“We've been standing here for three hours,” Paige says, while leaning against the golden-colored walls outside the hotel ballroom.
I check my phone. “We've only been here thirty minutes.”
“Paige is right,” Brayden chimes in. “I think we should go. This is a waste of time.” He's only here because Paige is. He doesn't care about the author we're waiting in line to see. Paige does, though. We're both hooked on her books. I would gladly stand here for hours waiting to see her.
“You two are more than welcome to go, but I'm not moving. I have a pile of books with me and they're all getting signed,” I state, crossing my arms.
Paige pushes off the wall and wiggles her arm through mine. “Ari's right. We aren't going anywhere until Lealla Raines signs our books.” I give a sharp nod, happy to have her on my side. My nickname is Ari. My full name is Ariane, pronounced Ar-ee-ann.
Letting out a long sigh, Bray goes back to people watching. There's plenty of it to do. So many are waiting with us. Lealla is huge in the paranormal romance world. Her books are on the steamy side and geared more toward adults. I just turned eighteen. Mom doesn't care what I read anymore, so long as I stay out of trouble.
“The doors are opening!” Paige squeals beside me. She grips my arm tight as I roll the small piece of luggage behind me. That's right. I have enough books to get signed to warrant a carry-on size suitcase. Paige only brought two books with her, which she stuffed in my luggage.
One by one, people walk into the large room. This is an event only for Lealla. She does these four times a year, each one in a different part of the world, two of which are usually overseas. Each year they are in different places, so she is always meeting new readers. We lucked out having this one only two towns over from us. Paige, Bray, and I take turns showing the printed tickets we bought online six months ago and then we’re let inside.
The ballroom is enormous. The kind big wedding receptions are held in. The walls are a soft ivory, and the carpet is a muted beige with swirls of mocha throughout. Rows of white folding chairs are set up before us, with a broad aisle down the middle. There are tables in the front of the room and along one side. Each has a rich, emerald green tablecloth draped over it, embroidered with Lealla's logo—an L and an R intertwined in front of a full moon.
The tables off to the side are stacked with her books, which are available for purchase. Six tall banners stand behind the tables at the front of the room. Each one is a different book cover in the series, though there are more than six books in the series. I can’t imagine them trying to squeeze all of them in that row.
Lealla hasn’t entered yet. With every step I take, my excitement goes up a notch. I can’t believe I’ll finally get to see her. Meet the woman whose stories I go to bed at night reading.
The three of us follow those who were in front of us in line and end up sitting only three rows away from the tables where the author will be. I luck out and get an aisle seat. The tall person in front of me won't be able to block my view completely. I can lean out to my right to see.
Tucking my luggage in front of me, I glance around and notice I'm not the only one with a suitcase of books. I'm among my fellow book lovers, and everything feels right in my world.
Brayden sits between Paige and me as we marvel at the crowd and how close we got to the front. We talk about our favorite characters and hope the cover models of the books we love will be here. Poor Bray. He's in a special form of hell right now, and I can't help but smile. The things he does for his friends.
A hush falls over the crowd. I turn my head, surveying the room. There are easily three hundred people sitting and standing in the back along the walls, waiting to meet the author. When my eyes reach the front of the room again, I notice a tall man standing off to the left of the tables. The dark jeans he's wearing don't leave much room over his thick legs. His emerald T-shirt has Lealla's logo on it with a wolf underneath, howling at the moon. Black, military-style boots complete his look. I need one of those shirts. I'd wear it all the time. The man widens his stance and crosses his muscular arms like he's inviting all of us to try and take him on. Cocky much? It's a book signing. This guy needs to get a grip. I doubt any of us are here to harm Lealla.
Two more men enter, each in similar clothing. I immediately recognize them from Lealla's covers. The crowd starts going wild when they see the men who have taken on the image of the characters we love.
Paige reaches for my hand, squeezing it tight. “It's Aries and Cace!” she exclaims in a loud whisper. “Can you believe this?” Her excitement matches my own. I can barely keep my butt in the seat.
