essential in her business.

But worst, in her eyes, was that now — thanks to her ex, well, her third ex-fiancé, Miles G, and that crappy song of his, “Darling Leila” — “pulling a darling” was synonymous with being a man-eater who used men, made them fall in love, but never committed to them. Of course, it didn’t matter that in all her terminal relationships, it was the guys who’d failed her, making promises they ultimately had no intentions of keeping. Giving her perfectly valid reasons to bail on the so-called relationships.

So today, with Leila’s nerves already frayed, Matteo’s use of the word darling slid over Leila in a way that was too slimy and too personal and had her questioning his usage altogether. In the end, the sneer won out, and Leila went with it, her top lip curling as she looked at the photographer. Besides, the “sexual beast” comment had got to her, too. Especially now, when Leila considered herself in a career transition. She couldn’t just let a comment like that go unchecked.

Sure she knew she should be happy and feel accomplished as one of the few African American top models in the business, though her current position of burger eating slash car hood bikini balancing would bring one to question that fact. Still, most would think Leila had it all and was living on top, but in reality, she felt something was sorely lacking. Respect. Leila wanted so very much to be seen as more than a sexy body that could sell anything, be it fast food or French couture.

Leila inwardly sighed as she recalled, while balancing herself precariously, one leg cocked up, the other pushing hard into the hood of the sports car, that a little over a month ago she’d been in Cannes, being celebrated as a breakout star in a less than breakout movie. Sure, she might have had only a few actual lines in the movie, and yes, she’d been brought on for her looks. However, she’d taken that part and ran with it. Showing she had chops, and for that she’d been rewarded for something besides the way she filled out a bikini top. Leila wanted more of that.

But here she was, back home in the States and back to the same grind. Stand. Sit. Turn this way. Tilt that way. Was it any wonder she was on edge? Add to it the fact that taking an early flight back from Cannes had resulted in the demise of yet another high-profile relationship when she caught Miles in his words, “just doing what he do,” horizontally with the skank du jour. Well Leila was officially done with her life as usual.

“Now take a bite. We want to see you eat it,” Matteo said, his voice piercing Leila’s musings and pinging her nerve endings with its raw excitement, so much so that Leila didn’t quite know if he was talking about the burger or something else that she didn’t want to touch.

Leila let out a low breath and went in for the burger, but then, as if on cue, the music in the studio changed and on came the familiar first thumps to the song Leila was fast growing to hate. “Darling Leila.” Would she ever escape Miles or that damned song? And really Darling Leila? Talk about an unoriginal name. The jerk didn’t have an original bone in his overly hyped body let alone thought in that little brain of his.

“Oh yeah!” Matteo yelled, now smiling wide and circling her with his camera as he clicked, clicked around her. Each click of the shutter felt like a tiny prick to her skin.

Leila shot Matteo a death stare but then forced her features to soften as she glanced over to the side of the room and saw the group of execs from Burger Barn huddled in the corner, looking at her expectantly. Bills needed to be paid, and for that to happen, the customer was always right. Leila reminded herself of this tried-and-true mantra as she let out a sigh and further softened her features, going on automatic pilot as she mentally blocked out the song that mocked her and Miles’s now failed relationship and, worse, all her relationships before that. She took a hungry bite of the burger, imagining for a moment that it was the head of the photographer.

Method acting. Zone it out, woman. Use that anger.

Just then her agent and longtime friend, Jasper Weston, stepped into her side view as he went over to glad-hand the Burger Barn folks. Leila took another bite of the burger. This time it was Jasper’s head she was biting off, as she remembered it was he who had told her that taking this job would be a good idea.

“That’s it, Leila,” Matteo finally said. “Though, maybe next time you could go at it with just a little less enthusiasm?” He lowered his camera and turned toward his group of assistants. Leila noted that they were all young and all blond, whether male or female with slightly vacant eyes. It would seem Matteo had a type and stuck to it through and through.

“We’re going to need another burger on set,” he said to no one in particular before turning back to Leila. She hoped that the actual food handlers picked up on his query and that it wouldn’t be one of the Stepford blonds who handed her the next burger. “How about we get ready for the next set and wardrobe change, but before that we’ll do the rain sequence?”

