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Sixth Secret

Zach returned to the erotica department office as the lunch hour ended and slumped onto his desk chair. He had just signed a legal contract. Their arrangement wasn’t just some unofficial thing that he didn’t have to keep to anymore, he was legally bound to it.

At least there was light at the end of the tunnel. No matter what happened, if Darien never changed his ways, he still had a guaranteed job at the end of it. That was a relief to know.

How was the arrangement even supposed to work out? He hadn’t been given any directions from Darien.

They had exchanged basic contact information, but there had been nothing else decided. Zach had noticed that he didn’t have long to return to the office before the end of the designated lunch break and they had both been keen for him to pass by the secretarial office whilst it was still empty. The less witnesses to their meeting, the better.

The other members of the office trickled in at that moment and he knew they were going to ask about his whereabouts. They normally sat at the same table for some of the lunch hour or at least passed by each other.

“Did you not eat lunch today?” Becca asked in concern. “I didn’t think you would turn down the chance for a special dessert.”

Zach hated lying and he had never been the best at it because of that. He just didn’t have much choice but to lie about things now.

“I went to the toilet first and then I realised I didn’t have an appetite so I just came back here and played on my phone.”

He winced inwardly when he realised how awkward he sounded.

“Okay,” she said. “Make sure you eat a good dinner. It’s not good to skip meals.”

Becca sat down at her desk and Zach took the subject to be forgotten.

He threw himself into work for the rest of the afternoon to distract himself. He was still amazed by the amount of repeated cliché plots authors were submitting. There were so many common factors between the plots.

“Why is it always preferred that the female lead is poor and the male one is the one with the money?” he asked out loud.

Meghan looked up from her computer with a knowing glance. Zach could feel a five minute explanation coming on.

“You have to remember that a lot of women are reading these stories for escapism. It’s nice to feel that a hunky millionaire can come and sweep an ordinary woman off her feet and introduce her to a better life with money.”

That was surprisingly succinct coming from her. Previous explanations from her had been over dramatic and long.

“I think I can understand that feeling,” he agreed. “No one is really reading these stories for realism.”

“That’s right,” she said with a sad smile. “It’s our duty as editors to ensure that the story will create a vision that the reader will want to envision themselves in. That’s why it’s very rare to find a rich female lead paired with a less financially secure man. How many people want to read a story where the female lead makes the male lead rich by marrying them?”

Robert chose that moment to interrupt.

“There’s different subgenres there. Remember we also have ‘the divorced rich woman who marries a richer man in the end for happiness’ trope. There’s lots of different combinations available with stories about rich people.”

Zach’s head began to spin with all of the extra details. The world of female marketed stories was more intricate than he had given it credit for and the job of being an erotica editor was harder than he had assumed. They had to make sure the story really did hit all the right points.

He returned to his computer with new knowledge and continued his arduous task of reading draft applications. The rest of the work day passed by without any special events.

***

Zach hesitated outside of the flower shop after work. The flowers he had purchased the previous day were still perfectly fresh and healthy. He had no real reason to visit. He also wasn’t on visit for a chat level with Austin either.

He walked on ahead instead and his phone buzzed. Zach pulled it out to find he had a text from Darien.

The text was asking if he was free the following evening. Zach didn’t have any plans so he sent back a text saying he was free. Presumably he was going to meet with Darien then. He didn’t like how little power he had in their relationship. Darien held all the cards and the superiority, yet he was supposed to be the one who was influencing him for the better.

Hopefully their relationship would improve as time went by or else it was going to be an unhappy year spent at the beck and call of a billionaire.

The bus ride home was as claustrophobic and overly hot as it always was. Living in a city was very different to living at the seaside. Instead of blue skies and a salty sea breeze, London was grey clouds and exhaust fumes. He really did miss his home more than he had at university.

Zach resolved to speak to his parents in the evening to dampen any feelings of homesickness. He wouldn’t be able to cope if he let himself feel homesick all the time. Living in a big city had plenty of advantages, he just had to use them instead of letting the disadvantages get to him. His optimistic personality was why Darien had become interested in him.

When he returned to his shared apartment he found Emilia splayed out on the sofa again with the contents of her backpack strewn over the nearby rug. He held out a tissue to her sympathetically. Sometimes he felt like her brother rather than a friend. In her usual state, she was more like a bossy older sister.

“Are you still fighting with your boyfriend?” he asked.

Emilia nodded slowly and sat up. Her hair was a mess and her eyes were streaked with tears. She took the offered tissue and wiped her face.