Then Lealla enters. Her chestnut hair falls in soft waves over her shoulders and down her back. She's tall and slender. The noise of the crowd becomes deafening at this point. I'm not sure if they're happier to see Lealla or the models. One man, I don't recognize as one of the cover models, walks to the end of the tables opposite the other guy and stands the same way—arms crossed, legs wide. These two must be security.
Aries and Cace sit on either side of Lealla. I have no idea what their real names are. Anytime Lealla mentions her models, she always calls them by the characters they represent. I once looked them up on the internet. Each has their own social media page with their character name on it and Lealla's last name as theirs. I couldn't find their real names anywhere. I even did a reverse image search. Nothing. Yes, I know. Stalker much? I couldn't help it. I'm single and don't have a job since my parents want me concentrating on school. A girl gets bored.
Lealla makes herself comfortable and takes a sip of water before waving to the crowd. There's a small microphone clipped to her black, V-neck, sleeveless shirt, which she adjusts. I didn't miss the jeans she's wearing, nor the black high heels. Every time I get to the end of one of her books, I see her picture. She's the definition of beautiful. Her makeup isn't too heavy, only accentuating her eyes. Her skin is flawless.
“Thank you for coming,” she greets, and the crowd quiets down to hear her speak. “I'm Lealla Raines. It's a pleasure to meet you.” I clap along with everyone else. “You already know the two men beside me,” she says with a wink, which causes cheering from the crowd. She waits for us to calm again. “Let's get started.”
Over the next half hour, she tells us about herself. There are a few things I already know from her biography and others I had no clue about. She talks about her writing and how it's her passion. How, when she was little, her dad worked two jobs to keep a roof over their heads so her mom could stay home and take care of her. A strong work ethic was ingrained in her from the start. Lealla worked a lot of different jobs, sometimes two and three at a time, while writing late into the night, getting little sleep. Every time she was finished writing and editing a book, she independently published it, hoping it would be the one to get her noticed. It wasn't until her fifth book in the series before she was able to quit her job and write full-time. By then, her books had taken off and she never looked back.
I sit in awe of her. She's a true inspiration. Hard work and determination got her where she is today. We could all be so lucky to have jobs we love as much as she loves writing.
A question and answer session follows. Almost everyone raises their hand in anticipation of asking Lealla, or one of her models, a question. One of the men, who stands off to the side of the table, has a microphone and walks down one side of the rows, picking random readers to speak, then he comes up the side where I sit.
Unfortunately, I'm looked over. Something I’m very used to. I'm on the shorter side, with pitch-black hair and hazel eyes. Standing next to Paige, most of the time, I don't exist. Her fiery red hair makes her stand out everywhere she goes. Of course, the guy with the microphone chooses her.
Paige stands and smiles up at him with perfect white teeth and smoothes her hand down the curve of her slim waist to the slight flair of her hips. She knows exactly what she's doing. Even at eighteen, she can probably get the guy standing beside me to go out with her. He's almost too muscular, if that makes sense. Too jacked up for me, but Paige is loving his looks.
“Thank you,” she says to the guy then turns toward the front. “Hi, Lealla, nice to meet you.” Lealla returns the sentiment. “I was wondering where you find such sexy men for your covers.” Poor Brayden is scowling between us at Paige's use of the word sexy, while the guys behind the table smile at the compliment.
Lealla responds, “Believe it or not, some of these men found me. Others I've literally run in to when I've been out at other events or running errands near home.”
Paige still grips the microphone. “Where do you live? I think it's time for me to relocate.” Laughter rings out through the crowd. Lealla even smiles.
“I have a few homes spread across the country. The closest is about an hour from here. It's a quiet little town. None of my guys came from there, though. It would have been easier if they had.”
Paige smiles and takes her seat. I'm envious of her being able to ask a question. I wish he would have picked me.