Rain sequence? Since when was a rain sequence on the shoot list? Leila thought as she looked around for a rain machine. She saw none. It was then that another on set blond assistant came over and took the burger missing two bites from Leila’s hands and scurried off into the background. Then another young blond came toward her with a large hose and a dubious look in her eyes. Instantly, Leila stiffened.

“No way, honey,” Leila said with a sharp look at the young woman. “You come at me with that hose, you’d better be prepared to eat it.” It was as if the whole garage had got put on mute, as all heads swiveled Leila’s way. She saw Jasper smile uncomfortably at the Burger Barn people and take a step forward.

“Aw, come on now, Leila, darling,” Matteo began. “We need a shot with you wet on top of the car. You moving around for me. Doing a little dance. Selling those burgers as only you can.” And with that, the damned near geriatric photographer standing in front of her, holding his camera at his side, mimed his version of sexy dance moves, rubbing his hands over his body, bringing them up and, to Leila’s revulsion, licking his fingers.

Leila looked at him in horror and then blinked her way out of the shock of it all and leveled him with a hard glare. “Like I said, little Miss Assistant of the Corn here is not coming near me with some dirty-assed water hose. Now, if you want to try, you can, but I warn you, you won’t like where the hose ends up in the end.”

And with that, Leila slid her oiled body off the car as gracefully as she could and walked off set toward her makeshift dressing room, Jasper following quickly behind.

* * *

“You almost had a grand slam with this one, Walker. Almost.”

Carter Bain watched Grayson Hill, the CFO of Hillibrand Inc., give his critique of their weeklong schmooze fest. All he could hear was the admonishment in the loaded word almost. Screw almost. He’d wanted to hit it out of the park. He hadn’t come all the way out to California to take on the launch of Sphere, World Broadcasting’s new nightly station programming, for an “almost.”

Carter’s boss and mentor, Everett Walker, shook Greyson’s hand and nodded. “Don’t worry. You just get your ads ready. By the time we’re in place for pilot filming, all will be perfect and vendors will be clamoring for spots. You’ll want to be in on the ground floor with this one.”

Greyson raised a skeptical bushy gray brow. “I hope so, because I see a lot that we think may have potential, with the right players. Especially that Brentwood concept, but you have to get bang-up talent behind it. All that deep thinking programming may be fine for cable and those O channel guru–loving ladies, but we can’t forget the males from eighteen to twenty-four while still capturing the thirty-five-plus moms. We want the kind of shows that are worth them streaming on their tablets, as well as getting the ladies checking in and tweeting live. The way we see it, the moms are the destination watchers, and they are harder to pull away from the shows they’re already loyal to. So it’s new viewers you’re going to have to scramble for. And to get the young males, there is only one tried-and-true way, and that is to pull them in with sex. Give them something to come for, and keep them coming so they stay.” With that statement, Greyson gave a pointed turn of the head toward Carter’s assistant, Karen.

To keep his job in place and the potential ad revenue still in play, Carter chose to ignore the look, but still he stepped into Greyson’s field of vision. “Thank you, Mr. Hill. Your insight is very much appreciated. But believe me, you don’t have to worry about Brentwood or any of our upcoming shows. We have a long line of A-listers fighting for casting consideration.” Carter feigned a humble look. “Unfortunately, due to some contractual obligations and the way the press works, we’re not at liberty to share them yet. I’ll just say, be prepared to be wowed at our next meeting.” He gave Greyson a wink and a pat on his shoulder.

Greyson looked over at his brothers, the Hill Pack, and gave a short snort. “I sure hope so,” he said before turning back to Everett. “You’ve got a real go-getter in this one,” he said, indicating Carter. “He’s hungry. I like that.”

Everett looked Carter’s way and gave a nod. “That he is. Carter is one of the best. When there is a job to be done, I can always count on him. Like he said, there’s no need to worry. You all just get your ads lined up. Let us handle the programming.”

Carter shook Greyson’s hand a final time. “I’ll have my assistant e-mail yours with all the details of our meeting and the kits.”