“Today has just not been my day. Matt is still not talking to me, I left my phone here, my backpack tore on my way home, I got blamed for something I didn’t do at work.”

Her day had definitely not gone like his. It had gone even worse. Zach didn’t like to see anyone upset so he did his best to find a way to cheer her up.

“I’ve got a spare backpack that you can take to work tomorrow,” he said and bent down to pick up the mess on the floor.

The first things he found were her reporter’s notebook and a copy of the daily newspaper from the newspaper office she was interning at. Whilst he had elected to go for the seemingly easy option of interning at Harper Publishing, Emilia had chosen media as she wanted to be a reporter.

She was always well informed about anything topical as a result. Zach paused in his tidying as he realised she could tell him a lot about Darien Harper. If he knew more about him, he might feel more comfortable around him.

“Thanks, Zach,” Emilia groaned. “I’ll apologise to Matt tonight after my phone charges and do my best to resolve the work issue tomorrow.”

Zach smiled at her.

“I’ll make something sweet for you as well. Any preferences?”

Emilia perked up immediately.

“Could you whip up a sticky toffee pudding?” she asked with shining eyes.

Zach mentally went through the ingredients in his baking arsenal and knew it was possible.

“Sure. I’ll let you know when it’s ready.”

He got started in the kitchen and had a quick version of sticky toffee pudding completed within twenty minutes. Emilia came to sit at the kitchen table without being summoned.

“I could smell it from my bedroom,” she said and opened up the container of cutlery. “Are you eating with me?”

Zach had made two puddings so it would look natural if he sat with her and asked her lots of questions about Darien Harper. He came to sit at the table and slid over her sticky toffee pudding.

He let her enjoy it for the first few bites before he jumped in with his questions. He didn’t want her to become suspicious.

“Do you cover many articles about my boss’ boss at your internship?” he asked. “He seems quite famous.”

Emilia finished her mouthful of pudding before answering.

“Sometimes. He broke up with his latest squeeze yesterday if I remember correctly. I prefer not to do much tabloid level stuff. I want to do serious new stories, not celebrity fluff.”

It seemed that news of his personal life spread quickly to the media. Darien hadn’t been wrong to assume dating lots of women would conceal his true sexuality.

“I heard he dumps his girlfriends very frequently,” he commented casually to continue the conversation.

Emilia scowled ferociously.

“There’s a count on how many girlfriends he has in a year. He’s been dumping them faster for the past couple of years. There’s got to be something wrong with his brain to get sick of people that frequently.”

“Has any of his many ex-girlfriends offered to do an exposé?” he enquired.

Surely one of them would have been tempted to sell their story to the media. Darien was a well known billionaire, the price for an article was sure to be high.

“None,” she said succinctly. “It’s like he got them to sign a non-disclosure agreement before he even asked them out. It makes everything even stranger.”

“Hasn’t at least one of them been tempted to break it for money and some time in the public eye?” he asked.

Emilia shrugged and carried on eating.

“All I know is that a lot of the sources for his dating related news are within Harper Publishing itself. There’s definitely some employees giving tips to reporters when he breaks up with someone. It’s a bit sad that people would rat out their boss’ love life for money, but that’s the situation. They get money and the media gets a story.”

Zach still didn’t like Darien’s dating methods, but it did show that he would be caught at some stage if he had chosen to date men.

“Articles with his name get a lot of clicks,” she continued. “They always have. He’s rich and attractive and he’s also successful instead of just being someone who inherited a lot of money.”

Zach took that information in. He was beginning to understand Darien a little more now.

“In some ways, popular rich people don’t get a lot of privacy and it’s too easy to judge them on their love lives and poor decisions. I’ve made lots of poor decisions and relationship mistakes, but I’m not a public figure so it’s never mattered. I don’t like the way the media works for things like that,” Emilia concluded. “If you go back to older news articles, the gutter press really have been all over him since he turned 18 and appeared in the public eye for the first time.”

What would the media say about his own personal love life or lack of? Zach wasted a moment speculating in his head about how people would view him. He couldn’t imagine anyone would say anything nice. There would probably be rumours that he was bad in bed or something like that.

By the time they had both finished their sticky toffee puddings, he was feeling a little better about the situation. Darien had been relentlessly stalked by the tabloids since he was 18 and there had been an unhealthy amount of interest in his relationships and personal life. It didn’t excuse Darien’s treatment of his girlfriends, but it shed light on his reasons.

It was up to him to try to change Darien’s outlook on life. It was undeniably going to be a challenge, but he genuinely wanted to help him.

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