Down By Contact - Jessica Ruddick



MY COMPUTER SCREEN came to life as my prospective client joined the Zoom meeting. “Zoe Ricci?” I asked, wanting to make sure.

The older woman smiled brightly and waved. “That’s me!” She didn’t look like a Zoe Ricci, and she especially didn’t look like an erotic romance author. If I had to guess her profession, I would have said kindergarten teacher. “Layla, right?”

I nodded then launched into my well-rehearsed spiel about my social media business. I’d given the pitch so many times I could do it in my sleep.

Zoe put a hand up to silence me. “Honey, you can just stop right there and save us both some time. You’re hired.”

I beamed. “Fantastic!” I’d put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into building my business the past two years. It was refreshing to see it pay off. Good thing, too, because I was graduating in just a few short months, and I planned to do it full time.

“There’s just one thing.” Zoe paused, and I stopped mentally patting myself on the back.

Shit. Statements like those normally never went anywhere good. “Yes?”

“My friend who recommended you, Hannah? She writes sweet romance, and well, that’s not what I write.”

Relief washed over me. “Oh, is that all? Don’t worry. I did my research.” I’d skimmed through a few of her books, which would make church ladies gasp and clutch their pearls. Luckily—or unluckily, depending on how I looked at it—I wasn’t a church lady.

We sorted out the details about what kinds of things she wanted me to post and how often. After we ended the call, I emailed her my contract. Other than the fact that I would mainly be posting pics of half-naked hot dudes, Zoe wouldn’t be that different from my other clients. I catered to other small-business owners, such as women who sold leggings or essential oils. Working with Zoe would be a nice change of pace.

I was surprised when my phone dinged with an email only a few minutes later. Whoa. Zoe hadn’t wasted any time. I opened the document, curious as to what her legal name was. I’d learned that the hard way with my first author client. Mary Smith. She definitely looked more like a Mary Smith than a Zoe Ricci.

I quickly filed the signed contract then turned my attention to a client who sold Tupperware. She was preparing for a Valentine’s Day sale. It struck me as odd, though, because what woman wanted Tupperware for Valentine’s Day? No one I’d ever met.

My phone rang. Preoccupied, I tapped Answer and put it to my ear, balancing the phone on my shoulder. I really needed to search harder for my lost wireless earbud. “Hello?”

“Layla, I’ve been trying to reach you for weeks.”

Shit. It was Grace, my stepmother. I really did not want to deal with her just then—or ever. It had only been two weeks, which I supposed made her statement technically correct, but the way she said it made it sound so much worse than it was. I braced myself for what was sure to be an unpleasant conversation. “Sorry. I’ve been busy.”

“So have I,” she retorted haughtily. “And having to track you down takes up valuable time. I need your date’s name for the calligrapher. This delay has put us behind schedule with the place cards.”

This again? I’d already texted her twice already that I wasn’t bringing a date to my half sister’s wedding. “I’m going solo. Didn’t you get my texts?”

“Yes, I did. And you should have received my reply texts.”

“About finding me a date?” I vaguely remembered something along those lines. “Thanks, but no thanks. I’m fine by myself.” That was my stance not only for the wedding but for my life. I’d dated enough losers that I’d finally sworn off men.

She scoffed. “I don’t think so.”

My molars clenched so hard my jaw ached. I wondered if it was too late to simply send a gift and call it a day. I liked my half sister, Vanessa, well enough, but I didn’t really have much of a relationship with her, thanks to my wicked stepmother and the fact that growing up, I’d spent minimal time at my father’s house—again, thanks to Grace.

My family situation was complicated, to say the least. Vanessa was only six months older than me, so anyone with basic math skills could figure out something was amiss. My father had had an affair with my unsuspecting mother, who’d found herself pregnant before she’d realized my father was married. My dad did