Carter then turned his attention toward Greyson’s brother Waymon. Next to him were Bret and Cliff. It would seem the rumor about the Hills traveling in packs had officially been confirmed. At least when it came to getting off their property in Tennessee and coming out to California to do business with the so called “city folk”. They all had thick accents, but Carter had no doubt it was more for show than anything else. You didn’t run a multinational company with businesses in the food, media, and technology industries, not to mention exert political influence that went deep, or so the rumors said, while being country bumpkins. But, hey, Carter could play along. Anything to seal the deal. If he had to, he’d chew tobacco and don a pair of overalls to bring in their ad commitment.

Still, it was with relief that Carter stood beside Everett and Karen outside World Broadcasting’s California studios and watched the limo take the Hill clan away, their expressions all nearly frozen in place as they waved their final good-byes. The next car to pull up was Everett’s. No limo this time. It was a not so understated Mercedes convertible. Everett turned to the duo and shook Karen’s hand first.

“You did an outstanding job this week, Karen. I know a lot was thrown your way, but you stepped up to the plate. Carter’s lucky to have you on his team.”

Karen smiled as she returned the handshake. “Thank you, sir. Just doing my job.”

“You do it well. Never sell yourself short.”

He turned to Carter, sobering. “You both did very well. But Greyson is right, there is room for improvement. I want this account. If we get Hillibrand, then more vendors will follow suit. Don’t make a liar out of me. I expect to have a short list of names ready by next week to consider for Brentwood.”

Carter fought to stay cool and keep from frowning. He had known this would come up with Everett, but he had thought he’d maybe get a five-minute congratulatory breather. Hell, who was he fooling? This was Everett Walker. He wasn’t into pats on the back, and he definitely wasn’t into giving breathers. It was part of the reason Carter admired him. Carter had always respected Everett’s no-nonsense business manner and drive. It was so different from his upbringing, where his business sense and appreciation of capitalism were considered a fault. Coming from a working class family, you’d think his accomplishments would be celebrated, but to his bohemian parents, they were more of an embarrassment.

Still, he couldn’t complain all that much on the parental front. Though he’d been poor, Carter counted himself lucky having grown up with both a mother and a father in the home. His father, Malcolm, was an artist who was a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none, and his mother, Faye, was a woman with an obsession for helping those less fortunate, which only came second to her obsession with trying to manage her only son’s life.

“Don’t worry, sir,” Carter said, “I have some ideas in the works. We’ll discuss them next week.”

Everett pulled off, leaving Carter and Karen standing together, once again with plastered-on smiles, as they mumbled behind clenched teeth and waved. Karen let out a grumble before she spoke aloud.

“I’m so glad this week is over. I’ve had enough California sunshine to last me awhile, thank you very much. And I swear, if that little perv, Cliff Hill took one more leering look at my boobs, I was going to gouge his eyes out. It wasn’t only the older Hill who couldn’t keep his eyes to himself.”

Carter’s smile wavered ony slightly as he gave Karen a quick glance and continued to wave at Everett’s car. Part of him couldn’t blame the Hills. His assistant, Karen Woodley, was a good-looking woman, he supposed. But it didn’t matter, since Karen was a part of his staff, which put her in the off-limits category. And since she was his assistant, in a weird sort of way, Carter felt that put her under his protection. He knew it wasn’t entirely true, and was clearly overstepping on his part, but still he wouldn’t have her messed with or in any way disrespected.

Despite word on the street about his slick reputation, he did have a conscience. It was that same conscience that kept every woman on his staff off-limits in his book. Sex was one thing, but it didn’t trump money in the bank.

“Thanks for not gouging his eyes out,” Carter said, addressing Karen’s comment about Cliff. “At least not just yet. Let’s get all the signatures we need from them and seal this deal first, and then you can gouge away. Metaphorically, of course. Hell, I’ll do it for you. Hey, at least you didn’t have Waymon breathing down your neck. The man was looking at my package like I was fresh crab legs just put out at Caesar’s buffet.” (Continues…)
Release: 8/29/17
Click to purchase: (Kindle) or (Mass Market Paperback)
Excerpted from The Betting Vow by K.M. Jackson. Copyright © 2017 Kwana Jackson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.