More readers get to ask her questions, then row by row, we're called forward to get our books signed. This is what will take the most time, but luckily, we get our turn sooner than most. Once all the books are signed, the event is over.
I'm relieved by how quickly the line moves. When our row is up, we stand in line, slowly making our way to Lealla. I'm ahead of Bray and Paige. The male models are helping this move smoothly by opening the books for Lealla so she can sign each one efficiently as she talks with every reader.
Everyone has smiles on their faces after meeting her. Lealla is truly loved, and she seems to return that love to her readers. No one is rushed along. She listens as each person talks to her and replies with kindness in her voice.
Moving forward, I'm in front of Aries. He smiles as I lift my carry-on suitcase onto the table to pull all the books free. Who knows when I'll have the chance to meet Lealla again? I need to get all these babies signed.
“I'm so sorry. I'm a bit of a book whore,” I tell him. “I'd love Lealla to sign the whole series.”
“She'd be happy to,” he replies in a deep timbre. Holy hotness. I think I’m going to melt into a puddle in front of him.
I hand Paige her two books as Bray's eyes go wide at the number of books I have stacked on the table. “Damn, Ari, did you need to bring all of them?”
“No one’s forcing you to be here,” I reply as I pull the book with Aries on the cover free. Setting it on top of the pile, I ask, “Would you mind signing it, too?” His is the first book in the series. The one that hooked me on Lealla's writing.
“Not at all.” He smiles again and quickly scrolls his name on the title page. He even puts a smiley face under it. I let out a breathy sigh before snapping out of my daze. My cheeks flush. I hope he didn't hear me.
Quickly, I move along. Cace is now next to Aries to help keep things moving. I ask him to sign his book as well. He draws wolf ears over his name. The whole series is based on wolf shifters. Could he be any cuter? He's got this whole boyish charm thing down pat.
After a couple of minutes waiting for my turn to meet Lealla, I finally step in front of her. Cace took the time to open all of my books to the title page so they would be ready for Lealla. She's in front of me, and I'm having a hard time forming words.
“It's such a pleasure to meet you,” I eventually get out. “I'm a huge fan. Sevan’s book is my favorite so far, but then again, I say that about every new book you release.”
“Thank you,” she says as she smiles up at me. “What's your name?”
“Oh, sorry. I should have told you. I'm Ariane, but you can make the books out to Ari.” She nods and, one by one, signs each of the books. Twelve in all, so far.
When she finishes, she stands, which catches me off guard. From what I've seen, every reader in front of me asked for their picture with her and she’s gladly obliged. I'm too nervous to do so.
“Would you like a picture?” she asks.
“Yes, that would be great.” I turn and give Bray my phone, my hand shaking as I do so. I warn him, “You mess up taking this picture, and you'll see rage like you never have in all your life.” He rolls his eyes, brushing off my threat. Lealla chuckles, causing my cheeks to heat with embarrassment. I didn't even think of her overhearing me when I said it.
I walk between two of the tables and stand beside her. She's a solid six inches taller than me. Then again, she also has on heels. She puts her arm behind me, resting her hand on my hip as I smile like a fool for the picture.
Back on the other side of the table, I gather my books and put them in the suitcase. “Thank you so much for signing these and for the picture. You have no idea how much this means to me.”
She picks up one of her business cards and writes something on the back. When finished, she hands it to me and leans in close. “Come to this address tonight for an after-party. I'm only inviting my biggest fans and would love to have you join us.”
My eyes widen as I stutter out, “R-really?” She nods, smiling.
That's when Paige leans forward and loudly whispers, “We'd love to come.” This girl has supersonic hearing.
If I'm not mistaken, Lealla's smile falters for a split second before firmly going back in place. “Your friends are more than welcome to join, but no one else,” she says pointedly, glancing between the three of us. “It's invite only, and you'll need that card to get in.” I nod, still beaming at her invitation. It's like Christmas and my birthday rolled into one.